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Remembering Gregory Bateson
Remembering Gregory Bateson
Kybernetes, Volume 42, Issue 9/10
From February 15 to 18, 1979, 100 scholars from 40 institutions in 25 states gathered at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California, for a conference in honor of Gregory Bateson. In the spring of 1978, Bateson had been told that he had an advanced cancer and that “time might be short. Both public and private sources indicated that he was turning away all requests to devote his final months, at Esalen Institute, to the completion of Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Bateson, 1979). But in August 1978, his illness in remission, he responded to my conference invitation writing “Heck, I cant sit and sulk at Esalen while the boys talk nonsense at Asilomar. Send more information, please (Bateson, 1978). One thing led to another and soon I found myself spending a weekend with Bateson at Esalen discussing ideas related to the conference. Thus, it came to be that the guest of honor at Asilomar became, indeed, a guest.
Most of the conference was devoted to professors delivering papers, many of them struggling to embrace cybernetic epistemology into a body of communication research that, like most disciplines, had long been dominated by linear thought and practice. The best of these papers are collected in the volume I edited with Wilder and Weakland (1982), Rigor and Imagination: Essays from the Legacy of Gregory Bateson (Praeger). While hardly a bestseller, it is still in print and received the National Communication Association Golden Anniversary Book Award, the only edited volume to ever win that recognition. The account that follows here about the conference and the events leading up to it were not included in Rigor and Imagination because of their personal nature and have not been previously made public.
Journey to Esalen
Like many of my encounters with Gregory Bateson, the circumstances leading to our first meeting had a serendipitous quality. In early September 1978, I received a call from a woman introducing herself as “Carol Wilder. She continued:
I know this is going to sound crazy, but I was just at Esalen and there was a note on the message board by the dining hall that said Gregory Bateson wanted to see me. I was completely baffled, but I got directions up to his house, where an even more confusing conversation ensued. Of course, it turned out he was looking for you. He gave me your phone number and I am calling to tell you that Gregory Bateson wants to see you.
This was not entirely random. Some months earlier I had sent Bateson an article I wrote about the Palo Alto Group (1978), which was met with good-natured scorn: “While you should not feel yourself worse than the average when you find yourself somewhat stuck in the swamps of confusion, the essay was nonetheless “yet another attempt to clean the Augean stable where you will remember the horses made the task difficult even for Hercules by continued shitting (Bateson, 1978). I learned in the same letter that he thought little of what remained of the “Palo Alto Group, one of whom he called an “inaccurate plagiarist. (“I dont mind the plagiarism as much as the inaccuracies.) John Weakland and a few others escaped harsh judgment, but John always went authentically his own way. While Weakland was a Bateson student and collaborator, he was not a revisionist and did nothing that could be considered capitalizing on the relationship. But in general, Bateson told me that the work of his former colleagues was like being in Hawaii “seeing your gods made into trinkets for the tourists.
A few weeks after the call from my doppelganger I was on my way from Palo Alto to Esalen with my ten-year-old daughter in tow. I assumed that Gregorys wife Lois and daughter Nora, my daughters age, would be home, but they had gone off somewhere and it was just Gregory and me for the weekend, which began with a glass of wine and some fine Stilton cheese. I wrote the notes on which this account is based when I stopped on the way home at The River Inn in Big Sur and scribbled furiously for several hours. Note taking at Esalen seemed out of the question, where learning is as much felt as thought. The heightened sensory awareness the place incubates also reassures one that what should be remembered will be.
By the time of my Esalen visit Gregory had succumbed to the invitation to the conference the following February. Most of the conference planning was set, and when I learned who was in and who was out with Gregory it was too late to make fundamental changes. It was a form of youthful invincible ignorance that allowed me to gather a roster of giants with blissful disregard for their interpersonal baggage or histories with one another. This experience made me a believer in plunging ahead with your passion even when you do not entirely know what you are doing. Knowing too much can paralyze enthusiasm and creativity. Some of the best things I have accomplished have been projects where I luckily had no idea what I was getting into until it was too late to get out.
