Friday, October 9, 2009

A GS Revival? – Korzybski in Academia & the Communication Connection

The discipline of GS [General Semantics] was founded by an independent scholar, outside of academia. But Korzybski was in continual contact with academic university scholars in a variety of fields while he was formulating his work in the 1920s and early 1930s and he continued to make such contacts as he developed his work until the end of his life in 1950.

Even in his lifetime there was a great deal of interest and ferment in many academic fields as a result of Korzybski's teaching. He had many students in psychiatry, medicine, art, English education, Speech, psychotherapy, social psychology, anthropology, business management, et cetera. Also in Korzybski's lifetime, some interest existed and efforts were made in the direction of affiliating the Institute of General Semantics in some way with a university. The interest of academic scholars in a variety of fields who have used GS in some way in their teaching and research continued after Korzybski's death. As did various efforts, which fell flat for various reasons, to affiliate the Institute with some university.

GS, because of its radically transdisciplinary and also its applied nature has had a surprising bit of influence on the general culture but has never, in my opinion, had the kind of influence that I and other korzybskians have wished. It doesn't fit easily into any conventional way of 'pigeonholing' fields of study. This probably explains why there have been many courses in various academic departments and a surprising amount of research that have made use of Korzybski's work but that there has never, to my knowledge, been an academic center or department of general semantics anywhere. There has certainly been a dearth of direct interest in Korzybski and his work in academia.

From my perspective, the dearth of present-day Korzybski and GS scholarship in academic departments seems a pity. It seems sad to me, and is not a matter of bragging at all, that I qualify as the world's foremost living authority on Korzybski's life and work. It seems a shame—although I'm not ashamed of what I've done— that there are only a handful of people that I know of (mainly outside of academia) who qualify as serious Korzybski scholars. (There are a few more scholars specializing in other things who have at least a serious interest in Korzybski and his work.) I apprenticed at the Institute of General Semantics when it was run by or influenced by some of Korzybski's closest students (primarily Charlotte Schuchardt Read and Allen Walker Read) and serious korzybskian scholars, like Stuart A. Mayper, Robert Pula, Kenneth G. Johnson, Thomas Nelson, and others. Some of my teachers and associates functioned as university academics but many did not and the Institute itself, then, as now, functioned as an independent, non-academic institution.

But I'm very happy now that the Institute has begun to make more connection to the academic world. The current Executive Director Lance Strate, is a veteran teacher of Communication Studies and Media Ecology at Fordham University. New members of the Institute Board of Directors include esteemed Communication scholars like Corey Anton, Thom Giancarelli and Eva Berger, and English Literature Scholar Prafulla Kar.

As evidenced by many of the presenters at the September International Conference on General Semantics (I not only listened to their talks but had personal conversations with many of them), many academics are beginning to see Korzybski on their radar as a significant formulator whose work they ought to know better. I do see a glimmer of the possibility of a GS and Korzybski revival. From my point of view, the increasing interest of academics, i.e., university scholars, in GS and Korzybski seems long overdue and most welcome. Lance Strate, who organized the conference, should get a great deal of credit for stimulating this. By the way, it was hands-down the best GS conference that I've ever attended and I plan on writing more on this blog about a number of the presentations and presenters I interacted with.

It's especially rewarding to see that scholars and professionals in the field of Communication have such a great interest and have become members of the Institute Board of Trustees. Last May, I went to Chicago to represent the Institute of General Semantics at the International Communication Association Conference held there. I gave a presentation on a panel with Corey Anton, who gave a dynamite talk about Korzybski and Heidegger. I also worked at the IGS booth in the exhibitor hall and attended a number of other communication presentations and talked with a lot of people attending.

In my conversations, I learned that the field of Communication (what morphed out of Speech and Rhetoric in the last half century) has become a vast interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary field of academic studies. The Communication field promises to become a major force in unifying the burgeoning social-behavioral sciences and seems a natural place for the Institute of GS and GS-oriented people to 'ply their wares'. There are many theories and subfields within the Communication profession and GS (along with 'Media Ecology') provides a great core approach that could help bridge some of these subfields as well as help Communication professionals apply their work to other fields. It seemed very positive that so many people that I talked with at this Communication conference, knew about korzybskian GS or had an interest in learning more.

The Communication field seems like a natural place for korzybskian and GS-oriented scholars to develop their work and do research. I hope to write more about this later.

It seems smart that the Institute board has brought a number of Communication professionals and scholars onto the board as new trustees. The Institute has a great-looking future if it makes use of the interest and resources these people can provide.

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