Introduction to "Difficulties in Learning to Apply General Semantics"

Article excerpt

In June 2010, my visit to the Institute of General Semantics in Fort Worth, Texas, uncovered a three-album vinyl recording titled Difficulties in Learning to Apply General Semantics. According to the labels, the recording was of Alfred Korzybski, the founder of both general semantics and the Institute. After purchasing a record player that converts vinyl audio to MP3 files, I made digital copies of the original material, gave them to a colleague with professional transcription ability, and had her make a basic transcript of the lecture. Over numerous listenings of the approximately 45-minute recording, I carefully edited the transcript into what is now presented to you: a "new" lecture by Alfred Korzybski, heretofore unpublished and widely unknown to the general-semantics community.

In the opening by Korzybski's editorial secretary Charlotte Schuchardt, we learn that the recording occurred in late 1947 after the Institute had resettled in Connecticut, and it was apparently made in thef presence of Korzybski's student Kenneth Keyes, Jr., who is not audible on the recording. Instead of being continuous, the recording is punctuated by a handful of mechanical stops that leave the throughline of Korzybski's lecture unaffected. Korzybski's pace, however--which is incredibly slow--obscures his throughline, especially if you are attuned to interpreting short, quick sound bites. The transcript that follows this introduction aims to distill Korzybski's lecture from the recording to communicate concisely his elongated teachings.

Transcription and Time-Binding

If you have never prepared a transcript before, you may not be aware of the artistic decisions with which you are faced. You are presented with a territory (a soundscape), and you are challenged to provide a map of this territory in written words, punctuation, typeface, and notations. Sometimes the territory is of questionable importance, such as when a child's passing voice is heard in the background of the recording. Sometimes the territory is confoundingly indistinct, such as when Korzybski's exact English expression is unintelligible under his thick Polish accent. Sometimes the territory is open to interpretation, such as when a statement by Korzybski could be punctuated effectively in several different ways, or when his exact point is rendered vague by the lack of imagery, film, etc., that might aid a more informed interpretation of his speech. While the territory of this recording is largely important, distinct, and unambiguous, parcels of sound within its soundscape resist a straightforward, uncontroversial transcription.

Deciding importance, deciphering the unintelligible, and resolving ambiguity are obstacles for the mapmaker of a soundscape. When you encounter each of these obstacles, you are forced to make choices about how you will represent them (or not) within your transcript. Immediately, you realize the burden of responsibility you have in representing these sounds for others. Your map inevitably guides your audience's understanding of the soundscape, and one ill-placed comma or one disregarded noise could spell generations of misinterpretation if its passage is later quoted. After all, in transcribing for publication, you are involved intimately with Korzybski's notion of time-binding: You are learning now from a lecture recorded back then, and you are passing now the artifacts of the lecture to others in the future--both the immediate readers privy to your initial publication and later readers who uncover your publication generations from now.

Guiding Editorial Principles for the Transcript

To guard against misinterpretation of Korzybski in the recording and to communicate more concisely the teachings Korzybski presents in it, I feel it imperative to disclose my guiding editorial principles in polishing the transcript. There are, indeed, noticeable differences between my transcript and the actual recording, and these differences result clearly from the application of my editorial principles. …