In 1837, Hans Christian Andersen recounted the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Working in the fantastical register of fairy tales, he spun a tale in which two swindlers descend upon the town of an emperor enthralled by sartorial decadence. Sensing an opportunity, the swindlers pose as weavers and propose to make the emperor a suit so fine that it will be imperceptible to people who are stupid or undeserving of their post. Seeing the benefit of owning such an outfit, the emperor agrees to their offer. As the swindlers begin their fictive weaving, a novel problem arises. Fearful that their credibility is about to be undermined, the emperor’s men repeat the received lie and extol the beauty of the mystery garment. The ruse becomes contagious. Finally, faced with underlings capable of “seeing” the invisible suit, the emperor succumbs as well. The scene leads inexorably to a procession through the town. Invested in the preservation of the lie, the cheering crowd gives no indication that anything is amiss—that is, until a young boy, lacking in social graces and too naïve to play along, shouts out what the others can not: “But he has nothing on!” (Andersen 1983, 63).
In most riffs on Andersen’s story, the lesson is drawn out at this point: by speaking truth to power, we can break the spell that keeps us ensnared. Calling things like we see them forces convenient fictions to give way to more vital truths. Perverse beliefs that fester in shadows get disinfected in reason’s light. Things become clear when properly named. For those with radical inclinations, such an account is exceptionally appealing. From the Quaker commitment to “speak truth to power” in the face of the Cold War to Malcolm X’s philological injunction to “make it plain,” our political struggles have been indelibly marked by the desire for transparency. It’s therefore not surprising that radicals have instinctively recognized the importance of Andersen’s tale. Indeed, as with Malcolm (and the Quakers before him), The Emperor’s New Clothes is historically inseparable from revolutionary aspirations. Critical of the mystical claims underlying the power of his own era’s aristocracy, Andersen became a figure of the Enlightenment, which valued above all the implicitly democratic evidence of sense perception.1 Today, confronted by public relations machines still more murderous in their deceit, we strive in our turn to model ourselves after Andersen’s child. On guard against sleights of hand that would keep us in line, we do what we can to tell it like it is. It is therefore not surprising that our campaigns have often taken root at the very point where, beneath the ruse, things and their names begin to coincide. Iraq is a war for oil; Israel is an apartheid state. The payoff is clear: once proper names have been assigned and mystifications dissolve, the revelation will compel our fellow townsfolk to challenge the emperor’s vain conceits.
But if there’s one thing such campaigns have made clear, it’s that purely nominal shifts are never enough to resolve our political problems once and for all. On the contrary, when radicals become seduced by—and habituated to—the belief that we can assign “true names,” we have often ended by hampering our efforts. How, then, should we orient to struggles over word usage and meaning? What other approach might guide our efforts? Covering a wide range of the keywords that currently shape radical discourse and subjecting them to historical, etymological, and political scrutiny, the entries in this volume suggest one compelling path.
Leaving aside its literary virtuosity, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” owes its popularity to the seductive promise of naming. A major problem, however, is that the fable’s lesson tends to get extracted before the story has come to a close. Admittedly, Andersen’s tale is brief—not more than a few pages long—and the young boy’s out-of-the-mouths-of-babes moment comes in the very last paragraph. Nevertheless, the story does not end with the child’s outburst or with the townsfolk shaken from slumber. Instead it ends with the emperor and his chamberlains who commit all the more resolutely to keep up appearances: “‘But he has nothing at all on!’ at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold” (Andersen 1983, 63).
When approached from the standpoint of its closing lines, Andersen’s fable seems to support conclusions that are entirely at odds with those normally derived from it. Significantly, the final scene makes clear that proper naming is not enough to bring the royal procession to a halt. Moreover, since the parade does not end (since, indeed, the emperor and his chamberlains redouble their efforts to persevere), it’s unclear whether the townsfolk will turn on their sovereign or strive instead to avoid conflict by somehow reconciling the tension between their ruler’s charade and their own sense perception.
