Professor, Media and Cultural Studies Program, University of California, Riverside.
“I believe that action, if it be planned at all, must always be planned upon an aesthetic base.” –Gregory Bateson, 1968
1. Whole Earth
Describing an emergent “systems esthetics” in the fall of 1968, in a context overdetermined by publication of the first color image of earth relayed from space on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog (published in the Fall of 1968; the image dated from 1966) and rendered ever more urgent by the Vietnam War and the growing impact of the feminist, civil rights, and anti-war movement—the critic and art historian Jack Burnham proposed “the state of present art” be understood as the flux attending a Kuhnian epistemological shift.  “We are now in transition,” he wrote, “from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture. Here change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done.” From this observation about process, several others followed:
[Art] does not reside in material entities, but in relations between people and between people and the components of their environment…. In an advanced technological culture the most important artist best succeeds by liquidating his position as artist vis-a-vis society….
Gradually this strategy transforms artistic and technological decision-making into a single activity – at least it presents that alternative in inescapable terms.” [Burnham’s italics] For Burnham, this new approach was not concerned with specific genres; rather, “the larger problem of boundary concepts” was its proper purview. That is to say, “Conceptual focus rather than material limits define the system.” He continues, “But for our time the emerging major paradigm in art is neither an ism nor a collection of styles. Rather than a novel way of rearranging surfaces and spaces,” he concluded, the emerging artistic paradigm was “fundamentally concerned with the implementation of the art impulse in an advanced technological society.”  Burnham’s remark is thus directed to thought, “conceptual focus” and “boundary concepts.” In the art context of the late 1960s and early 1970s, several key exhibitions guided the reception of this aesthetic, among them Cybernetic Serendipity, curated by Jasia Reichardt at the Hayward (1968); Information, curated by Kynaston McShine at MoMA (1970); and Software, curated by Burnham at the Jewish Museum in NY (1970).
In July of 1968, two months before Burnham’s piece appeared in Artforum, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson convened a group of thinkers in a schloss (castle) outside Vienna for a closed conference devoted to the “Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation.”  The conceptual contiguity of this framing with Burnham’s systems thinking, with their shared emphases on decision-making and emergence, seem clear. Yet notwithstanding either Burnham’s prominence in American art discourse of the era or the emphasis on poesis at the 1968 Burg Wartenstein proceedings, it is worth noting that no visual artists or art theorists were invited to Bateson’s conference (Gordon Pask, who attended the sessions and also contributed to Cybernetic Serendipity is known primarily as a psychologist). Indeed, Bateson’s one explicit reference to the visual arts recorded in the proceedings was a wincing and pained reference to “soup cans,” while Anatol Holt, a mathematician and computer scientist and an important architect of distributed computing platforms gleefully details a fantasy musical composition based on chance operations and audience participation – hip, but about ten years out of date.  Yet Mary Catherine Bateson’s summary of the 1968 proceedings at Burg Wartenstein revolves around a brief sentence: “Each person is his own central metaphor.” And she records this observation from the conference discussions:
One reason why poetry is important for finding out about the world is because in poetry a set of relationships get mapped onto a level of diversity in us that we don’t ordinarily have access to…. We can give to each other in poetry the access to a set of relationships in the other person and in the world that we’re not usually conscious of in ourselves. So we need poetry as knowledge about the world and about ourselves, because of this mapping from complexity to complexity. 
Contemporary recuperation of systems theory and cybernetics has provided rich ground for the analysis of some of the most vital art and criticism of the 1960s. But this renewed interest has generally been arrived at recursively, that is, through thinking about systems-dependent technological means such as television, computers, and the networks that sustain them, and doing so from a position structured by ubiquitous computing. If much of this new digital-era scholarship privileges concept and machine, it just as often sidesteps the messier realms of feeling, sensation, and meat-space (arguably the confusing discourse around affect is only one symptom of this repression). But what would happen if we were to interrogate the dissonance between Bateson’s affective response to Warholian flatness and the actuality of postwar cultural production’s engagements with an anthropologically-inflected systems thinking, the idea of oneself, to the degree that one has a self, as both constituting and constituted by the social, and explore the epistemological propinquity of cybernetic discourse and advanced art? What would happen if we for a moment privileged making over the readymade tool? We should ask what might be some of the non-technological ways in which cybernetic discourse and advanced artistic practices-both poetic-have spoken to one another historically? That is, at least in the realm of visual culture, what happens when we turn our gaze away from the dominant contemporary metonym of networked technology and toward the contiguities of what anthropologist Liza Bakewell, remediating J.L. Austin, has called “image acts” and what Bateson in his late life understood as ethology, the study of cultural behavior?  This is a kind of re-facing: Benjamin’s angel of history comprehending embodiment in the present by sifting through the whirlwind of post-war techno-utopian thought.
