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Raymond Williams Keywords


‘In 1945, after the ending of the wars with Germany and Japan, I was released from the Army to return to Cambridge’, so opens Raymond Williams’ introduction to Keywords, his alternative dictionary of socio-cultural terms published in 1973. Further on Williams traces the book’s genesis to a curious phenomenon. He was intrigued by what seemed to be a new semantic fluidity and elision between the words culture and society.

What I was now hearing were two different senses [in the use of the word culture], which I could not really get clear: first, in the study of literature, a use of the word to indicate, powerfully but not explicitly, some central formation of values […]; secondly, in more general discussion, but what seemed to me very different implications, a use which made it almost equivalent to society: a particular way of life – ‘American culture’, ‘Japanese culture’.

Behind the push and pull between these two terms opened fields of enquiry that lay the initial foundations for cultural studies. But navigating this new terrain, creating a discourse to be followed and disputed, meant contestation, and arguement. Sensing something was missing, and perhaps pre-empting the semantic misunderstandings and deadlocks easily reached when esoteric nomenclature is borrowed from and used across varied disciplines, Williams saw Keywords as a chance to define the terms he found in most frequent use during those debates:
Every word which I have included has at some time, in the course of some arguement, virtually forced itself on my attention because problems of its meanings seemed to me inextricably bound up with problems it was being used to discuss.