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It makes sense that scholars would insist on relevance at a time when state legislators have cut funding for higher education and when university priorities increasingly depend on external measures of utility and social consequence. Tuition increases and subsequent student debt mean that we calculate the employment outcomes, financial benefits, and profitability of literary studies as a predictor of its future. Or we justify the worth of literature to the public by arguing for its relevance to other fields and domains of knowledge, including policy, economics, and the sciences, whose social and financial impacts are more measurable.
Administrators court private equity by investing in athletics and professional schools, even as the number of professors with job security decreases and contingent faculty members without unions or a living wage staff deprioritized classrooms. So here we are: We say that literary studies has social value for the wider world; or else, like Guillory, say that literary studies has value for its own sake and cannot be justified apart from the experience it provides (though that experience is pleasurable and self-improving), and we resign ourselves to the fate of “the end” of the major or the profession. (“We’ve had a good 100 years,” one of my graduate advisers told me.) Around and around we go, identifying some quality of our discipline that is relevant and corresponds to our current moment or else some quality (aesthetic, spiritual, intellectual, pleasurable) that is valuable in itself.
In the meantime, our institutions continually cut our resources and then justify their cuts by further diminishing the importance of our fields. Literary studies is not being ignored because it is irrelevant: It is irrelevant because it is being ignored.
“Your reading is irrelevant.” Yes, for you, but not for me. It makes no difference what I read. If it is irrelevant, I read it deeper. I read it until it is pertinent to me and mine, to nature and to the hour that now passes. A good scholar will find Aristophanes and Hafiz and Rabelais full of American history.
I believe in Omnipresence and find footsteps in Grammar rules, in oyster shops, in church liturgies, in mathematics, and in solitudes and in galaxies.
Emerson was 43 years old when he wrote this entry in the spring of 1847, at a time when he also found himself wishing “for a professorship.” He says that if he had the “liberty to do so,” he should withdraw himself for a time from all domestic affairs and “command an absolute leisure with books.” What the professor would do with all these books and time is find relevance, by which he means a specific kind of intimate connection with books. What attracts his attention shall have it, and it makes absolutely “no difference” whether it is Aristophanes, Hafiz, or Rabelais. A good scholar does the trick of discovering interest where there was none before. For Emerson, the miracle is always that some object creates awareness.
In the mid-20th century, the sociologist and phenomenologist Alfred Schutz wrote that “the relevance problem” is “the most important and at the same time the most difficult problem that the description of the life-world has to solve.” The difficulty, for Schutz, was not in determining what has relevance, but how anything ever manages to become relevant where it wasn’t before. So much might claim our attention each day, but only some of it will take. Just how in the “succession of objects,” as Emerson calls it, some things come to matter over others is the question of “relevance” that he raises in his journal as if to ask how any essay, poem, or work of art “makes interest, makes importance,” in the words of Henry James.
Some remote, old, boring, obscure, unfamiliar, or overfamiliar aspect of life gets raised at last as if, says Emerson, “common daylight was worth something.” But first we have to pick up on it as meaningful. We have to feel it is worth the attention we give it. How do we even begin to notice Aristophanes or an oyster shop — or, let’s face it, some obscure passage in Emerson’s journals — enough to study it, to dedicate ourselves to thinking about it, to deciding that this thinking and this studying is relevant to me and mine?
Schutz dedicated the latter part of his career to trying to understand how we take notice — how we come to regard whatever it is we disregarded before. In his unpublished manuscript, “Preliminary Notes on the Problem of Relevance,” he turns to phenomenology and psychology to study how human consciousness sorts experience into objects of more or less importance. By “relevance” Schutz means the strange, often-unaccountable process by which an object comes to our attention as having importance and having interest. But we are normally so unaware. It is never very clear how something that had not figured for us in our daily lives or been interesting to us — something in the background or “fringes” of consciousness, as William James put it in The Principles of Psychology — manages to create new consciousness so that we shift our attention and turn to it instead.
The pragmatists and phenomenologists who thought about relevance saw it as a struggle for recognition under threat in a particular social world. It was always with the sense that selective attention — what and whom we notice or ignore — has enormous social and ethical effects. The achievement of relevance is this redistribution of attention, the picking up on more than before. Really “there is no irrelevance,” as the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead writes, “just neglected modes of relevance.” Schutz was a sociologist, but he finally realized that he needed theories of perception and cognition to define what relevance is in a social world. He called his study of relevance a “phenomenology” of social relations, because it turns out that relevance is a kind of gestalt shift. It is what you get when all of a sudden you see and experience the same old thing in a new way.
