tag: Gregory Bateson

Sep 2008

The bloody greens

Over at Bristling Badger, Merrick has been publishing his correspondence with the UK Green Party on the question of whether hydrogen should be pursued as the vehicle fuel of the future (hint: it shouldn’t be).

Needless to say, he’s not made a great deal of headway as yet.

The problem is as simple as it is age-old… namely that the first job of any politician is to take and maintain a position of power. All else is secondary (and that goes for Greens, Reds, Blues and every other colour). No one will get elected if they admit, for example, that part of the only guaranteed solution to our current problems is the abandonment of the private car. Even if it is true. So instead they promise pipe dreams.

In a way this is made even worse when the politician in question claims to have lofty ideals… the nonsense and obfuscation they come out with in order to avoid admitting that their ideals are secondary to their search for power can be stomach-churning to watch.

What is true is that the idea of power corrupts. Power corrupts most rapidly those who believe in it, and it is they who will want it most. Obviously, our democratic system tends to give power to those who hunger for it and gives every opportunity to those who don’t want power to avoid getting it. Not a very satisfactory arrangement if power corrupts those who believe in it and want it.

Perhaps there is no such thing as unilateral power. After all, the man ‘in power’ depends on receiving information all the time from outside. He responds to that information just as much as he ’causes’ things to happen… it is an interaction, and not a lineal situation. But the myth of power is, of course, a very powerful myth, and probably most people in this world more or less believe in it. It is a myth, which, if everybody believes in it, becomes to that extent self-validating. But it is still epistemological lunacy and leads inevitably to various sorts of disaster.

– Gregory Bateson | Steps To An Ecology of Mind

Here in Ireland we have the Green Party in coalition. The rate at which they have abandoned every single one of their principles is beyond satire and has guaranteed them at least one less vote at the next election. The final nail in their coffin, however, was hammered-in over the weekend when John Gormley, party leader and Minister for the Environment, appeared on the main evening news.

Before I report what he said, let me take you back a year to the Green decision to join the coalition government. By voting for the Greens, which — much to my regret — I did, I believed that I was voting for the manifesto they campaigned on. I realise this was naive of me, but I didn’t really expect them to help prop up the incumbent Fianna Fáil government (whose economic irresponsibility has resulted in a criminal waste of resources). I believed I was helping to propel the Green Manifesto onto the opposition benches where it would be heard but not diluted.

Sure, you’d have to strain to hear it, but it would be there.

Instead the manifesto was abandoned almost wholesale as the Greens rushed into government. In exchange for two ministries and six votes, Fianna Fáil persuaded the Greens to ditch all but one of their commitments. Gormley even justified this decision by claiming that the single-most important issue facing Ireland — facing the world — is Climate Change. Therefore, the Greens would support Fianna Fáil in return for a Programme of Government that included a cast-iron commitment to reduce Ireland’s carbon emissions by a minimum of 3% per year during the lifetime of the government.

That was the deal that was made. I disagreed with it at the time for a bunch of reasons, but mostly because anyone with half a brain (i.e. not someone addled by the desire for power) could tell that the Greens were being bought off with a cheque guaranteed to bounce.

And now it has done. At the end of last week, a report was leaked that demonstrated clearly that not only was this commitment not going to be met, but that Irish carbon emissions had previously been significantly understated and furthermore were actually still rising. So a year after taking power, on their one clear commitment; that single thing we were asked to judge their performance on; the Greens have unequivocably failed.

Gormley, though, appeared on the news to answer this point. His response was predictable and pathetic in almost equal measure. He passed the buck.

I’m not the minister for finance, and I’m not the minister for transport, nor am I the minister for agriculture… so I’m very much dependent on other ministers coming forward.

Amazing stuff. He sold out his manifesto for a seat in government which would enable him to push through emission cuts. It’s only now he’s woken up to the fact that he doesn’t have the power to do a sodding thing about it. I’ve seen him speak; he doesn’t strike me as a stupid man; so how could he have failed to see that one coming? Damn near everyone else did.

The Taoiseach is well-aware of my concerns, as are other ministers, says John. Well that makes it all OK then. He is concerned and everyone is aware of it. All that’s needed now is to develop the technology to convert Mr. Gormley’s concern into clean, zero-emission energy.

