Saturday, August 30, 2014

Chapter 16 - "Binding Time": Part 1 - Introduction

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

By mid-April 1920, Mira and Alfred were in Missouri, visiting Mira’s sister Amy before heading back east to New York City, from where they planned to go on to London and then to Poland. Amy’s farm in Lees Summit, Missouri—on the outskirts of Kansas City—served as a refuge for all of the Edgerly sisters at one time or another. Mira had last spent time there with Amy in the summer of 1918 after the unexpected death of Amy’s husband, Rush Lake, a well-liked Missouri politician. 
Farmhouse near Kansas City where first draft of Manhood of Humanity was written

Korzybski would often return to Kansas City and its environs over the next couple of decades, either to visit Amy’s farm or to work with associates in the city. He found the city and region around it unusually beautiful. But among many of the inhabitants he felt a certain “sad” quality, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Since, with whatever he observed, he was in the habit of looking for functional relationships, he wondered if there wasn’t something in the soil or water.

But he didn’t spend much time thinking about Kansas City’s denizens. He hoped to use his time on the farm to write. He had come there with a notion to abridge, and then write a commentary upon, the specific ideas for social-economic reform in Ferguson’s The Revolution Absolute. He had wanted to come up with a shorter and more widely accessible book in English that he could then translate into Polish and other languages. However, in conversations with Mira and others, it had become clear that the specific solutions suggested by Ferguson, Plumb, and the League of Nations advocates, among others, didn’t go far enough for him. Clearer answers to more general questions that had been plaguing him for a long time could make these efforts at specific solutions more useful. Alfred continued to circle around these questions.

One of the questions had started in childhood. Alfred had spent a lifetime observing animal behavior (horses, farm animals, etc.) He didn’t doubt that animals such as horses could ‘think’. Indeed he had known horses whose ‘sense’ seemed to greatly exceed that of humans he had known. Yet he also remembered the peasants who had exclaimed to him, “Master, we are not beasts.” That stuck with him. What made the difference between humans and animals?

Since the end of the war he had had more time to think, not only about the difference between a man and an animal, but along a second line of questioning. He had spent his life observing people and what they do in a variety of settings. Since childhood, he had managed and observed workers and peasants on his family’s farm. As a young man, he had studied extremes of human behavior in places that others might prefer to neglect, for example visiting jails to observe criminals, prostitutes, etc. And he had read, read, read: history, philosophy, science, mathematics, etc. These, as well as his personal experiences of the 1905 revolution and especially of the tragedies and suffering of World War I, had brought him to his present perplexity: What made the differences between different kinds of human activity and enterprise?

Perhaps he had been stimulated in this line of thinking by his “thrashing out” discussions with Mira and in his discussions with Ferguson, who felt strongly about “the need for science and engineering intelligence to govern the administration of credit, etc.”(1) His, by this time habitual, inclination to read a book by studying its author and to understand a subject by seeing it as a product of human behavior, led him along the following track:
Look [at] historical facts. Again I will not be exact because I would say among others that bridges do not collapse, and if they collapse we can always find the error in the calculations or blueprint. If they do collapse you always can trace. But in principle they do not collapse. And our civilization, also man-made, collapses all the time. War, revolution; war, revolution; war, revolution, through all history. Why is it, that bridges do not collapse—man-made—and human civilizations fall one after another?  
The question comes, who makes bridges, and how, that they do not collapse? Engineers make bridges. How do they do it? They are talking to themselves in mathematical language. They use a language which is similar in structure to the ‘facts’ they are dealing with, and therefore they are successful; their bridges and what not don’t collapse. They have predictability in their language, what will happen if they do that and that; and therefore they can do what is needed to make the given bridge or whatever function properly, and avoid doing something which will make it collapse.  
In the meantime who is building up civilization, culture and what not? Lawyers, politicians, philosophers—you know philosophers all through history have played a tremendously important role in building a given culture, a given civilization; I will not go into a long line of who built it, because we can add indefinitely—newspaper men among others, and so on and so on and so on. And the question is, how do they do [it]? They talk to themselves and talk to others, like the engineer—except they talk the vernacular, a language unfit to talk sense, and this is why the result collapse, collapse, collapse, one after another. Now this was the beginning. This was a long stretch of time: this was not simple. It was agony to analyze and come to these conclusions. (2) 
These questions and his pondering about them had been providing an ever-increasing internal background to Alfred’s activities over the past year. Sometime before in New York City between his various trips, he had visited the Woolworth Building in downtown Manhattan, at the time the tallest building in the world. As he stood atop it, Alfred looked down at the streets of New York and his puzzlement seemed to crystallize:
...I was looking over New York. That enormous city, steaming, boiling with life...And I asked myself the question, how it happens, the physical side of it looking at the street, at Broadway. You saw vermin crawling, and the vermin were humans. They were so small because the height was so great, and a streetcar was a caterpillar. …Looking at that, I was much intrigued. I was fully aware that everyone of those little bits of humans there, everyone was full of joy, sorrows, and what not. And who did that tremendous thing called New York? That vermin did it. I didn’t get my answer there, but I was asking how humans, little things like that with such a wealth of personal life, how in the dickens can they do such a thing as New York, London, Paris, wars, revolutions, and what not? (3)

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
1. Ferguson to AK, July 26, 1920. AKDA 32.555. 

2. Korzybski 1949, p. 59, 59a. (Mp3-5c, 5d.) 

3. Korzybski 1947, p. 213. Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s 1921 movie short, Manhatta, viewable on shows New York, much as Korzybski must have seen it from atop the Woolworth Building, in 1919 (or early 1920). Watching it you'll see vistas of the city, steaming and boiling with life. Near the end of the movie (8:30) you will see the little bits of vermin crawling...and the streetcars like caterpillars. And you may also ask yourself: How in the dickens did those little bits of humans do New York...etc.?

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