To take the example with which I am most familiar, that era’s intermedial exercise par excellence: happenings, are often summarized as a synthesis of the advanced compositional techniques of John Cage and the equally advanced painterly practice of Jackson Pollock.  Yet happenings, at least in their American instantiation, emerged within the discursive frame of an artistic experimentalism that included the exploration of behavior as theorized in the sciences and exploited in theatrical practices. Further, if the open systems typified by Cageian protocols were clearly indebted to John Dewey’s 1934 book, Art as Experience, for instance, they also had explicit connection to the developing field of cybernetics, concerned as it was with “command, control, communication.”  Logically, then, would they not also be bound to the linked underbelly of cybernetics, that area concerned precisely with “experience” and its recursive effects, namely behaviorism?  Indeed, it was performance theorist Richard Schechner who coined the expression “twice behaved behavior” as a cognate of “performance”: the awareness of self as performing subject is already devoted to teasing out relations between model (behavior) and copy (behaved). By extension, what Schechner calls “strips of behavior” can be manipulated, dis- and re-assembled, “restored,” quite apart from causal sources. 
Like Burnham’s reframing, this resituation of performance via pragmatic experimentalism marks a definitive epistemological distinction between avant-garde performative practices of the early 20th century and those that emerged in the decades after World War II. It suggests an important restructuring of the history of performance art itself; at the same time it suggests a necessary rethinking of the role of the body—and of consciousness. Equally importantly, it demonstrates the value of an approach that understands artistic production as not just part of a complex and interdisciplinary critical field but as a mode of thought.
3. Boundary Concepts
Two (sometimes competing) conceptions of subjectivity emerged from the empirical emphasis of American pragmatism and its conjunction with cybernetics: that of a voluntary, cognitively self-critical, and immanently social subject, and that of behavioral psychology. The first is exemplified by the work of the sociologist Erving Goffman, whose description of everyday life as “theater” structured by quasi-cybernetic feedback loops, has proved quite durable within performance studies. Behaviorism, on the other hand, emerged from the dual rhetoric of pure science, which rejected the notion of the autonomous individual, and social technology, which sustained a utopic vision of social order of the kind elaborated in and popularized by B. F. Skinner’s book Walden Two (1948). My characterization here is broad brush, of course, for while the popular reception of Goffman’s work has served as an easy reference point for discussions of performance art as well as identity politics, his theory of performance in fact relies on a response to memory much like Skinner’s formulation of the controlled feedback loop of “operant response,” while Skinner’s work is far more sociologically nuanced than the determinist caricature allows. As Edward Shanken has observed, “Though Skinner himself might have denied any connection between the two fields [behavioral psychology and cybernetics], behaviorism offered an experimental mechanism for measuring the effect of conditioning on behavioral modification that a cybernetician might describe in terms of feedback loops.” 
These two conceptions coalesced in the work and practice of a third figure: Gregory Bateson. As a theorist of cybernetics, Bateson’s intellectual project was deeply shaped by the Macy Conferences (officially held between 1946 and 1953, but the beginnings of which date back at least to 1943), of which he had been a core member.  These gatherings had brought together mathematicians, psychologists, neurophysicists, anthropologists (Bateson and Margaret Mead), and others for complex and far-reaching discussions that articulated the fundamentals of post-war cybernetic and information theory (and again, as with the 1968 Wenner-Gren conference, though writers and musical composer were invited to subsequent gatherings of the core group and its guests, no visual artists are recorded as present). But Bateson was also moved by his fieldwork with Mead, by his reading of Martin Buber, by a life-long engagement with the conceptual architecture of evolutionary biology, and by a developing ecological approach, confirmed by his background in biology, to the world as system. This formation, along with his work as social scientist, retooled not just his understanding, but his use of cybernetics, for while the term was initially developed in the context of the search for better anti-aircraft targeting, for Bateson many of its key principles could be dated back at the very least to the mid-19th century formulation of the theory of evolution. And in practice Bateson’s own deployment of cybernetic concepts was directed towards a deep ecological and ethological commitment and an understanding of human behavior as complex, emergent, plural, and, most alarmingly, largely automatic.
In an article published in 1971 Bateson described the “cybernetics of self” in terms of a complex ecology of open relays and feedback loops, a model that is bounded neither by body nor by consciousness:
The total self-corrective unit which processes information, or, as I say, “thinks” and “acts” and “decides,” is a system whose boundaries do not at all coincide with the boundaries either of the body or of what is popularly called the “self” or “consciousness”; and it is important to notice that there are multiple differences between the thinking system and the “self” as popularly conceived.
(1) The system is not a transcendent entity as the “self” is commonly supposed to be.