Even worse; Mr. Gormley admitted in April this year (in a speech entitled… wait for it… “Putting Vision Into Action”) that he believed we have a “10-year window” to address Climate Change. On the news last weekend he stated that not only would it “be premature” to speculate on the solutions to our emissions growth, but that none of the emission-reduction measures that have so far been put in place in the transport sector would have any significant effect before 2020.

While only a couple of months ago, the Deputy Leader of the Greens, Mary White, was attacking the opposition for their temerity to criticise the environmental record of the government. “Both [opposition] parties”, she insisted, “seem to have forgotten the major steps that the Government has made in tackling the causes of climate change.”

It’s difficult to forget something that never actually happened, Mary.

At the time the Greens entered government I wrote that what concerned me most was not that they’d be ineffective — which was self-evident. My biggest concern would be that they’d deal a significant blow to the environmental movement in Ireland. By allowing people the opportunity of a “fire-and-forget” option, they would severely curtail environmental activism. Those who were concerned about Climate Change could cast their vote and unburden themselves of the responsibility to take further action.

So well done to the Irish Green Party. You have joined a government that is implementing policies guaranteed to raise total emissions. But at least everyone knows how concerned you are.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Sep 2008

Me and Gregory

Time and again over the past few months I’ve found myself in discussions (both in person and online) with highly intelligent, articulate and well-intentioned people with whom I was completely unable to find a common ground. On a variety of topics… from economic policy to Climate Change, creationism to group psychodynamics, sustainability to local politics, the credit crunch to the oil industry… I find myself totally isolated and end up doubting myself… wondering if maybe I haven’t got it wrong after all.

At the same time, I made a promise to myself when I started studying psychoanalysis and group psychodynamics that I would follow my own research and conclusions wherever they led… even if they led to unpopular or unfamiliar places.

Even so, and I’ll only say this once to get it off my chest and I’ll then shut up about it, lest I appear like I’m whinging (though what else is a personal blog for, if not for whinging?)… I have reached the stage where I’m finding it incredibly frustrating and disheartening that everyone I speak with finds my views wrong-headed or mystifying or objectionable or silly. It’s almost like the only person in the entire world who agrees with me is Gregory Bateson.

And he’s dead.

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Sep 2008

Head around the door

Hey y’all.

I’ve received a couple of emails (both within minutes of one another, oddly enough) from people wondering what’s happening with me and this blog. Have I given up on this place? Have I jumped off a building in response to the hideousness of everything?

Well no.

I’m still alive and well and I still intend to keep this place going. Thing is though, it’s now less than 3 weeks until my thesis deadline and when I sit down at this desk, I’m really not thinking about much else.

Expect a triumphant return soon(ish). Until then, check out my blogroll if you’re after something to read. It’s all good stuff. Alternatively get hold of Gregory Bateson’s Steps To An Ecology of Mind if you fancy visiting the weird and wonderful headspace I’m currently occupying.

Cheers for now………

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Jun 2008

The title

Apologies for neglecting this place, but the past few weeks have been pretty hectic. Right now I’ve got a bit of time to myself, though, so I figured I’d pop in and blow some of the web dust off the page lest it settle too deep and I start slipping into the “taking a break” section of that small handful of blogrolls discerning enough to carry me.

I do have a whole bunch of incomplete blogposts from the past couple of weeks. But I can’t seem to properly finish a thought at the moment. I suspect that’s got something to do with being neck-deep in research. Everything seems to return to the same topic.

So my observations on the Lisbon referendum campaign ended up being an analysis of the unconscious drives at work within the collective psyche of the electorate. My short piece about our New Glorious Leader, Brian (I’m not just ‘an Irish Gordon Brown’) Cowen began by explaining why actually, he’s not just an Irish Gordon Brown, and ended up examining the unconscious drives within the capitalist collective psyche. And my oil prices / peak oil / fuel protests piece? Well, let’s just acknowledge that there’s a pattern emerging and the phrases “unconscious drives” and “collective psyche” made an appearance. I also ended up explaining my belief that if you were to actually sit down and design a system to drive a culture completely psychotic, then you’d have a hard job coming up with something better than a free market in natural resources.

All of which may well be fascinating, but it’s also very dense stuff at the moment. Blog posts that require extensive glossaries are probably to be avoided. It’s all still percolating you see, and hasn’t yet really coalesced into something easy to communicate. All being well, for me the next couple of months will essentially be devoted to that very process.

