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A Report

on

The First National Workshop

 Towards an Ecology of Knowledge

28- 31 October 2009

 

The First National Workshop of Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences was held in Baroda during 28 – 31 October 2009. The theme of the Workshop was: “Towards an Ecology of Knowledge.”
Dr. Lance A. Strate, Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics, USA, and Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies, Fordham University, New York conducted the workshop. The workshop was sponsored by Shri. Balvant Parekh, Chairman, Pidilite Industries.

 

 

                                                                                  Dr. Lance Strate addresses the audience

 

Eminent scholars delivered public lectures and participated in Panel Discussions. There were participants from all walks of life and the workshop was not restricted to academicians. Participants made presentations based on the reading material provided to them.

Inauguration

The workshop commenced on  October 28 at 10 am with an inaugural function chaired by the famous Gujarati poet, Sitanshu Yashaschandra. During his welcome speech, the Director of the Centre, Prafulla C. Kar talked about the transformative potential of knowledge and put the workshop theme in perspective. Lance A. Strate gave an overview of the discipline, general semantics and elaborated on how it has changed and developed over the years. Mr. Narendra Parekh, brother of Balvant Parekh talked briefly about the relevance of such a Centre for General Semantics and praised the efforts of Prafulla C. Kar and Sitanshubhai in taking it to new heights; he suggested that it will be useful to find a Gujarati equivalent to the term, ‘General Semantics’. Sitanshubhai’s enlightening speech touched upon numerous aspects of life, literature and knowledge; he, in a very innovative manner discussed the translatability of words, ideas and principles from one language to another and also from one culture to another.

 

                                                      Releasing the Newsletter

The First Newsletter of the Centre was released by Dr. Lance A. Strate. Bini. B.S, the Academic fellow at the Centre proposed the Vote of Thanks.

  

Workshop Sessions Conducted by the Core Faculty, Dr. Lance A. Strate

In the introductory session on the first day titled “General Semantics”, Dr. Lance A. Strate elucidated various nuances and uses of General Semantics. He introduced the participants to the basic principles, tenets and thinkers of the discipline. General Semantics is a discipline as well as a principle for better living conceptualized and popularized by Alfred Korzybski. Lance Strate explained the notion of Time-binding or the unique human ability to pass information and knowledge between/down generations at an accelerating rate and talked about Human Engineering which Korzybski presented as a remedy for the sufferings of humanity.  Dr. Strate continued his discussion about the problems implied in Aristotelian ways of thinking in terms of equivalences and illustrated how general semantics is non-Aristotelian in principle.  He justified the non-Aristotelian stand with the observation made by Korzybski, “ Map is not the Territory”. Lance discussed in detail the idea of abstracting and the need to avoid all absolutist terms while thinking and talking.

 

Dr. Lance’s talk on the second day on “Media Ecology with Marshall McLuhan” took the listeners to the life and times of Marshall McLuhan. He explained the concept, “Media Ecology” in an interesting manner using several analogies. According to McLuhan, Media Ecology means arranging various media to help each other so they do not nullify each other and  buttressing one medium with another so that there is an environment of mutual cooperation. Media ecology looks into how the media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value system; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival. The word ecology implies the study of environments: their structure, content, and impact on people

 

After briefly talking about different ideas introduced by McLuhan and his significant works, Dr. Lance justified the controversial statement of McLuhan, “the Medium is the Message”. According to Dr. Lance, McLuhan's argument was that new technologies are capable of exerting a gravitational effect on cognition, which in turn impacts social organization. Lance illustrated through several examples how in McLuhan’s view, technology is a tool that profoundly shapes the self-conception and realization of the individual and even the society at large.

 

The third day’s session was based on Walter Ong. Dr. Lance after mentioning about the intellectual environment in which Walter Ong formulated his ideas, talked in detail on his major works. Lance described how Ong was trying to construct a multidimensional model of Western culture from its preliterate oral matrix through the development of alphabetic writing in the ancient Hebrew and Greek traditions to the development of the Gutenberg printing press and to the more recent development of communication media that accentuate sound. Dr. Lance warned the participants that Ong should not be characterized as a technological determinist or as a media determinist. Through different examples from Ong’s work, Lance illustrated that the former does not deny the role of human freedom and creativity. For Ong, technology contributes a new dimension by establishing contexts and conditions, but human freedom and creativity contribute in determining the shape of what emerges over time.