(2) The ideas are immanent in a network of causal pathways along which transforms of difference are conducted. The “ideas” of the system are in all cases at least binary in structure. They are not “impulses” but “information.”
(3) This network of pathways is not bounded with consciousness but extends to include the pathways of all unconscious mentation — both autonomic and repressed, neural and hormonal.
(4) The network is not bounded by the skin but includes all external pathways along which information can travel. It also includes those effective differences, which are immanent in the “objects” of such information. It includes the pathways of sound and light along which travel transforms of differences originally immanent in things and other people — and especially in our own actions. 
This conception of subjectivity as a porous, extensive, variable system of processes and environmentally-embedded vectors rather than of fixed internal traits informed Bateson’s work as an anthropologist, including his thinking about psychology, culture, and aesthetics, and it underlies some of the most current discussions of new media, post-humanism, affect theory, and practically everything that isn’t neuroscience itself but claims “neuro-“ as a predicate. (It is taken up by, among others, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, for whose Milles Plateaux Bateson is a key figure.) But while its genesis and rhetoric seem clearly located in the language and concepts developed during technical discussions with colleagues from the Macy Conferences in the 1940s and 1950s, in Bateson’s case, at least, there was another significant experiential substrate, one that drew on his background in evolutionary theory and its emphasis on symmetry, series, and pattern recognition, and in empirical ethnographic practice. Though spatial constraints prohibit a full exploration of this intellectual trajectory, I would like to very briefly traverse one wrinkle in time, a wrinkle that folds the systems thinking of the post-WWII era back onto ethnographic fieldwork done by Bateson and Mead in Indonesia in the first half of the 20th century. At issue, I want to suggest, is another way of thinking those “boundary concepts” cited by Burnham via Batesonian “transforms of difference.”
4. Comparative Reticulation
Conducting field research in Bali between March 1936 and March 1938, Gregory Bateson and his partner, Margaret Mead (she did the writing; he did the shooting), unexpectedly generated around 25,000 photographs and over 22,000 feet of film. In six months spent in New Guinea in 1938, they generated over 8,000 photographs and nearly 11,000 feet of film, along with 2,500 pages of typed notes.  Though cameras for both still and moving images had been used in the field at least since the 1890s, including by Mead’s mentor, Franz Boas, and picture-taking as data-collection was relatively normalized by the time of Bateson and Mead’s Bali work, the sheer volume of the Balinese material was unprecedented. One result of their research was the monograph published in 1942, Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis, an attempt to detail “those intangible aspects of culture not captured by science but often transmitted by art” — in this case the “ethos” of the Balinese.  This key work of visual anthropology was introduced by the authors in the following way. I will quote at length, because their remarks are productive, not just for understanding the specific Bali project or visual anthropology more broadly, but for the view they give onto the construction of behavior, embodiment, pattern recognition and, thought expansively, the performative choreographies of culture as Bateson and Mead had come to understand them:
In this monograph we are attempting a new method of stating the intangible relationships among different types of culturally standardized behavior by placing side-by-side mutually relevant photographs. Pieces of behavior, spatially and contextually separated – a trance dancer being carried in procession, a man looking up at an aeroplane, 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. To present them together in words, it is necessary either to resort to devices, which are inevitably literary, or to dissect the living scenes so that only desiccated items remain. 
Bateson and Mead here posited a dual auto-critique, for if Mead’s ethnographic accounts to date had been criticized for being too literary and descriptive, Bateson’s had been equally criticized for being too abstract (note the gendering); thus, the two reasoned, the combination of photography with text here had the potential to both counter and supplement these tendencies.
By the use of photographs, the wholeness of each piece of behavior can be preserved, while the special cross-referencing desired can be obtained by placing the series of photographs on the same page. It is possible to avoid the artificial construction of a scene at which a man, watching a dance, also looks up at an aeroplane and has a dream; it is also possible to avoid diagramming the single element in these scenes which we wish to stress – the importance of levels in Balinese inter-personal relationships – in such a way that the reality of the scenes themselves is destroyed. This is not a book about Balinese custom, but about the Balinese – about the way in which they, as living persons, moving, standing, eating, sleeping, dancing, and going into trance, embody that abstraction which (after we have abstracted it) we technically call culture. 
Many years later Bateson would reflect on Balinese Character and its relation to the data sort:
Each picture is raw data except for the fact of selection — the aiming of the camera and the choice of the particular print for reproduction. Beyond that, of course, the juxtaposition of the various pictures on the plate is, necessarily, ours. It is our first step towards computing some sort of theory from the data. The method is comparative but not statistical, reticulate rather than lineal. 
