Why Gregory Bateson Matters

By Ted GioiaJuly 4, 2020

Why Gregory Bateson Matters
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THE COUNTERCULTURE of the 1950s and 1960s now seems like a relic of the distant past, as quaint and charming as those colorful hippie outfits and thrift store love beads, but with about as much real-world impact as an LSD trip. It was an experience (to use a popular word of the era), but experiences don’t last, by definition — perhaps that’s even what makes them so special.

The strange part about this is that during my coming-of-age, in the aftermath of the counterculture, I firmly believed that it had triumphed. I was too young to participate in the Summer of Love or attend Woodstock, but when I reached my teen years not long after these events, I couldn’t imagine society going back to its earlier stodgy ways. And I wasn’t the only one. There was a pervasive feeling that things had changed in some irrevocable manner.

Surely America had now learned the futility of promoting never-ending military campaigns in remote parts of the world. It was just obvious that crass materialism and status-seeking via possessions had been discredited — even more, they had been turned into jokes and talismans of shallowness — making room for other priorities, more experiential and principled, to come to the forefront. Certainly, freedom of expression would never again succumb to the censorship and witch hunts of the 1950s. By the same token, we were too smart to continue polluting our environment and destroying our ecosystem. And who wanted to turn back the clock and give up hard-won gains in civil liberties, due process, racial equality, limitations on government surveillance, restraints on police brutality, and dozens of other areas of tangible progress?

Yet I now see that I was pretty much wrong on all counts. I had thought the counterculture had won the battle, but that was all a mirage. Peace and nonviolence didn’t prevail. Respect and tolerance didn’t become second nature. Crass materialism did not retreat; in fact, it didn’t budge an inch. As I look back on those days with the benefit of hindsight, I have a nagging feeling that things have gotten much worse. We are angrier than ever before, more violent and self-centered, with fewer rights and responsibilities, less tolerant and forgiving, and with less consensus on how to improve the degradations — environmental, cultural, political, technological — that encroach on every side.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve started studying the 1950s and 1960s counterculture again. Not for a dose of nostalgia — although I can understand the appeal of that — but rather to grasp what went wrong and whether we can still fix it. The beatniks and hippies, with their poetry readings, love-ins, and flower power celebrations, actually did move the culture, at least for a decade or so. They had some wisdom to share. Maybe we should listen again.

And that brings me to the topic of Gregory Bateson, one of the smartest and most wide-ranging intellects of the counterculture. He has, for the most part, been scandalously forgotten, yet his concepts and principles are especially relevant to the concerns of the digital age. Bateson worked at the interfaces between technology, environment, and individual psychology, and he grasped the specific dangers faced by society when these three forces are in conflict with each other.

Facebook, Amazon, and Google didn’t exist back when Bateson lived, but he would have understood with acute insight what risks their dominance brings. If he were alive today, he would have perspicacious things to tell us about a host of other problems, whether in our environment at large, our neighborhoods and city streets, or in the deep recesses of our psyches. In fact, his specialty was understanding the ways these are all linked and how changes in one sphere often start with shifts in another. Perhaps more than anyone of his generation, Bateson grasped that the revolution won’t be televised — in fact, it can’t — if the conflict is taking place in our own heads.

Bateson’s 1972 Steps to an Ecology of Mind arrived at the tail end of a tumultuous period when almost every aspect of society had been scrutinized and reevaluated. In fact, I consider this thick book of 38 essays, written over the course of three decades, as the summation of that disruptive era. I could call it a kind of atlas or compendium of insights from the counterculture movement, but that wouldn’t do justice to Bateson’s ability to integrate these bits and pieces, drawn from dozens of disciplines, into a powerful, holistic worldview.

That’s quite an achievement, but one that was perfectly aligned with Bateson’s background and training. His main focus was on the hidden systems that control behavior, and this had led him through one of the strangest career paths of any 20th-century thinker. If you had met Gregory Bateson at a cocktail party and asked him “What do you do for a living?” his answer would have changed dramatically over the course of his life. Let me present a thumbnail sketch of his many vocations, not just for your admiration (although it’s hard not to admire such flexibility in vocation), but to help you understand how Bateson was uniquely situated to integrate the disparate threads of the counterculture.