 

In a very lively session on Neil Postman on 31 October, on the last day of the workshop,  Lance convinced the audience that Postman was not a technological determinist, but primarily a humanist, who believed that “there is a limit to the promise of new technology, and that it cannot be a substitute for human values.” Lance introduced the participants to the argument of Neil Postman that different media are appropriate for different kinds of knowledge, and described how oral, literate, and televisual cultures value and transfer information in different ways. Neil Postman’s  definition of “Technopoly” raised many eyebrows. But they found Dr. Lance’s explanation of it as a society that believes that “the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment” and his allusion to some traits of the American Society that Postman was referring to very amusing . Postman’s solution for technopoly, which was to give students an education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, so they may become adults who “use technology rather than being used by it” was thought provoking. A movie on the life and principles of Neil Postman was screened during this session.  Dr. Lance’s sessions were highly interactive and he encouraged the participants to express their intellectual concerns over general semantics. His erudite responses to the queries of participants were well appreciated.

 

Public Lectures

There were public lectures on all four days of the workshop which were open to all. The lectures were followed by vigorous discussions. Mr. Devkumar Trivedi (Former Secretary to the Govt. of Delhi) delivered a Public Lecture on 28 October, “Page and Image” in which he assured maximum involvement of the audience. Through a series of visuals, he explained the structure of human brain, its functions and on the basis of that theorized on the nature of cerebral perceptions. Mr. Trivedi gave a scientific explanation to human sense perceptions, knowing and understanding in an interesting way.

 

Dr. Lance A. Strate’s Public Lecture on 29 October was titled “Eight Bits about the Digital Environment”. Divided into eight parts, like a delicious Pizza, an analogy the speaker himself used, the lecture explored diverse aspects of digital communication and its socio-cultural implications. He concluded that “there are limits to our knowledge, and limits to our ability to predict the consequences of our actions, and especially the consequences of our adoption of new technologies.”

 

“Poetry: A Language of Persuasion”, Sitanshu Yashaschandra’s Public Lecture started with an allusion to the famous elegy by W.H.Auden titled, “In Memory of W.B.Yeats.” While poetry gives several snapshots of an age, it can shock people out of contentment; at the same time, Sitanshubhai subtly argued, ‘poetry is not mere propaganda’. Sitanshubhai, himself a renowned poet, observed that poets’ responses to their situations vary in depth, candor and intensity. He drew attention to Indian literary traditions and theories of aesthetics and the philosophy and function of poetry. He expressed his concern over a total negligence of the rich heritage of Indian poetry and philosophy and emphasized that while exploring alien lands, one should not forget totally one’s own cultural moorings. But he warned, complete and obsessive adherence to one’s own culture and traditions would not open our mental horizons. It would confine people in a cloistered domain. Candid acceptance of different languages, cultures and intellectual traditions is the need of the day, he once again reminded.

 

Pravesh Jung Golay’s public lecture on the last day “The Paradox of Self Reliance: A Critical Approach to General Semantics” threw light on many concepts of General Semantics, especially ‘time-binding’. He selected some significant passages from Korzybski's Manhood of Humanity, to explain the fundamental ideas of general semantics. His analysis of the work, Science and Sanity helped the participants understand the complex and densely argued text in a new light. Golay emphasized that general semantics is not a theoretical discipline; praxis is equally, if not more, important. So the real impact of general semantics could be experienced, not in the domains of discourse or theory, but in the realm of praxis.

 

Panel Discussions

On the third and last days of the workshop, there were Panel Discussions attended by eminent scholars. On 30 October, the topic of discussion was “ General Semantics”. In this Panel Discussion chaired by Lance A. Strate and attended by Sitanshu Yashaschandra, Devkumar Trivedi and Pravesh Jung Golay, many concepts and contradictions of the discipline were discussed from different perspectives. Lance Strate, after listening to the poststructuralist critique of general semantics raised by some of the participants, drew attention to some of the major problems of poststructuralist thinking and conceptualization on aspects like language and textuality. Lance Strate argued that a middle ground is definitely possible and disciplines should open up to incorporate ideas and methodology from other disciplines. Sitanshu Yashaschandra talked about the immense possibilities of general semantics and how it would be able to impact our ways of thinking and doing, if practiced in an innovative and creative way. Devkumar Trivedi emphasized that the discipline General Semantics, or any discipline for that matter, should be liberated from narrow academic frameworks and given a wider application so that it will impact our life in a positive way. Pravesh Golay, while explaining certain concepts in general semantics that could be mistaken for different kinds of determinism also emphasized the praxis of general semantics. The participants participated in the discussion and their concerns and doubts about the discipline were satisfactorily addressed.

 

A Panel Discussion

 

The last day’s discussion was based on “Ethics and Genetics Research” and chaired by    Lance A. Strate. The panel consisted of V.V.Modi,   Bharat Chattoo and Pravesh Jung Golay. Participants benefited from listening to scientific, technological, ethical and philosophical perspectives on the issue. V.V. Modi explained the scientific background of genetics research. He, with examples, described how genetics research can be both a boon and curse. In continuation to the same argument, Dr. Bharat Chattoo   explained how genetics research gives rise to several ethical concerns. He opined that writers, philosophers and responsible citizens should address these concerns. Pravesh Golay discussed genetics research in the light of a philosophical perspective on ethics. A scientific and philosophical exploration of genetics research was an eye opener to those who saw genetics research as another milestone in the journey of science.

