Conference report


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 1 October 2004



Andrew, A.M. (2004), "Conference report", Kybernetes, Vol. 33 No. 9/10.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Conference report

Conference report

Centennial Gregory Bateson Lecture: Learning in Layers – Pathology and Liberation Professor Mary Catherine Bateson, Tavistock Centre, London, 17 May 2004

This was the second lecture in an annual series devoted to the anthropologist and cybernetics pioneer Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) under auspices of the University of East London, and marks the centenary of his birth. The speaker is the daughter of Gregory Bateson and the other famous anthropologist Margaret Mead and is herself Emerita Professor of Anthropology in George Mason University as well as a Visiting Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also President of the Institute for Intercultural Studies in New York, which maintains archives and news of activities relating to Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, accessible at www.

The speaker began by recalling Gregory Bateson moved from Britain to USA just before the start of World War 2, and then returned hoping to find a way of contributing to the British war effort. When nothing suitable transpired he again moved to USA and became involved in a forerunner of the CIA aimed at feeding misinformation to the enemy. This work contributed significantly to the war effort but Bateson had an inherent aversion to subverting communication. At the end of the war, he had a spell of depression, and he and Margaret Mead were divorced. One cause of depression was his contemplation of the prospects for Germany and Japan, which were in the contradictory position of being coerced into making themselves democratic and ostensibly free. His concern about the possible schizophrenia-like outcomes was a foretaste of his later appreciation of the “double bind” in psychotherapy and family relations.

He was later employed in a Veterans Administration hospital, dealing with alcoholics and schizophrenics, and became strongly aware of contradictory signals produced by family situations, capable of producing or exacerbating schizophrenia, an effect that he referred to as the “double bind”. The term “schizogenic” was used, and an early example was of a mother who recoiled from a show of affection from her son while verbally exhorting him to be frank and open. Bateson insisted on a holistic or systemic approach in which the mechanisms were analysed, as opposed to the easier suppression of symptoms by drugs. The viewpoint has implications that go well beyond psychotherapy and it was pointed out that education of children is full of double binds, where for instance the imposition of a common language and conventions has obvious advantages but can produce alienation of pupils whose loyalties and upbringing do not conform. Commercial decision-making can be similarly double-edged and it was claimed that natural evolution has the same divided character because organisms evolve so as to survive, and yet evolution itself depends on the death of individuals, after they have procreated.

The speaker acknowledged that her upbringing by anthropologists was somewhat unusual since she was made an object of study and became a participant-observer. She felt that this had not done any harm, and was a reasonable alternative to having what she termed “dumb parents”.

The lecture was followed by lively discussion, both by prearranged discussants and a sizeable audience, with continuation after adjournment to a generous reception. Several comments referred to experience in therapy, but the main thrust was to deplore the current situation in Iraq and to recognise it as a supreme example of the futility of imposing ostensible freedom by coercion. The unfortunate effects were agreed to be not only in Iraq itself but in attitudes arising in the coalition countries.

It is planned that a forthcoming issue of Kybernetes will be devoted to the work of Gregory Bateson.

Alex M. Andrew

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