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Keywords for Radicals…a work in progress

By AK Press | February 26, 2015

We’re working on something. It won’t be out until spring of 2016, but we’ll be giving you updates between now and then. Because, y’know, we’re excited.

The book is Keywords for Radicals: A Late Capitalist Vocabulary of Culture and Society. For those of you who know Raymond Williams’ classic Keywords, the title may be self-explanatory. It’s basically a series of historical and analytic entries about words (each authored by a different contributor) whose meanings and usage are contested within radical circles. But whether or not you get the reference—and this project is, of course, very different than Williams’—we interviewed one of the book’s editors, Kelly Fritsch, to get an overview of the project. Read on, and when you’re done, checkout the book’s website, which has more info, and a list of the book’s amazing contibutors (who include, to name just a few, Silvia Federici, Ilan Pappé, Joy James, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, and John Bellamy Foster).

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AK Press: Let’s start with the title. “Keywords” obviously references Raymond Williams’ seminal book, which was published almost forty years ago. Could you talk a bit about that book for people who may not have read it, and also about what you found inspiring (or inadequate, I suppose) about it?

Kelly Fritsch: Raymond Williams was one of the founding figures of what we now refer to as cultural materialism. He wrote Keywords in the period following the Second World War in response to the transformations he observed taking place within English-language word usage and meaning. In his estimation, these changes in word usage and meaning could be viewed as an index of the broader transformations that were happening within capitalist social relations. When considered together as a “vocabulary” of culture and society, Williams imagined that the keywords he had assembled—words like “individual” and “violence” but especially “culture”— could be read like a map of the social contradictions marking this period of change.

With Keywords for Radicals, we sought to draw upon this legacy while extending it in a few important ways. The first of these was that, while Williams was interested in capitalist dynamics during the postwar period, we felt it was important to try 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 felt that it was important to delimit the scope of our investigation to focus on the contests over word usage and meaning that regularly erupt within the radical left. While these contests often emerge around particular issues, they also symptomatically reveal some of the more general attributes of today’s radical left, as well as of society more generally. Finally, whereas Williams authored every entry in Keywords, we felt that assembling a multi-author collection would be both a great challenge and a great opportunity.

How did the three of you come together on this project?

Clare O’Connor and AK Thompson approached me to work on Keywords for Radicals shortly after the three of us resigned from the Editorial Committee of Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action at the beginning of 2012. We had worked generatively together on that project for several years and were all very committed to its political and intellectual mandate, which was to create a non-sectarian 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 could sometimes constrain our 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. We left Upping the Anti for different reasons, but we all felt the need to continue its vision in some form.

Around that time, AK Thompson had been politically engaging the importance of concepts and the work they do—a preoccupation that dated back to the publication of Black Bloc, White Riot, where he dissected the contradictions at work in radical claims about “community.” These discussions subsequently informed Clare O’Connor’s critique of how radicals mobilized the concept during the Toronto G20 Summit in 2010. Meanwhile, as Editors of Upping the Anti, we regularly found ourselves reading drafts in which word usage and meaning seemed very slippery; as a result, we frequently found ourselves in lengthy discussions about this problem in editorial meetings, noting the contradictory and conflicting transformations that were taking place right before us. When Clare and AK first approached me about making struggles around word usage and meaning the subject of a political intervention, I said yes without hesitation.

These keywords are “for radicals.” Why do we need them, and furthermore, need to understand the historical evolution of their usage?

When we began working on this project, we quickly became aware of how many other radicals were working on word-based projects. Of these, perhaps the most significant were the short-lived Lexicon pamphlet series put out by the Institute for Anarchist Studies and CrimethInc’s Contra-dictionary. Although very different in their purpose and orientation, both of these projects helped to make clear how important language had become as a field of struggle for contemporary radicals. In the case of the IAS project, the objective aimed at reasserting what they called “definitional understandings” of words like power, gender, and colonialism. In contrast, CrimethInc conceived their project primarily in deconstructive terms, with each entry essentially cannibalizing common-sense associations and static definitions. For example, the 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.”

In contrast to both of these approaches, we sought neither to reveal what words “actually” mean nor to highlight the limits of commonsense as though such limits were a problem of individual conceptualization. Instead, we wanted to encourage an engagement with words that used the conflicts within them to point toward broader social and historical tensions and implications. To put it another way, the book engages with contested words in order to illuminate a much broader field of contradictions that extends beyond the words themselves. Developing such an awareness can help to make us more compassionate toward one another as we struggle against all odds to communicate meaning clearly; however, it can also help us to clarify what our political options are, since—as Raymond Williams noted—sometimes the tensions within a word mark actual alternatives through which “problems of belief and affiliation are contested.” When illuminated, the historical developments within a word’s usage and meaning point to this broader field of political options and alternatives. Choosing a meaning always implicitly means siding with one developmental trajectory over another. In our view, it is always better that this process be conscious and deliberate, and that the choice be explicit.