Procedurally, then, the assembly of the book might seem to share features with another project of comparative cultural analysis, André Malraux’s musée imaginaire. However, where Malraux’s data sorting relies upon the modularity of the photograph, constructing an argument for the sameness of world cultural production, Balinese Character derives its fundamental argument from the thematic exposition of “bits of behavior” in their repetition and dynamic difference. The structure of the book, on this reading, was such that it simply could not be parsed straightforwardly; it had, necessarily, to be understood as an associative array rather than, as Mead tried to suggest, a narrative structure: “In a word, the book is built in such a way that the interlocking nature of the themes is stressed and their separateness as ‘components’ is made most difficult to disentangle.”  Deborah Poole has noted,
As ‘objective’ traces of the temporal sequences of gestures, poses, expressions, and embraces that together add up to something like ‘character’ or ‘child-rearing,’ the photographs construct their meaning as a narrative. Photographs thus remain as ‘raw material’ or ‘facts’ whose ‘meaning’ lies not in the detail they reveal of particular encounters, but rather in the narrative message they convey about the sequence (and presumed outcome) of many different events and encounters…. 
Implicit in Poole’s critique is the suggestion of a problematic narrative and thematic “universalizing” of the kind that occupied Malraux from about 1947 onward and that would come to fruition in later projects such as Edward Steichen’s 1955 The Family of Man. Historian Fred Turner revises this perspective somewhat by attending to the “comparative” and the “reticulate,” arguing that Balinese Character was an early exercise in and training tool for the kind of cultural apperception that could counter fascist propaganda: “In place of instrumental, message-driven modes of communication,” Turner writes, Mead and Bateson began to develop a theory of what he calls “democratic surrounds,” “arrays of images and words built into environments that their audiences could enter freely, act spontaneously within and leave at will.” 
Yet each of these discussions takes Balinese Character as a fait accompli, rather than as the result of the peculiar image-making jouissance suggested by the differential between an initially expected few hundred supplementary research photographs and the actuality of generating several hundred times as many as planned. The Balinese research, like most social science projects of its kind, was initiated with a matrix of thought and practice, and some notion of “Bali,” already in place. Yet the project, which would ostensibly meld Bateson’s structural-functionalist approach with Mead’s empirical and descriptivist one, in actuality yielded a very particular kind of participant-observation; indeed, Bali exerted a kind of feedback effect on the anthropologists.  Once the researchers were in situ was clear that the study of performance (rather than “character”) required fine-grained empirical observation, in part precisely because the outsiders had to focus so intently on description. As a result, anthropologist Sally Ann Ness suggests,
With regard to performance, the unplanned methodological innovations occurring improvisationally while in Bali appear to have overridden preconceived notions of how to analyze and observe human action and interaction.
If the Bali work marks “a kind of high point in the anthropological theory of choreographic symbolism,” this is in large measure, according to Ness, because during their fieldwork Bateson and Mead “articulated a perspective on the meaning-making capabilities of human body movement that no one of their generation, or the generation following them, came anywhere near. The couple observed movement practices as capable of conveying abstract forms of intelligence previously assumed to depend upon the constructions of linguistic syntax alone.”
5. Nerveless Metaphysics
Discussing their collaborative work some 30 years later with the editor of the CoEvolutionary Quarterly (and publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog), Steward Brand, Mead and Bateson disagreed strenuously about technique in ethnographic film.  Mead, by then the most prominent anthropologist in the United States, argued forcefully for correct form in ethnographic filmmaking: fixed and short lens, tripod, minimal camera movement, long sequences, and the maintenance of the establishing shot in order to achieve the most objective filmic data collection possible. Bateson objects: “I think the photographic record should be an art form”; and, he goes on to suggest, there was no such thing as a neutral camera. In Fadwa El Guindi’s reading, the disagreement “is one of vision between Mead and Bateson — between what we now refer to as research film and the genre sequence film.”  This is probably a sufficient technical analysis within the realm of visual anthropology, but it skirts the notion of feedback as Bateson and Mead articulate it within the friendly if agonistic context of their conversation with Brand:
B: I think the photographic record should be an art form.
M: Oh why? Why shouldn’t you have some records that aren’t art forms? Because if it’s an art form, it has been altered.
B: It’s undoubtedly been altered. I don’t think it exists unaltered.
M: I think it’s very important, if you’re going to be scientific about behavior, to give other people access to the material, as comparable as possible to the access you had…. Why the hell should it be art?
B: Well, it should be off the tripod.
M: So you run around.
M: And therefore you’ve introduced a variation into it that is unnecessary.
B: I therefore got the information out that I thought was relevant at the time.
M: That’s right. And therefore what do you see later?
B: If you put the damn thing on a tripod, you don’t get any relevance.
M: No, you get what happened
B: It isn’t what happened.
M: I don’t want people leaping around thinking that a profile at this moment would be beautiful.
B: I wouldn’t want beautiful.
M: Well, what’s the leaping around for?
B: To get what’s happening.
M: What you think is happening.