Prison Diary: Bateson’s Peripheral Visions

Prison Diary: Mary Catherine Bateson:  Peripheral Visions

An Extended Consideration

by Alan Carl Nicoll

Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved


While I was at Fresno County Jail, it was a continual struggle to get worthy books to read.  As a result, over the course of two months I read Mary Catherine Bateson’s Peripheral Visions three times, with much pondering and writing about it along the way.  This document collects the best quotes and such from my diary of the time.  I have deleted many bare quotes (meaning, quotes I didn’t directly comment on) because I have not obtained permission.  Undated comments in [braces] are from this week.  One paragraph of this piece was used in my most recent “New Diary” post.

What do I remember of the book, ten years later?  Not a lot, just that it was very stimulating and informative, and, in a few areas, I thought very wrong.  However, despite some weaknesses of this book, as a collection of stories and observations it is well worth your time.

This document is 5,400 words long, almost ten pages.  I welcome comments.

{9/29/07} Finished a first reading of Mary Catherine Bateson’s Peripheral Visions. It has some good ideas and quotes, but overall it seemed too much like “squishy liberalism.”  [I identify as socialist, progressive, or liberal.]

“What we call familiar is built up in layers to a structure known so deeply that it is taken for granted and virtually impossible to observe without the help of contrast…. Seen from a contrasting point of view or seen suddenly through the eyes of an outsider, one’s own familiar patterns can become accessible to choice and criticism.” p. 31

After reading this I wrote: “What we call ‘self-evident’ often is merely familiar. When we’ve decided that something is self-evident, it’s time to look hard for alternatives.” (“Contrast” can be found in literature, e.g., Gulliver)

“Looking hard” may be enough in some cases; consider Gulliver’s Travels as social criticism, though Swift was an Irishman criticizing the English, perhaps enough of a “contrast.” Thoreau [a favorite author, seldom far from my thoughts] apparently had less contrast to draw upon, primarily his reading, it seems. That may be enough. Contact w/Indians & Emerson, too. And NATURE.

“As a society, we have become so addicted to entertainment that we have buried the capacity for awed experience of the ordinary. Perhaps the sense of the sacred is more threatened by learned patterns of boredom then it is by blasphemies.” p. 56

What I most like here is the idea that we learn to be bored. It may be possible to study our boredom to learn ways to turn it into something positive, either to increased self-understanding or as a cue to something subtle. Bateson suggests, when bored, taking a closer look at what’s happening in the environment. But then, she wasn’t in jail. How about the Perfect Moment? [A reference to my thought that we can find perfection all around us, merely by looking for it, and especially by telling ourselves, “What a perfect moment this is.”  The “mantra” challenges me to find a perfect color, sound, feeling, whatever.  At one time, I considered this my most important insight or “discovery.”]

“Much of the time we are busy trying to talk children out of their perceptions, giving them the correct answers, the ones that are widely shared and fit neatly into familiar systems of interpretation.” p. 56

She goes on to say that we teach them blindness, closed-mindedness, etc. I don’t disagree, but it all depends on what we [are to] do instead. Do we teach them “anything goes” or “whatever works [for them]”? We need to have our own ducks in a row, to an extent.

{9/30/07} Started rereading Bateson. The first chapter is loaded with woolly generalizations that can be reversed and sound equally plausible. For example: “Ambiguity is the warp of life, not something to be illuminated.” (p. 9) One could respond: “Ambiguity is the enemy of clear thinking.” Also, she has several pages of this stuff, an indigestible lump that serves no useful purpose, I fear. Perhaps, a wad of unclear thinking.

As best I can tell, she’s saying something like:

  • We learn from everything we experience, but not tidy little lessons that can be summarized in words. Life is untidy.

I was going to list other points but have been unable to; instead, here’s an important quote: “This is a book of stories and reflections strung together to suggest a style of learning from experience.” (p. 11)  This quote suggests—or shouts—the basically weak approach and style of the book. Bateson is no fool, however; some of the problems of the book may stem from the admitted difficulty of the subject (human learning) and, probably, premature rushing to closure. Of course, even something half-baked can be valuable. I’m not ready to give up on Bateson yet.

