Jul 2011

Bateson of The Day

What the unaided consciousness (unaided by art, dreams, and the like) can never appreciate is the systemic nature of mind.

This notion can conveniently be illustrated by an analogy: the living human body is a complex, cybernetically integrated system. This system has been studied by scientists — mostly medical men — for many years. What they now know about the body may (aptly) be compared with what the unaided consciousness knows about the mind. Being doctors, they had purposes: to cure this and that. Their research efforts were therefore focused (as attention focuses the consciousness) upon those short trains of causality which they could manipulate, by means of drugs or other intervention, to correct more or less specific and identifiable states or symptoms. Whenever they discovered an effective “cure” for something, research in that area ceased and attention was directed elsewhere. We can now prevent polio, but nobody knows much more about the systemic aspects of that fascinating disease. Research on it has ceased or is, at best, confined to improving the vaccines.

But a bag of tricks for curing or preventing a list of specified diseases provides no overall wisdom. The ecology and population dynamics of the species has been disrupted; parasites have been made immune to antibiotics; the relationship between mother and neonate has been almost destroyed; and so on.

Characteristically, errors occur wherever the altered causal chain is part of some large or small circuit structure of system. And the remainder of our technology (of which medical science is only a part) bids fair to disrupt the rest of our ecology.

The point, however, which I am trying to make in this paper is not an attack on medical science but a demonstration of an inevitable fact; that mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and that its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.

In a word, the unaided consciousness must always involve man in the sort of stupidity of which evolution was guilty when she urged upon the dinosaurs the common-sense values of an armaments race. She inevitably realized her mistake a million years later and wiped them out.

Unaided consciousness must always tend toward hate; not only because it is good common sense to exterminate the other fellow, but for the more profound reason that, seeing only arcs of circuits, the individual is continually surprised and necessarily angered when his hardheaded policies return to plague the inventor.

If you use DDT to kill insects, you may succeed in reducing the insect population so far that the insectivores will starve. You will then have to use more DDT than before to kill the insects which the birds no longer eat. More probably, you will kill off the birds in the first round when they eat the poisoned insects. If the DDT kills off the dogs, you will have to have more police to keep down the burglars. The burglars will become better armed and more cunning … and so on.

That is the sort of world we live in — a world of circuit structures — and love can survive only if wisdom (i.e., a sense or recognition of the fact of circuitry) has an effective voice.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

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Jul 2011

Norway. And the Media

There was a discussion between a news anchor and some “expert” pundit on Fox News in the immediate aftermath of the horrific tragedy in Norway, in which 76 people are known to have been murdered. The “expert” was pontificating on the reasons why Norway might be the target of an Al Qaeda terror attack. They’re members of NATO, he pointed out. They recently arrested an Islamist cleric, he pointed out. In the eyes of Muslim fanatics, Norway might share the stigma of the Danish cartoon incident, he suggested. The news anchor interjected… “it has been suggested that the perpetrator of these acts is actually a native Norwegian with a right-wing islamophobic agenda…” To which point the “expert” responded curtly, “I don’t think we should speculate about these things until we have all the facts!”

However much you or I may hate to perpetuate stereotypes, Fox News seems to have no problem promoting the idea that “Americans don’t do irony”.

But sadly, it wasn’t just the rabid right who immediately started to shriek “Muslims!” as soon as the news of a bomb in Oslo hit the airwaves. Peter Beaumont, a columnist with The Guardian, was quick off the mark with his entirely inaccurate and unjustifiable speculation. In an article – Oslo bomb: suspicion falls on Islamist militants – that has since been removed from the website (though is still currently available thanks to Google cache) Beaumont kicks off with the gloriously inept intro…

Oslo police have confirmed the source of the blast that damaged the prime minister’s offices in Oslo was a bomb. The question now is who is likely to be behind it.

The most obvious conclusion would be a jihadist group.

Really Peter? And why’s that exactly?

