By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Signifiers


Just a suggestion.

Jay Tolson

House of Fire (detail), 1981, by James Rosenquist (1933–2017), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Alamy. Rosenquist was well known for his consumerist images that relied on “reality-adjacent concepts.”

In the world of English professional football, to be “relegated” is to be demoted from a higher league to a lower one. It is the unhappy consequence of ending a season at or near the bottom of league standings, as, for example, when Crystal Palace was relegated from the Premier League to the Championship League, for a record four times.

This humbling practice puts me in mind of a more general process of relegation that has been underway in our culture for the last few years. It consists of being made “adjacent” to something and thereby relegated to the status of a proximate, possibly lesser, or even counterfeit version of the thing to which the word adjacent is appended. Hence, we might now be served a dish that is “dessert-adjacent,” its low-sugar, low-fat ingredients making it, if not exactly healthful or dietetic, at least wellness- or diet-adjacent.

To be clear, the conferring of adjacency is not always meant as a demotion. It can even be intended as a sort of upgrade. A certain TV documentary might be described as “news-adjacent” or “education-adjacent,” or even “entertainment-adjacent,” depending on how one wants to justify or encourage (or, conversely, discourage) its viewing. The use of this postpositive adjective, as grammarians call it, clearly responds to a need.

But for what, exactly?

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