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

The disciples

Phillip Guddemi studied cultural anthropology at the University of California-Santa Cruz between 1973-1977. He took four classes from Bateson, which was enough to inspire him to pursue his graduate degree with another Batesonian scholar, Roy Rappaport, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Michigan whose research focused on Papua-New Guinea.

Guddemi’s field work in Papua-New Guinea earned him a place in a close-knit community of cultural anthropologists that includes UVA professors Ira Bashkow and Lise Dobrin. But these days Guddemi identifies himself as an independent anthropologist. In a sense, he chose Bateson over the academy, and his most recent work as managing editor of a journal called Cybernetics and Human Knowing is an example of how following Bateson’s ideas almost necessitated abandoning his loyalty to a career track.

“If you look at his disciples in anthropology and elsewhere, you’ll find out that methodologically they’re very diverse. They’re diverse in what they study. It’s unified by a kind of overarching mindset but it doesn’t lend itself to the kind of patron/client relationships that happen in academia,” Guddemi said.

Guddemi believes Bateson’s ideas are becoming current again after having essentially been overwhelmed by layers of postmodern critiques and a period of tremendous advances in genetic research. His own work has attempted to bring Michel Foucault’s theories on human power dynamics into conversation with Bateson’s notions of pathologies of ideas. Where Nachmanovitch has taken Bateson’s ideas and developed a discipline for their application, Guddemi is attempting to expand and unify them intellectually with the most current modes of thinking.

“I want to be a creative thinker based on these ideas. I’m still ambitious in terms of things that I can put together,” he said. “I’m hoping that being a little bit marginal these days means that I can be more exploratory in some of the things I talk about.”

For Guddemi, following Bateson means being “fearless enough to make the link between these seemingly very abstract ideas and people’s lives” and to that end he sees the Bateson Symposium at UVA as an important moment.

“I think my biggest hope is that we in the panel through our interaction give an example of a way to deal with ideas that really makes them matter so that they can make a difference,” he said.

Guddemi has maintained close contact with Nora Bateson by way of his journal, and he feels a new momentum surrounding Bateson’s ideas.

“I think the awakening, the expression of interest, and the excitement around Nora Bateson’s showings of the film around the world is that these other ways of thinking are exhausting themselves,” Guddemi said. “It’s not just being interdisciplinary, it’s a faith and assertion that certain things matter. That the arts, for instance, communicate things that can’t be accomplished in simple prose or science.”

Talking about interdisciplinary work is not the same as doing it, a point Bashkow hammered home, and trust is fundamental to making it work well.

“Interdisciplinary work is really hard, because disciplines conflict in their perspectives. They don’t just add to one another,” he said. “The conflict can be productive, but to find places where interdisciplinary work is productive, either critically or synergistically and additively, I think we scholars need relationships with one another. It needs some bedrock of actually getting together and forming our own relationships.”

What links Guddemi to Nachmanovitch and King and other Bateson disciples around the world is his notion that a more complex understanding of natural systems, including systems of thought, can lead to a breakthrough of consciousness.

“We are beginning to play with ideas of ecology, and although we immediately trivialize these ideas into commerce or politics, there is at least an impulse still in the human breast to unify and thereby sanctify the total natural world, of which we are,” Bateson says in the film.

I first met Stephen Nachmanovitch at the Morven Institute (which Tussi Kluge is currently working to turn into an international center for interdisciplinary study) directly following a performance of his improvisational and visual music on the viola d’amore. Nachmanovitch is not just a musician. He is also a software engineer and a philosopher who has developed a methodology for making visual art with music. In person, he is humble and almost childlike in his enthusiasm. If you didn’t know he was Bateson’s protege, you’d likely underestimate him. No doubt many people have.

“The principal gap left in Gregory’s work was this: He showed what’s wrong with our conventional dualistic way of thinking, and he articulated the benchmarks of what a better kind of thinking, a better kind of science, might look like. But what’s missing is the technology; how, once we are adults, to shift our context of thinking,” Nachmanovitch wrote in an essay on his mentor’s legacy.

For Nachmanovitch, the technology has been music and a lifetime wrestling with Bateson’s ideas about play, improvisation, and creation, pursuits not unrelated to his thesis in the History of Consciousness program at UC-Santa Cruz, which focused on William Blake.

Nachmanovitch was a precocious teenage biology student from Los Angeles, who at age 15 had already initiated an independent inquiry into the behavior of protozoa, followed by studies at Harvard in psychology and research on play in animals and humans. It was the study of play that led him to Bateson. He was Bateson’s disciple, learning to integrate the arts and sciences at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Between 1972 and 1980 he corresponded closely with Bateson, first as his graduate assistant and later as a friend and intellectual colleague who traveled back and forth from his place in Berkeley to Bateson’s cliffside home.

