Remember your favorite professor? The one whose class you set your schedule around? The one who spoke provocatively about ways of thinking about the nature of what it means to be communicative beings in a social world? Whose demeanor, humble and gracious, stirred your imagination to new intellectual connections, but not without some humor? Reading Lance Strate's new book, On The Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology takes you back to that class, to that engaging conversation.
Okay, so this has got to be one of the all time best beginnings to a book review, ever. It certainly made my day, month, year. Really, I can't tell you how happy this makes me, I couldn't ask for higher praise. Okay, I'm starting to blush and feel embarrassed, so let me just move on to the rest of the review.
The book's name draws on the concept of time-binding from general semantics and on the concept of time bias from media ecology. In Strate's words, "this is not a book about time, or the study of time"; rather it is about time binding, or our uniquely human ability to build knowledge over time. From media ecology, time is conceptualized as our invisible environment. Time does not dominate the conversation, however. It is but a sliver of what occurs in Strate's 14 essays. In his words, these "fugitive essays" make up a "network or matrix of ideas" that are general semantics, media ecology, and systems theory. They necessarily cross and circle each other because the aim is to trace "one-dimensional pathways in an effort to map a two-dimensional terrain" (p. 3). Those familiar with Korzybski and general semantics will recognize how appropriate these geographical metaphors are given Korzybski's famous saying, "the map is not the territory"--used to help others comprehend the difficulty of using our symbol system of language to represent and communicate meaning and experience. Broadly, On The Binding Biases of Time is an enjoyable foray into ecological thinking. "Formal systems of ecological thought, such as media ecology and general semantics, are a relatively recent phenomenon, but ecological thinking has been with us throughout history" (p. 41). It is an intellectual tradition about the relationship between humans, their symbols, and the reality that these symbols supposedly represent (p. 41). The rest of this review provides a glimpse into Strate's essays, some ways the book could be useful to both teachers and scholars, and ends with a note about the revival in general semantics.
Strate's essays begin with Korzybski the person, Korzybski's influences, contemporaries, major works, followers, and of course, accessible explanations of Korzybski's general semantics. General semantics is explained in contrast to Aristotelean thought because Korzybski saw Aristotelean thinking as a perceptual trap that removes people from "any connection with reality, and therefore sanity" (p. 29). For example, Aristotle's laws of logic, according to Strate's essay, include the Law of Identity, the Law of Non-Contradiction, and the Law of the Excluded Middle Together. General semantics are "Non-Aristotelean Principles of Thought." They are the Principle of Non-Identity, the Principle of Non-Allness, and the Principle of Self-Reflexiveness (pp. 23-24). In the end, Strate connects Korzybski's general semantics with the field of media ecology through Lewis Mumford and Marshall McLuhan, and finally, Neil Postman. In Strate's words what each shares, "is that the structure of our mode of communication has much to do with our thought and behavior, individually and collectively, and this is the basis of the field that has come to be known as media ecology" (p. 36).
The essay titled, "Quandaries, Quarrels, Quagmires, and Questions," problematizes (or clarifies) ecological thinking vis-a-vis scientific method. Strate uses Wendell Johnson's 1946 work, People in Quandaries, here. In Johnson's observation, "the method of science has to do with the way that language is used. From which he concludes that, 'the language of science is the better part of the method of science'" (p. 50, cited by Strate, p. 42). Language, then, conceptualized as a medium allows for a consideration of the environment created by that medium, in Johnson's (1946) term, a semantic environment. Language as a medium gives rise to statements of identity or relationship, and through the bias of the medium, we can use language "as a kind of informal science, a way of knowing the world, a form of theory-building" (p. 44). The story of the Trojan Horse is used to illustrate these ideas.
The third essay, about the relationship of systems theory to media ecology and general semantics is a brief synopsis of systems theory, and a taxonomy of scholars who have dwelled on these connections including Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Neil Postman, Christine Nystrom, and Joshua Meyrowitz. The fourth essay is squarely about Korzybski's theory of time binding and the binding biases of time. The way we use language and think about time matters to our experience of time (past, present, future) and how this differs from how we experienced time once upon a time. It is here that Harold Innis' ideas about time and James Carey's ideas about culture are discussed. Also, interestingly, Strate takes issue with Carey's work in a manner both nice and sharp. It feels like grace and truth, in the Biblical sense.
