Annual Alfred Korzybski Lecture

About ten years ago, Genesis P-Orridge, Richard Metzger, Parker Posey, and I hopped in a cab to see Robert Anton Wilson give the Annual Alfred Korzybski Lecture in New York on behalf of the Institute for General Semantics. None of us knew much about general semantics at the time, but it was a fun talk in a swank location, completely free, and decidedly mind opening.

General Semantics spawned everything from cognitive psychology to NLP, and informed everyone from William Burroughs to Richard Bandler.

This year, I was invited to present the 56th Annual Alfred Korzybski Lecture. Besides being a tremendous honor, it's also an opportunity for me to take everything I've been talking about and rethink it in the context of general semantics - which might really mean beyond any context at all.

In any case, the talk itself is free, it's an important annual event even if I'm not as important as the usual annual speaker, and you're all invited. It's followed by a one-day symposium that I plan on attending as well. Here's the way they described my talk after I described it to them - as well as the details.

We are in the midst of a new renaissance fostered largely by a revolution in the way that we relate to our symbols and symbol systems. The new media of computers and computer networks invites an ethos of interactivity that empowers users and invites creativity, an ethos that might best be characterized as playfulness.

With our newfound access to participation and collective authorship, we now have the potential to gain control over our symbolic communication and semantic environment, and thereby promote true agency and more responsive social and public institutions. To do so requires that we become conscious of the biases of the languages and technologies through which we choose to perceive and create, and that we ask ourselves the question: Are we willing to play the future?

$90 per person for dinner and lecture

Lecture alone, free.

Friday, November 14, 2008, 6PM at the Princeton Club
15 West 43rd Street, NYC
(A Symposium titled Creating the Future: Conscious Time-Binding for a Better Tomorrow will be held on Nov. 15 and Nov. 16 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus. Admission is free.)

Douglas Rushkoff is a guest blogger.


  1. “The new media of computers and computer networks invites an ethos of interactivity that empowers users and invites creativity, an ethos that might best be characterized as playfulness.”

    The new interactivity is turning out to be a highly addictive pastime. I’ve triggered some OCD reaction that prevents me from looking away from boingboing. I’m trying to snap out of it!

    I know, I’ll drink to sublimate the need to boingboing! Time for Margellas… This round goes out to Timothy Leary, and to you, too, Rushkoff!

  2. This sounds very interesting. I gather you will be talking about possibilities for future methods of collaboration on specific ideas or projects. The direction the use of the internet seems to be growing is towards more real time communication with large groups of people who just so happen to live in different areas of the world. A system for allowing this and bypassing language barriers is becoming more and more necessary. If I understand the topic correctly you will be discussing a way to use more general semantics to get this accomplished. Sorry if I missed the point, I got just a little bit of a migraine trying to understand what you will be talking about (Wikipedia ftw!).

    Could you point me towards any good links for more discussion on the subject?

    And I’ve enjoyed your stay at Boing Boing, hopefully you’ll be back soon. I have your website bookmarked “Technology, Media, and Popular Culture,” are a few of my favorite things.

  3. After reading the Null-A trilogy from Van Vogt a few times I tried to get my head around Science and Sanity. I knew I was in for some difficult reading but it surpassed anything I expected.

    However it gave me new insights into language and how it is used even today. For that I am gratefull to both Van Vogt and Korzybski


  4. Will your lecture be made available, afterwards? I live in Europe and won’t be able to make it to NY, but I’d like to read it, if possible. Thank you.

  5. It’s cool the quirky g.s. people have discovered eclectic BoingBoing’s riches and mindpower.

    For others seeking more info, links and an overview of g.s.:

    For one key read in the area, checkout S. I. Hayakawa’s classic book Language in Thought and Action:

    For a clever test of your ability to notice assumptions:

  6. Given BoingBoing’s rather strong connection with all things (well, at least many) science fiction, it should be pointed out that A.E. VanVogt began working General Semantics into his work starting about 60 years ago.