For three days Gregory and I lived the slow life among the lush and rustic grounds, where he and his family had been taken in when his health took a turn for the worse. They occupied one of the most treasured sites at Esalen, a round stone house poised over the Pacific, built for Fritz Perls.
At the top of our agenda for discussion was the upcoming conference, but I remember the talks throughout the weekend as a starburst of small epiphanies. Gregory was worried about how he might be expected to behave at the conference, asking:
Am I going to have to be rude? How many of them get it?
Well, it wont be like being with Warren McCulloch in a phone booth, but some are on the right track and all are searching or they wouldnt be there.
So Im to clean things up a bit without hurting anyones feelings?
That would be the idea.
They arent really so afraid of me, are they?
Well, you are formidable. I certainly feel it, though I am usually more into irreverence than awe.
We said our goodnights and I thought about his fear question. The next morning we continued the conversation.
We were talking last night about fear of you. I thought later than I am more afraid of your vulnerability than your power.
Yes, thats it.
Im also afraid I will be thought stupid.
So am I. It all depends upon the context.
The 120 acres of Esalen, developed in the early 1960s by Michael Murphy and Dick Price, have long been the epicenter of what was once called the human potential movement. It is named after the native Esselen people who inhabited the area for thousands of years. It has long been one of the most sacred secular places on earth, and is still a thriving community offering hundreds of workshops each year. The physical beauty and famed hot springs have been burnished by generations of seekers and brilliant teachers like Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Buckminster Fuller, Abraham Maslow, Timothy Leary, and of course, Bateson (On a later visit I attended one of Gregorys “Ecology of Mind workshops in the company of John Lilly and his wife Toni and a dozen other fascinating apprentices).
Someone once asked: “How tall is Gregory Bateson? The reply: “Six foot five by the tape and ten feet tall in person, which was truly the case as he lumbered slowly down the winding walk to the dining hall.
During dinner one evening a girl arrived at our table with a Grey Poupon mustard jar full of what appeared to be sludge. She smiled sweetly, expectantly at Gregory, who knew what was coming and made an appropriately medicinal face, announcing to all at our table that wheat grass juice is said to be a cure for cancer. He gives me a taste and downs the rest:
What difference is it supposed to make, Gregory?
Well, that little girl would be very disappointed if I didnt take it.
Walking back to the house, we are bantering about the many terms Bateson introduced – metacommunication, framing, symmetry and complementarity, double bind – when we run across “Mad Eric, sweeping ashes from the fireplace. Bateson notes that a piece of fence-like iron wall above the fireplace is missing. Bateson and Mad Eric speculate upon how that came to be. Eventually I chime in: “Dormitive hypothesis, thats one of yours Gregory. There must be a dormitive hypothesis for this. Bateson: “Yes, it is one of mine. I quite like that one. No one seems to have picked up on it. He pauses, a long Batesonian pause, then lights up: “Yes, Robert Frost had the dormitive hypothesis for this one […] ‘Something there is that doesnt love a wall’ […].
Chuckles, pause, belly laughs all around.
I spot Naven (1936) on the top of Mad Erics book pile, and say “Glad to see you are reading some great books! Mad Eric:
Yes, Gregory gave this copy to me and I treasure it. I also want to thank you for letting me listen in on your conversations.
It was all Bateson, really.
No, not at all. You took a very active part.
I was becoming fonder of Mad Eric by the minute:
“What do you get out of all this? I ask Bateson the following day.
Ninety percent of it is in the process. Very little of it comes from the rest.
How is that?
Because they are always saying “Bateson I dont understand, “Bateson why dont you write more clearly. What we are talking about is paradigmatic change.
I dont know how you could write what you write any other way.
Nor do I. The seeds I have sown have grown as dragons teeth. Where have I gone wrong?
On our way back from breakfast Sunday morning, we ascend one last time to the house. Gregory is measured, slow, determined. He pauses:
I stop twice on this path, the first time two steps beyond Fritzs bench. This bench was put here for Fritz when he was in a similar condition to my own. I always aim to go a little beyond it before stopping.
We say our awkward goodbyes. My daughter has been a happy sprite out among the flora and fauna and we have seen little of each other, but I have never been so secure that she was fine out of my sight. Gregory ventures some closure:
You have heard much and have much to think about.
