Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Thoughts About Time-Binding 2

So, to pick up where I left off with Thoughts About Time-Binding 1, back in the old media ecology program at New York University, Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom used to place a great deal of emphasis on thinking about the kinds of questions we, as scholars, were asking, and a great deal of emphasis on asking good questions because, contrary to common belief, not every question is a good question. And this leads me to consider the questions that Korzybski seems to have been asking and trying to answer in Manhood of Humanity, which are in fact very good ones.

So, let's start with the big three, as represented by Cosmos, Bios, and Logos (remember these three musketeers from Thoughts About Time-Binding 1?). First, there is the question inherent in Cosmos, that is, what is the nature of the universe? This is the most fundamental question underlying Korzybski's project, and his answer is that the universe is basically a material reality, the kind of reality that is best understood by scientists. He rules out the spiritual, metaphysical, all that is not available for direct examination by the senses. And as an engineer, he is also grounded in pragmatics, the fact that science and technology works, their effectiveness and efficiency being the best indication of their validity. This fits in well with the North American intellectual tradition, and Korzybski is indeed a part of that tradition, no matter that he was a Polish immigrant to the United States.

Second is the question inherent in Bios, that is, what is the nature of life? Korzybski does not address this question directly, opting instead to provide his taxonomy of three classes of life, chemistry-binding plants, space-binding animals, and time-binding humans. At once it becomes clear that these categories do not actually cover all forms of life, even all forms that were known back in 1921 when Manhood of Humanity was published. But returning to the three classes corresponding to three dimensions, I would suggest that we can also look at this taxonomy as referring to three basic characteristics, or dimensions, of all life forms.

First, chemistry-binding corresponds to metabolism. All life forms must, in one way or another, bring in something from outside of itself, some form of matter and/or energy, which it then transforms, absorbing some into itself, and expelling the rest as waste. All forms of life partake in this function in one way or another, and plants have pushed forward in this dimension farther than any other form of life.

Second, space-binding corresponds to any kind of movement or growth, or simply any sort of reaction. All forms of life respond in some way to some kind of stimulus from their environment. Significantly, this is also the basic, behavioral definition of meaning--a response to a stimulus. When a one-celled organism moves towards a light source, that behavior is the meaning that the light-source has for the organism. When we get to animals with nervous systems, the stimulus causes nerve cells to activate, firing off signals, and that behavior is in one sense the meaning that the animal gives to the stimulus, but of course this can result on another level in another kind of behavior, like running away, which then is also a kind of meaning. And when the nerve cells are firing off, and the result is a different kind of behavior that we call "thought," that is the kind of meaning that most often comes to mind when we think about the meaning of "meaning," so to speak. Holding meaning aside, space-binding, as in movement through space, does strike me as very much in line with what we mean by "behavior" after all.

Third, time-binding corresponds to any kind of communication, any signal or message sent by an organism, and of course to the genetic code that serves as the organism's blueprint, and which is transmitted through reproduction. All forms of life send and receive information, and all forms of life replicate in some way--according to biologist Richard Dawkins, that is their primary function, organisms are just means or a medium by which genes engage in self-replication and reproduction, being fruitful and multiplying. Language and symbolic communication then are not something wholly other to the rest of biology, but part of a continuum and natural process of evolution. But what language and symbolic do afford us is an awareness of time that no other form of life seems to possess, and an ability to consciously control our process of sending and receiving information and knowledge over time.

Returning to our triad of Cosmos, Bios, and Logos, the third element brings to mind the question, what does it mean to be human? Korzybski rejects mythological and religious answers to that question, and also the reduction of humanity to animal status (and in that, as I noted in Thoughts About Time-Binding 1, I believe he draws too sharp a distinction and sets up too much of a binary opposition between animal and human, nature and culture as Claude Claude Lévi-Strauss would put it; I'm also not entirely willing to chuck the religious and spiritual dimensions of human life). This becomes his key question, as the title of his book, Manhood of Humanity, would suggest.

What does it mean to be human? Korzybski's answer is that human beings are the only species to truly operate in that third dimension of time, and in particular to accumulate knowledge over time, and thereby make significant progress from one generation to the next. This is what Sir Isaac Newton meant by his famous quote, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." And time-binding applies even to that quote, which is believed to have originated long before Newton's time, at least as far back as the 11th century, and probably even earlier.

And Korzybski doesn't go into this, but I would add that it does seem that human beings, through symbolic communication, develop a level of self-consciousness and time consciousness unprecedented in the animal kingdom. We can actively retrieve memories, imagine the future and plan for it, we maintain a sense of history that transcends personal experience, even if in oral cultures that history is in the form of a myth-narrative, and we become aware of our own mortality, the only organism with this awareness, which Ernest Becker maintains is so crushing to our self-esteem that one of the primary functions of culture is to compensate for it and help us to engage in the denial of death. Time-consciousness, and modern historical consciousness, is very much what led to Korzybski's own efforts to improve human behavior and thought. In this sense, I do think that there is an intrapersonal time-binding that relates to the time-binding of the species, that the two are not distinct, but rather interact.

So, what it means to be human is to be a time-binder, to become aware of our temporal environment, and interact with it in ways that no other form of life does, indeed to manipulate it, and perhaps even control some aspects of it. It is interesting also to connect all this to the term Logos. Korzybski identifies Logos with intelligence in the passage quoted in my last post, Thoughts About Time-Binding 1, and of course human intelligence is grounded in our capacity for symbolic communication, for language, for the word, which is what Logos means, word, speech, and of course logic and rationality. Although it is not apparent in Manhood of Humanity, Korzybski's concern with time-binding will naturally point him in the direction of understanding the medium of language.

So, even if you don't care for Korzybski and general semantics, or don't agree with the conclusions arrived at, there is much to be gained from going back to the original questions that Korzybski posed, seeing how he answered them, and answering them again for ourselves, in the context of our own time. This is a worthwhile exercise as well for those who are completely in agreement with Korzybski. To make an analogy with mathematics, it is not enough to get the right answers, you have to go through the process by which they were attained, understand that process, and make it your own.

There is much more to be said about time-binding, but for now I'm out of time...

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