Keywords for Today

On the Raymond Williams Society blog for February we have a piece by Elinor Taylor on Keywords, both Williams’s landmark study and a new book published last year by Oxford University Press. Elinor, along with Tony Crowley, Sharon Clancy, and Nick Mahony, will be leading a Raymond Williams Reading Group on ‘Key Words’ at the RWS Conference in April.

Elinor writes…

On 10 November 2018, the University of East Anglia hosted a symposium to celebrate the history, influence and recent relaunch of the literary and cultural magazine Critical Quarterly, organised by Matthew Taunton, CQ’s current deputy editor. Founded in 1958, the journal fostered a public-facing post-war literary and cultural criticism, bringing together academics and school teachers at its annual confidence, as well as acting as a key vector for the transmission of continental critical theory in Britain. Raymond Williams made a number of important contributions to CQ in its first decade, including ‘The Achievement of Brecht’ (1961) and ‘Pastoral and Counter-Pastoral’ (1968). The journal has also published significant responses to and engagements with Williams’s work through its history, and continues to do so. The journal’s editor, Colin MacCabe, has been working for over a decade on the collaborative Keywords Project, supported by the University of Pittsburgh, Jesus College, Cambridge, and Critical Quarterly, to produce an updated version of Williams’s 1976 Keywords. The project has now concluded with the publication of Keywords for Today, edited by MacCabe and Holly Yanacek, by OUP. The book updates 40 of the original entries and adds 85 new words. Tony Crowley and I were invited to represent RWS on a discussion panel about the book at the symposium.

I am on my third copy of Williams’s Keywords, having photocopied two to death for teaching purposes. I find it an enormously useful book, possibly even increasingly useful, for modelling how to deal with definitional complexity, for understanding how different meanings of terms are related, and, more simply but also more fundamentally, for demonstrating rather than just asserting that meanings matter. I’m sure I’m not alone among literature lecturers, for instance, in finding Williams’s entry on ‘Literature’ perhaps the single most reliably provocative and versatile teaching text I have encountered. I was eager, then, to find out what process of updating had occurred, and what an inquiry into a new set of words might reveal.


I was surprised by some of the keywords from Williams’s lexicon that don’t feature in Keywords for Today – ‘radical’ and ‘ideology’, for instance; the former in particular seems to have an interesting ambivalence given its role in discourses of securitisation but also its apparently wholly positive usage to connote innovation, disruptiveness and creativity in the tech industries, universities and the cultural sector. That thought, in turn, made me compile lists of words that might have been included, as Williams suggested his readers do on their copies of Keywords, and pondered ‘resilience’, ‘platform’, and ‘crisis’ – an interesting exercise, and one that points to the difficulty of distinguishing those terms that are in some way fundamentally structure how we talk about society and those that are simply prevalent in what we say.

The book’s contributors are clearly attuned to this difficultly and the new additions – ‘privilege’, ‘appropriate’, ‘queer’ among them – shed light on these terms in ways that help negotiate debates in which it often seems that, as Williams put it in his introduction, we ‘just don’t speak the same language’; and which often play out at least initially through social media posts that by their ephemerality, intensity and brevity are formally resistant to the kind of careful attention to complexity that underwrites both the original and the new project. When I started reading the book I was especially interested in the ‘recent developments’ sections that have been added to Williams’s original entries, and wondered what these might tell us. Certainly if one tracks the recent developments and the new keywords, the contours of contemporary politics clearly emerge. ‘Elite’, for instance: Williams’s original entry very usefully draws attention to the – to me, anyway – non-obvious connection between ‘elite’ and ‘elect’, so that ‘elite’ ambiguously meant both a class or rank, and something elected or chosen: but the term always troubles assumptions of representative democracy, and the new book notes the ways that the term is largely operative, in the absence of a discourse of class, as a ‘mobiliser of political hatred’. In the entry on ‘class’ itself, the contributors note the shifts in its prevalence over recent decades: from its near disappearance except in the pejorative ‘underclass’, to its re-emergence in socialist movements in the last decade – though, as the contributors note, often ambiguously deployed as a category of identity among many others. ‘Identity’, indeed, is given a new entry here.

keywords_43Another notable pattern we find in the new entries and the extensions of Williams’s analyses is the increasing political salience of mental and affective states. Among the terms of this kind, ‘terror’ and ‘trauma’, might be typical of a process pithily summed up by the entry on ‘terror’, whereby ‘a word initially used to describe emotional states experienced at the very margins of the social is now limited entirely to describing emotional states experienced at the very heart of social and political life’. ‘Security’ and its opposite follow a similar pattern, and in its psychological sense might connect with another new entry, ‘well-being’, as key terms for bringing into view the ways that moods and feelings are increasingly the subject of political intervention and management (developments charted by William Davies’s fascinating recent books The Happiness Industry and Nervous States). Following the connections between related words through the book – a kind of hypertext reading, that practice so central to how we navigate the infinitely connected digital environment and which might indeed be fundamentally changing how we read for meaning – suggests underlying relationships that are otherwise obscure.

The entries here also usefully suggest the ways that changes in political and social discourse relate to my own field of literary studies. The inclusion of the term ‘narrative’, unusual, as the contributors note, for having ‘migrated from specialist academic usage into general discourse’, becoming ubiquitous in political commentary and metacommentary through such phrases as ‘changing the narrative’, is a prominent example; like ‘identity’, it is somewhat surprising to note it did not feature in Williams’s lexicon. Other entries attest to a growing scepticism about or outright hostility towards representation, in all its forms, and a simultaneous and complementary increase in the weighting of expression. This development is evident in the entries on ‘representation’ and ‘expression’ themselves, but also echoed in the discussion of the recent development of the term ‘literature’, which notes the way that an expansion in the term’s meaning registers the devaluation of imagination relative to authenticity and sincerity, as part of more general anxieties about mediation and appropriation. The circulation of texts online and the increasingly central role of social media in framing them for readers seems to be driving this process; the controversy last year surrounding Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story ‘Cat Person’, a controversy rooted in the widespread misreading of the text as personal essay, illustrates the way that the ‘literary’, the conditional of representation rather than expression, increasingly might struggle for recognition. Everything becomes, as Williams’s own entry on ‘literature’ predicted it might, communications – or simply data.


And this point indicates a particular difficulty that any work such as the Keywords Project faces today, which is the difficulty of determining what is mainstream discourse, where one should look for patterns and trends. As the editors note, Williams’s project could assume the ‘discursive dominance of a national press’; the existence of a fairly wide public discursive space with a certain degree of homogeneity. It’s harder to envisage this today, but Keywords for Today is convincing in how it evidences the centrality of its selected terms and their prevalence beyond local contexts. On the other hand, the very absence of such a space might heighten awareness of the different ways of framing any issue in language (as registered in discussions of the linguistic framing of anthropogenic climate breakdown). The lucidity and insightfulness of Keywords for Today shows that Williams’s insistence on the investigation of meaning is still vitally relevant to the most urgent problems of our time, and indeed the book is a convincing reminder that a careful elaboration of how we use language must be a priority of political as well as cultural critique.

Elinor Taylor is a lecturer in English at the University of Westminster, an executive committee member of the Raymond Williams Society, and on the editorial board of Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism. She is the author of The Popular Front Novel in Britain (Brill, 2017).