Gregory Bateson – 3

John Perks and Gregory Bateson, Naropa Institute. 1975 – photo by Jeff Bloom

Gregory Bateson, 1975, at Naropa, in conversation with Duncan Campbell (“Open Secret”) continues from here.   –      (full audio – here)

DC: What is the next step?  What happens when the plankton is destroyed?
GB: Well, the hope, you see, is that, on the whole, the crisis will be political and economic, rather than biological.
A political and economic crisis may, conceivably, tell somebody not to be such goddam fools!
DC: More easily-reversible than the biological crisis.
GB: More easily reversible than the biological. If a million people come out of it, you know, then it’s alright. But the biological one, you might not have a million people come out of it.
DC: Well, if then, if then,  in terms of a total ecological vision, the educational aspect within a society is obviously a necessary part of any kind of ecological approach or a plan.
GB: It surely is.

DC: That more or less leads us to the next question as to..  in one other field in which you’ve been very active – what kind of epistemology would you say is appropriate to that educating process, what kind of way of looking at the world?
GB: Well, one can say what kinds are least appropriate.
DC: That’s probably a good way to start.
GB: I don’t believe in the view of the world (of)..who is the…? (William Ernest Henleys “Inviticus” “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”) -“I am the captain of my soul”  which means “I can control me”, that I/me is going control.. what?
–  my family?,  and that I, me, my family, my nation, and my city, are going to control the environment, and, by god, the seagulls had better mind their own business! , know…

The notion that we are in a battle with the environment is a very dangerous notion. I used to have a newspaper clipping, I’ve lost it, in which the headline was “Man Wins Battle Against Birds”. The content of the clipping was a report on fishing off Chile and Peru in which, now the ships have sonar devices for finding the big shoals of fish and can get there before the birds do, the birds are starving. They’re not laying down the guano on the coastline  (the guano being the main agricultural support and industry of the people of Peru and Chile who live inland, the basis of their economy). So we are able to catch the fish before the birds get it and turn it into guano (which is a wasteful process, I grant you, you don’t get much guano out of a lot of fish, but we turn the fish mainly into pet food). And there you are – “Man Wins Battle Against Birds”
DC: Well that actually is a philosophical issue..
GB:It sure is

Gregory Bateson reading Hamlet, Boulder, Colorado, 1975)

DC: Well (that myopia) that seems to be a very powerfully seductive notion for the culture and how to reverse that tendency of mind, what would you.. what do you see happening that seems to be moving in the other direction?

GB: Well the ecology movement is one. I find myself rather comfortable around here in Naropa (though I’m not much of a Buddhist, but a good deal of Buddhist thought, you know, is inclined to look at the old Cartesian dualism of mind and body and suggest that it’s a lot of baloney

DC: Mindless baloney!

GB: Well – anti–  It becomes, in the end, you see, a situation when you either become anti-mind, or you become anti-body. Now becoming  anti-body is a form of asceticism which isn’t much use and becoming anti-mind is a form of…what shall I say? – imperialism, jingoism that isn’t much use. Now mind tends to be a jingoistic object versus the body – “I am the captain of my soul” (captain of my body, whichever it is) . To be the captain of your soul is already one division and your soul is going to be the captain of your body, I guess. And when these splits start, then you make first one split and then another split, and each one becomes an authoritarian split. And the heck of it is that the authoritarian position becomes always the blind position because it begins to cut off in a really real sense from the other half and the cut is in fact a cut in incoming information, (it) prevents the incoming information

DC: It’s a lack of feedback
GB: It’s a lack of feedback….

DC: What is it about the environment here in Naropa that has struck you in that regard, if anything?

GB: Well, there’s a lot of meditation going on. And this takes many different shapes in different religions of the world, mainly Oriental but nowadays there are a good deal of different sort of meditative cults in the country, but all of them the end… One of the things with the tantric meditation here is that you’re asked, on the whole, to watch your respiration. When your attention wanders, bring it back to your attention to your breathing, yes? –  which is saying, “look, for goodness sake!”, get back in touch with your body, (and, in the end, you and it are going to go together). And not so much that the ego is an illusion (which you get as a Buddhist statement) as that the division between ego and body is a illusion. And anything that goes into correcting that, I think, is very very good and more comfortable to be with.

Janice Ragland, John Perks and Gregory Bateson reading Hamlet, Boulder, Colorado, 1975