Bateson started out a biologist, and with an exceptional pedigree — his father, William Bateson, had actually coined the term “genetics.” Bateson demonstrated a deep understanding of Darwinian processes that he first learned at home during his earliest days. In the late 1920s, he taught linguistics at the University of Sydney. In the 1930s, he was a high-profile anthropologist and did important fieldwork in New Guinea and Bali (often in tandem with his wife at the time, Margaret Mead). After World War II, he became a well-known psychotherapist and developed his famous double bind theory, which initially aimed at explicating the causes of schizophrenia, but could be applied to a wide range of other areas, including comedy, art, poetry, and organizational behavior. In the 1960s, Bateson researched the effects of LSD at a Veterans Hospital near Stanford University, where he and Dr. Leo Hollister recruited future novelist and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey to participate in his experiments. Later still, he moved to the Virgin Islands and ran a research laboratory funded by the eccentric John Lilly, who wanted to find ways of communicating with dolphins. But through all of this, our intrepid researcher maintained his greatest passion: the study and propagation of cybernetics, which aimed to explain the systems of human behavior and thinking with a kind of precision and scientific rigor akin to what Newton had applied to physics or Euclid to geometry.

As I consider the cumulative impact of Bateson’s wide-ranging vocations and experiences, I reach the conclusion that this polymath was the connecting node in the counterculture and the single best person to give a large holistic expression to its ambitions and achievements. More to the point, his perspective is not only still relevant — something that can’t be said for many other gurus of that bygone day — but is perfectly attuned to the peculiar areas of dysfunction in our own time.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind is a book that resists quick summary — as you might expect from an author who covered so much intellectual and physical territory in his life. But let me extract a few of its major concerns and examine what they might tell us about our own situation. In each instance, Bateson is dealing with risks and conflicts that are easy to miss because they rarely occur on the surface level of any phenomenon. In fact, they more often arise from inherent conflicts between the surface level and other contexts, which can be at a macro level (an ecology, for example) or a micro level (a human psyche struggling for wholeness). One of the core lessons to be gleaned from his oeuvre is that addressing problems in ways that seem direct and results-oriented sometimes ensures failure in the long term. Consider this flawed approach as akin to a medicine that treats superficial symptoms without ever tackling underlying causes.

Let’s start with a critical distinction in Bateson’s concept of human systems.

The Two Kinds of Systems: Bateson believed that one of the greatest innovations in human history was the feedback loop. He frequently talked about the steam engine as an analogy for healthy human interactions, focusing on the controls in the engine that check the process and keep it running at a steady pace. When looking for similar feedback loops in human interactions, Bateson saw that they didn’t always exist, or operate in the way they should. As a result, he recognized that there were two kinds of systems: ones that relied on feedback to create stability, and others that tended to escalate and create runaway trends.

For him, the Cold War arms race was an example of the latter. Rivalries are human systems that tend to move to extreme limits before they are corrected — often by reaching some dangerous or even disastrous endpoint. In the case of the arms race, this endpoint took place soon after Bateson’s death with the collapse of the Soviet Union — which he would have said teaches us that the resolution of a runaway process often happens outside the process, because there are no obvious stopping points or checks within it. But under other scenarios, this runaway social dynamic could have achieved a truly catastrophic endpoint in a kind of nuclear Armageddon. Disruptions in the environment are other obvious examples of this.

Why is this especially relevant today? An obvious answer is to point to the internet as the most extreme example you could imagine of a runaway system. The business plans of the companies that flourish on the web are always built on what entrepreneurs call the scalability of the internet, its amazing capacity to spread trends and processes everywhere in the world at lightning speed. In the old days, a company might spend decades developing production capacity and distribution networks in different parts of the globe, but nowadays the fastest-growing business models — whether an app or website or cloud-built service — can reach everywhere almost immediately. To describe this in Bateson’s terms, the digital age is built on the backs of runaway systems. And in an uncanny, disturbing way, even our day-to-day lives away from screens and digital interfaces seem to mimic this tendency, riding a wave of escalating trends with no feedback loop to keep them in check.

When you see these processes from Bateson’s perspective, you suddenly understand why something as innocent as a search engine (Google) or social network for family and friends (Facebook) can create so many unanticipated problems, whether we are talking about the invasion of privacy or the distortion of daily news. Not only do these systems lack reliable checks and balances, but they were actually created with the goal of eliminating checks and balances.

