Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gulf

To be or not to be

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The Structural Differential

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on October 11, 2016.

If you’re familiar with the science fiction of the golden age, you’ve probably come across the name of Alfred Korzybski, the Polish philosopher whose ideas, known as general semantics, enjoyed a brief but intense vogue with writers and fans in the late thirties and early forties. Korzybski’s work provided the backdrop for A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A and its sequels; Robert A. Heinlein mentions him by name in “Coventry” and “Gulf”; and he pops up in such stories as “The Helping Hand” by Poul Anderson and “Day of the Moron” by H. Beam Piper. He was also an important influence on L. Ron Hubbard and John W. Campbell, although both of them would have denied this. (Campbell liked to say that he was never able to get through Korzybski’s most famous book, Science and Sanity, and it’s likely that Hubbard never did, either.) And it isn’t hard to appreciate why the science fiction community found him so intriguing. General semantics was pitched as a kind of mental training program that would enhance the brain’s performance, allowing practitioners to think more clearly and move past the mental blocks that prevent us from accurately perceiving the world around us. Yet Korzybski remains relatively unknown today. Part of this is because Science and Sanity itself is such a daunting work: it’s long, repetitive, sometimes obscure, and often deeply weird. But there’s also a lot there that remains valuable to creative thinkers, if you’re willing to unearth it, and with certain qualifications, it’s still worth seeking out.

We can start with Korzybski’s most famous pronouncement, which a lot of people, including me, have quoted without fully understanding it: “The map is not the territory.” What he’s really talking about is language, which is the mental map that we use to orient ourselves as we make our way through the world. The trouble, he believes, is that the map we’ve inherited offers a flawed picture of reality. Language was developed when mankind was still in its infancy, and the inaccurate ideas that early humans had about the world are preserved in the way that we talk about it. We confuse words with their underlying objects; we take objects in isolation, when in fact they have meaning only in their relationships with others and in their place within an overall structure; we think in categories, when we’re invariably dealing with unique individuals; and we depend on preconceived ideas, rather than experience, to make our decisions. The primary culprit, Korzybski argued, was the word “is,” which always involves either a tautology or a falsehood. When we say that A is B, we’re either saying that it’s equivalent to itself, which doesn’t yield any useful information, or we’re falling prey to one of several fallacies. Either we’re saying that one unique object is identical to another; that an object is the same thing as the label we’ve given it, or to the overall class to which it belongs; or that it can be described in terms that can be agreed upon by all observers. And a moment’s reflection reveals that none of this is true.

Alfred Korzybski

Most of us, I think, will grant these points. What set Korzybski apart is that he attempted to train himself and others to systematically overcome these misconceptions, using a few misleadingly simple tricks. He advised his readers to be skeptical of any form of the verb “to be,” and that whenever they were told that something was the same as something else, they should reflexively respond: “This is not that.” The goal, he said, was “consciousness of abstracting,” or a constant, everyday awareness of how we think using different orders of abstractions. Words are not objects; objects are distinct from the inferences that we make about them; and the gap between the general and the particular means that no statement can be entirely true or false, but only probable in various degrees. To underline these points, Korzybski liked to use a model called the Structural Differential, a teaching aid fashioned out of wooden pegboards and lengths of string that were supposed to symbolize the abstracting process of the human nervous system. Students were told to study and handle it in silence, which would nonverbally remind them of the difference between an event, an object, a label, and the levels of abstraction above it. If this all sounds like an unwieldy way of seeing the world, if not a vaguely Duchampian joke, well, it is. But it’s also in service of what seems to me like a worthwhile goal: to insert a mental pause, or what Korzybski calls “the neurological delay,” before we unthinkingly respond to a statement or situation.

If we think of general semantics as an elaborate system for training us to pause to question our assumptions, it becomes a lot more comprehensible. It’s also worth noting that Korzbyski wasn’t opposed to abstraction, which he saw as a necessary tool and shortcut, but to its misuse. The ability for one generation to build on the abstractions developed by its predecessors, which he calls “time-binding,” is what separates human beings from the animals—but only if we’re good at it. Conventional language, which Korzybski associated with the followers of Aristotle, just makes it harder to pass along useful information; his non-Aristotelean approach was pitched as a more accurate reflection of reality, as well as a practical tool for generating and conveying ideas. And it’s probably worth a try. (If you don’t feel like plowing through all eight hundred pages of Science and Sanity, Korzybski advises readers to start with the shorter, self-contained section “The Mechanism of Time-Binding,” which includes most of the book’s practical advice.) Pausing before you think, interrogating your assumptions, and being conscious of your abstractions are all worthwhile goals, but they’re easier said than done: one of Korzybski’s followers later estimated that “about thirty” people had mastered it. You could argue that Korzybski overstated his case, that he exaggerated the benefits of his approach, and that he cloaked it in a lot of unnecessary pseudoscience. But he was right about the basic problem. And it’s easy to wish that we lived in a society in which we responded to all disagreements by pausing, smiling, and asking sincerely: “What do you mean?”

