Book Review

Bridging the Gap

The Book

Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness

The Author(s)

Antony Chaney

Editor's Note

This is part three of the Runaway roundtable. Here’s part one and part two.

“We are concerned with the dynamics of this business,” said Gregory sharply, “with analyzing it, rather than regretting it and shouting about it.  The dynamics are not easy and we keep funking the dynamics for reasons which perhaps we should also go into”….   “I grant,” said Gregory, slumped heavily in his seat and choosing his words carefully, “that we are not always talking strictly to the point.  I grant that our language is often ambiguous and can often be suspected of representing the epistemologies which are likely to destroy us.  On the other hand, I don’t see what we can do except go on working, as best we can, and every now and then, we are going to shout about things we don’t like.  I’m prepared to give 10 per cent of the conference time to shouting about the things we don’t like.  We’re human too, you know.”[1]

I must begin this review of Anthony Chaney’s Runaway by affirming how much I enjoyed reading it.  As Chaney notes, we need stories to speak to our present deficiencies of ecological understanding (17).  I feel that any approach to Bateson’s work would be well served in giving a good deal more than 10 per cent of the time to stories – as Runaway indeed does.  New light is shone on Bateson’s youth and the tragic drama of his elder brothers (whose relationship, in Chaney’s sober account, seems like a kind of modern novelistic overlaying of Eteocles and Polyneices with Electra and Orestes).  The story of Bateson’s close encounter with John C. Lilly and the dolphins blends humour with circumspection, as does the account of his relations with Konrad Lorenz.  The stories of his interactions with Allen Ginsberg and R. D. Laing, and of his non-interactions with Stokely Carmichael and Emmet Grogan, illustrate Bateson’s larger significance in the ‘moment’ of the late 60s.  Also of great interest to this reviewer was Bateson’s association with Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, who was married to Erich Fromm, the psychoanalytic social theorist associated with thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and T.W. Adorno through the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.[2]

The stories are important because they help to set the context for the drama of ideas that (it seems to me) is Runaway’s subject.  Bateson’s thought, and his relation to the other thinkers at Dialectics of Liberation in ’67 is relevant to our time because it exemplifies a new epistemological scene that unsettles some traditional notions of what it means to be that very special, consciously-purposive kind of animal we call ‘human.’  We need an epistemology that answers to this ‘apocalyptic encounter,’ which recurs throughout Runaway as a context-marker for our time.

In other words, on the narrative and historical level the book is wonderful.  However, I was hoping we might be able to discuss some problems that seem to emerge at the more abstract theoretical level.  Again, it seems to me that it is the drama of ideas more than the biographical drama that is the subject of Runaway.  Bateson, after all, is precisely differentiated from the rival egoisms of Carmichael, Grogan and Laing, Chaney writes, by his humility (245).  Bateson was concerned that his ideas would propagate, not that he would be remembered as a Heroic Agent: “The ideas which seemed to be me can also become immanent in you.  May they survive, if true.”[3]  The survival of Bateson’s ideas is at stake, and for that reason the issue of logical and contextual coherence at the more abstract levels seems particularly important to me.

The central theoretical drama lies in the complex relation established between “the revolutionary left” and “the mindblowers” (10).  The antagonism is also described in terms of “the politicals” vs. “the culturals” (152), and “the activists” vs. “the theorists” (237).  This antagonism seems to be equivalent to the one between strong materialism, linear causation, substance, force, mind over matter on the one hand, and information, complexity, uncertainty, interrelationship, and mind within matter on the other.  Interestingly, this structural antagonism dovetails almost precisely with an observation made by Mary Catherine Bateson at the 1968 conference in Austria, which she later narrates in Our Own Metaphor:

I said, “It’s as if there had been a recurrent intellectual imperialism where first two spheres of discussion, say mind and matter, were separated, with a kind of explanation appropriate to each, and then this was followed by the effort to get one to ‘eat up’ the other.”  I had put my concepts in two columns on the board, the simple ones on the left and the complex on the right:



seeking simplification                                          acknowledging complexity

reductionist approaches: things                   holistic approaches: processes,

(nouns); parts, lineal sequences                  wholes, systems

overspecified goals, means                             underspecified goals, ends

“matter”                                                           “mind”

secular                                                             sacred

….Gregory sat for a minute frowning at my lists.  “Yes.  It becomes very subtle or difficult because – you see, if I’d been drawing that diagram as representing what I’ve on the whole been trying to say… it keeps slipping and sliding…have other people been suffering from this?  If you wrote ‘mind-matter’ as one word on the complex side, and ‘mind-matter’ as two words on the left…”

“Yes, that’s what I meant by letting the right eat the left, rather than vice versa.”
“No I don’t want them to eat each other Catherine.  I don’t want one to eat the other, I want them to…”

“You want them to merge,” said Barry [Commoner].

“To merge.  Yes.  Quite.”[iv]

Bateson did not want to reduce or to be reduced to either side of the dichotomy – particularly one puporting to include ‘non-dichtomous thinking’ on one side of a dichtomous division!  Perhaps this begins to explain why he embraced the “Great Refusal” (9) notwithstanding the fact that he placed himself “well to the right of Cooper on the question of revolution” in a letter to R. D. Laing (205).