Is it because most acts of terrorism in Europe are carried out by jihadist groups? Because actually, between 2006 and 2009 (the most recent years for which we have accessible data) roughly 0.4% of incidents categorised as “terrorism” in Europe were carried out by groups with a known Islamist agenda. Yup, that’s a staggering 99.6% of recent terrorist acts carried out by non-jihadist groups. So why the freaking hell is it “the most obvious conclusion” that a jihadist group bombed Oslo?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Peter Beaumont was alone in coming to that “obvious” (and utterly wrong) conclusion. Merely that he – like a huge number of people out there – have bought into a media narrative that is dangerously flawed and borderline racist. Though of course, given that Beaumont’s article was actually a part of that ongoing narrative, further reinforcing and extending it, he does warrant a tad more criticism than most of the people who have succumbed to the notion that Islam is somehow uniquely linked with terrorism.

In the hastily rewritten article that replaced the “suspicion falls on Islamist militants” one, Beaumont shamelessly spends much of his time highlighting the (ultra-tenuous) reasons why it was understandable for people to leap to the jihadist conclusion without ever referring to his own culpability in this bandwagon jumping.

The most tempting and immediate conclusion was that it would be a jihadist group, as the style of the Oslo attack bore strong similarities to other earlier attacks in Europe and elsewhere.

Really? Which ones? How many jihadist carbombs have there been in Europe? How many jihadist groups have sent a lone assassin to gun down members of a leftwing political youth movement in Europe? I’m not saying these things have not happened (though I personally don’t recall that being the modus operandus of Europe-based Islamist terrorism) but the fact of the matter is that “the style of the Oslo attacks” bears at least as much a similarity to the 99.6% of terrorist acts in Europe that were not carried out by Islamists. So again, why make that connection?

I am not downplaying acts of violence perpetrated by those with an Islamist agenda. I’m not downplaying any acts of violence at all. Being murdered by an Islamist suicide-bomber on the London tube is no more or less tragic than being murdered by an Islamophobic gun-man on a Norwegian island. Neither victim is less dead. And neither perpetrator is less unhinged or less monstrous.

What I am doing, however, is condemning a partly unconscious, partly conscious media narrative that appears to suggest that terrorism is somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, synonymous with Islamist extremism. A media narrative that insists the statistically less likely conclusion is the “obvious” one. A media narrative that, by virtue of its focus on jihadist groups despite their relative lack of activity in Europe, is guilty of forwarding a deceptive – and racist – agenda.

Terrorism Vs. Extremism

The other thing I want to address here is the weird way in which the language of (much of) the media switched from “possible Islamist terrorism” to “right-wing extremism“. A jihadist terrorist is an extremist . A Norwegian terrorist is an extremist. When an Islamist group or individual is involved, it’s “terrorism”, and there’s a subtle unspoken sense in which all of Islam – every Muslim – must shoulder some of the responsibility. But when the perpetrator is a Norwegian right-winger, then he’s a “lone extremist”. Possibly mentally ill.

The language we use is part of that. The word “terrorism” doesn’t distance the perpetrators from the mainstream population to quite the same extent as the word “extremism” does. It’s subtle. And I’m fully prepared to believe that the journalists and editors who create this obscene media narrative are largely unconscious of it. But that doesn’t excuse it. And it certainly doesn’t mean we should allow it to go unchallenged. And if we define Anders Behring Breivik as somehow “unhinged” or “mentally ill”, then the same applies to the suicide bombers who blew themselves up in London, or the hijackers who crashed airliners into American buildings.

Which is definitely not to say that I am defining anyone here as “mentally ill”. In fact, briefly donning my psychoanalyst hat, I have to say that I’m increasingly dissatisfied with the medical metaphor of psychology. However, I am calling for consistency in the media when it covers mass murder. Consistency, perspective and a thorough appreciation of the facts. As opposed to the current gung-ho willingness to perpetuate a narrative that is clearly at odds with reality.

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Jul 2011

The curious death of a master signifier

A crowd gathered at the site of the World Trade Center in New York. Many carried American flags or wore t-shirts with patriotic slogans. They pumped their fists in the air. They shouted “U.S.A” and “We’re Number One!” while others sang The Star Spangled Banner. They were in celebratory mood. And they were celebrating death.

