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?

Back in 2019, when the green shoots of the phenomenon were first sprouting, the New York Times took several swipes at an answer. On one hand, according to a lexicographer who was consulted, the Latinate sheen of the word adjacent makes whatever it is attached to “seem more formal and technical.” It lends a certain sophistication and knowingness to one’s palaver: Won’t you try one of these alcohol-adjacent liqueurs, my dear? Or perhaps the usage speaks to a troubling absence in our increasingly abstract and placeless online lives. “It’s almost like a need for geography in the digital world, where everything is floating around,” the novelist Lionel Shriver suggested to the Times reporter. “We’re living increasingly in a world beyond space, beyond physicality.” Yet another possibility mentioned in the piece is the locution’s utility in business, where it often pays to be temptingly, yet plausibly deniably, vague: You might describe our new line as a luxury-adjacent car for middle-income consumers with high-end tastes…

All are reasonable explanations. Yet there still seems to be something deeper at work behind our Zeit’s fondness for such postpositive adjectives. Perhaps it has to do less with need than with a shared intuition about the character of these times. Simply put, the postpositive adjective that is formed when adjacent is tacked on to a noun adds even more distance between the noun it modifies, and what Immanuel Kant called the Ding an sich—the elusive, much debated, yet seemingly essential thing-in-itself. Though they exist beyond our powers of observation and representation, those essential Dinge constitute what Kant held was the noumenal reality undergirding our phenomenal world. Plato, even more senior than Kant in matters metaphysical, might have described postpositively modified words as shadows of those shadows flitting across the walls of his allegorical cave—distant reflections of the Forms or Ideas that constitute reality, true knowledge of which leads to the Form of all Forms, the Good.

To draw on the theory of a more recent thinker, the French semiotician Jean Baudrillard, we may be living in what he calls the age of the pure simulacrum, when signs and symbols no longer refer to any kind of reality but only to each other, tokens in the consumerist play of signifiers. To extend the Baudrillardian conceit, we are participants in an ongoing, commercial Walpurgisnacht in which the triumph of surface and appearances is celebrated in and through the immolation of all depth and meaning. In short, we inhabit an unabashedly reality-adjacent world.

Well, so what? At minimum, I suggest, understanding adjacency as the condition of our times brings some clarity to many of our contemporary mysteries. Why, for example, does work feel as though it has become work-adjacent, relegated to something quite different from what work used to feel like? To some degree, it does so because, since the rise of COVID-19, much of it takes place in office-adjacent settings. (Or would those be setting-adjacent settings?)

But the relegation of work to work-adjacency has even more to do with the declining significance of work as a source of personal meaning and worth, particularly as more and more jobs acquire the job-adjacent status of what the late anthropologist David Graeber dubbed “bullshit jobs”—jobs that in the future are likely to be taken by algorithmically governed and human-adjacent machines. Also called “nonessential” jobs during our once and continuing plague, work-adjacent activity, instead of producing goods or providing services of real value and worth, is taken up with the manipulation of symbols that monitor flows and exchanges within the abstract information-based realm of administration and finance, a realm increasingly detached from the ever-dwindling value-producing activities that sustain it.

“But what about our burgeoning, world-shaping, wealth-generating tech sector?” the skeptic objects. To which one might reply that it exists only to facilitate the functioning of that reality-adjacent realm, feeding vampire-like on what remains of real value. If it all feels like a value-adjacent con (directed by various leadership-adjacent figures at the top of our institutions, political or otherwise), it sort of is. Yet would the world as we know it, this reality-adjacent world, come crashing down if we called the con’s bluff? The scary truth is that we have trouble seeing, imagining, much less setting out to build, a world that would be otherwise—a world that is in fundamental ways ordered according to a reality beyond mere appearances.

The skeptical modern again raises his eyebrows. Was the world ever so? Did people at any time ever really believe in a world beyond their seeing? Even devoutly religious souls recoil before the impossible demands of the Real, however formulated. As the Anglo-Catholic poet T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”

But we should attend to Eliot’s use of the word very, because in truth no mere human has ever lived in constant relation to the Real. Whether understood as the order of the Good, the True, or the divinely ordained, reality is always beyond the reach of mere humans, including philosophers and saints. It is always the object of aspiration and longing, perceived only indirectly, in moments of revelation or through the glancing and reflected illuminations of art. Without such aspiration or longing, however, we end up and remain where we are—with reality-adjacent lives, lesser and diminishing, seemingly freed but in fact enslaved by the illusion that we alone create the truth, the reality, for and by ourselves, among the infinite options arrayed before us in the vast, glittering bazaar of “lifestyle choices.”

Even a writer and seer as great as Franz Kafka acknowledged his struggle with the limitations of language in his effort to get beyond mere appearances. As Kafka wrote in number 57 of his austere, cryptic, yet always revelatory aphorisms (carefully translated by Shelley Frisch in a fine new English-language edition from Princeton University Press), in which not a single word is truth-adjacent and all are hard-won, at a time when he knew that his death, from tuberculosis, was fast approaching,

For everything outside the world of the senses, language can be used only by way of suggestion, but can never even come close to being used representationally because it is concerned only with possessions and associations, in accordance with the world of the senses.

Even before receiving his death sentence, Kafka had committed himself to writing about what he acknowledged language could not grasp, the reality of being itself, forever just beyond but still informing whatever is of value behind our fleetingly inhabited “world of the senses.”

It takes great courage to live as Kafka did. And possibly even more courage to do so in our reality-adjacent times.