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List of Editors and Contributors




























































Gay and Lesbian












Human Rights











































Political Correctness
















Reform and Revolution

































West, the






Notes on Editors and Contributors


It’s fair to say that this project proved a somewhat larger, if also more interesting and challenging, undertaking than we had anticipated when starting it. This also meant that it took a little longer to finish than we had estimated. We are, then, particularly grateful to Jayne Fargnoli at Blackwell Publishing for, first, her positive vision and enthusiasm in commissioning the project and, just as important, her rock-solid support throughout all phases of its development, and her readiness to wait until we had finished the work in the way we wanted to.

We should also like to thank all of the contributors, first, for agreeing to contribute to this book and, second, for the spirit in which they did so – taking our often detailed editorial comments in good part, and striving to make clear, while also doing justice to, the nuanced histories and uses of the keywords they contributed. We are particularly grateful to those contributors who met all of their due dates on time, especially those who worked to short deadlines to ensure the project’s completion, and have long since forgiven those who approached their due dates like a distant mirage on the horizon even when they had in fact passed them.

The project is also one that has been well served by outstanding research assistance – initially from Sophie Taysom, who gathered and distributed to contributors the research materials they needed, and from James Bennett, who collated the editors’ comments, ensured consistency across entries, and compiled the references. We owe a real debt, too, to Fiona Sewell, whose expert assistance, and unfailing patience, at the copy-editing stage added immeasurably to the quality of the final product.

And the project could not have been completed without the expert secretarial assistance of, first, Molly Freeman and, later, Margaret Marchant of the sociology discipline at the Open University.

Our greatest debt, however, is to Raymond Williams, whose original Keywords was, for us, along with most of our contemporaries, a text that was as inspirational as it was indispensable. For us as for many of our fellow contributors, the challenge of writing entries for this volume is one that has both renewed and greatly deepened our appreciation of both the extraordinary range ofWilliams’s knowledge and the depth and durability of his accomplishments. We know, because they told us so, that many contributors were attracted to this project as an opportunity to pay tribute to Williams and his legacy. It is, then, on their behalf, as well as our own, that we dedicate this book to his memory.

Editors and Contributors

Ien Ang Barry Hindess
Zygmunt Bauman Ian Hunter
Tony Bennett Richard Johnson
Jody Berland Steve Jones
Michael Bérubé Genevieve Lloyd
Roland Boer Gregor McLennan
Craig Calhoun Maureen McNeil
John Clarke W. J. T. Mitchell
Jennifer Craik David Morley
Jonathan Crary Meaghan Morris
Ann Curthoys Stephen Muecke
Mitchell Dean Karim Murji
Nicholas Dirks Theo Nichols
James Donald Bhikhu Parekh
Paul du Gay Cindy Patton
Joanne Finkelstein Elspeth Probyn
André Frankovits Kevin Robins
Anne Freadman Jacqueline Rose
Simon Frith Nikolas Rose
John Frow Steven Rose
J. K. Gibson-Graham Andrew Ross
Avery F. Gordon Naoki Sakai
Lawrence Grossberg Bill Schwarz
Gay Hawkins Steven Shapin
Gail Hershatter Michael J. Shapiro
Jennifer Daryl Slack Valerie Walkerdine
John Storey Alan Warde
Terry Threadgold Frank Webster
Anna Tsing Jeffrey Weeks
Bryan Turner George Yúdice
Graeme Turner


The following abbreviations are used in the text:

BCE Before Common Era (before the period dating from the birth of Christ)
C Followed by numeral, century (C16: sixteenth century)
CE Common Era (the period dating from the birth of Christ)
Ch Chinese
eC First period (third) of a century (eC16: early sixteenth century)
F French
fw Immediate forerunner of a word, in the same or another language
G German
Gk Classical Greek
It Italian
L Latin
lC Last period (third) of a century (lC16: late sixteenth century)
lL Late Latin
mC Middle period (third) of a century (mC16: mid-sixteenth century)
mE Middle English (c.1100–1500)
mF Medieval French
mL Medieval Latin
oE Old English (to c.1100)
OED Oxford English dictionary: New dictionary on historical principles, 2nd edn. Eds. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
oF Old French
rw Ultimate traceable word, from which “root” meanings are derived
Sp Spanish

Definitions of usage are from the OED unless otherwise indicated. Quotations followed by a name and date only, or a date only, are from examples cited in the OED or in website collections of usage. Other quotations are followed by specific sources.

