III National Workshop and Seminar

 Alfred Korzybski and His Impact on Language, Communication and Cultural Studies

25-27 October, 2010

The English and Foreign Languages University , Shillong           

The Third National Workshop-cum-Seminar on “Alfred Korzybski and His Impact on Language, Communication and Cultural Studies” organized by Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences, Baroda and the English and Foreign Languages University, Shillong took place in Shillong from the 25th to 27th October, 2010. The event sensitized the participants to a true Korzybskian way by instilling a sense of critical inquiry in them. As a participant I feel the wake of the spirit of creatical (critical and creative) reflection. By transforming us into perceiving “organisms-as-a-whole-in-environments” so much so that the constructive controversy generated in the interactive sessions and discussions enables us to “evaluate” and “respond” to messages from our individual socio-cultural perspectives. The inaugural session that took place on 25th October prepared us for the upcoming events-- we looked into the projected future through significance of the present; this we did by cultivating the importance of foresight and by connecting the diverse strands of past, present and future together. This is the situation which placed the Korzybskian notion of predictability as the primary measure of “the value” of an epistemological formulation.  The germinations of “predictability” create a self-reflexive (subjective) reformulation of the world and the user-- thereby they hinge on  myriad modes of self-correction and ordering of concepts, ideas, things, and abstract chunks of  knowledge in the world. The inaugural lectures delivered by P.C. Kar and K.C. Baral posited Korzybski in a post-war cataclysmic setting and urged the participants to reflect on the background of the age that influenced Korzybski in formulating his system of General Semantics. This scientific handling is very much evident in his act of interlinking sanity and the structural modes of language. Temsula Ao, the Chief Guest in the morning session, very beautifully highlighted the semantically dense narratives of Naga lore by laying bare the subtleties of “keeping a word hanging there.” This is just like coming back to the word again to give a new scope to it. However, the operation of language through the ethos of people, according to Ao, never allows us to live outside the morality of the dimensions of words. Thus, Ao opines that we are made of words.

The Inauguration

Students reciting 'Humanifesto' by Mark Tedder during the inauguration

General Semantics, the first non-Aristotelian system applied and made teachable by Korzybski, finds an interconnection between the structure of human nervous systems and the structure of languages. Heavily derived from science and mathematics, Korzybski’s notions proclaim language as the basic tool of time-binding. In a way, meaning is a function of the order or level of abstraction. Sometimes our languages can actually mislead us to uncritically and passively accept some “facts” that we deal with in our everyday life. Hence, language can be deceptive at times. Another aspect of his system includes modifying the way we consider the world by becoming inwardly and outwardly quiet, an experience that he termed, “silence on the objective levels.” However, drawing partly on his Polish milieu, Korzybski worked on Heisenberg’s mid-nineteen-twenties formulation of (restricted) uncertainty and looked at the “extensionally oriented persons” who are habitually open to new data through sentences like, “I don’t know; let’s see.”  As opined by Robert P. Pula, this possibility and “predictability” is useful in creating a saner and a more peaceful world, justifying the title of Korzybski’s book Science and Sanity (1933). In this regard we can say that the workshop-cum-seminar gave a new perspective on this great innovator and “synthesizer of available data,” Alfred Korzybski, the Polish-American philosopher and scientist.