And felt a scale or two fall from my eyes.
Yes, its hard to keep ahead of them growing back. Keeping the scales there is a big business.
Sometimes the scales falling from my eyes feel like tears.
In Honor of Gregory Bateson
Asilomar Conference Grounds, about an hour north on the coast highway from Esalen, may not be its match in the realm of the sacred, but is still a very special piece of earth within the same ecological zone. Asilomar is actually a California state park that is open for conferences and family visits to the magnificent Julia Morgan-designed arts and crafts living and dining quarters that dot the Pacific shoreline.
The 100 attendees at the 1979 conference in honor of Bateson participated in several intense days of academic exchange, culminating in a banquet to celebrate the guest of honor. The dinner preceded Batesons keynote speech on “Paradigmatic Conservatism, which was to be the last major address of his life. Emotions were running high for all of the obvious reasons, heightened even more by the surprise arrival of charismatic Governor Jerry Brown shortly before dinner. He was among the five conference guests I asked to prepare a brief tribute to Bateson to deliver after the meal:
1. Paul Watzlawick (1921-2007) worked with Bateson in the early 1960s. Among his many books was one based on Batesons work.
2. John Weakland (1919-1995) was a member of Batesons original double bind team and a founding father of family and brief therapy.
3. Heinz Von Foerster (1911-2002) was a scientist and philosopher and a pioneer in cybernetics. He met Bateson during the landmark Macy Conferences on Cybernetics.
4. Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) was a prolific literary theorist and critic.
5. Jerry Brown was on his first round as Governor of California (Figure 1).
Figure 1 Top row: Carol Wilder, Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland; middle row: Heinz Von Foerster, Kenneth Burke, Jerry Brown; bottom row: Gregory Bateson, 18 February 1979
There are a few people who have some things to say about our guest of honor and other things, but before we begin the conference staff would like to present our little token to Mr Bateson. Cindy Hartley, who is somewhere around here with the little token, risked her life at the San Francisco Zoo to take you an original framed portrait of the monkeys playing. Or are they fighting? Theyre fighting or playing, we werent sure. We werent quite sure what the nip and the bite denoted. (presents photograph of monkeys).
And now a little token for Carol Wilder – a little nonverbal communication (holds up copy of same monkey photograph).
Would you say its symbolic of that great occasion?
Id say this photograph looks pretty literal. Thank you very much. Let me turn this over to Paul Watzlawick.
There are many things one could say in a toast to Gregory Bateson. Ill limit myself to a couple of simple episodes that go back to the time when I met him. For instance, every Thursday afternoon we would go to the Pacific, no matter what weather, to a beach, to scoop up seawater in plastic buckets, fill up glass bottles and take them home for Gregorys octopuses. He was very interested in Octopus communication. And we did this for two years in any kind of weather you can imagine and when it was all over we found out that we could have gone to the Steinhart Aquarium and just opened the tap and the most purified beautiful salt water would have come out.
The other thing I remember is that as we were driving over to the beach to pick up sea water again, as every week, reference was made to Gregorys somewhat extravagant driving habits and a recent letter informing him that he had committed five moving violations and that he should explain to the authorities in Sacramento why his drivers license should not be revoked. And Gregory did a beautiful piece of brief therapy. He wrote back and said “after receiving your letter I went out for a test drive of five miles and I noticed that I committed three more moving violations and I therefore think that your letter is absolutely justified. And the computer wrote back and said it was satisfied with the letter.
And then again we met on the Virgin Islands in John Lillys place in St Thomas, where Gregory was then the director. And there were two great friends of Gregory in the tank, two dolphins, one called Eta and the other one Sissy. And we swam with them and they proposed games with us and we tried to follow their rules, and then we proposed other rules. And it was all very very beautiful. And they loved Gregory very dearly, like I think everybody who comes into contact with him. I will let others talk about his enormous achievements and what he has done to our field, but these are my very fond recollections. Gregory, to your health!