Could you give a brief example?

In my own entry, I talk about the various contests that emerge around the word “accessibility.” This word comes up in radical movements in a few ways, one of which coincides with the emergence of disability rights. Here, accessibility is presented as a self-evident good, and the goal becomes extending forms of social inclusion to those who have been historically marginalized by ableism. This conception of access most notably becomes pitted against “security culture,” another presumably self-evident good, in which “access” gets actively and deliberately restricted. Importantly, the access barriers created by “security culture” are usually taken to be necessary. The result is that the assumed good of creating access is pitted against the assumed good of maintaining security, though the contradiction is rarely noted. By highlighting it, however, the concept of “accessibility” can actually help to illuminate the limits of inclusion as a political goal.  This has some important consequences both for disability justice activists and for social movements more generally.

How did you decide which words were “key” and/or which would be in the book?

The process of determining our keywords was challenging. Following Williams, we began by cataloguing 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 received a large number of recommendations—both solicited and not—for other words to include in our vocabulary. The major problem that arose at this point was that some of the terms offered up for inclusion were motivated on the basis of their intellectual importance rather than because they were contested per se. For example, “anarchism” is not a keyword in our list. While an entry on “anarchism” would be useful in a radical encyclopedia, the term does not seem to stimulate the kinds of conflicts that are of most interest to us. As such, we opted not to include it here. Our final list was also limited by some formal constraints, such as initially limiting our list to 50 words and including an entry under every letter heading.

How did you match words with authors? Did authors choose from your list? Did they suggest their own keywords? Did you assign certain keywords to people you thought would have some expertise?

We took a variety of approaches to match words with authors. First, we contacted authors we thought might write compelling entries on particular words. These were drawn from our existing radical and scholarly networks, though we also cold-called people in more than a few cases. Second, we occasionally circulated notices about “orphan words” in need of authors. Finally, we entertained pitches by authors who approached us with a word that they hoped to have included but that was not featured on our original list.

Finding authors for some words proved to be extremely easy. In contrast, other words have stumped us—and some are still in need of authors despite the fact that we’ve approached dozens of candidates. Another challenge we’ve faced arises from the difficulty of writing within the established constraints of our particular project. On the surface, our entries share some similarities with what might be expected from an encyclopedia; however, since Keywords for Radicals is not an encyclopedia but a history of conflict as told through developments in word usage and meaning, participants in the project—authors and editors alike—have had to work hard to maintain this distinction. The struggle has been worthwhile, however, and we feel that the final entries are all provocative and compelling.

I’d imagine it would be difficult to maintain consistency across the various entries. What sort of guidelines did you give authors?

To expect consistency in a volume comprised of more than 50 contributors would seem absurd. Nevertheless, the formal constraints of the project have actually yielded remarkably consistent results. First and foremost, these constraints owe to the fact that the entries are written as “demonstrations” of what a word does and has done rather than as arguments in support of particular static definitions. In other words, regardless of the particular keyword, the author approaches the subject historically and etymologically while highlighting developments in its usage and meaning. Once each entry’s cozy word-count is factored in, and once the inevitable constellations within the assembled vocabulary are traced out, we’ve found that the manuscript has exhibited a high degree of cohesion.

Did anything surprise you about the process, or about the results? Did your sense of the project’s purpose, scope, or usefulness shift?

One of the things that we’ve been grateful for, but also surprised by, has been the level of interest our project has generated amongst radicals. Whenever we’ve spoken about it with others, we’ve consistently received enthusiastic support and strong expressions of curiosity. In some ways, this outcome coincided with our initial impression that language had become an especially important terrain of struggle; however, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the regularity with which people have identified our project as being a potentially important intervention in that field. Based on this initial response we’ve decided that—once the book is published—an important aspect of the Keywords project will be to continue organizing public events featuring particular words and assessing the implications of their various iterations. Over the past year, we’ve had some great successes running such events—as when Clare presented on “accountability” at The Base in Brooklyn.

Beyond the words themselves, we feel like Keywords for Radicals has alerted us to how many radical authors struggle with historical writing. A real sign of the times, I think, and something our project might help to correct.

How do you hope people use this book? Or, put another way, what effect do you want this book to have on our political universe?

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 and trying to treat it entirely as a personal whim. In opposition to both of these approaches, we hope that people will use this book as a reminder that contests over word usage and meaning are themselves meaningful. Specifically, when deeply analyzed, 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 the contradictions and tendencies that constitute our field of struggle, the better equipped we will be to win.

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