Friday, May 2, 2014

The Problems Of Knowing What Korzybski Actually Taught

The problems of knowing what Korzybski actually taught started to get complicated even during his lifetime as inadequate popularizers—the most prominent of whom was probably S.I. Hayakawa—began the process of watering it down. This became one of the major hassles at the end of Korzybski's life that he had to deal with. The not-so-pleasant details of his conflict with Hayakawa and other of his students, takes up a good part of the last section of my Korzybski: A Biography.
After Korzybski's death, Hayakawa very much became Mr. General Semantics, in the eyes of the media and general public, and through his own writing and his editorship of ETC. then published by the International Society of General Semantics (ISGS). Although, he did help promulgate knowledge and interest in Korzybski's work to some extent, at the same time his work gave the impression to many that they had gotten Korzybski's essence from reading his, Hayakawa's, and others' more limited, non-rigorous takes.

Meanwhile, the Institute of General Semantics (IGS), founded by Korzybski and run by his students and student's students, remained the center of specifically korzybskian general-semantics, with publication of the GSB and books by Korzybski and others as well as an ongoing educational training program continued for just over fifty years after Korzybski's death.

However, over the last 10 years, that korzybskian thread got snipped and lost at the Institute of General Semantics. The ISGS folded, the IGS took over its assets, mainly some bookstore books, some documents, and the journal ETC. GSB got retired with no fanfare and we now have people running the IGS who for better or worse were never significantly involved in studying, transmitting, and building upon the specific korzybskian tradition that existed there before their time. The present IGS seems more in the pattern  of the old ISGS rather than the old IGS  with, for example, ETC. now the official IGS journal. This kind of thing can happen. People die and move away, etc. Others who get involved afterwards don't know what happened before them and fail to ask necessary questions. 
History and tradition gets forgotten. It may happen especially to organizations that have been around for a long while. As a result, the long-term culture of the organization can  sometimes change drastically. It has happened at the Institute of General Semantics (founded in 1938). Dating. 

The fact remains that now the IGS has lost a large part of the specific korzybskian tradition (much of it 'oral') that developed there. For example, I don't see how anyone of my teachers and co-workers in the old IGS would have chosen to name a book award after S.I. Hayakawa—with all due respect to him (he did do some good work along with all the confusion he caused). I have written about this institutional loss of memory publicly, addressing the issue directly in my presentation at the 2011 IGS International Conference in New York City, where I was given the IGS's 2011 S.I. Hayakawa Book Prize (Oh, the irony). Here's a link to the audio and text of my presentation:

As one of the few alive, like Jeff Mordkowitz and my wife Susan Presby Kodish, who apprenticed with Korzybski's students, I feel an obligation now to help inform everyone interested of what that tradition consists of. I 'inherited' (as the person appointed by Charlotte Schuchardt Read to serve as Korzybski's literary executor following her and Robert Pula) a tremendous amount of material after the IGS closed Read House in Texas in 2009 (and then the nearby rented office in 2010). I intend to share as much as I can of the material that I have from there as well the large amount of stuff I've gathered over a lifetime of korzybskian study and research. 

But people who care  and desire to learn must ask questions.

Will you dare to inquire?  

1 comment:

Jeffrey A. Mordkowitz said...

Excellent post. Let's hope we interest enough people before we tragically die off.