I dont know how to propose a toast, so instead I will tell, I hope briefly, a story or two. A couple of stories relate very much to me, but I think also to the relationship of Gregory and others more generally. I might start by saying that I am well known as a cheap skate, and if you have any doubt about it, ask my children. Nevertheless, the stories that I am about to tell you are by way of acknowledging not only a debt, but a debt that I shall never adequately repay, even though I would if I could. I told you the other night how I first met Gregory. It could be summed up by saying I was a stranger and he took me in. But I am by no means alone in this and the fact that it occurred partially by a misunderstanding is not really relevant.
I can give you another example. I believe it was when Gregory was teaching at Harvard a couple of years after I first met him that he dealt in his own way with a problem that many of you may have encountered as teachers – the demands of students on your time. The way he handled it was, he let it be known that during rather generous hours his office door was open, but if you came in be prepared to stay for at least half an hour. Thus, he made himself available to the serious and got rid of the apple polishers. So I am talking partly about a personal debt – a personal debt in which he took me in when I was a stranger to him and became both my mentor and my friend. There is also the matter of a professional debt and theres no way I can cover it all, but just by telling you very briefly about the beginning of it. Its a pattern that was relevant from then until now.
I was a student of Gregorys. He was my first teacher of anthropology at The New School in New York. And almost at the beginning of the class, he did something that has taken me a long long time to appreciate, because at the time I didnt know how different it was from what usually happens. What usually happens, I dont think its only in anthropology, but probably in most disciplines, so-called, maybe not in communication, but I cant judge that. But what usually happens in anthropology is you bring students in and you inundate them with one or both two things. Either grand theories of the ancient masters of the art, which tell you where its all at, so you can follow it and not question it. Or an enormous mass of data about this and that and the other thing all over the world that theres no way to make any real sense of. What Gregory did was to assign each of us, fledgling and new to anthropology as almost all of us were, a concrete project that we could do within the confines of a semester, that involved going out and looking at some actual data, with the aim of making some beginning sense of it, and carrying that beginning sense as far as we could go within the limitations of the situation, plus some general guidelines as to how we might begin. That has stood me in good stead from then until now and I hope into the future. There is no way I can repay those two debts except to say I am very appreciative to Gregory and what he has done for me and others.
Heinz Von Foerster
Yesterday evening it happened that Gregory and I we are talking about the Greek seer Tiresias, who happened to be blind. I could not really remember how it came to be that Tiresias was blind, but of course, Gregory knew exactly how it happened. So I asked him “would you please refresh my memory? So he told me the story about Tiresias, who happened to walk into the woods and saw two snakes copulating. So he took a little stick and chased them apart. And as you know, when you do that, you change your sex. So he became a woman. And he was a woman for about ten years, when he again walked through the woods and he happened to see two snakes copulating. So he took a stick and chased them apart and of course, he changed sex and became a man again. During the time when that happened there was quite a strenuous discussion upstairs in Olympus between Hera and Zeus, about who amongst a couple who sleep together have more fun, the man or the woman. Zeus said, “Of course the woman. Hera said “Aha- not at all. I just do it to amuse you, to humor you. Zeus was not quite convinced and he knew of Tiresias, and said “Tiresias, you have the experience on the two sides. Who has more fun when the man and the woman are sleeping together? Tiresias said “Well it is very clear. The woman about ten times as much as a man. Hera was so outraged, she took away his first sight, and he was blind. But Zeus was most grateful, and gave him second sight, so he became a seer. I would like to propose a toast to the seer amongst us, who does not only have second sight, but preserved also his first sight, Gregory Bateson.