I reread Hall’s Dance of Life again, and chapter six a third time. His writing, alas, is pretty lousy. The ideas and examples are quite good, however. Overall much more rewarding than Bateson, providing some useful tools for understanding human behavior.

{10/11/07}  Bateson says, “we are ready with culturally constructed labels long before we encounter the realities,” p. 4, but she doesn’t say (at least not here) that the label sometimes obscures the reality and we react to the label instead of the reality (as with bigotry). These “labels” are GS “maps.” [“GS” is “General Semantics,” some habits of mind and speech, described by Alfred Korzybski and S. I. Hayakawa; largely forgotten these days, but important to me even now.]

Bateson is full of overstatement and loose talk, but I resist the urge to correct her errors here—it would be an exercise in stroking my ego, with no better purpose, eh?

A quote from Mary Catherine Bateson: Peripheral Visions, p. 5: “The body’s truths are often concealed, so it is not always easy to learn about birth or sex or death, or the curious and paradoxical relationships between them. We keep them separate and learn about them on different tracks, just as we learn separately about economics and medicine and art, and only peripheral vision brings them back together. Experience is structured in advance by stereotypes and idealizations, blurred by caricatures and diagrams.”

To an extent this is very true, but it is through these idealizations and models that we are able to think about and deal with them at all, because the mind cannot recall and manipulate this whole, real apple, but only a small fraction of its characteristics, and usually only those we think are relevant to the immediate need: as food, as projectile, as produce in bulk, as ingredient for pie, and as gift for schoolteacher. This structure that she seems to be deploring is in fact a tremendous aid to efficiency. That same structure can—does—blind us to the experience, the totality of this here-and-now apple in its infinite, awe-inspiring complexity. The mother preparing the child’s sack lunch or the grocer buying crates of apples don’t [or think they don’t] have time for awe and infinity. If we had always to deal with the infinite, we could get nothing done. But in fact, hardly any of us are even capable [it seems] of experiencing awe or infinity in relation to anything less inspiring than a starry night. We don’t see it.  [I am reminded of a quote from Lin Yutang:  The Importance of Living, where he says that it is when we are lying on the beach that we think, “life is beautiful.”  Some of us (me) go in search of awe and infinity on our vacations or through special experiences such as drugs or jet skis (not me).]

I think it also bears emphasizing that awe and infinity are not something which has been lost as we became civilized, but rather an ability that civilization has awakened in us. Babies and crows, perhaps, can only count to three, and think in categories even more than we do: dangerous, edible, mate-able, nest material, everything else. Their categories and models are coarser-grained and “crude,” but suited to present need and further growth.

In the next paragraph she generalizes about the raw sights and experiences children acquire in “primitive” cultures—sex, birth, death—that we seldom see in western civ except on TV. She concludes: “In the modern West, however, even intimacy is categorized and filtered through abstractions.” (p. 5) She completely misses the import of her own explanation: we are shielded—we shield ourselves—from these raw experiences. It’s not the categorization and abstraction that are “in the way,” it’s the walls separating our bedroom from the nursery, and our streets from our mortuary practices and operating rooms. Any child that sees a penis in the U.S. has been the victim of a sex criminal. We are raised to be neurotic as well as ignorant. “The starkest madness”! [9/17/18 Emily Dickinson] [“We are raised to be neurotic” is something I took on from Snell and Gail Putney:  The Adjusted American.]