This line of thinking also suggests that a different kind of internet could exist — call it an anti-web, if you will. This alternative digital world would apply technology to give control back to individuals, limiting processes of escalation and runaway conformity. Think of it as an array of tools built on the model of anti-virus software or a blockchain or a private chat room. But you can only create the right kinds of checks and balances in a system after you have grasped the precise points where they have been bypassed or eliminated. Bateson is still our guru in coming to grips with this.

Bateson’s Definition of Mind: This leads us to the strangest ingredient in Bateson’s worldview — what he meant by the word “mind.” And his quirky approach to mental processes is hardly a small matter — after all, his larger quest was an ecology of mind.

For Bateson, mind existed as part of an integrated system that also involved elements of the world. He gives the example of a lumberjack cutting down a tree with an axe. Bateson argues that any definition of this woodcutter’s mental processes that doesn’t also include the axe, the tree, and the feedback loop back to the human body, is both incomplete and dangerously misleading. Although Bateson doesn’t make this comparison, his view is aligned with Heidegger’s concept of being-in-the-world, which allowed the German philosopher to bypass many of the paradoxes and problems created by out tendency to divide our schemas into subject and object.

As Bateson saw it, these narrow definitions of selfhood weren’t just problems related to philosophy but could easily turn into crises in the environment. People who see their mental existence as operating against the world take very different courses of action — hostile, exploitive, narcissistic — than those who understand their connectedness to their environment and social network.

Bateson anticipated that the single biggest breakthrough in human development would come from inculcating a culture that fosters a sense of this larger connectedness. He believed he had only made the first steps on this journey during his own lifetime and worked to enlist others to join in this mission. He cherished situations that took people out of their subjective orientations — which for him could be listening to music, ingesting LSD, or nurturing a sense of spiritual connection. But he knew that just seeking episodic relief from self-centered behavior wasn’t enough. If we exclude our surrounding habitat from our projects of self-care — in the plugged-in, screen-obsessed manner of contemporary culture — the larger systems we have ignored will eventually degrade and fail to support us. By all indications, that danger is far greater today than it was during Bateson’s lifetime. Indeed, we may be approaching a breaking point.

When global connectedness goes hand in hand increasing self-involvement, everyone suffers. As theorist René Girard — who drew on Bateson’s concept of the double bind in his own studies of runaway violence — once commented: “When the whole world is globalized, you’re going to be able to set fire to the whole thing with a single match.”

The Double Bind: Bateson originally developed the double bind model, the most famous concept to come out of his research, as a means of understanding dysfunctional families, but he soon saw that it could be applied to a wide range of other situations. And others have drawn on this concept in unique ways that Bateson never envisioned. Girard is perhaps the most influential exponent, but we can see its impact on everyone from R. D. Laing to Allen Ginsberg, and on fields as disparate as linguistics, political science, and literary criticism.

Described in the simplest terms, the double bind represents a situation in which a person is required to do two things simultaneously, but these things are in conflict with each other. In the words of the well-known proverb, you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. The intensity of these situations is enhanced by the fact that they often occur in contexts where those involved aren’t allowed to mention the double bind. The root of the problem remains, by definition, unspoken.

In Bateson’s classic example, a mother is emotionally distant from a child but forces the youngster to take the blame for the breakdown in intimacy. The child now faces a double bind: speaking the truth will get the mother angry and lead to denials and even greater separation, while accepting the lie turns the youngster into the enemy who is now assigned responsibility for the underlying rupture and all its attendant problems. And because these are, by definition, unsolvable problems, participants in the double bind are forced to confront this insurmountable dilemma over and over again.

One of Bateson’s key insights was that the double bind usually takes place simultaneously in two different contexts. In the example cited, the mother’s hostile behavior takes place at one level and the explanation of the hostile behavior operates at a higher level. “[C]onsequently it is of a different order of message,” he explains. “It is a message about a sequence of messages. Yet by its nature it denies the existence of those messages which it is about, i.e., the hostile withdrawal.” This is why the double bind is the source of so much humor: what makes sense at one level is absurd at another.

