IV National Workshop, “General Semantics for a Digital Age”

20-22   January 2011

Baroda

The fourth national workshop organized by the Centre was held in Baroda during 20-22 January 2011. The theme of the workshop was “General Semantics for a Digital Age.” Thom Gencarelli, Chair of the Department of Communication, Manhattan College , New York and Prof B.N. Patnaik, former faculty from the IIT Kanpur and fellow of CIIL Mysore were the Workshop faculty.

Inauguration

The workshop commenced with the Inaugural Session on 20 January 2011 chaired by Professor Sitanshu Yashaschandra, celebrated poet, playwright and former Vice Chancellor of Saurashtra University.  Professor Prafulla C. Kar, Director of the Centre, delivered the Welcome Address and gave a brief introduction to the Centre and its activities. Prof. Kar introduced the participants to the social vision of Shri Balvant K. Parekh, Chairman, Pidilite Industries and to the generous support offered by him for sustaining the activities of the Centre. Professor Kar also introduced some of the major concepts of General Semantics in terms of the ideas expressed by Alfred Korzybski and Richard Feynman. Elaborating upon the concept of “time-binding,” Professor Kar spoke about “hindsight” and “foresight” and how their confluence is the site for the sharing of knowledge. Professor Yashaschandra explained the use of General Semantics in everyday life and the need to replace the discourse of power with the discourse of compassion. Through the example of Ravishankar Maharaj, a Gandhian who worked with the “outlawed” tribes of Gujarat and also inaugurated the state in 1960, he showed how the reduction of a person to an object becomes the root of violence. The Vote of Thanks was proposed by Bini B.S., Academic Fellow and Program Officer of the Centre.

Workshop Sessions

Five workshop sessions were conducted by the core faculty Thom Gencarelli and B.N. Patnaik. The Introductory Session titled “On the Question of a Digital Revolution” conducted by Thom Gencarelli on 20 January 2011 introduced, defined and distinguished the concepts of media education and media literacy and how meaning is processed. Understanding media, the media industry, its practices and players, audience and reception and the media themselves were analyzed in detail. Following the concept of time-binding, Thom Gencarelli traced the development of media of human communication across history. He marked out four communication revolutions as orality, development of systems of writing, print media, electronic media and posited digitization and computerization as the fifth revolution. Beginning with pictography, he elaborated at length on each of the above movements in communication and how with each step our understanding of language, information and the world around us changed forever. This workshop helped to build an awareness about the key characteristics of the digital age in terms of media, meaning and human consequences.

 The second workshop titled “Discourse Meaning” conducted by Professor B.N. Patnaik challenged the idea that unity, coherence and cohesion are the distinctive features of discourse and put forward the idea that language in use is discourse. Prof. Patnaik conceptualized human beings as “meaning making creatures” who are “condemned to make meaning.” He explained how humans make meaning not only of coherent language but of all sounds and that the mind does not privilege coherent discourse over incoherent discourse. Prof. Patnaik spoke of the “generous trait” in human behaviour which propels humans to make an effort to understand other humans. This trait is neither a feature of text, nor of communication but an inherent feature of interaction because the mind does not accept the possibility that any discourse can be inherently incoherent. Numerous examples of ambiguity of language were given by Prof. Patnaik. This workshop helped to understand the idea of meaning and how it is arrived at in spite of the limitations and contradictions that exist within language.

Lecture by Prof. B.N. Patnaik

 The third workshop titled “General Semantics, Media Ecology, Media Education, and the Study of Human Language: A Synthesis” was conducted by Thom Gencarelli on 21 January 2011. During this session key concepts from the course material provided to the participants were discussed. Martin Levinson’s Sensible Thinking for Turbulent Times, Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity, David Buckingham’s Media Education: Literacy, Learning, and Contemporary Culture and Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature were the works discussed in terms of concepts of language, culture, medium, message, and media education. The participants learned about the human faculties of perception, instinct, feeling, memory, language and emotion and consolidated their previous reading of the course material that was sent to them a month before the workshop.

            The fourth workshop titled “Meaning and Miscommunication” was conducted by Prof. B.N. Patnaik wherein he demonstrated the construction of meaning through numerous examples taken from real life. He pointed out how total reliance on language may lead to miscommunication. Prof. Patnaik explained that natural language is never precise and an attempt to achieve exactness in language often obscures meaning. Thus an approach to meaning relies heavily on the intention of the speaker. There being no way to know the intention of the speaker, an intention is ascribed which may lead further into the realm of miscommunication. Prof. Patnaik showed how miscommunication may be created in overbearing communication situations which are beyond the control of the people who wish to communicate. The speaker’s intention being hypothetical and source credibility being no guarantee of truth, miscommunication cannot be prevented. Prof. Patnaik stressed upon the idea that knowledge opens up areas of understanding but inference comes from ‘values’ which we take to the body of knowledge. Therefore the scope of miscommunication can be minimized by an understanding of ‘values.’