Dates in square brackets are those of original publication. These have been given for works published before World War I where these are by major figures who have had an important influence on subsequent debates.

We have, for each entry, bolded the first use of the keyword in question and subsequent uses of related words or phrases in which the keyword also occurs. Our purpose in doing so has been to highlight examples of the keywords in use. In the entry for “Culture,” for example, culture is bolded when it is first used, as is its use in such phrases as high culture, folk culture, mass culture, and popular culture.


Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris

Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society is justly renowned for providing a whole generation of readers with an effective, reliable distillation of the variety of meanings – past and present – attached to a range of terms that played a pivotal role in discussions of culture and society, and of the relations between them. First published in 1976, however, it is now showing signs of its age in ways that Williams regarded as inevitable in a project that was always more concerned with exploring the complex uses of problem-laden words than it was with fixing their definition (striking though Williams’s definitions were for their succinctness, learning, and clarity). For Williams the point was not merely that the meanings of words change over time but that they change in relationship to changing political, social, and economic situations and needs. While rejecting the idea that you could describe that relationship in any simple or universal way, he was convinced that it did exist – and that people do struggle in their use of language to give expression to new experiences of reality.

Revising Keywords himself for a second edition which included a further 21 words, Williams (1983: 27) reaffirmed his “sense of the work as necessarily unfinished and incomplete.” It is in the spirit of his project, then, to observe that its entries for many words cannot take account of what have often been, over the past 30 years, crucial shifts in meaning associated with both their general and more specialist uses (consider ideology, liberalism, or media), and that some words of interest to Williams in 1976 (career, for example) or indeed in 1983 (folk, genius) have lost the special quality of “significance and difficulty” that attracted his attention. Equally, there is no mention in Keywords of other words (such as citizenship, gender, or sign) which, today, play a major role in both public discourse and a broad spectrum of academic disciplines. Accordingly, in conceiving of this volume we set out to update Williams’s Keywords in three basic ways: first, by providing a revised vocabulary of culture and society that includes many terms from Williams’s list but offers new discussions of their history and use, taking account of developments over the last 30 years; second, by adding discussions of “new keywords” that have emerged as the vocabulary of culture and society has responded to new social movements, changing political concerns, and new horizons of public debate; third, by deleting those of Williams’s keywords that we feel have not sustained their importance in terms of the ways people represent their experiences and give meaning to their perceptions of a changing world.

Given the many encyclopedias, dictionaries, and “bluffer’s guides” to academic topics crowding bookshops today, it is important to stress another sense in which this volume was undertaken in the distinctive spirit of Williams’s initial inquiry: New Keywords is not a glossary of contemporary cultural and social theory (one of Williams’s keywords reexamined in this volume), although many entries draw on theoretical resources to varying degrees. Despite the perhaps overly academic reception of Keywords in recent years, its intention was always to provide a useful, intellectually and historically grounded guide to public questions and struggles for meaning shared by many people in the field of culture and society. Williams (1976: 13) was careful to define his project in terms that would distinguish it clearly from conventional scholarly dictionaries:

It is not a dictionary or glossary of a particular academic subject. It is not a series of footnotes to dictionary histories or definitions of a number of words. It is, rather, the record of an inquiry into a vocabulary: a shared body of words and meanings in our most general discussions, in English, of the practices and institutions which we group as culture and society.

The general discussions that interested Williams were not located in specific academic disciplines, but neither did they exclude the fields of scholarly and intellectual debate; instead, the sense of “general” significance that marked a keyword took shape in an encounter or an overlap between two or more social domains of usage. For Williams (1976: 12), a word in general usage was a word with variable uses. Some were “strong, difficult and persuasive words” already in everyday use (work, for example), while others might spread from a specialized context to wider discussions; deconstruction and commodity, both philosophical terms now used in fashion magazines, are examples of this today. Whatever the origins of a word and however erratic the paths it took to enter common usage, it was the fact that it mattered in “two areas … often thought of as separate” that drew Williams to trace its travels. Culture, he pointed out, was the “original difficult word” in this respect, posing new questions and suggesting new connections as it gained importance in the area of art on the one hand, and society on the other. The sharing of a word across differing domains of thought and experience was often imperfect, he noted, but this very roughness and partiality indicated that the word brought something significant to discussions of “the central processes of our common life.”