I dont know how the world got on without the double bind before. I see it everywhere I look, everywhere I look. Its a tremendous contribution. The thought of it has moved me many times. It has moved me finally to song. It has inspired me to write a lyric which I want to sing for you. And although it has inspired me to write the lyric it hasnt inspired me to fix up my voice very well so I wont sing it Ill just croak it. But I hope that you agree its the proper principle:
* Why not try to be a something
* Exactly like a something else
* When it begins to freeze hard
* It also melts
* Flying down it flies up
* And goes in while coming out the door
* Outside is as in as inside
* And when less its all the more
What will I say? Carol has insisted that I come here and I suppose to earn my dinner I have to, but my words are perhaps a little different, because my friendship with Gregory has been more recent and involves his work on the Board of Regents. When I first asked him to be a regent he, of course, refused. Now why are you applauding? You think he should have refused? No, I think hes added a new dimension and proven that even regents can think and consider the important issues, and that the governance of a University is about ideas, as well as parking lots and capital improvement. I guess his first contribution to my administration was – I dont know whether it was a speech or a prayer, or an invocation or an exhortation – but it was the principal address at our first prayer breakfast. Some people thought it was rather sacrilegious, but actually it was not. He spoke of peyote rights and pocketknives and the ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,’ and the mass media completely misinterpreted it. In fact, the only thing that really came out of that meeting was that fact that one of the members of the Sufi Choir that was providing music happened to have his shirt off, so they reported that ‘shirtless dancers’ were surrounding this odd rite that introduced my administration.
But Gregory did say something important at that prayer breakfast. He told a story about an Indian group that used peyote in their rites and were contacted by an anthropologist who wanted to help them because the law was breathing down their necks, and they were going to be deprived of their peyote for their peyote ritual. And so this anthropologist said “why dont you let me film your peyote rites? And then we will show to the world that this is really a religious practice, and therefore protected by the constitution. And so all the Indians sat around and discussed this in their tribal council, and they had to decide whether they should have their rite filmed or not. And as Gregory told the story, they had to decide what this meant for their religious experience. He was trying to explain at that prayer breakfast, what exactly religion was. And as the elders of this particular group of Indians discussed the matter, it came down to a question, and one they understood very clearly. That if they had the rite filmed it would then become commercialized and part of the lore of whatever this anthropologist was doing, but that it would save the rite for the future. And so it became a choice between the integrity of the rite as they saw it in their own mind, and the survival of that rite. And it was in that impulse and in that choice, Gregory told the assembly at that prayer breakfast, that the religious impulse could be found – in the choice that is faced between integrity and survival. And I thought that was a very important lesson.
I still look at data. I still sometimes put words on paper. I still talk to people about anthropology. In fact Im going to have you at a disadvantage when I have you in Nautilus in a few minutes and have to talk about real things, whatever reality may be. The situation is impossible. Carol has set it up so I have to make a speech thanking one, two, three, four, five, six […] seven people for quite extravagant love, praise. Well I guess the love is not extravagant. And really, you know – how long has it been since I was in the world that you put me in tonight? About 1961 or 1962 I went to Hawaii to work with dolphins. And I really have not been with the business of family therapy or anthropology or other sorts of schizophrenia and double binds, since. All of that is sixteen years ago. Very strange. That is very strange, believe me. Because the ideas were – still are, thank god – very abstract, dry, and somehow they dont mix up with champagne. Theyre also very – how do you say – astringent ideas. And here we are, perhaps thank god, being not at all astringent about them. The beef was excellent, and not at all astringent. And the drinks. And the praise. And I wish I was over in Nautilus giving you a real talk, because this is sort of heartbreaking.
But its all right, you know. You cant get me at this totem fest. Because, you see, Im not the senior scholar or whatnot here. Its that fellow over there – Kenneth Burke.
Heinz Von Foerster
And one more thing. I have been selected to be Der Rosenkavalier, Le Chevalier du Rose, to present to the ladies, without whom this event could not have happened, a bouquet of flowers. First to Lois, whom we thank that he is here at all. And to Carol, whom we thank that he is here. And to the wonderful support of all the people who have worked to make this occasion.
Gregorys speech “Paradigmatic Conservatism, later published in Rigor and Imagination (1982), followed the dinner, and the rapt audience heard an address that rings as urgently true today as when it was first delivered.
It was a glowing transcendent evening that seems like yesterday, though it is 34 years past. There was so much hope that the paradigmatic change called for by Bateson was within reach. But 16 months later Gregory Bateson was gone and many feared that the profound possibilities of his ideas might die with him.