Reading a lot of Gregory Bateson really changes the way you think about… well, everything. And that’s not hyperbole. It’s just how it is. And it’s worth pointing out that he’s not shy about making it clear that his intention is just that. On top of that, it’s long been recognised that reading a lot of Freud will seriously affect the way you think about… again, pretty much everything.

So there’s probably a certain inevitability in the fact that while researching a paper that hovers somewhere between a Freudian reading of Bateson and a Batesonian reading of Freud, there’s a tendency to view every issue through a psychodynamic prism.* Which is probably a very good thing from the point of view of writing the paper, but is less good when it comes to blog posts. It’s also a bit hit-and-miss when it comes to everyday human interaction… I’m trying to curtail the constant tendency to punctuate conversations with: “hmmmm, that’s a lot like Bion’s idea of the emotional storm created by interpersonal awareness really… I must write that down… … … … sorry, what were you saying?” That, and looking at people as though they’re mad because they don’t know who Isabel Menzies Lyth is**. Really need to cut that out.

What’s that, you say? The title? Well, my thesis supervisor stressed the importance of getting it down to ten words, but in the end I just couldn’t compress / focus it any further than twelve. So without futher ado… “Free Markets as Collective Pleasure Principle: Psychodynamics of an Ecology of Mind”.

What do you think? Sound academic enough? Personally I think it sounds academic as fuck.

It’s certainly a densely packed dozen words. Start unpacking them, and before you know where you are, there’s fourteen thousand of the buggers lying around looking to be put into some kind of meaningful pattern. It’s a dirty job………

Aaanyways, if you’re in the vicinity of the Trinity Postgrad Reading Room over the summer, pop in and say hello. You know where I’ll be.

* Psychodynamic Prism. A forthcoming 8 CD retrospective from ‘Yes’.

** For those mad folk among you, she wrote Containing Anxiety in Institutions (a collection of papers that’s been very influential on my thinking) and is recognised for carrying out the first psychoanalytic studies of large institutions. If I’m honest? No, I hadn’t heard of her prior to this year. Turns out there’s lots of people who’ve done remarkable; really remarkable; work who I’ve never even heard of. Always worth bearing that in mind.

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Mar 2008

Freud 101 — the topography

“The modern free market as manifestation of a collective pleasure principle”. That’s an idea that may well feature prominently in my thesis. I’ve got a self-imposed deadline of April 2nd to finalise the title. Right now I’m essentially researching three different thesis topics, which is fascinating and all, but not too efficient. Mind you, I’ve whittled that down from about six. The most recent to fall by the wayside was the idea of writing on Freud’s notion of compulsive repetition, via an analysis of the films of Takeshi Kitano. Sadly, I realised that despite my familiarity with his films, I’m not nearly familiar enough with Japanese culture to really do justice to the subject (though it’s definitely a paper I’d love to read).

But “the modern free market as a manifestation of a collective pleasure principle”? What the hell does that mean, right? Oh, and what’s the pleasure principle again?

Well, last question first I guess; a few paragraphs on Freud’s second topography wouldn’t go amiss.

The ego and the id

During Freud’s early work, he used a theoretical model of the mind / psyche now known as ‘the first topography’. This divided the psyche into three parts / processes; the conscious, the unconscious and the preconscious. However, he later revised this significantly into the second topography. There are still three parts / processes but now they are the id, the ego, and the super-ego*.

The ego is a conflation of the conscious and the preconscious of the first topography. By and large, it’s that part of the mind that we are aware of (though there are elements of the ego of which we are unconscious, confusingly enough). And it’s more than just awareness; the ego, for most of us, is where we locate our identity.

The id relates, more or less, to the unconscious of the first topography. It’s the part of the human psyche that contains the thoughts and memories of which we are currently unaware (including, though not limited to, those which are the subject of repression). Perhaps more importantly, to psychoanalytic theory at least, the id; the unconscious mind; is also home to a cauldron of desires and drives which motivate us as much as, if not more than, those desires and drives of which we are conscious.

In Freudian theory, the ego and the id are generally in conflict. The id is governed by “the pleasure principle” which is regularly misunderstood as being an instinct to seek out pleasure. In fact, Freud pointed out that the drive behind the pleasure principle is at least as much about the desire to avoid “unpleasure”. It’s what drives us to seek food when we are hungry. The ego, on the other hand, is governed by “the reality principle”. This is, in simple terms, an awareness of the appropriate way to interact with the external world.

