Issue 10.3 | Summer 2012 / Guest edited by Jonathan Beller

Schizophrenic Techniques: Cybernetics, the Human Sciences, and the Double Bind

In 1969 in a symposium on schizophrenia and the double bind at the National Institute of Mental Health, the cybernetician and ethnographer Gregory Bateson stood before an audience of some of the most prominent psychiatrists and psychologists in the world and proceeded to discuss the mental life of animals. This was not a question of expertise; Bateson was known as the inventor of the term “double bind” and a pioneer in creating models to treat addiction and wartime trauma, but he did not wish to discuss those cases. Rather, he invoked, by example, a porpoise.[1]

This porpoise had been trained at a Navy research facility to perform tricks and other trained acts in return for fish. One day, her trainers started a new regimen. They deprived her of food unless she produced a new trick. Starved if she repeated the same act, but also if she did not perform, the porpoise was trapped. This experiment was repeated with numerous porpoises, usually culminating in extreme aggression, and a descent into what from an anthropomorphic perspective might be labeled disaffection, confusion, antisocial, and violent behavior. Bateson with his usual lack of reservation was ready to label these dolphins as suffering the paranoid form of schizophrenia. The anthropologist was at pains to remind his audience that, however, before rushing to conclusions about genetic predeterminacy or innate typologies, the good doctors should recall that these psychotic porpoises were acting very reasonably and rationally. In fact, they were doing exactly what their training as animals in a navy laboratory would lead them to do. Their problem was that they had two conflicting signals. They had been taught to obey and be rewarded. But now obedience bought punishment and so did disobedience. The poor animals, having no perspective on their situation as laboratory experiments were naturally breaking apart—fissuring their personalities (and Bateson thought they had them) in efforts to be both rebellious and compliant, but above all to act as they had been taught. The motto of the story being that to act rationally in a set pattern following given rules might also be to act psychotically.

This one porpoise, however, appeared to possess a good memory. She was capable of other things. Bateson related how, between the fourteenth and fifteenth demonstration, the porpoise “appeared much excited,” and for her final performance she gave an “elaborate” display, including multiple pieces of behavior of which four were “entirely new—never before observed in this species of animal.” These were not solely genetically endowed abilities; they were learned, the result of an experiment in time. This process in which the subject—whether a patient or a dolphin—uses the memories of other interactions and other situations to transform his or her actions within the immediate scenario can become the very seat of innovation. The dolphin’s ego (in so far as we decide she has one) was sufficiently weakened to be reformed, developing new attachments to objects in its environment and to memories in its past. This rewired network of relations can lead to emergence through the recontextualization of the situation within which the confused and conflicted animal finds itself:

This story [of the porpoise and its trainer] illustrates, I believe, two aspects of the genesis of a transcontextual syndrome:

First, that severe pain and maladjustment can be induced by putting a mammal in the wrong regarding its rules of making sense of an important relationship with another mammal.

And second, that if this pathology can be warded off or resisted, the total experience may promote creativity.[2]

Schizophrenia, therefore, can be the very seat of creativity: a not unproblematic assumption. But one that nonetheless tied older histories of pathology, madness, and genius, to the new theories of communication, which for Bateson also included our minds.[3]

Bateson’s conclusion was that the pathological form of schizophrenia is an inability to comprehend the structure of the communicating situation. Schizophrenics receive signals, but cannot respond in a purposeful way (i.e., with a deferred known goal) because they have no other, different, communicative situations to compare, contrast, or use, outside of the immediate message. Paranoid symptoms therefore emerge from dysfunctions in storage and memory. If an intervening program cannot enter from memory, the repetitive actions cannot be disrupted. The system cannot learn and it becomes stuck or jammed. The irony is that the more rationally and logically a creature acts under particular conditions the more self-destructive it can become.

Bateson went so far as to suggest that schizophrenia is one of the standard states we all live in within contemporary information societies. Reconfiguring the idea of psychology into “an ecology of the mind,” in his terms, Bateson focused on cognition as the result of environmental interactions and communication structures. From this model he extrapolated that it was quite common to be embedded within contradictory communication structures without a Cartesian or external perspective on the situation. Bateson coined the term “double bind” to define schizophrenia in order to articulate this understanding of pathology as a communicative disorder.[4]

Counter to previous studies in psychoanalysis on schizophrenia, Bateson’s research was no longer a matter of individual and isolated subjects. For Bateson, what was once a pathology of cycling cathexis within an individuated subject—psychosis—was now a matter of environmental interactions and the structure of the communication channel. The porpoise, its trainer, and the demonstration tank were all one system, and psychologists, ethnologists, and anthropologists now had a new object of study—the communicative exchanges between entities in a system. Scientists now focused their attention on the interactions between entities as the site of measure, manipulation, and study.

