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

The teacher’s daughter

Bateson died when Nora, his daughter from his third marriage to Lois Cammack, was 12. His ideas about pedagogy, learning, and thinking were so much a part of his daily life that some of his early writing takes the form of “metalogues,” which are epistemological question and answer sessions culled from conversations with his daughter by Margaret Mead, Mary Catherine. Nora had many similar conversations with him, some of which were recorded and punctuate her film.

“I was exposed to all of these ideas, but I didn’t know that I was being exposed to them. They weren’t listed out in academic format. There wasn’t a glossary or a vocabulary or any formal training that I was getting,” she said, via Skype from Stockholm. “While his work is certainly an academic pursuit, more than anything it’s a way of life. He used to say until you get it in your elbows, you haven’t really got it yet.”

Being the daughter of an intellectual giant comes with challenges. Nora grew up in Big Sur, learning from her surroundings at the Esalen Institute, the cliffside home that was Bateson’s home, lair, and temple. Visitors, from Russian ambassadors and German physicists, to old friends from the field in New Guinea who were passing through, came from all over the world, and their conversations always turned Batesonian.

“When you’re a child, your childhood is simply your childhood. I didn’t have anything to compare it with,” Nora said.

If you listen to the recordings of Bateson with his daughters, you see that he both held children in high esteem and pulled no punches.

“Now I want to make this big jump,” he said at one point to Nora. “Which is to the question of ‘How do you think?’”

“Me?”

“How is thinking done?”

“By the brain in your head.”

“That may be the part that does it, but it’s not how it’s done.”

Like any other American child, Nora went to school. She said she remembers feeling profound disappointment in high school watching the way teachers and students treated each other. When she got to college, she got a different dose of reality. Her name made her into something she wasn’t.

“Everywhere I went, I found that I could not be at the beginning, that people expected me to have a kind of expertise that, of course, there was no way I was going to have yet. I hadn’t read the intro text to Anthropology 101,” she said.

So she did what any other American child would do. She rebelled. Or at least she thought she did. Instead of studying anthropology or ecology, she got interested in filmmaking.

Stephen Nachmanovitch and his mentor Gregory Bateson locked horns in a game of chess at the Esalen Institute, Bateson’s cliffside home near Big Sur, in 1979. Photo: Michael Stulbarg. Photo: Michael Stulbarg
Stephen Nachmanovitch and his mentor Gregory Bateson locked horns in a game of chess at the Esalen Institute, Bateson’s cliffside home near Big Sur, in 1979. Photo: Michael Stulbarg. Photo: Michael Stulbarg

“It was the ’80s and I was a nice little punk rock girl. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew I was in Southeast Asia making a documentary film for my thesis,” Nora said. “Then I realized that that was exactly how my dad got started. Being in Southeast Asia making some really original ethnographic films with Margaret Mead. And I thought uh oh, I’m nothing but a salmon after all.”

The story of the biographical film An Ecology of Mind began when Nora’s half-sister Mary Catherine recruited her to put together audiovisual material for her father’s centennial year in 2004. Nora spent many hours going through her father’s filmed lectures, poring over them to find the most essential bits. As she went through the footage, she realized with utter clarity how deeply embedded in her own psyche her father’s way of thinking was and also how relevant it is to the problems we face today.

“I was watching these lectures and I started to think this material is really relevant to where we are right now in history,” Nora said. “And at that point it wasn’t just about making a film about this great man it was about, listen, ‘How do we explore these ideas in another way so we can start to utilize them and hopefully expand the context of the way we go about doing things?’”

The film presented its own set of challenges. A vault of clippings and photographs needed to be turned into something that conveyed the living relationships Bateson valued through a medium that thrives on a linear narrative. Nora used her own perspective on her father as a lens, augmented it with illustrations of relationships, and created something unusual.

“I didn’t set out to make a point. What I did was I set out to make a place to put the point,” she said. “It’s more like a kind of loosely woven vessel to hold a way of perceiving than it is something that’s going to be a list of solutions to problems we’re facing in our global crisis.”

Then there was the problem of getting the film made and finding its audience. Because Bateson is widely recognized as a pioneer in so many fields, Nora believed the money would be there. She was wrong.

“There wasn’t a lot of support funding-wise for it. Which I thought was interesting because given the number of disciplines his ideas influenced, I thought it would be easy to generate funding,” she said. “But it wasn’t, because every one of those fields wanted the film to be about their field. The anthropology people wanted an anthropology movie. And the ecology people wanted an ecology move. And the psych people wanted a psych movie.”