Of these two outcomes (and despite the Enlightenment), the latter has proven historically to be more likely. Incensed Americans who owe their very hubris to imperialist aggression ask, “Why do they hate us?” Discount shoppers rush to Walmart on Black Friday to revel in the fruits of the global sweatshop without ever curbing their xenophobic injunction to “buy American.” Heavily medicated suburban kids insist “it’s all good.” Through incantations such as these, people symptomatically acknowledge what they stand to lose if the façade crumbles. Faced with the irreconcilability of the given and the evident, those whose lives are beholden to constituted power are more likely to entrench themselves in fictive certainties than they are to renounce them once and for all.
On this point, Andersen’s story proves prescient. Populated by townsfolk, servants, high-ranking officials, and entrepreneurial swindlers, the inhabitants of the emperor’s kingdom are marked by clear class divisions. But while this taxonomy might imply conflict, Andersen’s characters seem for the most part to be enthralled by their sovereign’s excess. Indeed, they are invested in it. Had they not lined the streets to bask in the glow of his power, the realization that his “new clothes” left him naked would not have been bewildering. Indeed, had it not been for their investment, they might have freed themselves from resplendent misery long before the weaving swindlers made their descent. And who, in the story, is prepared to speak about that? Certainly not the swindlers, since they flee the scene before the procession begins. Consequently, even if the people’s shock turned to rage (even if their realization foretold a scene of wild defrocking), the profiteering culprits are beyond their grasp. The crowd’s indictment cannot touch them. The same holds true today: like Andersen’s townsfolk might have done before us, we gradually turned our anger toward the kleptocratic Goldman Sachs. We became smug in our shouting, and for a while we took back the streets. But while we may have “changed the conversation,” our hoarse voices ultimately underscored our powerlessness.
Revisiting Andersen’s fable in this way is illuminating. By turning our attention toward those aspects of the story that normally escape consideration, it becomes clear that “speaking truth to power” and “making it plain” are no longer enough—and not solely because today power has displayed a remarkable capacity to operate under conditions of extreme contradiction.
Apart from ignoring the limits of demand-based politics when trying to achieve revolutionary aims, the idea that we can change things by assigning true names presupposes that those names that are ours to give are somehow outside of and antithetical to power; they are not. We must therefore contend with the fact that the scope of what we can say is delimited not solely by the willingness of others to hear, but also by the concepts at our disposal. These concepts—these words—are neither static nor extrinsic to power. Words attain meaning through the history of their usage, and these histories contain traces of the struggle not only to name but also to create the world. Read in this way, a concept’s historical development (the refinement of its meaning, the management of its contradictory implications) can provide an index of the struggle to shape reality according to particular interests.
To put it another way, because the attribution of names takes the undifferentiated whole and parses it into discrete and manipulable units, the evolution of word usage tends to correspond with developments in what Marx called “the productive forces.” As Raymond Williams noted, “ordinary, everyday language” is “directly subject to historical development” (1980, 50). Consequently, when approached with care, it can be read as an expression or index of that development. Little wonder, then, that naming has historically been a war zone. “Our word is our weapon,” declared Subcomandante Marcos. “Names will never hurt me,” cried the bullied child, knowing full well it was a lie.
At the end of the Second World War, around the time that George Orwell published his “Politics and the English Language,” Raymond Williams began to carve a path through this trip-wired land. Noting the significant transformations taking place in English language usage among postwar university students in Britain, he set out to uncover the deeper political developments these shifts expressed. Intuiting—along with J. L. Austin, who tackled the problem in a different but complementary fashion2
—that words did not merely describe a given reality but also played a key role in helping to produce it, Williams proposed that transformations in the assigned or implied meaning of words could be read as signals denoting broader transformations taking place in the social sphere. This was analytically significant since—although “society,” in its enormity, remained impervious to capture—the words through which it found expression were easier (though not easy) to grasp. By focusing on changes in word usage and meaning, and by constellating the terms that made up the “vocabulary” of the moment, it was possible to begin unfolding something like a sociohistorical map—a map complete with familiar passages, curious footpaths, and advantageous lines of attack.
In the introduction to his Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Williams recounted how, since communication ordinarily works on account of language’s presumed consensual transparency, moments in which this consensus falls apart help to reveal important political, economic, and cultural shifts. In Williams’ estimation, language tended to become “brittle” in “periods of change” when the taken-for-granted associations between words and things began to break (1983, 16).
