January 6th, 2005



In 1976 venerable British Marxist Raymond Williams published 'Keywords', a list of key words in Marxist cultural and communication studies followed by his definitions and ruminations on each. You can read excerpts from the book here; attempts at definitions of words like 'culture' and 'popular'. Perhaps Williams' aim was not to simplify these terms, make us think we understand them, but to point up complexities and contradictions within them, to show that, for instance, 'popular' can mean both the folk art made by the people and sophisticated media forms produced by highly-trained elites to win favour or power from the people and to speak on their behalf. To show, in other words, that keywords are often words that we fail to understand... but in interesting ways.

Later, when I started hanging out with Japanese people, I found that 'keywords' is a big term in Japan, although nobody's referring to Raymond Williams. Keywords in Japan are buzzwords, words that allow the Japanese to map out an unfamiliar territory they may wish to buy into. They're often untranslatable words, words that have to be explained, words that you have to take on trust as 'the way they're doing things over there now', words that convey a concept that's important to the understanding (or the interesting misunderstanding) of some particular culture, either an indigenous ancient culture or a foreign one.

Keywords often remain in the language of their origin. There's no Japanese equivalent. They enter Japanese as loan words; exotic, unassimilable, often English, but sometimes German or French too. Keywords are memes, packaged information viruses which, once defined, can charge around the Japanese mindset like a Trojan Horse virus. Keywords can wreak havoc and start crazes, but mostly they're just faddish, reductive, didactic. They're the Coles Notes of Japanese cultural journalism, simplifying, summarising and glamorizing all they touch.

It's worth looking at the metaphorical meanings of the word key for a moment:

* A key is an index, model, or map.

* A key is a device to open a locked door to 'somewhere else'.

* Something 'key' is something crucial, trendy, significant. Don't miss it!

(I suppose a key is also a beach you can relax on, and a lever that plays a musical note in a keyboard. Keywords are also a hot topic in the hot science of internet search engines, but that's not really the kind I'm talking about.)

A keyword to foreign thoughts is like a hotel key. You can't live there, but you can stay for a few days and explore, take a few photos, go home, talk about it, show the photos to your friends back home.

Many Japanese magazines and books operate, quite explicitly, on a 'keywords' system. Thoroughly, tirelessly, they introduce themes, maps, guides, explanations. They're didactic, enthusiastic. The keywords idea fits nicely with the kind of buzz or hype magazines need to generate excitement about things. What's this month's keyword? 80s? Stripes? Nature? It also gives journalists a cultural peg on which to hang products, a way to write about consumable experiences.

Yesterday's entry about the Studio Voice Life in the Woods issue shows keywords in operation. Each month, Studio Voice takes a keyword and free-associates in the cultural space around it. Forests in this case led to American 19th century thinkers like Thoreau, which led to John Cage and Martin Luther King, parks and shrines, nature photography, and a bunch of other associations in the minds of the magazine's editors and writers. Vice magazine works the same way, with theme issues and a kind of collective free association on the part of editors, photographers, designers and writers. Editor Jesse Pearson usually approaches me with a theme, a single keyword like 'work' or 'travel' or 'hate', and I'll either have an idea for a fresh approach or draw a blank and pass. The TV channel I watch most, Arte, works by a similar principle. Most nights there's a loose theme to the evening's viewing, a keyword like 'Palestinian independence' or 'music in Asia' (wow, Aki Onda's on Tracks tonight, must watch!).

Keywords relate to other keywords through what linguists call 'lexical set'. Words and meanings are arranged, in our minds, in the style of a thesaurus rather than a dictionary. They aren't neutrally laid out in alphabetical order, but cluster in knots of meaning and association. Semantics and emotion, experience and association create tangled knots of words and concepts so that, when we think, it's almost impossible, when thinking of one thing, not to be thinking, simultaneously, of another. I work this way when I write songs, often taking one lexical set and melding it to another in an unexpected way (a song on the 'Otto Spooky' album maps a fascist republic to a children's television programme in a rather shocking way, for instance). Because keywords tend to cluster in familiar ways with other keywords (childhood with innocence, for instance), there's always a potential for surprise and shock when someone busts out and melds a keyword to an unexpected or unrelated one. Lexical set is made to be broken, but in order to break it well we need it to be there in the first place.

Long live keywords and the keyworlds (authorised and unauthorised) they give us access to!