“Blake talks about the creative process in such a way that you can’t study it, you have to actually do it… with this double dose of Bateson and Blake, I felt I had to create things on my own, that it wasn’t enough to study them,” he told me.

Nachmanovitch experienced a breakthrough while he was living in Berkeley recovering from a neck injury. He used the interference in his body to master the violin, which he had learned as a child. He was forced to learn how “to allow it to suspend itself in mid-air,” and allow it to play itself.

It was Berkeley, 1976, and  he was living in a group house of dancers and theater people, teaching and experimenting with his knowledge, driving down the coast from time to time to visit Bateson, during which time they would eat Stilton cheese and talk long into the night.

“I wasn’t thinking about what I was playing, I was just thinking about how to play. And suddenly I realized that while thinking about how to play I was playing and I didn’t need composers anymore. And I could find structures that were self-organizing systems of music,” he said.

Bateson bore some antipathy for what he called “new age” thinking and saw himself as a problem solver responding to data and relationships that other people essentially neglected to notice. Consequently, he arrived at his ideas about play, because he ran into interference in his anthropological field work.

“So many anthropologists have dutifully collected reams of data, not knowing their native informants were kidding. This is because humor, like love, like culture, is almost totally contextual; it is meta- to the actual words and actions,” Nachmanovitch explained. “When Gregory began to see in the early ’50s that the study of context was the vital link between his research in biology, culture, psychiatry, and communication, his next step was to study play.”

Nachmanovitch wrote Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art in the 1980s, a book that fluidly links themes of Bateson’s and Blake’s to Zen Buddhist ink drawings and Taoist teachings to the writings of Rumi and the music of Beethoven and Mozart. He has spent the years since applying the “technology” of improvisation as a guiding philosophy of creation and being.

As I interviewed Nachmanovitch, he made it apparent that his connection to Bateson was personal, at one point taking down a picture of the two of them from his wall that showed him as a 22-year-old grad student in Santa Cruz. In another photo from 1979, he and Bateson are playing chess on a glass table in a cluttered study at the Esalen Institute, furnished with objects from all over the world. Bateson wears his Hawaiian shirt and Nachmanovitch the sideburns and luxuriant mustache of the time. This is an intense and pleasurable game in the captain’s quarters of Bateson’s westward bound ship.

“What he was trying to do was get people to look at data, because this kind of talk philosophically can feel like it’s getting into an abstract realm. So he was constantly trying to bring it down to looking at the thing on the table right in front of you,” Nachmanovitch said.

If any person understood the ideas Bateson was working on towards the end of his life, it was Nachmanovitch. He paints a picture of a man who was both a direct product of his environment, obsessed with the solving problems his father had faced as a geneticist studying evolution, and also a kind of mystic, a Gandalf of the modern age, who was trying to push all of humanity towards a higher consciousness. Nachmanovitch, who identifies himself as a Buddhist, sees this higher consciousness in terms of an everyday effort to walk a middle path between the fervent pursuit of a discipline and a constantly expanding understanding of its context. He believes that is what Bateson demanded of everyone around him, from his daughter, to his colleagues, to people he met on the street.

“To do this double dance of being a specialist and a generalist is a really important part of evolving as human beings and as a human species,” Nachmanovitch said. “The closer we get to that dance, and no one does it really well, that’s one definition of wisdom.”

Ahh. There it is. The word wisdom. Throughout all of my interviews for this story, I asked people if there wasn’t some inherent paradox in Bateson’s pursuit. His ideas were designed to reduce the knowledge of the academy to a level that could be understood by a kindergartner, but his methods required a Ph.D. to follow. In reading portions of the essays in his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind, I found some sections impenetrable, others felt archaic, but there were always nuggets of ideas that I’ve never read anywhere else with such clarity.

“Really what he’s about is sort of a mixture of the detachment of science and a kind of unity with everything that is a source of wisdom,” Bashkow said. “He’s right on the line between them. I think to some people at the time he was probably infuriating. But for us, what is so exciting about him is that he gives us concepts that are not just useful, or interesting, or descriptively adequate, but also wise.”

Bateson’s double-bind theory may be his most convincing academic legacy. It traces the roots of psychopathology to the reaction of a subject, human or animal, or an entire civilization, to a situation in which they are presented with two contradictory alternatives in a context they cannot escape. They experience a break with the contextual signals that make relationships possible. The principle functions on every level and has implications across nearly every academic discipline.

As I mentioned before, Bateson sometimes taught it through the lens of the bread-and-butterfly from Alice in Wonderland, who must drink tea to survive but would melt upon contact with it. And then there are our knowledge keepers in the academy, who began their work in a quest for understanding but are so often stuck manning the ramparts of a discipline that they cannot climb as high up the Tower of Babel as they desire.

And then there’s Bateson. And the riddles he left behind.

“On the other side, through that double, twisted, what we called a Double-Bind some years ago, there is another stage of wisdom,” he said.

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