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Gregory Bateson Metalogue: "Is There a Conspiracy?", preceded by Introduction by Phillip Guddemi


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Previously unpublished Metalogue by Gregory Bateson, introduced by Phillip Guddemi.
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Phillip Guddemi
Iam again going to use the opportunity provided me by the Polish Bateson
Research Group to introduce an unpublished work by Gregory Bateson, and
comment on it. e piece Iam introducing is an unpublished draft metalogue,
and Idon’t take lightly the fact that he did not choose to publish it in 1971
when it was drafted. Nevertheless it seems to be very topical today. It is enti-
tled, “Is there aconspiracy?”
e answer, which is the one Iwould have expected from Bateson, is no,
our human problems of ecology and war and poverty have deeper roots than
conspiracy thinking is capable of understanding. Perhaps conspiracy theory
is acommon distortion of systems understanding, or symmathesy. Perhaps it
is an inevitable outgrowth of our intuitive half-glimpsing of the hidden con-
nections of events. But at the same time it is what Bateson used to call a“vul-
gar error” – afatal oversimplification which leads us to afallacious analysis.
(Which is not to say that there are never conspiracies. Our knowledge begin-
ning in childhood of social dynamics leads us of course to understand that
people act covertly and with hidden intentions all the time. However, Bateson
is after bigger game, adeeper understanding of our wider contexts.)
Bateson tells his fictional Daughter in this metalogue that he does not
believe conspiracy or nonconspiracy makes much dierence in the kinds of
things that happen. Bad intentions of bad actors may exist, but we need to
look at awider frame. Nor will having things come to acrisis necessarily help.
Bateson opines that aslow crisis allows for habituation, in the manner of the
frog and the saucepan. Aquick fast crisis might be the best. Yet crises do not
normally resolve things, but instead speed up the pace of destruction. Many of
the solutions, Bateson argues, to the crisis posed by Hitler, involved adopting
his ideas, even in order to defeat them. e Hitler crisis “left us all more ready
to distrust each other, more ready to damage the world and with better tools
to do damage with – from atom bombs to electronic machinery.” Daughter
demurs. She argues that the discovery of nuclear power might be anet good
because of its possible use as energy, and when Bateson points up the problem
of nuclear waste, Daughter suggests that someone will invent away of dealing
with the waste.
However Bateson believes there is here something akin to adouble bind;
either nuclear waste itself is ecologically destructive, or the technology devel-
oped to deal with the waste crisis is likely to increase (directly or indirectly)
our destructive capacity. e problems of insect-caused disease and crop fail-
ure prompted the invention of insecticides such as DDT. Daughter suggests
that the dangers of DDT were not known when it was invented; but Bateson
maintains that in such cases “they knew what they knew and didn’t care what
they didn’t know.” And when it is amatter of people who don’t care what
they don’t know, people who maintain ignorance of the possible eects of the
changes they promote, it does not matter if there is aconspiracy. “e point is
that there is regularity in the way things work towards the destruction of the
world ecology.” Daughter demurs that there cannot be regularity in mistakes;
but Bateson notes, “we are not talking about mistakes but about systematic
and directional error in what people do when faced with ‘crisis’.
Instead of, or perhaps beyond or above, the human propensity for conspir-
acy, Gregory Bateson prefers to focus on the human conundrum of conscious
purpose. Years ago Nora Bateson talked about “the problems of problem solv-
ing.” In the spirit of her father she wanted to direct our attention to the ways
that the solving of problems always poses new ones, even more urgent. e
error Gregory Bateson saw in people’s response to crisis is very much about
the problems of problem solving.
