Chanticleer #29

Chanticleer
I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up. 

Henry David Thoreau

August 5, 2002

“Chanticleer Calls”, an aperiodic newsletter for discriminating readers, thinkers, feelers, speakers, listeners, and cogitators.

THE DFW CENTER FOR GENERAL SEMANTICS

I’m pleased to say that The Dallas-Fort Worth Center for General Semantics is now open for business. Established in January as nothing more than a website and a desk, “The Center” now occupies over 800 square feet of comfortable office facilities a short walk from the heart of Fort Worth, Texas.

This past May, my daughter and two of her college friends drove up to the Northeast with me to help pack, load and move the contents of the Alfred Korzybski Research and Study Center from Closter, New Jersey to Fort Worth.

A pictorial record of the trip is on The Center’s website.

The DFW Center now hosts the complete Alfred Korzybski Research and Study Center, comprising over 1,600 books (including Korzybski’s personal library), 1,000 audio recordings, hundreds of reprinted articles and periodicals, and 36 file cabinets of correspondence, records, photos, etc.

My job now is two-fold: 1) organize and maintain the library and archives such that they can be used for future research and training; and 2) make use of the office facilities and materials to establish relationships with schools and organizations in order to further the work of general semantics. If you’re interested in coming by for a visit, I’d love to show you around. Or, let me know if I can help you if you’re teaching or studying general semantics.

INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON GENERAL SEMANTICS

Mark your calendars – the 12th International Conference on General Semantics will be held in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the Stardust Resort and Casino, October 31st through November 2nd, 2003. [NOTE: The email version of this omitted “2003” – another diference that makes a difference.] The Call For Papers will be released and distributed in early September, with the Conference Announcement following shortly thereafter with all of the planning details. The University of Nevada-Las Vegas will serve as host for conference activities. Institute Director Jeff Mordkowitz will act as Chairman for the conference. A 5-day seminar-workshop immediately prior to the conference is planned, so start making your plans now.

A CHANCE ENCOUNTER; A MEDIA OPPORTUNITY

Two weeks ago, I crossed a downtown Fort Worth street against the light and recognized FW Star-Telegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders waiting on the opposite corner. Before walking away, I spoke to him, acknowledging that I recognized him and appreciated his columns, though I didn’t always agree with his comments. He seemed genuinely pleased, and replied, “Thanks! You just made my day!”

I walked back to my office and composed an email to him, inviting him to come by and visit this new “Dallas-Fort Worth Center for General Semantics” RIGHT HERE IN DOWNTOWN FORT WORTH. He wrote back a kind response, stating that not only would he like to visit, he thought it would make a worthy news feature story.
So last Thursday, I hosted a Star-Telegram reporter and photographer for almost three hours. I have no idea when (or even if) the story might run, but I’ll certainly mention it on the Center’s website as soon as it hits the street.

CHARLOTTE SCHUCHARDT READ, 1909-2002

In the world of general semantics, there has been significantly less “going on” since July 25th, when Charlotte Schuchardt Read died at age 92. She had been in and out of hospital and nursing home after coming down with bronchitis in February. Her husband, Allen Walker Read, at 96, continued to visit her on almost a daily basis, according to a family friend. They had lived in their New York City apartment near Columbia University since 1953.

A “Celebration of Life” will be held in Charlotte’s honor on September 15th in New York City. Details are pending.

I spent time with Charlotte in her apartment on several occasions last fall while I was doing some work with the Institute’s archives. I asked her how she got started with Korzybski and general semantics. “I was sharing an apartment with a friend, a college friend in Chicago, who was seeing Dr. Campbell. I was working. And she said, “There’s a man named Korzybski coming to give a seminar.” This was in 1936, “and Dr. Campbell thinks I should go. Would you like to come with me?” And I said, “Well, sure.” We had never heard of this person. It was three nights a week during the summer, I think about 12 meetings, and that’s how I started. It was on the north side campus, a little bit on the north side about 12 blocks north of the Loop. I’ve forgotten the name of the avenue.