The “wish,” as Williams put it, to recognize and understand these processes across habitually separated areas of activity could suddenly invest ordinary words such as “culture” with a strangeness that unsettled their seemingly transparent meaning, and it could also endow apparently technical, forbidding words with a new and mysterious popularity (alienation 30 years ago, postmodernism today). In both cases, however, it was a shared desire to articulate something of general importance that forged what Williams called a “vocabulary” of culture and society. From this followed his interest in exploring not only the meanings of words but also the ways people group or “bond” them together, making explicit or often implicit connections that help to initiate new ways of seeing their world. Keywords was organized to highlight “clusters” of words, indicated in bold in the text, so that readers might follow and reflect on the interactions, discontinuities, and uncertainties of association that shaped what Williams (1976: 13) called “particular formations of meaning.” These formations, too, change over time, dissolving in some cases and reforming in a different way in others as the links we make between words, the importance they have, and the contexts in which they matter are subject to alteration.

Necessarily, then, a revised vocabulary of culture and society should not only update the selection and discussion of individual words but also respond to the changed contexts of “general” discussion which people inhabit today. While we have insisted on retaining Williams’s emphasis on the public intellectual uses of the terms selected for inclusion, New Keywords must achieve this focus in a different manner which takes account of the ways in which both our sense of “common life” and our understanding of history have changed since 1976. First, there has been a marked change in the conduct and circulation of intellectual work over the past 30 years: the expansion of higher education, the growth of a research culture linking universities more closely to a wide range of industries and to other public and private institutions, and the proliferation of new media-based modes of pedagogy and discussion have all combined to disperse and multiply the “areas” of thought and experience in and across which people wish to make common sense and formations of meaning take shape. These changes have also opened universities and the kinds of knowledge they foster to increased scrutiny and criticism (“culture wars” in one expression), widening the social field of debate about such issues as the growth of interdisciplinarity and the social role of intellectuals. In accordance with these developments, the inquiry recorded by New Keywords is a collective rather than an individual one. This expansion of resources, and the plurality of perspectives it introduces to the project, are necessary today if proper account is to be taken of the now much greater diversity of the fields of both public and academic debate in which a vocabulary of culture and society is implicated and across which it is no less imperfectly shared.

Second, where Williams largely equated the “English” language with British usage, our inquiry is an international one – again, necessarily so to take account of the extent to which discussions of culture and society now increasingly flow across national boundaries, with English holding an often oppressively privileged status in limiting as well as enabling much of that flow. However, for practical reasons we focus mainly on usage in Western Anglophone countries, although in some entries (civilization and modern, for example) the contributors explain that recognizing the complexities occasioned by the entry of particular keywords into the vocabularies of culture and society in other countries is essential to grasping their import. This recognition was also a feature of Williams’s Keywords: pointing out that many of his most important terms had developed key meanings in languages other than English or “went through a complicated and interactive development in a number of major languages” (1976: 17), he noted that he found it indispensable to trace some of this interaction in such cases as “alienation,” and “culture” itself. We, too, would have liked to do more translinguistic as well as transnational tracing – the changing formations of meaning linking such concepts as “liberalism,” market, consumption, “ideology,” and socialism in China today is a consequential case in point – and we would have liked to follow the often radically divergent uses of English keywords in parts of the world where English is at most a lingua franca or a second language that may be nobody’s mother tongue. An “extraordinary international collaborative enterprise” on the scale that Williams thought essential for an adequate comparative study quickly proved to be beyond us, too, for all the enlarged resources and technical means at our disposal.

Collaborating with writers in Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States was extraordinary labor enough; this volume was five years in the making and could not have been produced at all without the Internet. Yet to explain our project’s insufficiencies wholly in terms of the limits of time and technology – real as these are – would be to dodge the “deliberately social and historical” emphasis on problems of meaning that Williams (1983: 21) clarified as his own in the revised introduction to his book. The most active problems of meaning are always, he stressed, primarily embedded in actual relationships, and the difficulty of producing a widely usable volume that could offer anything like a genuinely global study of keywords in English is no exception to this; the desire to do so is active, but the relationships needed to achieve it and the level of “generality” in discussion that its realization would presuppose may not yet be sufficiently actual (at least for the editors of this volume) for the project to be feasible in practice: the entries on globalization and the West included here may help to suggest some reasons why.