Bateson is reflecting on her two-year-old’s experience of the ritual sacrifice of a sheep, and unwittingly reveals the depth of her own enculturation when she says, “At least, I wanted to leave her unfrightened.” Here is the very root of our willful self-blinding—the desire to “protect” our tender children and tender selves from any potential upset! As though it were somehow the wrong reaction, to be frightened by a first experience of blood, slaughter, and death. Better, she—Bateson herself—should have fainted, barfed, or averted her vision, as the Iranian woman did, that is, reacted as a human being and not as a Western super-intellectual. She was so caught up in analyzing her own roles that she failed to see that this is how the super-intellectual reacts to the raw experience that can’t be avoided by erecting walls—the “eye” itself goes blind. She was careful not to avert her eyes, as the Iranian did—she unwittingly averted her mind, and stared instead at her categories and roles. And she passed on this lesson to her daughter, that the sheep is made up of various semi-mechanical parts, not unlike her toys, failing to mention, I would guess, that in the disassembly something of far greater importance had happened: a sheep, a living thing, had died. One wonders: did the daughter end up believing that reassembly would restore the sheep, fix it, so it could “run” again, like a toy robot with new batteries? Or was the daughter—as Thoreau might have said—“wiser than that”? One might conclude that she would have done well to pay less attention to her peripheral vision and more to the sight before her, or even, to her heart and her sympathy for the sheep.

Bateson’s overstuffed mind has dulled her senses. She needs a dose of Perls [Frederick S. Perls, originator of gestalt therapy, very popular in the ‘60s; “Lose your mind and come to your senses,” a common quote from him, is sort of the position I’m advocating here]. She says she was “trying to put together a way of acting toward my child and my hosts that would allow all of us, in courtesy and goodwill, to sustain a joint performance”!! (p. 6) Doesn’t she hear herself? “Sustain a joint performance”? I think she needs to know that the only performer present was herself. But this “performance” may be jargon, eh?  [Meaning, maybe this is how cultural anthropologists write and talk to each other, and I’m reading too much into the word.  Maybe.]

It seems to me that everything a normal (i.e., physically healthy) brain/mind does has survival value or reflects or is a byproduct or effect of a mechanism that has survival value. I have in mind, again, the present wincing that accompanies the memory of past faux pas. Also relevant in this context maybe my seeming lack of significant memories of my father.  [Perhaps I should apologize for constantly bringing my words back to myself; but this is from a diary, where perhaps one is allowed to be self-centered.  My purpose, as usual, ultimately is self-knowledge, both then and now.]

I suppose it might be argued that I am equally blinded by my culture, that the averted vision is no more natural or preferable in any sense, than the analytical and dispassionate response. One doubts that another sheep, for instance, would avert its eyes from the scene of slaughter, though a feeling of shock or horror seems rather likely.

“The process of spiraling through memory to weave connection out of incident is basic to learning…” (p. 11) “Spiraling through” is excessively specific; “revisiting” or “recalling” would be unobjectionable. My point in copying the quote was not to criticize it, however, but to appreciate it and to note the relevance to my comment about wincing over recalled memories, above. Bateson is right, here, but presumably unoriginal.  [“Presumably” is stupid; I in fact don’t know that she’s being “unoriginal,” and so should have not said it.]

“My mother used to list paths to ‘insight’ in her lectures: anthropological field work, the study of infants, the study of another species, psychoanalysis, the experience of either a psychosis or a religious conversion (followed by recovery), or ‘a love affair with an old Russian.’ The stories in this book do not cover all that ground, but the list is not a bad road map.” (p. 12) I suppose she means “road map to the book” and not “road map to paths of insight,” but either is possible. Two points: “models” and “experience” are useful categories here; and one would like to see a more varied list even then this, such as learning a foreign language, a sport, a musical instrument, incarceration, travel, sex, and loss of a limb or other member come to mind. But, probably above all would be a lifetime of wide reading. This deserves further thought.

The cheapest, safest, and probably the most efficient way to a good education is through reading, where “good education” probably equates to “rich and broad [or broad and deep] experience.” But another essential to a good education is feedback from peers and mentors.

{1/29/08} Bateson: “Negative self-images are hard to shed without projecting hostility on the image of an inimical ‘other.’” (p. 22) [Perls seems to suggest replacing guilt with hostility.] This has me reflecting on how I have come to see USian [American] culture as my “inimical other,” and I think this more than anything else makes me feel close to Thoreau—another misfit here. And, I think, for similar reasons: wide reading and high ethical standards. Education tends to alienate from the less educated, and liberalism alienates from the illiberal.  [“High ethical standards” that I’m claiming for myself, while in prison?  Okay, I hope you’ll cut me some slack on this.  Look for my book, Kick Me, if you’d like further consideration of this claim.  The book is not yet available, however.]