Based on his suspicions of conscious purpose, Gregory Bateson in this
metalogue took ahard line against invention. By invention he meant aspecific
type of problem solving. It is atype which Nora Bateson alluded to in ashort
chapter in her own book, where she writes, “Iam baed by our habit of is-
suing endless ‘direct correctives’ to our children, ecology, and economy... We
must re-think the notion of fixing things.” (Nora Bateson p. 149)
In critiquing invention, Gregory Bateson made use of aparticular figure of
speech or thought which is termed “chiasmus.” Chiasmus is defined in its nar-
rower sense as afigure of speech which is divided into two halves in which the
second half inverts the first. In awider sense it involves talking in away that
inverts our usual sense of causation or agency, posing what would normally
be seen as the result, as the cause. (Iam indebted to the great anthropologist
Roy Wagner for pointing out to me that this was atechnique Gregory Bateson
used to significant eect. Gregory Bateson may have learned it from Samuel
Butler, a19th Century intellectual and evolutionary thinker, whose own use of
chiasmus has been studied fascinatingly and in great detail by aliterary scholar
named Ralf Norrman. )
And so it comes about that Gregory Bateson begins to talk about machines
as if the machines were telling human beings “what sort of thing an invention
should be.” Of course he does not mean that HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s film
“2001, ASpace Odyssey” has been elected President and is issuing executive
orders. Rather, in the spirit of chiasmus and inversion, Bateson in afigure of
speech (or could it be more?) turns upside down our usual idea that machines
are made by the agency of human beings for human purposes and are there-
fore controlled by the humans who made them. He begins to talk as if the
machines are manipulating their human inventors. “Daughter” tries to reply
with common sense, “But machines don’t talk – – .
Yet casting machines as the actors and human beings as the acted upon,
is not merely satirical. By casting problem solving not as something people
inevitably do, but as something people are “told to do” by the machines which
are supposed to be the solutions, Gregory Bateson calls our attention to the
wider pattern, the shape of the world which has been increasingly been bent in
the direction of increasingly narrow human purposiveness. To say that prob-
lem solving creates for us new problems, is almost trivial. What is less trivial
is to explore, as this metalogue does, the nature of how the world is changed
towards increased intractability by our endless running ahead to invent asolu-
tion to the previous problem.
Icould go on but Iwould rather that each reader discover how this meta-
logue brilliantly asks the following questions. Why is it that this sort of solu-
tion inventing just the kind of thing that destroys ecologies? How is it unlike
what is considered adaptation in the biological world? Could there be some-
thing wrong with “knowing exactly what Iwant and just going after it,” the
way that Daughter says she has been taught that she ought to be? And are
there good inventions such as cheese, or poetry? Why are cheese and poetry
exceptions from the problems of problem solving inventions?
Ifind myself rebelling against some of the implications of this metalogue’s
arguments, and Iwonder why Gregory Bateson did not himself publish it. Did
he have hesitations? Isuspect he did. But my own hesitations are Ithink ones
that Bateson would not have shared.
inking of aworld problem such as that of global climate change, Ido not
hesitate to apply Bateson’s skepticism to such “solutions” as massive geoengi-
neering. For example, some argue in favor of placing iron filings in the oceans,
with unknowable consequences to the ocean ecology, in order to breed phyto-
plankton which could suck carbon dioxide from the air. Iam happy to oppose
solutions of that shape on what Iwould consider Batesonian grounds.
But Ihave grown used, over the decades, to certain other problem solving
solutions. Ihave hoped for alternative energies from the sun and wind that
could power something like the same level of technological consumption to
which Ihave become, like the rest of the developed world, addicted. Ihave
hoped for political solutions like the Paris Climate Agreement. Ihave voted
according to whether particular politicians acknowledge the problem, even
when these people Ihave voted for make the problem worse on one hand
while they foster solutions with the other, according to the formula, one step
forward, two steps back. For not to look for solutions, after all, would be to
abandon hope – and our compulsory optimism, which may itself be adouble
bind, forbids such athing.
Hope of that kind was hardly Gregory Bateson’s stock in trade. He was not
apolitician. He was not constrained by the competitive incentives for political
survival in ademocracy where, as Socrates noted so many centuries ago, it is
always the seller of sweets who prevails over the doctor who prescribes bitter
medicine. And Bateson did not even have amedicine to sell, an elevator pitch
to give, aTED talk to make, an invention to promote. Instead he had apoem
to write. (He claimed in the metalogue that the invention of poetry was one of
the good kind of inventions, but he left the explanation of this to the reader.)
is poem has been published many times, including in Angels Fear, jointly
written after his death with his first daughter Mary Catherine Bateson.
e Manuscript
So there it is in words
And if you read between the lines
You will find nothing there
For that is the discipline Iask
Not more, not less
Not the world as it is
Nor ought to be – Only the precision
e skeleton of truth
Ido not dabble in emotion
Hint at implications
Evoke the ghosts of long forgotten creeds
All that is for the preacher
e hypnotist, therapist and missionary
ey will come after me
And use the little that Isaid
To bait more traps
For those who cannot bear
e lonely
Of Truth
Gregory Bateson
Daughter: Daddy, is there aconspiracy?
