Saturday, December 04, 2010

Gregory Bateson

I've been having writer's block for the last three weeks. I've been trying to find in my mind a way to combine my ordinary banal stories with Slavoj Zizek, the quality without a name, peak oil and the relationships between common general worldviews. Just listing the topics in a row makes it obvious why the post isn't coming together--geez. On top of my thinking about a blog post that won't come together, events with WikiLeaks have been unfolding and occupying my attention.

Sometimes it takes a while for me to get the utility of various Web sites and services. I was signed up at Twitter for a long time before finding it interesting. What changed my opinion about Twitter was when the G20 Meeting was held in Pittsburgh. On the last night there was a major police action in the Oakland section of town, that's where CMU and the University of Pittsburgh are located. I tuned into Twitter for reports about the G20 Meetings and by the time heavy hitting went down I was convinced of its importance. Lately I think I'm probably paying too much attention to my Twitter stream in response to WikiLeaks.

There's a heavy hand of government to suppress news about the recent release of some USA State Department cables marked "confidential." Certainly some news of the release and about WikiLeaks has been disseminated in the mainstream media, especially in opinion pieces. But there is a sufficiently coordinated effort by the government of the USA to control news about them that it's hard to gage to what degree my fellow Americans know the story.

In October news of Robo-Signers got a little traction in the press. I'm no expert in law or economics, but it seemed to me that the story was important in the larger context of the economy, politics and law. But most people I know don't get news primarily online. I found it incredibly difficult to explain why it seemed like such a big deal. Part of the difficulty it seemed to me followed something like this: If it's such a big deal, then why aren't I reading about it in the newspaper and seeing reports on TV? To which I can only wonder why too, but part of it surely has to do with the differences between how news is delivered via newspapers and TV versus on the Internet. For me the implications to the economy from mortgage fraud seem huge, but for most people I've talked with about it the big issue seems to be the people who took out the mortgages on homes. Primarily that's how it's been covered in the mainstream press.

The latest Time cover has a photo of Julian Assange with American Flag duct tape gagging his mouth. The thesis of the cover story written by Massimo Calabresi is:
Rouge activist Julian Assange wants to curb government secrecy, but his massive leak of classified U.S. diplomatic cables is undermining the Obama Administration's efforts to do just that.
The premise has a kernel of truth. One of the first things Obama did as president was to issue a Transparency and Open Government Directive. Not unpredictably the response has been mixed. Notably neither the Department of Justice, which is charged with the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, nor the Office of Management and Budget, which is charged with overseeing large portions of this Open Government Directive, have produced viable responses to it. I haven't found any reporting suggesting that these failures have had any repercussions or that Obama still has any interest in the matter. Certainly the authoritarian responses of the administration, government agencies, and elected Representatives of the government to WikiLeaks making .002% of the State Department cables public suggests Obama has little taste for openness nowadays.

My government's responses to the current WikiLeaks embroiglilo truly frightens me. The State Department has warned students not to discuss WikiLeaks on Twitter and Facebook. The Department of Defense has ordered soldiers under penalty of law about even reading public accounts of them. These actions are just the tip of the iceberg. Glenn Greenwald has a post with more links. Public opinion is bound to become even more polarized when the government attempts to forbid discussion of important news by threats of force. It's a dramatic shift from "-- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." (Video here of the Gettysburg Address)

As always I'm too long in the preliminaries. The picture is from a short video clip on a kinescope of an appearance By Gregory Bateson on TV in the 1950's. I was introduced to Bateson's book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind in 1974 and have been reading it ever since. My copy is battered and falling apart.

"Steps to an Ecology of Mind" is a fascinating book because it's a collection of writing over a fairly long swath of Bateson's career. The Wikipedia article notes that Bateson was an "anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist whose work intersected that of many other fields." So the articles proceed from the perspective of various fields, but taken together suggest a unified focus, if only able to be seen in retrospect. What Bateson was interested in is "the pattern which connects."