Once again, though, this sense of an “unfinished and incomplete” labor that others will need to take up is a vital part of Williams’s legacy. He traced the genesis of Keywords (1976: 9) to the end of World War II and the sense of entering a “new and strange world” that he shared with other soldiers returning to a transformed Britain in 1945. Recalling an occasion when he and another man just out of the army simultaneously said of their countrymen, “they just don’t speak the same language,” he goes on with customary deftness to link this spontaneous expression with the vocabulary of inter-generational incomprehension and conflict within families, and with what we might now call the “culture shocks” of class and ethnicity as he experienced them coming from a workingclass family in Wales to Cambridge in the late 1930s. Today, in a world increasingly polarized by “culture wars” that are violently real as well as symbolic, there is no doubt that the same expression is still widely used to express “strong feelings” and important differences about ideas that not only create strangeness and unease between speakers of different varieties of English – whether around the world, across the same city, or in a shared workplace or classroom – but also between adjacent departments of knowledge, and practitioners of the same profession or discipline. It was from such “critical encounters,” however, that Williams drew inspiration, seeing in them the workings of a central and often very slow process of social and historical as well as linguistic change.

Other modifications we have made to the Keywords model are minor compared with the shift to a collective and more international mode of production. While varying in size, Williams’s entries in Keywords are reasonably consistent in their format, and ours are rather less so. Williams usually begins with a history of the usage of the word in question – and of various subordinate terms – derived mainly from the OED and classic sources in historical semantics. This is then followed by a discussion of contemporary public and scholarly uses of both the keyword and selected subordinate terms, with cross-references throughout to related keywords. This format is broadly followed in this volume with the exception that the explanations of etymological roots are often less detailed and lengthy than in Williams, putting more emphasis on how particular terms are lodged today in crucial sites of debate or mark new kinds of experience: how, for example, does one discuss the etymology of virtual? Within any collective work a standardized “format” would be difficult to enforce and, given a general editorial brief requiring emphasis on public intellectual usage, authors have largely followed their own inclinations in deciding what that means, and how to handle both sources and subordinate terms.

Another issue facing a collective work is posed by the balanceWilliams achieved between, on the one hand, a reliable scholarly account of a keyword’s meanings that could be of use to a general reader to whom some or all of the material might be new, and, on the other, his distinctive interpretation of the word’s significance and value. We asked contributors to address the concepts in ways that would reflect their own perspectives rather than aiming to write a “correct,” wholly standardized, dictionary-style entry. Yet we did not want to go to the other extreme and have a collection of entirely individualized or partisan approaches to the concepts involved. Looking again at whatWilliams does it is clear, first, that his entries are all described and (usually) function as essays and, second, that they are generally organized to review some aspects of the history of the concept in question with a view to then commenting on the range of contemporary meanings and the public/political issues these involve – without at allmoving on to a prescriptive definition, a glossary-type summary, or a concluding “correct line.” Following Williams, then, this volume consists of signed essays (rather than anonymous entries) of varied lengths, all written by engaged intellectuals who are alert to the political issues at stake in the translation of key terms across different fields of use – public, everyday, literary, technical, and scholarly – and therefore willing to give a scrupulous account of those differences.

Williams wrote some of his most eloquent critical pages about the uses of dictionaries, in particular of the “extraordinary collaborative enterprise” (1976: 16) of the Oxford Dictionary. He noted that the OED offered an incomparably rich source of historical information, and it remains unrivalled in this respect today; we supplied all contributors to New Keywords with copies of the OED entries relevant to the essays they had agreed to write, and encouraged them (not always successfully) to explore that material. However,Williams observed that the OED had serious limitations in documenting twentieth-century usage and was far less free of active social and political values than its “massive impersonality” might suggest. Today, the cultural biases of the OED are perhaps even more apparent: its extensive entries on “modern,” for example, are remarkable for the tone of patronizing mockery or disapproval that accumulates over dozens of citations, muffling any sense that there might be worlds of English inwhich the word could speak directly of revolutionary passion, of torment, violent displacement, utopian desire, and joy. At the same time, Williams also pointed out that the OED excels more at showing the “range and variation” of meanings than it does in suggesting “connection and interaction.” As Keywords developed out of notes taken over more than 20 years, Williams was able to supplement the OED’s resources from his own extensive reading. We could not ask our contributors to do this, given the ruthless time constraints imposed on academics today, and so along with the OED material we tried to supply, where possible, related entries from other national dictionaries of English as well as from specialized social science, humanities, or cultural studies dictionaries. We also provided copies of appropriate web searches and, where relevant, Williams’s entry or entries relating to the same keyword.