Specifically they were celebrating the shooting of an unarmed man in his fifties half a planet away. A group of well-trained killers entered a sovereign nation without permission, swooped down on a house and shot Osama bin Laden in front of his family. They then took photos, scraped some DNA samples and threw the body in the sea. Far away, insulated from all harm, the US president watched the killing unfold on a monitor. And crowds cheered. And of course, this being America, a few of them wondered how they could profit from the death celebration.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote, “It’s been a long time since Americans felt this good and strong about themselves — nothing like putting bullets in someone’s skull and dumping their corpse into an ocean to rejuvenate that can-do American sense of optimism.”

And then the lies began. The dead man had resisted capture. He’d opened fire on his assailants. In the last resort he’d grabbed his own wife and caused her death when he used her as a human shield. A day later, mystifyingly, we were told that none of that had happened. The dead man had been unarmed. He hadn’t used his wife as a human shield. She wasn’t even present when he was shot dead.

I found myself wondering how a man in his fifties, whose health – we’d been told for some time – wasn’t all that great, could have resisted capture so forcefully while unarmed, that a team of elite soldiers was unable to subdue him without shooting him numerous times in the face and chest. Don’t get me wrong, I shed no tears for Osama bin Laden. But nor do I find much to celebrate in the gunning-down of an unarmed man, followed by a series of official lies.

I also found myself wondering why we were being told this at all. Where had the first set of lies come from? And why bother correcting them given that there was no evidence one way or the other beyond the official version? It reminded me of the brutal slaying of Jean Charles de Menezes by police in London. Immediately after the killing a series of lies emerged from the authorities that were so far from the truth that they had to have been deliberately manufactured. They simply couldn’t have been mistakes or someone misinterpreting something. Jean Charles de Menezes had vaulted the ticket barrier in the tube station, we were told. He’d been wearing a bulky coat, we were told. He’d sprinted away from police who had clearly called upon him to stop, we were told.

Except he hadn’t. He’d used his season ticket to walk through the ticket barriers just like a hundred thousand other commuters that day. His clothes had been perfectly appropriate for the weather, and yes while he had sped up — like a hundred thousand other commuters that day — to catch the train that had just pulled into the station, he’d not been sprinting. We were just told lies. And the apparently casual manner in which the authorities appear willing to feed bullshit to the public suggests this is a routine occurrence.

The bizarre testimony of the police officer at the centre of the Ian Tomlinson “unlawful killing” case serves to reinforce this. Everyone had already seen the clear footage of the incident that killed Tomlinson. It was as unambiguous as something like this can possibly be. Yet at the inquest, the police officer whose action had resulted in the death of Tomlinson insisted upon a version of events that completely contradicted the video evidence. It was just weird. And what’s weirder is the fact that he clearly expected the jury, and the wider world, to accept his version above the evidence of their own eyes.

Over the years I’ve found it instructive, whenever I encounter a statement issued by an authority, to imagine that the exact opposite is true. It’s unsettling how often the news makes more sense when you do that. Admittedly it’s a little strange to have the strategy validated so quickly as we did when bin Laden was killed. Within 48 hours an armed man became an unarmed man, and the wife we were told was used as a human shield wasn’t even there.

What does all of this mean?

Well, it means those in power have no respect for those they claim to protect, serve and represent. This isn’t an earth-shattering piece of news. I’m not claiming to be telling you something you’ve not heard before. I’m merely pointing out that despite incontrovertible evidence that this is going on all the time, we appear happy to allow it. Our police and our politicians are constantly lying to us, and we choose to accept it. The psychoanalyst in me can’t help but find the words of Wilhelm Reich springing to mind and wonder whether this is inevitably going to end with the sound of a hundred thousand jackboots marching in unison beneath a fascist flag. The willingness of a population to accept obvious lies eventually gets exploited by someone even less sane than Blair or Cameron or Bush or Obama. And the phrase “it couldn’t happen here” is rarely any protection.

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Jul 2011

Shout. Shout. Let it all out.

