Gregory Bateson

Mind, Beauty, and
The Sacred Earth

Noel G. Charlton
"Wow," I think, when this one comes. "Gregory Bateson. Mind, Beauty, and the Sacred Earth. Who could ask for anything more?"

For Bateson was the master's master. He was doing anthropology in Bali, long ago (pre-WWII), without filter: he and Margaret Mead taking endless photographs, thousands of feet of motion pictures, collecting art and culture that affirmed the culture rather than distorting it through western lenses.

It was Bateson who helped to create the concept of family systems and the idea of the "double bind," wherein the most extreme schizophrenics could be seen for what they were: products of family interactions building a cement of contradiction ... words saying one thing, body language the opposite.

There is a film of a famous sequence of mother and son, taken by Bateson's team --- the boy a long time resident in a hospital for the insane (as they were characterized in those days). Mother comes in the visitor's room; son goes to hug her; she turns away, avoiding the hug; he pulls back. She then turns to him and says, "What's wrong? Aren't you glad to see me? We always show affection in our family." They say he had to be placed in restraints for weeks afterwards. The perfect double bind, caught on film for posterity.

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So here we have an extended look at Bateson and his theories. Yet Charleton's book represents its own double bind ... in that most readers, I think, won't be able to make head nor tail of it.

For example, the author spends no little time explaining that the reason that there is no distinction between Epistemology and Ontology in Bateson was because there was none. "For him, they were one and the same." Uh ... well ... OK.

Then this on Bateson's "logical categories:"

    A class cannot be one of those items which are correctly classified as its nonmembers. The class of chairs excludes tables and lamps --- these are part of the class of nonchairs. The class of chairs cannot be a member of itself and so is also not a chair --- but must be distinguished from the class of nonchairs. The class of nonchairs is of a higher logical type --- is a wider, more general concept --- than the items like tables and lamps that are correctly to be seen as being in the class of nonchairs.

Here's ecology:

    There is a natural tendency for human minds to conserve their limited capacity for conscious operation by sinking into the unconscious primary process are all those activities for which the limiting conditions are normally unchanging.

And this on environment:

    Berleant asks, "What is environment?" He sees the common understanding of environment (as that which surrounds a thing or a person) as a return to Cartesian dualism. Instead, connections between person and place, varying from attitudes quite near to disinterested contemplation to a full and vital cultural and aesthetic assimilation of the person by the dynamics of place.

Oh, well.

There are a few posies that manage to struggle up from the dungheap:

  • The body, Bateson suggests, is "really the subconscious mind."

  • "A name is not the thing named." ("Bateson says that this is the mistake of eating the menu card instead of the meal.")

  • Evolution is "a mental process."

  • On pollution: "You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is part of your wider eco-mental system --- and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.

  • Finally, "No man can go to bed with the same girl for the first time twice." [See our Paradox-of-the-month].

    For those who have an allergy to fustian writing, see Bateson's own Steps to an Ecology of the Mind. You can find an excellent excerpt here.

  • --- Pamela Wylie
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