|Yale Center for British Art |
Illustrations to Thomas Gray
Cybernetics has been defined as 'means of knowing what sort of world this is, and also the limitations that exist concerning our ability to know something (or perhaps nothing) of such matters.'
From an article in the Guardian, we learn:
"He [Gregory Bateson] had grown up in a house where William Blake's paintings hung on the walls, where art and poetry were revered as the acme of human achievement yet at the same time considered, as his father put it, 'scarcely within the reach of people like ourselves'"
Dreams, religious experience, art, love - these were the phenomena that still had power, Bateson thought, to undermine the rash/rational purposeful mind. Of these four, art enjoyed the special role of fusing different 'levels of mind' together: there was necessarily consciousness and purpose in the decision to create, but creativity itself involved openness to material from the unconscious, otherwise the work would be merely schematic and transparent."
We read further of the influence of William Blake on Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) in this Obituary from the website of Intercultural Studies:
"To begin with, he proposed above all a way of looking at phenomena; he was visionary in the sense that one of his models, William Blake, was - he "saw" in a particular, unified, and in relation to many of his auditors and readers, original way. As Roger Keesing (1974) put it in his review of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, "To have a vision of the world one's fellow men do not share is lonely and even frightening. . . . Gregory Bateson has been blessed, and cursed, with a mind that sees through things to a world of pattern and form that lies beyond." Keesing and a growing number of others (including ourselves) shared the vision, at least in part, and shared a conviction of its importance and urgency, but to do so was a matter of temperament and of a particular intellectual history.
Bateson belonged to no academic discipline. In his formation and career he was an "original," an "autodidact." His knowledge and sense of problem were formed in an exceedingly rich early intellectual milieu, by his lifelong informal intellectual network (which included a good sample of the century's better thinkers), by a genius for close observation of what fascinated him (essentially the structures and processes of the reality created through communication), and perhaps by some painful alienation from the ordinary. Although highly cultured in his understanding of European tradition, he was no scholar of contemporary documents in the social sciences. His favorite references are to William Blake, Samuel Butler, Larmarck, Alfred Wallace, Darwin, C. H. Waddington, R. G. Collingwood, Whitehead, Russell, the Bible, St. Augustine, Von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, and Lewis Carroll.
These kinds of arguments are based in large part on analogies. In his search for significant similarities and contrasts in systems involving communication and meaning, Bateson believed (and here he picks up emphases of Vico and such Romantic protestors against empiricism as Blake) that it was legitimate to use intuitions based on aspects of order glimpsed in the examination of any complex "cybernetic" system (and perhaps based, ultimately, on our own sense of ourselves as organized systems of person/environment) to explore other organized realms. He called this abduction "the lateral extension of abstract components of description" (1979:142), which he took to be as important as deduction and induction. "Metaphor, dream, parable, allegory, the whole of art, the whole of [social?] science, the whole of religion, the whole of poetry, totemism . . . the organization of facts in comparative anatomy - all these are instances or aggregates of instances of abduction. . . ." He then, characteristically, pushed the idea further in his search for analogies of order. "But obviously the possibility of abduction extends to the very roots also of physical science, Newton's analysis of the solar system and the periodic table of the elements being historical examples" (1979: 142-143).
The cure for the inadequacies of consciousness, of purposive rationality, is not to reject it in favor of a passionate nonrationality (and here Bateson separates himself from the extreme Romantic position) but to augment and complete it. For Bateson the inadequacies of linear, purposive, discursive processes of consciousness are corrected by enlisting the aid of the nondiscursive, pattern-comprehending, emotionally saturated "primary processes," in Freud's sense, processes which to Bateson, however, quoting Blake's "A tear is an intellectual thing," represented legitimate aspects of knowing. Art, aspects of religion, and complex symbolic form are vehicles for conveying necessary information. Taking his metaphor here from religious language, art, for example, is "part of man's quest for grace." He thought of grace as involving the integration of "diverse parts of the mind - especially those multiple levels of which one extreme is called 'consciousness' and the other the 'unconscious' (1972:129). When the world is viewed as circuits of information and meaning in which the submind of the actor participates, then the world's problems centrally include, as we have noted, failures of conscious understanding that involve for Bateson errors in the epistemology of individuals."