“Of course I didn’t know what it was about. I finally got up enough courage to ask him a question, something about physics, and he leaned over to me and said, “Why don’t you do some reading once in a while?” I didn’t know what it was all about.” Two years later in 1938, Korzybski obtained funding from Cornelius Crane to start a not-for-profit Institute in Chicago. He asked M. Kendig, the headmistress at the prestigious Barstow School for Girls in Kansas City, to help him organize the Institute and become his Education Director.

In September 1939, Charlotte joined the staff on a part-time basis as AK’s literary secretary. At the time, she was seriously studying dance and was very interested in human anatomy and physiology. An important part of Korzybski’s seminar work dealt with “semantic relaxation” and included work on non-verbal awareness. Charlotte came to study and specialize in this aspect of the work – non-verbal awareness.

In the spring of 1946, the Institute lost its lease in Chicago, a victim of rapidly-escalating post-war rents. Korzybski, Kendig and Charlotte packed up and moved the Institute to a run-down country house Kendig was able to procure in Lime Rock, CT. After Korzybski’s death in 1950, Charlotte served as executor of Korzybski’s literary estate and worked closely with Kendig, who was named Director to succeed Korzybski.

In 1953, she married Allen Walker Read, a former Rhodes Scholar, author and professor at Columbia who developed a reputation as one of the country’s most respected lexicographers.

About that time she began to work with the noted sensory awareness ‘expert’ Charlotte Selver. She worked under, and with, Selver (now over 100 yrs old and still teaching), and was responsible for Selver participating as guest presenter at several Institute seminar-workshops in the mid-50s. Her influence was felt within the Sensory Awareness organization to a similar degree as that within GS. I’ve mentioned this before, but I highly recommend you read the excerpts of her interview with Louise Boedeker that’s located here.

Irving Lee, Stuart Chase, Wendell Johnson, and others wrote about various versions of the ideal “Semantic Man,” “the trained semanticist,” etc. However, of all the people whom I’ve either met, or read about, my evaluation is that Charlotte most closely approximates the logical extension of what this GS stuff is ‘about’ and how one ‘does’ it – not in writing, not in speaking, not in emailing … but in ‘living with awareness’ – on silent levels.

As a lithe, graceful interpretative dancer … as a sensitive, caring teacher who helped students learn how to ‘breathe’ …. who even at age 85 could stand and touch her palms to the floor … Charlotte had very small feet.

But she’s left some awfully large footprints in the sand for us to follow.

A WORD ABOUT GENERAL SEMANTICS

The word today is conditionality. I remember that word as the answer given by Professor Kenneth Johnson, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in 1994 when asked the question, “How would you describe ‘general semantics’ in one word?”

We need to contrast two similar-looking, but very different, terms – “conditioned” and “conditional” – that apply to a range of possible responses we might experience in any situation or circumstance.

On the way far left end of an imaginary “Scale of Responses”, let’s label that as “CONDITIONED”. Remember Pavlov’s dog? The Russian scientist used his dog, some food and a bell to demonstrate what are called “conditioned responses”. He rang the bell, fed the dog … rang the bell, fed the dog … rang the bell, fed the dog … rang the bell, fed the dog … rang the bell … and then DIDN’T feed the dog.

What happened? Pavlov ‘conditioned’ the dog to associate, or “identify” in GS terms, the sound of the bell with the immediate delivery of food. This “conditioned response”, as it’s called, is one in which the response is ‘conditioned’, or triggered, by some kind of event or stimulus. In other words, the response is a function of the stimulus … the stimulus determines the response.

Over the period of the experiment, the dog ‘learned’ that the sound of the bell ‘meant’ food; “bell” = “food”. This conditioning was so strong that when Pavlov rang the bell and DID NOT follow it with food, the dog still salivated in anticipation.

