Critical Semantics: New Transnational Keywords

This Colloquy arises from a 2018 MLA Convention session I organized on behalf of the Forum on Comparative Renaissance and Early Modern Studies. The original call for papers read simply: "Extend and critique Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes, Roland... ... more

This Colloquy arises from a 2018 MLA Convention session I organized on behalf of the Forum on Comparative Renaissance and Early Modern Studies. The original call for papers read simply: "Extend and critique Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes, Roland Greene's 2013 reorientation of early modern studies. What does Greene miss? Craft a 'lightning talk' using one new keyword." As session organizer, I received a bumper crop of submissions, each passionately advocating for its own concept. Several papers extended Five Words in surprising ways, but only a handful took the further step of directly engaging Greene’s innovative "critical semantics" as a practice or method. Four of those composed the panel in New York City, and Roland Greene agreed to offer each of them a formal response. The resulting conversation brought diverse approaches to bear on a single focused intent: the deployment of philological skill to capture the flow and entanglement of ideas across European cultures. Although rooted in early modern studies, each contribution was quickened by twenty-first-century urgency, mobilizing critical semantics as an archaeology of what Arjun Appadurai would call transnational ideoscapes (1996: 36-37). The four papers and Greene’s response yielded powerful questions that overflowed our conference timeslot, and as audience members—including many whose excellent proposals I had been unable to include—expressed their admiration for the format as well as the speakers, it became clear that publication was warranted. We thank ARCADE for hosting this Colloquy as the next step in our conversation.

Our topic is timely, because we live in an age of keywords. They structure our research, our publications, and our teaching. From EEBO to Google n-grams, the keyword search has become a modern equivalent of dipping a pen into ink, where, as the nursery rhyme goes, "some find the thoughts they want to think." Humanists have learned from, or perhaps bowed to, scientific ways of mapping knowledge by digitally analyzing the strength and pattern of meaningful terms, which engineers call "keyword co-occurrence networks." When we submit abstracts for conferences or journals or course catalogues, keywords must be provided; indeed, for this Colloquy’s original panel the MLA program required five keywords—why must it be five?—that were not Roland Greene’s words or the titles of our presentations. But keywords today are not confined to bureaucratic subtexts. On the contrary, they increasingly structure the titles of scholarly lectures, articles, and monographs. Literary titles, which used to trade in riddling questions or ambiguous genitives, now unspool as paratactic lists: consider the examples of Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005), Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2005), and Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015). How starkly the listed terms differ from the neologisms of high theory! In fact, almost all the diction in these titles belongs to what Raymond Williams in 1976 called "a general vocabulary ranging from strong, difficult and persuasive words in everyday usage to words which, beginning in particular specialized contexts, have become quite common in descriptions of wider areas of thought and experience" (2014: xxvii). After all, the title of Keywords itself derives from a household object, no less important for being used every day.

For an object that is continually being declared obsolete, the physical key has proved astonishingly resilient. (Although smartphones can now unlock your house or car, Google has signaled the limits of virtuality by manufacturing a low-tech security key that physically authenticates users, supposedly reassuring them that their data is safe from hackers.) Yet the key’s stubborn materiality contrasts with the abstraction that some of Williams’s successors emphasize in their modern anthologies of keywords. A striking example is Keywords for Today, a 2018 volume produced by an Anglo-American scholarly collective and edited by Colin MacCabe and Holly Yanacek. This text variously updates, replaces or adds new entries to Williams’s collection of complex words. For our purposes, the additions and subtractions are telling: gone, for example, is the entry on materialism, while the very first entry explores a new keyword, which is abstract. In line with this remarkable substitution, some entries call attention to how twenty-first-century vocabulary shrinks from its material base, such as the evolution of market into the "hardened abstraction" of the market, with its tyrannical definite article (2018: 231). Other entries, however, seem blind to their own abstraction, as when image skims over the physical consequences of socially mediated aesthetics as distorted by technology. By contrast with Keywords for Today, Greene’s Five Words elaborates its critical semantics "by trying to make tangible what is often abstract and obscure" (2013: 8), offering literal analogues to its polysemous terms (the palimpsest for invention, the pendent for language, and so forth) in order to underscore the dynamic relay between the material and the discursive in early modern cultures.

