Alfred Korzybski: A Founding Figure in Media Ecology

Article excerpt

Readers of ETC: A Review of General Semantics are quite familiar with Alfred Korzybski as a founder of general semantics, but many may not be aware that he is also is a founder of media ecology. Korzybski's writings were first introduced to me through the writings of Neil Postman. Postman was greatly influenced by Korzybski's writing. He used Korzybski's ideas in his early works, such as Language and Reality (1966) and Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk (1976), as well as later writings, such as Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) and How to Watch TV News (1992). In 1976, Postman was appointed the editor of ETC, a position he held for ten years.

In his book Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble about Language, Technology and Education (1988), Postman dedicated an entire chapter in honor of Korzybski. He understood that Korzybski's theories and ideas have had a major influence on our understanding of language. And, he understood well that these same theories can help us better understand media, technology, and culture in the twenty-first century.

In my doctoral dissertation, Critical Thinking in an Image World: Alfred Korzybski's Theoretical Principles Extended to Critical Television Evaluation (1991/1993). I consider how Korzybski's theory relates to the creation and viewing of television.

Korzybski was born in 1879 in Warsaw, Poland, and lived until 1950. As an artillery officer in World War I, he saw firsthand the devastating effects of war. He began to wonder why in the political and social realm we have such failures, while at the same time in the scientific realm there seem to be major successes. After studying broadly in engineering, mathematics, philosophy, anthropology, physics, psychiatry, logic, and linguistics, he began to explore the nature of what it means to be human.

In his first book, Manhood of Humanity, written in 1921, Korzybski set forth an analysis of what makes human beings functionally unique. It was here that he explained his taxonomy of life forms. He classified plants as the "chemistry-binding" form of life because they are able to convert sunlight into organic chemical energy. He classified animals as the "space-binding" form of life because they are able to move about in space. Then, he classified humans as the "time-binding" form of life because through their symbol-making abilities they are able to preserve their knowledge and pass it on to future generations. As a result, human beings can potentially develop and progress from generation to generation.

In Time-Binding: The General Theory (1926/1949) Korzybski wrote out his initial ideas about the way human beings create symbols. It was here, I believe, that he drafted his first diagram of the relationship between the natural environment and the symbolic environment. He realized right away that the structure of language needs to correspond to the structure of the natural universe. He also realized that there are degrees, levels, and orders of correspondence. Some language correlates closely to reality; some language is far removed from reality. Language, he believed, progresses in orders, or levels, of abstraction, omitting and ignoring the details of reality.

In his major work, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933), Korzybski continued his study of time-binding. His theory was called "General Semantics" because it was a broad general theory of how we create language and how we can evaluate our use of language. His theory and insights have been used widely, including in such disciplines as psycholinguistics, semiotics, educational psychology, and, of course, media studies.

Postman, in a speech titled "Media Ecology: General Semantics in the Third Millennium" (1974), clearly explained the relationship between Korzyb-ski's theory and media ecology:

  Media Ecology is General Semantics writ large. It starts with the
  assumption that people do their thinking and feeling not only in and
  through language but in and through all those media which extend,
  amplify and transform our senses. …