Introduction to Keywords Now: What happened on January 6, 2021?

What should we call what happened in and around the Capitol building on Wednesday, January 6? A coup or an attempted coup? An insurrection? A white supremacist riot? Vigilante antidemocratic paramilitary violence? Did those who tried to overturn the election results commit acts of sedition? Treason?

There are solid arguments for any of these terms. The reason any or all of them can seem right is not a sign of intellectual sloppiness or lack of specificity, even as media commentators go to great lengths to come up with specific definitions of the terms they’re arguing for and against in order to make their cases. But no amount of defining can resolve the debate, because other thinkers and writers can come along and define their terms in ways that make their argument plausible. Language is social, not indexical.

That the definitions of these terms are contested across time and space means that they are what the scholar Raymond Williams called “keywords.” That means more than that they are rich and complex and important. It also means that the stakes of contestation over their meaning can advance our understanding of our culture and our society. The different ways we talk about the events of January 6 connect to the ways we think the United States is or is not “united.”

In this dossier, you will find short responses to these events written by authors of some relevant keywords: “conservative,” “fascism,” “intersectionality,” “populism,” and “whiteness.” In soliciting these responses, we used these prompts to ask the authors to elaborate on what they had written prior to January 6:

  • As you re-read your keyword essay in the context of recent events in Washington DC, which arguments about the usage of the term still seem most important and relevant? Which, if any, seem less germane?
  • Are there ways in which the current moment is likely to shift usage of the term? Are there new meanings or usages that have emerged?
  • Looking forward, what do you think we can/should learn about the current moment through reflection on this keyword?

Perhaps those essays will lead you to read the full essays (also linked here) and then to look for other essays in Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Because—as the cover image on the book indicates—keywords books and essays are meant to be tools. They can be tools for academic analysis; they can also be tools for political understanding and organizing. These brief posts are tools in both of these ways. We hope that you and your students use them well.