Sunday, April 03, 2005

Reading :: Mind and Nature

Originally posted: Sun, 03 Apr 2005 11:52:05

Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity

by Gregory Bateson

Shortly after I posted my lengthy review of Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, Kristie Fleckenstein told me she appreciated it because she had had trouble sustaining interest in the book. Whenever she read it, she would think of Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature, which seemed to go over similar ground with greater clarity.

I had read Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind some time ago (before the blog), so I had some idea what she was talking about. And I had noticed a few Bateson cites here and there in Deleuze and Guattari's book. But I really wasn't prepared for reading Mind and Nature. Because I quickly realized that A Thousand Plateaus is in great part a response to and elaboration of this book.

So much of it is there: a discussion of bilateral vs. radial symmetry, the notion of assemblages ("aggregates"), the comparison of rhythms to music and the linking with stochastic processes, the illustration of the crab, the question of segmenting, the comparison of map and territory, the illustration of the tick, the distinction of number and quantity, and of course the double bind. But where Deleuze and Guattari are deliberately opaque, Bateson is deliberately and surprisingly clear. Every one of these topics takes a paragraph, a page, or (in the case of stochastic processes) a chapter, whereas in Deleuze and Guattari the same topics take at least a chapter to elaborate. And with Bateson, there's no question about how metaphorical the application is supposed to be or what his overall project looks like.

I fervently wish I had read this book before A Thousand Plateaus. And if you haven't read either one, you really should read this one first -- although I still recommend A Thousand Plateaus for some interesting elaborations and articulations that Bateson doesn't get to go into.

Bateson dictated this book while bedridden at the end of his life. (He managed to finish this book and start another one before he passed away.) And I detect here a strong sense of wanting to get it all down before he passed, a desire to communicate his experience and understanding before it was lost forever. Bateson didn't believe in an afterlife and takes a few potshots at organized religion here (which is not uncommon for people on their deathbeds). But mostly he stays focused on articulating this understanding.

So what is this understanding? Bateson is looking for a monist understanding in which mind and nature could be talked about in the same terms. And he is quite open-minded about what constitutes mind, sounding more philosophical and less restrictive than distributed cognitionists while being clearer and more principled than Deleuze & Guattari or actor-network theorists. "A mind," he says, "is an aggregate of interacting parts or components"; "the interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference"; "mental processes require collateral energy"; "mental processes require circular (or more complex) chains of determination"; "in mental processes, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e., coded versions) of events which proceeded them"; "the description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena" (p.102). Bateson goes on to methodically elaborate each criterion, using them to build an argument that places "mind" in the interactions of a material assemblage rather than bracketing it off in someone's head. Bateson did this fairly well in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, but he makes a more methodical case here.

And he combines this argument with one on stochastic processes. In short, he says that evolutionary and somatic change, though of different types, are both stochastic; they can only change by incorporating randomness to inject productive difference. "The task of this chapter," he says in Chapter 6, "is to show how these two stochastic systems, working at different levels of logical typing, fit together into a single ongoing biosphere that could not endure if either somatic or genetic change were fundamentally different from what it is" (p.165). In fact, he strongly criticizes the invoking of mind as an explanatory principle for either change. In the rest of the chapter, he develops a really insightful critique of evolution as it is commonly understood, linked to a critique of mind as it is commonly understood.

What I like so much about Bateson is that he makes his points with incredible parsimony, strongly organized and capable elaboration, and interesting and understandable examples. The examples are drawn from biology, mathematics, literature, human perceptual studies, and a variety of other areas.

On the other hand, I think Bateson really overreaches at a couple of points. His Socratic dialogue with his daughter at the end of the book really brings this out, as when he describes the "world of mental processes" (and remember, this means any assemblage that meets the six criteria above) as a "slowly self-healing tautology" (p.228). Or when he summarizes this book as an attempt by one lemming to tell the others "I told you so" as they rush into the sea (p.231). You see, thinking that one lemming could actually stop this race to the sea would be arrogant.

All in all, though, a great book. >

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