Monday, December 9, 2013

"General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language Behavior"

My friend Steve Stockdale, former Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics (2004 through 2007) has been involved in developing this online course: "General Semantics: An Approach to Effective Language Behavior" For that reason alone, I feel confident in recommending it to anyone who wants to try an online course and would like a structured introduction to the subject.

I say this despite my qualms about the course's focus on language behavior here, which I consider too narrow and therefore potentially confusing if you want to develop a comprehensive understanding of Korzybski's work.  Because I see GS as a value-infused, applied study of human evaluation/epistemology (how we know what we know) and a non-aristotelian foundation for the human sciences, I would not describe 'general semantics' as this course description does.

I have come to this view, because such a focus on 'language' by people like S. I. Hayakawa, has historically misled students into neglecting a great deal of Korzybski's work that doesn't fit into the 'language studies' box. However, the radically inter-disciplinary nature of 'general semantics' has traditionally made it difficult to classify it in terms of traditional academic boxes. So here we are. It's an old story.

That said, we surely can't leave 'language' out of the picture. As Korzybskian scholar and former Executive Editor of the General Semantics Bulletin, Jim French has written: "As a field of study, general semantics is not predominantly about language but (one might say) about neuro-evaluating; and yet language and how we use it play a prominent role in apprehending and using the discipline." ("Editor's Essay 2001, General Semantics Bulletin, 65-68, p. 8-10)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

More Radical General Semantics in India: Report on the General Semantics VII National Workshop - The Spirit of Democratic Citizenship

A report from my friends, respected political scientists Gad Horowitz and Shannon Bell of, on their recent visit to India teaching on behalf of the Balvant K. Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences. I'm happy to have had some responsibility for getting them over there from their base in Toronto, Canada; I recommended Gad as a wonderful korzybskian resource when I went to India earlier this year, to present at the General Semantics VI National Workshop in Jaipur and other venues, including an Advanced National Workshop on General Semantics:

The Event of Radical General Semantics 2013 
in Baroda, Rajkot and Mumbai
by Shannon Bell
Gad Horowitz’s lecture “Levinas: A New Ethical Orientation,” the third in the Balvant Parekh Distinguished Lecture Series, set the tone for the four day General Semantics VII National Workshop: The Spirit of Democratic Citizenship (Radical General Semantics) Department of English & CLS, Saurashtra University, Rajkot November 13-16.  The following quote from Gad’s Levinas lecture provides an ethical imperative directing the skills and techniques of General Semantics: “The plea of the other COMPELS a response, not politically, rationally, or with force but ethically; there is no way of not responding. Obligation happens here together with every kind and degree of response. It is only in responding to the other that I am constituted as a responsible human agent, no matter to what degree I assume my responsibility.”

Gad began the Rajkot workshop: “I would like to begin by invoking the names of Mahatma Gandhi, who attended high school in this city, Shri Balvant Parekh, the great patron of general-semantics in India, and Alfred Korzybski, the founder of the general-semantics movement.”

He immediately set out what he means by coupling radical with general semantics: “GENERAL-SEMANTICS is not just one ‘human science’ among others. It was founded as a movement aimed at advancing human civilization by way of a radical transformation of its basic grammatical-cognitive-affective structures, which is why I teach it as ‘radical-general-semantics’. It is not merely one critical theory among others but a set of PRACTICES, of the kind that Michel Foucault called ‘practices of the self,’ which can and should be learned and internalized to some extent, ‘neuro-semantically,’ by every human being beginning in childhood.”

The format we followed for each of the four days was first viewing one of the eight video lectures by Gad (there are 22); the video was shown for 15-20 minutes, then I as manager of, workshop resource person and videographer, would recapitulate central points, ask questions to which Gad himself would respond, followed by interaction from participants. Then again 20 minutes of video followed by the same process. We viewed two video lectures per day covering the following themes: event, object, label levels, structural differential, spiral circularity of human thought, non-elementalism; the devices of general semantics—index, multi-ordinal index, date, chain index, etc., quotes and hyphens—and levels of self.  What impressed me as moderator was the sophisticated placing of English Literature and Indian Philosophy into the large frame of General Semantics by several of the workshop’s senior participants; this included using the event, object, label levels and devices of General Semantics in literary textual analysis.  On day two we assigned the task of focusing attention on a natural object and describing it carefully in sensory-specific language, for example, the description of a so-called “banana” might begin with the words “a yellow elongated object turned up at both sides something like a crescent.” Among the participant’s numerous responses shared the next day was the beautiful description of a pear from Yann Martel's novel Beatrice and Virgil read out by Dr. Ravisinh Zala from the Department of English & CLS.

To ensure that the first-time practitioners of General Semantics were understanding the formulations, we began each morning session with written questions from the participants; the questions ranged from defining such terms as intensional, extensional, non-aristotelian, silent level practice, semantic blocks to questions of a more philosophical nature, such as, ‘what is meant by the “spirit of democratic citizenship”’ and questions of a more practical nature, such as, ‘how will silent practice help in a student’s study life, particularly in reading?’