  7. So, Doug, what do you mean by biases of the language? And why should we rethink the context of general semantics? I know the smartest people in the world are concerned with linguistics,(see: Noam Chomsky) but I can’t for the life of me figure why it should make such a difference.

  8. Sorry to be a philistine… but, if the lecture is free, but dinner and lecture is 90 bucks, must be a something special on the menu, huh?

    BTW – I have enjoyed Rushkoff’s guest bloggership immensely. Come back soon. :)

  9. My guess is the dinner is a fundraiser for the organization. The free talk is a way for them to share themselves with everyone who is interested.

    The head of the the Institute says there will be conference transcriptions on their site.

    As for exactly what that description paragraph means, I’m not totally sure. General semantics doesn’t mean “a more general semantic,” though. General semantics, to me, is itself a lens on reality. It’s an effort to see through the way that language contains presuppositions and generalizations that can distort our perceptions and screw with our logic.

    I think I’m talking about the same kinds of things I’ve been talking about here. Less currency and all that, and more about biases of media, possibilities for seeing many things in an open source way. But I’ve got three or four talks to do before then, plus this giant trip to Korea, so I haven’t had time to think about it yet.

  10. Some of Korzybski’s ideas seem to me, from what little I know, to be similar to those of Lacan, Zizek and other continental philosophers. Namely that there is a difference, a gap, between the Real and it’s semantic representation. Hence Korzybski’s “The map is not the territory”. Scientists and mathematicians don’t like it when you point out that includes them. The dialogue of hysteria usually follows. Zizek’s The Reality of the Virtual is perhaps a bit more clear.

    I first read Korzybski back when I was in High school and I placed him in the same category as Ayn Rand. Smart but deeply flawed somewhere and I wasn’t about to waste my time finding out where.

  11. Agh, of course it would be a work night for me. See whether the Institute might release an mp3 of the talk. Is it safe to assume there will be mention of B-Prime, Hyperwords and community currency?

    Non sequitur: I didn’t know you know Parker Posey. I ran into her at Canal Jeans back in ’01, I think. She’s much cuter in person.

    FurthUr Quitse Non: Seeing as the weekends tend to be light on the Boinging, perhaps that’d be an ideal time for BB to afford you an ongoing soapbox, leaving the rest of the week to undiluted Motherboing (and their guests).

  12. I pretty much worked my way through S&S fifty years ago while at Ann Arbor and under the influence of Leslie A. White, the self-defined “culturologist” who headed the University’s school of anthropology. He was sympathetic with Korzybski’s aims but critical of his attempts to define language. White said that General Semantics failed to state what language was. “He can’t even describe the tool he’s using for the job he’s undertaken,” was how he put it.

    Of course White was the author of an oft-anthologized essay, “The Symbol,” which argues that the origin of language lies in the employment of the innate and unique human ability to create and bestow meaning for things and events that cannot be perceived with the senses (“symboling”); or, as he put it, “trafficking in non-sensory meaning.” He seemed mildly insulted that Count Korzybski didn’t know of it.

    I had a friend who went a bit mad while reading S&S and used the book as metaphor to his mania. He got better.

  13. Finally! I’ve always thought that I had the potential to gain control over our symbolic communication and semantic environment, but now I apparently finally have an opportunity to do such. Both our symbolic communication and semantic environments have had it too good for too long. Personally, my symbolic communication has been out of control for quite a while. Recently, I had come to the conclusion that it was colluding with the semantic environment, conspiring against me on some level.

  14. Thank you for those links, rtorosyan. The tutorial section looks very illuminating. It describes G.S. as a way of helping you to become more sane. Must read! The self-help angle was not one I would have anticipated from a linguistics philosophy, but I am eager to learn.

  15. @ Modusoperandi

    …my symbolic communication has been out of control for quite a while. Recently, I had come to the conclusion that it was colluding with the semantic environment, conspiring against me on some level.

    They conspire in the night. It’s called dreaming.

  16. Thanks to the discussants above for the amusement you’ve given me.
    Bruce Kodish

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