Bateson: “Comparing two cultures leads all too readily to regarding one as superior, so when I teach and write [what about think?] I try to compare at least three…” (p. 24) This seems valuable. [Are all cultures created equal, then? No!] [This is a difficult question, however.]

“Physical things are eloquent tokens of ideas, enriched by new meanings through time even when the tokens are no more than evanescent paper representations. Often material objects turn out to be diagrams, cognitive maps, that share our space, teach our children, and argue for ways of organizing experience. Like a shell that encodes its own process of growth, objects summarize histories. Passed from hand to hand they represent new relationships and meanings on each passing.” (p. 24-25) [I think that this is a powerful idea made nearly lifeless by how it’s expressed.  It’s over-intellectualized here.]  This got me to thinking about what objects I might want as “desk friends” (p. 15). [“Desk friends”—like Thoreau’s pieces of limestone?] Timmy, of course [a teddy bear]. Oliver’s blue whale [a sculpture]. “Perky,” perhaps [my best drawing]. A bust of Thoreau and one of Darwin, maybe. My “Chinaman [a sculpture].” My mother’s picture. My father’s vise [my father died when I was ten; this was a tool of his that I kept and used]. Or should these things be shunned as “trumpery” and “the beginnings of evil”? [References to Thoreau]

“Rosebud [?].” Clown nose. My best fossil (better than a bust of Darwin).  Caesar? [I don’t understand this; Caesar is a false name for my best friend through school years.]

[These days I have no “desk friends” because my desk is over-crowded with a printer, books, and remotes.  As decorative knick-knacks I tend to favor something other than “pretty,” such as halloween stuff or interesting rocks.]

“… adolescents tend to be preoccupied by the need to belong and to reject those who are different.” (p. 25) Caesar and I were at one point [in junior high] in the habit of saying the word “Jew” to each other [as a “joke”]. This was based in a thoughtless prejudice of his, and didn’t seem to mean much to me, at the time or now. I certainly have my prejudices, including racial and religious—now I fight them all [9/18/18  I think these battles are largely won; see an entry on racism and another on other forms of bigotry]—but a general antisemitism isn’t one of them. The closest I get to antisemitism isn’t close at all: I despise the whiny, neurotic characters of the early Phillip Roth (and Updike? Not sure); but that’s because they are whiny neurotics and not because they are (presumably) Jewish.

{1/30/08} I keep mentioning “models and experience”—What is this? A categorization of human knowledge and learning? Something like that, but what exactly?

Learning essentially is the acquisition of experience; knowledge is not just experience, but experience of certain kinds? No…I think what I’m trying to get at is that when it comes to learning, some experiences are virtually worthless and others are extremely valuable, which is too obvious to bother writing it down. Anyway, I’ve made a list that I want to consider here of, I guess, categories of knowledge: models, skills, muscle memory, language(s), ability to “handle” metaphor, logic, attitudes, philosophy, hope, love, self-esteem, and feedback (on creations, acts) leading to a critical eye. Add: categories, levels of abstraction.  [In other words, labels, pigeonholes, or simply semantics.]

Metaphor, I think, is a kind of connection or a similarity between two things; similarity is only one such connection—a “connection between incidents, basic to learning,” per Bateson.

Learning is not simply the acquisition of knowledge, because skills go beyond “mere knowledge,” as do attitudes and philosophy and “taste.” Hope, love, and self-esteem are partly attitude, partly emotion…I seem to be flailing about and lacking a focus.

Models are a kind of metaphor, that is, a model is similar to a part of reality. They are what we have taken in of reality, our internal map of reality. “Mental” map. [This is not very clear.  To my mind, all our dealings with reality are based on simplified understandings of objects, forces, etc., which omit features which we judge to be irrelevant to our goals of the moment.  Features of which we have little knowledge or awareness are part of the “mystery” of objects, forces, etc.  This will have to do for now.]

What we called prejudice is saying that someone’s model of a category (usually of human beings) is too simple, and probably willfully so. And on the “wrong” level of abstraction.

