How heartening yesterday's well-attended 'Raymond Williams Now' conference in Manchester was, despite our dark Cameronian political climate! How much younger many of its speakers and audience were than those you'd find at your average William Morris Society meeting; and why should that be? For a couple of decades now, what I suppose we must call 'Raymond Williams studies' has been hampered by an essentially retrospective and even at times hagiographical approach; but after yesterday I have a sense that a younger generation, who did not personally know Williams and to whom he is not therefore a unreproachable Saint of the Left, are enthusiastically picking up his work as a rich resource and getting on with whatever political or cultural task they are currently about with some of the tools he has left us – a more modest but also more wholesome approach to a great precursor.
Highlights for me from the event were Tony Crowley's opening plenary lecture on 'Keywords Then and Now’ and Ruth Beale’s 25-minute film ‘Performing Keywords’. Crowley gave a masterly exposition of how Williams’s thinking on language relates to a wider socialist tradition of linguistic thought, and ended with some astute reflections on contemporary ‘words that interpellate us’: chav, scouse, radical, and dissident among them. A member of the audience wanted to add ‘aspirational’ to the list, it being a word we are already hearing so much of in the Labour Party leadership contest and elsewhere.
Ruth Beale’s remarkable performance project combined elements of dance and stylised collective movement, the fragmentation of Williams’s keywords into what felt like Dada nonsense syllables (COM-MUNI-CATI-ON), recordings from adult education workshops on key terms, and live readings by local people in a variety of regional and social accents from Williams’s Introduction to Keywords. Williams was, after all, Professor of Drama at Cambridge, so dramatising his theoretical work in this way is both enterprising and entirely apt, and I would certainly like to see more experiments in this direction (and with Morris’s work too).
‘Keywords’ is also the name of the Raymond Williams Society journal and of an important website hosted by the University of Pittsburgh (keywords.pitt.edu/). It is such a crucial term precisely because it defines a project rather than a hagiography, a task we will always urgently need to get on with in our own times using (but also moving beyond, when we need to) the initial discoveries that Williams gave us in his 1976 book on the subject. When the work of a thinker on the Left can be defined as a project in this way, then it can be taken positively forward; it is open to the young (as we saw in Manchester yesterday) in new ways, in novel political and cultural circumstances. Whether we can construe William Morris’s work in this manner, so that it is subject to forward-looking rather than exclusively historicist approaches, well, that seems to me still a very open question.