Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society is justly renowned for providing a whole generation of readers with an effective, reliable distillation of the variety of meanings–past and present–attached to a range of terms that played a pivotal role in discussions of culture and society, and of the relations between them. First published in 1976, however, it is now showing signs of its age in ways that Williams regarded as inevitable in a project that was always more concerned with exploring the complex uses of problem-laden words than it was with fixing their definition (striking though Williams’s definitions were for their succinctness, learning and clarity). For Williams the point was not merely that the meanings of words change over time but that they change in relationship to changing political, social and economic situations and needs. While rejecting the idea that you could describe that relationship in any simple or universal way, he was convinced that it did exist—and that people do struggle in their use of language to give expression to new experiences of reality.
Revising Keywords himself for a Second Edition which included a further twenty-one words, Williams reaffirmed his »sense of the work as necessarily unfinished and incomplete«. It is in the spirit of his project, then, to observe that its entries for many words cannot take account of what have often been, over the past twenty-five years, crucial shifts in meaning associated with both their general and more specialist uses (consider ideology, liberal or media), and that some words of interest to Williams in 1976 (career, for example) or indeed in 1983 (folk, genius) have lost the special quality of »significance and difficulty« that attracted his attention. Equally, there is no mention in Keywords of other words (such as citizenship, gender, or sign) which, today, play a major role in both public discourse and a broad spectrum of academic disciplines. Accordingly, in conceiving this volume we set out to update Williams’s Keywords in three basic ways: first, by providing a revised vocabulary of culture and society that includes many terms from Williams’s list but offers new discussions of their history and use, taking account of developments over the last quarter of a century; second, by adding discussions of »new keywords« that have emerged as the vocabulary of culture and society has responded to new social movements, changing political concerns, and new horizons of public debate; third, by deleting those of Williams’s keywords that we feel have not sustained their importance in terms of the ways people represent their experiences and give meaning to their perceptions of a changing world.
Given the many encyclopaedias, dictionaries and »bluffer’s guides« to academic topics crowding bookshops today, it is important to stress another sense in which this volume was undertaken in the distinctive spirit of Williams’s initial inquiry: New Keywords is not a glossary of contemporary cultural and social »theory« (one of Williams’s keywords re-examined in this volume), although many entries draw on theoretical resources to varying degrees. Despite the perhaps overly academic reception of Keywords in recent years its intention was always to provide a useful, intellectually and historically grounded guide to public questions and struggles for meaning shared by many people in the field of culture and society. Williams was careful to define his project in terms that would distinguish it clearly from conventional scholarly dictionaries:
It is not a dictionary or glossary of a particular academic subject. It is not a series of footnotes to dictionary histories or definitions of a number of words. It is, rather, the record of an inquiry into a vocabulary: a shared body of words and meanings in our most general discussions, in English, of the practices and institutions which we group as culture and society.
The general discussions that interested Williams were not located in specific academic disciplines, but neither did they exclude the fields of scholarly and intellectual debate; instead, the sense of »general« significance that marked a keyword took shape in an encounter or an overlap between two or more social domains of usage. For Williams, a word in general usage was a word with variable uses. Some were »strong, difficult and persuasive words« already in everyday use (work, for example), while others might spread from a specialised context to wider discussions; deconstruction and commodity, both philosophical terms now used in fashion magazines, are examples of this today. Whatever the origins of a word and however erratic the paths it took to enter common usage, it was the fact that it mattered in »two areas … often thought of as separate« that drew Williams to trace its travels. Culture, he pointed out, was the »original difficult word« in this respect, posing new questions and suggesting new connections as it gained importance in the area of art on the one hand, and society on the other. The sharing of a word across differing domains of thought and experience was often imperfect, he noted, but this very roughness and partiality indicated that the word brought something significant to discussions of »the central processes of our common life«.
The »wish«, as Williams put it, to recognise and understand these processes across habitually separated areas of activity could suddenly invest ordinary words such as culture with a strangeness that unsettled their seemingly transparent meaning, and it could also endow apparently technical, forbidding words with a new and mysterious popularity (alienation thirty years ago, postmodernism today). In both cases, however, it was a shared desire to articulate something of general importance that forged what Williams called a »vocabulary« of culture and society. From this followed his interest in exploring not only the meanings of words but also the ways people group or »bond« them together, making explicit or often implicit connections that help to initiate new ways of seeing their world. Keywords was organised to highlight »clusters« of words, indicated in bold in the text, so that readers might follow and reflect on the interactions, discontinuities and uncertainties of association that shaped what Williams called »particular formations of meaning«. These formations, too, change over time, dissolving in some cases and reforming in a different way in others as the links we make between words, the importance they have, and the contexts in which they matter are subject to alteration.