Father: To do what, exactly?
D: Well, to destroy the world’s ecology? To make Vietnam into adesert? To
overpopulate? To keep the poor hungry? To pollute?
F: Well – perhaps. Or perhaps not aconspiracy to do any of these things but
just ashared understanding to not do any of the opposite things. An agree-
ment not to worry about the ecology and Vietnam and so on. But does it make
any dierence?
D: Oh, yes – if its aconspiracy we ought to fight it – but if it’s just ignorance
or not caring, we ought to show people what is happening –
F: No – Imean, would things be happening dierently if it were aconspiracy
– dierently from how they would happen without aconspiracy? Does con-
spiracy or no conspiracy make adierence to what happens?
Millions of people want to eat turkey on anksgiving Day. is aects the
turkey population and the turkey farmers and so on, but it’s not aconspiracy
– not even among the farmers, who no doubt have alobby in Washington –
D: So if the turkey bit were bad, what should we do? Attack the farmers?
F: Should we conspire to attack the farmers? And so drive them to form acon-
D: So we let them destroy what they will?
F: Who is “they,” and who makes “them” do what they are doing?
D: Idon’t,...with machines...under orders from somebody...and
somebody makes the machines...and somebody pays for it all...and somebody
1 Unpublished manuscript, dated 1971. Gregory Bateson Archives, at the Library of
the University of California, Santa Cruz. By permission of the Bateson Idea Group.
And somebody dies – perhaps we all die. How much harm do they have to do
before they stop? Or somebody stops them?
F: Oh, no. at’s not how it works. Crisis does not slow down the process of
destruction – it speeds it up.
D: Idon’t understand. Surely people can choose whether to do harm, can’t
they? And if they still do it, other people can choose to stop them? Can’t they?
F: No. It depends on the timing.
D: What do you mean?
F: Well, it’s like the frog in the saucepan. He was put into cold water in the pan
and then heated very slowly. If he were heated fast, he would have jumped out.
But if he’s heated slowly, he “accommodates” to the heat, gets comatose, and
gets cooked.
D: You mean that gradual crisis is no good?
F: Yes – gradual crises are no good and small crises are no good.
D: So we need quick fast crises?
F: Yes.
D: And we’re all frogs? With no power to choose?
F: No power to prevent ourselves from getting accustomed to even the most
monstrous horrors – Dachau and Vietnam and so on. e process of getting
accustomed is totally unconscious – almost.
D: But if we’re all frogs...
F: But we are not – frogs do pretty well in their own world, but they don’t
invent anything. What we do is invent a“remedy” whenever things get un-
comfortable. When we are overpopulated, we invent miracle rice, and when
there are too many cars, we build more roads, and so on.
D: But in World War II, didn’t your generation choose to stop Hitler?
F: Or was Hitler acrisis, which speeded up the process of wider destruction,
leading to all the rest that has happened since? We thought we chose to stop
Hitler. But Idon’t think we did much to stop his ideas. Indeed, we adopted
many of them. His ideas compelled us to adopt them...
D: But what ideas?
F: Panzer divisions and force, for example. And some not-too-sensible ideas
about races and secret police and computerized law enforcement and the wel-
fare state and depersonalization and freeways for automobiles and Volkswa-
gens... And not caring about the destruction... and valuing eciency above
everything else...
D: Daddy, what is acrisis”? How does it work?
F: Well, Isuppose there are several sorts. ere is the sort of “crisis” in pneu-
monia which is the worst moment in the disease, after which, if it does not kill
the patient, he starts to recover. But that’s not what Iwas talking about when
Isaid that crisis speeds up the destruction.
D: But the Hitler crisis could have been like that, couldn’t it? Couldn’t it?