So, for example, a hungry person who passes a market-stall containing fresh bread will be driven, by the pleasure principle, to consume it and so escape the hunger. The primary biological / unconscious / id imperative is a simple “eat that bread”. An infant in this position will consequently reach out and grab the bread (Freud believed that the ego, and therefore the reality principle, is acquired through development, while the id is innate). Someone who has developed a relatively normal ego, adequately governed by the reality principle, will — on the other hand — understand that the appropriate behaviour is to first buy the bread and then eat it. This is why, in Freudian terms, the primary tool deployed by the reality principle to keep the pleasure principle in check, is known as “postponement”.

The super-ego

Often seen as the poor cousin in Freud’s topography, the super-ego is usually of less interest to Freudians. Probably because they already have their hands full dealing with the id. All the same, it’s a fascinating part of his work and plays a pretty important role in my mapping of Freud’s topography onto groups rather than individuals. I’ve written before that “the super-ego is where culture lives”. I still believe that to be a true statement (albeit at the poetic end of truth), but it’s a very incomplete picture. I wrote it when discussing culture, not the super-ego.

Indeed, because parts of it are conscious and parts unconscious, the Freudian super-ego can be a little hard to pin down. Rycroft writes that the super-ego is that part of the psyche “where self-observation, self-criticism and other reflective activities develop” (guilt is a big weapon in the arsenal of the super-ego). Meanwhile, according to the bible, “Super-ego is the product of an internalisation of, and identification with, parent and parental authority, including prohibitions and values associated with that authority. Insofar as parental authority reflects the broader social context, the super-ego can be seen as the indirect product of the internalisation of society’s demands and values”.

I’m aware that the super-ego sounds a bit like the reality principle. But they are quite distinct, one being a regulatory function of the ego based upon both an awareness of the immediate environment and circumstances as well as an understanding of consequences and appropriate behaviour. The super-ego is — in part — where that “appropriate behaviour” is stored within our psyche. The reality principle is guided both by the ego and the super-ego with the goal of modifying the pleasure principle so that it doesn’t get us into trouble.

Applying this to groups

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there are problems with trying to scale up Freud’s topography as a tool to analyse groups, organisations or cultures. But at the same time, there can be merit in doing so. Gregory Bateson is my main guide in this territory, and he has explained why this approach is both legitimate and useful. In Morale and National Character (1942), Bateson demonstrates that the relationships between sub-groups within larger groups are subject to analysis, contrast and comparison so that something we could rightfully consider “national character” begins to emerge. It’s worth pointing out that this analysis can be applied not merely to nations, but to any large group that adheres to a specific set of cultural norms.

For the sake of clarity, allow me to pause and provide examples of what I mean by “the relationships between sub-groups within larger groups”. Bateson’s essay is comparing the national character of Germany and England and does so by examining the culturally determined relationships that exist between (for example) men and women, parents and children, upper-class and lower-class, and so on. The essay is not an exhaustive case-study, and is largely about promoting the (at the time heretical) idea that western cultures and civilisations are just as open to anthropological and psycho- analysis as are the “primitive” cultures of Bali and Papua New Guinea where he did revolutionary work. Along the way, however, he convincingly demonstrates how pronounced character traits can emerge within large groups of people due to specific commonalities in their individual development, which are themselves culturally determined by, and specific to, those groups.

So when Bateson’s work is read in the context of Hostadter and Dennett’s theories about “mind” emerging from organised complexity, and even Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, it doesn’t seem illegitimate to suggest that large groups can indeed by “psychoanalysed” (to use the term in it’s most broad sense) despite the apparent lack of an identifiable “psyche”.

The modern free market as manifestation of a collective pleasure principle

So let’s return to the original theme, and answer the first of those questions: “The modern free market as manifestation of a collective pleasure principle”… what the hell does that mean?

Well, a part of my hypothesis is the idea that there now exists a global civilisation that transcends national borders** but which can be defined largely by American cultural and economic influence. I’m not suggesting that this civilisation originated in America, merely that those cultural norms which have historically been embraced and promoted by American society, help define it. And thanks to US (and US-influenced) mass-media as well as global movements like feminism, the equal rights initiatives and multiculturalism, we have entered a period where the developmental experiences of American, Irish, British, German, Greek or Australian individuals are becoming far less distinct, opening the way for a collective analysis.