Such dissolutions are not arbitrary; they arise from the very processes by which the thing a word once denoted is itself transformed. The predominantly legal conception of “the sacred” that prevailed in Ancient Rome, for instance, underwent a massive transformation with the advent of Christianity, which endeavored to contest sovereign earthly power by enshrining the outcast savior as king.
Because they indicate that the aspects of the social world to which they are bound are in flux, developments in word usage and meaning can help us to become aware of political opportunities that might otherwise go unnoticed. But even when changes in usage or meaning seem to be superficially favorable, there’s no guarantee that the developments they express are inherently positive. Within the context of late capitalism, shifts in common word usage have tended to reflect and reiterate the dynamics of post-Fordist development rather than to yield transparency. According to Italian economist Christian Marazzi (2008), recent changes in language use tend to correspond to the modifications that financial markets have brought about in the field of work. In our increasingly service- and consumer-oriented economy, which demands the constant transfer of data and information, work has become communicative-relational in character. As a result, communication of all kinds has been further subordinated to the logic of the market. Meanwhile, employers go out of their way to encourage linguistic cooperation among workers. Previously conceived as a distraction from the production process, horizontal communication—e.g., chatter—has increasingly (and especially at the points of greatest capital accumulation) become its very substance.
In this transition, social media and its attendant linguistic forms have become indispensable for business. At the same time, the prevalence of crowdsourcing, Twitter, and similar tools has transformed the substantive meaning of many words while vastly expanding the field of interaction (laughing out loud, we might say, is not what it used to be). The whole dynamic was enough to lead Paolo Virno (2004) to conclude that, more than in any other era, contemporary wage labor is communicative interaction.
Moreover, since the new forms of communication have become so well integrated into everyday labor and life, it can be difficult to distinguish between working and non-working hours. Workplace requirements and personal habits entangle while nouns become verbs through the same process by which—through reification—agency is attributed to objects. Let me Google that for you.
But while such word-usage developments are not inevitably “progressive” in the normative sense (and while the prospect of assigning true names remains as elusive as ever), the fights that sometimes arise around contested terms remain analytically significant. By highlighting moments in which the taken-for-granted associations between concepts and things become untenable, such skirmishes serve as lighthouses marking hazards—but also opportunities—on the horizon.
When Associated Press editors updated their stylebook in 2013, they recommended that journalists refrain from using the term “illegal immigrant” to refer to undocumented workers in the United States (Colford 2013). On face value, this change constituted a victory for migrant justice advocates who have struggled for more than a decade to popularize the idea that “no one is illegal.” At the same time, however, the AP style update reflects broader changes in American labor-market regulation under Obama. Indeed, Obama advanced immigration reform as a strategy for economic growth while simultaneously deporting more people than any other US president, earning himself the grassroots moniker “deporter-in-chief.” Viewed from this angle, the new nomenclature speaks less to the cultivation of a humanist ideal than it does to a refinement of the mechanisms of capture and control.
A similar political ambiguity marks other word debates. Sometimes this ambiguity results in contests over the meaning of individual words. At other times it finds expression in struggles to determine which word will be used to designate (and hence, in part, to produce) a given reality. Israel’s deceptive references to the apartheid barrier as a fence, for instance, has prompted Palestinians and international solidarity activists to clarify that the obstruction in question is, in fact, a wall. The logic of the skirmish is clear: “fences” are ordinary infrastructure, and good fences (we are told) make good neighbors. In contrast (and especially in the political context), walls are burdened by their association with prisons and despised concrete monuments like the one that bisected Berlin for a good chunk of the twentieth century. But while the distinction between “fences” and “walls” is material, the debate’s parameters seem to imply that a “fence” used to expropriate land and demarcate colonial borders is somehow less obscene. Instead of clamoring for a change in nomenclature, activists might do just as well to point out that even a fence is a legitimate target if its purpose is to enable mass dispossession. Legislation against sexual violence in Canada has produced similar confusion as the phrase “sexual assault”—intended by feminists as a more encompassing and therefore better alternative to the loaded word “rape”—has itself gradually been stripped of political poignancy for seeming too vague (Makin 2013). In each of these cases, it is difficult to know which tendency will win out.