            The fifth workshop titled “The Future of General Semantics” was conducted by Thom Gencarelli on 22 January 2011.  It was an interactive one in which General Semantics was analyzed as an intellectual and academic practice. The role of the digital media in global politics and exercise of power was discussed. The major formulations which form the basis for General Semantics were also discussed.

Thom Gencarelli chairing the panel discussion

Public Lectures

Three public lectures were delivered during the workshop. The first lecture was given by Prof Sitanshu Yashaschandra who spoke on “Open Spaces in the Language of Poetry.” Prof. Yashaschandra compared the language of poetry to a half drawn circle. Just as the mind perceives a half drawn circle as a circle, the spaces in the language of poetry are filled in by the perception of the reader. He said that these spaces of creative interpretation distinguish the language of poetry from the language of ideological domination. Using a panoramic range of allusions from classical as well as modern poetry, Prof. Yashaschandra explained in detail the various kinds of meaning making processes at work in the language of poetry. Drawing upon the GS formulation of “territory” he showed that the language of poetry is marked by its characteristic to leave things unsaid and undiscovered. The second lecture was given by Prof. B.N.Patnaik on the topic “Endangered Languages and Affirmative Action.” Prof. Patnaik spoke of the death of language due to loss of language habitat which in turn is often caused by economic pressures. Death of a language is accompanied by death of a culture, death of a knowledge system and death of a whole way of negotiating with the world. He brought to his lecture the wealth of scholarship from the area of language study and information on the various interventions and initiatives being taken in this regard worldwide and in India . He brought to light the inconsistencies and dilemmas that assail these initiatives and ended with a plea for archiving language and culture so that it may at least survive in archives long after it has disappeared. The third lecture was delivered by Thom Gencarelli on the theme of the workshop “General Semantics for a Digital Age.” Beginning with the idea “Words don’t mean, people mean” he explicated the points of crises in General Semantics. The limitation of the nomenclature GS which obscures its interdisciplinarity, and the burden of cult personality borne by GS and Media Ecology, were identified as areas of concern. Dr. Gencarelli explained that in the present day scenario, GS needs to take into account the role of digital media in altering the “habits of the mind” associated with print culture. He also elucidated the changes experienced by language on account of its inevitable interface with digitization and the latter’s apathy towards improvement of the lives of people. He stressed on the role of GS to bridge the present day digital divide.

Panel Discussion:

On the third day of the workshop a panel discussion was held on the topic “General Semantics, Language and Media.”  Geetha Bhasker, from the Department of English, Bangalore University, Deepa Mishra, from the Department of English, CHM College, Mumbai and Bini B.S. Academic Fellow and Program Officer of the Centre, were on the panel chaired by Thom Gencarelli. Geetha Bhasker addressed the issue of the disturbing hierarchies of the T.V. Curriculum, the School Curriculum and maladjustment in children. She stressed on the need to approach teaching as a “conserving activity” which would be unfathomable without the GS approach. Deepa Mishra explained the theorization of language made by Saussure and Derrida and took it forward to the conceptualization made by Korzybski. She explained how the structure of language behavior creates the structure of the world and shapes values. Bini B.S. spoke about the political and cultural coordinates of time binding and the neurolinguistic and psychological aspects of language. She also addressed the issue of language in the realms of discourse, knowledge and power.

Presentation by Participants:

The following presentations were made by the participants during the workshop.

1.      Niti Chopra:                            “Locating Semantics in Communication”

            2.      Sweety Bandopadhaya:          “Representation of Conflicting Worldviews and Cultural

Stereotypes in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist

            3.      Namrata Rathore Mahanta:     “Mapping Early Learning: Pedagogy of the Kumari Bratas

of Bengal

            4.      Rucha M. Kulkarni:                “Digital Age, Virtuality and Contemporary Visual Culture”

Tea time discussions

 Open Session and Valedictory

The open session witnessed animated discussion by the participants. One of the participants Joachim J. presented a five-pronged approach towards a vibrant future of GS. The Director of the Centre Prof. Prafulla C. Kar elaborated on the GS scene and brought to light the work being done in GS in India . Prof. Kar gave also information regarding reading material for new entrants in the field available at the Centre. Speaking of the praxis of the GS he cited examples from the life of the Shri Balvant Parekh who is both the inspiration and support for the Centre.

Namrata Rathore Mahanta                                                                    Banaras Hindu University  

 

A Report on My Participation at the Fourth National Workshop    

 

     

Thom Gencarelli (Workshop Faculty)

Chair and Associate Professor, Communication Department, Manhattan College

Riverdale , New York , U.S.A.

