6th January 2011

Downtown Los Angeles and we’re at the MLA presenting Keywords. The all too p[leasurable holiday is already over and now, 5 years after we started, we present our project to a packed and interested room. Jonathaon is chairing and Kellie, Stephen and Alan all speak well. I close with these thoughts:

I want to offer a very quick sketch of the historical conditions of the production of Keywords and to then use that sketch to pose some major theoretical questions that have arisen in the five years since we began the Keywords project in 2005.
Raymond published Keywords in 1976 and then a second edition in 1983. This would seem to place this work as part of that moment of his work when he was a leading professor at Cambridge and a leading figure in the world of academic Marxism. But these dates are extremely misleading for the work that Raymond drew on in Keywords is in fact from a period twenty years earlier; the period when he was a lecturer in adult education and when his work was much more clearly a part of that last great wave of democratic politics that came out of the second world war. It was also work that clearly defined itself against the then dominant form of Marxism, the official Stalinist version of dialectical materialism. I will return to the differing political situations of Williams in the fifties and the seventies/eighties but I want now to turn to the specific organisation of information in which Raymond’s work of that period must be located.
One of the many brilliant chapters in The Long Revolution, the book that makes a trio with Keywords and Culture and Society, is devoted to the growth of the press. Williams specifies seven stages beginning in 1665 and culminating in the present with what he calls “the new tendencies within an achieved expansion”.

Keywords, and the work with which it was associated, is thus contemporaneous with what Williams called “the achieved expansion” of the press and I think that it would be possible to argue that Williams’s very concept of a keyword is linked to the discursive space opened up by a national press.
But then the irony is that Raymond’s work is written in the very last moments when that discursive space is unchallenged. It is widely agreed that the starting date for television in Britain is 1957 (the year in which commercial television started broadcasting) and that 1959 was the first election in which television played a major part. The exact ways in which television displaced the press and the particular ways in which this affected the keywords that Raymond was to analyse must await further researches but I would hazard the hypothesis that television, for as long as it was dominated by a public service remit, preserved and enlarged the discursive space which Raymond was engaged in describing. It is for this reason that when the books were published in 1976 and 1983 (two years after Channel 4 launched in the last decade of public service television), the time lag between production and reception was not noticed by any reviewer I read or reader that I talked to.
However, when we sat down to begin work on updating Keywords in 2005, it became clear that we seemed to be in a new discursive universe. On the one hand the breaking of the public service remit for British television in 1990 transformed the relationship between press and television. More importantly the birth of the Internet had fundamentally altered the public discursive space. If in 1990 research showed that for the vast majority of the population the only use for writing after leaving formal education was the making of lists (as the telephone had very largely usurped the role of letter writing), the next twenty years saw an explosion of writing as e-mailing, texting, blogging and twittering saw an explosion of the written language which redefines our very notion of public and private and may even be set fair to abolish entirely the press which provided the central articulation for keywords.
It might be thought that such considerations renders the very project of a keywords obsolete and that we now inhabit a universe in which the notion of investigating polysemous words whose history carry within them clues to sharpening and making more acute social debate is simply obsolete. And yet when we look at banking, at health, at education we see in words like bonus, well being and excellence a crystallization of social contradictions. Indeed the whole question of the formation of policy ( a key keyword) is now conducted in a way in which the press, television and the internet are being reconfigured in ways that seem to change shape daily.
The task is then to try to understand how to define our corpus and, perhaps more radically, to understand our task as defining new corpora and their interaction It is also a question of trying to understand our own activity. When Williams worked on his trilogy in the fifties he defined his audience in terms of commercial publishers ( neither Culture and Society or The Long Revolution were published academically) and, more importantly, in term of the Labour movement in general and the Labour Party in particular. Anyone who has followed the gruesome farce that was New Labour may find it difficult to understand that in the sixties it was still possible to believe that the Labour Party might usher in the new Jerusalem. However, right up to the May Day manifesto in 1968 this was Raymond’s animating belief. If 1968 and, earlier than that, a renewed interest in the Marxisms of Lukacs and Gramsci made Raymond turn towards the university for his major audience, it is clear now that this was a diminution of ambition and possible influence. How far Raymond saw it in that way I do not know but it would be an interesting topic to discuss.
What is clear is that the digital revolution and the internet now open up new audiences and possibilities. At the most banal level it makes the searching of vast acres of text for context and variation a possibility that Raymond could not have dreamt of. The standard example I use is of Raymond reading through the complete works of Hume looking for Hume’s uses of the word ‘society’ – a work of three months that would now take less than 15 minutes. There are of course losses as well as gains in such procedures but it is worth emphasizing , at the most banal level, what extra tools we now dispose of. But it is not simply tools but also corpora. We are promised by Wikileaks in the weeks to come all the internal communications over a long period of time from one of the banks that currently hold all Western governments to ransom. It does not seem too far-fetched to think that it might be interesting to tease out the keywords in such a corpus. It should also be clear that such a task would, of necessity, be a collective one.
It is here that the design of our website is absolutely key. For it must be possible to think of a website that will maintain the highest standards of scholarly accuracy while encouraging the widest participation, which can be responsive to the moment while acknowledging the long claims of history. What we hope to do between now and June when the website will get its official launch, is to encourage as many people as possible to collaborate with us in finding the right form for what we hope will be a genuinely new content – not simply an updated but a transformed Keywords.

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