Alfred Korzybski introduced the terms neuro-semantic and neuro-linguistic, and in conjunction with his emphasis on the organism-as-a-whole-in-an-environment, made reference to the neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic environment that we inhabit. Following Korzybski's lead, Wendell Johnson introduced the concept of the semantic environment in his classic work on general semantics, People in Quandaries (recently reissued by the Institute of General Semantics).
Neil Postman devoted a chapter of his 1976 study, Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, to the topic of the semantic environment, explaining that, "a semantic environment includes, first of all, people; second, their purposes; third, the general rules of discourse by which such purposes are usually achieved; and fourth, the particular talk actually being used in the situation." Noting that there are many different types of semantic environments, he described them as situations and social structures "in which people want to do something to, for, with, or against other people, as well as to, for, with, or against themselves."
Postman specified that he was particularly concerned with "those semantic environments which give form to our most important human transactions." And in an earlier essay entitled "Demeaning of Meaning," he maintained that, "in considering the ecology of the semantic environment, we must take into account what is called the communications revolution," going on to observe that, "the invention of new and various media of communication has given a voice and an audience to many people whose opinions would otherwise not have be solicited, and who, in fact, have little if anything to contribute to public issues."
In January of 2018, we had the rare opportunity of presenting a program consisting entirely of out-of-towners who have converged on New York City to attend the annual Media Ecology Association board meeting, and we continued that practice as we asked them to comment on the state of the semantic environment in 2019, locally and globally.
The participants on this program, held on January 18, 2019, were:
Carolin Aronis, Special Faculty in Communication Studies at Colorado State University and a Discourse, Culture, and Identity lecturer at the University of Colorado, Boulder, studying and teaching about communicative practices that challenge the essence of media, and that contribute to our understanding of communication, intersectionality, and intimacy.
Julia Hildebrand, a Ph.D. candidate in Communication, Culture, and Media at Drexel University, whose research lies at the intersections of critical media studies and mobilities research with a special interest in visual communication and mobile technologies.
Matt Thomas, educated at the University of Southern California and the University of Iowa, where he got his PhD in American Studies, currently teaching and writing in Iowa City.
Edward Tywoniak, Professor of Communication, Director of the W. M. Keck Media Lab and Program Director for the Digital Studies major at Saint Mary’s College of California, Trustee of the Institute of General Semantics, and Immediate Past President of the Media Ecology Association.
And the panel was moderated by NYSGS President Lance Strate, Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Fordham University, Trustee of the Institute of General Semantics, and Editor of Explorations in Media Ecology.
It was a wide-ranging and stately discussion!