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Archive for February, 2012

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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.

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Early signs of spring at Greenlands…

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Today’s photo is as close to a paparazzi shot as I’ll get in this series of 30 pictures – it is Nora Bateson preparing to introduce her film about her father’s ideas, “an Ecology of mind” at the screening organised in London. This event will be the subject of a post tomorrow. The film was excellent…

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The weather in Hong Kong has been very strange all week, with dense, low-hanging clouds submerging the tops of many of the taller skyscrapers in mist. The particular building in this picture is the tallest on Hong Kong island, though not the tallest in the city.

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Time to reflect briefly at the close of my first visit to and workshop in Hong Kong.

The place: what an engaging city this is, full of surprises and life living on top of more life, but in a way that everyone just seems to get on efficiently with. None of the self-consciousness of London, none of the naked poverty of Delhi, but with something of the streets of New York (without the attitude or menace – you can go anywhere at any time of day or night here and feel reasonably secure), with some of the restlessness and temporary flow of ex-pats of Dubai, but also plenty of character and history of its own.

Yes, I like it here (but not to live!!!)

The job: working with a small group of MBAs can be a challenge, I guess, especially if they feel like taking the agenda elsewhere. But I find this rarely happens on the Flexible MBA; participants treasure the opportunity to get together and have the input from the course. This group are also spread out right across the region, with REALLY demanding job, so it was really good to work with them. We had an interesting boat trip in the harbour last night, which added to the camaraderie, despite the very strange weather (the next blog photo will illustrate this). Having one or two of the students from previous intakes and potentials for future intakes sit in was important, too, as I think in this crowded market it’s necessary to demonstrate first-hand how Henley is different (and it is) from the competition. But there is a lot to do to be viable here. Business does not come to you in Hong Kong!

There were Bonus chance meetings with a former colleague from CEU in Budapest and the appearance of one of a recent graduates just moved from Greenland (what a contrast…), plus the pleasure of seeing some of the former office staff (who showed me around, and took Marc and I to a great place to eat on the first evening).

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In Hong Kong harbour, on the ferry to Wan Chai, this little girl has just spotted something that seems to amaze her.

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