Regardless of their outcome, contests like these make clear that the points at which language becomes “brittle” constitute important analytic opportunities. When taken seriously, they can foster the development of coherent strategic lines and increase the impact of our political interventions. By honing in on these points of conflict, it becomes possible to uncover the social contradictions that find expression, as Williams observed, “within language” (1983, 22). Indeed, because “earlier and later senses” of words often “coexist” within a single moment of enunciation, words themselves can often come to stand in for “actual alternatives” through which “problems of . . . belief and affiliation are contested” (1983, 22). On this point, Williams comes close to the position advanced by feminist poet Adrienne Rich, who, in her 1971 poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” recounted how “a language is a map of our failures.”4
Such a map is hard to look at and difficult to read. Nevertheless, it remains indispensable when charting our course to freedom.
Forty years after it was penned, Williams’ text remains an important resource for contemporary radicals. But while Keywords has lost none of its intellectual force, many of its specific entries have been overtaken by social transformations. Such an outcome cannot be attributed to shortsightedness; after all, any survey that takes capitalist mutations as its object must necessarily be transitory in nature.5
Through the course of neoliberal market expansion, economic crisis, and the renewed rounds of global austerity that have taken place since Williams’ death, words have continued to be important and evolving sites of struggle.
Aware that he was standing on shifting ground, Williams updated Keywords in 1983. Since his death in 1988, others have sought to emulate his method. In 2005, editors Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris published New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, a multi-author volume devoted to the continuation of Williams’ project. In this spirit, the editors ambitiously added and removed words from Williams’ list and updated existing entries to account for “crucial shifts” that had taken place.
Each of the volume’s entries reflects great care. However, while Bennett, Grossberg, and Morris strove to honor Williams’ intention to “provide a useful, intellectually and historically grounded guide to public questions,” the New Keywords editors—like Williams himself—found it difficult to prevent their work from succumbing to an “overly academic reception” (Bennett, Grossberg, and Morris 2005, 2). Indeed, as one Guardian reviewer noted, Keywords “powerfully influenced a generation of students, many of whom were fortunate enough to find . . . employment in the looming cultural studies boom” (2005, 2). As a result of this sequestering, many activists have remained unaware of Williams’ legacy—an alarming situation, given the importance attributed to words within radical spheres. Indeed, word-based struggles seem only to have gained prominence since Williams’ time, and the “insider language” of activist subculture has been recognized as a problem to be dealt with in its own right. But while radicals have expressed considerable interest in the question of word usage and meaning, emphasis tends to be placed on the impact of words rather than on the dynamic, generative, and contradictory attributes of words themselves. It is important to consider why this is so.
For radicals, language is—or should be—important because it helps us to describe and “materialize” the world we want to transform. To be sure, language doesn’t produce the world as various strands of idealist philosophy have maintained;6
however, it does organize and delimit its objects. In other words, while the configuration of the world’s preexisting matter constrains the concepts we can use to make our objects intelligible, the parsing of “matter” into “objects” remains a social accomplishment of the first order. Indeed, by partitioning and organizing matter, our concepts both produce “objects” and determine our orientation to them. Here we need only to think of the distinction between “man” and “animal” (a partition that continues to maintain a whole cosmology despite the material findings of evolutionary biology) or of Iris Marion Young’s (2005) observation that the conceptual formation of gender leads many women to “throw like a girl” despite the fact that no matter-based factor demands this particular form of throwing. Given their obvious consequences for struggles in areas like ecology, animal liberation, and feminism, such examples underscore the political importance of the processes by which matter succumbs to meaningful objectification through the application of concepts. Little wonder, then, that words have become such important sites of struggle. “This is the oppressor’s language,” said Rich, “yet I need it to talk to you.”
Since the “linguistic turn” in social theory that took place during the 1990s, such struggles have become indelibly marked by the insights of Judith Butler. Drawing on Austin’s work on performativity, Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) highlighted how the act of naming could also be the act of producing the thing being named (in Austin’s sense, naming would thus be neither a true nor false statement but rather a performative). Emphasizing the constraints inherent in all identifications, Butler proposed that the objective of feminist practice should not be the valorization of marginal identities but rather the “subversion of identity” itself. Here, the project ceases to be one of advancing alternative significations considered to be more true but rather—and as Stuart Hall (1997) proposed in a different but parallel context—to make the sign itself “uninhabitable.”
