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Keyword Up! (A Review of Keywords for Radicals)

Posted on August 31st, 2018 in Reviews, Reviews of AK Books

This review of Keywords for Radicals is an excerpt from a longer review recently published in the International Journal of Communication. The full review (by Jack Bratich of Rutgers University) also included another title—you can read the review in its entirety here. And you can find out more about Keywords for Radicals here.

This splendidly sprawling tome arrives with a title announcing its interventionist direction and anticipated readership. The book thus broadcasts its commitment to the radical potential of the words within it. What is a keyword? Fritsch, O’Connor, and Thompson do a fine job distinguishing keywords from definitions: Rather than settling meaning, meaning itself is the subject of historical investigation. In tracing out these historical settlements, a keyword analysis can undermine common sense, especially when (due to historical circumstances) the words are more “brittle” (Williams’ 1983 term, as the editors note). The keywords here do not fix meaning, but mark moments when consensus is in crisis, thus rendering the terms contestable.

Keywords for Radicals is a considerable enterprise, containing 57 entries with as many authors. Some of the words have been commonplace in the radical milieu and thus are expected to appear herein: representation, utopia, vanguard, oppression, hegemony, rights. Others are timely as relevant additions to radical analyses: commons, crip, prefiguration, and trans*/- (a word that even looks different). One entry that is both timely and traditional: occupy. A.K. Thompson gives us a much-needed analysis of the contested meanings of this word, since key voices even at the time of Occupy Wall Street objected to its usage, citing its colonial legacy.

Other keywords were previously radical, became more mainstream, and were recently re-attached to radicality: friend, love, privilege, care, bodies, reproduction, leadership. Some, like populism, have accrued a new prominence since the book’s publication. And of course there are always omissions that are worth mentioning, such as party. I learned much from these entries—they all have some nugget to recommend them, whether as a thorough primer or a curveball thought-changer. For the latter, I would suggest readers start with demand, friend, victory, and accountability.

Fritsch, O’Connor, and Thompson lay out three main differences between their book and Williams’ initial project. First, its periodization. It’s not just that vocabulary changes in late capitalism—the editors trace how a number of thinkers, especially those with autonomist tendencies, have analyzed the subsumption of linguistic communication into Post-Fordist economic processes. Along these lines, the editors remind us that Williams (1980) also wrote a piece called “Means of Communication as Means of Production.” If language has been subsumed, then the means are in the hands (some would say brains) of the cognitariat. What would it mean to seize these means of communication? From whom, and by whom? The collection offers an excellent starting point to begin this reappropriation.

The second divergence is that while Williams developed a list of wide-ranging terms that could define contemporary flashpoints, KFR teases out words that indicate specific clashes on the radical left. While having broader implications, the material herein is most relevant to political struggles. Fritsch, O’Connor, and Thompson mark Williams’ own attempts at refusing the institutionalization of vocabulary. At the same time, the book embodies this tension over academicization, as many contributors find themselves in different positions vis-á-vis academic institutions (and to this we can add “being reviewed in an academic journal”).

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, this work emanates not from a solo author but via collective authorship. The decentralized writing (though centralized peer editing) means that a temporary community is formed in the making of the keywords. Here I should note one of the special features of this collection: the use of infographs in each chapter that visualize the “see also” function. Individual authors created lists of words they thought were related, which were then supplemented by the editors to generate an internal map of the book’s entries.

Fritsch, O’Connor, and Thompson are clear that the mere existence of many contested keywords does not result in pluralism or relativism. There is a method here, even a guide to how words are to be understood. In foregrounding the conflict over words as part of wider struggles, the editors refuse to treat the relation of word to thing as a relation of transparency or correspondence. The book instead takes a nuanced, dialectical approach to language.

Words are signposts of the linguistic turn, underscoring how language shapes, not just describes, the world. Those readers conversant with the decades-long development of this approach (the introduction covers a number of these thinkers: J. L. Austin, Adrienne Rich, Iris Marion Young, Judith Butler, Stuart Hall) will find this book covering familiar ground, whereas it functions well for those first encountering the linguistic turn.

The editors argue that, even if we take as given that language performs rather than reflects, we need to ask how performatives stick. What are the means of authorizing some utterances and meanings as definitions? In addition to the means of communication, we need to examine the means of authorization. Curiously, deconstruction is not mentioned as part of this lineage. As performed by Jacques Derrida and others, deconstruction amounted to an unraveling that exposed the operations of authority through which meaning was established. More than a social constructionist approach to the world via language, deconstruction deployed a series of stratagems and gestures that inhabited an authorizing mechanism to defuse that mechanism’s ability to settle matters.

Fritsch, O’Connor, and Thompson are also wary of the utopian projects of resignification, in which radicals find agency in reclaiming and detourning meanings. According to the editorial collective, these efforts indicate more of an intent than a success in transforming established social relations. Instead of a politics of resignification that affirms the ability to make any meaning stick, “radicals are left in the difficult position of having to complete or resolve the words inherited from injustice rather than simply disavowing them in favor of” new ones (p. 15, emphasis in original). [1]

The collection takes its own position in this terrain, one that wards off transparency as a guiding value. If we take as given that power operates not primarily by obscuring its actions but “through extreme contradiction” (p. 5), then clarity and transparency will not address power’s capacities to manage meaning. A word instead is an “index of the struggle to shape reality according to particular interests” (p. 5). Vocabulary here is analogous to the commodity in Karl Marx’s Das Kapital—an analytic starting point that becomes a gateway to the hidden abode of production. A word is examined “so that its contradictions might be productively explored” (p. 18).

In paying attention to the words used about keywords, we find transparency banished but revelation installed. Words are indexes of socioeconomic dynamics: “When analyzed closely, words reveal themselves to be symptoms of underlying and overarching social contradictions” (p. 20, emphasis added). This is a method that places importance on the conflicts we “uncover in our most intimate utterances” (p. 18, emphasis added). And again: “Language as object that contains contradictions which, once unearthed, will collapse in favor of the new” (p. 18, emphasis added). Revelation is back, no longer pointing to referents in the world, but to dialectical processes.

There is thus a two-step process: (1) “unearthing [language’s] contradictions” and (2) “using those contradictions to map the social world they reflect” (p. 18; emphasis added). Words and world have a common ground: not correspondence, but homology. Each is filled with mirrored contradictions, with words as symptoms whose internal logics can be completed by, then found in, social relations. The collection thus seeks to reground usage not in consensus about meaning (this is not the “OED for Radicals”) but in an epistemological convergence—our maps of the social world will be discoverable as true once we see the linguistic debates in a particular, dialectical fashion.

This kind of homology, itself a variant of the base/superstructure model of analysis, is true to Raymond Williams’ legacy and open now to new audiences. Whether these concepts (dialectics, base, superstructure, map, social world, homology, symptom, contradiction, terrain) are worth debating (e.g., by finding their way into their own keywords collection) remains to be seen.

Ultimately, we can turn to the collection’s subtitle to summarize its trajectory: This is a contested vocabulary, one whose stakes are found in the book’s context—namely, late capitalism, but moreover the struggles against it. If, in the Trumpist era, we’ve seen an increasing weaponization of tools, techniques, and words, then this collection is a much-needed arms storehouse.


[1] This telos raises some curious questions: Do we push the terms to their exhaustion? Could we diminish, banish, reduce, rather than disavow? What would it mean to complete a concept borne out of injustice?