Saurashtra University lived up to its well-deserved reputation for hospitality complete with the excellent catering service of Parthil Caterers, a tour of Rajkot that included Alfred High School which Mohandas Gandhi attended and the Rama Krishna Temple, a closing dinner on the rooftop terrace of Hotel Sarovar Portico, and a wonderful lunch just for Gad and me at the home of the Head of the Department of English, Dr. Kamal Mehta and Madame Mehta on our last day in Rajkot.

Our two-day General Semantics workshop at the Sir JJ School of Art (November 18 and 19) with the students in Ms. Snehal Tambulwadikar’s class “Art History and Aesthetics” was equally invigorating for us. Here we were teaching General Semantics to newcomers to the field who also happened to be artists. Art was placed in the context of General Semantics and what a perfect context in which to do so – a studio surrounded by forty-some paintings produced by the students attending.

On Day 1, after a superb introduction to General Semantics presented by Dr. Deepa Mishra, Director of a Nodal Centre for General Semantics, Smt CHM College, Gad offered an overview of the main points of General Semantics—structural differential, silent practice, the devices. Several of the art students participated very actively; reference was made to their paintings in the context of the structural differential and object and label levels.

Day 2 began with Gad linking the skills and techniques of General Semantics with Miksang Contemplative Photography and the work of the American artist Charles Biederman, himself a student of General Semantics, as foreground to Shannon Bell’s work on Shooting Theory. Shannon showed six of the twelve films she has made bringing together digital video technology and print textual philosophy/ theory through imaging philosophical/theoretical concepts. The films shown were Edmund Husserl Blind Residuum Caves,  George Bataille and Simone Weil – Beautiful Waste: Dead Sea Sinkholes, Emmanuel Levinas – Shooting the Elemental, Walter Benjamin – Flâneuring Ancient Arcade Ruins, Martin Heidegger – Flashes of Perception, and Samuel Mallin – The Sinuous Turn . Shannon located imaging theoretical concepts in the broader General Semantics framework of just seeing (pure object level) and seeing as (the level of labeled experience).

We were very pleased to have in attendance at the workshop Sir JJ Dean Vishwanath D. Sabale, Dr. S. Kahn - Director of a Nodal Centre for General Semantics and Ms. Kavita Nimbalkar - Administrator of Corporate Social Responsibilities for Pidilite Industries Ltd.

Aside from the dynamic JJ School of Art workshop, other highlights in Mumbai included the Grand Hotel (where we stayed) view of the industrial port, attempting to drive to Juhu Beach precisely at the time of the sunset water puja just after Diwali and then a walk on Juhu Beach the following day (thanks to Pidilite’s generous hospitality we has the pleasure of being driven here and there by Gajendra by far the best driver in Mumbai), a trip to the Gateway of India during a Jain festival, passing through the crowd to make our offering at the Shree Siddhivinayak Ganapati Mandir Ganesh Temple, skywalking on the Bandra skywalk, repeated trips on the Sea Link, lunch at Café Madras (don’t leave Mumbai without eating at Café Madras) and then on our final day a visit  with Dr. Prafulla Kar to Pidilite Corporate Office to meet and have lunch with Shri Balavant Parekh’s two sons—Madhukar and Ajay Parekh—and Balavant Parekh’s brother Narendrakumar Parekh.  Our discussion touched on Radical General Semantics (Gad had sent his introduction to the Rajkot workshop to the Parekh’s before our meeting); vibrant reminisces of their father and brother’s involvement with General Semantics, their respective experiences attending University of Wisconsin-Madison and Berkley University and ours teaching at University of Toronto and York University; we met many of the staff and had the pleasure of being part of the weekly birthday lunch in which whoever of the 1000 employees has a birthday that week is invited to lunch with the CEOs. We have a copy signed by all three Parekh’s of the Felicitation Volume, Behind the Curtain, presented to Shri Balavant Parehk on the occassion of his 75th year. Of all the essays documenting a life of endeavor, mindfulness and generosity the most precious to me is “He Has Very Deep Interests in Many Subjects” by Kanta Parekh (his wife).  She jokingly calls him “over-wise” due to his interest and expertise in many subjects – “Psychology, Politics, Science, Gujarati literature, Medicines, etc.” (278)

Walking with Dr. Kar and Gad in The Hanging Gardens and overlooking Marine Drive and the Queen’s Necklace from Kamala Nehru Park shortly before leaving Mumbai, I wondered if Balavant Parekh use to walk here when he was poor and starting out and also when he became one of India’s leading industrialists and philanthropists. He did. One of the essays in Behind the Curtain writes about the older Parekh spending time walking and talking with leading Gujarati and Indian poets in the Hanging Gardens. After all, as Gad said in the Rajkot workshop as he directed us to walking as a silent practice: ‘walking is a sacred obligation’.