Link to the University of Pittsburgh
Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Studies in Words: A report on a 21st-century Keywords seminar*

*Originally published in Critical Quarterly 58, no. 3 (October 2016): 86-90.

Colin MacCabe, Jonathan Arac

Pittsburgh Cultural Studies Common Seminar, Spring 2016

In Issue 49:1, Spring 2007, Critical Quarterly published some of the papers given at a seminar that addressed the theoretical and practical problems of updating Raymond Williams’s Keywords (1st edn, 1976; 2nd edn, 1983). That seminar led to the establishing of the Keywords Project, a multi-year joint venture of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, University of Pittsburgh and Jesus College, Cambridge. The project has held two seminars a year since then and the result of some of the work to date can be found at [on this site].

To help complete the project, members Jonathan Arac and Colin MacCabe jointly directed a graduate seminar at Pittsburgh in the spring of 2016. This aimed to serve two purposes: making the research to date a resource for Pitt graduate students and also using a younger set of researchers to generate the final words for the project.

The seminar had three phases. For the first five weeks we studied the books that Williams had been writing when he composed Keywords. The most directly important of these was Culture and Society 1780–1950 (1958). Keywords was the workbook from which he had written Culture and Society and he had originally wished to include it as an appendix to that book. However, Williams explicitly considered both his novel Border Country (1960) and The Long Revolution (1961) as forming a trilogy with Culture and Society and we considered all three books in some depth. It is worth recording that Williams’s novel, written in Britain in the fifties, strongly held the attention of American graduate students seven decades later, and that there was general astonishment that The Long Revolution was not better known. It was relatively difficult to explain to students that the humanism and historicism of The Long Revolution meant that the generation who had taken Althusser as their model of Marxism had not really engaged with Williams’s vision of socialist humanism.

After five weeks reading Williams, two seminars then placed Williams in context, first of all looking at the theories of language, particularly those of Richards and Empson that Williams would have encountered as a Cambridge undergraduate and then looking at both William Empson’s and Quentin Skinner’s critical reviews of Keywords.

The focus of the seminar now shifted to other accounts of meaning change. The seminar examined linguistic accounts of meaning change, and Christian Kay and Kathryn Allan’s recently published English Historical Semantics was our lead into a wide-ranging set of studies in semantics from corpus linguistics to Benveniste. We also examined the non-linguistic history of ideas. Once again we cast our net wide, from Roland Greene, whose Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes (2013) highlights historical complexity in the social key words blood, invention, language, resistance and world, to Reinhart Koselleck’s analysis of conceptual history. The final sessions of the seminar were devoted to workshops on the students’ own chosen words and at this point final changes were made to the words selected. The seminar ended with outside visitors, most of whom were members of the project. Arjuna Parakrama led the penultimate seminar in a long discussion of the word black. In the final seminar, Arjuna was joined by Alan Durant, Stephen Heath and Harriet Ritvo, to whom the students presented their proposed entries. The visitors felt that the students’ work was sufficiently interesting to justify publishing a sample in Critical Quarterly and the visitors suggested that, given constraints of space, the seven words that we presented there offered a range of interest both in the choice of words and in the arguments presented. The seven essays published in Critical Quarterly (Authority, Gender, Love, Privilege, Respect, Security, and Trans) and the additional five student entries included in this section of the website (Digital, Future, Gentrification, Man, Social) have been edited, yet they remain individual essays and they have not yet gone through the final editorial processes for other entries on the website or in the book.

CLST 2050 Keywords

Instructors: Jonathan Arac and Colin MacCabe
Secretary: Alexandra Ouyang

6 January: Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (2nd edn, 1983). Please be ready to discuss at least one entry you found especially striking. Please also think of a few words you’d wish to add now, decades after Williams wrote, and a few of his words that no longer seem very key to you.

This work defines the course’s agenda, so we’d like to start coming to terms with it.

13 January: Focus on the Keywords project website [this site] and in particular the question of what is the definition of a keyword. The reading for the class will focus on Alan Durant’s article ‘What is a Keyword?

We will also begin the process of determining what keywords we will ourselves investigate. Each member of the seminar will produce as final work a keyword-like essay, so be ready to propose – tentatively – a candidate you find appealing for yours, relating it to Durant’s criteria.

20 January: Read and discuss Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: 1780 –1950. This book has double significance for our course: it made Williams famous, and working on it formed the basis for what he later published as Keywords.

27 January: Read and discuss Raymond Williams, Border Country, a novel (1960). What difference does this difference in genre make?

3 February: Read and discuss Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (1961).

10 February: Cambridge context of Williams’s work. Stephen Heath visits. Chapters from I.A. Richards, Practical Criticism (1929)

F.R. Leavis, ‘The Line of Wit,’ in Revaluation (1936)

First three chapters in William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (1952)

Chapter on wit in C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words (1960).

17 February: Criticism of Williams: ‘Compacted Doctrines,’ in William Empson, Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture, ed. John Haffenden (London: Hogarth Press, 1988), 184–9; and Quentin Skinner, ‘The Idea of a Cultural Lexicon,’ Essays in Criticism, 29:3 (1979), 205–24.

24 February: Linguistic approach to meaning change. Read and discuss Christian Kay and Kathryn Allan, English Historical Semantics (2015). Professor Arac absent.

2 March: Other disciplinary approaches to meaning change (1)

Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, Michael Wood (eds), Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), trans. from French.

Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), trans. from German.

Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), trans. from German.

Roland Greene, Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013).

Daniel Rodgers, Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics since Independence (New York: Basic Books, 1987).

9 March: Spring Break – No meeting but much work.

16 March: Other disciplinary approaches to meaning change (2)

Anna Wierzbicka, Understanding Cultures Through Their Key Words: English, Russian, Polish, German, and Japanese (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Mike Stubbs, Words and Phrases: Corpus Studies of Lexical Semantics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).

Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Richard B. Dasher, Regularity in Semantic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Émile Benveniste, Indo-European Language and Society (Florida: University of Miami Press, 1973). See http://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/ display/3896. Trans. from French.

Patrick Hanks, Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations (Cambridge: MIT 2013)

The final weeks of meetings will be devoted to workshops examining the particular words chosen by seminar members. Each word will be circulated in draft (1,500 words maximum) in advance of the meeting and discussed for 30 minutes.

Seminar Member Keyword
Sam Allen Public
Amanda Dibando Awanjo Trans
Sagnika Chanda Man
Evan Chen Gentrification
Max Ginsberg Authority
Josh Graber Social
Sylvia Grove Artificial
Treviene Harris Privilege
Kaitlyn Haynal Access
Adam Hebert Occupy
Artan Hoxha Fundamental
Nick Marsellas Respect
Sarah Mejia Digital
Alexandra Ouyang Security
Lauren Posey Gender
Leonardo Solano Diaspora
Sarah Schaefer Love
Tetanya Shlikar Network
Nick Stefanski Future
Marina Tyquiengo  Appropriation

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