In many cases, it proved difficult to go around those entries or to find examples of usage that Williams had not already addressed, and numerous essays included here discuss his interpretations. His accounts of such complex terms as, for example, empirical, experience (1983), nature, and, of course, the famous entry on “culture” itself posed particular difficulties for authors trying to catch the new shadings of significance and value these terms had acquired in public usage by the early years of the twenty-first century. In other cases, the effort to “update” Williams’s 1976 entry proved redundant. In the case of realism, for example, the currency of the term in the rhetoric of the neo-liberal governments that swept to power in developed countries from the late 1970s is dealt with in his account of the word’s corporate and political use to discredit idealism by substituting an appeal to “limits” (“limits meaning hard facts, often of power or money in their existing and established forms”) for the orientation toward “truth” that guides those philosophical uses which he also explains with remarkable concision. In this and other instances where Williams’s entry remains as pertinent as it was 30 years ago, we have chosen not to revise it merely for the sake of doing so: Keywords is and should long remain available as a primary text.

It follows that by no means all of Williams’s terms omitted here have lost (in our judgment) their social force as keywords. Among those that we did exclude on those grounds, some still invoke difficult social and political as well as intellectual issues, but as words no longer seem to have that edge of energy and uncertainty that marks a keyword in public usage – sociology and anthropology, for example, are no longer especially contentious as the names of academic disciplines. At the same time, some of Williams’s words that we may seem to have ignored are in fact taken up by entries on other terms that may have a broader scope or a sharper significance today: thus we chose therapy as more pointed now than psychological, substituted political correctness for doctrinaire and (more debatably) jargon, settled on space and place as more encompassing than regional, and on everyday as having a wider currency than Williams’s ordinary. Underprivilege is subsumed here by poverty (which Williams does not feature) and the issues it raises are also dealt with – along with those of exploitation – across a cluster of entries such as capitalism, class, development, and economy.

In any collective project, however, many decisions are forced by practical necessity rather than adopted as a matter of principle. Chief among the constraints we faced were those of space in an already substantial book, and time to meet our publisher’s deadline, both of which led eventually to the dropping of some proposed terms (exhibition, terrorism, waste) that would have enhanced the book. Other “omissions” were beyond our control as life intervened and authors encountering unexpected difficulties, whether of their own or with our editorial brief, could not be replaced in time, or we did not know how to replace them: entries on boundaries, criticism, leisure, pleasure, pluralism, romantic, and violence fell out of the book in this haphazard and mundane way.

This is to say that our exclusions and our additions are, of course, at once as selective and as “arbitrary” as Williams’s lists avowedly were in relation to a much wider range of terms that could have been included, but for various reasons were not. To call a selection arbitrary does not mean that it is unmotivated, and our own strong biases in editing this volume will be as evident as – but are, we hope, more explicit than – those that shaped the OED. However, the very nature of the project means that while our choices are contestable they were not capriciously made. Working from different disciplinary backgrounds, political temperaments, and national-linguistic locations, the three editors had long discussions and lively disagreements – sometimes resolved only by the brute force of two to one – about both the individual words to be included and the clusters we would use, following Williams, to shape the volume’s social and historical emphases. We ended up with 12 groupings or lines of connection which we felt “bonded” particular keywords into the kind of wishdriven general discussion across different areas that Williams identified: roughly defined, our initial clusters were “art”, “communication and the popular”, “political economics”, “politics and community”, “race, ethnicity, colonialism”, “sexuality and gender”, “politics and the state”, “borders of the human”, “science”, “space and time”, “intellectual politics”, and “modes of power and society”.

