Ecology of mind: UVA symposium aims to revive the interdisciplinary thinking of Gregory Bateson

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Gregory Bateson–the anthropologist, philosopher, biologist, psychologist, and high priest of cybernetics–died of respiratory disease at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1980. Photo: Barry Schwartz. Gregory Bateson–the anthropologist, philosopher, biologist, psychologist, and high priest of cybernetics–died of respiratory disease at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1980. Photo: Barry Schwartz.

“It takes two to know one.”

One of the many riddles that Gregory Bateson–the anthropologist, philosopher, biologist, psychologist, and high priest of cybernetics–left behind when he died of respiratory disease at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1980 after a lifetime of cigarette smoking.

Bateson was a titanic figure at 6’5″, intellectually intimidating, capable of reciting the works of William Blake or rattling off the scientific names of anything in his path. But people who knew him described a gentle, curious, playful man who treated children with as much respect as his colleagues.

Stephen Nachmanovitch (left), one of Gregory Bateson’s most devoted students, and Nora Bateson, his daughter from his third marriage to Lois Cammack, will join UVA anthroplogist Ira Bashkow to host the Bateson Symposium April 10-12. Photo: Leslie Blackhall
Stephen Nachmanovitch (left), one of Gregory Bateson’s most devoted students, and Nora Bateson, his daughter from his third marriage to Lois Cammack, will join UVA anthroplogist Ira Bashkow to host the Bateson Symposium April 10-12. Photo: Leslie Blackhall

The son of a Cambridge don who coined the term “genetics” and named his child after Gregor Mendel, Gregory Bateson grew up in the uppermost reaches of the academy, but he was never comfortable there. He is, perhaps, best known as the husband of Margaret Mead who collaborated with her on the ethnographic studies of Bali and New Guinea that brought her work to prominence.

“In his childhood there were the Darwins and the Huxleys and all the eminences of British biology. Gregory found a way to get 10,000 miles away from all that by doing anthropology,” the musician Stephen Nachmanovitch told me, during an interview at his home office in Ivy.

Nachmanovitch, one of Bateson’s disciples, is an international leader in the improvisational music movement with a Ph.D. in the history of consciousness. Like his mentor, his relationship to the academy is tenuous.

“I’m definitely outside the academy, but I keep coming in as a guest and friend,” Nachmanovitch said.

Between April 10-12, Nachmanovitch is joining with Gregory Bateson’s daughter Nora Bateson and UVA cultural anthropologist Ira Bashkow to host the Bateson Symposium, an interdisciplinary exploration of ideas funded by UVA’s Buckner W. Clay Endowment for the Humanities. An intellectual can opener with a “town and gown” mission, the symposium will include a screening of Nora Bateson’s biographical film An Ecology of Mind: A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson at Vinegar Hill Theatre.

A seminar the following day on Grounds will include UVA professors from across departmental specialties: Bashkow, anthropology; Kurtis Schaefer, religion; Chip Tucker, English; Sandy Seidel, biology; Angeline Lillard, psychology; Deborah Lawrence and Manuel Lerdau*, environmental sciences; as well as Bateson’s former students Katie King, a women’s studies scholar at the University of Maryland and California-based independent anthropologist Phillip Guddemi.

Bashkow is director of graduate studies in UVA’s anthropology department and firmly inside the academy. He first encountered Bateson’s ethnographic studies of the Iatmul people of New Guinea as a young graduate student, and his career as an anthropologist has been focused in that part of the world. In a way, he’s taking the biggest risk by pulling together colleagues with diverse critical approaches to Bateson’s work and introducing them to people so devoted to the man and his ideas. He thinks the discussions will be lively, maybe even fraught at times.

“I can’t think of another person who actually lets you talk to your friends in environmental sciences about something they really care about for their own reasons. And something that mathematicians care about for their own reasons. And something that therapists and family counselors really care about and think is theirs,” Bashkow said. “There’s really a lot of stuff there, and actually I think there’s more that hasn’t been mined.”

The reason it takes so many types of people to unpack Bateson’s ideas is embedded in the ideas themselves. His interest was in connecting the universal to the specific on the grandest scale possible. His early fieldwork in anthropology led him to his conclusions about the importance of context in language and the pathologies of ideas, which later led to his development of the double-bind theory during studies of schizophrenic and alcoholic patients at Stanford University’s VA Hospital.

In the 1940s and ’50s he participated in the Macy Conferences, where he became a founder of the field of cybernetics and a primary proponent of the notion of metacommunication. His work and that of his colleagues inspired the development of family therapy. Bateson’s field research ranged from family structure in Papua-New Guinea to studies of dolphins and sea otters in captivity.

If you want to understand Bateson, you have to understand how he taught. In his signature Hawaiian shirts, with his imperious accent, he told stories that conveyed meaning in “a sort of carrier wave.”

“He had a repertoire of stories, three or four dozen multipurpose parables. Gregory’s explanations were built from these stories, combined, inverted, end-linked in various ways, much as giant protein molecules are built from a fixed repertoire of 20 amino acids,” Nachmanovitch said.

The purpose of the symposium is to start a discussion about the significance of a man whose teachings touched such a wide range of disciplines that they are still being contextualized. But even a casual familiarity with Bateson’s research is enough to indicate the project is more far-reaching than that.

At the end of his life, Bateson was gaining a reputation as one of the most influential minds of the last century for the ideas he cultivated over his lifetime to answer a question he articulated in the opening to Mind and Nature, his last complete published work.

“What is the pattern that connects the crab to the lobster, the orchid to the primrose, and all four of them to me, and me to you? And to the back-ward** schizophrenic and to the poet?”

During the last two years of his life, after a near death experience with a bout of cancer, he became more expansive as a person and teacher.

“He was readier to hug people. He started writing poetry. He reached a kind of outer clarity about what he was saying, and, coincidentally, his audience became much broader,” Nachmanovitch wrote in a biographical article.

There is no simple way to categorize Bateson’s ideas. It’s not even very easy to explain them.

Last Wednesday, California Governor Jerry Brown named Gregory Bateson  to the California Hall of Fame alongside Joe Montana and Warren Beatty. An admirer of Bateson’s who appointed him a trustee of the state’s university system during his first term, Brown recognized what Nora Bateson has known from her first moments of consciousness but took half her life to be able to communicate to others. There is no limit to her father’s ideas, and they have tremendous relevance to the challenges we face in a global world.

“If I’m talking to designers in Berlin or anthropologists in Brazil, they’re asking the same question. Which is, ‘How do we grow our discipline? What’s the next level? How do we go further with our studies?’” she said. “And the next level is really about integration. But there’s not a lot of context for even the rhetoric about what an integrated conversation looks like.”

Next month in Charlottesville, for a fleeting moment, the context for an integrated conversation will take shape.

*The print version of this story misspelled UVA environmental science professor Manuel Lerdau’s name.

**The print version of this story said “backwards schizophrenic” instead of “back-ward schizophrenic,” changing the meaning of the phrase.

  • canwegetaneditorplease?

    That sure took a lot of words to say nothing.

    • imjustaslostasyouare

      “There is no simple way to categorize Bateson’s ideas. It’s not even very easy to explain them.”

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