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Unlocking the Mind’s Manacles

Storie permesse, storie proibite: polarità semantiche familiari e psicopatologie

by Valeria Ugazio
Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 305 pp., L60,000 (paper)


The paths by which one mind may come to influence another are curious indeed. Thus a new book by the Italian psychologist Valeria Ugazio exploring the family backgrounds of those suffering from phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and anorexia begins by drawing on observations made by the British anthropologist Gregory Bateson while he was working among the Iatmul Indians of New Guinea in the late 1920s. Behind both authors the anticonformist inspiration of the eighteenth-century English poet William Blake is frequently apparent, while between them lies the rise and fall of one of the most controversial recent adventures in psychotherapy, the so-called systemic approach.

Bateson was born in 1904 into a family with a history of scientific controversy. His father, William, a distinguished naturalist, was responsible for giving the study of genetics its name and was both translator and vociferous champion of Mendel’s work on hybrids and heredity. Gregory was named after the Austrian monk, no doubt with the hope that he would follow in his footsteps. Ironically, while Bateson never sought to belittle the study of genetics, his legacy has been to stress the importance of the social environment in activating, or not, the potential available in any individual’s genetic makeup.

Explaining to his disappointed father that he was giving up zoology for the relatively new subject of anthropology, Bateson spoke of his need for “a break with ordinary impersonal science.” He had grown up in a house where Blake’s pictures hung on the walls, where art and poetry were revered as the acme of human achievement yet at the same time considered “scarcely in the reach of people like ourselves.” Gregory’s elder brother, Martin, who aspired to become a poet rather than a scientist, argued bitterly with his father. Infatuated with a girl who never gave him the slightest hope, he shot himself by the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, a suicide note and a poem in his pocket. The circumstances might have been invented to demonstrate the limitations of “ordinary impersonal science.”

Although in her book Storie permesse, storie proibite (“Stories allowed, stories forbidden”) Valeria Ugazio draws only on Bateson’s ideas and not on his biography, one can’t help feeling its relevance to her thesis. The idea behind her title is that the way family members talk about themselves and others, giving particular importance to certain qualities and achievements, will make some “life stories” (or ways of seeing one’s life as narrative) available to a child while denying the possibility of certain others. Clearly, after his brother’s suicide, an artist’s life was a “story forbidden” to Gregory. On the other hand it was the achievement to which his family attached the greatest value, and there can be no doubt that they were ambitious for their son. His choice of anthropology and, as he always insisted, its specifically “human” element can be seen as a way of combining the scientific and artistic and hence resolving the particular career conundrum his parents had created for him. Significantly, on the opening page of his first book, Naven, a study of New Guinea Indians, Bateson would reflect on the advantages of a novelist’s eye when it came to describing a foreign culture.

The artist…can leave a great many of the most fundamental aspects of culture to be picked up not from his actual words, but from his emphasis. He can… group and stress [words] so that the reader almost unconsciously receives information which is not explicit in the sentences and which the artist would find it hard—almost impossible—to express in analytic terms. This impressionistic technique is utterly foreign to the methods of science….

At once it was clear that Bateson’s project was to grasp, as an artist might, a sense of the wholeness and interrelatedness of a culture, rather than to report particular facts. But family background demanded that this be done in a scientific way. It’s not surprising, then, that his second project, in Bali, undertaken with his wife, Margaret Mead, was the first to make systematic use of photographs in an ethnographic study.1 Because of his resistance to the analytic and reductive it was important that the photographs not be seen separately: “In this monograph,” Bateson wrote of the book that came out of his work in Bali,

we are attempting a new method of stating the intangible relationships among different types of culturally standardized behaviour by placing side by side mutually relevant photographs. Pieces of behaviour, spatially and contextually separated—a trance dancer being carried in a procession, a man looking up at an airplane, a servant greeting his master in a play, the painting of a dream—may all be relevant to a single discussion; the same emotional thread may run through them.

In the late Twenties, when Bateson began his career, British anthropology was dominated by the figure of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, who was fond of describing societies using the analogy of the organism. The life of a people was to be viewed as an active system of functionally consistent, interdependent elements where social phenomena “are not the immediate result of the nature of individual human beings, but are the result of the social structure by which they are united.”

Though he originally found it exciting, Bateson had a number of objections to this view. He felt its stress on the functional was reductive and left no space for the aesthetic; it also suggested that there was no tension between the “interdependent elements” of the society, and, related to that, it deduced all individual behavior from social structure in a suffocating determinism to which Bateson, with his own family experience, must have felt an instinctive repulsion. It was in opposition to this that he developed the first of the ideas for which he will be remembered, his so-called “schismogenesis.”