A “part of reality” is an abstraction; we ignore “irrelevant” details and connections, or fail to see relevant ones.

A political slogan offers a superficial thought that appeals to (reinforces or implants) our prejudices and ignores important relevant facts; poor thought expressed simply and concisely, for a definite purpose; propaganda (agitprop?); lies uttered by hypocrites.

Is it true that all facts are, in fact, opinions? If “everything you know is wrong” is true (paradox Will Robinson!), then indeed all facts are opinions. An important—critical—point: are all facts sentences? I must avoid a rush to closure at this point. (Looks like I’ll have to study the parts of Wittgenstein I’ve previously failed with, i.e., the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations (?). And probably Wisdom’s How to Do Things with Words.) [I have not done this study.  Reading Richard Burnham’s article, “Critical Rationalism: A Personal Account” (link) which is apparently meant as a summary of Karl Popper’s thought, reinforces my thought that “everything you know is wrong.”  A quick Google and Wikipedia article (link) suggest that the expression originated with the Firesign Theater.]

We certainly live by “facts” that are not expressed in sentences, e.g., we see a tiger in the long grass. This could be an accurate or an inaccurate perception. If accurate, does it constitute a “fact”? If not, why not? Certainly we don’t ordinarily think of it as such. But at this point I am stuck with a choice—a definition of “fact” is needed. Or should I look more closely at the relation between “fact” and “everything you know”? (yes).

If I indeed “know” correctly that there is a tiger, then “everything you know is wrong” is simply wrong. And so I conclude; yet I recognize its correctness in regard to facts expressed in language. It encapsulates (expresses concisely) a limitation of language in relation to reality; but, although we cannot speak without “lying,” as a guide to future action, lies can be reliable (pun).

So maybe I should revise “everything you know is wrong” to a “more correct” version: “everything I say is wrong.” Why? Because I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Lest we encourage the scourge of philosophitis, such statements should be kept out of the hands of the philosophically naive, and out of the armory of the SCs! [“SC” is short for “stupid Christian,” not a reference to all Christians, but essentially to those who deny science.][“Philosophitis” is my term for the excesses to which those new to philosophy are prone, such as saying that “reality doesn’t exist” and “objects aren’t solid.”  Possibly, “Everything you know is wrong” is an example?]

{1/31/08} Bateson: “… participation precedes learning.” (p. 41) In other words, we learn by doing. She’s talking about learning language and social norms and such…we come to fear such situations, however, to fear making mistakes and looking foolish, and so we hold back and refuse to participate until we know how. [My son, when he was two, wanted to know many, many names before he would venture to say anything other than “Dat”—which is how he asked for the name of something.  When he had satisfied some internal need, he began speaking in complete and remarkably intelligent sentences.]  We watch others in order to learn, and so end up, in many cases, not learning. We need to keep the fearlessness of the small child, or substitute Perls’ brazenness.  [I often encourage myself in this because I suffered greatly from shyness, and sometimes still do.]

“It is hard to think of learning more fundamental to the shape of society than learning whether to trust or distrust others.” (p. 41) Not to mention, fundamental to our lives in the world, our future as human beings in relationships with persons of whatever degree of familiarity and intimacy (“We live with strangers”). [A Google of that quote finds it as the first sentence of Full Circles, Overlapping Lives (see link), another of Bateson’s books, which I also read.  Maybe it’s also in Peripheral Visions, I don’t know.]

“… much of what adults learn is learned from children. Newborns come equipped to turn their elders into parents…” (p. 48) This might be better said that babies make their parents into mommies and daddies; but we can learn more than merely that. Such as their fearless approach to life—not to be expressed as a sudden urge to go skydiving or bungee jumping, but rather an eager exploration of anything new, an eager interest in meeting new people, and so on. What else? Trust and compassion, perhaps, if these are asleep in us? The naive eye? Passion for living, for everything?

Devotees of Walden take note: “Learning is perhaps the only pleasure that might replace increasing consumption as our chosen mode of enriching experience.” (p. 74) I like the idea of endless learning replacing endless consumption; by “enriching experience” she means the satisfactions of using the new learning, e.g., in nature appreciation. [Do we see learning as pleasure?]