To the extent that Butler’s treatment of performativity emphasized the productive dimension of language, her project can be read as an important extension of (and supplement to) Williams’ own insights. And to the degree that her work has gained traction among radicals engaged in feminist, queer, and other struggles, this contribution should not be overlooked. But while Butler and Williams share a certain common orientation to language problems, it’s important to acknowledge key differences. As Austin makes clear, the performative primarily arises in instances where a proclamation and a production coincide. As a result, performatives tend to be inseparable from verbs like “declare,” “authorize,” and “pronounce.” Such formulations undoubtedly have an effect on the world’s matter and, in this way, undoubtedly help to produce the world. However, the production achieved by one’s capacity to “authorize” says nothing about the means by which the concept of authorizing was itself constituted. In Williams, this historical question is of paramount importance.
We inhabit a world whose conceptual parsing predates us. Because we are immersed in this world and beholden to its inherited conceptual parsing, we must acknowledge that even our perceptions are shaped by this history. Indeed, our perceptions are themselves social products. Revisiting Frantz Fanon’s struggle to overcome recognition as the basis for self-worth in Black Skin, White Masks, Sara Ahmed (2007) recounts how the supposed naturalness of certain orientations to the object world is conditioned by a conceptual alignment between the constitution of that world and our own particular perceptions. For this reason, “racism ‘stops’ black bodies inhabiting space by extending through objects and others; the familiarity of ‘the white world,’ as a world we know implicitly, ‘disorients’ black bodies such that they cease to know where to find things—reduced as they are to things among things.” Following Fanon, Ahmed concludes by reminding us of how “the disorientation affected by racism diminishes capacities for action” (111).
In light of this fact, it’s not surprising that many of us have embarked on projects of re-signification or of attempting to change the valuations assigned to particular terms. But while different conceptual schemas materialize the world differently, changing the words we use or the meaning assigned to given words is not enough to transform the reality that gave these words force in the first place. As Fanon’s disavowal of recognition in Black Skin, White Masks (1967) makes clear, it is psychologically damaging to fight for better standing within the constituted sphere of objectifications. Consequently, the solution to racism cannot be found in struggling to ensure that blackness gain affirmative recognition. “We shall see that another solution is possible,” he said. “It implies a restructuring of the world” (82).
Since the conceptual parsing of matter arises from and corresponds to the organization of a society’s social relations, concepts themselves only achieve meaningfulness through the productive sequences they enact. For those of us condemned to participate in—but not to determine the dynamics of—established social relations, conceptual innovation remains at best a signal of our intent to change the world in a particular way. Such wish fulfillment recalls the longing for mastery that finds expression in creation myths like the one recounted in Genesis 2:19, where “out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.” Although we currently lack the divine power of nomination, committing to the ascription of desirable names can nevertheless guide the imagination toward the realization of particular outcomes; however, because a linguistic object’s inherited socialization delimits the scope of its possible reconfigurations, 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 emancipatory neologisms.
To get a sense of this tension, one could do no better than to consider the exchange that followed the marginal defeat of the proposal to rename the “Occupy Oakland” encampment “Decolonize/Liberate Oakland.” In an open letter circulated over the Internet in December 2011, activist Darshan Campos criticized fellow Oakland organizer and hip-hop icon Boots Riley for voting against the motion, arguing that “the name Occupy Oakland replicates the violence of colonialism.” In response, Riley cited the American Indian Movement’s use of “occupation” to describe some of their own actions and suggested that “problems of race and racism” can’t be “solved with a name change.” Apart from the fact that the community members he had spoken with did not associate the word “occupy” with colonization, Riley found that “people are excited by OO, if a little confused on the ultimate goal.” Moreover, he explained, “the name is the identifier, and they feel that it is connected to the larger movement and that it actually has the ability to change things through direct action. One of the reasons people feel it’s connected to the larger movement is the name.”