The word relevant comes from the verb “to relevate,” which has dropped out of use but whose meaning is to bring up or to lift (as in “to elevate”). To make something relevant is to raise it. When the subject or idea that is raised seems fitting to the moment in which it arises — when it has some bearing on that moment — then we say that this subject or idea is relevant. When it has no bearing at all, then we say that it is irrelevant. To relevate, then, is to take something up; but, actually, to re-levate, with its prefix (re-) meaning again, is to take it up again, on another occasion. So some subject — let’s say Emerson’s journal — will be raised again, in some new context, on another occasion (let’s say the publication of John Guillory’s book). If it is fitting to this new context, it is relevant; if it is not fitting, it is irrelevant.
Relevant. Originally from the Latin relevāns, meaning “to lift up again” and, also, “to give relief.” From a stream of thoughts and perceptions, what had seemed remote or inessential is thrown into relief. Now it is of the essence. It looms remarkably large. The apparent change in scale does not make me believe that I am focusing on something new but on something old from a different angle. Its value lies in its adequacy to the moment in which it surfaces — and to my belief in that adequacy. Relevance, the pragmatist philosopher F.C.S. Schiller writes, “implies a relation to a human purpose by its very etymology. The ‘relevant’ is that which helps by affording us relief.” From a stock of knowledge and perceptions, we become conscious of only those objects that have practical importance. Some objects help, but never at all times, and when we are not using them, they “will be practically irrelevant,” William James writes, “and had better remain latent.” He goes on:
Yet since almost any object may someday become temporarily important, the advantage of having a general stock of extra truths, of ideas that shall be true of merely possible situations, is obvious. We store such extra truths away in our memories, and with the overflow we fill our books of reference. Whenever such an extra truth becomes practically relevant to one of our emergencies, it passes from cold-storage to do work in the world and our belief in it grows active.
James thought that the point of our education is to increase our “general stock” of ideas. That inconsequential thing we once learned, but buried somewhere or never even remembered was there, is just the thing we need right now. Maybe we saw or heard it a while ago; maybe it was that “extra truth” in a bundle of perceptions whose own practical importance we never could have realized at the time. A fact, a feeling, a theory, a song, a poem, a picture, a passage of Emerson. We never knew we would need it. But just when it might help us make sense of a situation, it comes to us. It lights out from the background, emerges from “cold-storage.” Our faith that it can offer some kind of relief and satisfaction at the moment it reappears makes it temporarily important. For the time being, it becomes part of our reality.
Central to the pragmatism of James and Schiller was understanding the sort of ideas we attend to and the sort of ideas we push into the background whenever, encountering a problem or sensing a discrepancy, we quicken into awareness. What feels important is simply what we happen to select from the possibilities of a particular moment to address the needs of that moment and to cope with its contingencies — what, in the pragmatist philosopher Robert Brandom’s words, we let “pop to the surface.”
Thinking, then, about the history of the idea of relevance across these fields can also help us think about the “criticism” that, as Guillory’s title has it, literary scholars “profess.” Criticism itself emerges from a philosophy and “logic of values” (Schiller’s term), the logic being that each poem or painting might be considered a proposition for getting hold of something and then raising it in a particular way. Each just might, through some process of appreciation, arrive at a moment of real clarity — a crystallization — or what Schiller, in speaking of relevance, likes to describe as the sudden large awareness of having gathered loose ends and gotten to “the point.” In other words, the concept of finding relevance was from the start linked to questions of art’s point, its worth in human affairs. Art appeared to be a form that essentially demonstrated the perceptual and attentional process of taking something up as valuable that relevance implied. Not only is the idea of relevance not opposed to art, but art, in raising and accentuating “what is characteristically valuable” in some aspect of life is, these thinkers suggested, the epitome of what relevance can be. They thought that poems or paintings were consummate acts of taking up unexpected, unregarded, and insignificant objects, and making them serve the needs of the occasion, making them, in fact, crucially important to the experience the occasion demands. And they thought criticism was the art of noticing what art notices and of appreciating it in turn.
In Principles of Psychology, James describes how the kind of attention we bring to the world changes what we find there. When the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel speaks of the work of “attentional socialization” or of attention itself as a “sociomental act,” he is referring to the way our particular social and cultural groups “determine what we come to regard as relevant” and what we continue to relegate to the background. The effort to draw attention elsewhere, to change our sense of perceived saliency so that what is unperceived in the background comes to the foreground, is always social and ethical work. The call to attention is never an evasion of life and politics — it is the precondition of new relations, since what we tend to notice, and what we tend to ignore, determines what we come to regard as valuable.
