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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

When Raymond Williams published his now-famous study of the influence of the Industrial Revolution on the modern idea of culture (Culture and Society, 1958), he began his work with an unusual introduction. By examining closely the shifting meaning of five words, which he maintained were the “key points” of “a special kind of map,” Williams hoped to discover some of the underlying currents of modern social history. The five words were “industry, democracy, class, art and culture.” As he weaved these words through his historical survey of the period from 1780-1950, from Burke and Coleridge to Tawney and Eliot, he became increasingly convinced that the words men use “to inquire into and negotiate [our] actions” constitute “a practical and radical element” in themselves. It is no accident that Williams is also a student of George Orwell (George Orwell, 1971), perhaps the most forceful exponent among modern thinkers of the connections between politics and language.

In the introduction to Keywords, Williams tells us that originally he compiled a list of sixty words, wrote notes and short essays on them, and hoped to add them as an appendix to Culture and Society. But his publishers complained of the length of the finished book and Williams reluctantly agreed to take out the appendix, although in a note he promised to publish the material in a separate paper. Twenty years went by, and despite the fact that Williams never produced the promised paper he did not abandon the project. Instead, the list was expanded; more words were collected and new points of analysis were discovered. Finally, Williams felt he had another book, not just a paper. From the original five “key points,” Williams progressed to a book of over a hundred key words.

Keywords is not exactly a dictionary, but we must take seriously the subtitle: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. The word “Vocabulary” has a modest connotation, something like a list of words following a reading lesson in a foreign language. For Williams the strangeness of what we think to be familiar, the unexamined assumptions underlying the institutions and philosophies by which we live—all of this is not unlike a foreign language, which must be mastered by a painstaking accumulation and absorption of new words.

What makes this particular learning experience so difficult is, of course, the fact that we think we already know what the words mean. It can be painful to discover that we have traded understanding for self-flattery or oversimplification. Social alienation, for example, is reflected in the shrinking meaning of “family” from a word defining a broad kin group or “household” to a word that now refers to a small kin group of immediate blood ties. The history of “consumer” is also fascinating: in pre-industrial times it meant to destroy, to use up, to waste, to exhaust. Today “consumer” has replaced “customer,” which always implied a degree of regular and continuing relationship to a supplier. The more abstract word “consumer” implies, “ironically as in the earliest senses,” the using-up of what is going to be produced. Williams feels that the predominance of the capitalist model ensured the extension of a “consumer society,” despite the implications of waste, to such fields as politics, education, and health. The reader is left with such disturbing thoughts as the following: Are students consumers? Do they buy education and discard what is useless? Should education be packaged to meet their “consumer” needs?

It is one of the genuine accomplishments of this book that it forces us, almost relentlessly, into the most problematic issues of our time; that its simple but dogged insistence on cornering important words should lead us, page after page, toward far more than a richer vocabulary. What Williams achieves is no less than a heightened understanding of our entire social reality. His “vocabulary” approach discourages easy deduction or...

(The entire section is 1,147 words.)