Posting here has been light recently for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the main one is the oppressive wave of misanthropy which has crashed down upon me in recent months. From a purely personal perspective, my life is pretty damn good. But as soon as I cast my eye over world events in search of something to write about, I feel my blood pressure rise and a powerful combination of despair and rage grips me. What starts out as an attempt to analyse the recent European economic negotiations collapses – with alarming speed – into an expletive-ridden rant about “the idiots” making “disastrous ideologically driven decisions about matters they don’t understand… decisions that will cause terrible suffering on an unprecedented scale”. And not only that, pretty soon I’m ranting about “the even bigger idiots who elected this bunch of terminal cretins!”

See what I mean about the misanthropy?

And yes, there’ll be some wags out there who wonder “so how’s that any different from your usual stuff?” Well, the fact is, I like to think that even at my most hyperbolic, there’s a method to my madness… a point to be made, even if it only barely emerges from the raving lunacy. Recently though, the red mist has been descending and obscuring any sensible position I might wish to convey. And while I’m a great believer in free speech, I’m also a believer in the maxim that if you have nothing worth saying, then at least have the good sense to keep your mouth shut.

See, contrary to appearances, I don’t like being the angry dude muttering “fricking idiots!” whenever a news or current affairs programme comes on TV. I don’t like that my first reaction to reading most news stories on the web is to shake my head, sigh and wonder audibly why mainstream journalism has become little more than a bunch of fools recycling press releases and parroting the craven ideology of the global establishment. I don’t like being constantly reminded of the fact that politics has become the nigh-exclusive preserve of gombeens and charlatans. And I definitely don’t like the uncomfortable sensation of rage rising within me when I reflect on the fact that this overall state of affairs is calmly accepted by the population at large (hell, more than just “accepted”… read the comments thread beneath almost any web article and it quickly becomes apparent that this overall state of affairs is positively embraced by the population at large).

However, it struck me today that none of this was likely to change any time soon. So my choices were threefold… I could give up this blog completely; I could content myself with posting the occasional music video, movie review or funny photo of a kitten; or I could embrace the misanthropic rant as an essential facet of any remotely aware person’s blog.

Eventually I sighed, muttered “bloody people!” and chose the third of those options.

That said, I’m going to try to overcome this ire. For some, anger is an energy. For me, it tends to get in the way. Even when it’s entirely justified. Which – as even the briefest of glances around the world will demonstrate – is most certainly the case.

Now, I’m away in Serbia for a few days. I’m going to try and use the time to decompress a little. To mellow. And hopefully I’ll be a little more productive upon my return. For now though, I have a couple of short pieces to get off my chest…

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Jul 2011

16th July 1945: The Manhattan Project

I’ve got a new article up at On This Deity. To be honest, I could easily have written four or five times as much on this subject as it’s something I was obsessed with for quite a while, and it also feeds into my “advanced technology as pathology” thesis. But 12 hundred words is already a lot in these days of abbreviated attention spans.

16th July 1945: The Manhattan Project.

At half past five on the morning of July 16th 1945, The Gadget exploded and the whole world shook. Three square miles of desert sand was melted into glass. A mushroom cloud rose almost 8 miles into the sky and cast a shadow that darkens our world even now. For it was on this day, in the final year of the second world war, that humanity entered the atomic age. A day of infamy. A day to lament. A day on which we should – as a species – collectively reflect on just how far our ingenuity has exceeded our wisdom.

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.
Albert Einstein

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Jul 2011

14th July 1789: The Storming of the Bastille

Head across to On This Deity to check out my new post.

14th July 1789: The Storming of the Bastille.

Today we celebrate, though not without a small note of reservation, the Storming of the Bastille in Paris on this day in 1789. Commemorated with a public holiday in France, Bastille Day has come to mark the beginning of The French Revolution. Of course, France has had a number of significant revolutions – notably the July Revolution of 1830 and the revolution in 1848 that gave rise to the Second Republic – but it is the one that began in 1789 and lasted a full decade that has earned the definite article. It is The French Revolution.