And Bateson was not merely amusing his audience. When situated within a lifetime of work that traversed the study of cultural conflict in Papua New Guinea, the schizophrenic nature of the Balinese character, the structure of Japanese propaganda, and the psychiatric health of veterans from the Korean and Second World Wars, Bateson’s lecture gestures to a broader transformation of methodology in the social sciences. In his work, and that of many of his compatriots in the social, communication, cognitive, and computational sciences, we hear similar statements transforming a world of stable identity, conscious subjects, and discrete objects into one of interaction, patterns, and networks.

I open, therefore, with this seemingly irrelevant story of rational psychosis and intelligent animals because it illuminates this midcentury transformation in the constitution of truth and the definition of reason in the human sciences. I wish to take this turn away from discourses of structure whether of biology, psychology, or society to the terms of communication, cognition and ecology in order to examine the emergence of a new epistemology in the human and social sciences—an informatic optic—founded on a tense relationship between historical understandings of the anthropos, representation, and objectivity and emergent ideas of probability, information, and computability.

This story, in keeping perhaps with the psychotic logics from which it is constituted, is neither linear nor simple. The history of how porpoises gained rationality is a queer one that traces how colonial and modern scientific projects got folded into postwar communications and cybernetic theories in the interest of new methodologies in the human and social sciences. In the course of this piece I will track the vector between the ethnographic work conducted in the Highlands of Bali by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead to Bateson’s role in the development of self-help and family therapeutic technologies. In keeping with the concerns of contemporary work in queer and race studies to examine the politics by which older categories of difference, sex, and nation are consumed into war machines, the “folding of queer and sexual national subjects into the bio-political management of life,” as queer theorist Jasbir Puar puts it, a central task emerges of asking similar questions in light of digital media—particularly information technologies and economies.[5]

Bateson’s formulation of the double bind, sitting on his own work as an ethnographer in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia in the 1920s and 1930s, does indeed provide a stunning case study of the logistics by which disciplinary and colonial histories were folded into hyper-individuated and personalized technologies. What had been about encounter with different cultures and the description of difference within the anthropos became a tool for therapy and self-help. Inside these cybernetic minds and ecologies, within the rise of new cognitive and human sciences founded upon ideas of communication, what was once mystical and magical, psychological and conscious, colonial and different was reframed in terms of communication channels, redundancy, and performance. Arguably, Bateson’s evolution from an ethnographer working in a modern and colonial ethnographic climate to a postwar cybernetician is symptomatic of this broader shift in the social and human sciences from discourses of race, ethnicity, and territory to those of behavior, communication, and environment.

I call attention to this shift not merely to make an important point about epistemology after the war, but because this move between structure and personalization, from colonial contexts to therapeutic practice, confronts us like the schizophrenic leaps of the porpoise with the strangeness of the present. If there is, of late, so much talk about nomadism and war machines, about the inefficacy of older forms of politics; perhaps it is linked to these moves by which what was once animal, queer, or different has been assimilated into a form of politics—perhaps biopolitics—that is therapeutic, soothing, and hyper-individuated. But despite all these calls to attend to the folding of “queer” history into the present, there is almost never an analysis of the moves necessary to transform older questions of encounter, colonialism, and objectivity into contemporary forms of globalization and biopolitics. By what tactics do these foldings occur? How does genealogy make us recognize our contemporary condition? And awaken us to the strangeness of those forms we otherwise find natural, which, in fact, many of us may partake of? This form of torture (surely the porpoise suffered for science), now commencing in the name of “creativity,” poses lessons for our present. Perhaps, like the archival fragments Walter Benjamin once aspired to produce, it awakens us from our complacency to recognize the violence but also, perhaps, the creativity and emergence within our present. It is story that destabilizes any clear understanding of either cybernetics or militarization in the present.

This, then, is a history of both possibility and danger. Building these models mandated a repression and disavowal of the violence that spawned them, but also produced new possibilities for life. There is pain in the story of the porpoise, but there is also a possibility in the theory of double bind to activate an ecological, environmental form of mind. Reactionary return will, as the schizophrenic repetitions remind us, serve no positive purpose. Cybernetics is not a moral entity. But it does pose some ethical questions about how we wish to use these technologies—of communication and psyche. What, this essay asks, would change if we knew that Alcoholics Anonymous or addiction therapies were built on colonial ethnography or the torture of animals? This article is a preliminary experiment in reenacting this question. Bringing these pasts back into the picture is not to throw out group therapy, but perhaps to revise our understandings of its function and allow us to reimagine other possible forms of life. Most importantly, we may ask, do these reflexive reenactments still produce consciousness? For Bateson, the porpoise allowed a world of communicative networks and rational psychosis to be made visible as a site not of determinism, but of experiment. The successes, but also the failures, of control were made spectacular processes—visible to the horror and pleasure of social scientists. Can this still happen today? We seek the tactics by which to do so.

