Gregory Bateson’s Flat Ontology

I think one of the reasons I was so receptive to Bruno Latour’s work is that I had read and struggled to comprehend Gregory Bateson prior to encountering Latour.  I find a lot of similarity between the two (as well as a lot of difference, of course), and I would say that Bateson primed me for Latour, who, I think, continues Bateson’s project of understanding the relationships between beings while taking that project on a very different trajectory than Bateson himself did or would have if he were around today.

One example where I think the two thinkers feed into one another (not literally, since Latour doesn’t mention Bateson much, and Bateson was not, as far as I know, aware of Latour) is in the concept of a flat ontology.  Of course this is a relatively recent term that post-dates Bateson, so he never used it himself, but, nevertheless, I believe there are elements of a flat ontology in Bateson’s work.

Gregory Bateson

Here’s an excerpt from a section of Bateson’s book Steps to an Ecology of Mind titled “Pathologies of Epistemology”:

They say that power corrupts; but this, I suspect, is nonsense.  What is true is that the idea of power corrupts.  Power corrupts most rapidly those who believe in it, and it is they who will want it most.  Obviously our democratic system tends to give power to those who hunger for it and gives every opportunity to those who don’t want power to avoid getting it.  Not a very satisfactory arrangement if power corrupts those who believe in it and want it.

Perhaps there is no such thing as unilateral power.  After all, the man “in power” depends on receiving information all the time from outside.  He responds to that information just as much as he “causes” things to happen.  It is not possible for Goebbels to control the public opinion of Germany because in order to do so he must have spies or legmen or public opinion polls to tell him what the Germans are thinking.  He must then trim what he says to this information; and then again find out how they are responding.  It is an interaction and not a lineal situation.

But the myth of power is, of course, a very powerful myth and probably most people in this world more or less believe in it.  It is a myth which, if everybody believes in it, becomes to that extent self-validating.  But it is still epistemological lunacy  and leads inevitably to various sorts of disaster.”

This follows from his notion of learning (including social or cultural learning) as a stochastic process.  As he describes it, a stochastic process is one which is characterized by a fundamental randomness (or complexity) with some kind of selecting mechanism that holds things together.  If this is the case, then anything that is part of the system is simply one random element among other random elements – there is no position within the system from which to capture the whole system.  Those in power – though they may have a wider influence than others – are situated within the system and have no more ability to control a system than anyone else.  As a result, the system is essentially flat with varying degrees of influence due primarily to the ability to mobilize other beings to work with you (i.e. Goebbels’ spies, legmen and public opinion polls), but even these other beings are never wholly under the control of another since they will also translate, interpret, mediate, and provide feedback.

Bruno Latour

Latour describes his flat ontology in terms of a war room situated close to the front lines.  The war room is the place where the generals sit – far enough from the front to be safe, but close enough to know what’s going on.  There they peer over maps and scour through data to see how the war is progressing – they seem to take a birds eye (strategic) view of the war – and they then send out orders that seem to determine the course of the battle.  But this strategic view is constructed for them by various mediators (data gatherers, map makers, analysts, as well as non-humans such as the maps themselves, computers, charts, and graphs), and their orders also depend upon mediators to be put into place.  These generals have a great deal of influence but their sense of control is an illusion since all of those mediators is capable of transforming the outcome in slight, but potentially far-reaching ways (that is, they are capable of making a difference –  the film The King of Hearts is an excellent example). In other words, in spite of their far reaching influence and the masses of data and such that are compiled to give them a strategic view, these generals are situated within the system and have no more ability to control it than any other being.

War Room

This follows from Latour’s principle of irreduction: that nothing is reducible to anything else.  Which is a kind of indirect reiteration of the stochastic principle that Bateson refers to.  If nothing is reducible to anything else, then a system is characterized by heterogeneity, complexity, and randomness.  As a result, there is not position within a system (or even outside of it, I would argue, since there can be no outside – as soon as you engage with it you are inside) from which one can grasp the system as whole.  We can talk about patterns, we can represent them, but these representations are always incomplete, and, once they are produced, they themselves become a part of the system.  Thus the map becomes a part of the territory that it attempts to represent – and this makes a difference.

