I am very pleased to have been able to set up in 2007 – with Zoe Kinsley at Liverpool Hope University and Kate Walchester at Liverpool John Moores University – the Liverpool Travel Seminar, a collaborative and interdisciplinary forum for colleagues on Merseyside with interests in travel and travel writing. Since 2007, our annual seminars have explored the cross-disciplinary impact of travel studies, offering perspectives from colleagues active in many fields, including Anthropology, Cultural Studies, English Literature, Human Geography, Modern Languages and Semiology.
The Seminar provides a cross- and inter-disciplinary research infrastructure, permitting cross-institutional dialogue and research collaboration in Liverpool itself. At the same time, we have sought to expand national and international networks of scholars working on travel and associated fields (and recently, for instance, contributed a panel to the Travelling Narratives: Modernity and the Spatial Imaginary conference in Zurich). LTS offers a constructive environment in which colleagues from Liverpool’s universities, museums, and other cultural organizations, who have interests in travel and travel writing, together with invited scholars from elsewhere, discuss the latest developments in their fields whilst reflecting on possible future directions.
The 2014 event, held last week, was a public one, and reflected our commitment to exploring the wider interest beyond academia in travel writing as a literary form. Kate, Zoe and I are currently preparing a glossary of keywords relating to travel writing for Anthem Press, and the aim of the event was to explore the subject of keywords, the topic of a current exhibition at Tate Liverpool, in the specific context of travel. I began the evening with a talk on ‘travel’ as a keyword (the text of which is below), and was followed by a presentation and readings by acclaimed writer and journalist Ian Thomson, author of two Caribbean travel narratives, The Dead Yard and Bonjour Blanc, and also of Primo Levi: A Biography. Taking ‘home’ as his keyword for exploring ideas of travel and movement, Ian considered the idea that travel writing is as much about home as it is abroad. His readings also included material from a forthcoming book.
Travel as “keyword”
“Travel” is not a word that can be easily evoked to talk about the Middle Passage, the Trail of Tears, the landing of the Chinese immigrants at Ellis Island, the forced relocation of Japanese Americans, or the plight of the homeless. Theorizing these diverse journeying is crucial to our understanding of any politics of location.
I hang onto “travel” as a term of cultural comparison, precisely because of its historical taintedness, its associations with gendered, racial bodies, class privilege, specific means of conveyance, beaten paths, agents, frontiers, documents, and the like. I prefer it to more apparently neutral, and “theoretical”, terms, such as “displacement”, which can make the drawing of equivalences across different historical experiences too easy.
Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain, the current Tate Liverpool exhibition which has in part inspired tonight’s event, has provided a welcome opportunity for many of us to revisit Raymond Williams’s 1976 book of the same title, a volume devoted to what its author dubbed the “vocabulary of culture and society”. Williams – a prominent Welsh novelist and leading Marxist critic, a contemporary of Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart, and, like them, an intellectual architect of the field now known as cultural studies – was committed to establishing the shifting meanings of words used in discussions of culture. He writes on occasion about the ways in which words themselves “travel” across time and culture, often changing means quite radically in the process. He began by analysing “culture” itself, a term central to many of his writings, and his notes on sixty significant words were initially prepared as an appendix to Culture and Society in 1958. In the event, it was an extended version of this unpublished appendix, with short essays on a total of 110 words, that was eventually published as Keywords in 1976. A revised edition appeared in 1983 with twenty-one new words, revealing the extent to which the vocabulary of culture and society is itself constantly changing and fluid. It is important to note that the keywords project was so much more than lexicological. Williams was clear about this: and in his own terms, from the introduction of Keywords, the Oxford English Dictionary was “primarily philological and etymological”, i.e. “better on range and variation than on connection and interaction” (p.18).
In the 1983 edition of Keywords, Williams noted his “sense of the work as necessarily unfinished and incomplete” (p.27). He reaffirms here what I have always found to be his extremely powerful call for us to engage in critical historicization and contextualization, i.e., to be attentive to the changes and continuities of those key terms we deploy on everyday basis to understand the society and culture in which we live:
not a tradition to be learned, nor a consensus to be accepted, not a set of meanings which, because it is ‘our language’, has a natural authority; but as a shaping and reshaping, in real circumstances and from profoundly different and important points of view: a vocabulary to use, to ﬁnd our ways in, to change as we ﬁnd it necessary to change it, as we go on making our own language and history (p.24).