A reader of Blake will struggle to follow relationships, and shifting images. The reader will be surprised by the appearance of new characters without introductory material. Interruptions in the flow by extraneous references from disparate sources may tax the readers' comprehension. Bateson used his familiarity with Blake's techniques of writing to apply them to how the mind processes thought. Following multiple pathways, shifting from the parts to the whole, attending to input from the unconscious, removing obstructions which hinder perception: these are all ways Blake encouraged his reader to modify the tools through which he understands his mind and how it relates to his world. Bateson had been infused with Blake's thinking processes to the degree that he could apply them in a theory of internal mental activity and external communication.
In the following passage from an Editorial from the University of Toronto Library, look for relationships between what you know of Blake and what you know of Bateson.
"Bateson was, if nothing else, a pioneer in stressing the importance of perception to the study of mind. This point is summarized in the expression that Bateson borrowed from Korzybski (see Skibinski) that ‘the map is not the territory.’ In recent years laboratory studies have caught up with this remarkable insight. The eye has no equivalent of a photographic plate in the visual cortex. Nor is there one place in the brain in which nervous electrical messages are retranslated into a faithful image of the world ‘out there’. There is not even a single all-encompassing visual cortex, instead there are a number of discrete cell ensembles, each analyzing different features of the world, some responding only to horizontal, some to vertical lines, some to edges and angles, some to colour and some to motion. Each ensembles creates its own map of the world, but which aspect of which cell responds to the topography of the world it interprets depends on its connectivity with other cells, and not upon its distinctive properties. Hence it is the brain itself, the whole organ that puts vision all together, the activity of the whole organ on its parts still remaining an unknown process (Rose, 2004). Perception, as Bateson stressed, is an unconscious process, over which an individual has no control. In an experimental context, one of the most appropriate means for the investigation of this unconscious process is by investigating perceptual illusions or through study of impossible objects, like Necker cubes and the Klein bottle (McNeil, Rosen, Ryan) or the Möbius strip (Rosen), or the strange loops of a hierarchy in graphics by M.C. Escher. All these yield perceptual confusions and in order for any meaningful interpretation to occur, require some ‘dialectic’ between orienting stabilities of form - usually forms that are subject to classificatory denotation - and perceptual signification (Neuman, Harries-Jones)."
Milton, Plate 4, (E 98) "Anger me not! thou canst not drive the Harrow in pitys paths. Thy Work is Eternal Death, with Mills & Ovens & Cauldrons. Trouble me no more. thou canst not have Eternal Life So Los spoke! Satan trembling obeyd weeping along the way. Mark well my words, they are of your eternal Salvation Between South Molton Street & Stratford Place: Calvarys foot Where the Victims were preparing for Sacrifice their Cherubim Around their loins pourd forth their arrows & their bosoms beam With all colours of precious stones, & their inmost palaces Resounded with preparation of animals wild & tame (Mark well my words! Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies) Mocking Druidical Mathematical Proportion of Length Bredth Highth Displaying Naked Beauty! with Flute & Harp & Song" Jerusalem, Plate 32 , (E 179) "And many of the Eternal Ones laughed after their manner Have you known the judgment that is arisen among the Zoa's of Albion? where a Man dare hardly to embrace His own Wife, for the terrors of Chastity that they call By the name of Morality. their Daughters govern all In hidden deceit! they are Vegetable only fit for burning Art & Science cannot exist but by Naked Beauty displayd Then those in Great Eternity who contemplate on Death Said thus. What seems to Be: Is: To those to whom It seems to Be, & is productive of the most dreadful Consequences to those to whom it seems to Be: even of Torments, Despair, Eternal Death; but the Divine Mercy Steps beyond and Redeems Man in the Body of Jesus Amen And Length Bredth Highth again Obey the Divine Vision Hallelujah"
Letters, (E 703) "But as I cannot paint Dirty rags & old Shoes where I ought to place Naked Beauty or simple ornament I despair of Ever pleasing one Class of Men"