F: Idon’t know. Anyhow, it wasn’t. It left us all more ready to distrust each
other, more ready to damage the world and with better tools to do damage
with – from atom bombs to electronic machinery.
D: But – that’s progress. We don’t have to use the A-bombs and the electronics
for destructive purposes.
F: Ah – we could “choose” to use the atomic fission as an energy source?
D: Yes.
F: And then put the atomic waste... in the sea? Underground?
D: Somebody will invent some way of dealing with it.
F: Perhaps. And so?
Imean that the accumulation of atomic waste either is itself away of killing
the ecology – Or it precipitates acrisis as it accumulates, and that crisis speeds
up our technology – and so more or less indirectly increases our destructive
D: at’s crazy – not all good is evil.
F: Good for whom? Evil for whom? And when? Imean, okay, the mosquitoes
and the malaria bugs made acrisis: our boys overseas in World War II were
dying of typhus and malaria, and other bugs were eating crops. Out of this cri-
sis came the DDT and other insecticides. ose insecticides are today among
the great threats to the world.
D: But that was only amistake – they’ll find better and safer insecticides. ey
didn’t know DDT would be so dangerous – that it would spread all over and
so on.
F: No – not amistake.ey knew what they knew and didn’t care what they
didn’t know. Such mistakes are systematic, repeated, and regular. Not acciden-
tal or random. You asked, “Is there aconspiracy?” but Isay it doesn’t matter
whether there is aconspiracy. e point is that there is regularity in the way
things work towards the destruction of the world ecology.
D: But there can’t be regularity in mistakes.
F: Of course not, that’s why Isay the word “mistake” is wrong – we are not
talking about mistakes but about systematic and directional error in what
people do when faced with “crisis.
D: Well – what do they do?
F: ey invent something. And what they invent has particular purpose related
to that particular crisis.
D: And that is wrong? Regularly and systematically wrong?
F: Yes – regularly and systematically wrong.
D: But Daddy, that’s progress. All machines and inventions and laws and
everything – it’s all directed at specific purposes.
F: Mostly – yes – almost all inventions are anti-biological for that very reason.
Machines are single-minded and that makes them ultimately destructive. But
there is also biological evolution, and that is dierent. And afew inventions
are pro-biological, not anti-. For example, cheese. And poetry...
D: Daddy, stop it. Poetry is not an invention. You are being silly –
F: Iwonder – Iwonder where you draw the line. Amouse trap is an invention?
D: Yes – of course.
F: And the design of amouse trap?
D: Yes.
F: And the dierential calculus?
D: Yes. at was invented by Sir Isaac Newton.
F: And “Iknow abank where the wild thyme blows?”
D: No. Because Shakespeare made it. He didn’t invent it.
F: But the hexameter and rhythm?
D: Yes – Iwould call that an invention, perhaps.
F: And cheese?
D: Yes.
F: But Yeast?
D: No. – that’s adiscovery. It’s aplant, isn’t it?
F: Surely... And they say that somebody invented the idea of inventing things.
Perhaps Leonardo. But Iwonder. It looks as if men were told by the machines
what sort of thing an invention should be...
D: But machines don’t talk –
F: No, of course not – but the men who invented invention surely got the idea
of invention from the tools and machines which they were making and using.
It wasn’t just their idea. It was their thinking, guided by the machines.
And when you say that poetry is not an invention, you mean that it’s not the
sort of thing that the machines would let you classify as an invention.
D: So the machines “told” people how to think about them?
F: Yes, indeed.
And, more than that, Ithink the machines told people to hurry up and make
more machines and what machines to make.
D: Did the machines tell us to make the napalm and the DDT and the
A-bomb? Are they the conspiracy?
F: No, not by themselves. ey had to con us into thinking their way, so that
we and they together became the conspiracy. When you say that poetry is not
an invention, it shows that you have been conned into thinking their way. You
have been “got at,” as the English say.
D: But how do machines think? And how do they make us think that way? And
are there other ways of thinking? And are some ways of thinking better than
others? And what’s so wonderful about cheese and poetry?
F: And just why does the quality of cheese fall steadily as our technology and
industrial system becomes more ecient and powerful? Our poetry gets more
angry, and our cheese gets more tasteless.
