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Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. Keywords for American Cultural Studies

Chrysavgi Papagianni

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1Keywords for American Cultural Studies makes an attempt to approach the various terms and keywords included in it not as words with fixed meaning but rather as flexible linguistic constructs whose meanings change over time and within specific socio-historical contexts. In this respect the book is similar, according to the editors, Bruce Burgett and Glenn Handler, to Raymond Williams’ 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, which also proclaimed to be “an inquiry into a vocabulary” instead of a mere dictionary or glossary.

2The implied development of language and its intimate relation to specific /idiosyncratic usage, a principle also favored by Williams, seems to be at the heart of Keywords as it attempts to strike free from the constrictions and universalizing aspects of dictionaries, glossaries and reference books that, as Burgett and Handler claim, “rely on experts and reproduce a discourse of expertise by downplaying the creative and unpredictable aspects of interactive and idiosyncratic forms of meaning making” (2). Instead, the book approaches keywords as “metadata,” highlighting very appropriately how they have not existed since ‘the beginning of time” but rather they are in constant flux as they are specific to particular users, communities, and socio-historical contexts. From this point of view, the title, Keywords for American Cultural Studies, is more than justified as it defines a very specific context, rejecting from the very beginning any claims to universality.

3The book consists of more than 90 essays written by multiple authors from interdisciplinary backgrounds, an aspect that represents an important departure from Williams’s earlier book. Interestingly enough, all of the authors are very careful to differentiate between “America” and the “United States” (3). This differentiation is essential, since it allows for a more informed approach to those terms that are influenced semantically by their use in a specific, United States context, yet they cannot be collapsed under a purely “American” or “Americanist” umbrella. For example, as the editors explain, terms such as “religion, ”or “neoliberism,” defy a rigid categorization under such an umbrella. It is noteworthy, that the semantic specificity of such terms when considered together with their transnational dimension, enables the reader to “reimagine the political geographies of the United States” (4). Obviously, such a re-imagining is in accordance with the dynamic dimension of those keywords as constantly evolving units of meaning, given their continuous encounter with the specific context within which they exist.

4All in all, Keywords for American Cultural Studies represents a useful, comprehensible and informative overview of some of the most important terms of American cultural studies as it focuses on both their contemporary and their historical meaning. Readers are, in fact, encouraged to assume an active role by being exposed to debates surrounding the semantic evolution of the terms as well as by being invited to create their own metadata, since the terms included are treated as “sites of unresolved conflict and contestation” (1). Obviously, this dynamic aspect of Keywords makes the book useful not only for beginners in cultural studies but also for the experienced researcher.

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Bibliographical reference

New York: New York University Press, 2014. Pp 296. ISBN:978-0-7147-0801

Electronic reference

Chrysavgi Papagianni, « Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. Keywords for American Cultural Studies », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2016-1, document 13, Online since 17 February 2016, connection on 23 October 2020. URL :

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Chrysavgi Papagianni

Zayed University

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This text is under a Creative Commons license : Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Generic

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