The Bastille (or Bastion de Saint-Antoine) was originally a fortress built in the 1370s – during the Hundred Years’ War – to protect eastern Paris. By the 17th century the expansion of the city meant the Bastille was no longer on the outskirts where it could serve as an effective fortification against attackers, and Louis XIII re-purposed it as a prison. For the next hundred and fifty years the Bastille provided French royalty with a secure facility into which political prisoners and social agitators could be thrown with little or no regard for legal due process. As such, in the eyes of many it soon came to represent the oppression of the monarchy and although it only contained seven prisoners on July 14th 1789, the Storming of the Bastille was a hugely symbolic act, demonstrating the rejection of arbitrary royal privilege by the people of Paris.

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Jul 2011

Gregory Bateson bibliography and links

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

Just a quick follow-up to my latest post over at On This Deity for those who’d like to find out more about visionary intellectual, Gregory Bateson. Although his work is finally beginning to emerge from obscurity where it has unjustifiably languished for too long, it’s still not easy to track it all down (remarkably, some of his books are currently out of print!)

Bateson’s work covered a host of different disciplines and the primary text for anyone who seeks to learn more about this revolutionary thinker is his collection of essays, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. This book, at least, is currently in print and can be found in most good bookshops as well as in a number of online retailers. You can, of course, head over to Amazon and get it there where it will cost you a couple of quid less than if you were to buy it at – for example – Housmans. The reason you might want to spend that extra couple of pounds is explained on this page, What is wrong with using Amazon? Anyhoo, if you need to save some cash (and these days many of us do) then just search Amazon for the book. Alternatively use Housmans, or better yet your local independent bookstore, to get hold of Steps to an Ecology of Mind.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind coverIt’s worth stressing that Steps to an Ecology of Mind is simultaneously a frustrating and a rewarding read. Some of the essays are engaging and immediately illuminating, while others can be dry, technical and requiring of no little effort. And some essays manage to veer from one to the other (and back again). The book is split into six different sections and while it’s not strictly in chronological order, his later work (arguably when it all starts to coalesce into a singular coherent vision) can be found in the last two sections.

Part I (Metalogues) consists of a series of metalogues (imaginary conversations between Bateson and his daughter) which each illustrate a particular point, both in the content and the structure of the metalogue. They have titles such as Why Do Things Get in a Muddle?, What Is an Instinct? and Why a Swan? and together provide a wonderful introduction to many of the themes explored later in the book – though their easy accessibility is perhaps a little deceptive given what is to come!

Part II (Form and Pattern in Anthropology) covers – more or less – his anthropological work, though bear in mind that much of the point of the book is to demonstrate the interconnections between different systems, and one of the central essays in Part II is Morale and National Character which casts an anthropological eye over western cultures and would, therefore, be located by many people within sociology. It is within this section that Bateson’s “schismogenesis” concept is discussed and explained. He also covers Game Theory and makes his first tentative steps into cybernetics in Part II.

Part III (Form and Pathology in Relationship) covers, among other things, his double-bind theory of schizophrenia and his psychotherapeutic work. It also deals with his concept of “deuterolearning” (learning to learn) which is hugely important for our understanding of ourselves and the world. When properly applied, Bateson’s work on deuterolearning reveals why, for example, the type of militant atheism practiced by Richard Dawkins and others is ultimately self-defeating, and why consumer capitalism is so insidious and will prove so very difficult to counteract. As well as this, Part III covers communications theory and his Theory of Play.

Part IV (Biology and Evolution) contains, in my view, two of the most difficult pieces; The Role of Somatic Change in Evolution and A Re-examination of “Bateson’s Rule”; though this may be down to the fact that I’ve read very little else on the subject of biological science so many of the technical terms were unfamiliar to me. This section also includes a paper outlining the conclusions he drew from his work on dolphins with John C. Lilly.

Part V (Epistemology and Ecology) is where everything starts to be explicitly drawn together, though the interconnections are implicit in the previous sections. Along with Part VI (Crisis in the Ecology of Mind), this section essentially presents the reader with Bateson’s philosophy. Essays such as Conscious Purpose versus Nature, Pathologies of Epistemology and The Roots of Ecological Crisis contain, simply put, some of the most visionary writing I have ever encountered.

