Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mind and Consciousness Symposed

I've been meaning to add a post on the Mind and Consciousness Symposium held at Fordham University on October 27th, which I helped to organize. The symposium followed the annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture held the previous evening, which was given by Leonard Shlain this year, sponsored by the Institute of General Semantics. The IGS also was the main sponsor of the symposium, along with several other cosponsors, including our Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham, and the Media Ecology Association.

Here's an image of the front and back covers of the program, which was designed by my friend and colleague Janet Sternberg. I think the picture she came up with for the cover is pretty nifty!

And here's an image of the program innards:

The high points of the event included Kathy Liepe-Levinson talking about the importance of narrative for human communication and time-binding--this was one of the most thoughtful presentations of the symposium, and Marty Levinson reading from his book, Practical Fairy Tales for Everyday Living. We also took the opportunity to present Marty with the Media Ecology Association's Susanne K. Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Symbolic Form for his previous book, Sensible Thinking for Turbulent Times. The MEA's awards presentations are held at our annual convention, but since Marty couldn't make it to Mexico City, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to make the presentation. Here's a photo that his wife snapped of Marty accepting the award:

Another notable presentation was by a High School teacher from Maine, Gary Chapin, in that it was an analysis of high school education based in large part on Neil Postman's notions of the semantic environment. Also, Frank Scardilli of the U.S. Court of Appeals, a venerable general semantics expert, provided a detailed discussion of the semantic environment of the justice system. And I gave a talk about the Ten Commandments as an attempt to change and shape the media environment and semantic environment, drawing on ideas I've discussed previously in this blog and elsewhere.

But the absolute high point for me was the talk by Frank Dance, one of the all time greats in the field of communication, former president of the National Communication Association and the International Communication Association, retired from an endowed chair at the University of Denver, Fordham graduate (back in the fifties, as an English major), Mr. Orality as he is sometimes referred to, and all around terrific guy. Here's a picture of him giving his speech:

Frank gave us an overview of Pavlov's ideas about mind and consciousness, which was altogether fascinating since all we ever hear about old Ivan is the bit about the salivating dogs. And because his American successor in the behavioral school, B. F. Skinner, was so adamant about declaring the mind a black box and therefore off-limits, it was only natural to assume that his predecessor Pavlov saw things in the same light. But apparently that wasn't the case, and interestingly enough, neither was Pavlov terribly sympathetic to Communism, even though his work was held in high esteem in the Soviet Union because it made for a good fit with their ideology. Anyway, here is Frank Dance addressing the audience:

The one thing that stood out for me was when Frank explained that Pavlov defined the term symbol as a sign of a sign, a sign in the old nomenclature referring directly to what it represents, in a kind of causal relationship, and eliciting reflex reactions, whereas the symbol is arbitrary and conventional, with no necessary connection to what it represents, and making it possible to respond with delayed, reflective reactions. The idea that signs and symbols are not two distinct categories set side by side to one another, but rather that symbols are signs of signs, second order signs, or metasigns, just strikes me as incredibly elegant (and if this makes no sense to you because you're not familiar with the study of symbolic communication, then don't worry about it). Anyway, I can't believe I never heard that idea before (unless I did a long time ago and just forgot about it). So, here's me and Frank at our panel:

Also noteworthy was the final talk of the symposium by Milton Dawes, one of my favorite general semanticists, who talked about calculus as a metaphor for life, as lived in accord with general semantics. Additional photographs from the event can be found on the website of the New York Society for General Semantics (another cosponsor of the event), on their news page--as of this writing, it is still the most recent item.

One of the benefits of these events is the opportunity to get together with people who you might not otherwise see. I was particularly pleased that Shelley Postman (Neil's wife) came to the symposium--it's always wonderful to have her with us. What also made the event quite special came about because I had posted notice of the symposium on MySpace, and one of my MySpace friends, artist and writer Lana Deym Campbell, actually came down from Rhode Island and attended the entire event, so we met face-to-face for the first time. After the symposium was over, a few of us went out to eat, and what an interesting group it was, as it consisted of Lana, Shelley, Janet Sternberg, and one of our brightest undergraduates, Jonathan Hogan (and I add with pride that Jonathan recently completed his senior thesis under my direction, using a media ecological perspective to examine themes concerning technology in Iron Man comics!).

All in all, it was a day that expanded minds and raised consciousness, and lifted spirits as well.


lana deym campbell said...

So happy you posted this summary with all the highlights - it brought the whole event back! A very fascinating day with great and interesting speakers! Not a dull intellectually stimulating! I agree that the Pavlov/symbols related lecture was amazing, engaging and mind-altering with its relevant and new (also to me) information. Your talk re Ten Commandments was excellent too...for you gave them a different spin, yet despite your modern streamlining and conversion, the essence stayed with your wonderful poem! My mind and Consciousness were most certainly "symposed!" :)

Dinner later with you and friends was also fun, wonderful really. You were so kind to ask me to join. It was great to be able to meet you in person and converse om a casual manner on all subjects.

I hope you have put my name down on all those lists for news and notice of the next one!

Thank you again for creating such an entertaining and special day!


TJ said...

hey, i'm was just surfing the web... and came across your blog that has gary chapin mentioned in your entry. if your referring to the same gary chapin that i'm thinking about... that guy he's my cousin... not only is he a high school teacher for social studies.. but he plays the accordian too.


Lance Strate said...

Yes I believe it is the same fellow!