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Mapping the vocabulary of the radical Left


In social movements, terms like “accessibility,” “bodies,” “communities,” “revolution” and “space” are in frequent usage, yet their meanings are often so varied that it is a miracle we can have effective conceptual conversations! Perhaps, at times, we are actually not talking about the same things at all, or cannot focus our efforts because, although we use the same vocabulary, we are mired in conceptual vagueness, ambiguity and mystification.

Former Upping the Anti editors Kelly Fritsch, Clare O’Connor and AK Thompson are intimately aware of this phenomenon and the necessity of providing a graphic, coherent map of the ubiquitous, powerfully important yet often misunderstood vocabulary of the radical left. Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late- Capitalist Struggle is this map, bringing together 57 keyword essays from Accessibility to Zionism, each by a different author, ranging from wellknown theorists such as Sylvia Federici and Himani Bannerji to emerging scholars and activists such as Christine Kelly and Peter Gelderloos.

Unlike Raymond Williams’ monograph Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, with its explicit Marxist analysis, Keywords for Radicals is a collective effort, featuring significant political diversity for an explicitly “radical” audience. The editors set out by selecting words from Williams’ 1976 anthology that had become “brittle” — “words in which taken-for-granted associations had begun to break down.” They then add words that are seemingly common sense, yet frequently mystifying or vague in radical parlance, such as agency, bodies, gender, privilege, and trans. This new anthology provides a fascinating and politically diverse revisit of Williams’ tenacious keywords like democracy, experience, intellectual and labour, while also charting the new and contested ideological lexicon.

This wide spectrum of essays offers richly grounded and concrete tools for navigating anticapitalist struggle. For example, John Bellamy Foster’s and Patrick Bond’s respective chapters on nature and sustainability provide conceptual and historical clarity for any political project that considers environmental destruction and the necessary limits of natural resources, time, labour and money. Similarly, the entries on revolution (Thomas Nail), utopia (David McNally), violence (Peter Gelderloos) and war (Neil Balan) are a critical cluster exploring the varied interpretations and ideological contradictions of revolutionary struggles.

A collective and politically varied approach is critical for the editors. All the keywords are explicitly linked, both verbally and visually, to every other essay in the book — each essay beginning with a word map that shows the word’s connection to other keywords and ending with a “see also” list. This map is the book’s motif, visually representing not only a collectively produced web of language, but a diffuse terrain of “radical struggle.” According to the graphic’s creator, Derek Laventure, this data visualization is increasingly important for collectively mapping power relations, and “winning” latecapitalist struggle.

While the data visualization provides a fascinating map of the reoccurrence of other keywords in each essay, the interconnections sometimes tell us more about the political and theoretical commitments of each author, rather than the inherent interconnections of the concepts themselves. For example, keywords such as queer and space could be mapped together, yet remain disarticulated for arbitrary reasons. This map then represents selective interconnections in a highly subjective and varied vocabulary for a nebulous “radical left.”

No doubt this constellation of essays would look quite different with different contributors, political commitments and selection of keywords, which is by no means exhaustive. Nevertheless, the impressive effort at collective mapping will spark important and necessary debate and exploration into the conceptual contradictions, historical trajectories and political possibilities of our radical vocabulary.

This article appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Canadian Dimension (Leap, the Left & the NDP).


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