Nora talking with Joanna Harcourt-Smith
"[Let's] begin to use a study of interrelationship and interdependency that is in all complex living systems and begin to understand what makes them alive. How do they learn? How do they get unstuck?"
"Transcontextuality is looking at the way in which an organism requires context and a study of context in order to really understand what is making it tick… It’s easy to think that context is a singular thing. If you want to study it through multiple description, that takes many ways of seeing... With Transcontextuality there’s the possibility of getting further… to a higher level in the thinking."
"It’s good to be able to notice the Transcontextuality in yourself, in the way that we might emotionally respond to an experience. You might feel afraid and sad and guilty about something, but you might at the same time feel love and excitement and possibility. How often do you just feel one thing at a time? And yet, when we’re asked to describe our experience, we very often give it either singular or binary description and, in doing so, we eliminate the possibility of communicating the Transcontextuality and the multiplicity that we experience every day. "
"Emergence in emergency, or complexity in an emergency or an acute situation – in those moments it’s so easy for our big, beautiful, compassionate, loving ideas to shrink down into immediate survival binaries."
"Whoever I work with – I’m always doing the same thing: helping to articulate and illustrate the ways in which interrelationship and interdependency connect and form the processes of life."
"People ask you ‘why did you do a thing like that?’ and you try and give an answer and that is the hitch. When you do that, you eliminate the complexity. There’s the reductionism in there."
"Once you objectify then you can exploit."
"...we see another kind of relationship between humankind and nature. It’s a relationship not of stewardship, not of sustainability, not of ecology… it’s a relationship of lustful longing and real desire to be in contact - the kind of contact that is always there and never complete."
Below: listen to the full conversation:
Small Arcs of Larger Circles
two interviews with Nora Bateson
Extracts from an interview with Joy Stocke of Wild River Review (The full interview is here.)
Wild River Review: The first and last chapters of Small Arcs beautifully underscore one of your themes: how we perceive and live our lives depends on the kind of map we imagine for ourselves. In fact, early in the book, you say, “it might be that we are navigating with the wrong map.” If so, how do we determine the “right” map? And further, how do we create it?
Nora Bateson: ... The way in which we perceive the world matters. The actions we take and the decisions we make are informed by our perception, and vice versa. When we are in crisis and we ask, “What is the problem and how do we fix it?”, we are calibrating our perception of the situation and gathering up possible actions based on what seems possible. But what if we have only perceived a small fragment of the situation? Are we really prepared to make decisions and take action?
We are facing complex times. I take for granted as a starting point that it will require complexity to perceive and respond to complexity. The way I see it, the opposite of complexity is not simplicity, it is reductionism. The romance of emergence as a source of possibility tends to vanish in emergencies. Likewise no one is interested in complexity during an acute situation. Ironically, it is in those moments, when we need perspective most, that it is so easy for our big, beautiful, compassionate, loving ideas to shrink down into immediate survival binaries.
... What does it say about our world that our cultural appetite for solutions is so great that we are willing to step over the complexity of life, unleashing untold consequences in favor of instructions, which are likely bogus on what to do next? Maps can be dangerous. I am not sure that anyone can say what the “right” map is for themselves, let alone for anyone else. Life is complex, responding to the complexity is by definition personal and unscriptable, probably unmappable too. “Maps,” as the philosopher Alfred Korzybski said, “are not the territory.” Maps are strange metaphors; they are illustrations of plotted points on a flat surface as representation of things that are not flat at all. Maps may be elegant, but they can’t hold things like culture, ideas, evolution, communication, or love. How can we go forward without those things?
I am both fascinated and a little terrified by the human habit of modeling and map-making. As a filmmaker I am a supporter of the vocabulary of “zoom in and zoom out.” I see the linear thinking lens, which gives us the details and the specialization as fine and necessary, but so is context. Both are good; however, contextual study is not as developed or mandated, let alone funded.
WRR: Your chapter “Tears at the Bus Stop” takes the educational system head on saying what many educators already know: the current educational system is outmoded and, in fact, is not preparing children for the complexities of today’s world. It also gives a window into your relationship with your father as well as his work. You do all this with a personal story as illustration. Why do certain stories stay with us and shape us?
Bateson: ...Stories are living descriptions, open messages, and encourage sense-making at multiple levels. Stories mean different things at different times, to different people, in different moments of history. Stories can be told and heard from many perspectives. Unlike the mechanistic world, stories are not identical, repeatable, or replaceable. Even when they are printed in a book, they shift and dance in our imaginations.
The story you mention is about the education system’s shortcomings, and at the same time it is a story about intergenerational relationships. In fact, I see Small Arcs as a collection of vignettes that are all about intergenerational stories. The question of how the past is going to play out into the future is a story that runs backwards too. How will the future reshape our understanding of the past? These stories are not still, and to force them into prose that is concrete is a disservice to the possibility of mutual learning.
Writing this story about my father and me was a way for me to better undertake the gorgeous task of being a mom. My father’s tears at the bus stop were tears of love and protection. He did not want the education system to ruin my mind by dividing the world into decontextualized bits. It would be decades before I would truly grasp the depth of that parental concern, but from my seat on the bus that day I knew that there was something to be sad about. I saw that my father considered some things worth crying over. I knew there was story about those tears; it just took me forty more years to pen it. So where was the story? Was it in me as a nine year old? In my father? In my experience as a mother or a teacher?
WRR: The arc of Small Arcs is rich with your poetry—pauses that enlarge the narrative. Would you share a bit of background about your poem, “Whole Peace,”and its creation and context within the book?
Bateson: There are things that need saying that cannot be said in prose. There are sensations and reflections that are unholdable in direct language. Since Small Arcs is an inquiry into the in-between, into the interrelationships, into the music of communication across time—since I am writing a book about that realm—I need poetry and story. I have a favorite quote of my dad’s that I keep close by for the moments when I get tempted to form language that will cage in ideas that need to be free: “’Poetry is not a sort of distorted and decorated prose, but rather prose is poetry which has been stripped down and pinned to a Procrustean bed of logic.’” (G. Bateson, Steps to An Ecology of Mind, pp 136)
“Whole Peace” is about the struggle to be true to oneself within the process of peace-making. As a person who does not want to cause more hurt or anger in the world I have had to defer, to smooth over, to be the one who offers the olive branch too many times. As a woman, that attempt at peace-making is part of a larger narrative of difficult deference and capitulation. This poem is about every betrayal and fury in my life, and about finding my way to the core of an authentic route through the pain. In this poem and in my life, I am looking for a larger version of peace, larger than the choice of being right or being wrong, larger than anger and forgiveness. Life is too short to fake peace, too short to stay mad, and too short to live in the illusion that the past can be cast away or erased. Time and space are part of the pain of betrayal, and also part of the process of growth. I want to grow, and repeating the refrain in this piece that says, “I will not forsake myself,” is a mantra to keep learning to learn.
While it is a personal exploration of the landscape of being hurt, this piece is also about larger social issues, like war, hatred, and bullies. Vengeance has been condoned and frothed by reckless world leaders who have led their societies into destructive binaries and deadly double-binds. Standing up for what is just, or in protection of your family, is a kind of strength that is conflated with violence. Sometimes it seems to me that the world has taken up television’s door-slamming, cold-shouldering, melodramatic provocations as normal, acceptable communication patterns. Every other action film these days is about revenge. Meanwhile the peacemakers are sourcing “forgiveness” seemingly out of thin air. They appear to toss their self-respect aside, and take the high ground, because it is the “right” thing to do.
(Read the full interview here.)