by Glenn Hendler
“Society” is a word too often used in a sloppy or vague way. When teachers share their pet peeves about student writing, they frequently name “society” as the word they would most like to ban. There are typically two reasons given for this antipathy. First, the term falsely implies universality (when you say “society,” do you really mean to refer to every single person in the world?). Second, it attributes agency to an abstraction (how can “society” actually do anything like oppress someone or believe something?). Baked into such usages is often a simplistic if widely recognizable story about how an amorphous “social” pressure is applied to equally amorphous “individuals” who either succumb to that pressure or resist it by “being themselves.” You can find versions of this story in a blog post about how well the free market organizes “society,” a sociology paper about gangs’ “antisocial” activity, or a political speech blaming “society” for certain behavior. But wherever this story is told, if it lacks any specifics about what is meant by “society,” readers are likely to see it as a cliché, an overgeneralizing formula.
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?
Since the publication of the first edition in 2007, thousands of students have read Keywords for American Cultural Studies in courses across a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields, and at every level from first-year writing courses to advanced graduate seminars.
Please be aware that some of the essays that are part of Keywords for American Cultural Studies are available in the print volume and e-book, while others are on the web at http://keywords.nyupress.org. If you are reading this note on the web site, please look at the sixty-plus essays in print. If you are reading this in either the paper or electronic version of the book, please know that there are as many provocative and useful keyword essays available on the web site as there are where you are reading now. There are many brand-new essays, and many of the essays in print and in pixels have been newly revised for this 2020 edition. In constructing a syllabus or assignment, a list of recommended readings for your students, a qualifying exam list, or using keyword essays in any other way, please do take into consideration all 120-plus essays that make up Keywords for American Cultural Studies.
I. What Is a Keyword?
A project that spans fourteen years accrues a lot of debts. As we did in previous editions, we want to start out by thanking all of our contributors. We rushed them, then we delayed, then we rushed again, and brought new contributors on board with very little lead time. The intellectual and pedagogical work this volume does is due to their brilliance, but also to their patience with us as we requested revision after revision. Whether you joined the volume in the month before it was completed or have been in it since the 2007 first edition, we thank you.
In the latest skirmish in a decades-long culture war, the right-wing indignation industry in the United States has identified something it calls “Critical Race Theory” as an existential threat to the nation and its youth. Often abbreviating it as “CRT,” legislatures have passed ordinances against teaching various forms of critical race pedagogy, and teachers in universities, colleges, high schools, and even elementary schools have been pressured to commit to banning them from their classrooms. The impact has been, at best, a heightened nervousness among educators about teaching critical theories and histories of race and racism or, at worst, a turning away from critical pedagogy altogether.