As part of that analysis, it is my suggestion that… you guessed it… the modern free market is a manifestation of our collective pleasure principle. It represents the demands (quite literally) of the collective. When those demands are repugnant or unreasonable then the market gets modified and restricted by laws (the passing of such laws being an example of our collective reality principle at work).

To take an unambiguous example, upon which I suspect we can all agree that a level of market intervention is required; much to our dismay, there exists a demand for — and market in — child pornography. Leaving aside the abstractions of “simulated child pornography” (as clearly there is a demand specifically for the non-simulated variety), we have passed laws making the sale or possession of such material illegal. This is noteworthy, because we have done so despite already having laws that outlaw its production. As a culture, we have understood that the market for this material is in itself problematic. We work, therefore, not merely at outlawing supply but also at attempting to curtail demand.

The basic analogy

An individual who allows their behaviour to be guided by an unregulated pleasure principle is likely to be both destructive to himself and his immediate environment (along with anyone who shares that environment with them). It is clear that we, as a civilisation, are capable of regulating our demands of the world. We possess the tools to do so. I would suggest, however, that we are guilty of significantly under-using those tools, and that the almost-unregulated demand for natural resources is resulting in behaviour both destructive to ourselves and to our immediate environment.

* It’s an interesting historical note that Freud did not use those words, and they are in our common lexicon thanks to his translators. In the original German, the id, ego and super-ego are the es, ich and über-ich, or literally, the it, I and over-I. It was his translators who decided to latinise them.

** This isn’t to suggest that individual nations do not still retain a national character, though I believe that an increasing homogenity is making them less prominent.

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Dec 2007

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Having failed to give the excellent Dreamflesh Volume One the glowing review it so richly deserved here on The Quiet Road, Gyrus threatened to “burn down your home, and the homes of everyone you’ve ever met!” unless I at least mentioned his latest tome.

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Well, he’s a man of his word. So I shall do more than just mention it. I shall post a big shiny graphic showing the rather striking cover (designed by Andy Hemmingway) and urge y’all to get hold of this fantastic anthology.

Entitled Archaeologies of Consciousness: Essays In Experimental Prehistory, it’s billed as a collection of writing on “ancient monuments, prehistoric rock art, folklore, mythology, and altered states of consciousness”. But don’t let what may sound like a specialist book on a selection of niche subjects put you off. The essays in this book are explorations of consciousness, of what it means to be human, and of the environment and landscapes that shaped our development. It’s a book that drags these “niche subjects” out of the cosy, dusty libraries in which they’ve locked themselves and takes them for a much needed hike across a windswept moor to get their blood flowing again.

But what’s it actually about?

[…] in Freudian language [we say] that the operations of the unconscious are structured in terms of primary process, while the thoughts of consciousness (especially verbalized thoughts) are expressed in secondary process.

Nobody, to my knowledge, knows anything about secondary process. But it is ordinarily assumed that everybody knows all about it, so I shall not attempt to describe secondary process in any detail, assuming that you know as much about it as I.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

In the space of these five extended essays and a few shorter bits and pieces, Gyrus boldly strides where Bateson fears to tread.

To be honest, that last line is hyberbolic to the point of sheer inaccuracy, but it’s a good pull-quote. In actual fact, the writing of Bateson and Gyrus complement one another in interesting ways. Both are examining the unsettling, blurred region where a number of disparate disciplines intersect; archaeology, anthropology, mythology, psychology (along with psychoanalytic theory) and biology. Both are aware that, for a whole bunch of reasons, traditional academia finds it difficult to comfortably accommodate research in this area, but are equally aware that for their work to be influential within these disparate disciplines (as it damn well should be), it must be accessible to them.

But where they differ is the fact that Bateson is writing from within the establishment; emerging from it as it were; while Gyrus is approaching it from outside. Both approaches have their strengths and both have certain limitations. Thankfully there’s nothing stopping us from reading both and allowing them to, as I say, complement one another.