Greene blazes two further pathways unfamiliar to modern literary taxonomists. The first is historical. By slowing the brisk diachronic sweep of keyword etymologies down to the Renaissance and Baroque, Greene tunes in to subtler rhythmic patterns, finding in the so-called "discovery of language in early modern Europe" not only new words but new relations between them: thus terms like tongue and language are described as "neither dependent on nor independent of one another," but instead "pendent" or reciprocally clarifying and energizing (53). Elsewhere, Greene catches terms in mid-transformation, charting how blood is redefined by the "literalism of the sixteenth century" and the "vitalism of the mid-seventeenth" (115). The other pathway is comparative. Williams long ago noted that "many of the most important keywords … either developed key meanings in languages other than English, or went through a complicated and interactive development in a number of major languages," but predicted that the necessary "comparative analysis" would require an "international collaborative enterprise" (2014: xxxi). The difficulty of such work is evident in the case of Keywords for Today, which explores only one term recognizably borrowed from beyond the Anglosphere—the Sanskrit karma, which is quite properly adduced to demonstrate "the danger of trying to limit English semantics to its traditional homelands" (2018: 207). Alert to such danger, in Five Words Greene has provided a single-authored study that boldly and succinctly takes up Williams’s internationalist challenge.

Or at least he has done so for the terms blood, invention, language, resistance, and world. "Many words," Greene writes, "are like these words," continuing: "I have envisioned extending this sort of project to every word on a given page by Rabelais, Sidney, or the Inca Garcilaso, distributing the terms to scholars with the injunction not only to explain their semantic changes over time but to set each discrete word in motion with the others" (2013: 14). Such is the gauntlet taken up by this ARCADE Colloquy. Each essay collected here is to double business bound: the authors have each chosen a single transcultural keyword from the early modern period, and they have set their keyword in motion with Five Words as well as cognate or "pendent" terms they find essential. The reader will observe that not all their words are nouns. Nor are their keywords all self-evidently "ordinary," and on occasion they explicitly put that descriptor under pressure. The contributors draw into the discussion features of early modern worlds that Five Words did not have the space to map, including visual culture (John Casey’s color), radical politics (Crystal Bartolovich’s common), the poetics of ecology (Vin Nardizzi’s grafting), and the philosophy of science (Debapriya Sarkar’s utopian). Far from some rote parataxis, however, these keywords allow the reader to adapt Greene’s tools for ever deeper exploration. On its publication, Five Words was lauded no less for its stylistic elegance than for its conceptual ambition. Bookended by that study and Greene’s generous response to the four initial essays, this Colloquy probes new interventions in literary studies and rewards the reader with unexpected results.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Greene, Roland. 2013. Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MacCabe, Colin and Holly Yanacek, eds. 2018. Keywords for Today: A 21st Century Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Raymond. (1976) 2014.  Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Anston Bosman's picture
Curator Anston Bosman

Anston Bosman is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Amherst Col

Anston Bosman is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Amherst College. His recent publications include articles in Theatre Journal, ELH, and Shakespeare Quarterly, as well as chapters in International Exchange In The European Book World (Brill, 2016), Early Modern Theatricality (Oxford, 2013), and The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (Cambridge, 2010). His current research centers on multilingualism and cultural mobility in early modern European theatre.


by John CaseyEssay
Despite or perhaps because of the metaphysical problems of color, early modern writing traffics constantly in it.      more


by Vin NardizziEssay
The logic of grafting animal, human, or plant tissue is, in fact, combinatory; its promise is the fantasy of infinite variety.   more


by Debapriya SarkarEssay
I explore how utopian was an extraordinary word that became ordinary, a particular term that became general, and a reference to a physical place that became an idea. more


by Crystal BartolovichEssay
I, like Greene, will engage in what he calls a “critical semantics” here, but I will confront human meanings and purposes with challenges to them posed by the Capitalocene. more