Words Matter

Steve D'Arcy

Reviewed in this article

Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle
Kelly Fritsch, Clare O’Connor, and A.K. Thompson, eds.

Kelly Fritsch, Clare O’Connor, and AK Thompson, eds., Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle (Oakland: AK Press, 2016).

What then is time?” Augustine wondered in his Confessions. “If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.” The relevance of this structure, in which our effortless understanding of how to use a word turns into perplexity and hesitation as soon as we are asked to make our tacit understanding explicit, is not confined to a special class of metaphysically opaque words, like “time” or “reality.” It holds even for the most mundane concepts of everyday life. What is family? What is happiness? What is friendship?

There is more than one way to respond when the obviousness that insulates our vocabularies from critical attention is interrupted in this way. Our initial inclination is often to seek the reassurance of a clear definition, restoring our confidence that we know exactly what we are talking about. This is what dictionaries appear to promise: concise and lucid accounts of just what we mean by words like “time” or “happiness.” But even if we acknowledge the appeal of this type of response, we can hardly conceal from ourselves an unmistakable sense of loss whenever we resort to it. What we lose, in short, is the drama of wonder, the excitement of that moment of unknowing, the subtle enthusiasm of unquenched curiosity. One way to think of the book, Keywords for Radicals, is as a refusal of the dictionary-definition response to the challenge of conceptual questions. Indeed, the book could be regarded as a kind of inversion of a political dictionary. Rather than leading us confidently from an initial uncertainty about what a word means back to the solid footing of a handy definition, it tries to take us hesitantly, searchingly, away from what we think we know, toward a sprawling neighbourhood of ambiguities, controversies and complications. As the editors put the point: “Rather than offering definitions ... our goal throughout this book is to submit the vocabulary of contemporary radicals to historical and analytic scrutiny so that its contradictions might be productively explored” (18).

The model and main textual reference point for Keywords for Radicals is the Raymond Williams classic, Keywords (first published in 1976, followed by an expanded second edition in 1983). Like Williams’ book, this one presents a series of alphabetically ordered entries covering politically relevant words, noting their etymological roots, their plural and shifting meanings, their interconnections and tensions with other keywords, and the political stakes of the conflicts of interpretation that surround them. Also like Williams’ book, this one is haunted by a source that it simultaneously seems to define itself against and to rely upon at every turn, namely, the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED is cited explicitly by at least 30 of the 57 entries in Keywords for Radicals, and may be the source for some of the uncited etymologies in other entries. But, in the setting of this anti-dictionary, the OED serves less to settle questions of meaning than to offer entry-points into the controversies over how to understand each word and pointers toward fertile lines of inquiry.

In spite of the spirit of loyalty to Williams’ project that infuses Keywords for Radicals, there are important ways in which it takes a different tack from its predecessor. In contrast to Williams’ single-author format, this one is an edited collection with 57 contributors. Most of the contributors could be called “well-known,” at least in certain circles, and essentially all of them are either leftist activists, leftist academics, or both. To mention only a few, there are entries by Himani Bannerji (Ideology), Johanna Brenner (Class), Nina Power (Demand), George Caffentzis (Commons), Sam Gindin (Labor), John Bellamy Foster (Nature), Silvia Federici (Reproduction), Peter Gelderloos (Violence), and Ilan Pappé (Zionism). All of the contributors seem to have had longstanding intellectual or practical engagements with their assigned words, which adds a degree of depth (Ilan Pappé’s entry on Zionism), and in some cases passion (Peter Gelderloos on Violence) to many of the entries.

The format for each entry is roughly consistent throughout. They begin with a concise recounting of how the word entered the English language, usually with an implication that the word’s roots are in some respect telling or symptomatic. This is typically followed by a rough mapping of the word’s multiple meanings, across different epochs and political contexts. Most of the entries are approximately eight pages in length (substantially longer than most of Williams’ entries, it should be said), so they are detailed enough that, by the end, most readers will be able to learn at least something new from almost every single entry. In my own reader-experience, I learned a little less from the entries that seemed to be animated mainly by a concern to “cover all the bases,” in the manner of a reference work (which is how Donatella della Porta’s scrupulously accurate and consistently well-informed, but not particularly adventurous entry on “Democracy” struck me), and rather more from entries that seemed to be more willing to stray from the beaten path and pursue their words down semantic and historical sidetracks (like Rober McRuer’s “Crip” entry, and Rasheedah Phillips’ “Future”). These reactions are in part personal, though, reflecting the limits and idiosyncrasies of my own zones of knowledge and ignorance, and other readers will react in their own ways to the entries, depending on what does or doesn’t pique their curiosity and lead them into intriguing and unfamiliar terrain.

