This post builds on Approaching Environmental Theory and Environmental Theory Around Us, as well as a resource page on doing interdisciplinarity, and is part of a series of weekly reading posts intended for my students in ENVS 350 (Environmental Theory), fall semester 2019, Lewis & Clark College. I focus here on preparing students for particular readings we’ll discuss in class. Featured image courtesy Keywords for Radicals.
So far, we have carried Eagleton’s definition of theory as “reasonably systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions” (2004, 2) into the realm of environmental theory. And I’ve recommended we approach environmental theory as a vehicle, not just a view. Let’s point both inward (to ourselves) and outward (to the world) as we proceed; ultimately we want to use environmental theory to make better sense of our world, but it is we who are doing this, already riding our own, generally implicit, theories. So, building environmental theory necessitates that we remain mindful of our own theory vehicles and where they do/don’t get us.
A good way to get started in building theory involves paying attention to what I call Big Words, as our environmental ideas are generally expressed in language. They are not big as in multisyllabic. They are also not big in terms of apparent complexity, nor level of abstraction—they usually do not sound complex or abstract, all the more reason to give them greater scrutiny. Big words are big words because they carry considerable cultural and political weight, either in themselves or via related words.
What are some sample Big Green Words? I’m thinking environment for starters, then nature/natural; but also the norms we use to guide us like sustainability and justice; and even some tools we invoke like science or narrative. All sorts of Eagleton’s guiding assumptions go into these words. But, then, how do we do Eagleton’s “reasonably systematic reflection” on them? One body of literature that may help treats Big Words as keywords, Let’s consider where approaching environmental theory as Big Word vehicles, and approaching Big Words as keywords, can get us.
Raymond Williams’ Keywords
To many of us, keywords are those descriptive tags you use to summarize a written work, but the tradition of inquiry into keywords, starting with Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Williams [1976; 1983] 2014), offers a rich story of particularly meaningful and powerful words. Williams was a scholar of English literature and cultural studies, but his work on keywords engaged a larger audience given its sheer breadth of included words (alienation, art, city, community, ecology, evolution, regional, romantic, welfare, western, etc.).
The original 1976 book included 110 terms; a revised version in 1983 added 21 words. Yet Williams was clear to differentiate his intent from that of, say, the Oxford English Dictionary, to which he frequently alluded, in that the OED was “much better at range and variation than on connection and interaction” (Williams 1983, 19). Williams called his keywords a “vocabulary,” and was primarily interested in what he called “formations of meaning” (p. 15)—constellations of relation, with certain terms (culture being his prime motivation and continual point of reference) playing more central roles in this network of meaning.
Williams’ definition of keywords spans practice to consciousness: “[keywords] are significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretation; [and] significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought” (p 15). Williams’ introduction provides less a clear criterion for inclusion and exclusion than a story of their origin, originally as an appendix to another book, and all as a set of notes he collected over decades.
Keywords has been cited over 10,000 times, and in spite of its sometimes out-of-date vocabulary remains a classic, in part due to the inspiring character of Williams himself. In an essay published following his death, Stuart Hall observed that Williams “insisted on linking intellectual work with a broader social and political purpose.…His intellectual work and his politics were lived as parts of the same project” (Hall 2008, 62). Williams was a well-known and influential left intellectual of mid-20th century Britain, and his readings of language moved toward the social and political configurations evidenced in words, not simply for purposes of analysis in the new tradition he coined as cultural materialism, but for whatever degree of emancipation it would offer. Keywords was ultimately a political, not merely philological, project.
Keywords for Environmental Studies
There have been several recent attempts to build on, or remake, Williams’ keywords with a more contemporary ear. One is the Keywords Project, an online collaboration. The Keywords Project defines keywords in terms of a number of characteristics, such as current use, polysemy, and their function as categories. Another is an edited volume, New Keywords (Bennett, Grossberg, and Morris 2013). Here, the editors took pains both to praise Williams and to distance their volume—multi-authored, 21st century—from the original Keywords. Yet they too strove to fashion some degree of relationality into their volume of 142 keywords, building them from twelve initial groupings, such as art, politics and community, sexuality and gender, and space and time. And, as did Keywords, New Keywords included a list of related words at the end of each keyword essay. The result is (though somewhat clumsy in book form) a network or constellation of keywords.
There has been some debate over whether New Keywords represents progress or regress relative to Williams’ classic (Hegeman 2005; Shumway 2005; Bennett, Grossberg, and Morris 2005). Any exercise at updating Williams’ admittedly idiosyncratic set of keywords is, while important, challenging (Durant 2008), but the interest in big words as keywords clearly lives on.
A wide set of discipline specific keywords has thus arisen, including one particular to our interests: Keywords for Environmental Studies (Gleason, Adamson, and Pellow 2016). This edited volume, according to the editors, promises to serve as “a new ‘state of the field’ inventory and analysis of the central terms and debates currently structuring the most exciting research in and across environmental studies” (p. 1). The editors admit “certain inconsistencies and contradictions within the volume”—understandable in any multi-authored work—citing as one example the start date of the Anthropocene. Yet they are quick to laud “the benefits of bringing humanists, social scientists, and scientists together in one volume at this particular stage of knowledge production in environmental studies” (p. 3).
