Assay Interviews Anthony Bart Chaney

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“The double bind, stated briefly, was an inescapable paradox in which a message was refuted by its context. ‘Don’t be so obedient’ was one such message. The context was an imperative; the message ordered the listener to ignore that context. One could neither comply nor escape complying.”—Anthony Chaney. Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 320 pages.

Assay (Renée E. D’Aoust): Congratulations on the publication of your beautifully written and fascinating book Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness (University of North Carolina Press).

By way of providing background to our readers, and giving thanks, I want to note that we met at the 2017 “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” 2017 Summer Institute hosted by the University of Washington, The Simpson Center for the Humanities, & supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Institute was created and run by Thaïsa Way, Rich Watts, Ken Yocom, with support from Allison Ong.

I particularly want to say how wonderful it was to meet you at the “City/Nature” Summer Institute, and as a fellow writer, to thank you for our deep conversation about all aspects of writing—and of teaching writing, including Composition. Prior to this interview, our initial conversation took place on a hill in Gasworks Park on the north side Seattle’s Lake Union during the Fourth of July celebrations.

Anthony Chaney: Yes, that was an unforgettable day at a fabulous location. What a gift to have the time to talk at length about a book project while sitting on a hillside amid thousands of people on the fourth of July in Seattle.

Assay (D’Aoust): Let’s start with how your book Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness engages with some of the important conversations and questions from the “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” Summer Institute. Two of those questions involved how scholars speak to each other across disciplines and how scholars reach out to larger communities. Bateson is a figure who worked inside and outside the academy, had an astounding grasp of different fields, and impacted many of those fields. In what ways does your book Runaway speak to specific disciplines, across disciplines, and reach out to communities?

Chaney: Crossing disciplines was a theme in Gregory Bateson’s life. He was raised in the tradition of British natural science. He was trained at Cambridge in anthropology. Later, he was took part in the post-WWII Macy Conferences on Cybernetics. Because Bateson’s approach to scientific inquiry was not in any way careerist, he felt little obligation to carve out turf in any particular field. Rather, he followed his research questions wherever they led. They took him from field work with tribal peoples in Papua New Guinea, to reworking psychiatric theories in California, to studying dolphin communication in Hawaii, and to eventually becoming a public intellectual speaking out on social crisis from an ecological perspective.

All this discipline-hopping was in service to one effort: to reorient the life sciences around the concept of information and away from the old Newtonian concept of force. That shift in orientation was part of a much broader transition in the way we organize perception and account for the world around us, a transition toward an “ecological imaginary,” as they say in the environmental humanities.

Because this effort represents such a big shift in the way we see the world, Bateson was ahead of his time. Yes, he crossed disciplines, but there were so few doing what he was doing, it was hard to find others who could appreciate his work. One effect of the insulation of disciplines is that people inside become closed off to ideas from outside. For Bateson, the result was that he often found a more receptive audience, say, when he spoke to mathematicians about biology than he did when he spoke to biologists about biology.

In regard to reaching out to communities, your question speaks to the basic narrative concerning Bateson’s life that I tell in the book. In the 1960s, Bateson is reaching out, trying to find people to share his ideas with, to bounce them off of, like all idea people need to do. He finds a receptive audience in the insurgent youth nation of the 1960s. These folks are very much in the midst of enacting, consciously and semi-consciously, the transition I’m talking about. As I tell it, Bateson and his audience find each other.

Assay (D’Aoust): Your introduction is titled, “Gregory Bateson and the Spirit of 1967,” and your book sets the stage of a “London moment,” using Allen Ginsberg’s attendance at a conference in London, where Ginsberg heard Gregory Bateson speak, to introduce Bateson himself. You have such an astute ability to reference literature in the book, which provides context. If I might add, I was born in 1967. During that time, my mother was working for Carl Rogers, arguably another one of the influential thinkers of that era, and my father was finishing a Ph.D. in biology from Scripps Institute of Oceanography. I grew up knowing Gregory Bateson’s name, but many people, as you suggest in the book’s “Introduction,” don’t know Bateson. By way of introduction, you write:

By shifting attention from social crisis to environmental crisis, [Gregory] Bateson gave his audience a kind of keyhole through which to glimpse this new ‘postmodern’ science of complexity and interrelatedness and, in turn, a new accounting of reality. That new accounting suggested not greater autonomy but greater responsibility. It emphasized not emancipation but dependence.

Among many other threads, throughout the book your scholarship conveys the intersection of ideas and references our contemporary moment of climate chaos in profound ways. All this is possible, I think, because of your fantastic skill as a writer. Runaway is crafted; all the research is there, and it is a story and contains stories. Might you talk about the craft of writing this book, particularly with your background as a scholar, writer, teacher, and a musician?

Chaney: How nice to be able to speak about craft, particularly because my training as a writer is from the fine arts side. I always thought about writing the way I thought about music or visual art. An artist’s job is to create an aesthetic experience. Artists strive to charm their audiences, to touch their audiences emotionally, to press their buttons, to break through and engage them.

images2I started out reading novels, mostly, and considered novels the preeminent literary form. But I remember the first real history of ideas that I read. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I just picked it up at a take-one-leave-one shelf at the apartment complex of a friend. The title intrigued me: The Culture of Narcissism. (It had been a big book in the late seventies, I later learned, in some ways influential on Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech.) In any case, that book knocked me out. It hit a lot of the same buttons that novels hit. Again, this had something to do with interdisciplinarity. Scholarly books I’d read in college were all safely within their own particular disciplines. But the writer of this book, Christopher Lasch, mixed history, philosophy, literature, film, social science, and politics. This umbrella approach opened me up to thinking about events and ideas contextually.

