Film-maker Nora Bateson talks about her film An Ecology of Mind, a portrait of her father Gregory Bateson, the celebrated anthropologist, philosopher, author, naturalist and systems theorist.
Can you summarise for those not familiar with your fathers’ work, what the film is about?
Well, the film is all about non-singularities, about non-linear thinking, so pulling out a singular message interpretation is hard.
I wanted to create a documentary of his way of thinking. We are living in an era in which we are beginning to notice that linear thinking is not enough to solve the crises we face. We know that our experts don’t have enough peripheral vision to be able to see. And yet we are not given the chance to cultivate a basis from which to validate the level of understanding that comes from non-linear thinking. Economists, politicians, even ecologists, don’t have a paradigm or framework for what the rules of engagement are for a different kind of conversation.
Our experts have to have authority but the definition of authority is that you are limited. It’s one of the remarkable parts of Gregory’s story is that he was a part of so many disciplines. There are many authors out there, but not many that went into so many different fields. He was willing to always be at the beginning with new disciplines, new paradigms and new frameworks. Not many people have had that kind of breadth of experience. Even people that set out to become systems people are on a narrow path
Also, it’s very important to me in my work that the personal should not be left out of this kind of socio-political dialogue. So whilst the film is about a different way of thinking, about the inter-relationships of the natural world, it’s also told through the lens of a father-daughter relationship.
Why was your father so interested in different things?
He started off with a lens he got from his father, an interest in looking for patterns. They were renaissance people from the beginning, interested in biology, poetry, zoology, religion. His father, William Bateson, coined the term genetics – studying the patterns and the means of communication in biology. They also had a lot of William Blake in the house. His father was responsible for getting Blakes work out into the public.
This background set the stage for a dissatisfaction that Gregory felt for any discipline. He did Zoology at Cambridge but thought it was too narrow and so didn’t want to become a zoologist. So he went to New Guinea as an anthropologist. He went into anthropology and everything else with the same enthusiasm to find patterns; the same patterns that persist into information theory, psychology and ecology. He felt that every discipline had parts of the same pattern.
Gregory was an interloper. He didn’t enter psychology as a psychologist, he entered with his own lens. He was truly interdisciplinary, but not even that, because he only saw unity. That’s why he described it as an inside-out kaleidoscope. It’s nice to see the different parts, but it’s the unity that makes a living organism, at every level. It’s the difference between the parts of a system that give it the information and the dynamics of inter-relationship that create vitality. If you take the body, you don’t want your lungs to do what your heart does. It’s the difference, the systems within the systems, that is important. It’s the communications within the system that is the interrelationship.
What we lack culturally is that habit and ability to zoom out and see the larger context in which differences are blurred and patterns of connections and themes and variations can be seen – the integrity of the pattern of connection.
The film has been selling out wherever it is shown – what impact do you think it’s having?
There are limits, some non-verbal, to the kind of conversation we can currently have, that include interdisciplinary dialogue. We need to think about how we can open to different fields of study and thought and offer different perspectives to each other. It’s a difficulty that we find between generations and cultures, not just between science and the arts.
What I’m finding is that the film is turning into an inspiration, a catalyst, for a different kind of conversation. Because it’s accessible, it’s becoming a great tool for bringing groups of people together to find a different vocabulary and a different framework for conversation. Ironically, there are often no words for the first five minutes because language is linear and used to define the world in terms of things.
The kind of question that the film is bringing up includes things like what are solutions and how do we deal with them in terms of circularity and complexity instead of linearity? We want to do the right thing but we are thinking at a level that creates linear solutions – a level that’s not working. There are conversations about conversations, thinking about thinking, solutions about solutions.
What do you think your father would say about our current situation, economically and ecologically, and what would he say was the best way into the future?
I can’t speak for him, I can only speak from my experience of him. It’s difficult to know sometimes where one person begins and another ends. But I will say that for him it was about the double bind.
The double bind has been categorised as a theory pertaining to psychology. But in fact it’s an evolutionary theory. The double bind we are in is one in which to feed our children and survive from day to day, we are taking part in socio-economic systems that are eliminating the long-term survival of ourselves and our children. We are stuck either way. We are in a feedback loop. The way to get out is first of all by recognising it. It’s still only a pattern. If you can see it you can start to get some leverage. The kind of leverage we need to be working towards is creative improvisation to start thinking in new ways. We have an opportunity to do that – as the days go by, the stakes get higher.
I think he would say that the first thing to do is to stop seeing these issues as separate problems. They are all the same problem. Ecologists don’t want to talk about culture and communications for example. The expanse of the conversation we need to have, the complexity of it all, seems huge. How can we even begin to learn each other’s rhetoric? But the fact is that linearity, which we have at the moment, is so much more complicated. In film-making terms, because that’s what I do, I would say that the choice we currently have is to zoom in or zoom out.
Nora Bateson comes to the College with this special film portrait of her Father, a Q&A session with Nora will follow this very special film. Click here for more details
I often remember the systemic thinking of Gregory Bateson. He has been one of my intellectual heroes since I first read ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’ in the early 1970s and struggled to understand what he was saying. It took me years to appreciate his work.
One of my favourite pieces is titled ‘Conscious Purpose versus Nature’. Bateson starts off by exploring how dynamic balance is maintained in natural ecosystems. An undisturbed woodland, for example, contains many different species. To survive, each must be capable of reproducing exponentially, as with the pet mice I kept as a small boy (we bought four and a year later had over 100). The population of each species is maintained by a combination of interdependence and competition. Any species whose activities are unchecked will grow to dominate and overwhelm the ecosystem.
In a balanced ecological system whose underpinnings are of this nature, it is very clear that any monkeying around with the system is likely to disrupt the equilibrium. Then the exponential curves will start to appear. Some plant will become a weed, some creatures will be exterminated, and the system as a balanced system is likely to fall to pieces.
In contrast to this, human awareness and activity is ordered by conscious purpose: we see what we are interested in and go straight for what we want. Conscious purpose cuts across the complex dynamic balance of ecosystems. It has done so since Neolithic farmers began cutting down forest to create farmland. It is particularly destructive when linked with a powerful technology. We humans have for a while overwhelmed our historic predators – infectious bacteria as much as sabre tooth tigers – and draw on the buried energy of millennia to go directly for what we want.
Bateson is challenging: conscious purpose “is a short cut device to enable you to get quickly at what you want” rather than act with wisdom. Wisdom is “knowledge of the larger interactive system” which if disturbed may rapidly degenerate. “Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished”, writes Bateson. Living systems are always “punishing of any species unwise enough to quarrel with its ecology”.
A special screening of a film portrait of Gregory Bateson, produced and directed by his daughter Nora Bateson will take place at the College on 22 February, 2012 at 8 pm. Click here for more details >>
Peter recently retired as Director of Studies of the Postgraduate Programme in Action Research at the University of Bath. He has published widely on co-operative inquiry and action research and has co-edited the Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. His major contribution has been to the development of participative approaches to action research in the human sciences and in management, approaches variously referred to as “co-operative inquiry”, “participatory action research”, and “action science” or “action inquiry”. In these forms of experiential action research all those involved in the inquiry process are co-researchers, contributing both to the thinking that forms the research endeavour and to the action which is its subject. Peter started this methodological development in 1976 with his PhD dissertation, and is now recognized internationally as one of the leading theorists of this approach.