It is here we reach the sliding point of Runaway.  What is not made coherently clear is how or even whether it is possible to transcend or stand meta- to the dichotomy.  Attempts to ‘bridge’ the gap like the Human Be In come across in the book as versions of the old story: the right side attempts to embrace the left in terms of complexity and ‘being reasonable’ (or ‘being cool’), the left side violently repudiates the embrace of the right as a tacit attempt to dominate and control.  The difficulty is compounded by the fact that very near the beginning of the text, Chaney seems to associate Bateson nearly exclusively with the right side: the ‘shift in thinking’ he modeled takes us from older concepts of substance, force, power and impact to newer ones of information, complexity, uncertainty, interrelationship (3).  The two sides are not to merge, in other words – rather the right side is, if not to ‘eat’ the left, nevertheless to supercede and replace it, as new replaces old, which ‘it’ must continuously do everywhere at all times if we accept the premise that “scientific work… is more about the present than the past” (7).

Ultimately, it is unclear, in Runaway, whether Bateson transcends the dichotomy or rather belongs on the right side of it.  Also unclarified is the apparent inner complexity, intra- to each side.  That is, on the ‘left’ side, in the ‘traditional-forceful-linear’ position, we have not only the underdogs Grogan and Carmichael; we also have top-dogs like the enviro-skeptic Michael Crichton and Lyndon B. Johnson (not to mention ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, who may or may not belong on the same side as LBJ).  On the right we have, not a simple group, but another inner polarity: between the Niebuhrs’ discernment and Richard Falk’s judicious apocalypticism on the one hand, and off-the-wall ‘Waimanalo weirdness’ (my phrase, not Chaney’s) on the other – including not only John C. Lilly and Ginsberg (before he was ‘sobered’ by Bateson), but also Kurt Vonnegut and Albert Camus.   So not two sides, but rather at least four, are in play here, and in complex dynamic and transformational relations with each other.  I wonder, what would Bateson’s analysis of this problematic be, above and beyond ‘regretting and shouting’?  I believe Bateson has one, but it does not explicitly or coherently appear in Runaway.

With my word limit in mind, I feel obliged to convey very briefly my surprise at finding a connection which may be of relevance and interest to the author as well as others. To wit: Virginia Satir’s classic pattern of the four ‘Roles’ appearing in dysfunctional-adversarial communication seems to apply very well to the adversarial group-processes Chaney is narrating in Runaway.  Satir’s ‘Roles’ are ‘Blamer,’ ‘Placater’ (i.e., the resentful recipient of blame), ‘Super-reasonable’ and ‘Distractor.’[v]  Satir specifies that the ‘Super-reasonable’ and ‘Distractor’ positions are a pair separate from and somehow ‘about’ or meta– to the Blamer-Placater pair.  It seems to me that the ‘top-dogs’ of the left side of the dichtomy (e.g. Michael Crichton) fit well in Satir’s role of ‘Blamer,’ pointing the finger of authority at the under-dogs of the left side (Grogan, Carmichael, activists, etc.) who are forced to Placate – unless, that is, they can rebel, strike out dynamically, and take the place of ‘Blamer.’  On the right side, the Niebuhrs’ judicious agreement to disagreement rather startlingly fits Satir’s category of ‘Super-reasonable’ – while cavorting around the super-reasonable type’s ramrod upright figure is the unstable fourth position,‘Distractor’ – i.e. John C. Lilly, Leary, Vonnegut, or Ginsberg before he was ‘sobered’ by Bateson.

Satir insisted we recognize that these dysfunctional roles are survival responses, creative responses to an impossible situation.  Each must be respected.  Each must have time to shout about things they don’t like.  But they must somehow be transcended, and without falling into the ‘Super-reasonable’ trap: that because a super-reasonable position is about or meta– to the Blamer-Placater conflict, it is therefore outside of the antagonism.  Sapir remarks that the ‘Super-reasonable’ position is often mistaken for maturity in our culture.  The primary operative insight in Satir, and the ground of hope for change, is that no person in the system is ever finally identified with any of these roles – it is a dynamic process, of precisely that kind Bateson would complain in Austria in 1968 that we “keep funking.”[vi]  This insight for me gives startling theoretical clarity to Chaney’s quite beautiful remark about Emmet Grogan: “Even as he strived to create an elusive, largely fictional persona, Grogan was a living person…” (188).

[1] Mary Catherine Bateson, Our Own Metaphor (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 98

[2] I must note I was a bit surprised that Chaney did not spend more time examining possible lines of connection between Marcuse and Bateson.  Marcuse’s address in 1967 seems in many ways to be a reply, not necessarily unfriendly, to Bateson’s presentation, and it is not clear, in my reading of “Liberation from the Affluent Society,” why Marcuse cannot be seen as attempting to transcend the dichotomy from the ‘left side’ just as Bateson arguably does from the ‘right.’

[3] Gregory Bateson (Rodney Donaldson ed.), A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Harper Collins, 1991): xix  [not quoted by Chaney]

[iv] Our Own Metaphor, 234-5

[v] I refer here most directly to a video recording of Satir demonstrating the roles with a group; her fuller explanation of the model can be found in Peoplemaking (Palo Alto: Science and Behaviour Books, 1972).

[vi] Our Own Metaphor, 98

About the Reviewer

Colin Campbell is a lecturer in communications and cultural studies at York University and at OCAD, in Toronto, Canada.  He has completed a manuscript about Gregory Bateson as a political theorist. Next, he will be writing a short piece on Bateson’s theory of conscious purpose and the image of revolution in popular music, particularly the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by the Who.