Overlapping and entirely subject to criticism, these clusters at least proved their working value in culture and society today by attracting to the project a large number of distinguished contributors who proceeded to blur, ignore, write over, or recast the groupings we had devised. Nevertheless there is no doubt that our way of initially putting the volume together had a more than casual coherence, arising not only from a common debt to the work of Raymond Williams and a meeting-ground in the new discipline of cultural studies which so largely derives from that work, but also from a more impersonal but no less shared historical experience as part of a broad generation of scholars and critics directly formed by the engagements between the academy, the media, popular culture, and social movements that we principally wished to explore. Our approach in this volume is marked, too, by the rise to prominence in universities and the scandalization in the media of new conversations about “theory” (very much a keyword now as it was in Williams’s day) that have crossed over occupational as well as faculty and disciplinary lines. Having taught “theory” ourselves to generations of students who went on to take an interest in contemporary scholarly debates into many different non-academic occupations, we have no doubt about the public import of the diverse theoretical reflections on culture and society sustaining those debates.

At the same time, our determination to keep making explicit connections between theoretical and everyday public usage provoked some of the most intense and interesting debates within our project, both between the editors and with contributors, over the fiveyear period of its planning and preparation. We had some ground rules: no entry could offer an unrelieved commentary on “key thinkers”, whether (say) Derrida, Foucault, or Marx; all entries should offer concrete examples of usage; and as far as possible each entry should socially diversify its linguistic sources of evidence. At the same time, we had to recognize that some words with highly technical frames of reference as well as in popular circulation – evolution, gene/genetic, representation, and text, for example – might need a different treatment from other, no less complex words (body, celebrity, mobility, self) whose apparent simplicity and easy availability could initiate discussion. The most difficult issue, however, turned out to be not avoiding jargon but rather finding an appropriate way of addressing readers across a collectively written volume that is not designed for the exclusive use of a specialist academic audience. A uniform style was impossible to achieve and, having asked authors to clarify their personal take on the questions at issue in their chosen keywords, we did not seek to impose one.

Style, however, was less important than the ways in which authors defined the world they expected to share with readers and the likely interests and priorities that people might bring to this text. We asked authors not to assume in their very first paragraph that the reader’s first concern was to know where the writer stood on controversies currently racking research schools in universities, but to begin, where possible, with the keyword itself, its history, and its everyday meanings. We asked that authors avoid giving summaries of the work of beloved thinkers that must be, in the limited space available, either so dense or so minimal that only someone familiar with the work in question could follow the explanation; and we often asked, too, that where relevant (as in most cases it was), priority be given to the treatment of public rather than specialized usage in case of problems in the balance between them caused by lack of space. These demands were not always easy or congenial to work with for scholars whose learning in and passion about their fields of expertise were our basis for inviting them to collaborate with us in the first place. Some contributors pulled out when they realized what we wanted, and we thank them for releasing us early to invite someone else. Others patiently worked through two or three revisions of their texts and we are deeply grateful for their care and labor, which have done so much to enhance the accessibility of this book.

Keywords from the outset was all about usefulness as well as language use, andWilliams ended his introduction with a discussion of his problems of presentation – the advantages and disadvantages of an alphabetical, a thematic, or a conceptually structured ordering of terms – and of the ways to make use of a book whose purpose was to foreground the connections and interactions between ostensibly separate words. Suffice it to say here that we have followed his solutions: New Keywords is arranged in alphabetical order, but the best way to read it is not from beginning to end but by following the trails of crossreferences that take the reader’s fancy. Because of its collective authorship this volume is indeed full of concerns or topics that recur and lines of argument that overlap, converge, and diverge in sometimes surprising ways, and by following different orders of reading the reader will find new connections and no doubt make discoveries that have eluded the editors entirely. To enhance this use of the book, we have departed from Williams’s model by incorporating references to sources in the entries; these result in networks of further reading to help those who wish to know more about particular keywords to follow their noses at leisure.

