Ecology of Mind, An: A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson

Sep 11, 2012

It’s both amusing and depressing that Gregory Bateson, at this juncture in time, is less well known on Planet Earth than almost all reality TV “celebrities” and possibly even the heavyset British girl currently getting her fifteen minutes of fame due to a Youtube video wherein she sobs inconsolably over the breakup of some teen-vampire movie stars she’s probably never met. That’s pretty solid evidence that Camus wasn’t totally out of his tree when he asserted that life is absurd.

That those who truly offer so little so easily eclipse a person who truly offers so much is simply a big, fat, sobbing perversion of justice.

Bateson was someone who wore a staggering number of hats; he was an anthropologist, psychologist, cyberneticist, environmentalist, ethnologist, epistemologist, systems thinker, linguist, semiotician… just to name a few. In short, he was a world-class generalist—what Grace Llewellyn would call a “glorious generalist”—with a list of interdisciplinary credentials to make the pinkish dumpling in your head twitch. In fact, his work, along with his colleagues at the Macy Conferences in the 1940s, figured enormously in the development of cybernetics, which in turn laid the groundwork for the development of Al Gore’s much beloved Internet, which of course, brings things like chubby, sobbing British girls into our lives.

Bateson’s fame probably peaked in the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s when he was a favorite and frequent lecturer at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur. But like so many of the star attractions of those halcyon days of Esalen—John Lilly, Fritz Perls, among others—Bateson and his wide-ranging work seemed to begin to fade from public view as the ‘70s drew to a close. Unfortunately, he’s now largely unknown outside of certain academic and intellectual circles. This could be due to a great extent to Bateson’s reputation of being “inscrutable” and “abstruse.”

Hopefully daughter Nora Bateson’s documentary An Ecology of Mind will change all that.

This film, more than a dry, by-the-numbers recounting of Bateson’s sundry activities and achievements over his seventy-six years of existence, is more of a meditation on his many ideas about how humans think and how their perspectives influence the way they choose to interact with their surroundings. Thoughtfully narrated by Nora Bateson and utilizing archival lecture footage of Gregory Bateson himself, the film deftly moves you into new perspectives where previously unnoticed relationships, systems within systems, begin to come into focus.

A major thematic aspect of An Ecology of Mind is frames and framing; specifically, the way the mind frames reality into graspable units or parcels—and throughout the film, scenes are composed so as to show various physical frames, like frames around a painting, surrounding and encapsulating the footage. It proves to be a subtle but effective way to get a valuable point across on a visual level.

That point, which Bateson was so elegantly directing your attention to, is to not only try to be aware of this “framing” mechanism but to deeply realize that those very frames—those lines of division giving apparent “separation” to certain things from certain other things—no matter how seductive and persuasive, are nothing more than projections of the mind. This framing phenomenon is partial in multiple senses of the word: it is incomplete, it is constituent, and it is biased. Reality—to use a clumsy, almost barbaric, but seemingly inescapable word—is simply not cut up into those nicely digestible chunks you think you encounter as you wend you way through life.

But the concept of framing is itself nothing more than yet another way of “chopping” existence up into comprehensible segments and the whole thing is therefore, no matter how you cut it, a procrustean affair. The key is, as Nora Bateson states early in the film, “to be sure you don’t get stuck down a singular line of thinking.”

And that tips Bateson’s hand: that of all the systems, modalities, paradigms, and approaches he utilized throughout his career, epistemology was probably the skeleton key that unlocked all the doors. It all came down, simply, to the way one looks at the way one looks at and understands that which “enters” his/her realm of experience. (Yes, I’m framing a lot of words in this review with quotation marks, which almost everyone finds annoying, but from a Batesonian point of view—a view heavily influenced by the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski—it adds some clarity, at the possible cost of being somewhat irksome.)

What I find interesting is that Bateson arrived at a vision strikingly similar to that of the sophia perennis—aka: the Perennial Philosophy—strictly by way of science and philosophy, and not by the more typical routes of mysticism or religion (though Bateson stressed that “philosophy is not my business.”).

And while that news might be consternating enough to cause many mystics to eat their own turbans, it also indicates that the alleged “divide” between the material and spiritual realms is a hoax perpetrated on humanity by none other than their own nervous systems. Equally spurious, as this film points out, is the imagined separation between “human beings” and “the world of nature.” This is a point that is sometimes seemingly, and surprisingly, lost on many people who swaddle themselves in prideful notions of their own greenishness and are forever locked in righteous battle with the yahoos of the “You Can’t Hurt the Earth” baboon militia.

What’s become known—almost disparagingly, thanks to the ever-spewing Right Wing Propaganda machine—as the “environmental movement,” has splintered off into a dizzying array of factions: Arne Naess’s Deep Ecology camp, Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology followers, Paul Virilio’s Grey Ecologists, Ed Abbey-style monkey wrenchers, Sierra Clubbers, Earth Firsters, Rewilders, and the seemingly innumerable movements associated with people like Derrick Jensen, Thomas Berry, David Suzuki, etc.

All of these various “green” factions have their respective concepts, philosophies, histories, values, worldview, ethics, and so on. In other words, they all have their pet “abstractions.” But few of them have any kind of recursive epistemology. And as Bateson once wrote, “If we have wrong ideas of how our abstractions are built—if, in a word, we have poor epistemological habits—we shall be in trouble—and we are.”

Bateson, no doubt, was a person of towering intellect and deep wisdom, so much so that he struck some as intimidating—especially when he was casually juggling dangerously weighty terms like “schismogenesis” and “deuterolearning.” And he was aware of the fact that his ideas weren’t always connecting with people the way he would’ve liked. In fact, he’s quoted as having lamented that “very few people have any idea what I’m talking about.” Thanks to Nora Bateson, that shaky connection might be in the process of finally being fixed. An Ecology of Mind is a very wise, thoughtful, thought-provoking film that renders many of Bateson’s core ideas accessible to just about anyone, possibly even reality TV stars. And it seems likely now that it will no longer be a case of “very few” people having any idea of what Gregory Bateson was talking about. Highly recommended. –Aphid Peewit (