As the heat was being turned up on WikiLeaks I was reminded of a lecture that Bateson had given at "Two Worlds Symposium" at Sacramento State College in 1966 entitled From Versailles to Cybernetics" published in the book. I looked to see whether I could find the chapter "liberated" somewhere on the Internet. Excerpts are and there appear to be several sources for the entire book in illegal digital form--I seem to have downloaded a RTF file of the book translated into Italian while looking. But I couldn't find a good link to the article so I'll have to tell a little about it.

Bateson begins by saying that the proverb:
"The fathers have eaten bitter fruit and the children's teeth are set on edge."
and a statement by James Joyce:
"history is that nightmare from which there is no awakening."
had echoed in his mind as he prepared for the talk. Bateson identified two events of the 20th century to that point that had been especially important. As the title of his lecture says these two events are the Treaty of Versailles and the development of cybernetics as a discipline.

Bateson viewed the Treaty of Versailles as a gross betrayal of humanity. He notes that people care less about episodes and care very much about patterns of relationships. If "all is fair in love and war" it doesn't follow that treachery in a truce or peacemaking is fair. The betrayal at Versailles demoralized Germany but also the allied powers who perpetrated it. This change in attitude, "unfair whiplash" set the stage for the tragedies of World War II and more troubles.

Bateson identified cybernetics as the other significant event of the 20th century:
Cybernetics is, at any rate, a contribution to change--not simply a change in attitude, but even a change in the understanding of what attitude is.
Bateson was hopeful that cybernetics might make people more able to change the rules in such ways to break the cycle of violence stemming from Versailles which he likened to the house of Atreus in Greek tragedy. But he was not a cyber-Utopian, rather he was sure that cybernetics held dangers of its own. He wrote:
We do not know, for example, what effects may follow from the computerization of all government dossiers.
There are many complex and subtle issues regarding WikiLeaks, the issues are precisely the sort that require conversations. The polarization about the leaks where one end supports authoritarian control over the conversations--there can be none--strikes me a huge attitude change at least for Americans. It's this shift that tells me that how WikiLeaks has become so controversial is extremely significant. My position is poles apart thinking the only responsible approach is more speech about WikiLeaks. Note that I'm not saying we need more leaks, or that governments ought not to be privileged to keep secrets. The suppression of discussion by government is the appalling change. The privilege of the government to keep secrets follows the consent of the governed.

Governments contend that they need to deliberate in private confidence which seems reasonable within limits. It's an entirely different matter when my government conspires to suppress public deliberation. That's precisely the concerted response of American officials and private business leaders to the recent WikiLeaks release of a tiny portion of confidential correspondences vetted by respected international news organizations. I'm horrified that so many of my fellow citizens side with this effort to make public deliberations under the purview of private hands in the government. It's completely flips the relationship between the people's sovereignty over the government. How that's okay, I cannot even begin to fathom.

Nora Bateson has made a documentary film about her father called "An Ecology of Mind" which was released just recently. Here's a review of the film, the Facebook Page and the film's Web site. One of the quotes from Bateson used in the film is:
The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.
The issues of WikiLeaks and responses to it have very much to do with the way people think. Nevertheless Bateson is right to point out the danger in the disconnnect between how nature works and the way we think. WikiLeaks draws attention to the urgency with which we ought to address the way that we think. The suppression of speech in this matter makes it all the harder to address the major problems facing us all.


The 27th Comrade said...

You really must be Bateson’s biggest living fan. Now that Bateson himself is dead. :o)

John Powers said...

Bateson died in 1980. I don't know about "biggest" fan, he still has lots of fans. Back in the 70's I never found anyone who was all that into the ideas; they seemed a bit old fashioned even then. Now I see criticism of Bateson which usually boils down to "He not all that." Anyhow now much of it does seem dated.

I stumbled upon a 40th Anniversary environmental curriculum yesterday here 16 books from back in the day among them "Steps to an Ecology of Mind." And I've noticed reissues of titles too. On one hand there was some clear thinking going on back then. But on the other nostalgia. My biggest problem with nostalgia is that young people are the ones to pick up the torch. I worry the nostalgia gets in the way of sharing