Green Gulch Farm
Bateson (1980) tells the intimate story of her fathers last days, which took place in early July 1980. Gregory died on July 4 at the San Francisco Zen Center, surrounded by all of the love and care one could hope for. Two weeks later I was riding through San Francisco with John and Anna Wu Weakland and Jay Haley on the way to the Zen Centers Green Gulch Farm for Gregorys crossing over ceremony. Set in the verdant rolling hills of coastal Marin County, the ceremony was a mingling of bells, gongs, silence, candles, bald monks chanting. Selections were read from T.S. Eliot and William Blake. Jerry Brown read the “23rd Psalm. Many people shared remembrances, most movingly Lois Bateson: “The pattern that connects all living things still connects us all to you.
On our way back to the car Anna Weakland asked John why as one of Batesons oldest friends he hadnt spoken. Weakland erupted:
What is all this horseshit? Most of them only knew Gregory for five minutes, and even then had no idea what he was about. Anna, do me a favor. If youve got anything to say to me tell me while Im alive. Dont talk to me when Im dead.
No wonder Bateson loved John Weakland, as did I.
1980 was not only the end of the 1970s, but the real end of the 1960s as well, a long goodbye to the sweeping changes begun during those decades. Four months after Batesons death Ronald Reagans “Morning in America era began and the USA began to think more like Rambo than Alan Watts. While many of Batesons ideas seeped into popular and academic culture – context, double bind, metacommunication, framing – the fundamental epistemological shift he urged did not gain any traction. Even the most obvious application to climate science succumbed to the silencing effect of greed. The only good regulation was a dead regulation. The USA escalated its narcissistic exceptionalism to the point of psychotic denial of perilously aging infrastructure, steadily sagging educational rankings, and a health care system among the most expensive and least effective in the world. And, yes, denial of Mother Nature herself.
The professionalization of academia has not helped spread Batesons message. He had no patience for revisionists and his multidimensional mind does not fit into any discipline. This makes him not a good research bet for the tenure-seeker, and as a result many of those who carry his torch are gadflies who have a lot of heart but not much of a platform.
One wonders how much the narcotic of media and the real narcotic of psychotropic drugs have flooded the space where action once was possible. Was Batesons moment at the end of evolutionary consciousness and not the beginning? Let us decide in his spirit that it was not the end. Bateson was a closet optimist, a skeptic but not a cynic who gave all he had to communicate his vision and his truth with the urgency and complexity it deserved. He was a lover of aesthetic unity; an explorer in the pure sense, who urged scientists “to tie knots in their handkerchiefs whenever they leave some matter unformulated – to be willing to leave the matter so for years, but still leave a warning sign in the very terminology they use, such that these terms will forever stand, not as fences hiding the unknown from future investigators, but rather as signposts which read: “Unexplored beyond this point (Bateson, 1972, p. 87).
Bateson, G. (1972), Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Ballantine, New York, N
Bateson, G. (1978), “Personal correspondence, 21 August
Bateson, G. (1979), Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, Dutton, New York, NY
Bateson, M.C. (1980), “Six days of dying, Co-Evolution Quarterly, Vol. 28, pp. 2–11
Wilder, C. and Weakland, J. (1982), Rigor and Imagination: Essays from the Legacy of Gregory Bateson, Praeger, New York, NY
Bateson, G. (1958), Naven: A Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
Wilder, C. (1979), “The Palo Alto Group: difficulties and directions of the interactional view for human communication research, Human Communication Research, Vol. 2, pp. 171–186
About the author
Carol Wilder (PhD Kent State University) is a Professor of media studies at The New School in New York, where from 1995 to 2007 she was Chair and Associate Dean. She was previously Professor and Chair of Communication Studies San Francisco State University, where she is Professor Emerita. She has published many monographs and book chapters and co-edited (with John Weakland) Rigor and Imagination: Essays from the Legacy of Gregory Bateson (Praeger, 1982), which won the National Communication Association Book Award. She was a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Hanoi University 2007-2008 and a Fulbright Senior Specialist in 2011.Her book Crossing the Street in Hanoi: Teaching and Learning about Vietnam is forthcoming 2013 from Intellect/University of Chicago Press. Carol Wilder can be contacted at: mailto:email@example.com