Written by nevalalee

January 18, 2018 at 9:00 am

To be or not to be

with 6 comments

The Structural Differential

If you’re familiar with the science fiction of the golden age, you’ve probably come across the name of Alfred Korzybski, the Polish philosopher whose ideas, known as general semantics, enjoyed a brief but intense vogue with writers and fans in the late thirties and early forties. Korzybski’s work provided the backdrop for A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A and its sequels; Robert A. Heinlein mentions him by name in “Coventry” and “Gulf”; and he pops up in such stories as “The Helping Hand” by Poul Anderson and “Day of the Moron” by H. Beam Piper. He was also an important influence on L. Ron Hubbard and John W. Campbell, although both of them would have denied this. (Campbell liked to say that he was never able to get through Korzybski’s most famous book, Science and Sanity, and it’s fair to say that Hubbard never did, either.) And it isn’t hard to see why the science fiction community found him so intriguing. General semantics was pitched as a kind of mental training program that would enhance the brain’s performance, allowing practitioners to think more clearly and move past the mental blocks that prevent us from accurately perceiving the world around us. Yet Korzybski remains relatively unknown today. Part of this is because Science and Sanity itself is such a daunting work: it’s long, repetitive, sometimes obscure, and often deeply weird. But there’s also a lot there that remains valuable to creative thinkers, if you’re willing to unearth it, and with certain qualifications, it’s still worth seeking out.

We can start with Korzybski’s most famous pronouncement, which a lot of people, including me, have quoted without fully understanding it: “The map is not the territory.” What he’s really talking about is language, which is the mental map that we use to orient ourselves as we make our way through the world. The trouble, he believes, is that the map we’ve inherited offers a flawed picture of reality. Language was developed when mankind was still in its infancy, and the inaccurate ideas that early humans had about the world are preserved in the way that we talk about it. We confuse words with their underlying objects; we take objects in isolation, when in fact they have meaning only in their relationships with others and in their place within an overall structure; we think in categories, when we’re invariably dealing with unique individuals; and we depend on preconceived ideas, rather than experience, to make our decisions. The primary culprit, Korzybski argued, was the word “is,” which always involves either a tautology or a falsehood. When we say that A is B, we’re either saying that it’s equivalent to itself, which doesn’t yield any useful information, or we’re falling prey to one of several fallacies. Either we’re saying that one unique object is identical to another; that an object is the same thing as the label we’ve given it, or to the overall class to which it belongs; or that it can be described in terms that can be agreed upon by all observers. And a moment’s reflection reveals that none of this is true.

Alfred Korzybski

Most of us, I think, will grant these points. What set Korzybski apart is that he attempted to train himself and others to systematically overcome these misconceptions, using a few misleadingly simple tricks. He advised his readers to be skeptical of any form of the verb “to be,” and that whenever they were told that something was the same as something else, they should reflexively respond: “This is not that.” The goal, he said, was “consciousness of abstracting,” or a constant, everyday awareness of how we think using different orders of abstractions. Words are not objects; objects are distinct from the inferences that we make about them; and the gap between the general and the particular means that no statement can be entirely true or false, but only probable in various degrees. To underline these points, Korzybski liked to use a model called the Structural Differential, a teaching aid made out of wooden pegboards and lengths of string that were supposed to symbolize the abstracting process of the human nervous system. Students were told to study and handle it in silence, which would nonverbally remind them of the difference between an event, an object, a label, and the levels of abstraction above it. If this all sounds like an unwieldy way of seeing the world, well, it is. But it’s all in service of what seems to me like a worthwhile goal: to insert a mental pause, or what Korzybski calls “the neurological delay,” before we unthinkingly respond to a statement or situation.

If we think of general semantics as an elaborate system for training us to pause to question our assumptions, it becomes a lot more comprehensible. It’s also worth noting that Korzbyski wasn’t opposed to abstraction, which he saw as a necessary tool and shortcut, but to its misuse. The ability for one generation to build on the abstractions developed by its predecessors, which he calls “time-binding,” is what separates human beings from the animals—but only if we’re good at it. Conventional language, which Korzybski associated with the followers of Aristotle, just makes it harder to pass along useful information; his non-Aristotelean approach was pitched as a more accurate reflection of reality, as well as a practical tool for generating and conveying ideas. And it’s probably worth a try. (If you don’t feel like plowing through all eight hundred pages of Science and Sanity, Korzybski advises readers to start with the shorter, self-contained section “The Mechanism of Time-Binding,” which includes most of the book’s practical advice.) Pausing before you think, interrogating your assumptions, and being conscious of your abstractions are all worthwhile goals, but they’re easier said than done: one of Korzybski’s followers later estimated that “about thirty” people had mastered it. You could argue that Korzybski overstated his case, that he exaggerated the benefits of his approach, and that he cloaked it in a lot of unnecessary pseudoscience. But he was right about the basic problem. And it’s easy to wish that we lived in a society in which we responded to all disagreements by pausing, smiling, and asking sincerely: “What do you mean?”