One thing that strikes me though, is that Gyrus generally overcomes the limitations imposed by his position as a “freelance” / “amateur” researcher (a tendency towards flights of fancy, tangents and a perceived lack on intellectual rigour) better than Bateson overcomes the limitations imposed by his own (conservatism, unimaginativeness and a tendency to obscure meaning with over-complex prose and jargon).

Now Bateson can’t be accused either of conservatism or a lack of imagination, but his writing does occasionally become rather dense and opaque. In Archaeologies of Consciousness however, Gyrus presents his readers with clear, flowing prose that is at turns poetic, at turns scientific, but always comprehensible. And it’s not the patronising comprehensibility of “popular science” books that spoonfeed complex ideas to a mass market by simplifying them to the point of meaninglessness. This is the real deal… exactly as complicated as it needs to be, but no less accessible for it.

The collection opens with The Devil & The Goddess which I recall reading when it was first published over a decade ago. It was around that time that I first met Gyrus, and during the intervening years — in private discussions and through reading subsequent articles — I’ve seen how his ideas and research have evolved. So it’s interesting to revisit The Devil & The Goddess; not the start, but certainly an important early milestone, on a unique intellectual journey; and to find it’s still vital, still relevant and is filled with the questions and themes that would dominate his work for the next ten years.

Culture and civilization are inseparable from material technologies, and things are no less confused in the technophile / Luddite debate. The real dichotomy to be tackled here is that of harmonious / unharmonious technology. Do our tools help us achieve our desires, or do they become our desires?


This spiritual poverty, this rigid division of life into the sacred and profane (in their modern senses), has only been the norm of human experience for several hundred years, if that. And in their historical accounts, modern scientists have been projecting this division back in time for far too long. A re-vision of anthropology and archaeology is overdue, necessary and, I feel, imminent.

And concluding with…

For ourselves, living in a culture where the dominant spiritual institutions have insisted not only on separating themselves from everyday life, but directing their spiritual aspirations outside this world, it’s evident that a new vision of spirituality more directly concerned with life, the Earth, our bodies and survival is needed. We cannot live on bread alone, but I don’t want to try to live without it. It’s no coincidence that it took an affluent society like our own, where day-to-day existence is taken for granted, to produce a device capable of utterly destroying the biosphere.

… via a route that takes in Shamanism, Satanism, the Kundalini experience, anal eroticism, the origins of blood sacrifice, the Knights Templar and the landscape of Avebury…

It’s the least focussed of the essays in the collection, certainly, but it provides a perfect opener to the book by setting up many of the themes that are expanded upon in the later pieces.

My personal favourites (if one can be said to have favourites among essays on abstract and esoteric subjects) are probably the final two of the long pieces; Form & Meaning in Altered States & Rock Art and Aeons Past & Present. The former contains my favourite line of the book, where the author is examining some neolithic rock art while under the influence of 2CB (a synthetic phenethylamine which is known to produce, among other things, visual distortions not unlike the geometrical patterns found in much primitive art) and has the multi-layered revelation that “There’s no ‘blank canvas’ in rock art!” While the latter draws together theories about time and evolution from a remarkably wide range of sources and makes all manner of intriguing and insightful connections between them, eventually concluding with a call to action in the face of the seemingly paralysing desires manufactured by modern culture.

From the upbeat and characteristically enthusiastic preface by Julian Cope, to the meticulous indices, Archaeologies of Consciousness succeeds in being a well-researched, informative; indeed illuminating; collection of essays which is also a pleasure to read. This makes it a very rare item indeed; so I recommend you grab a copy.

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Aug 2006

Steps to an Ecology of Mind

We may joke about the way misplaced concreteness abounds in every word of psychoanalytic writing – but in spite of all the muddled thinking that Freud started, psychoanalysis remains as the outstanding contribution, almost the only contribution to our understanding of the family – a monument to the importance and value of loose thinking.

Experiments in Thinking About Observed Ethnological Material | Gregory Bateson

There’s a collection of Bateson’s papers and essays which I’ve already mentioned a couple of times on this blog. It’s called Steps to an Ecology of Mind and I recommend you track it down with all haste, dear reader. It ranks up there with Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions as one of the most important collections of writings of the 20th century.

Like Ideas and Opinions, Bateson’s papers are sometimes far from the cutting edge of the subject they address (the earliest being over 70 years old now). But he writes with a similar piercing clarity and wisdom to Einstein and so provides a deep yet rounded understanding of his subject. He demonstrates methodologies and ways of thinking, rather than merely providing information.