“Each of us can tell his or her [life] story with alternative emphasis.” (p. 85) The emphases from the context are “continuity and change.” My thinking most often focuses on the continuities of my personality, but I also recall points in my life when “everything changed,” specifically, when I quit smoking, when Oliver was born, moving to Frazier Park, and, of course, now.

{2/1/08} Bateson: “The willingness to do what needs to be done is rooted in attention to what is.” (p. 109) This sounds like the combination of Morita therapy (doing what needs doing) with Gestalt Therapy (attention to the here and now). But instead of “attention to,” how about “criticism of”? Yes! [My enthusiasm for criticism sometimes seems boundless.  But “doing what needs doing” implies a critical eye, does it not?]

“… boredom is learned and…other kinds of attention might be learned instead…” (p. 111)

“… we have made every area of life subject to an acquired pathology of attention.” (p. 112) That is, if it doesn’t capture and hold our interest, “it’s boring” because we have learned to expect something that does; we have made ourselves ill in this regard.

“The damage is most obvious in the arts. The search for originality dulls the capacity to savor small variations. The flight from boredom condemns both artist and audience to increasingly mediocre performances, for good work takes patience and polishing.” (p. 114)

There seems to be a truth here, but it seems all too easy to criticize the work on the basis that “anyone could have done it, even a chimp.” It is typically the uninformed loudmouth who makes such a comment. Rather than condemn it all en masse, as the quote seems to do, I think it is enough to say of individual works that “it does nothing for me.” I think one must abandon the idea that some art is necessarily or objectively better; work within a tradition or work that challenges or satirizes a tradition can both be “boring.” The artist needs only to please a portion of his audience, and that is enough, and all that can be expected or demanded. The “patient and polished” to some may seemed labored and stiff to others; one cannot dismiss the new as “insufficiently finished” because what is seen as flaws by some will receive favorable mention from others. There simply are no standards but the subjective and personal. Art—creation and consumption—is individual.   [This now seems entirely too emphatic; yet I find nothing to disagree with.]

{2/3/08} I’m glad to have had the opportunity to read Bateson’s Peripheral Visions a third time, because there are a lot of good ideas in it, as all these quotes show. It suffers from often unclear, inaccurate, or inelegant writing—perhaps “often” is too strong—as well as a lack of structure, but still it is a valuable, stimulating book. No doubt most books are worth reading three times if they are worth reading once, and this style of commenting and abstracting/extracting while reading increases the profit of the exercise. But, if I had anything else to read I would not have picked this one up again.

Which suggests that I should probably return to Augustine’s Confessions again, blech!

Bateson: “My friend, a highly educated man who had spent many years abroad, felt disabled by his own principles and was convinced, as he looked around him, that the success of others must be dishonorable. This line of thought fuels a desire to discredit and topple those in power, followed by a recurrence of suspicion of their replacements…. all victors are suspected of having won by cheating.” (p. 188) This fellow’s attitude seems uncomfortably like my own toward the USian rich. Which is not to say that I’m wrong, only that I need to be careful about slopping over into bigotry. Or, so it seems at the moment; this is undoubtedly worth revisiting.  [I tend to distrust and even loathe rich people more now than ever; my reading of Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World persuaded me, or reinforced my suspicion, that much of history has been driven by class war, the exploitation of the poor and powerless by the rich and powerful.  Also Naomi Klein:  The Shock Doctrine.]

“The most fruitful innovation in education may prove to be a new emphasis on collaborative learning at every level.” (p. 189) At Occidental, in training a class of new group underwriters, I gave them the task of coming up with a correct answer to a calculation—an answer that they all agreed was correct; the idea being to stimulate cooperation and discussion, as well as to gain them some comfort and familiarity with their peers. I don’t recall any dazzling success as a result, but it certainly challenged their assumptions about classroom behavior. This might be a good avenue to explore in future teaching I do in prison, if any. [I taught one class in prison—on fiction writing—but had forgotten this idea.]