Keywords has accordingly inspired a series of further projects, most notably New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005), edited by cultural studies scholars Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris, as well as Keywords for American Cultural Studies (New York University Press, 2007), edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler, and New South African Keywords (Ohio University Press, 2008), edited by Nick Shepherd and Steven Robins. “Keywords in Literature and Culture” is a series recently launched by Wiley-Blackwell (with an opening volume on modernism), and there are additional collections such as the Other Press series with its titles on “experience”, “gender”, “identity” and “truth”. There is also a collaborative research project building on Williams’s investigation of terms “prominently used but also contested”, called the “Keywords Project”, established in 2006 and supported by the University of Pittsburgh, and the journal of the Raymond Williams Society is itself called Key Words.
Williams himself – frustrated by the reductions and simplifications inherent in alphabetical listing – said he wished that “some form of presentation could be devised in which it would be clear that the analyses of particular words are intrinsically connected, sometimes in complex ways” (pp.24-25). The Tate Liverpool exhibition is in many ways a realization of that wish, a demonstration of the ways in which British art from the 1980s engaged actively with the ideas and indeed keywords that Williams and other cultural theorists were exploring at the time. This was a decade of great upheaval in Britain, characterized by many forms of oppositional politics that had a direct impact on culture. These topics are represented with contrasting approaches by the British artists included in the exhibition, and whose work intersects with the cluster of keywords selected by the curators: Structural, Private, Folk, Violence, Criticism, Liberation, Formalist, Myth, Anthropology, Native, Materialism, Unconscious, and Theory.
Absent from the list – but I would suggest clearly implicit in the interplay between many of the works selected and the terms suggested – is the keyword that interests us today, namely “travel” (and the wide range of cognate terms with which it is associated). Williams called Keywords “a book in which the author would positively welcome amendment, correction and addition” (p.26). Central to my observations today is the idea that the study of society and culture depends also on attention to the balance between mobility and immobility, extroversion and introversion, travel and sessility, home and abroad. The Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt recently published a text entitled Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, an intervention that pithily crystallizes a number of ideas – developed most notably over the past two decades in the work of scholars such as James Clifford, Timothy Cresswell, Mimi Sheller and John Urry – around the place of travel, translation and movement as phenomena constitutive of cultures and societies. Whilst underlining the extent to which mobility must be understood primarily in a literal sense before it is abstracted in the light of figurative, theoretical or metaphorical interpretations, Greenblatt stresses that mobility studies should pay serious attention to analysis of the meanings, representations and sensations of immobility, rootedness and even cultural stagnation. As Claude Lévi-Strauss noted in his monumental Structural Anthropology “stability is no less mysterious than change”, and Michael Cronin’s work on denizenship – on the individual’s close relationship with the environment in which they dwell – has made it very clear that any simplistic romanticization of mobility, as well as any demonization of immobility, is to be avoided. We only have to look to the increasing importance of nature writing and the privileging of walking as a decelerated means of transport and a fractal mode of observation to understand the extent to which “travel” is associated with home as much as with abroad, with the domestic as much as with the exotic, with the apparently static as much as with the overtly mobile. The anthropologist James Clifford has pushed this analysis further by highlighting the interdependency of mobility and immobility, encapsulated in the twin notions of “dwelling-in-travelling” and “travelling-in-dwelling” – in the idea that the domestic is often constructed in the midst of the field of travel, and that travel – in the form of vertical travel, or micro-journeys – can be integral to engagement with the everyday.