She, in essence, found herself in one of her father’s meta-patterns. Because he belonged in so many places, he belonged in none.

“That he worked in so many disciplines was a consequence of his way of thinking. He was not interested in specializing in a narrow field. He was interested in larger patterns. He was interested in how things are connected and especially how living things were connected,” Fritjof Capra, the Austrian physicist and author of the best-selling book The Tao of Physics, says in the film.

The fruitless search for funding exasperated Nora at first.

“He spent his life putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. And then all the king’s horses and all the king’s men took him apart and put him back in the silos,” she joked.

But then she saw the opportunity in the obstacle, which was to break down the silos and start a real conversation about what interdisciplinary work means.

“This is a danger for anybody who’s working in any systems of interdisciplinary work. The silos, as they say, are significant and they’re hard to get around,” she said. “The anthropology department is really not cross-referencing what the math department, the music department, and the biology department are doing. There’s not that kind of cross-pollination in academia, let alone in our professional worlds. It isn’t all under one umbrella. You just get another umbrella.”

Bashkow told me that Bateson’s personality and writing style may have made it harder for academics across disciplines to latch onto his work during his lifetime. In the process of doing biographical work on Margaret Mead, he encountered Bateson as a man and found that he could be “quite a schemer,” “difficult to deal with,” and something of a “trickster figure.” He believes Nora Bateson’s film will help reintroduce her father to academics as a man whose ideas can open up new inquiries.

“I don’t think he subordinated himself to anything ever and that made him impossible to deal with. But there are two things that come out of that. One is that he was in the right place at the right time at the end of his life with the emergence of a whole earth movement and people hungry to think of the environment in richer ways than simply as a zone of extraction,” Bashkow said. “The other thing is that what he was like as a person, and my colleagues will probably wish I didn’t say this, made it harder for other people to take his ideas and use them, in a way that now that feelings have settled and they are just ideas, we can do so. What you have to do with Bateson’s ideas is find them yourself a bit and flesh them out. Give them meaning and application.”

Nora Bateson grew out of her role as a filmmaker and learned to accept her father’s legacy as a thinker. Making the film helped her. These days she is sought-after as a speaker and lecturer, and she normally finds herself fielding questions alongside unparalleled experts in specific fields.

She was recently invited to a small conference at the SAS Institute in North Carolina, the world’s largest software manufacturer. A few people had gathered to discuss “the patternings of the ecological crisis, compared to Syria, the banking crisis, and the potential for a cyber crisis.”

This is perhaps the Cold War’s only happy gift to our generation. For Bateson, as for the scientists at IBM, McDonnell Douglas, and Dow, knowledge became part of our existential crisis.

Like her father before her, Nora is trying to make sure that knowledge is contextualized before it is applied towards a solution.

“We live in a world that focuses a great deal of emphasis on action,” she said. “But when you think about what informs that action, that is really about perception. The way that you’re seeing a situation is what is going to give you the information that helps you put together your to-do list.”

The place to put the point is underneath the question mark.

“What are those contextual patterns? How can we get our eyes around the edges of them, so that we can start to see the ways in which this complexity is repeating itself.”

There is no doubt that Bateson’s ideas quickly dissipate into the ether of our understanding. He desperately tried to root his conclusions in hard data, but sometimes the data came in a verse of William Blake or a passage of Lewis Carroll. He famously explained his double-bind theory through the metaphor of the bread-and-butterfly from Alice in Wonderland. It’s perhaps for that reason that Bateson’s ideas are hard to fit into the academic context and why his most advanced students get called disciples and never have endowed chairs. Bateson’s ideas border, at times, on what could be called the trippy or, even, the religious.

When I asked Nora about the line between the metaphysical and spiritual in his work, she told me a story, a metalogue, that involved her own daughter. The two of them were showing the film together in Germany. A woman in the audience stood up during the question and answer session and asked ‘Did Gregory believe in God?’ Nora gave a long, elegant, and circuitous answer, touching on her father’s belief that God was immanent in nature and the patterns of the universe and generally deflected the question.

The woman, by way of reply, posed the same question in yes or no format. Nora’s daughter, who was only 14 at the time, said, “Mama, may I answer that?”

This is what she said: “There’re 7 billion people in the world. That means that there’re 7 billion epistemological frames that people are looking through. So that’s 7 billion different relationships with God. Which one are you referring to?”