After all, from the dog’s perspective, “Hey, he’s fed me every other time he rang the damn bell! Why shouldn’t I salivate when I hear the bell? Every other dog I know would do the same thing. It’s just part of canine nature, isn’t it? Why question it?”

Now, on the way far right end of the “Scale of Responses”, let’s put a label that says “CONDITIONAL”. (Note the last two letters: “AL”, not “ED”. That’s definitely a difference that makes a difference.) A “conditional” response is one that is not automatically determined solely by the stimulus, but takes into account more factors. A “conditional” response can be characterized as one that’s not immediate, not automatic, not “knee jerk”. A “conditional” response is more deliberate, more aware, more questioning, more … human.

As a colleague highlighted so well during the Alverno seminar, each one of us has been subjected to millions and millions of “instances of conditioning” during our lives – some tiny, some not-so-tiny, but each significant in its cumulative effects. To some degree, every word we’ve heard, sight we’ve seen, book we’ve read, etc., has resulted in some measure of “conditioning” us.

Some of the effects of this conditioning are trivial, some significant. For example: (Some) Children as young as 4 or 5 can spot a McDonald’s golden arches before the parents can. Some people grow up with distinct food biases/preferences … depending on where/how you were raised, your ‘taste’ has been conditioned by what you have or have not eaten, and your attitudes about what “is” or “is not” appropriate to eat We tend to become “creatures of habit” and established routine; if we normally start the day with coffee and then miss it one day when we’re rushed, we (some of us) feel out of sorts … as though something’s … just not ‘right’.

The most overt, obvious and egregious forms of “conditioning” are those practiced by advertisers and politicians. They (or more accurately, their agencies and consultants) are experts in conditioning us, or “pushing our buttons”, so that we will behave (not think, but behave) in keeping with their purposes and agendas. And we know that advertising works, otherwise the advertisers wouldn’t be trying to plaster ads every place our eyes, and ears, pause.

As you go through the next few days, try to become more aware of these “instances of conditioning”, particularly as you catch yourself acting without thinking. In this upcoming political season, look for examples in which the focus is on labels like “liberal” and “conservative” – the equivalent of Pavlov’s bell ringing in the ears of unsophisticated, non-discriminating voters like … us?

We can apply the formulations of general semantics to help us maintain a greater awareness of how we behave – whether we allow ourselves, as Pavlov’s dog, to be controlled by outside agents and stimulants, or whether we develop the means to resist (some of) the hundreds or thousands of daily attempts to ‘condition’ our own individual responses.

Which, if you think about it, could be a major difference between living a more “fully human” life, instead of a life that seems to be … “going to the dogs.”

NEWS BITS

  • Kenneth R. Bazinet reports in the New York Daily News about the backdrops behind President Bush’s speech platforms which, depending on your perspective, are either blatant, or subtle, attempts at what I’ll call “constituent conditioning”. Bazinet writes: “Recent eye-grabbing backdrops read, ‘Corporate Responsibility’, ‘Strengthening Medicare’, ‘A Home of Your Own’ and ‘Strengthening Our Economy” – over and over and over again …” He quotes Jim Wilkinson, White House deputy communications director: “Modern media require all organizations to use every tool in their toolbox to communicate their message.”
  • Debby Waits, a license-plate screener for the Texas Transportation Department, spends her workdays scrutinizing request for personalized (or “vanity”) license plates. She says: “We try to look at them backwards and forwards – and through a mirror – since people sometime try to slip something through. Sometimes, they get through and someone down the line in Huntsville will say it’s some sort of slang or that it says something in Spanish. Our standard is if it could offend even one person, then it’s objectionable.”
  • A study conducted by the University of Ulster blamed parents and Northern Ireland’s segregated school system for its assessment that Catholic and Protestant “start learning to fear and loathe one another’s communities when they are as young as 3 years old.” Paul Connolly, lead author of the report, added, “The surprising thing is how quickly these attitudes start to be expressed, almost as soon as they can talk. You could imagine children drawing some of these distinctions at age 10, not 3.”

    Imagine, indeed.