A section of the audience

 Before appropriating and digesting theories, we need to be skeptical and critical. With this stance, Pravesh Jung Golay acquainted us with the specific historicities of the discourse of Plato and Korzybski. His paper on “Korzybski in Plato’s Cave: Authority and Truth in Korzybski” reorients some polemical concepts like the Platonic affinity for designating language as a tool; the fusion of “identity” with “description” in Plato’s Dialogues; the inferential forms of knowledge as shown by Korzybski and the famous MacLuhanian claim that we cannot have knowledge without language. Golay, very emphatically, plays with issues like “reality” and “authority” by ordering the slots in Platonic schema of things – such as, “perception,” “reason,” “opinion,” and “knowledge.” For him the immediacy of language is akin to the “ tower of Babel ,” and this has an alignment with Nietzsche’s propaganda of interconnecting the visibility of the “real” with the “unreal.” Golay’s lecture on the topic, “This is Not a Pipe: Aligning Foucault’s Analysis with Korzybski” delivered on 26th October, invaded a slippery terrain when he debunked the concept of a language that is neutral, stable, objective, static,  and complete by employing a Foucauldian perspective. He very deftly shows how Korzybski’s self-referential paradox and further destabilization of language can be related to Rene Magritte’s “This is not a Pipe,” “Art of Conversation,” “The Explanation” and other art works. By involving the notion of heterotopic spaces that dislodge the sense of being, he throws light on the supplementary thesis of Foucauldian thought by pointing to the “gaps,” “lacunae,” and “chasms” of representation (though the art works of Magritte). Language, as Korzybski has stated, is not a mechanical meaning-making apparatus that leans on the subject-object dichotomy; it rather makes meaning “a function of the order or level of abstraction.” As Korzybski has repeated many times, meaning is so context-driven that it does not “mean” anything definite until the context is specified or understood.

Pramod  K. Pandey

Pramod  K. Pandey’s. enlightening talk “On Modes of Reasoning” and “The Emancipatory Role of General Semantics through Language Awareness” delivered on 25th and 26th October respectively acquaint us with the fact that in order to evade the uncertainty and non-uniqueness that characterize human language, we must employ some modes of reasoning that would allow us to move towards greater certainty by making some explicit claims. Semantics, for him, can be used as a therapeutic model that is essential for our multi-directional development. By borrowing Korzybskian thoughts, he said that consciousness of abstracting is essential for “fully functioning” humans -- this can be the primary goal of General Semantics training.  Further on he defines humans as the “time-binding class of life” which is able to pass on knowledge from one generation to another over “time.”  Pandey’s lectures also make us aware about certain concepts like all-ness, misevaluation, the reductive use of be-verbs, structural differentiation and so on.

G.K. Das’ provoking lecture delivered on 25th October sees culture and language from the Korzybskian lens. In his paper titled “The Tortoise and the Hare Paradigm: Looking at the Interdependence of Language and Culture through the Korzybski Lens” he showed that the fast moving structure of language is like a hare whereas the sophisticated and complex structure of culture is akin to a tortoise. By integrating the dynamics of culture and language he propounds a pedagogy of liberation and freedom that would subvert the pitfalls and loopholes of traditional hegemonic and rigid systems of knowledge imparting. English and its teaching in the third world countries like India is imbued with myriad nuances and undercurrents like colonial impact associated with English, an elevation of position of the language user in the social space due to the elite nature of English, English eclipsing the Indian languages,  and English creating a sense of delimitation. On the other hand, by introducing an innovative and an experimental “Window-View,” Devkumar Trivedi’s evening session on 25th October transported us to a much more egalitarian space where we could question the institutional “received wisdom” as we were free to differ. Trivedi talks about the brain-language continuum based on Korzybskian neurophysiology. Korzybskian morphology designates language as a function which is derived from and is invented by brain. Reciprocally, as a function of the feedback mechanism, brain is in turn modified by the electro-chemical structuring called language. Thus, being a part of language, experience is regarded as a spatio-temporal event. Therefore, we possess diverse subjective window-views of our own. He specified the examples of the “phantom limb syndrome” and some “wonder drugs” that aid the enhancement of the psychological awareness of the patients. This has a unique correlation with the power of words in our lives, as properly elaborated by Korzybski in his ‘Dog Cookies’ incident. By stating how our personal window view can be partial at times, Trivedi goes on to break the Aristotelian template by harping on Korzybski’s realization of the importance of visualization for human understanding. For Korzybski, this is the cause behind making an overacting system of relationship accessible and visible so that people could see and touch, like the map, the model, the diagram and so on.