 

Presentations by Participants

Presentations by the participants were not restricted to the workshop material. New possibilities and applicability of general semantics and media studies came up during these presentations. Formal and informal discussions that followed the session helped to put the workshop theme in a clear perspective. (See Annexure I for details)

 

Presentations by Participants

 

Other Activities

The first day ended with a a small exercise designed by Dr. Lance Strate. It was based on the process of reading and comprehending. By making the participants read a passage and answer a few questions, he illustrated how mind jumps into conclusions and certainties because of pre-conceived notions. Participants enjoyed this session very much.  

 

Dr. Lance with participants

 

Two movies, based on the life and work of Marshall McLuhan and Edmund Carpenter respectively, were screened during the workshop. The movies, by providing powerful visual experience reinforced the awareness about media ecology and ethics.

 

As is evident from the feedback, Participants opined that they immensely benefited from the workshop and found it interesting and useful. Dr. Lance in a very scholarly way, engaged in discussions and clarified the doubts of the participants. Other invited speakers also interacted with the participants and it was a fruitful intellectual exercise.

 

Dr. Lance with some of the participants

 

An informal moment during the workshop

 

Annexure I

Participants’ Presentations
28 October, 2009, 2 to 3.30 pm, Chair: Dr. Lance A. Strate
1. Archana Thapa Uprety: “Factual Statement and Inferential Statements in the Context of Contemporary Nepali Politics”
2. Bini.B.S. : “The Intellectual and the Mastery of Time-binding”
3. Pushpa Raj Acharya: “Understanding ‘Stigma’ in General Semantics”
4. Sanghamitra Sadhu: “Addressing the Problem of ‘Postmodern’ in Neil Postman”
29 October, 2009, 11.30 am to 1 pm, Chair: Mr. Devkumar Trivedi
1. Gita Viswanath: “What Happens When Marshall McLuhan Comes to Bollywood”
2. Panchanan Dalai: “Webster’s Apricocks: An Attempt Towards Factual Knowledge in The Duchess of Malfi
3. Dhriti Dalai: “The Map is not the Territory: A Study of Eighteenth Century Spectator Papers”
2 to 3.30 pm, Chair: Chandrakant Topiwala
1. Vihang A. Naik: “Towards a Non-Aristotelian Possibility of Knowledge”
2. Sangeeta Handa: “Media Ecology and Challenges of New Technology” 
30 October, 2009, 11.30 to 1 pm, Chair : Pravesh Jung Golay
1. Mahesh Dey: “ The Hollow Man Lost in a Lonely Crowd”
2. Geetha Bhasker: “ General Semantics and the Notion of Communication”
3. Gananath Dash: “General Semantics and Teaching-Learning in a Technological  Environment”
2 to 3.00 pm, Chair:  Prafulla C. Kar
1. Puneet Kumar: “ General Semantics in the 21st Century”
2. Dhananjay Deolalkar: “ Language: Imperfect Yet Indispensable”
3. Piyush Raval: “Language of Enlightenment and Language of Postmodernism/Post structuralism”
4. Mary Bachaspatimayum: “Technology and Culture”

Concept Note

 

Workshop Outline

The purpose of this workshop is to introduce the allied disciplines of general semantics and media ecology as the basis for an ecology of knowledge. Some of the most fundamental questions that anyone can ask might include the following:  What does it mean to be human?  What is the nature of the world that we find ourselves living within?  And how are we to live our lives, effectively and harmoniously, in relation to other human beings, and to our world?  These questions all revolve around the concept of knowledge, which is to say that they are concerned with the relationship of the knower to the known, with how we know our environments and ourselves, how that knowledge guides our actions, and how we might expand and improve on the process of knowing.  Alfred Korzybski developed general semantics as a form of applied epistemology, a pragmatic system focusing on our ways of knowing, and how they influence our thought and behavior.  Korzybski describes the discipline of general semantics as focusing on the "organism-as-a-whole-in-its-environment."  By organism-as-a-whole, he indicated that he wanted to bring an holistic approach to bear on the study of human beings, and by situating the human organism in-its-environment, he indicated that he wanted to understand human beings through a contextualized and ecological approach.  Korzybski emphasizes the role of perception, language, symbolic communication, and scientific method in shaping consciousness and culture, and we will also consider related concepts such as linguistic relativism, philosophy of symbolic form, and metaphor.  Media ecology, which Neil Postman described as "general semantics writ large," contributes an additional emphasis on how modes of perception and communication, and forms of media and technology affect the way we think, feel, and act, individually and collectively, and in this workshop we will explore the thought of media ecologists such as Postman, Marshall McLuhan, and Walter Ong as well.

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