The book opens with a substantial introduction by the editors, Kelly Fritsch, Clare O’Connor, and AK Thompson. After the entries, a fairly generous editorial apparatus presents biographical notes on each contributor, a seventy-page bibliography, and an appendix on ‘the politics of data visualization’ by Derek Laventure, who designed the cognitive-mapping graphic device used throughout the book to convey connections between related entries. There is no index, which would have enhanced a book that is over 550 pages long, but each entry ends with a list of related entries, a feature that encourages a nonlinear approach to reading and engaging with the book.

The editors’ introduction begins with an extended critique of the fashionable project of “speaking truth to power” by calling things by their “true names”: “a war for oil,” an “apartheid state,” and so on (2-5). The editors insist that such supposedly correct naming—redescribing social facts in a way that strips them of their ideological legitimations—does not generally have the effect, promised by some, of undermining the authority of elites or weakening the grip of systems of power. Instead, they urge us to “find our way back to an awareness of the practical limitations that matter and the dynamics of its historical objectification place on the development of meaningful concepts” (16).

The point about the political limitations of terminological reformism is certainly well taken. However, in the rest of the introduction, this particular starting-point seems to have had the effect of encouraging the implication that the naming relation, in which a word designates an object, and the representational (for example “mapping”) dimension of language more generally, should serve as the primary reference point for thinking about linguistic meaning as such. According to the editors, “the attribution of names takes the undifferentiated whole and parses it into discrete and manipulable units,” albeit in ways shaped by social and historical forces (5). The stakes of these designation and classification practices are high. “Little wonder, then, that naming has historically been a war zone” (6).

To be sure, the editors want us to see language as embedded within and shaped by social relations in various ways. As they put it, “when analyzed closely, words reveal themselves to be symptoms of underlying and overarching social contradictions” (20). Naming, they note, is not “somehow outside of and antithetical to power” (5). And they even observe (6, note 2) that in some instances language-use can function to institute social relations, as when (to cite one of their examples) one uses language to make a bet, which evidently bears no relation to designation or naming. But the best way to draw out the non-representational dimension of language would have been to break with the focus on the naming (or word/world) relation in favour of an unflinchingly pluralistic understanding of language as a social practice by means of which we do many things that have nothing to do with designation—like opening up new styles of experience, establishing social bonds, taking on binding commitments, giving or asking for reasons for what we do or refuse to do, finding ways to articulate grievances and aspirations, and much more. Equipped with some such conception, we would be better positioned to notice and talk about all of the ways in which language goes beyond the narrow role of labelling objects in the world. In fairness, though, in the spirit of the book as a whole, the complexity and plurality of language as a social practice (in which designation figures but doesn’t predominate) does come through clearly enough, even if the theoretical generalizations in the introduction do not always do justice to it.

For most readers, I suspect, a more salient bone of contention will be the decisions made by the editors about which words to cover. Any book of this kind invites the familiar reaction to selection exercises generally, like top ten lists or award-show nominations: why was this one chosen, but not that one? For my part, I could not see why “love” was given an entry, but not “fascism,” and why “space,” but not “equality.” Other readers will no doubt worry about other choices made to include or exclude this word or that. Of course, from the point of view of reader reactions, the fact that the book invites this sort of second-guessing could be a kind of virtue, rather than a failing. A book like this, aspiring as it does to follow up on Raymond Williams’ achievement, ought to replicate his book’s capacity to provoke in readers the stimulating question: “What words most matter to us, today?”

Even so, from another, specifically political, point of view, the issue of selection does bear on an issue that the editors themselves regard as one of the criteria of success for the book. The words chosen for inclusion are supposedly selected at least in part in light of an aspiration to contribute to the success of social movement activism. The book is intended, it seems, to lend some kind of lucidity and sophistication to the way we think through the matter of how best to talk about our struggles, and thereby to encourage and strengthen those struggles. As the editors put the point: “For those of us committed not just to interpreting the world, but to changing it as well, becoming aware of language’s historical and productive elaboration is an important precondition to meaningful struggle” (21). Accordingly, if among the omitted words there are some that we particularly need to think more clearly about, for pressing practical reasons, then the book can fairly be faulted for dropping the ball, to some extent, by leaving them out.

Surveying the entries with this thought in mind, it is striking that some of the concept-controversies that have been most prominent in and vexing for Left-activist circles in recent years are conspicuous by their absence from or marginality to the book. One of the most noteworthy examples is the word “intersectionality,” which has become a leading buzzword of the contemporary Left, but is denied an entry of its own in Keywords for Radicals. The difficulty of the word “intersectional” is not that it is obscure or “polysemic,” it is that we regard the word as all too obvious, all too easy to insist upon, usually without acknowledging the difficult questions it poses. For instance, what does an avowal of commitment to intersectionality entail for a working-class settlers’ relationship to a class antagonism within an Indigenous liberation struggle? Does intersectionality encourage a stance of restrained neutrality? Does it encourage active solidarity with the side of one’s fellow workers within the Indigenous community in their conflicts with Indigenous professionals or employers? Or what? Obviously, the word “intersectional” isn’t supposed to or expected to answer a question like this. The point, however, is that the word brings this kind of question into play, and the obviousness and universal (leftist) insistence on the word can serve to cover over the challenges that it raises, making a verbal proclamation of one’s firmly intersectional political posture seem like an easier, more comfortable stance than it is entitled to be.