There is no doubt that by including an extensive list of references in New Keywords we have rendered more explicit the “weight”, as it were, of the extensive learning that not only underpins this volume but inspired and sustained the project of Keywords itself: academics (and it is often they) who prefer to think of Williams as a “public” intellectual, for whom the constraints and niceties of scholarship were unimportant, may have forgotten the sheer intensity not only of the erudition displayed in his pages but also of the demands that Williams’s prose could make of his readers – confident as he was of the intellectual desires and agency of ordinary people. We prefer to think of the extra references given here not as “proof” of the credentials of our authors but rather as a practical response to the increasing engagement and overlap today between academic and other kinds of public writing, including those active in that vast public bibliographic reservoir called the Internet. Above all, we think of references now as simply providing, in the greatly diversified conditions of transnational general discussion it is our purpose to address, just another resource for furthering the aim of social usefulness that Williams (1976: 21–2) so memorably defined for his book:

This is not a neutral review of meanings. It is an exploration of the vocabulary of a crucial area of social and cultural discussion, which has been inherited within precise historical and social conditions and which has to be made at once conscious and critical – subject to change as well as to continuity – if the millions of people in whom it is active are to see it as active: not a tradition to be learned, nor a consensus to be accepted, nor a set of meanings which, because it is “our language”, has a natural authority; but as a shaping and reshaping, in real circumstances and from profoundly different and important points of view: a vocabulary to use, to find our own ways in, to change as we find it necessary to change it, as we go on making our own language and history.



Aesthetics is generally defined as the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the arts, and especially with the sensory, perceptual reception of art. It also deals more generally with sensuous perception in nature and everyday life. It is thus linked with notions such as synesthesia (the confusion of one sensory channel with another, as in “hearing colors” or “seeing sounds”), anesthesia (the numbing of the senses), and the various media of art and communication insofar as they are addressed to distinct senses (the distinctions between audition and vision, the verbal and visual arts, tactile and oral sensation, etc.). Aesthetics also concerns itself with taste, that is, with the evaluation of art and of various kinds of perceptual experience. It thus invariably addresses questions about the difference between good and bad art, about different kinds of experiences associated with the arts (beauty, sublimity, wonder, disgust, horror), and with specific features of these experiences such as the problem of form and content, the relation of pleasure to moral or political virtue, and the arousal of the emotions.

The coinage of the terms aesthetic and “aesthetics” (from Gk aisthesis) by Alexander Baumgarten in the C18 marks a historic shift in discussions of art, one that emphasizes the subjective activity of the perceiver or beholder over the objective properties of the material thing that occasions the sensation. Although Baumgarten is universally credited with introducing the term, he is usually nothing more than a footnote to the real discussion of the aesthetic in Immanuel Kant (1987 [1764]), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1975 [1835]), and the German idealist tradition. Kant’s Critique of judgment is arguably the most influential treatise ever devoted solely to aesthetics. Benedetto Croce, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno (1997), and Nelson Goodman (1976) are among the most prominent C20 philosophers who have developed the concept further.

Although the term has its historical origin in the C18, its application has spread to cover the entire field of reflection on the arts and perception. Thus, Plato and Aristotle are discovered in retrospect to have been “doing aesthetics.” Karl Marx’s writing (which has relatively little to say about the arts) has been analyzed for its implicit aesthetic theories, and most discussions of the “aestheticization of politics” (Walter Benjamin, 1968) or the “ideology of the aesthetic” (Terry Eagleton, 1990) stem directly from Marx. Indeed, it is hard to think of any major thinker from the ancient religious authorities such as Pseudo-Dionysius to Sigmund Freud who has not engaged in aesthetic inquiry (Turner, 1996), and every culture that has engaged in reflection on this topic may easily be shown to have its own version of aesthetics. It is perhaps best, then, to qualify any historicist marking of the C18 emergence of the term by noting that it has a universal application as well.

