Aesthetics

At once universal and specific, transcendent as well as deeply historical, the property of individual feeling but also affecting the mass subject, “aesthetics” has been notoriously difficult to define. This imprecision explains why aesthetics have often been invoked as a progressive force that opens new conceptual horizons and just as often derided as a tired elitist dodge that preserves the status quo. The unevenness of the ground on which matters of beauty, perception, taste, and the sublime stand results from elemental fissures between art and politics. Such fissures may be more fantasy than actuality, however. When aesthetics are considered in terms of social practice, philosophy, and cultural criticism, they appear as profoundly material engagements with embodiment, collectivity, and social life.

Aesthetics are in their narrowest sense purely about the discernment of formal criteria such as unity, proportion, and balance within the domain of art. If we trace the term’s origins

Body

As a term that designates the physical or material frame of human and other living beings, “body” has a long career in the language and a relatively brief one as a focus of critical engagement in the study of culture. For Christian theology as for speculative philosophy in the West, the body figures as the devalued term in a structuring dualism of body/soul (in sacred thought) and body/mind (in secular traditions). These dualisms apprehend the body as a material substrate of human life that is fundamentally distinct from and subordinated to the privileged term in the dichotomy (mind, soul), which alone comprehends the human capacity for knowledge and self-knowledge as well as the repertoire of human sensibilities, dispositions, and affects on which the salvation, expression, or advancement of humanity is understood to depend. In Christian theology as in humanist philosophy, the body turns up on the side of animality or

Border

Were we to imagine an earlier iteration of this keywords project—one published around, say, 1989—“border” would most likely have been left off the list entirely, though “margin” or maybe “minor” might well have been included. In the intervening years, as violent border conflicts erupted across the world and as the US government heavily militarized its border with Mexico, the term has become prominent in academic work. Accounting for this shift—understanding the concept’s fortunes, as it were—entails movement among academic concerns, theoretical conversations, and sociopolitical and economic developments over the last quarter of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. To be sure, a loosely defined field of “border studies” has been around in some form or another since Frederick Jackson Turner ([1893] 1920) argued for the significance of the frontier and Herbert Eugene Bolton (1921) published The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest

City

Raymond Williams (1973) demonstrated the overarching significance of the keywords “city” and “country,” establishing the simultaneously positive and negative inflections of urbanity and rurality. For urbanity, on the positive side were the values of learning, light, progress, civilization, cosmopolitanism, tolerance and civil liberties, excitement, and sophistication; on the negative lay the countervalues of sin, darkness and noise, corruption and devolution, danger and violence, irreligion, mob rule, and anomie—in short, urban modernity and its discontents.

As Williams noted, these city/country oppositions are always invoked in the service of political interests. Diverse social actors described European and, later, US urban life in ways that shifted and evolved with cities themselves. Troubadours, priests, ministers, and Romantic poets gave way to flaneurs and other urban observers, who then gave way to social statisticians, settlement-house workers, novelists, playwrights, journalists, photographers, and painters. The new social scientists and artists took cities and urban dwellers as their

Uncategorized

Civilization

“Civilization” refers to an ideal perpetually contested, a condition perpetually threatened, and a practice perpetually prescribed. It is a term employed by academics and cultural theorists, policy pundits, and government officials in the United States and around the world. In the view of R. G. Collingwood (1971) and a host of lesser defenders of “Western heritage,” it is the political order and cultural treasure of the West threatened by totalitarian, proletarian, and jihadist barbarities. It is the globally exportable condition of social development promoted by the United Nations Civil Society Organizations and Participation Programme. It is the seductive discipline of decorum prescribed by colonizing powers on subaltern populations critiqued in Homi K. Bhabha’s essay “Sly Civility” (1994). It is an abstract set of conditions, found in any number of world cultures throughout history, described by sociologists such as Benjamin Nelson (1973) and Stanford M. Lyman (1990).

These various usages have

Community

In the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century United States, the term “community” is used so pervasively that it would appear to be nearly meaningless. The term is often deployed more for its performative effect of being “warmly persuasive” than for any descriptive work it accomplishes (Raymond Williams [1976] 1983, 76). Carrying only positive connotations—a sense of belonging, understanding, caring, cooperation, equality—“community” is deployed to mobilize support not only for a huge variety of causes but also for the speaker using the term. It functions this way for companies such as Starbucks and Target, which have programs and pamphlets in their stores proclaiming their commitment to community, as well as for the feminist scholar who seeks to legitimize her research by saying she works “in the community.” It is deployed across the political spectrum to promote everything from identity-based movements (on behalf of women, gays and lesbians, African Americans, and others),

Conservatism

In common usage, the term “conservatism” names a belief that hierarchies constituting the status quo are worth preserving and protecting; that inequality is not a necessary evil but a positive good; and that the defense of individual liberty is the best bulwark against the so-called totalitarian tendencies of an egalitarian politics. One popular variation of this usage posits conservatism as a trans-historical reaction against revolution from below: the emancipation of the lower orders in France; the rebellions of slaves in the Americas; the struggles of the white working class in nineteenth-century United States; and in successive generations, the demands of women, the poor, nonwhite and racialized minorities, and people with marginalized gender identities. In short, conservatism is synonymous with power and the defense of power in ways that are enlivened by violence and war (Robin 2011).

In the first couple of decades of the new millennium, this usage of the …

Contract

“Contract” is at least as old as the Old Testament and as new as the market transactions of the moment—local, national, and global. It encompasses the provinces of religion and commodities, state and civil society, public and private exchange, the rights of persons and the rights to property. Puritan theology speaks of covenants, Enlightenment liberalism of social contracts, political economy of commercial contracts, the law of liberty of contract. Informed by those traditions, US culture has long been infused by contract. Just after the Civil War, a primer handed out by Yankee liberators to former slaves testified to contract’s vast province: “You have all heard a great deal about contracts, have you not since you have been free? . . . Contracts are very numerous; numerous as the leaves on the trees almost; and, in fact, the world could not get on at all without them” (Fisk 1866, 47). The

Coolie

The word “coolie” is first and foremost a product of European expansion into Asia and the Americas. Of Tamil, Chinese, or other origin, it was popularized by Portuguese sailors and merchants across Asia beginning in the sixteenth century and later adopted by fellow European traders on the high seas and in port cities. By the eighteenth century, “coolie” referred to a laborer of India or China, hired locally or shipped abroad. The word took on a new significance in the nineteenth century, as the beginnings of abolition remade “coolies” into indentured laborers in high demand across the world, particularly in the tropical colonies of the Caribbean. Emerging out of struggles over British emancipation and Cuban slavery in particular, “coolies” and “coolieism”—defined by the late nineteenth century as “the importation of coolies as labourers into foreign countries” (Oxford English Dictionary)—came to denote the systematic shipment and employment of Asian

Democracy

Democracy is the name that has been assigned to a dream as well as to certain already existing realities that are lived, by many people, as a nightmare. The dream is of government by the people, government in which the common people hold sway; in which the dispensation of the commons—“the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc., created through universal exchange” that Karl Marx called wealth—is collectively determined; in which the trace of any enclosure of the commons is an object of the severest vigilance, since such dispensation will have been understood as ending not in tragedy but in romance (Marx [1858] 1993, 488; Hardin 1968). This is the fantasy of democracy as fantasy, as the contrapuntal arrangement of the many voices of the whole. The materialization of this dream will have been real democracy.

Authority in democracy can be exercised directly, in the immediate participation of

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