“Travel” is, as a result, a keyword that should be taken very seriously. The significance of “travel”, the possibilities it holds for the individual, the impact it has upon our own society and on those across the globe – these are debates that we encounter daily in the popular press, and that have come into sharp focus in recent years at times of social, political, economic transition and of humanitarian crisis. “Travel” is potentially a term that allows us to navigate the current Tate exhibition in three key ways: first, to unpick those works apparently focused on immobility and domesticity – e.g., Stephen McKenna’s An English Oak, a painting of an iconic English national symbol in which the tree is associated with a network of other species (he produced a similar painting of a beech tree in a park in Belgium); Stephen Willats’s Living with Practical Realities, a bleak exploration of the realities of living in a tower block; or David Hockney’s My Parents, a self-conscious reflection on the construction of art and on the links between imaginary and real space; secondly, to explore other works focused on migration and circulation, whether it be voluntary or forced, historical or contemporary – e.g., Donald Rodney’s Visceral Canker, an installation consisting of two wooden wall plaques displaying heraldic images, each linked to a system of tubes and electrical pumps which circulate imitation blood; this fluid connects the coats of arms of John Hawkins, the first slave trader to sail from Plymouth, to the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth I, who had granted him the use of one of her fleet; or Carl Plackman’s The Immigrant, a juxtaposition of objects that encapsulates the artist’s belief that a work’s title should serve simply as a “springboard”, and never as a definitive endpoint in the construction of meaning, an idea that resonates strongly with Raymond Williams’s own adoption of fluidity as a key element in his analysis of words and of how they can evolve over time; and thirdly to illuminate those that represent thresholds across which travel might or might not occur – e.g., Willie Doherty’s The Bridge, two photographs of a menacingly empty bridge in Derry, clear of traffic in both images, although with evidence in the right panel of two white circles that might be the lights of a vehicle, either approaching or driving away.
Perhaps one of the most striking works in the exhibition – Helen Chadwick’s Carcass – underlines the extent to which mobility is central to culture. The glass tower of rotting vegetable matter explores the organic, complementary processes of decay, circulation and renewal, creating a work of art that – despite its layered, static appearance – is constantly in flux. I recall Stephen Greenblatt’s observation:
The apparent fixity and stability of cultures is, in Montaigne’s words, ‘nothing but a more languid motion’. Even in places that at first glance are characterized more by homogeneity and stasis than by pluralism and change, cultural circuits facilitating motion are at work.
Carcass makes me think that it is perhaps surprising that keywords associated with movement were absent from Raymond Williams’s own Keywords. Williams would, I am sure, have understood the comments of C.L.R. James in Beyond a Boundary:
Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place, the relations of countries and the relations of classes had to change, before I discovered that it is not quality of goods and utility which matter, but movement; not where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there.
Williams was the son of a railwayman, and his own life was shaped by a clear sense of travel and mobility – literally, in terms of the European journeys he undertook (to Geneva, for instance, for a League of Nations youth conference and then Paris, in 1937, when he discovered Marx for the first time; as an officer in an anti-tank regiment in the Second World War, involved in the campaign from Normandy, through Belgium and the Netherlands, on into Germany); and also as an academic and intellectual moving from adult education to teach at Cambridge. Williams himself, in the introduction to Keywords, describes the strangeness of (to quote from the text) ‘travel from an artillery regiment on the Kiel Canal to a Cambridge college’ (p.11).
Yet while there is a marked absence of terms evoking such travel and mobility in Williams’s original work, we see a notable emergence of travel-related terminology in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, highlighting the increasing presence of “travel” in the ways in which we think about and articulate our sense of things in the decades after Williams’s publication, across both academic and more public domains of usage. Tony Bennett, editor of New Keywords, draws attention to the increasing significance of mobility in this revised version of Raymond William’s Keywords. Bennett’s revisions and additions indicate the significance of what has been called a “mobility turn”. Newly included in Bennett’s text are the keywords “diaspora”, “tourism”, “globalization” and “space”, all of which relate explicitly to travel. Travel is also of implicit significance in other New Keywords entries, such as that on “mobility” itself (again, not included by Williams), which unpacks the meanings of the word, beginning with its most literal sense, and highlighting the extent to which the term initially implied danger and disruption, elements that continue to be reflected in the association of mobile populations with various forms of moral panic. The entry explores “upward” and “downward mobility”, and accordingly illustrates the ways in which considerations of ‘mobility’ must be attenuated by a parallel recognition of “motility”, the differential and often profoundly uneven distribution and appropriation of possibilities relative to movement.
