Film Review – An Ecology of Mind:
A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson
“What pattern connects the crab to the lobster,” muses anthropologist, philosopher, and systems theorist Gregory Bateson in An Ecology of Mind (2011), filmmaker Nora Bateson’s award-winning tribute to her father.
“And the orchid to the primrose,” he continues, “and all the four of them to me? And me to you?”
Beneath these examples, Gregory Bateson believed that the only question we really need to ask is, “How are things interrelated?”
During the course of his 76 years, Bateson, born in 1904, challenged “the arbitrary division between science and art,” exploring subjects in terms of their functions and relationships, and ultimately, in their own contexts rather than in an analytical vacuum. In a synthesis of science art, Bateson sought “the pattern which connects” forming the basis of his work and and the theme of his daughter’s tribute to him.
Nora Bateson begins and ends An Ecology of Mind with clips from her family’s private collection. We see Gregory Bateson, already in his seventies (he is the father of anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson from his marriage to anthropologist Margaret Mead), walking with 10-year-old Nora along the Pacific shore below the family home. Preserved in antique color, the clips reveal the tenderness between father and daughter and his care in teaching her how to “see” creatures within a fold of rock or the richness of life within a tidal pool. These interludes give the viewer a glimpse into the depth of Nora Bateson’s relationship with her father and elevate the film from mere biography.
“I made An Ecology of Mind to illluminate the dynamic interrealtionships of life at all levels, global politics, biology, communication, evolution and culture told through the relationship between father and daughter,” says Nora Bateson.
To understand her father, Nora Bateson uses rare, previously unreleased footage including clips from her father’s lectures. A witty and engaging speaker, Gregory Bateson believed that our analytical, left-brained predisposition to divide and dissect is at the root of the destructive tendencies exhibited by humanity. He said, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.”
An Ecology of Mind features interviews with a wide-ranging group of thinkers who knew Bateson and were influenced by his work, including California Governor Jerry Brown, physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra, Whole Earth Catalogue publisher Stewart Brand, cultural philosopher and poet William Irwin Thompson; and Nora’s sister, Mary Catherine Bateson.
Gregory Bateson’s depth and range are hard to quantify, and Nora Bateson emphasizes that while he was trained as a scientist, he spoke in a language of metaphor and analogy, quoting from Lewis Carroll and William Blake—claiming that if science is a way of understanding and explaining nature, so is art.
In fact, Gregory Bateson thought that “any contact with art is an unconscious exploration of relationships.” Telling a story, reading a poem, and listening to jazz engages us in the “thinking that is most in synch with Nature.”
As Nora Bateson puts it, “Metaphor is the language of relationships, the language of natural systems, in which there’s room to communicate in spectrums of possibility instead of tightly defined cul-de-sacs.” In order to make the most of our world, we need to adjust the lens to see what holds natural systems together, to ask again and again, “What is the pattern that connects?”
In an analysis of her father’s work, Nora Bateson adds, “This is a radical step in threading the world back together from the inside, because by asking the question, we realize that the patterns are always changing, and that it is the potential for ideas to adapt, develop, and change lends us stability. We cannot step into the same river twice, or kiss the same person twice, and it is this promise of change that gives us the hope that the world will change for the better.”
Gregory Bateson also coined the term “double-bind,”which addressed the complexity of communication and context where, for example, a person may use words percieved as positive, “I love you,” but their body language reveals the opposite emotion. How we react to conflicting signals creates a “double bind” situation.
According to Bateson, if we are faced with a double-bind, it does not mean that there is no hope of resolution—merely that we must look for an answer from a different angle. The multiple perspectives revealed by Bateson’s “pattern which connects” give us the creative impulse we need to find these solutions, to imagine a third way, if you will.
An Ecology of Mind is an inspiring, meditative film that shows Gregory Bateson range and depth and ultimately gives us a larger glimpse into our place within nature and the cosmos, asking us to consider: What pattern connects art to science, and the cave to the universe, and all of that to us?
Bateson–father and daughter–have not only asked a challenging question, they have given us the tools to reimagine our world.
Lauren McConnell is a writer who subsists on a healthy diet of Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami, T.S. Eliot, and Diana Wynne Jones. She is Assistant Editor for Wild River Review, a Professional Tutor at Rider University, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in English with a concentration in Medieval Literature at Rutgers University.
Lauren enjoys collecting antiques, growing orchids, and volunteering for her local animal shelter. In addition to writing poetry, fiction, and scholarly non-fiction, she enjoys drawing and painting when the mood strikes her. She lives with her fiancé and three cats in Hamilton, NJ.
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