D: Daddy, go back to us and the machines in aconspiracy. ey say man is
atool-using animal...
F: All right. And most people still, today, amillion years or more after the first
tool was used, think that the relationship between man and tool and “nature”
is something like this:
with the tool somehow between man and nature. “Nature” is supposed to be
more or less unchanging, the tools are to be steadily improved so that man
can get more gasoline or fish out of nature, and we do not ask what changes
this process imposes upon man.
D: en don’t you want aback arrow from nature to man, to represent the
fish and gasoline?
F: All right, yes. But the tool is still between man and nature; it still narrows
his view of nature. If you go out with agun, you won’t do much bird-watching
along the sights of the gun.
D: But Daddy, it might have been apair of binoculars.
F: Indeed it might – but it wasn’t.
D: Well?
F: Let’s forget the tools for amoment ... and go back to man as part of nature
and not avery special part.
He has at this stage intimate multiple links with all the creatures – and
especially those that he can eat and those that eat him. But the links are unme-
diated and complex. With the development of tools all this changes – now his
links become mediated, with tool between him and the others. is simplifies
what were formerly rich relationships. Wherever the tools are most eective,
the relationship is simplified – and made less intimate.
D: But he is still pretty close to nature.
F: Yea – he has no control over the weatherand indeed his complex and
intimate dependency on weather remained for along time – expressed in
religion –
D: Is religion all about complex and intimate relations, Daddy?
F: Yes – till it turns into magic or gets secularized by putting tools between
man and God.
D: Or nature?
F: Yes – but sometimes religion becomes entertainment – atool specifically
aimed at reducing boredom.
D: But what about crises?
F: Wait aminute. Let me bring our diagram up to date.
Now that he has atool, man begins to picture himself as partly outside
nature. He still has some intimate links, but now he has abow and arrow to
get more deer. And Ihave drawn the connection through the tool with along
arrow to come around and attack nature from behind.
D: Why ever?
F: Ah – because Iwant to say that now man is talking to himself every time
he spears adeer.
D: What?
F: Imean that man’s tools (and they were his tools, operated by him) begin
to communicate back to man through nature. e tools have their eect on
nature and that has its eect on man –
D: But what can he do about it? Does it even matter?
F: Oh, yes – because you see the tools can now precipitate acrisis and nature
and this will be uncomfortable for man.
D: But what can he do?
F: at’s easy – he invents more tools to deal with the crisis.
D: You mean that the tools have told him to invent more tools?
F: Exactly. And that’s where we are today.
Except that you and Iare talking about it.
D: But what about cheese and poetry?
F: All right. Ihave argued that inventions “talk” to man through their eects.
at these eects produce crises or needs which may be more or less urgent
and that these crises or needs determine the shape of future inventions.
D: No. Idon’t see why they determine the shape. Faced with air pollution, man
might invent something to catch the fumes as they leave the automobile. Or
he might invent adrug which would be an antidote; or electric automobiles,
or rapid transit systems, or ...
F: Yes – but those are all the same shape. ey are all of that shape which
man’s experience with machines tells him is the proper shape for inventions.
D: No, Idon’t understand.
F: Imean that each one of the inventions is designed to meet aspecific need.
It has what is called a“purpose.
D: But of course. It should have. It had better have.
F: No – again you only say that because you have been got at by the machines.
ey have dictated your philosophy. All machines are shaped rather like mon-
gooses – with sharp noses, and they follow their noses to achieve their pur-
poses. It’s that simple. And the more modern and sophisticated the machine,
the narrower its purpose. at’s what is called “eciency.
D: But that’s natural. You cannot help that.
F: No – it’s precisely not “natural.” And Idon’t care how many machines tell
you that that is the natural and inevitable course of their evolution.
D: Are we on to that subject now?
F: Yes – inevitably.
D: But, Daddy, in biological evolution don’t animals get over-specialized?
F: Yes.
D: And then they die out?
F: Yes – inevitably. So that getting overspecialized and being “ecient” is o
the path of biological evolution. What the machines and inventions are telling
man is precisely how to get o that path.
D: But isn’t all evolution adaptive? Isn’t that what Darwin discovered?