DC: Well how about the household you’ve been living in for the last three or four weeks, the..
GB: Well, the little so-called module?
DC: Module, yeah
GB: This is a module with John Perks  Its called, what? – “An Education”? –  “Learning and Education”?  And we have about fifteen young people there  (young, meaning up to about thirty-five). And they didn’t know quite what they were getting into. And, what?, there are about four or five of them who are actually anthropologists, who probably came because my name was there. Then there’s another four or five who are teachers, who came because of the word “Education” and came very much because they wanted to wonder, muse, meditate, if you like to call it that, about the role of teacher and what this really means, humanly speaking. For the other four or five, I don’t know, scattered interests. Nobody having much idea what they would find themselves in for when they came there, I think.  Well, we..Perks prepared the way for them by acquiring two baby raccoons and three small fish-tanks and discovering that there is a prairie dog farm on a vacant lot downtown. These three objects have been our principal.. what do they call it?.. apparatus, tools, for teaching (plus the kitchen and the care of the house in general). What have they learned from two raccoons, a fish=tank and..
DC: ….and a prairie dog
GB: A prairie dog farm, prairie dog colony
DC: It sounds like that song about Christmas!
GB:The curious thing is that they think they’ve learned a great deal (they say they’ve learned a great deal). What?  What they’ve learned is related to ecology. They’ve learned, for example. from the raccoons that every sense organ becomes a signaling organ. This is a very basic biological rule – that the antenna of an ant, for example, which are primarily sense organs (for the sense of touch, and also smell, of course) are… become the things with which ants tap each other to signal various sorts of messages to each other, that, on the whole, your eyes and my eyes, (which are primarily sense organs), become the main centers of our face through which we express our feelings, emotions, state what we’re attending to (which is dreadfully important), become a main signaling organ.   I worked with porpoises, (and it was then, one suspected, (we never quite proved it), that the sonar that they used (no doubt to find fish and avoid rocks and all the rest of it) was undoubtedly a main part of their signaling between each other. It was..  I was fairly sure they had etiquette – that you don’t buzz your friend, you know…
DC: …early on a Sunday morning!
GB: That’s right!   And this goes all the way to…  Now the raccoons.. . The hands of a raccoon (which one vaguely had thought of as a prehensile organ, like a human hand, is really much more a sense organ than it is prehensile. Maybe they use it for holding things to some extent but it takes two hands to hold anything…  they have to hold it between two hands rather than with one hand and most of what they’re doing with their hands is with the hands flat on the ground, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing, length-wise, and the moment it touches anything move-able.. up it comes (I think many of them hope it will be an insect, they must eat a great many insects, you know, finding them mainly by touch, I think).

And the sort of thing they’ve been made to think about in the module, my students, is… for example,  sort of.. What’s life like?  if you are equipped with this sort of bridge between you and the outside world – sensory hands). What does this do to them?  It makes their world a little bigger (and bigger both outwardly, into the world of natural history, and bigger inwardly, into their own mind-hyphen- body – in one chunk) work – What do you mean by saying you’re alive? How does it feel to be alive?  I started them off on (William) Blake’s version of The Book of Job and the Biblical version illustrated by the Blake’s drawings/engravings, and worked up as a sort of climax to the big thirty-eight-thirty-ninth chapters, which are an enormous poem, totemic poem about the natural world. God answers Job out of the whirlwind – “Where was thou when I set up the creation of the Covenant?”. (“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding”) And there’s a whole chapter of astronomy and weather. And then the next chapter is a chapter on the animals – (“Knowest the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?”)  “Dost thou know when the goats spring forth? – or the hinds – Dost thou know how long they carry their babies? – their babies are born and they are in good liking.  One of the very grand statements in the English language of what as an anthropologist, I would call “totemism“, of.. to.. for goodness sake, realize that you are part of this whole business of.. you know, well everything, from the elephant to the rhinoceros – (behemoth“, as The Book of Job calls it – I believe that’s rhino, isn’t it?), the Leviathan, (the great fish of the sea), to the insects and beetles, and the wild asses. and the ostrich who lays her eggs and doesn’t sit on them, and the wild ass that runs on the mountains, and so on.

from William Blake’s – Illustrations to The Book of Job

It’s the sort of thing I’m trying to get across to them as part of producing food out of a kitchen, maintaining a house, sharing functions, playing around with two baby raccoons, watching three fish-tanks (these are filled with really mixed net-fulls – each tank has about a net-full of junk – out of three different ponds around Boulder – and then, of course, each tank is totally different from the others in its fauna and in the way that it’s developed and settled down).

DC: How about the prairie dogs?

GB: Well, the prairie dogs have helped. Prairie dogs are much more difficult.. if you…even tho these are very tame prairie dogs and you can sit relatively comfortably and watch them from a car, because they’re right on.. there’s a car park facing right onto that field where they are. Even so, in the time that we’ve had to work with them it’s not really been possible for any of the students to know prairie dogs, so to speak, by name, individually.  It’s very difficult to do any animal organization studies, animal behavior studies, in the wild until you know that “this is Joe, and that’s Bill, and that’s Susan, and that’s a child, that child belongs to so and so”.  And field ethology really begins when you can identify the individual animals and until you can do that you’re blind (like the British Empire (sic)!)

DC: Well one thing, I guess, (with you) having been in Intelligence (OSS) during the war, what this) calls to mind is, I guess, (is)..   I’ve been struck, talking to you tonight, that having started out in anthropology, and having moved after the war into psychiatry, and then got into biological and genetic science, and now, more recentl.y into ecology. that it seems there’s a common intelligence or a common thread through all of those fields that…
GB: Yeah.
DC: …that you’ve  been exploring the whole system of thought itself?
GB:  People keep asking me Why do you shift from anthropology to porpoises and from schizophrenia to this and that but my answer to that would be that I don’t shift, I maintain a perfectly steady (well, not quite steady but fairly steady) interest in the same set of certain sorts of problems, and sometimes I think these are going to be illustrated with porpoises and sometimes I think they’re going to be illustrated with psychiatric data, or ecology, or something else. What I try to do is to study the nature of order, and where it can come from, and what sort of business it is anyhow. The way people think about it makes an enormous difference to the sort of order which they’re going to make when they make something – or (make) dis-order.   And essentially, I’m here with Naropa with an interest in how.. Trungpa Rinpoche and the rest of this Buddhist outfit want to put ideas together, the sort of order they want to make out of the ideas (not in the particular ideas very much but how they put them together to make an order) – and that’s what I shall go on doing one way or another, either here among Buddhists, or in a mental hospital among schizophrenics,or in a university class in Santa Cruz, or wherever. That’s how it goes.

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