keyword

There are many types of familiar keys in the world. They are in your pocket, on your map, in your google search bar. Keywords are just as familiar. Like the metal tool they are named after, keywords unlock, index, cipher, map, and also telegraph. That these functions contradict one another actually helps illustrate the multiplicity of functions keywords enact. They are the words that we use constantly, so much so that understanding what they mean statically becomes difficult. Raymond Williams began what became the keyword project in 1948 as a way to try to make sense of the changing use of the word “culture.” Or, to be more precise, to use the changing word as a way to understand the more general changing in what we now comfortably call ‘culture.’ Starting with this key term, Williams started trying to map a new social and cultural terrain. “Culture itself has now a different though related history” (Williams 11). In thinking about the use of this project, we have to think deeply about how to read the essays themselves. We have to be aware of the many ways that keywords function as openings to understanding while simulataneously lock-in a particular moment’s meaning. In short, we have to think about how keywords let us work with something that if used correctly, is not quite a definition.

Williams began the project as a way to bridge a gap. He had been in school at Cambridge and then entered the service during World War II. Upon returning, the world seemed somehow different and the distance between the world that Williams’ left and the one he returned to was felt in the language being used to describe and evaluate it (9). Williams began with culture and started adding more words as they caught his attention. Importantly, the words that entered into the dossier all had the same kind of frequent use despite imprecise understanding. The words were also free-ranging, not stable within a field or discipline. “…it was the significance of its general and variable usage that had first attracted my attention: not in separate disciplines but in general discussion” (14). This fluid prominence across disciplines can be seen as attesting to the importance of the word. In this respect, Williams’ keywords follows the word’s traditional use in literary studies. Keywords in this respect are the words that appear in any text more frequently than one could assume is by chance. It is a quantitative technique to determine the emphasis of a text. The assumption is the more central a word or concept in a text, the more frequently it will be used. However, rather than indicating a text’s focus whatever its central argument may suggest, Williams’ critical mass indicates a convergence around a term despite the contrast of the places being used –its interdisciplinary impact. “I called these words keywords in two connected senses: they are significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretation; they are significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought” (13).

The keywords project evolved, as the words themselves did. New words were accumulated, became obsolete and others still were reimagined. “…these elements are an active vocabulary –a way of recording, investigating and presenting problems of meaning in the area in which the meanings of culture and society have formed” (13). Beyond the shifting collection, the meanings behind the included elements changes too. “The original meanings of words are always interesting. But what is most interesting is the subsequent variation” (Williams 18). For instance, we can look at Williams’ first word, culture. Importantly, the history of the word, from Williams’ account, is as much about divergence and shifting meaning as it was convergence into a single meaning. He points to the once-popular use of ‘culture’ to signify what we might call high cultural products which had become “more distant and was becoming more comic” (11). We can see from this example though there is more than strict meaning to understand in a keyword’s function. We need to have a grasp of the cultural position of the meaning, where it fits between discourses in addition to its strict meaning. Williams, and I think keywords as a project, focuses on how a word is used not what it means. Again, we are looking at a living function not a history.

The keyword essays themselves rarely, if ever, provide an answer or single definition as such. Rather, they are an investigation which allows the reader and writer to consider more the multiple functions and spaces of a word. This is partly because words themselves are “elements of the problems” they describe (Williams 14). More than just flagging the multiple meanings of a word, Williams deemphasizes the importance of definitions in thinking about keywords. He acknowledges that definitions can, of course, be useful in understanding the difference between basic nouns. However, given the complicated legacy and large meaning of any culturally significant keyword, a precise definition may not be as useful as an in-depth consideration of its contemporary usage. “We find a history and complexity of meanings, conscious changes, or consciously different uses; innovation, obsolescence, specialization, extension, overlap, transfer; or changes which are masked by a nominal continuity so that words which seem to have been there for centuries, with continuously general meanings, have come in fact to express radically different or radically variable, yet sometimes hardly noticed, meanings and implications of meaning.” (15). It is easy to understand these fleeting but accurate sketches as the definitive perspective. But, they are not authoritative and permanent definitions. They are not intent to lock-in set meanings, but rather are notes on the changing meanings of words.

We can easily see how reading about keywords provides an opening to better understanding the complex usage of the words about culture circulating around us. But, keywords, like their namesakes, can lock in as much as they can open. While the keyword project is about trying to make sense of the meaning of these words, it is not as simple as compiling a concise definition. As described above, the meaning of the keyword, even their status as a keyword are subject to change. “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, a record into 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” (15). But, while keywords are a mapping of the evolution of a word, they can potentially also be a pinning down of that shifting by providing a doctrine or official history. We can move beyond this potential pitfall by seeing keywords not as static and eternally true. It is useful to consider them as an open, working understanding rather than a full, durably true and inflexible definition. This is entirely inline with the keyword project as Williams saw it and how it is executed now.

The keyword essays themselves chronicle these changes. More, what these words about words about culture offer is a reflection back of our own valuations. Like keys, they demonstrate what we hold dear enough to protect. While they can be seen as locking in a specific history and view point, they do offer a way to begin to see current debate and themes. However, as participants in contemporary culture whether we like it or not, we know these terms generally, like acquaintances. Rather than seeing them as a key opening up a previously closed space, we can see them as a cipher, a key understanding a code that floats all around us, that we even use without fully grasping the meaning By considering these keywords and the concept of keywords we can begin to chart the discourse of culture. By no means can we ever fully crack the code, so to speak. Rather what we can do is seek to better understand how the words have come to mean the many things they do, in the many spaces they do. They are not static. They are evolving based on use.

The attempt to try to understand the potential limitations and usefulness of the form of keywords, I think is in line with what Raymond Williams’s original project was interested in. In order to understand the cultural discourse around us we have to understand the way that the words we use mean and don’t mean. We have to see what they index and when and to whom. Their functions are often contradictory: simultaneously opening up positions and also momentarily freezing the discourse itself for evaluation. Like any methodology, we have to be aware of their potential to elide their own errors, obscure their lapse, despite the great work they may do. Keywords can provide a flexible vocabulary that we are in desperate need of, but not without their own caveats and particularity.

Keywords are an effective tool and part of media theory. But, like all good theory, it must always be considered in relation to its ability to deal with its object; that is, be seen as a work in progress. The keywords are not permanent models. Rather, they are notes toward a useful consideration that is meant to shift as the objects themselves that they work to describe change.

Rebecca Giordano