Consider the Bob Newhart quip: “I don’t like country music, but I don’t mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means ‘put down.’” Or Robin Williams: “Why do they call it rush hour when nothing moves?” Or Steven Wright: “I think it’s wrong that only one company makes the game Monopoly.” Each of these gets laughs by mixing up behavior and the context for the behavior.

Unfortunately, the double bind is rarely a laughing matter. It’s like Sartre’s bad faith — the existential crisis we create by lying to ourselves — but on a much larger, systematic level. In fact, that’s the very reason why the double bind is so dangerous: its malevolence is actually embedded into the structures that surround us. The system forces us to lie even when we know the truth.

The double bind crisis of the present day is unprecedented, at least in the context of free democracies, which depend so much on truth-telling to function properly. How can you diagnose this? The first thing you learn about the double bind is that the evidence is always indirect: the participants won’t (or can’t) admit its influence. But to the outsider, the signs are clear: the main symptom of the double bind is a persistent and structural insistence on saying things that every disinterested party can see are simply untrue.

This is different from lying or hypocrisy, which are merely human weaknesses, not structural constraints. And it goes far beyond the well-known professions that deliberately spread untruths, such as used-car dealers and politicians. But those vocations are useful in understanding the dynamic at play here. Why do politicians or shyster lawyers or spokespersons for big corporations say things they know aren’t true? Well, the answer is obvious: these individuals are embedded in a larger structure that demands falsehood and, even worse, rewards liars for assimilating the party line with total conviction.

I would argue that these structural forces are everywhere today. People may complain about fake news, disinformation campaigns, political correctness, junk science, fabricated grassroots movements, spin, and dozens of other manifestations of the same the same structural phenomenon. But it’s not a question of lies anymore, rather an issue of pervasive double bind contexts beyond any individual person’s power to disrupt or change.

Even more disturbing is how easily we’ve gotten used to all this. In our dealings with the world, we have simply come to accept that there’s an unbridgeable chasm between what we are told and what’s really going down. Even when dealing with someone who tells it straight, we look for the deception — and not because the other person is a habitual liar. Rather, folks are just doing their job, and creating that chasm between truth and reality is part of the job description. Of course, they will never tell you that. But that’s also in the job description.

This is why Bateson’s work is so useful. He understands that getting angry and demanding the honest truth from someone in a double bind is a futile effort. There’s a lot of anger out there now, but what it accomplishes is unclear. Bateson could have predicted that. Until the structures that impose the double bind are altered, truth-telling isn’t likely to happen — or when it happens, it’s only by pure coincidence. As a result, feedback loops won’t work, and checks and balances will neither check nor balance. And in a fast-as-lightning internet age, susceptible to the runaway forces that Bateson himself outlined, those are matters of mission-critical importance.

This is why Steps to an Ecology of Mind still demands our closest attention as we approach its half-century anniversary. It’s not nostalgia, but mind (as Bateson defines it, with its connection to the entire surrounding social system) that’s at stake. No, I’m not asking you to dust off grandma’s love beads, or hunt down grandpa’s tie-dyed T-shirts in the back of his closet. We got rid of those old fashions for good reasons. But we also ditched the counterculture — and not just the 1960s counterculture, but the whole concept of a counterculture — for something far worse. Instead of a counterculture, with its robust decentralized structures that resist authorities and power, we have settled for warring factions that seek to augment force and dominion, steamrolling anything that stands in their way. The counterculture, in a healthy system, offers a critique of power from outside — its goal isn’t running the authoritarian surveillance state, or supervising the overseas wars, or becoming shareholders in the polluting corporations. It operates outside abusive systems as a vibrant source of the checks and balances we desperately need right now. That’s the counter in the counterculture. A society without it turns into one more runaway, escalating engine, threatening at every moment to veer out of control — much like those Bateson analyzes in his studies of cybernetics.

That danger is something those beatniks and hippies never dreamed of, even in their wildest psychedelic visions. Somewhere along the way, their counterculture got discarded along with the denims and beads. That’s not just a matter of changing fashions, but systemic breakdown. As a result, we are further away from an ecology of mind than ever before. Sad to say, we can’t flourish — either as individuals or as a society — without it.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and contemporary culture. He is the author of 11 books, most recently Music: A Subversive History (Basic Books).

LARB Contributor

Ted Gioia writes on music, books and popular culture. His latest book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.


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