A measure of reflection about what exactly is at stake when we proclaim our feminism, anti-racism, or socialism to be “intersectional” could genuinely be a service to intellectually inclined movement activists, but the opportunity is passed up in this instance. It is not that the word doesn’t appear in the book. It is used in passing in several entries, including “allies,” “class,” “oppression,” “trans*/-” and “revolution.” There is no substantial exploration of questions that are raised about intersectionality in this book, but left hanging. For instance, in Johanna Brenner’s “Class” entry, it is correctly suggested (81) that Kimberlé Crenshaw can be credited with introducing intersectionality into the vocabulary of recent anti-racist feminism at the end of the 1980s, drawing implicitly on the work of the Combahee River Collective in the 1970s. However, as Brenner would know, the Trinidadian Marxist Claudia Jones deployed the concept—but not the word—as early as the 1950s, and her integrative use of the idea, as a basis for discerning opportunities to forge alliances, differs importantly from Crenshaw’s relatively greater emphasis on a disintegrative use of the term, as a basis for disaggregating ostensible groups like “women” and “people of colour,” and thereby complicating the question (without denying the value) of possible alliances. Recalling this prehistory of “intersectionality” helps open up new avenues for productively engaging with the term, and this is just the sort of thing that the best entries in Keywords for Radicals attempt to do, so the word’s absence from the list of entries is a source for regret.

Another omission that seems, from a practical-political point of view, to be a missed opportunity is the word “callouts.” Again, this is a term that is central to the jargon of the English-speaking, North American activist milieu, at least among people under the age of about 40. Moreover, it is a term that raises difficult questions, and invites serious reflection. On the one hand, it seems that calling people out for unacceptable behaviours is something that any healthy movement will have to find ways to do, in order to give due weight to the dignity and/or safety of people who are harmed, insulted or endangered by those behaviours. On the other hand, it is widely agreed that the activist Left is still struggling to learn how to do that in ways that strengthen organizations and enhance relations of trust and solidarity. As activists have grappled with this problem, with some devoting countless hours of emotionally difficult and thankless labour to it, the question of vocabulary has often been drawn explicitly into the controversy, most notably by the suggestion (from Ngoc Loan Tran) to supplement the concept of “calling out” with a proposed variant, “calling in.” Again, it seems a missed opportunity to pass over such an interesting and controversial keyword from so lengthy a book on left-activist vocabulary.

I referred just now to “callouts” as if it were a single word, but I also availed myself of the possibility of breaking up “callouts” into the two-word expression “calling out.” But if one were to regard it as being first and foremost a two-word expression, the term would fall afoul of one of the book’s implicit criteria of selection, which is to cover only single words. This was a rule that Williams followed in the original Keywords. But an earlier attempt to produce an updated version of Williams’ book, New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, edited by Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris, published in 2005, expanded the format somewhat, allowing multi-word expressions, including “human rights,” “political correctness,” and even the contrasting word pair, “reform and revolution.”

Obviously, part of the exercise in a book like Keywords for Radicals is to work in and through certain formal constraints, which invite creative responses from the contributors to a common challenge. Even so, the decision to deny full entries to terms like “safe spaces,” “calling out” and “intersectionality,” and to omit contrasting word pairs like “neoliberalism versus capitalism” or “activism versus organizing,” whether motivated by formal constraints or intellectual priorities, may lead some readers to wonder whether the editors’ political motive of contributing to movement politics may have been outweighed, at times, by an understandable fascination with the contours and design parameters of their particular writing and editing project, to the point of downplaying the instrumental or strategic importance of its actual or possible political effects. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in the realm of writing, even in the narrower region of political writing. But the reader should know going in that this is one of the factors that determines what they can expect to find in the book.

In the end, readers who have already explored Raymond Williams’ prototype will find in Keywords for Radicals a faithful continuation of his project, enhanced by longer and more detailed entries, and a refreshingly contemporary quality, complete with repeated references to ongoing movements like Black Lives Matter. And readers who have not yet read Williams will enjoy the added advantage of discovering in this book an unfamiliar genre of intellectual activity, one that will encourage (and I dare say, force) them to think more reflectively about how they engage with what the book’s subtitle describes as “the contested vocabulary of late-capitalist struggle.”