Aesthetics in the modern era has been the site of numerous debates, over the objectivity or subjectivity of aesthetic judgment, and the relation of aesthetic experience to the non-aesthetic (variously defined as the practical or utilitarian, the moral and political, or simply as the non-artistic) (Fried, 1998). Raymond Williams (1976: 28) sees this as a symptom of “the divided consciousness of art and society,” and some historians see classical Greek aesthetics as the last time that aesthetics was truly integrated with social and political issues. The aesthetic is itself often qualified by the modifier “merely” or “purely” to indicate, on the one hand, a despised sphere of social irrelevance, the fussiness of the often-denigrated aesthete, or, on the other hand, the purity and autonomy of a realm of freedom and disinterestedness (as envisaged by Kant, for example), where pleasure and a liberated imagination can roam. The aesthete, in particular, is often presented as a figure of decadent hedonism, or of an amoral “art-for-art’s-sake” attitude. The art pour l’art movement, and figures such as Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, have helped to consolidate a picture of the aesthete as a feminized figure, the projection of a thinly veiled homophobia, and a suspicion that there is something slightly unmanly about a taste for the fine arts. The most vigorous attack on philosophical aesthetics as such has been mounted by Pierre Bourdieu, who argues that the whole “purist” tendency of aesthetics is an “expression of the sublimated interests of the bourgeois intellectual” (Bourdieu, 1984: 492).

Aesthetics today is in considerable ferment as the result of two developments: “the de-definition of art” associated with the rise of postmodernism, and the decline of the cult of modernist “aesthetic purity” principally associated with abstract painting and sculpture (Greenberg, 1986). Politically committed art, conceptual art, performance, installations, process art, and other experimental movements have eroded the dominance of a “purist” aesthetics that equated the highest value with a compelling formal, virtuosic achievement within a traditional medium such as painting or sculpture (Fried, 1998). The other development is the rise of the media, beginning with photography in the C19, but accelerating in the C20 with the invention of cinema, radio, television, video, the computer, and the new media, most notably the Internet (Kittler, 1999; McLuhan, 1964; Manovich, 2001). Art exhibitions these days are more likely to consist of television monitors and black-box theaters or constructions of “fun-house”-style installations than traditional arrays of still images and objects. Media art has required the development of a media aesthetics, one which examines the new perceptual universes opened up by virtual reality, the world-wide web, and immersive art environments.

Some theorists have argued that the human sensorium is being restructured by the new media, and that a transformed human consciousness could usher in a new social order – Walter Benjamin’s (1968) proletarian revolution or Marshall McLuhan’s global village. Others would contend that the new aesthetics is merely an acceleration of mass culture and the logic of late capitalism, producing a massive collective hallucination (films like The Matrix), ideological mystification at its purest (Adorno, 1997; Baudrillard, 1994; Kittler, 1999). Along with the new aesthetics, a new academic formation known as visual culture or visual studies has emerged, in which the long-standing fascination of aesthetics with visual arts and media has found a disciplinary foothold (Holly and Moxey, 2002). If contemporary aesthetics is indeed undergoing a “pictorial turn” (W. J. T. Mitchell, 1994b), it may be time to reopen the equally long-standing association of aesthetics with taste, the channel of orality. If the visual or scopic drive (Lacan, 1981) is what allows us to sample objects and sensations at a safe distance, the oral aspect of aesthetics reminds us that seeing (and hearing) may also be a form of ingestion and incorporation. It may be that we are being forcibly reminded by contemporary media that aesthetics (pace Kant) can never insulate itself in the pure, disinterested realm of visual pleasure-at-a-distance, but that we inhabit today a sensory environment of accelerating consumption. Bourdieu’s insistence that the Kantian criteria of “good taste” are grounded in bourgeois disgust and horror at “vulgar” pleasures of the senses may have a new role to play in an age when both art and mass culture are exploring these sensations under the name of aesthetics.

W. J. T. Mitchell



Alternative is a deceptively straightforward word, surprisingly complex when applied to culture and politics. Contemporary uses are prefigured by an eC19 sense of “alternative” (adjective) as “the other (of two) which may be chosen instead,” but political meanings derive from the mC20, perhaps the 1960s, when “alternative” comes to be defined against the socially mainstream, established, or conventional. Since then, “alternative” (adjective) or alternatives (noun) have had three rather different locations in political-cultural discourses.

In the first, alternatives are placed in opposition to protest or criticism, which are seen as inadequately practical or transforming: it is not enough, it is argued, to criticize or to protest; we must develop alternatives. From a social-reforming liberal or social-democratic point of view, the failure to do so is the characteristic flaw of the “impossible” left and its intellectuals. A similar usage distinguishes a hegemonic move, often conducted, in recent times, from a neo-liberal position: there is no alternative (to the market etc.). In these contexts, “alternative(s)” usually refer to state policies and mark an enlargement of political strategy.