Given its gravity, it’s not surprising that variations on this debate quickly spread to other cities. It’s also not surprising that, for the most part, these debates remained inconclusive. Nevertheless, if there was a dominant trend in the radical response, it was that disavowals of the movement’s putative replication of colonial violence became commonplace. In one diplomatic post festum analysis, Baltimore-based authors Lester Spence and Mike McGuire conceded that “to the extent [that] the fight against financial capital is a war,” the term “occupation” helped to emphasize “the fundamental nature of the struggle” (2012, 56–57). Nevertheless, since “occupation” also “denotes . . . white settler colonialism” and “has a deeply regressive meaning,” they concluded by exhorting “future iterations” of the movement to “use symbols that reflect the realities of settler colonialism and refrain from using language that denotes ‘occupation’” (63).
Why have arguments such as these become so persuasive? If, in the seventeenth century, it was evident that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (that what something was named mattered less than what it was), the same cannot easily be said today. In a context where radicals have often succumbed to what Butler has called the “utopics of radical resignification” (1993, 224) and the capacity to name has been ascribed with a self-evident liberatory power, how do we 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?
One response has been to stabilize meaning through a renewed emphasis on the definitions of the words we use. In 2012, the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS) launched the Lexicon Pamphlet Series, which “aims to convert words into politically useful tools . . . by offering definitional understandings of commonly used keywords.” Intended for distribution through existing activist networks, the initial series included pamphlets exploring concepts like colonialism, gender, power, and white supremacy. Similarly, the online archive of the Colours of Resistance network (2000–2006) contains a series of brief entries called Definitions for the Revolution, which the group described as “unfinished works in progress, but useful starting-points nonetheless.” In his 2007 book Political Keywords: A Guide for Students, Activists and Everyone Else, Andrew Levine follows suit by including entries on dozens of words written “to explain what they now mean” (2).
In light of the tremendous challenges posed by the fragmentation of transparent speech communities in the era of late capitalism, such projects should be viewed as important political contributions. However, because they aim to ascribe definitions, they fall short of accounting for how meaning is itself the subject of ongoing historical elaboration. Indeed, Levine’s direct reference to Williams is primarily a disavowal: “Williams’ topic was ‘culture and society,’ not politics. . . . [M]y aim is not to account for how political keywords came to have the meanings they do” (2007, 2). The problem of accounting for a term’s ongoing elaboration is similarly obscured by the fact that, in the IAS pamphlets, in-crowd concepts and formulas seem to be taken for granted.
Tackling the problem in a slightly different way, the CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective has also recognized the importance of intervening in debates about language. From their Contra-dictionary, which first began to take shape in the pages of Days of War, Nights of Love, to the glossary segment included in each issue of Rolling Thunder, the collective has consistently sought to provide a new spin on terms that frequently come up in radical discussions. In stark contrast to projects like the IAS Lexicon pamphlets, however, CrimethInc’s interventions aim less at producing definitive accounts than they do at undermining common sense in the interest of stimulating novel—and potentially revelatory—habits of thought.
In keeping with their more general orientation, CrimethInc.’s entries foreground wit and push the reader toward action. Their Rolling Thunder glossary entry on “Prudence,” for instance, reminds readers that it is “better [to] feel once than think twice” (2006, 5). Similarly, their Contra-dictionary entry on “gender” in Days of War, Nights of Love ends with the following declaration: “There is no male. There is no female. Get free. Get off the map” (2001, 105). Eschewing definitions, the objective of these passages is clearly not to establish a lexicon. Instead it is to cultivate new habits of disruptive thinking. Summarizing this position in a recent exchange with Kristian Williams, CrimethInc. (2013a) writes: “If we stay within the bounds of language that is widely used in this society, we will only be able to reproduce consensus reality, not challenge it.” Consequently, the task is to “invent new words, styles, and discourses that enable us to say new things while seducing others into the conversation.”7
Such an outlook is undoubtedly important; however, as Raymond Williams’ project makes clear, it does little to reveal how our “consensus reality” emerged in the first place. Without this knowledge, it is difficult to imagine how such a reality might be undone.
