Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Keywords: Raymond Williams and Others

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Keywords: Raymond Williams and Others

Article excerpt

THE WORD "KEYWORD" itself does not appear in Dr Johnson's Dictionary, and it did not enter the vocabulary until the mid-nineteenth century, where it stood, broadly, for that which is central or essential. Increasingly dated with the sciences and with computerized access to knowledge, it was first promoted to philosophical significance by Raymond Williams, whose Keywords was first published in 1975 In that brilliant little book, which was a spin-off from his Culture and Society published nearly twenty years earlier, Williams completed an intellectual task which he had found necessary for his own cultural survival in Britain after World War n; that is to say, relating his grasp of the rapidly evolving world to which he returned after military service to his understanding of the big words deployed in and by that society; their history as words, or philological evolution; their history as words in social time, whose meanings had changed because the world around them changed; and their political history, a subject in which Williams was particularly invested.

Raymond Williams deserves to be remembered as a totality, not merely as the author of Keywords. Born into a working-class family in Wales, Williams got as far as an M .A. at Cambridge before going to war, in an antitank regiment, in 1941. After the war he spent 20 years as an extra-mural teacher at Oxford, learning about the value of education the hard way, by delivering it to working adults who had for class reasons been excluded from it. In the 1950s he began to publish, and by the time he died in 1988 his resume included 650 publications, including 27 academic books, 5 novels, 3 plays, and more than 500 articles and reviews. He was one of the first to appreciate the opportunities and perils of television. He was one of the first of the so-called cultural historians, or cultural critics, or cultural materialists (each shades into the other), and was enormously influential in the new discipline of cultural studies that developed in Birmingham under Richard Hoggart, followed by Stuart Hall. Nowadays "cultural studs" itself has become a key-phrase for things going on the academy that not everyone approves of. What Williams accomplished was to reunite vague conceptual terms ("creativity," "culture "individual" and some and some clearly material facts (education, literacy, the press, television, drama) in a loose family of social and historical relationships that gave added meaning to both. For Williams, democracy, a crucial keyword for both of us, is indissolubly connected to public education and hence to literacy in the broadest sense. William was an educational socialist. By the late 1960s, he might have become a little too much of a Marxist for his own theoretical longevity, though he consistently critiqued vulgar Marxism for its overemphasis on mere economic causation. By 1975, when he published Keywords, William had arrived at the doctrine that language itself is causative, that the active meanings and values expressed in language exert a formative social force. When I say language itself, I do not imply an impersonal force independent of human speakers and writers. Williams's theory was in fact a reaction against the notion of a sealed-off world of language, whether bellelettrist or Derridean. But you cannot fully understand the subtle engineering of men, by men, that words enable and, more importantly, you cannot yourself become an engineer, unless you know the social etymology of words, their function over historical time. Because he was an optimist, for Williams this formative social force, if widely understood, might eventually lead us to a better kind of democracy.

In his disarmingly modest introduction to Keywords, as modest as Johnson's but without the melancholy, Williams told his audience in 1975 that it all began with his dissatisfaction with the big word culture, with the way in which it bore several quite distinct meanings in ordinary conversation, meanings which didn't seem to be cognate with each other. …

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