Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: Keywords for Radicals

[Kelly Fritsch, Clare O'Connor, and Ak Thompson, editors. Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle. Chico CA: AK Press, 2016.]

For a long time -- longer, at least, than I've been thinking about such things myself -- one important element of both internal and external conflict involving the broadly-defined left has been questions related to language and vocabulary. Accusations of inaccessible verbiage and politically pointless quibbling about language are constantly used to dismiss either the left in its entirety, or whatever sections of the left the speaker doesn't like. While, regretfully, leftist arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin does sometimes happen, it actually happens much more in the fantasies of those doing the accusing -- whether that is Fox News reactionaries who wouldn't know the actual left if it bit them on the shin, or whether it is aging post-radicals complaining about how social justice-oriented youth conduct themselves on Tumblr -- than in actuality, because even if the issues are not always addressed functionally or directly, and even if that importance is never quite named clearly in the conversation itself, questions that touch on or weave together with issues of language and vocabulary are of larger political importance. And so various language-related questions do matter far beyond themselves. To name just a few: What is the relationship between language and the world around us? How should we approach naming the world in the service of justice and liberation? How should we relate to a particular way of talking and naming and explaining that has (or perhaps had) great power to help us understand the world in certain respects, that is perhaps fading from common use or is still around but whose limits are becoming increasingly clear? How do we navigate conflict among different (parts of) movements who use the same language in different ways...ways that really do reflect substantive political differences? Or among constituencies that potentially could be working in alliance but that are starting from vastly different language and politics? What do we do when politically careful naming of the world becomes in-group signalling that keeps people from engaging with ideas that we think are important?

Keywords for Radicals is a thoughtful engagement with language and the world, inspired in part by a similar but not identical project by English marxist scholar Raymond Williams called Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society that was published forty years ago. The newer book takes 50 terms that are important to social movements and social struggles in the early 21st century. These might be terms that are hotly contested, they might be terms that are so ubiquitous that we don't even notice that their meanings are muddy or multiple, or they might be terms that get deliberately employed to avoid debate rather than clarify understanding. They go all the way from "accessible" and "accountability," to "misogyny" and "nation," to "war" and "zionism." Each is then explored by a different radical writer.

The book is based on a materialist understanding of language that argues that the ways in which language gets used -- the conceptual practices which are thus conveyed -- are related to aspects of social organization. So when usage changes, when a given way of deploying a term goes from clear and mobilizing to contested and confused, say, or when new ways of framing and describing and demarcating social phenomena arise, it is not just whims of speakers but reflective, albeit often in complex ways, of shifts in the social world. So by historicizing and socially contextualizing the ways in which people engaged in struggle use language, we can build understanding of struggles and of the world. The goal of the book is not to resolve tensions in how words are used, not to establish stable 'correct' meanings nor to destabilize supposedly illusory consensuses, but to trace out how shifts and changes and tensions and contradictions have come to be and exist in the present, and to probe what we can learn from that.

Though each entry is written by someone different, and clearly the authors had some latitude to put their own stamp on things, there is also more consistency in approach and feel across the entries than you might expect for a multi-author collection. Most include a brief dictionary-based etymological accounting that goes into the deep past, as well as a more detailed exploration of more recent history and present uses of the terms in question. Though I'm sure many are not exhaustive, and specialists in particular areas would find things to add and expand, they do a good job of touching on key movements and theorists that have shaped the terms in question in the 20th century and more recently, and various tension and competing usages/politics today. I particularly appreciated those entries in which the writers were able to introduce some sort of novel insight beyond elementary description of the landscape of contemporary usage of that entry's keyword. I also appreciate that those who have been invited to contribute, though all are on the radical left in one sense or another, represent a range of political and intellectual traditions. However, because of the emphasis on breadth, completeness, and generous readings within each entry, as well as the editorial effort to produce a common tone, this doesn't come across as an effort to perform some sort of strained political balance but just as a recognition that thinkers from a range of traditions and politics have something to contribute.

That said, it's important to be at least a little bit cautious in how you read these entries. There were very few of the entries that read to me as if they were badly done, but at the same time it would be easy (particularly, I suspect, for readers for whom these ideas are newer) to read them as being more complete than they are. So, for instance, the entry on "class," which was not badly done but which left me with more concerns about completeness than most. As far as it goes, it deals with some important history and current tensions, but I think it leaves a lot of important things out when it discusses the contemporary tension that many radicals frame as existing between liberal identity politics and a more radical class-based politics. Most versions of that framing that I have encountered, including the one in this chapter, present what to me seems to be a very simplistic account in which liberal, reified identity politics are made to stand in for all politics that take identity and related phenomena seriously, thereby erasing politics that do so in ways that are relational, revolutionary, collective, anti-liberal, and non-reified. I see this as profoundly politically unhelpful, and as very common at the moment, so it's disappointing that this chapter didn't push beyond it. As well, in a related but not identical omission, it leaves out any consideration of critical marxist feminist interventions into the category of "class" (though other entries in Keywords for Radicals engage with some of that work) and of autonomist interventions that greatly complexify and expand what "class" captures. And to be clear, I still think it's a useful chapter...I raise this more as a caution about how the entries should be read than anything else. If you are someone who works with the ideas in this book -- and, really, if you write stuff about the social world from a vaguely left-ish perspective, then you do -- the entries in this book are quite useful places to start and pointers to important thinkers and movements and ideas. But they aren't endpoints, and shouldn't be taken as such.

Anyway. It's a sizeable book, and certainly not everyone's cup of tea, but it's very readable and, I think, full of really useful stuff. There's lots to pick apart and debate and discuss in the entries, which I think is valuable in itself, and the underlying theory of why and how language matters is super important. Though this is not it's primary purpose, I think the theory underlying Keywords gives us ways to think through how arguments about language and terminology arise within and beyond the left, and to perhaps approach them in ways that are more historically grounded and potentially useful.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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