“Modern thinking about evolution has made it clear that survival is not a simple zero-sum game; the new inference is that unless we share the planet with other species we imperil our own survival.” (p. 189) This makes a lot more sense than the “circle of life,” which is a raw deal for those being eaten. A zero-sum game is a situation in which every gain by one is offset by an equal loss to another or others, e.g., land ownership. But herbivores without predators become dodos!

{2/4/08} Bateson: “Even truth is not always a zero-sum game, for although some kinds of propositions are mutually exclusive, the many truths of faith and imagination could flourish side-by-side. ‘There are no whole truths,’ Alfred North Whitehead said. ‘All truths are half truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.’” (p. 193)

“…for a species like ours, whose survival depends upon learning, it must be intrinsically rewarding, like sex. It may be that the whole process of education prepares children for the self-alienation of civilized adulthood by turning them into permanently sleepy rats, too docile to bite.” (p. 198-199)  Re the rats, she told of a researcher who worked with rats during daylight hours because, although rats are nocturnal and presumably would learn differently at night, at night “they bite.” Bateson sees adulthood as a self-alienated state, apparently—for the mass of men but not herself, presumably. I am more socially-than self-alienated. I flip-flop on this!  [The thought expressed by Bateson is a commonplace among education critics.]

“The world we live in is the one we are able to perceive; it becomes gradually more intelligible and more accessible with the building up of coherent mental models.” (p. 213) I find this insightful but somewhat lacking. Perception is not simply the taking in [allowing in] of the whole world, but rather the seeking by the unconscious of relevant sensations; Admittedly, there is room for this understanding in the expression “able to perceive,” since the “irrelevant” is practically invisible to us. Also, she says “coherent mental models,” not giving a nod towards the value of a multiplicity of mental models—though this value is clear elsewhere in the text, and my criticism here now seems foolish.

“One of the behaviors that is most easily condemned in other communities is drug use, although chemical tinkering with mental states is very nearly a human universal. Almost all human groups have found something to [use]…that alters moods and even metaphysics, but these practices are less dangerous when they are regulated by tradition, suddenly more dangerous when suppressed. It is often custom, not chemistry, that determines whether a practice is harmful, and many interferences disrupt custom and leave chemistry to do its worst.” (p. 219) Bravo! Our paternalistic approach to social control through prohibitions in law will be the ruin of us…has been the ruin of my fatherhood.

“…you cannot learn easily or at any depth from those you look down on.” (p. 233) This struck home because I very much look down on those of my fellow inmates who show little of the kind of knowledge and intelligence I most value. I need to think again because these rough men have lived lives which have shaped them to their present state. They have survived in a world far more hostile and dangerous, probably, than the one I was shaped by. They may have much to teach me about survival where I am going. I am unlikely to change much through this insight, though perhaps I can at least be more alert for opportunities for learning?

“Beyond either relativism or the search for absolutes, learning can be practiced as a form of spirituality through a lifetime.” (p. 234) My “religion” has been my reading, specifically my reading in search of happiness. I have also read as preparation for, and often as a substitute for, action. Bateson says, “…it is not possible to stand aside from participation until we know what we’re doing…” (p. 235) but I have often—always?—tried to do exactly that. From that reading I drew the strength and courage needed to proceed, sometimes. Sometimes the reading was a failure or I was insufficiently motivated to proceed…but I have in mind trivialities like golf and painting and dancing, dating, sex. But I sense that I am rushing to closure here—so I will leave it open.

Finished Bateson, and I must confess that I got a lot out of this third reading, as the wealth of quotes above make clear. She is no [Rabbi Harold] Kushner, pushing for his “authoritative” absolutes, but a rich and mature mind fertile with ideas. Her writing is sometimes troublesome, but there was ample reward in wrestling with her prose. An author to read again.


2 thoughts on “Prison Diary: Bateson’s Peripheral Visions

  1. This looks like a thoughtful and well written article. I will read it when I am in a better frame of mind. I just had a saxophone lesson and my teacher loaned me a new mouthpiece, fixed the leaks on my tenor sax, and gave me a ton of helpful tips and penetrating insight into music and saxophone techniques. No jokes about tips and penetration please. I will read this and respond with a comment that will try to rise to the occasion.


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