On 26th October, that is, the second day of the workshop, the forum of discussion and interaction was organized on the presentations of the participants based on the reading materials provided to them. Some of the issues that came to the forefront are the semantic representations which are popularly circulated in the domains of advertising and our meek acceptance of some distorted versions or rather some ideational traps built into language. The participants questioned: how mortally viable is the application of time-binding to the visual culture of the virtual realm? The depersonalization and anonymity of the “I” in the virtual spare is intricately connected to a sense of abundance and a proliferation of signifiers as one image gives in to another; thus, the chain continues in a perpetual network of signs. As such, to what extent Korzybskian concepts are helpful and beneficial in equipping us to decode the present situation? Can Korzybski be roped in to resolve an aporetic bundle of contradictions, in terms of identity and subjectivity, in terms of race and gender, in terms of cultural and ethnic positions? This is the controversial line of thought that all the participants followed in the session. But, in a way, these things remained open ended.

 The stimulating insights that Bini B.S provided in her lecture titled, “Cartography of Knowledge, Information and Time Binding: Exploration and Inclusion of Other Epistemological Terrains” gave a new twist to the three Korzybskian premises of General Semantics: firstly, the map is not territory; secondly, no map represents all of “its” presumed territory; and thirdly, all maps are self-reflexive. Very deftly she presents the fact how the map cannot evoke the ever changing or fluctuating “realities” of the referred territory. The map-making process codifies value according to the map maker’s belief as there are inherent lapses that limit the perception of the concerned territory. As an attempt to contextualize General Semantics in the time of image and virtual cultures, she extends the map/ territory analogy to the fantasy realms of internet communication, games and other virtual spaces of human interactions and activities. She further on ropes in Baudrillard’s interesting moorings on simulation and simulacra in order to refer to the three- dimensional projections in “internet games” and other virtual spaces that blur the distinctions between ‘reality’ and fantasy. By applying Korzybski’s theory on language, Bini extended her theoretical ramifications to the world of cyborgs and post-humans. By citing how Disneyland has become a real thing in this world of substitution and excess of signs, she puts the Korzybskian concept of “time-binding” in a world that is characterized by the carnivalesque display of images, a “schizophrenic and schizo-functional realm” that celebrates multiplicity, plurality, proliferation and the accepted organicity of digital technology. In a dexterous manner she uses the “grey zones” or certain overlapping spaces (theorized by thinkers such as Barthes, Foucault and Baudrillard, and writers like Borges) to eschew the habitual use of the terms “all’ and its ancient philosophical correlates, ‘absolutes’ of various kinds. 

