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208. Opposition (II)

I would like to draw your attention to a forgotten influence on the America left: the figures of Count Alfred Korzybski, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Whorf. These men, active in the 1940s, essentially held the view that “postmodernists” are often charged with: language is reality, change the language and you will change reality. Their views were popular—particularly among West Coast intellectuals—and seeped into the wider culture in a simplified form, so that by the 1960s the figure of the laidback hippy who said, “That’s, like, just your reality tunnel, man,” had become a familiar trope.

Korzybski once offered his class some biscuits to eat from a plain white wrapper and, once the students had chowed down, pulled the biscuits out of the wrapper to reveal a dog biscuit label; accordingly, his class began to wretch and vomit. Korzybski then told the class that they ate words as much as food. The point is at once banal and somewhat profound—it crosses similar territory to hypnosis and self-help; and such accounts were shaped into trite morality tales about the dangers of “bigotry” and the “relativity” of science, with some deliberate conflation between the then novel and high-status Einsteinian relativity and moral relativity.

Simplifications of Korzybski, Whorf, and Sapir entered mass culture through men like Robert Anton Wilson—a middlebrow intellectual and editor at Playboy magazine, when Playboy meant something. Wilson presented a grossly simplified version of Korzybski, Whorf, and Sapir along the following lies: “Whether or not a junkyard is a junkyard depends on the signage. If I put up signs saying it is an art gallery, people will go in and treat it as an art gallery—it is an art gallery!” Wilson tended to use this mode of thought in a self-serving way to justify drug abuse and pornography: “It’s just your reality tunnel, if you adjust your words you will see heroin is no different from coffee!” The problem was that Wilson did not realise that the linguistic description refers to at least two different systems, to call a junkyard an art gallery can make it an art gallery; but it is still also a junkyard—in cybernetics, both perspectives remain true and real. Wilson maintained that one system cancelled the other, with the accent always—with little justification—on the more indulgent “reality tunnel”.

This Wilsonian approach to language is much closer to what liberal conservatives mean today by “postmodernism” than what any particular French academic said about language. It caught on in the 1960s when high-status publications like Playboy—with an obvious interest in muddying the waters as to what pornography is—began to popularise Korzybski-lite. The idea that language can change reality chimed with an egalitarian society where everyone has iceberg smiles, thanks to deceitful dentistry. “Just stand in the mirror every morning and say, ‘I am a rich and successful person and everybody loves me; and, more importantly, I love myself.’” Ideas such as this, a kind of self-hypnosis, sold in the language of neurolinguistics, cybernetics, and Korzybskian theory fitted in with the existing American culture of self-improvement, a tradition that goes all the way back to Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Once popularised among successful middlebrow America through publications like Playboy, these ideas had a huge influence and really constitute what liberal conservatives today call “postmodernism”: these ideas contributed to the hippy-dippy leftism of the 1960s, long before Derrida and Foucault had even got their intellectual socks on. Although there is some relation to what Derrida says about language in these theories, these theories were there first and came to inform the rhetoric of the American left from the early 1960s onwards. Wilson, for example, held that racism only existed because people said “nigger”; if people could be made to stop saying the word, race conflict would disappear—and he popularised this idea long before the postmodernists were on the scene. The relation to the contemporary left and the particular way it polices language is clear to see.


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