7. Alfred Korzybski – Science and Sanity (1933)

Korzybski is a figure who fascinates me. His name is not often mentioned, but his ideas appear to have had a huge, albeit hidden, influence over English-speaking post-war avant gardes.

I first engaged with his work while writing my (forthcoming) book on Christine Brooke-Rose, but it was only after learning that he was a considerable influence on Burroughs as well that I decided to read his insanely-long Science and Sanity, known among his followers as “the blue peril”.

Korzybski was a member of the Polish szlachta (freemen or nobles) and agent of the Russian Empire who fled to America following the Russian revolution. If he had chosen France instead it is likely that his name would be associated with French “theory” and he would still be studied today.

As it is, his work represents a strange aberration. A post-Saussurean, pre-Althussarian, empiricist structuralism.

Western thought, he argues, contains a fallacy right at its core. The linguistic equivalent of original sin. It was placed there by Aristotle, and consolidated by Euclidean mathematics. As such, right from the start, Korzybski’s work is scattered with references to “non-A” thinking and “non-el” thought.

The fallacy is the notion of equivalence. That objects within the same category are the same, and that words are the things they describe. In reality, as Korzybski states, each chair is different, despite each being called “chair”, and the word chair itself is only associated with these objects through habit.

Saussure would describe it as the “arbitrary relation” between sign and signifier. For Saussure, this means that words derive their meanings from other words, and not from the things they describe.

But Korzybski goes far further. After asserting that the link between the world of words and the world of objects is provided by “structure and structure alone”, he then compels us to correct our structures.

If the structure of language does not change to accommodate scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of quantum mechanics, relativity and space-time, then not only will our entire language and culture slowly collapse into contradiction, but our very nervous systems will rupture and burst, torn apart by the variance between reality and our conceptual image of it.

It’s a powerful image. His message is an urgent one.

For Burroughs who, through Brion Gysin, understood the implications of the non-representational break in art – Cubism as an organic response to general relativity, for example – Korzybski’s work was a call-to-action. Bring writing into the twentieth century! Abandon the mechanical realisms of the past!

The problems arise when we start to unpack Korzybski’s solutions.

On a theoretical level, Science and Sanity is confused. Its most solid concept is that of “time-binding”. This was the core argument of an earlier work, The Manhood of Humanity (1921), in which Korzybski conceptualised writing as method of capturing time and passing it down generationally.

This allows humanity to “accrue” stored time and thus attain a kind of “species immortality”.

Science and Sanity attempts to extend this conceptual arrangement to include a new structure of “non-A” and “non-el” language: a practice known as “general semantics”.

Having now slogged my way through the book (or at least the abridged version) I can confirm that Korzybski did not manage this. He considered himself to be building a new theory. What he is actually doing, however, is merely adding examples to prove his original point and then inventing training methods, designed to help his followers, yet again, reach the conclusions contained in his original argument.

No new material of theoretical value is added.

The training methods are nevertheless interesting, and will act as “tells” should they show up in the work of Burroughs (or any other writer inspired by general semantics). Burroughs attended a training workshop with Korzybski in 1939 and so experience these first hand.

First, he hands everyone a biscuit. They eat. “Lovely biscuits, yes?” he asks. They agree. He reveals the package from which they came: “dog biscuits,” it reads. Everyone spits out the biscuits. “You see,” he concludes, “we don’t just eat food, but words as well”.

Next, he passes an apple around the room. He writes the word “apple” on the boards and asks the students to list “all” about the apple. Much time passes as the apple is analysed and described from every conceivable angle. “Now, is this truly ‘all’ about the apple?” he asks. “No,” comes the reply. “And so we can see how language can never really tell us ‘all’ about anything; it cannot even adequately convey our sense experience”.

A starving man asks for bread. Korzybski hands him a piece of paper with the word “bread” written on it. “Words are not the things they describe,” he teaches.

Finally, he does his favourite trick: he takes out a pocket fan and engages the blades. “What shape does this make?” he asks, pointing to the whirling rotors. “A circle,” comes the reply. He abruptly stops the blades. “And where is the circle now?”

The final example is an attempt to convey the then-recent discoveries in quantum electrodynamics. That the fan blades could be described as a circle does not mean that the circle has substance. So all solid objects, Korzybski concludes, are merely temporary alignments of particles across a field of chance.

So how do we correct our language, structurally, to account for these new truths? Well, here is where it becomes distinctly unimpressive and crankish.

Primarily, we do it merely by concentrating on objects as distinct from words. This is fair enough, but makes no change to language.

Then, we remove from our language the word “is”. This stops us from mistakenly attributing similarity where there is only difference. Of course, Korzybski himself soon forgets to do this, and suggests his new system is merely “in progress, not yet accomplished”.

In order to respect the differences between objects, we are therefore encouraged to add numbers to them. So we begin by sitting on a chair1, at a table1, surrounded by chair2,3,4. If we then talk about chair2, we might label that 1chair2, in order to distinguish between the physical chair2 and the spoken 1chair2.

Finally, we must accept that only maths has any real merit as a language, as this exclusively related only to itself, and that empirical science must fill in the rest. That empirical science changes through space-time, however, means we must always label it by its year. Korzybski writes a lot of science 1933, therefore, and is presumably understood by myself using science 2021.

As we can see, these techniques are awkward and of limited value. To know what the hell Korzybski’s on about you have to understand his theory which, by his own account, therefore makes the strange inclusion of numbers into written language superfluous.

In terms of Burroughs, it does make me immediately think of those “1920 street” moments, however, as well as his investigations of “time-binding” through experimental calendars. I need to return to the books with an eye for these Korzybskiisms, as I think there can be clear examples of influence found here, even if the influence is to the detriment rather than the benefit of linguistic clarity.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but find Korzybski a fascinating figure.

If he had moved to France instead of America, he would now be considered the key link between Saussure and Althusser; then, through Althusser, to the whole poststructuralist movement. French intellectuals would no doubt embrace his lack of clarity as profundity.

Meanwhile, if he had spent more time studying Eastern philosophy I expect he would have found in Taoism many of the answers he sought for his general semantic system. Lao Tzu’s description of the “ten thousand things” – labels, words, objects, ideas – that obscure the true Tao (the “path”, or “way”) map quite nearly to his own model.

Yet, by being in America, the land of commerce and practicality, he ends up as one of those unusual, half-baked thinkers (see Reich, Hubbard, Leary) who, by promoting their ideas as a “system” or a “solution”, fall short of ever fully and honestly expanding them into a theoretical whole. In Korzybski’s case, the temptation to teach and promote his basic propositions, rather than expanding on them, ends with him appearing to us today as a pseudo-scientist. A kind of intellectual con man.

Burroughs loved these outsider thinkers. Get-rich-quick schemes for the soul. Korzybski at least seems genuine, if misguided. He’s no L. Ron.

He is credited, to a minor extent, with inspiring the creation of Gestalt psychiatry. His biggest influence is artistic, however. I am tempted to do more work on him; to see how far the rabbit hole goes. But that will wait. For now, his influence on Burroughs must be listed as formative, but not major.