Bateson had been observing the radically different behavior patterns of men and women among the Iatmul Indians. The more the men were exhibitionist and boastful, the more the women were quiet and contemplative. It was clear that the one behavior pattern stimulated the other in a process that led to strong personality differentiation within an overall group ethos. The process of reciprocally stimulated personality differentiation—schismogenesis—could be complementary or symmetrical. Among the Iatmul men the process is symmetrical: they are involved in a dynamic of escalating competition, each seeking to outdo the other. Between the men and women of the tribe, however, the process is complementary, each becoming ever more the opposite of the other.

Schismogenesis, as Bateson saw it, was a powerful process and could be damaging, not only because it tended to violent extremes, but also because it could deny an individual any experience outside that promoted by this social dynamic. Bateson called his book Naven because this was the name of the bizarre series of rituals which he saw as “correcting” the schismogenetic process and guaranteeing stability. In these ceremonies men dressed up as women and vice versa. The women now assumed, with great excitement and relief, what was the traditional behavior of the men while the men were abject and passive, even submitting to simulated rape.

What Bateson was suggesting then was a complex process of interaction which did not deny the possibility of individual behavior but nevertheless saw it as taking place within a social process underwritten by a fundamentally conservative tendency that would always tend to counterbalance any movement away from the norm. Bateson had not heard of the word “cybernetics” when he formulated these ideas, but when he learned of the concepts of feedback and closed self-corrective circuits, it was evident that this would offer him an analogy that could substitute for Radcliffe-Brown’s unitary organism.

Almost twenty years after Bateson’s death, Valeria Ugazio, who lectures in psychology at the University of Turin, approaches the concept of schismogenesis with the same combination of respect and dissatisfaction that Bateson brought to Radcliffe-Brown. Bateson had expected that complementary and symmetrical schismogenesis would be found in personal relationships, in cases of psychological disorder, in contacts between cultures, and in political rivalries. Hence there is nothing revolutionary in Ugazio’s considering the process as essential to personality development within the family, or suggesting that character is formed by how people place themselves in relation to others in a group. But what Bateson did not do is to speak of the “content” of a process of schismogenesis. For Ugazio, on the contrary, this is essential. Reciprocal differentiation between family members, she claims, takes place along lines of meaning, or “semantic polarities.”

Consider, for example, a family whose talk about itself and others can be characterized by the polarity “dependence/independence”:

Family conversations will tend to be organized around episodes where fear and courage, the need for protection and the desire for exploration, play a central role. It is within this critical semantic dimension that schismogenetic processes will take place. As a result of these processes, the members of these families will feel and define themselves as shy and cautious, or, on the contrary, courageous, perhaps even rash; they will find companions who are willing to protect them or alternatively in need of protection…. Admiration, contempt, conflict, suffering, alliances, love, and hate will all occur around the themes of dependence/independence. In these families there will be some who—like the agoraphobic—are so dependent and so in need of protection as to require that someone be beside them in even the most ordinary day-to-day situations. But there will also be some members of the family who, on the opposite side of the polarity, provide examples of extreme independence.

Every family, Ugazio maintains, will “converse” and thus “compose itself” around a number of semantic polarities. The family mentioned above, for example, might also talk about themselves and others in terms of winners and losers, or generosity and meanness. Nevertheless one polarity will tend to dominate. The position a child assumes along that critical line will be crucial for the formation of his or her personality.

Ugazio’s second addition to Bateson’s theory of schismogenesis is her insistence on the importance of what she calls “the median position.” Bateson had seen the complementary and symmetrical processes he described as necessarily leading to extremes, but in a fascinating reconsideration of Naven, Ugazio draws attention to a number of men Bateson mentions only in passing who neither engage in male theatricals nor become part of the admiring audience. In the general schismogenetic process, there will be some, Ugazio claims, who react by insistently readjusting their position this way and that in response to the excesses of those on either side of them. In certain polarities, independence/dependence, for example, such a process might be positive, approaching a golden mean, but in others it could lead to all kinds of anxiety. For example, where the dominating polarity is saintly self-denial over against “evil” self-indulgence, there is little middle ground to be had. Here a child seeking a median position in an already established play of opposites is likely to find himself oscillating between a pleasurable indulgence that arouses guilt and a virtuous denial that provokes a sense of yearning and loss.

  1. 1

    This study will be reissued in November as Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Highland Bali: Fieldwork Photographs of Bayung Gedé, 1936-1939 by the University of Chicago Press.

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