Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976) closes with a number of blank pages for “Reader’s Notes.”1 As though anticipating the mode of collaborative authorship that the wiki-era would usher in, the white space signals his project’s unfinished and inevitably selective status. Williams sought to investigate cultural, political, and historical processes through the shifting usage of the words through which they are defined and debated. His interest in the tensions and instabilities surrounding the meaning of particular words (e.g. “civilisation,” “criticism,” “culture”) offered an alternative kind of meaning making to the OED.
And the afterlife of Williams’s important volume continues. His second edition (published 1983) included an additional twenty-one words (e.g. “sex,” “racial,” “ecology”), and in 2005 Wiley-Blackwell published New Keywords with updates (“gender,” “globalization”) and deletions (“folk,” “genius”).2 The “Keywords Project,” launched in 2011, extends Williams’s legacy online.3 In more general terms, the influence of a “keywords” approach can be seen in the vogue for monographs tracing the history of single word or critical concept. But forty years on, the “keyword” is itself a telling and recurrent sign in our digital lives. In academic publishing, choosing an article’s keywords is an exercise in condensation and distillation designed to maximize online discoverability. Keyword research is a field of its own driven by the profit margins [End Page 478] linked to searchability: not just maximizing audibility amidst digital noise but getting “the right kind” of customer.
Modernism: Keywords returns us to Williams’s spirit of expansive rather than reductive reading practices. This is the second publication in a series of period based keyword books and represents many years of Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded collaborative research by the main editors (Melba Cuddy-Keane, Adam Hammond, and Alexandra Peat) and a rolling team of graduate students. The project involved identifying those words (e.g. “atom,” “democracy,” “unconscious”) that resonate most forcefully in modernist writing and then tracing the complex, shifting meanings of those words through a wide range of texts. The editors remain faithful to Williams’s motivation to explore cultural concerns and debates through vocabulary— “ideas through words” (xii)—rather than a dominant and homogenized zeitgeist. As the editors skilfully trace the multifarious usage of words such as “hygiene,” “primitive,” and “rhythm,” we watch words crystallize momentarily and then spin apart again, both reflecting and propelling cultural and political debates and controversies.
But where the editors extend Williams’s work—and where this volume is truly groundbreaking—is in its application of this methodology to questions of periodicity. The last couple of decades or so have seen an increased self-consciousness about the term “modernism” itself and the coinage of the term “new modernist studies.” This book represents a welcome intervention in such discussions in that it takes us back to the primary texts. While it is impossible to leapfrog over decades of scholarship or view modernist writing through a transparent lens, the process does serve to challenge and defamiliarize our own constructions of modernism. The volume works in the expansive spirit of recent modernist scholarship in its use of a huge range of types of publication—newspapers, adverts, songs, medical texts, fiction—but it also counters some of the potentially homogenizing tendencies of the new modernist studies by returning, for example, to those troubling words that point to violence and conflict (e.g. “fascism,” “race,” “empire”). The project does not address the continued legacy of its chosen words in scholarship on modernism, but rather employs the “plurality inherent in a keywords approach” to challenge a “single idea of modernism itself” (xiii). In a brief but comprehensive introduction, the editors elucidate their preference for a relational and messy model of dynamic motion rather than one of linearity or cohesion: “The modernist period was a vibrant time of broadly circulating difference . . . modernists had no certain idea of what modernism was or how its debates would end. Nor perhaps do we” (xiii). This...