 The theme of the IV National Workshop in General Semantics at the Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences, “General Semantics for a Digital Age,” came out of a brief series of e-mail discussions I had with Bini B.S., Academic Fellow at the Centre.  The idea, as far as I was concerned, was to move forward knowledge and application of general semantics principles with a mind toward: (a) the consequence of media for our human interactions through language (and perhaps vice-versa); and (b) the importance of GS here in the early years of the 21st century – some three quarters of a century after Korzybski founded the discipline that is GS with his books Manhood of Humanity (1921) and Science and Sanity (1933).

            With respect to my own participation and presentations over the course of the three-day workshop, I came up with the following set of offerings.  For my introductory presentation on the first day, I developed an orientation to the workshop’s theme entitled “On the Question of a Digital Revolution.”  The point, for me, is that we cannot discuss the role GS might play, and the assistance it might provide in our digital age, or whether this role and assistance are any different than they had been for the greater part of the 20th century, until we can come to some agreement about what exactly defines our digital age and our digital culture.

            My second presentation, on the following morning, was entitled “General Semantics, Media Ecology, Media Education, and the Study of Human Language: A Synthesis,” and was based upon the series of readings I provided to the workshop’s participants.  These included the first two chapters of Martin Levinson’s book Sensible Thinking for Turbulent Times (2006)1, the first four chapters from Neil Postman’s book Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979), and two chapters each from David Buckingham’s book Media Education: Literacy, Learning, and Contemporary Culture (2003) and Steven Pinker’s book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (2008).  Taken as a whole, these excerpts speak to my background and perspective as someone who comes to GS by way of communication and media studies, and for whom language is central to our attempts to understand all media of human communication.  Language is the medium upon which we depend, and to which we default for all we think of as “meaningful,” and for all of our communal purposes (e.g., cooperation, compromise, education, etc.).   It is also the medium against which all other media can be compared and contrasted in our endeavor to analyze and understand them and how they work.

            My third presentation was my public lecture on the workshop’s theme: “General Semantics for a Digital Age.”  In this talk, which is scheduled to be published in the upcoming premiere issue of the Centre’s journal, I discussed the present-day situation and possible futures for the practice of and education about general semantics.  Following this, I presented an argument for the ways in which digital media – the Internet, instant messaging, text messaging, social networking, etc. – are impacting how we use language and interact with one another, and how GS is perhaps now more important than ever in helping us to enhance and improve our individual and communal lives.

            My final presentation, on the final day, was a workshop on “The Future of General Semantics.”  For this workshop, I wanted to engage the participants in a discussion about both of the points from my public lecture the night before: Where is GS headed with respect to the people who, and the institutions which will ensure its continued use and benefit in the future?  And what does general semantics have to do with digital media, and vice-versa?  However, the participants seemed more interested to discuss the basic, underlying principles of GS – which I gladly went on to do.  As I came to this workshop as a representative of the Institute of General Semantics (I am a member of the Board of Trustees), the most important contribution I could possibly make to the proceedings was to help the participants come to a greater understanding and appreciation of GS, and to incorporate GS into their ways of thinking and the work they do.  In retrospect, had I known they would be as interested in this kind of “basic course” orientation as they were in my attempt to push the frontiers of GS thinking, I would have revisited my plan and begun my contributions with a reiteration of foundational GS thinking and practice.

            In the end, and for me, the most beneficial part of this workshop was the opportunity to travel to India (for my first time), to meet these people, to listen to their presentations of their work, and to participate in all of the discussions about significant and vital ideas that come out of such a “meeting of the minds.”  I also had the opportunity to spend two days visiting some of the important historical and cultural sites in and around Baroda , such as the Lakshmi Vilas Palace , and in Ahmedabad, including the Sabarmati Ashram and Gandhi Memorial Museum .

            I thank Bini and Professor Prafulla Kar for making the arrangements to bring me to Baroda , and for being such gracious and hospitable hosts.  And I thank Mr. Balvant Parekh for his support in making my trip possible.

           

Note

1.  Martin is the President of the Institute of General Semantics .

    References

    Buckingham, D.  (2003).  Media Education: Literacy, Learning, and Contemporary Culture.

    Cambridge : Polity Books.

    Levinson, M.  (2006). Sensible Thinking for Turbulent Times.  Bloomington , IN : iUniverse.

    Korzybski, A.  (1921). Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering.  New        York : E.P. Dutton and Company.

     Korzybski, A.  (1933). Science and Sanity: An Introduction to non-Aristotelian Systems and

     General Semantics.  Lancaster . PA: The International Non-Aristotelian Library.

     Pinker, S.  (2008). The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.  New York :      Penguin Books.

     Postman, N.  (1979). Teaching as a Conserving Activity.  New York : Delacorte Press.