One of the nice things about having your own blog is that you can choose to do anything you want to — within reason. Whether or not the thing you then choose to do has any merit is, of course, another matter. Today I choose to be an amateur film reviewer (it’s the reviewer that is amateur, not the film, I hasten to add)
Yesterday I attended a special screening in London of the film “an Ecology of Mind“, a documentary about the ideas and philosophy of Gregory Bateson. The filmmaker behind the project is his youngest daughter, Nora, who has been on a tour of various serendipitous locations in various countries, tirelessly presenting and discussing the film, her father, and the legacy of his ideas.
The relative obscurity of Gregory Bateson’s work means that many people will ask “so, what’s this film all about?” Appropriately to its thesis, this question can be answered on more than one level. Compiled by Nora from archive materials and interviews with disciples, friends, fans and family members, the film presents an overview the most important aspects of what must initially strike those who limit their reading of Bateson’s work as a very confusing career. The joy of his ideas, set down with precision and care, emerges only with repeated reading, plus (and this is crucial) an accumulation of the breadth of his output spanning decades and disciplines. You’ve got to follow him the whole way in order to “get it”, but once you do it’s really all very simple: our task is to understand the elegance and beauty of the underlying pattern that connects. There is a corollary to this which is also quite important – and that is that our various means of slicing up, analysing and explaining the wholes that make up our world are 1) completely arbitrary (though often helpful) and 2) never the thing that they are trying to explain.
The venue was an old cinema in the University of Westminster building in Regent Street in London, which, stripped of permanent seating and laid out with standard-issue university seating, had the feel of a school assembly. Nora spoke to introduce the film and spoke of her reasons for making it. This is a film about unending processes of learning and enquiry, and about the patterns of relationship that link all living systems. As a documentary it has many themes. On one level, it’s about the connection between father and daughter, about memory and the passing on from one generation to another of a curiosity about and love for learning, the natural world and the ways we have for making sense (and nonsense) of it. Equally, it’s about the development of a way of seeing the world around us and about equipping oneself to think rigorously about all of this stuff.
But Nora’s film definitely begins and ends in the very personal world of the relationship between father and daughter. Theirs is the dialogue that we open and close with snippets of. In particular, the closing exchange feels very poignant, and anyone who has read much of Bateson’s work will find echoes of his metalogues. Bateson was an explorer of ideas and also, it turns out, a very warm and loving teacher. But as befits its subject matter, there are things going on in this narrative on at several levels. The family portrait (and likeness) is also a device chosen to present a series of chapters in the film. One by one, each theme is signalled by an animation of Gregory and Nora walking hand in hand. These are expanded on and supported by interviews with others who have learnt from his ideas or who have been influential in their development. But the best moments are the archive sections which show Gregory at work, at play and at ease. I especially enjoyed these clips of Bateson speaking, mostly in later life, sometimes in informal home movies, sometimes in hardly less informal lectures or classrooms. One of the best is a quote, where Bateson, evidently giving his interlocutor a summary of his career, recounts this list “biology, into anthropology, into systems of ideas, into pathologies of systems of ideas, into ideas of how we all live together, and ‘we all’ means the plants and animals as well as you and me.”
I often feel that there is a ladder of understanding that you have to work up to “get” Bateson, and you can’t just skip to the top – not if you really want to escape the error of applying a theory of ideas and relationships to a world of concrete ‘things’.
In fact, throughout the film there are reminders that very frequently we are asking the wrong question, that our whole outlook is based on error, and such types of error that we display in our thinking can have catastrophic consequences. This may the unifying reason why so many have welcomed the film and the chance to discuss Bateson’s work and its meaning for them.
Read at the level of biography, ‘An Ecology of Mind’ works well enough. Reading between the lines, though, is what will lead the viewer to begin to ask themselves the same questions that puzzled Bateson himself, and from that you then have to start reading some serious works. Don’t be deterred either by what others think or by your initial confusion – the effort really is worth it. You will not only learn something, you will learn something about what it means to learn something.
An Ecology of Mind is not yet available to buy on DVD in the United Kingdom, but can be purchased on the German Amazon web site.