But again, I came at writing the book not primarily to document some body of knowledge, as a scholar might. I aimed to create a compelling reading experience around a set of events, people, texts, and ideas. I shaped it with a couple of big narrative arcs. One I already mentioned, about Bateson finding his audience. The other is about the double bind itself, its career, so to speak, as a cultural concept. It starts out in the mid-1950s as a way to think about schizophrenia as a pathology not inside some individual’s body but in their relational environment. Bateson refines the concept, develops it; it resonates with and echoes numerous other contemporary ideas. By the summer of 1967, Bateson invokes some version of it in talking about “the greenhouse effect” to a group of counterculturalists and revolutionaries in London. This may be the first time the prospect of climate change is put before a lay audience. And here the double bind is used as it is often used today in the discourse of ecological crisis—the wicked dilemmas and feedback loops that mock our most common sense efforts.

Those are the two big stories, and I’m glad you noticed the smaller ones, too. Every section of every chapter was crafted narratively to keep a reader interested and turning pages. Few if any characters or ideas are introduced that don’t show up again later to make another contribution to the plot or to have their moment of resolution.

Assay (D’Aoust): You use “Bateson’s life and work to explore the idea that a postmodern ecological consciousness is the true legacy of the [Sixties] decade.” Specifically with reference to the challenges we face with global climate chaos and disruption, and how to bring those facts into the classroom, what impact does Bateson, and by extension your book, have for our understanding of “ecological consciousness”?

Chaney: Everyone knows about climate change. Everyone grasps ecological crisis; we’ve known that for at least fifty years. Yet it still packs the punch that it did the first time, maybe even more so, since we’re now experiencing the consequences of climate change not only in our weather but in our politics. Many of today’s refugees are climate change refugees, are fossil fuel industry refugees. We look around to the old industrialized countries of the West. Many are adopting what one commentator has called “armed lifeboat” policies. Our current president advocates such policies. His presidency is, to a large degree, a manifestation of the politics of climate change.

What example are those of us who have been around a while setting for our students and our children? What are they learning from us other than to avoid looking at or talking about the most important problem we face?

My claim is that the topic is so painful and so disruptive to our most foundational ideas that it can’t bear a prolonged gaze. It seems to me that paralyzing despair and outright denial are both part of the emotional force field that won’t let us give our predicament the sustained contemplation that it requires. I think it was Hannah Arendt who said that anything can be borne if you can tell a story about it. The story I tell happens in the past; we see historical figures confronting and recoiling from these issues for the first time. We can think about the meaning of climate change at a remove. If we can do this, maybe we can dismantle the force field and not be so afraid.

Assay (D’Aoust): You write about multiple threads at once and you juggle the interconnectedness of things. You write:

Bateson’s belief was that the new science of complexity and interrelatedness allowed people to think and talk about things such as their relationship with their ecology, war, psychological pain, and right and wrong with scientific rigor, without resorting to mysticism or moral preachments. Bateson insisted that depictions of reality were self-reflective and reinforcing, and so if people accounted for the reality beyond themselves as material, amoral, and mindless, then they would account for themselves as amoral mindless machines. But if people attributed to the reality beyond themselves the complexities of mind, they would not strip out from their analysis issues of right and wrong, and an account of themselves as moral beings would follow suit.

Would you share how you found your subject?

Chaney: After reading the Christopher Lasch book, I read another one that took up the topic of Gregory Bateson and discussed his ideas in a critical way. I enjoyed reading Lasch–that didn’t mean I believed everything he said. I decided to look into Bateson myself.

imagesBateson’s book Mind and Nature gave me my first glimpse of the science of complexity and interrelatedness—or, as Jeremy Lent has recently called it, “the systems view of life.” This is not Bateson’s science alone–far from it. The ideas of the transition I mentioned earlier are much bigger than any one thinker or scientist. Bateson’s contribution was partly that he was a terrific writer and could communicate with non-experts like me.

There’s that famous line by Henry Adams about how he was a Darwinist “before the letter.” I think many people who read Bateson are Batesonians before the letter. He articulates a perspective that we already know because by now the ecological imaginary reaches far into mainstream thinking. But that doesn’t mean we can put it into words. That doesn’t mean we can grasp the corrosion that occurs between this new way of thinking and the old ways that are still very much a part of us—and especially of our political and economic institutions.

Assay (D’Aoust): To finish, since our readers are teachers and writers and scholars, I’m wondering if you have suggestions about the balance between academic research, writing, and teaching. How does your creative training in writing and music intersect with and support your scholarship? There is an awesome picture toward the end of the book of Bateson with what looks like the sculptural art of an enormous ear, but it’s actually “his underwater listening device.” To me that photograph sums up the emphasis you place on listening in Runaway. You and Bateson seem like very good listeners.

Chaney: Thank you, Renee, I hope that’s true. I enjoy teaching and I try to be good at it, but creative work–which must of course include input–is what it’s all about for me. I’ve always made a place for it and done what I had to do to support it. I spent eight years on this book, and I could have written it in less than half the time if I hadn’t also had to make a living. I’m sure your readers can relate. So my only advice is the same advice I’ll pass on to my teenage children. “Keep a low overhead.” I think Buddhism and stoicism both arrived at a similar conclusion.

Assay (D’Aoust): Thank you so much for your time—and for Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness!

****

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnthony Bart Chaney teaches history and writing at the University of North Texas at Dallas and blogs mostly on environmental issues for the Society for US Intellectual History. He plays bass and write songs for the long-time Dallas band, Lucky Pierres. He’s published personal essays in a number of literary journals, in paper and online, including The New Orleans Review, Reed Magazine, and Chautaqua Review. Here is a link to his blog: https://anthonychaney.com/

 

 

Editor’s Notes:

Visit the National Endowment for the Humanities here.

Visit the “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” Summer Institute here.

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