The one-day seminar on “Language, Communication and Cultural Studies” held on 27 October, the last day, was noteworthy because the papers not only provided food for thought for the participants and the audience alike, but at the same time the contested ideologies, unique methodologies used to uncover the hidden subterranean strands of meanings from texts coupled with an argumentative note spurred the audience to get actively involved in the presentations. Prasenjit Biswas, the first presenter of the morning session chaired by Chitra Harshavardhan, in his paper titled “Time, Language and Game” emphasized the “regression” of language as pointed out by Korzybski through the temporal flow of Heidegger’s principle of internal time- consciousness and his grounding of being in a context. By working on the dynamics of the self and the other, and at the face of the indispensability of a colonial statement like, “the self is what the other is not,” Biswas elaborated on the function of representation in creating slices of “reality” through gaps and slippages. By referring to what Agamben has done by dislodging the concept of Messianic chronological time, Biswas takes a plunge into the self-referential and self-reflexive world of language that hinges on perception, cognition, and pragmatics to give a new twist to the concept of time. Arindam Chatterjee’s talk on “A Psychoanalytic Study: A Winnicottian Epistemological Access to Korzybski’s General Semantics” criticizes the two extreme positions that we take when we deal with theory: either we believe everything or we doubt everything.  This urge of vehemently refusing or rejecting everything or the need to accept everything at the face value leads us to a shadowy terrain of essentialism and partial worldview, in a way, as Korzybski has pointed out, this “saves us from thinking.” He urges us to take a third position that lies in between a world of truth and a world of falsehood. His paper delves deep into the connotations of “playing” as manifested in Winnicott’s explanation of a child’s experience of tackling with the external and internal worlds. By roping in the importance of metaphors in language, he basically talks about the “intermediate reality” that dwells between the inside and the outside. The second session of the seminar, chaired by G.K. Das, opens with J. P. Dimri’s paper on “Patanjali and Bhartrhari on Word-meaning.” The paper unfurls the rich repertoire of Eastern philosophy, grammar and language. Dimri injects a new lease of energy into the ancient role of the grammarian as shown in age-old Hindu texts and in a way emphasizes the contribution of the society in defining the codes of language. A.K. Mishra, on the other hand, links up semantics with how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and respond to our lived experiences through certain factors like our stimulus, nervous system, backgrounds, capabilities, biases, interests etc. He, further on, in his paper titled “Language, Understanding and Reading Comprehension: Teaching English and Hindi at Elementary Level in the North Eastern Region” employs certain Korzybskian concepts like E-prime (formulated by Korzybski’s students), hyphenation, sensory awareness, abstraction, extensional devices in delineating some strategies of teaching in the classroom. Chitra Harshavardhan, in her lecture titled “Seeing the World through the Prism of Translation” talks about the politics of translation, an act that worships the mode of equivalence by evoking and transferring a similar situation from one language to the other. In an ardent attempt to recreate those things which are lost in translation, she devises some strategies to keep the meanings intact (to some extent) by drawing on some analogies and parallels. She exemplifies some instances in German that are hard to translate into a different language because of a special kind of context-specificity. Sukalpa Bhattacharya in her paper leans on the “unrepresentability” in representation itself as the meaning-making process of language is akin to Borges’ “labyrinth”: we are lost souls in the realm of language as meanings are afloat in a never-ending sea of signifiers. By highlighting the myriad nuances of representation in both Eastern and Western discourse, she ropes in the infinite regress in the “the map of the map” paradigm of Korzybski. She cites the example of the symbol of Goddess Kali in Hindu mythology which acquires a new significance in the West once we severe it from the indigenous scenario and graft it in an unfamiliar and strange locale. In the similar vein, symbols, according to Korzybski, make us a “semantic class of life” as man’s achievements rest upon the use of symbols; “those who rule the symbols, rule us.”  K.C. Baral’s paper titled “The Spectacle of the Other: Revisiting Colonial/Postcolonial Spaces in the North East” embarks on the complex discourse of Korzybski that has a close affinity with some issues of the Enlightenment project, like “progress” and “reason.” Korzybski, a positivist, is responsible for shifting the self-centered philosophy to the other-centered philosophy. By invoking the dictates of Bakhtin and Dostoevsky, Baral focuses on some pivotal issues about “the acceptability of the other in socio-cultural spaces,” “the me-ness effect that counters the all-ness effect,” and the ever-changing concept of “permanence” that comes from the “loka” in the Indian context.

J.P. Dimri and G.K. Das during the seminar

 The workshop-cum-seminar also screened a documentary by Merajul Rahman Barua named “In the Season of Blue Storm” which is based on the liberation of Muslim women in the contemporary Indian society. The narrative of the documentary revolves round four bold Muslim women who single-handedly struggle against the oppressive social structures by re-defining the concepts of freedom and personal rights. The performance-piece of Arka Mukhopadhya, a postmodern rendition of Ulysses, is an added attraction of the three-day long workshop-cum-seminar. The event closes with a valedictory session chaired by David Syiemlieh and a cheerful promise to begin anew, but not to terminate or end this pursuit of knowledge. Rebekah Tham, the local coordinator whose untiring efforts shone through the event proposes the vote of thanks, reflecting on how this workshop-cum-seminar opens new avenues and vistas so that the quest continues in all epistemological directions and also along the pathways of life and experiences. Finally, by echoing the words of P.C. Kar, we can say that the visual treat of the lush green pine trees and the picturesque hills of Shillong will be ever etched in remembrances, in recollections! Memory is prophetic. Memory is steeped in a sense of spectrality. However, this glance through the tinted glass of the past has made the space around Korzybski visible…and thus, this has made Korzybski visible!  

Performance of  'Ulysses' by Arka


The English and Foreign Languages University , Shillong                  Namrata Pathak