Okay, again, these kind words bring a broad smile to my face, but it's best that you can't see that, as I probably look pretty goofy. So let's just return to the review:
The essay, "The Future of Consciousness," is compelling. In it, Strate reviews the past, present, and processes of consciousness, recognizing the strangeness of the topic. Sometimes funny as in, "it is in the nature of consciousness to wander," (p. 242) and, "if you do not like what I have to say, it is my sincere hope that you hold Allen Flagg personally responsible for whatever defects you happen to identify" (p. 227). The discussion ends seriously with some real possibilities, from a media ecology perspective, about what a new electronic consciousness might be, what the future of human consciousness might be, and what could become of collective consciousness.
The other essays continue to be that engaging conversation where you see application of the ideas. This is especially true of "The Ten Commandments and the Semantic Environment" and "Tolkiens of My Affection." Read in one sitting, you get a sense of Strate the person, his religious practices, his family, his own mentors, his revered friends. This is especially true of "Post(Modern) Man," "Paradox Lost," and "Healthy Media Choices." The essay on renaming Canada's Beaver Magazine is a tad weak to my way of thinking. I suspect it is the word play with the word beaver and its many meanings.
Okay, so I'm not batting 1.000 here, but that bit of criticism helps to establish that the genuine quality of this evaluation. And I would certainly concede the point that that piece, while relevant to the collection, is not one of the stronger selections. So, back to the review now:
Those excited by the scholarship in media ecology and general semantics will find some guiding questions:
Questions about how symbols represent reality, how words stand for and point to things in reality, how maps depict territories, and how media extend us outward into our environments.... And questions about the nature of symbols themselves, about what a word is and is not, about how maps are made, about the meaning of meaning and the biases of technologies, about how the medium is the message, and how media, by separating us from our environment, become our new environment. (p. 50)
Due to being a collection of essays, On The Binding Biases of Time read cover to cover contains some redundancy. As immersion into the systems of thought that underlie media ecology and general semantics, the few redundancies are useful. If using the essays individually, the redundancies are, of course, absent.
Again, a valid bit of criticism. When you have essays on related topics, it is hard to avoid a bit of redundancy.
As to the individual essays, you could easily use them in different courses as supplementary readings or central reading. The essay titled, "Quandaries, Quarrels, Quagmires, and Questions," would be useful in an upper division undergraduate methods course or any graduate level theory, methods, or interpersonal course. It would also be useful in a media studies course as the essay covers the dawn of writing from the written word, "whose first awkward appearance was only about five thousand years ago" (p. 45) through the Industrial Revolution and its forms of mass communication. The third essay would be useful in a course on small group communication, organizational communication, or media and society in either undergraduate or graduate level courses. And both the fourth and 14th chapter could supplement a human communication and technology course. One of Strate's goals for the book is to be readable. Therefore the chapters are useful at both graduate and undergraduate levels. At the graduate level, the first four essays and the final essay could be used individually to introduce theoretical and philosophical strands of thought, or as an entire book to show how one body of work was built and can then interrelate with another to build knowledges.
The Media Ecology Association is a curious group. I peruse their Listserv, and visit their panels at the annual National Communication Association convention as I move from mass communication, to visual communication, to rhetoric panels. I suspect, and having read On Being and Time, I now know that the media ecology people understand something of critical importance to human communication, something they hold steadfast to in disciplinary territory. In Strate's own words,
General semantics has much to offer, in a practical way for individuals and institutions, and theoretically and philosophically for the advancement of knowledge. Indeed, it is truly unfortunate that this field is so often overlooked these days, in the academy, and outside of it. I hope that my meager efforts have contributed in some small way to the Korzybski Revival now underway, to a renewal of interest in his non-Aristotelean system, and to its continued progress and evolution. (p. 10)