Changing the social structure means changing a belief in what counts as relevant.
What we come to notice, in turn, brings to consciousness the persons, relations, and structures of relations that we had taken for granted, since our normative values (made typical or stereotypical in socially approved forms of awareness) mean that we normally take our world for granted beyond question. But, on occasion, maybe while reading a poem or looking at a painting, we are made to see something questionable and strange. From the norms of our disattention, it raises our attention. Such apprehensions — of the remote, different, foreign, or otherworldly — involve us in realms of experience beyond our experience. The phenomenological moment of recognition is always the resurrection of importance beyond our typical solipsism. It comes with a sense that something lost to consciousness and memory may be saved.
Attentional norms determine what we come to regard as historically significant, worth keeping in mind. How to keep something in mind is, for sociologists, a sociological question, though the fact that the flow of consciousness can be oriented toward new realities and that perception can enlarge so as to bring more to mind was first taken up by artists and philosophers.
For Schutz, changing the social structure means changing a belief in what counts as relevant. Schutz wants to know how new subjects become “thematic” or rise into attention so that we might regard what we never think about and so that whatever it is we normally regard without thinking becomes “an open concept to be rectified or corroborated by supervening experience.” How do new subjects come to be relevant and meaningfully felt? How does perception evolve? Other “provinces of reality,” he says, are within reach of our “paramount reality,” and Schutz thinks that in the “transition from one to the succeeding states of consciousness” (and from one “province of reality” to another), we move beyond our prejudices, beyond typifications that freeze relations. Finding relevance will change us, even as it makes new subjects intelligible and appreciable to us.
Schutz speaks of relevance as a “translation” between these other contexts of meaning and the “paramount reality” our daily business. He asks how anything we experience in a novel, play, or work of art — or any aspect of contemplative life apart from our everyday living — might come back to us, might bear on our everyday life with some measure of importance: “Why are we deeply moved by participating in the destiny of the fictitious persons of a tragedy? Why do we gain a new kind of knowledge after having dwelt in the fictitious reality of a great work of art?” What we learn in these other realms of meaning enters our memories and our stock of knowledge. It very well may come to mind again in the midst of daily life — transformed into a “symbol,” having originated in one context but arrived in another. And now it can be interpreted in light of this other context as somehow fitting. It is this “symbolic transformation” of some reality in the context of a new reality that makes a fictional character — or a dream or phrase of music or religious feeling — relevant.
“‘What is Hecuba to the actor?’ asks Hamlet. What is Hamlet to us?” We will have to wait to see if a hypothetically relevant figure like Hamlet can become topically relevant, if something from one realm of meaning (a play) can come to mean something else in another (daily life). These provinces, for Schutz, have “open horizons.” What we experience in one of them remains in the “margins” of consciousness and potentially within our reach while we focus on something else. If we find that we can use Hamlet at some future moment in our everyday life, at that point it “stands out from a horizon” of other things that are known and stored away.
But we traffic between worlds, so we will also find that when we return to reading Hamlet after an interruption, some aspect of our life in the meantime may come to bear on it. An interrupted activity is never actually the same when we return to it. During the pause other things will have imposed themselves on us and entered our stock of knowledge; meanwhile our own attitude might have shifted a little. Schutz suggests that our lives may take a new turn because we read the same old book at a particular moment. Or maybe we were exposed to that book too soon, “at a time when we were not prepared to deal adequately with it,” and so found nothing in it and dropped it for the time being. Maybe we did not, back then, have the resources to know how that book might be relevant. We could never have known what Hamlet might be to us.
Our framework for recognizing and making sense of what we read and experience is itself always evolving. Our systems of relevance and meaning are always evolving, which means that we may notice something now or in the future that we missed before. “We form no guess at the time of receiving a thought, of its comparative value,” writes Emerson in his essay “Spiritual Laws.”
I am tired of hearing that literary studies is irrelevant. Relevance is not something we have or don’t; it is something we search for and find. If we are overestimating our political work, we are underestimating the stock of knowledge we create for each other and for our students, how much we keep vital and before our eyes, how much we save. Let us not devalue our reading. Let us, with Emerson, “read it deeper,” until it is pertinent to us and ours, since the point of the critical work is to recognize value where it is ordinarily missed. The point is to hold out every time we think we are at an impasse. Let us insist that we do the work of relevance — that is, making interest, making importance for all the irrelevant things we raise. Why not teach people how to give them their regard?