Histories of Ethnography

But to begin: Bateson’s concerns with psychosis and schizophrenia dated to the late 1930s when he was sent to Bali, in a project funded by the American Museum of Natural History and the Committee for the study of Dementia Praecox,[6] to study rituals of trance and mysticism with the prominent anthropologist Margaret Mead. The academic purpose of the research, despite its focus on trance and mysticism, was not the comparative study of religion or belief, but rather the comparison of cultural psychologies. The hypothesis guiding the research was that trance states and the performance of possession and haunting demonstrated weak egos. These schizophrenic performances of the Balinese might, Mead and Bateson postulated, therefore teach something about the etiology of mental illness.[7] Their research agenda was to unearth, in these Others, a better understanding of schizophrenia, a pathology that in their words, “continued to rise amongst us.” “Us” implicitly referred to the United States and Western Europe.[8]

Highland Bali was not a site chosen for its specificity. It was an accident. Mead and Bateson would have preferred to return to one of their earlier field sites but as a result of political turmoil or economic costs could not. Lack of historical, social, or cultural knowledge about the location did not, however, deter the couple. From the start, their argument was that their study was about developing methods by which to study psychology and culture together, and was applicable to any scenario anywhere.[9]

While many anthropologists, musicologists, and artists were fetishistically enamored with Balinese style, culture, and aesthetics, Mead and Bateson evinced no such desires. What prominent avant-garde composers also working in Bali at the same time, such as Colin McPhee and his ethnographer wife Jane Belo, found as a source of inspiration for reconfiguring perception and aesthetics was for Bateson and Mead, a substrate to substantiate the automation of recording culture.[10]

Mead and Bateson therefore opted to focus on bodily gestures and performances. With an attitude symptomatic of communication theorists in general and of Bateson and Mead in particular, methodology trumped any direct investment in the specificities of the locale. This gestural focus supporting their methodological imperative to produce, as Mead would put it a few years later, a “global” social science.[11]

Affirming their lack of interest in voice or translation, they never learned Balinese or any of the local dialects with any competence, and never bothered with Dutch, the academic and colonial language of the region, or Malay, the major trading language and creole lingua franca of the archipelago.[12] This failure of language, however, induced a turn to pure inscription. Bateson took over 36,000 photographs and 45,000 feet of film, accompanied by 7200 boxes of notes.[13] The ethnographer produced a massive archive of gestures from which to generate his analysis.

Their concern with using visual media is evidence of their focus on producing globalized and generalizable methods over specific contextual details, and part of a dream of a universal language of vision that might replace the inadequacies of spoken and written language and scientific description.[14]

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  1. Bateson had long possessed an interest in animals, regularly using accounts of their behavior to substantiate his observations of humans. He participated in dolphin research in the early 1960s in the Virgin Islands and in Hawaii. Mary Catherine Bateson, With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson (New York, NY: W. Morrow, 1984). [Return to text]
  2. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000[1972]) 278. [Return to text]
  3. For further information on the relationship between schizophrenia, creativity, difference and genius see: Irving Gottesman, Schizophrenia Genesis: The Origins of Madness (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1991); Shoshana Felman, Writing and Madness (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003; and Sander Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985). [Return to text]
  4. Gregory Bateson et al., “Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia,” Behavioral Science 1 (1956): 251-64. [Return to text]
  5. Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, eds. Inderpal Grewal, Caren Kaplan, and Robyn Wiegman (Durham: Duke UP, 2007) xii. [Return to text]
  6. An outdated term for schizophrenia. [Return to text]
  7. M.C. Bateson 1984. [Return to text]
  8. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1942), Introduction. [Return to text]
  9. M.C. Bateson 1984. [Return to text]
  10. Jane Belo, Trance in Bali (New York: Columbia UP, 1960). [Return to text]
  11. Margaret Mead, The World Ahead: An Anthropologist Anticipates the Future, ed. Robert B. Textor (New York: Berghahn, 2005). [Return to text]
  12. Ira Jacknis, “Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali: Their Uses of Photography and Film,” Cultural Anthropology 3.2 (1988): 161. [Return to text]
  13. Stewart Brand, “For God’s Sake, Margaret: A Conversation with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead,” CoEvolution Quarterly. Reprinted in Oikos, Summer (1976): 32-44; Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham: Duke UP, 1999) 199. [Return to text]
  14. Russell 1999: 199. [Return to text]