Necessarily, then, a revised vocabulary of culture and society should not only update the selection and discussion of individual words but also respond to the changed contexts of »general« discussion which people inhabit today. While we have insisted on retaining Williams’s emphasis on the public intellectual uses of the terms selected for inclusion, New Keywords must achieve this focus in a different manner which takes account of the ways in which both our sense of »common life« and our understanding of history have changed since 1976. First, there has been a marked change in the conduct and circulation of intellectual work over the past thirty years: the expansion of higher education, the growth of a research culture linking universities more closely to a wide range of industries and to other public and private institutions, and the proliferation of new media-based modes of pedagogy and discussion have all combined to disperse and multiply the »areas« of thought and experience in and across which people wish to make common sense and formations of meaning take shape. These changes have also opened universities and the kinds of knowledge they foster to increased scrutiny and criticism (culture wars in one expression), widening the social field of debate about such issues as the growth of interdisciplinarity and the social role of intellectuals. In accordance with these developments, the inquiry recorded by New Keywords is a collective rather than an individual one. This expansion of resources, and the plurality of perspectives it introduces to the project, is necessary today if proper account is to be taken of the now much greater diversity of the fields of both public and academic debate in which a vocabulary of culture and society is implicated and across which it is no less imperfectly shared.
Second, where Williams largely equated the »English« language with British usage, our inquiry is an international one—again, necessarily so to take account of the extent to which discussions of culture and society now increasingly flow across national boundaries, with English holding an often oppressively privileged status in limiting as well as enabling much of that flow. However, for practical reasons we focus mainly on usage in western Anglophone countries, although in some entries (Civilisation and Modern, for example) the contributors explain that recognising the complexities occasioned by the entry of particular keywords into the vocabularies of culture and society in other countries is essential to grasping their import. This recognition was also a feature of Williams’s Keywords: pointing out that many of his most important terms had developed key meanings in languages other than English or »went through a complicated and interactive development in a number of major languages«, he noted that he found it indispensable to trace some of this interaction in such cases as alienation, and culture itself. We, too, would have liked to do more trans-linguistic as well as trans-national tracing—the changing formations of meaning linking such concepts as liberalism, market, consumption, ideology and socialism in China today is a consequential case in point—and we would have liked to follow the often radically divergent uses of English keywords in parts of the world where English is at most a lingua franca or a second language that may be nobody’s mother tongue. An »extraordinary international collaborative enterprise« on the scale that Williams thought essential for an adequate comparative study quickly proved to be beyond us, too, for all the enlarged resources and technical means at our disposal.
Collaborating with writers in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States was extraordinary labour enough; this volume was five years in the making and could not have been produced at all without the Internet. Yet to explain our project’s insufficiencies wholly in terms of the limits of time and technology—real as these are—would be to dodge the »deliberately social and historical« emphasis on problems of meaning that Williams clarified as his own in the revised Introduction to his book. The most active problems of meaning are always, he stressed, primarily embedded in actual relationships, and the difficulty of producing a widely usable volume that could offer anything like a genuinely global study of keywords in English is no exception to this; the desire to do so is active, but the relationships needed to achieve it and the level of »generality« in discussion that its realisation would presuppose may not yet be sufficiently actual (at least for the editors of this volume) for the project to be feasible in practice: the entries on Globalization and West help to suggest some reasons why.
Once again, though, this sense of an »unfinished and incomplete« labour that others will need to take up is a vital part of Williams’s legacy. He traced the genesis of Keywords to the end of the Second World War and the sense of entering a »new and strange world« that he shared with other soldiers returning to a transformed Britain in 1945. Recalling an occasion when he and another man just out of the Army simultaneously said of their countrymen, »they just don’t speak the same language«, he goes on with customary deftness to link this spontaneous expression with the vocabulary of inter-generational incomprehension and conflict within families, and with what we might now call the »culture shocks« of class and ethnicity as he experienced them coming from a working class family in Wales to Cambridge in the late 1930s. Today, in a world increasingly polarised by »culture wars« that are violently real as well as symbolic, there is no doubt that the same expression is still widely used to express »strong feelings« and important differences about ideas that not only create strangeness and unease between speakers of different varieties of English—whether around the world, across the same city or in a shared workplace or classroom—but also between adjacent departments of knowledge, and practitioners of the same profession or discipline. It was from such »critical encounters«, however, that Williams drew inspiration, seeing in them the workings of a central and often very slow process of social and historical as well as linguistic change.
Reprinted with kind permission from:
New Keywords – a Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, ed. Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg and Meaghan Morris (Oxford, Blackwell, April 2005)