Rather than offering definitions or showing up common sense, 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. In this way, we hope to devise an analysis of the social world that coincides with the conflicts we uncover in our most intimate utterances. Rather than facilitating communication by proposing an agreed-upon lexicon, our goal is to hasten communication’s “brittle” degeneration so that a new reality and a new understanding might emerge. Practically speaking, this means objectifying language, unearthing its contradictions, and using these contradictions to map the social world they reflect.
Keywords for Radicals draws upon Raymond Williams’ legacy while extending it in a few important ways.8
First, while Williams was interested in capitalist dynamics during the postwar period, our aim has been to come to terms with the significant transformations that have marked the era of late capitalism. The second major difference between the two projects is that, whereas Williams conceived of his vocabulary in fairly broad terms, we have chosen to focus on the contests over word usage and meaning that regularly erupt on the radical left. Finally, whereas Williams authored every entry in Keywords, we chose to assemble a multiauthor collection. To understand why, it’s useful to recall that the birth of this project coincided with our resignation from the editorial committee of Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action at the beginning of 2012. We had worked together on that project for years and were strongly committed to its mandate, which was to create a nonsectarian space outside of—but in dialogue with—the movements in which we participated. This work was important to us because we found that immersion in struggle sometimes constrained our collective capacity to critically assess our ideas and actions. With our writers and in our pages, we sought to constitute a political “we”—not by asserting a party line but instead through a careful analysis of our collective shortcomings. As editors of Upping the Anti, we regularly found ourselves reading drafts in which word usage and meaning seemed very slippery; as a result, editorial meetings often involved discussions in which we noted the contradictory and conflicting transformations that were taking place right before us.
When we began working on Keywords for Radicals, we quickly became aware of how many other radicals were working on word-based projects. Although different in their purpose and orientation, these projects helped to make clear how important language had become as a field of struggle. Under such conditions, determining what our keywords would be became extremely challenging. Following Williams, we began by cataloging words that had become “brittle” in radical discussions—words in which taken-for-granted associations had begun to break down. To these, we added words that had clearly established commonsense usages but that were regularly deployed as glosses. When we began to tell people about our project, we also received a large number of recommendations for other words to include. Some of these made it into the table of contents, though we have tried to retain analytic focus by limiting sprawl.
To expect consistency in a volume comprising entries by more than fifty contributors seems absurd. Nevertheless, the formal constraints with which we proceeded have yielded remarkably consistent results. First and foremost, this owes to the fact that each entry is written as a presentation of what a word does and has done rather than as an argument in support of a particular static definition. Additionally, because each keyword constitutes part of what Williams called a “vocabulary” (a bundled set of historical, etymological, and associational relations that contextualize a term’s usage and stabilize its meaning), contributors working autonomously on the analysis of one concept would often spontaneously generate the web of associations suggested by another contributor’s entry. In order to represent this dense network of associations, we have included “see also” lists at the end of each entry. These lists form the basis of the visual constellation included as a frontispiece to this volume and at the beginning of each entry. By highlighting the networked relations emanating from each individual keyword, these visual representations show how synonymy, homology, and other associations yield conceptual scaffolding that helps to stabilize the vocabulary despite conditions of brittle linguistic stress.
The confusion that prevails around language today makes clear that we are living through a historical moment in which our speech situation is anything but transparent. In response to this challenging environment, radicals have alternated between trying to “fix” meaning by insisting on particular definitions and trying to subvert it through deconstruction, neologism, or other means. In opposition to both of these approaches, we hope this book will serve as a reminder that contests over word usage and meaning are themselves meaningful. When analyzed closely, words reveal themselves to be symptoms of underlying and overarching social contradictions. By critically illuminating these tensions, it becomes possible to gain additional insight into broader social dynamics. In turn, these social dynamics constitute the field of struggle upon which we must devise our strategies and play out our tactics. The more we understand this field, the better equipped we will be to win.
Struggles around word usage and meaning are now in a critical state. The cultural logic of late capitalism erodes transparent speech communities while severing tangible relations to the past. Under these conditions, tracing linguistic developments becomes paramount, and for radicals the task is especially urgent. 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. Means of communication are means of production, noted Williams. And seizing control of such means requires first that we understand them, since only then can we envision how they might be brought into accord with our interests. Without this understanding, all such efforts remain chatter.