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2016 at 8:39 am

Astounding Stories #6: “Microcosmic God” and “E for Effort”

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Microcosmic God

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

It’s easy to forget that when Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was first published, it wasn’t just meant as a textbook, but as a manual for an entire social movement that was designed to emerge at exactly the same time. The community that sprang up around it was no accident, and it was rooted in the very same science fiction circles that had been introduced to L. Ron Hubbard’s theories in the pages of Astounding. On the east coast, the movement was based at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where Hubbard and his editor John W. Campbell were soon spending most of their time; on the west coast, it was centered on the Los Angeles chapter that was all but thrust into the hands of the writer A.E. van Vogt, in a disruption that took him out of science fiction for a decade. For Campbell, whose magazine had provided the initial platform that allowed Hubbard to reach a critical mass of readers, the foundation wasn’t just an adjunct to the book, but the heart of the entire project. Dianetics taught that individuals who had been “cleared” became smarter, more logical, and capable of accessing all the information they had ever learned or experienced. Unlike ordinary mortals, they were able to accurately process data from the world and evaluate it properly. And Campbell saw the foundation as a place where ideas of all kinds could be generated and refined by the heightened intellects that the therapy produced, which, in turn, was the only way to save mankind from its most destructive tendencies, as embodied in the threat of nuclear war.

This might seem like an impossibly grandiose mission, but it was only the expression, in the real world, of a longing that had been inherent in science fiction for years. The idea of a select group of enlightened men and women working together to save the human race from itself recurs repeatedly, and not just because it’s an engine for interesting stories. You see it, most famously, in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, first in the psychohistorians who transform psychology into an exact science that can be used to predict events far into the future, and then in the shadowy Second Foundation, which secretly nudges the minds of others to keep the plan on track. It’s there in Heinlein’s odd but wonderful novella Gulf, which was written just as he and Hubbard were becoming close friends, and which reads like a treatise wrapped in the pulpiest of pulp novels: it’s about a secret group of geniuses, the New Men, who parcel out scientific advances to the rest of society and defend the world against the existential threat of the nova effect, which could destroy the entire planet if it falls into the wrong hands. Perhaps most overtly, it’s visible in the numerous stories built around the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski, a fashionable theory of mental engineering that had a significant impact on authors like Hubbard, Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and van Vogt, whose novel The World of Null-A—which I hope to discuss in more detail soon—is both a fevered dramatization of Korzybski’s ideas and the weirdest story ever to appear in Astounding.

E for Effort

But for the most intriguing insights into Campbell’s hopes for the foundation, we should look at two stories in which the parallels are a little more subtle. The first is “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon, published in 1941, which gives us a central character who reads a lot like a portrait of Campbell himself:

[Kidder] was always asking questions, and didn’t mind very much when they were embarrassing…If he was talking to someone who had knowledge, he went in there and got it, leaving his victim breathless. If he was talking to someone whose knowledge was already in his possession, he only asked repeatedly, “How do you know?”

Kidder, a scientist, is frustrated by society’s slow development of ideas, so he does it one better: he creates an artificial civilization in his laboratory populated by tiny creatures called Neoterics, who live and think at a rate hundreds of times faster than human beings, and to whom he poses scientific problems in the guise of their god. It takes the Neoterics just two hundred days to replicate all of mankind’s science, followed by the rapid development of everything from a vaccine against the common cold to an impenetrable force field, all in response to the miniature crises that he creates. It’s as perfect an allegory as I can imagine for Campbell’s vision of Astounding, which he saw as a collaboration between writers and fans to develop ideas at blinding speed, with himself as head of research. And he thought that the dianetics foundation would serve as an even greater laboratory.

The second story is by the author T.L. Sherred, who produced relatively little science fiction, but whose output includes one indisputable classic, “E for Effort,” which first appeared in 1947. It’s the story of two small-time operators who develop a technique for viewing events from any period in Earth’s history: they can literally look at anyone at any time, and they can film the result as if they had been there in person. They begin by using the technology to make popular documentaries, disguised as sword-and-sandal epics, about the likes of Alexander the Great, but they soon realize that they have something even more powerful at their disposal. By going back and documenting the sordid political realities of the first two world wars—“the cynical leaders who signed and laughed and lied”—they announce that their machine has made it impossible for governments to keep secrets, which is necessary “if atomic war is not to sear the face and fate of the world.” As one of the inventors tells the other:

War of any kind is what has made man spend most of his history in merely staying alive. Now, with the atom to use, he has within himself the seed of self-extermination. So help me, Ed, I’m going to do my share of stopping that, or I don’t see any point in living. I mean it!

In other words, what began as a form of entertainment becomes a means of saving the world. That’s exactly what Campbell thought science fiction could be. And it’s impossible to understand his hopes for dianetics, and the heartbreak that ensued when it fell short of that ideal, without remembering the vision of it that he infused, in secret, into the pages of his magazine.

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