F: Hm – Idon’t know whether Darwin discovered it. Anyhow, it’s avery mis-
leading half truth. You have to remember that by the mid-nineteenth century
the machines were already riding high and they certainly got at all the evolu-
tionists of the period – told them what questions to ask and how to answer
D: But, Daddy, isn’t adaptation the central idea in the theory of evolution? If
Iwere not adapted, Iwould die, wouldn’t I?
F: Of course – that’s the half of the truth that is true. If you had no lungs or
two heads, you would be dead – and probably in abottle.
D: And don’t Ihave lungs specially in order to breathe?
F: No – it’s not so simple. Evolutionarily speaking, you were able to breathe
before you had lungs. You were afish with gills.
D: But Igot lungs in order to come on land.
F: Idoubt it. When you had something like lungs, you found you could come
on land. But whether you got the lungs for that “purpose,” Idoubt.
D: Anyhow, Ihave to have oxygen, and that’s what lungs or gills or whatever
are for.
F: No – you do not breathe to get oxygen; you breathe to get rid of CO2. It’s
the CO2 in your blood that tells your body to breathe.
D: Anyhow, Ido get oxygen by breathing, and that’s the point.
F: No. e point is that in principle living things are not designed like ma-
chines. An engineer would have designed your respiratory reflexes to be con-
trolled by oxygen lack. But that is not how you are designed. And, similarly,
you do not eat to get energy (whatever that might be). You eat to satisfy ap-
petite. And, indeed, when you have been starving for afew days, appetite and
even hunger disappear. “Adaptation,” as they call it, is in general not achieved
by direct purpose but by asort of crabwise, sideways progression.
D: Do you mean, Daddy, that if Iwere amachine Iwould know exactly what
Iwanted and just go after it?
F: Yes. Just that.
D: But Ialways thought that’s what Iought to be like.
F: Hm – Iwonder how you got that idea. Iguess your teachers must have
been got at by the machines. Or when you were little, you wanted to be “e
Little Engine that Could” or the “Red Caboose” or “Blinky, the Lighthouse.
D: All right, Daddy. Stop raging at the children’s books.
F: No – seriously – in the good old totemic days, men wanted to be Kangaroos
or Crows or Witchetty Grubs. Next thing you know, children will be told they
ought to want to be computers or idiot boxes.
D: Could we talk about cheese now?
F: Oh, all right. Cheese. You see, cheese is asecond-line invention. First there
was the domestication of cattle, an invention of doubtful value; and then
cheese came later.
D: But what’s wrong with cattle?
F: Okay – go look at North Africa and the Middle East, where cattle and es-
pecially goats have created adesert. What’s wrong with cattle is just that they
are over-ecient, like almost all inventions. Of course, as wild animals they
were fine – kept in control by predators and disease. But when man made
them into food-producing tools and energy sources for vehicles, he was asking
for trouble. He imposed purpose (his purposes) on them. And his eciency.
D: But, Daddy, millions of people were able to live in North Africa for hun-
dreds of years, thanks to cattle.
F: Yes – and they blossomed into great civilizations and empires. at’s what
always happens. Agreat invention enables man to exploit nature (and other
men) more eciently. His civilization then rises. But too great eciency of
exploitation creates adesert and the great civilization declines.
And that would not matter much, except that as the local resources get used
up, the men who have been taught large-scale exploitation by their invention
begin to invent how to exploit the neighbors.
D: All right. But what about cheese?
F: All right – cheese is an invention which enabled man to use the milk pro-
duced by the cattle and goats in amore economical way. And, incidentally,
amore aesthetic way. If he had too much milk, he could turn some of it into
cheese. So that the invention of cheese probably delayed the creation of the
deserts and the exploitation of the neighbors.
D: en refrigerators are agood invention, too?
F: No – they were not necessary. You are too young to remember how good
bacon and ham – and kippers – used to be. You see, everybody knew how to
preserve meat and vegetables and fruit long before refrigeration was available.
And today, by some mysterious law of cultural decline, you cannot get good
bacon or ham – and what you get won’t keep for more than afew days even
in the refrigerator. It’s strange.
D: And poetry?
May 1971
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