For instance, the article Cybernetic Explanation cleared up a rather abstract area of confusion that had bugged me since university – but that I’d never been able to elucidate – regarding proof by reductio ad absurdum. And while his essay Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art may not contain the most up-to-date theories on primitive art (being almost 40 years old), it nonetheless forced me to re-evaluate some of my beliefs about the nature of consciousness and of human psychology.

No mean feat for an essay about cave paintings.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind

And it’s fair to say that it’s my views on psychology that have been most influenced by Bateson. Probably the most mind-blowing essay – for me – is Morale and National Character. In it Bateson very clearly presents the reasons why it’s not only legitimate to view and analyse nations using the tools of psychology, but why those tools are actually far better suited to that task than they are to the task of analysing the individual.

This was like an explosion going off in my mind. For years I’ve been of the opinion that what cognitive theorist Douglas Hostadter (dunno if he coined the phrase, but he’s where I first read it) calls “emergent intelligence” plays a far more significant role in the behaviour of corporations, institutions and nations… any large, organised group of people in fact… than is acknowledged.

Not only that, but I’ve always felt that although the tools of modern psychoanalysis are often too blunt to deal with the absurd complexity of individual human consciousness, that they actually have great relevance when examining the motivations and behaviour of the infintely simpler consciousnesses of groups of people.

Incidentally, there may be those who are a little puzzled by the idea that an individual human consciousness would be significantly more complex than a consciousness consisting of multiples of those individuals. It seems vaguely counter-intuitive. But actually the complexity of a consciousness is primarily (though not entirely) a factor of the number of constituent members (or “neurons”). The internal complexity of each individual neuron is a far smaller factor, though conversely it is a far larger factor in the likelihood of systemic failure (mental illness).

All of this seemed to make perfect sense to me… and whenever I applied my theory to the world, it appeared to work. The larger the organisation, the more prone to irrationality and dysfunction it becomes as the collective instabilities in the constituent members get amplified. Two perfect examples being, of course, globalised capitalism and modern China which have both descended into extreme psychosis… in the sense that they are unable to function sustainably in the environment in which they find themselves; the real world.

However, I’ve long become suspicious of assuming that just because something made perfect sense to me, that it did – in fact – make perfect sense. Too often have I been greeted with blank incomprehension as I explained why something obviously had to be a certain way. So it’s a joy to read an essay like Morale and National Character and discover that not only is someone thinking about the world in exactly the same way as you (albeit drawing different conclusions on occasion), but they can explain succinctly just why this way of thinking about the world is so very informative and so very valuable.

Anyways, I didn’t want to write a traditional review of this book as it’s far from a traditional book. I thought instead I’d explain just why it’s so important to me, and why I think anyone interested in anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, evolution, the history and function of art, epistemology or what it means to be human should read this important collection.

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Jun 2006


Writers block. Innit?

Well. Not quite. I’ve got a growing number of half-written drafts clogging up WordPress, but turning them into something worthy of publication is currently beyond me. There’s the Dubya Bush letter to Iran; a piece on the Catholic Church’s attitude towards climate change (and science in general); a second critique of The Euston Manifesto which doubles as an attack on democracy; an essay about immigration in Ireland; and some musings on the nature of “epiphany”. And I honestly have no idea whether any of them will ever see the light of day.

Right now I’m re-reading Gregory Bateson’s Steps To An Ecology of Mind, which I’d nominate as one of the most important texts of the 20th century. In the introduction, Bateson talks about his impatience with colleagues who “seemed unable to discern the difference between the trivial and the profound”. Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that this blog is filled with deeply profound writing (heaven forbid), but at the moment everything that flows from my keyboard feels painfully trivial. And that’s just not good enough.

Whether that’s a result of a dip in the quality of my writing, or of a shift in my perception of it, is somewhat irrelevant. After all I’m the one who decides what gets published and what remains mired in the drafts folder taunting me with unfulfilled promises.

Anyways, as a result of this I’m going to take a more scatter-gun approach. Kind of a monkeys-and-typewriters / david sylvian-and-recording studios thing. Hopefully I can write my way out of this dip in form, in much the same way that the authors of The Euston Manifesto have attempted to purge themselves of wet western wank by dumping it all onto their website.

We shall see.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion