Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Review to Remember

All this time spent online, you get used to immediate feedback on what you do, even if it's only someone pushing the Like button on Facebook, or giving it the old Google +1 (sounds more like bringing a date than giving a thumbs up, doesn't it?).  And as well all know, there's no Don't Like button, let alone one that says Hate, and Google doesn't venture into the red with a -1, either.

And that's all well and fine for most of us, I believe, and for most of the time.  We're not really looking for critical evaluation when we venture into the social media environment, especially not when we do a status update on what we had for lunch.  And perhaps we're not really looking for it at all, ever, in a culture where all the children are above average, to borrow Garrison Keillor's quip, where self-esteem is emphasized above all else, we have become increasingly more risk-aversive, and narcissism is rampant on an individual and collective scale, as Christopher Lasch noted decades ago.

The problem, though, is that all these Likes and +1s and Kudos (to include the old MySpace feature) come much too easily, and become increasingly more ritualized and pro forma.  And while the ability to leave comments allows for more specific responses, and the possibility of critical engagement, it's not at all clear that anyone is looking for that sort of thing, and most respondents are reluctant to offer that kind of feedback back under the circumstances, so the norm once again becomes a stream of positive comments whose meaning and value become devalued. 

And given the immediacy of the response, if you posted something longer than a tweet or status update, it is not even clear that the person leaving a comment actually read what you posted very closely at all, and certainly it is not difficult to leave a bit of praise without having done so.

So, you might say that we get immediate gratification, but no genuine satisfaction from this set-up.  Or maybe some folks are satisfied, maybe the same folks who view greeting card poems seriously, or maybe most of us do most of the time, in the way that we get satisfaction from the phatic communication of saying hello, how are, fine thank you, how are you, and otherwise making small talk.  Or maybe we just give in to the illusion that it all really means something, given our tendencies towards narcissism and general delusion.

Anyway, what prompted me to think about such things is the contrast you get from the older medium of print publication, where you write something, there's a long process of editing and preparation for publishing, it finally appears in print, and there's little or no immediate feedback, and then dribs and drabs coming in here and there, if you're lucky.  Oh, you may get your congratulations on getting something published, of course, and if you post a status update on it, you'll get your Likes and +1s, but after all the effort that went into writing something, e.g., an article or a book, you'll be looking for something more, something substantive, something that really means something.

So, all this is leading up to the fact that the book I published earlier this year, On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology, was recently reviewed in Communication Research Trends (Vol. 30, No. 4, pp. 38-40, which is published by the Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture, a service of the Society for Jesus, aka, the Jesuits, originally set up in the UK back in the 70s, and now published in California, mainly through Santa Clara University, one of Fordham's sister schools, as the saying goes.  The review was written by Heather Crandall of Gonzaga University, another Jesuit institution (and if you think this all makes it an insider deal, you don't know the Jesuits and their high standards and emphasis on excellence).

In case you somehow missed it, here's a link for the blog post from earlier this year announcing the publication of my book:  On the Binding Biases of Time. And here are the links for ordering it from Amazon:

So, anyway, I'm sure that if you haven't bought a copy of the book by now, you were just waiting to see a review, to see if the book's any good, right?  Well, this one can be found online as well as in the print journal:  Strate, Lance. On The Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology.  But I'm sure no one will mind if I also include it here in Blog Time Passing.

So, here's how it begins:

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)

And there you have it!  It is certainly great to see that shout-out to the Media Ecology Association, and the inclusion of that final point, that media ecology and general semantics are fields and disciplines that should not be overlooked, and that are eminently worthy of further study.  After all, that's the whole point of my book.

So, I am deeply grateful to Professor Crandall for this fine review, for all of her positive evaluation to be sure, and for her careful attention to and sympathetic reading of the work.  And I am still just glowing about that first paragraph.  I really should have it blown up in size, and framed!  Really!


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