“Movement”, “mobility”, “motility”: these keywords form elements of a wider constellation of terms associated with “travel”, but certainly not entirely synonymous with it. To these terms we might add others describing different forms of mobility: e.g., “displacement”, “tourism”, “migration”. These words reflect the “mobility turn” in the arts, humanities and social sciences over the past two decades that has been key to the understanding of postmodern and postcolonial cultures and societies; they underline the extent to which “travel” – real and virtual – seems increasingly constitutive of contemporary life, both as a form of leisure and liberation, but also as a source of restlessness, rootlessness and anxiety. As a result of this, travel writing itself has also become a significant field of academic enquiry, yet it is only in recent decades that it has been recognised as a serious area of study, that the texts of travel have gained the status of important literary and cultural documents. My conclusion is that this process of recognition and analysis involves ongoing mapping of the meanings of “travel” as a keyword in its own right. “Travel” is one of those terms that is prominently used but also regularly contested. It can be applied to people, objects, books, ideas, theories and, of course, words themselves. The elasticity of the term means that it can describe different forms of movement, in different locations, at different historical moments and for different motivations. To focus specifically on people in motion, “travel” implies a form of embodiment that is absent from, for instance, “displacement”; it brings with it a dimension of phenomenology, meaning that its sensory aspects must be acknowledged: not just the visual, but also the auditory and the tactile, smell and taste. “Travel” is also to be historically situated, related to shifting contexts that take us from pilgrimage to the Grand Tour to tourism. As a term, it is also often policed, meaning that certain travellers – tourists or migrants, for example; as well as those whose journeys are necessary or forced – are denied access to the activity it implies. And this policing means that study of travel must take account of key variables: not just class, gender and ethnicity, but also matters of velocity – Susan George writes evocatively of “fast castes” to describe those with access to the means of accelerated movement.
What has always interested me, however, is that the spaces and vectors of “travel” are characterized by the co-existence of those whose itineraries are differently motivated and differently constituted, both materially and culturally. One of the opportunities afforded by “travel” as a keyword is precisely that it allows us to draw journeys together, to understand them in relation to each other, expanding the term beyond our customary understandings of it. This is the meaning of the quotation from bell hooks with which I began; it also underpins James Clifford’s retention of the term, despite what he acknowledged to be its “historical taintedness”. To adopt travel as a keyword is also to reflect on its etymology, linked – like “travail” – to the “tripalium”, an instrument of torture made up of three stakes to which the victim would be tied and burnt with fire. This focus on a physical ordeal distinguishes “travel” from its equivalent in other languages – the roots of “voyage” in French, for instance, focus on the physical path of the journey itself rather than the physical effort required to follow it. The change of emphasis gestures towards the sense of transformation often associated with travel. As one of the finest twentieth-century travel writers, the Swiss author Nicolas Bouvier, noted: “A journey does not need reasons. Before long, it proves to be reason enough in itself. One thinks that one is going to make a journey, yet soon it is the journey that makes or unmakes you”.
To what extent, we may ask, is this still true, with the rapid mechanization of transport and the democratization of travel; does such an approach simply indicate a nostalgia for earlier forms of journeying, evident perhaps in the recent flurry of interest in that most everyday form of travel, walking? The “keyword” approach – challenging us always to historicize and contextualize – locates such questions at the centre of our concerns, and also invites us to reflect on the likely future usefulness of a term such as “travel”. Technological innovation, digital transformation, the existence of virtual worlds, the continued unfolding of the afterlives of empire, the emergence of phenomena such as thanatourism (or dark travel): all of these are factors that continue to shape the keyword “travel” and that guarantee its continued place in our own shared “vocabulary of culture and society”.
 bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place (New York: Routledge, 2008), p.100.
 James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), p.39.
 Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fourth Estate, 2014 ).
 Stephen Greenblatt, Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto (Cambridge: Cam bridge University Press, 2009).
 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurelle (Paris: Plon, 1958), p.284.
 Michael Cronin, The Expanding World: Towards a Politics of Microspection (Winchester: Zero Books, 2012).
 James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century.
 Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Cultural Mobility: An Introduction’, in Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp.1-23 (p.5).
 C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary (Durham, NC Duke University Press, 1993), pp.116-117.
 Jody Berland, ‘Mobility’, in Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg and Meaghan Morris (eds), New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp.217-19.
 On this concept, see Mimi Sheller, ‘The islanding effect: post-disaster mobility systems and humanitarian logistics in Haiti’, cultural geographies, 20.2 (2012), 185-204.
 Nicolas Bouvier, L’Usage du monde (Paris: Payot & Rivages, 2001 ), p.12.