An Ecology of Mind: film interprets a life of unconventional thought

An Ecology of Mind by Nora Bateson
A new documentary, An Ecology of Mind, directed by Nora Bateson, celebrates her father Gregory - anthropologist, philosopher, ecologist and systems theorist

Rachel Fleming: Can you summarise, for those not familiar with your father's work, what the film is about?

Nora Bateson: Well, the film is all about non-singularities, about non-linear thinking, so pulling out a singular message interpretation is hard.

I wanted to create a documentary of his way of thinking. We are living in an era in which we are beginning to notice that linear thinking is not enough to solve the crises we face. We know that our experts don't have enough peripheral vision to be able to see. And yet we are not given the chance to cultivate a basis from which to validate the level of understanding that comes from non-linear thinking. Economists, politicians, even ecologists, don't have a paradigm or framework for what the rules of engagement are for a different kind of conversation.

Our experts have to have authority but the definition of authority is that you are limited. It's one of the remarkable parts of Gregory's story that he was a part of so many disciplines. There are many authors out there, but not many that went into so many different fields. He was willing to always be at the beginning with new disciplines, new paradigms and new frameworks. Not many people have had that kind of breadth of experience. Even people that set out to become systems people are on a narrow path.

Also, it's very important to me in my work that the personal should not be left out of this kind of socio-political dialogue. So whilst the film is about a different way of thinking, about the inter-relationships of the natural world, it's also told through the lens of a father-daughter relationship.

RF: Why was your father so interested in different things?

NB: He started off with a lens he got from his father, an interest in looking for patterns. They were renaissance people from the beginning, interested in biology, poetry, zoology, religion. His father, William Bateson, coined the term genetics - studying the patterns and the means of communication in biology. They also had a lot of William Blake in the house. His father was responsible for getting Blake's work out into the public.

This background set the stage for a dissatisfaction that Gregory felt for any discipline. He did Zoology at Cambridge but thought it was too narrow and so didn't want to become a zoologist. So he went to New Guinea as an anthropologist. He went into anthropology and everything else with the same enthusiasm to find patterns; the same patterns that persist into information theory, psychology and ecology. He felt that every discipline had parts of the same pattern.

Gregory was an interloper. He didn't enter psychology as a psychologist, he entered with his own lens. He was truly interdisciplinary, but not even that, because he only saw unity. That's why he described it as an inside-out kaleidoscope. It's nice to see the different parts, but it's the unity that makes a living organism, at every level. It's the difference between the parts of a system that give it the information and the dynamics of inter-relationship that create vitality. If you take the body, you don't want your lungs to do what your heart does. It's the difference, the systems within the systems, that is important. It's the communications within the system that is the interrelationship.
What we lack culturally is that habit and ability to zoom out and see the larger context in which differences are blurred and patterns of connections and themes and variations can be seen - the integrity of the pattern of connection.

RF: The film has been selling out wherever it is shown - what impact do you think it's having?

NB: There are limits, some non-verbal, to the kind of conversation we can currently have, that include interdisciplinary dialogue. We need to think about how we can open to different fields of study and thought and offer different perspectives to each other. It's a difficulty that we find between generations and cultures, not just between science and the arts.

What I'm finding is that the film is turning into an inspiration, a catalyst, for a different kind of conversation. Because it's accessible, it's becoming a great tool for bringing groups of people together to find a different vocabulary and a different framework for conversation. Ironically, there are often no words for the first five minutes because language is linear and used to define the world in terms of things.

The kind of question that the film is bringing up includes things like what are solutions and how do we deal with them in terms of circularity and complexity instead of linearity? We want to do the right thing but we are thinking at a level that creates linear solutions - a level that's not working. There are conversations about conversations, thinking about thinking, solutions about solutions.

RF: What do you think your father would say about our current situation, economically and ecologically, and what would he say was the best way into the future?

NB: I can't speak for him, I can only speak from my experience of him. It's difficult to know sometimes where one person begins and another ends. But I will say that for him it was about the double bind.

The double bind has been categorised as a theory pertaining to psychology. But in fact it's an evolutionary theory. The double bind we are in is one in which to feed our children and survive from day to day, we are taking part in socio-economic systems that are eliminating the long-term survival of ourselves and our children. We are stuck either way. We are in a feedback loop. The way to get out is first of all by recognising it. It's still only a pattern. If you can see it you can start to get some leverage. The kind of leverage we need to be working towards is creative improvisation to start thinking in new ways. We have an opportunity to do that - as the days go by, the stakes get higher.

I think he would say that the first thing to do is to stop seeing these issues as separate problems. They are all the same problem. Ecologists don't want to talk about culture and communications for example. The expanse of the conversation we need to have, the complexity of it all, seems huge. How can we even begin to learn each other's rhetoric? But the fact is that linearity, which we have at the moment, is so much more complicated. In film-making terms, because that's what I do, I would say that the choice we currently have is to zoom in or zoom out.

An Ecology of Mind will be screened at Schumacher College on 22 February

Schumacher College in Devon offers postgraduate courses in Holistic Science (greatly influenced by Bateson's work on identifying and learning from the patterns we see in nature), Economics for Transition and Sustainable Horticulture and Food Production.

An Ecology of Mind

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