Though Keywords for Environmental Studies contributions—and contributors—are generally exemplary, the editors do not clarify the selection process behind their keywords, some of which are obvious (“environment”; “nature”; “sustainability”), while others are intriguing (“culture”—Williams would have been joyous; “humanities”; “scale”). Yet some are missing: for instance, we find nature/culture (almost always on the green radar today), humanities but no science (odd, given its prominence in both Keywords and New Keywords), ethics but no facts/values, scale and globalization and place but no global/local.
Overall, the volume broadly covers a good deal of terrain, albeit via a multiauthored and more diffuse vehicle, and with a curious avoidance of science. Indeed, the editors’ introduction ends with a paean to “the ideas and products of the arts, which make manifest our capacity to be deeply imaginative, creative, and feeling” (p. 5)—an undoubtedly important component of environmental scholarship, whose justification is only understandable given the long shadow of the sciences dominating this scholarship.
We must praise Keywords for Environmental Studies for its groundbreaking effort. Yet, relative to Williams’ classic, there are key weaknesses in its contribution to environmental theory. Tellingly, the book’s list of 60 green keywords—agrarian ecology, animal, Anthropocene, etc.—is only that: a list, with no related terms, no means of mapping “formations of meaning.” One reads, for instance, about biomimicry— described in partisan fashion as “a relatively new design methodology that studies nature’s best ideas, abstracts its deep design principles, and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems” (p. 20), and cannot help but scream for a link to the entry on nature (what does “nature’s best ideas” mean about nature?), the nearby entry on biopolitics (which powerful actors speak on behalf of “nature’s best ideas”?), etc.
The larger weakness is thus one of theoretical clarity: without any structure or dialogue between keyword contributions, multidisciplinarity—supposedly a strength of the volume—results in the sort of collective incoherence that mirrors longstanding trends toward the multiversity (Kerr 1963) we all know too well in higher education. The introduction ends by suggesting “the collaborative work of this volume demonstrates…that every discipline has a stake in the central environmental questions of our time” (p. 5)—yet surely we have heard this, typically without evidence that multidisciplinary participation creates some sort of reasonably coherent outcome. Keywords for Environmental Studies ultimately provides little guidance for the perplexed, those of us who have already encountered too many big green words, and who yearn for some sort of theory to guide us meaningfully through this manifold terrain.
Summary: Big Green Words as keywords
What does it, then, mean to approach Big Green Words as keywords? It means, minimally, to recognize that not all words, not all ideas, matter equally in environmental thought and practice. Approaching Big Words as keywords may suggest something of their character and role, in particular how they often work—culturally and politically—as container or umbrella terms (“universals” in philosophy; cf. Rodriguez-Pereyra 2015), such that specific instances of the world—birds vs. iPhones, laboratories vs. libraries—are subsumed under one or another umbrella term, here nature vs. technology or sciences vs. humanities. Big words thus become a sort of psychological/cultural and rhetorical/ideological shorthand—often binary—by which a more complicated landscape is traversed. [We shall cover the liabilities of these binaries in a future post, as well as the liabilities of their typical antidotes.]
It also means that searching for the key keywords—not just a list, but major nodes in the network of meaning—informing environmental theory dates back at least to the work of Raymond Williams and his interest in formations of meaning; yet the tendency to slip back into keywords as just a long list is ever-present. Thus approaching Big Green Words as keywords in the spirit of Raymond Williams means looking as much for their patterns of connection with each other as for any keyword in particular.
This gesture toward relationality can be applied to any interdisciplinary project such as environmental studies, where two important criteria are inclusivity and coherence, and the process of interdisciplinarity is primarily one of weaving. Relative to these criteria, choosing Big Words involves attention to two related goals:
- Inclusivity is served by the topical and/or theoretical breadth of Big Words
- Coherence is served by how well these resultant Big Words are interwoven
The Doing Interdisciplinarity resource page covers this approach in detail, and though theory Big Words are not explicitly covered, you will see that it can include both topics drawn from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and theories or concepts (alas, the page cites precedent in calling them perspectives, as in views from somewhere/nowhere) in the weaving process.
Let’s hope that Big Words, then keywords, then “formations of meaning,” woven to achieve greater inclusivity and coherence, will make doing environmental theory ever more rich.
Bennett, Tony, Larry Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris. 2005. “Originals, Remakes, Assemblages: A Retrospect on New Keywords.” Criticism 47 (4): 567–71.
Bennett, Tony, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris, eds. 2013. New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. John Wiley & Sons.
Durant, Alan. 2008. “‘The Significance Is in the Selection’: Identifying Contemporary Keywords.” Critical Quarterly 50 (1/2): 122–42. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8705.2008.00815.x.
Eagleton, Terry. 2004. After Theory. New York: Basic Books.
Gleason, William A., Joni Adamson, and David N. Pellow, eds. 2016. Keywords for Environmental Studies. NYU Press.
Hall, Stuart. 2008. “The Life of Raymond Williams.” New Statesman 137 (4885): 62–62.
Hegeman, Susan. 2005. “Williams in a New Key.” Criticism 47 (4): 561–66.
Kerr, Clark. 1963. The Uses of the University. Godkin Lectures at Harvard University ; 1963. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Rodriguez-Pereyra, Gonzalo. 2015. “Nominalism in Metaphysics.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2015. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/nominalism-metaphysics/.
Shumway, David R. 2005. “Keywords (the Remake).” Criticism 47 (4): 551–59.
Williams, Raymond. 1983a. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
———. 1983b. “Nature.” In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Rev. ed., 219–24. New York: Oxford University Press.