Thursday, April 12, 2007

Binding Our Time

In my recent post under the heading of History of a Disturbance, I mentioned general semantics expert Milton Dawes, and a further e-mail exchange has brought to my attention an intriguing point that Milton has made about time-binding. For those of you not familiar with the subject, general semantics was founded by Alfred Korzybski in the early 20th century, and his magnum opus on the subject is Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (now in a 5th edition). In that work, and also in an earlier work called Manhood of Humanity Korzybski characterizes our species as unique in our capacity for time-binding, which is the ability to pass knowledge on over time, from generation to generation. And it is our capacity for symbolic communication, most of all language, that makes it possible for us to store information in collective memory and keep it alive beyond an individual lifespan.

The ability to transcend time in this way gives us an enormous advantage over other species, which in turn has enabled us to be fruitful and multiply (beyond all reason, and sustainability, in my opinion). Our ability to preserve knowledge makes progress possible, and Korzybski was very much a product of the early 20th century, when people still believed in progress more or less whole-heartedly, their faith not yet having been shaken by Auschwitz and the atom bomb. But Korzybski was moved by the incomprehensible waste of life that was World War I (as a Pole, he was obligated to fight in the Tsar's army, after which he immigrated to the U.S.), and realized that the problem with time-binding is that the knowledge we preserve and pass on is not necessarily accurate and does not necessarily foster survival of the species, let alone progress. In other words, the information we store can include superstition as well as science, fantasy as well as fact, prejudice as well as understanding. So, Korzybski set out to find ways to improve our time-binding process by creating methods of evaluating knowledge so as to determine what information is worth holding on to, and what information would be best forgotten. And the most effective means for improving our evaluations of knowledge is to improve our use of the medium in which we encode knowledge, the medium in which knowledge exists and out of which it emerges, the medium of language.

So the way I understood it, and the way it typically is presented, time-binding and evaluation are separate processes, time-binding occurring automatically on account of our symbol use, evaluation occurring only when individuals make a conscious effort to examine the knowledge that is being disseminated over space and time.

But Milton Dawes suggests that Korzybski really was arguing that time-binding and evaluation are inseparable, and
thinking about it, it makes a great deal of sense. Korzybski put forth three major principles of general semantics, one of them being the principle of non-allness, the idea that you can never say all there is to say about any aspect of reality, never completely represent in all of its complexity of being over time and space any given phenomenon through words or symbols. Koryzbski also wrote about the process of abstracting, and Wendell Johnson (who also came up in a recent post) elaborated on this further in People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment (arguably the most accessible and comprehensive presentation of Korzybski's ideas), so that as we increase in abstraction we leave out more and more details, use increasingly more general categories, and that the process of leaving out details and categorization is a subjective one, as we must make a choice about which details to leave out, and which categories to use as the basis of our classification.

So, with the Principle of Non-Allness and the process of abstracting in mind, we can understand that all forms of time-binding involves some process of evaluation, even if not intentional, that is, some form of selection or filtering. Take the famous illustration of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (the hypothesis that the language we speak influences the way we view the world) about the Eskimo having many more words for snow, so that they automatically time-bind information about snow that we may not even pay attention to, let alone remember. The language we use to time-bind influences the process of time-binding, influences what we time-bind and how we go about time-binding. This same principle extends to the media we use to time-bind. When we time-bind with speech alone, we need to do so in memorable ways, for example in poetic and musical form, and in concrete images of agents performing actions--whatever cannot be fit into this form will most likely be forgotten; when we add the written word to our time-binding repertoire, we are freed from such restrictions, and able to develop new forms of evaluation. Although they do not use the general semantics term "time-binding", classic works in media ecology and orality-literacy studies such as Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy and Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato illustrate the distinction between these two forms of time-binding.

And even the biological time-binding that occurs through the replication of DNA involves some form of selection, including the external force of natural selection, the internal metacommunicational coding that may indicate that certain sections of the molecule should be ignored or the organism's development interrupted, and of course the basic point that DNA cannot time-bind anything it cannot encode, including (for the most part) acquired traits.

Just as one cannot not communicate (see my recent post on the late Paul Watzlawick), one cannot not evaluate. This is like the first law of thermodynamics, that energy cannot be created or destroyed. The second law says that while the quantity of energy cannot change within a close system, its quality can, and tends to move towards increasing loss of quality, disorder, chaos, i.e., entropy. And following the analogy, while the quantity of our evaluations may not change, the quality can, we can do a better or worse job of evaluating, and improve our ability to evaluate, over time. In this way, we can invoke another of Korzybski's principles of general semantics, the principle of self-reflexiveness (the capacity of symbols to refer to themselves in increasingly higher levels of abstraction, so that we have symbols that refer to symbols, and symbols that refer to symbols that refer to symbols, etc.) and time-bind our time-binding, evaluate our evaluations, and maybe make some of that negative entropy we call progress.

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