When I first read Bateson talking about the “myth” of power, I was taken aback.  How, I wondered, could we hope to resist injustice without a good concept of power?  Does this make Bateson and Latour apolitical, as some have suggested?  But thinking about it, I realize that it does not.  In fact, I think it makes Bateson and Latour far more radical than any of the critical theorists who valorize power.  Their flat ontology makes it apparent that people in power or structures of power are not transcendent beings – that they are just as fallible, and incompetent as the rest of us.  Their influence is contingent – based on a number of mediators that could at any time turn against them – and their control is an illusion.  This is a kind of power that we can do something about – by acting upon and as mediators to transform its scope and direction – as opposed to the transcendent power that is ultimately beyond our capacity to resist or overthrow.   This is why I like these two philosopher-anthropologists so much.


Note: Just as a side note, I’m not really convinced that Bateson’s ontology is actually flat given the attention he pays to “orders of abstraction.”  However, the concept of a stochastic system that he describes is, I think, characteristic of a flat ontology. 


In a recent post, Levi Bryant describes entropy:

Entropy is not merely the tendency of systems towards heat death, but is more profoundly the measure of order within a machine. The more improbable relations between elements or parts within a machine the higher its degree of order, while the more probable the location of elements within a system the higher its degree of entropy.

This is something I’d like to expand upon, as I have been thinking a lot in the last several months about this concept of entropy (derived from nonequilibrium physics) and the idea of work.  For most social scientists – particularly those who study the relationship between people and the environment – work is important because it generates knowledge; a farmer knows the land because s/he works the land.  I don’t dispute that, but I think this is not the only reason we should be interested in theorizing work.  Furthermore, I would argue that a focus on the work as knowledge production tends to lead to a valorization of laborers that isn’t necessarily justified in terms of environmentalism or social justice.

My thoughts on work are derived from the theory of entropy described above, and from notions of embodied and situated practices.  For me work is two things: 1) it is the way we alter and affect others, and 2) it is the way we are altered and affected by others.  Work is the way we create order, and the way we are ordered – through flows of energy and resources.  In the most fundamental sense, work is the way we create a world – including ourselves, and in collaboration with other beings around us.  Through work we build, maintain, and destroy relationships.  And we can’t help but do work.

This theory of work includes work as knowledge production, but is not limited to that.  Instead it forces us to open our view to the many ways that we do work, and the many different results of that work.  Whether you’re out in a field planting crops, chopping down trees, building a house, or sitting in an office, you’re doing work and that means you’re making a difference.  The question is, what kind of difference are you making?

Work is directly relevant to almost every aspect of my thought, including the basic premise of this blog – Utopia as a continual process of building a better world.  Making the world better takes work, and it takes paying attention to the ways in which we work and the consequences of that work for ourselves and others.  We want simple solutions and easy answers, but to make a difference takes work.

Aldous Huxley – Mind at Large

Just posted this video to the Inspiration page.  Huxley conceived of mind as permeating the universe. The function of the brain, then, is to filter down this “mind at large” to a manageable proportion for day-to-day existence. So, rather than being the source for consciousness (as is the dominant understanding in science), the brain acts as a sort of receiver for consciousness much as a radio antenna acts as a receiver for radio signals that are all around us.  Hoowever, Huxley believed that we are capable of receiving much more of mind at large than we normally do – this is the source for spirituality and enlightenment.

Struggle Forever!

This website marks a new beginning.  Over the last few years, I feel my thought has coalesced on a new level – one that requires a more focused, more disciplined approach.  As a result, I’m putting aside Eidetic Illuminations (which will remain archived for the time being), and initiating Struggle Forever!: A Guide to Utopia.

This site will allow me to focus my attention on the theoretical and practical engagements that are important to me.  It will serve as a base for all of my future work – inviting others to comment, share, critique, and egg on.  My hope is that it will become a place full of rich thinking and intensive action, where relationships are built and change is begun.

If you were a follower of Eidetic Illuminations, there is no need to change your feed – I’ve already done it for you.  If you were not a follower, but want to follow me now, use the link on the right sidebar.  Please, explore the site, and feel free to leave comments or questions as needed.