Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Institute of General Semantics - 75 Years and Still Standing

     For several days in March, 1938, Alfred Korzybski lectured the medical staff at Peoria State Hospital, Peoria, Illinois. His presentation there marked the end of his career as an independent, itinerant teacher (which had ramped up ever since the publication five years earlier of Science and Sanity). By the time of his Peoria lectures, Korzybski and a few of his closest students had already begun the process of setting up the Institute of General Semantics (IGS) in Chicago, which the state of Illinois incorporated in May 1938 as a non-profit institution for "Linguistic Epistemologic Scientific Research and Education". Remarkably today, seventy-five years later, the Institute still exists. It has never been easy. 

Until his death on March 1, 1950—Korzybski would carry on his work at the Institute (which moved to Lakeville, Connecticut in 1946). Korzybski: A Biography provides a detailed account of IGS history during those first 12 turbulent  years. Accounts of the Institute's subsequent years can be found in various now-somewhat-hard-to-find articles by Charlotte Schuchardt Read and others. I've provided some recent updates of the last somewhat tumultuous decade (See my 2011 presentation at the IGS Annual Conference in New York City and my January 2013 blogpost The State of Organized GS-2013: A Blunt Assessment, which both focus on recent organizational difficulties.) However, as Korzybski: A Biography clearly documents, from its beginnings the IGS  struggled with difficulties of various kinds, some of which threatened its survival—even with Korzybski at the helm. Difficulties, sometimes severe, continued after Korzybski's death. (In my years, starting in 1979, of serious involvement in IGS educational, management, and publication activities I was one of a number of people who had to deal with many of these problems). But somehow the Institute survived it all. And despite recent problems and organizational downsizing, it still does. 

Will the Institute of General Semantics survive as a viable organization carrying on Korzybski's legacy for another 75 years? I don't know. I do feel confident that if it is to do so, those people who run the organization now, its Board of Trustees, will need to do a lot more than they already have done to renew their understanding of Korzybski's work and of the aims and history of the organization they are responsible for. And they will need to renew their commitment to carrying on the legacy that Korzybski and others left us. Not just words but actions are needed. Complacency and indifference have a way of sneaking up on even the best of us. And the creeping organizational amnesia (which I've alluded to elsewhere and which may have started long before any of its present members sat on the Board of Trustees) will have to be reversed. Without a deep and thorough knowledge of the discipline of GS, including the history and traditions of the Institute,—which I presently see lacking in the organization—it will be impossible to adequately build upon what's been done already. That's what conscious time-binding requires. In order to learn, it's necessary to realize that you don't already know something. Those who don't know can then get help if they seek it, because there are still a few people around who know quite a bit—hint, hint.

In the meantime, I send the Institute of General Semantics my best wishes—Happy 75th Anniversary and Many More!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Book Review of The Posturality of the Person: A Guide to Postural Education and Therapy by Ron Dennis

Posture, as Ron Dennis defines it, “comprises the flow through space and time of all activity of bodily support and movement in the course of living.” A study of posture in this dynamic sense leads not only to a descriptive understanding of the state of any person’s posture, but also to prescriptive guidelines for assessing theposturality of the person”, the term Dennis has coined for the quality of postural use and the title of this important book. Dennis, a veteran teacher—and teacher of teachers—of the Alexander Technique of postural education, received the 2012 Certificate of Merit from the American Society for the Alexander Technique. His incisive yet brief book (112 pages) is worth multiple readings—but not just for students and teachers of the Alexander Technique. Although the influence from his study and teaching of the Alexander Technique is certainly not negligible, this book is not specifically about that well-known approach to 'posture' and 'movement'. Rather in the notion of posturality, Dennis connects and extends the core concerns of Alexander Technique teachers to those of physical therapists, physicians, chiropractors, personal trainers, psychotherapists, as well as contemporary movement scientists and other students of human physiology and behavior, including students of Korzybski's general semantics (GS)—but more on that connection shortly.

After his opening "Introduction" which outlines the aim and content of the book, Dennis' Chapter 2—"Conceptual Foundations"—provides a list of "22 foundational statements" on "the physiological and developmental issues relevant to the approach of posturality being advocated." The remainder of the book does not thoroughly cover all of these premises, which would require a much larger book or even multiple encyclopedic volumes. Instead, Dennis focuses his remaining chapters on statements 19 through 22, which deal with the notion of "lengthening", the process of arriving at an "optimal structural dimension" of the skeleton, especially the spine, for the least amount of unnecessary strain in movement and support. Subsequent chapters on lengthening include: "Length and Lengthening"; "Why Lengthen?"; "Good Grief, How Do I Lengthen?"; "Dynamic Posturality ~ Moving with Length"; "Breath as Postural Process"' and "Where Do We Go from Here", which surveys various manipulative, exercise, and awareness-based approaches to musculoskeletal health, seen through the lens of posturality. The final chapter 9, "Bibliographic Essay", provides valuable recommendations for further reading, including Science and Sanity and my wife's and my book Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics. Three appendices follow including a case report by Julie Orta, who describes how—through her work with Dennis—she resolved her personal problems with chronic debilitating neck and shoulder pain; and two articles written by Dennis: "Poise and the Art of Lengthening", and "Muscles and Mentals: How We Get Tense".

The relevance of Dennis' notion of posturality to Korzybski's GS seems clear in Dennis' sharp denial of dualism. Korzybski formulated the problem of dualism in terms of what he called "elementalism", unconsciously dividing up what we don't find divided in the non-verbal, process world. In performing this unconscious isolation of related elements, we are likely to thereby neglect important relationships, contexts, and connections. Our language use can express such elementalistic evaluating by suggesting false-to-fact, static, isolated structures. Dennis, who has studied Korzybski's work, demonstrates throughout the book his consciousness of this problem and resolutely and explicitly emphasizes the relatedness of 'support' and 'movement', as well as the non-separability of 'mechanical'/'physiological' factors from our 'emotional'/'intellectual' life. Dennis' "non-elementalism" is also apparent in his emphasis, following scientist-epistemologist Michael Polanyi, on the importance of personal, phenomenological experience in the study and correction of posturality. In so doing, Dennis suggests the need to resolve the radical split between 'objectivity' and 'subjectivity', which has long remained at the center of Western assumptions about human knowledge. Korzybski, who had F. M. Alexander's books in his personal library, definitely considered the relevance of 'posture' to his own work: clearly expressed in his development of the technique of "neuro-semantic relaxation" (See Korzybski: A Biography, pp. 344, 414-415, 646).

In conclusion, The Posturality of the Person will reward those with professional and theoretical interests in musculoskeletal health as well as general readers looking for a sound, clear and practical basis for dramatically improving their own postural use. As psychologist Kurt Lewin suggested, there is nothing so practical as a good theory. Dennis shows that the split between the 'theoretical' and 'practical' can and must be bridged. Although short and simple, this is not “Posture for Dummies”. Wise up and get The Posturality of the Person