Beyond Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson published several other books. Below is a complete bibliography listed not in chronological or alphabetical order, but in order of importance. This is, therefore, a purely subjective order and shouldn’t be taken as gospel (also, I’ve not managed to get hold of the last two books on the list, so they are there by default).

Gregory Bateson bibliography

  • Steps to an Ecology of Mind
    The University of Chicago Press (1972, 2000). ISBN 0-226-03905-6.
  • Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
    Hampton Press (1979, 2002). ISBN 1-57273-434-5.
  • Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred
    (published posthumously)
    with Mary Catherine Bateson
    The University of Chicago Press (1988). ISBN 978-0553345810.
  • A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind
    (published posthumously)
    edited by Rodney E. Donaldson
    Harper Collins (1991). ISBN 0-06-250110-3.
  • Naven
    Stanford University Press (1936, 1958). ISBN 0-804-70520-8.
  • Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis
    with Margaret Mead
    New York Academy of Sciences (1942). ISBN 0-890-72780-5.
  • Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry
    with Jurgen Ruesch
    W.W. Norton & Company (1951). ISBN 0-393-02377-X.

There’s also a host of books available that draw heavily on Bateson’s work for inspiration, as well as others that directly address and expand upon it. This page at The Institute for Intercultural Studies contains a detailed list.

An Ecology of Mind: The film

Gregory Bateson’s youngest daughter, Nora, has recently completed a film about the life and work of her father. Entitled – appropriately enough – An Ecology of Mind, the film is currently doing the rounds on the festival circuit as well as getting a limited number of screenings in academic and independent settings. I’ve not seen it yet (come to Dublin, please!) so may have to await the DVD release. But if it’s showing anywhere near you, then do pop along.

Bateson is also partly the inspiration for the central character in a novel by Tim Parks called Dreams of Rivers and Seas, though I confess I’ve not read it so I can’t really comment on either the portrayal of “Bateson” or on the quality of the novel as a whole (though it did receive positive reviews).

He’s name-checked – and his ideas are extensively discussed – in the independent German* film, Mindwalk, from 1990 (note: it’s an English language film for subtitle-phobes). Personally I enjoyed it and found it engaging, but it’s far from A Great Film. Recommended, though not essential viewing.

And some final links

There are a few recordings of Bateson lectures that I’ve managed to track down (not nearly enough, sadly). I highly recommend checking them out when you have a couple of hours to spare…

  • Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (Part 1)
  • Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (Part 2)
  • Lecture on Orders of Change (Part 2**)

See also the Gregory Bateson page at the Institute of Intercultural Studies, plus check out this page on oikos.org which provides links to a number of Bateson’s articles reproduced online.

* Bateson’s work is far better appreciated and well known in Germany than elsewhere for reasons I’m unable to explain

** I can’t for the life of me track down Part 1 of this lecture. If anyone has a copy, please point me towards it.

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Jul 2011

4th July 1980 – The Death of Gregory Bateson

Why not pop over to On This Deity and read my new article.

4th July 1980: The Death of Gregory Bateson.

There is no shortage of events to remember on July 4th. So I’m extremely pleased that On This Deity finds room today to celebrate the life and commemorate the death of Gregory Bateson. The first time I encountered Gregory Bateson’s name, he was described to me as “the most important thinker you’ve never heard of”. And that’s the description I tend to use when recommending his work to others. Because although his ideas have indeed been influential, and despite the fact that his work is finally beginning to leak into popular consciousness, the fact remains that the vast majority of educated, informed people are wholly unfamiliar with Bateson and his legacy.

Which is perhaps no big surprise; for unlike most of the revolutionary thinkers who have graced this site over the past eleven months, it is my contention that Bateson’s time has yet to come. His seminal work, Steps to an Ecology of Mind sits comfortably on the same shelf as Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Marx’s Das Kapital, Einstein’s Relativity or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The primary difference being that the cultural impact of Steps to an Ecology of Mind is still ahead of us. For it seems clear to me that should modern humanity survive the crises that seem certain to confront us this century, it will be by adopting the kind of thinking to be found in the work of Bateson.

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