Adaptation after Metalogue (Part 2)

by Boru O’Brien O’Connell

On the greater number of possibilities for disorder than for order.

“Adaptation after Metalogue” was published as part of Triple Canopy’s Internet as Material project area, which receives support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts. Boru O'Brien O'Connell gratefully acknowledges the support of the Lighthouse Works fellowship program.

D: Daddy?

F: Yes?1

1 Text excerpted from Gregory Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology (1972) and an email correspondence between Oona Zlamany and Boru O'Brien O'Connell.

D: Has anybody ever measured how much anybody knew?

F: Oh yes. Often. But I don't quite know what the answers meant. They do it with examinations and tests and quizzes, but it’s like trying to find out how big a piece of paper is by throwing stones at it.

D: How do you mean?

D: Daddy?

F: Yes?

D: Daddy, what does “objective” mean?

F: Well. It means that you look very hard at those things which you choose to look at.

D: That sounds right. But how do the objective people choose which things they will be objective about?

F: Well, they choose those things about which it is easy to be objective.

D: But how do they know that those are the easy things?

F: I suppose they try different things and find out by experience.

D: So it’s a subjective choice?

F: Oh, yes. All experience is subjective.

D: But it’s human and subjective. They decide which bits of animal behavior to be objective about by consulting human subjective experience.

F: Yes—but they do try to be not human.

D: If I remember correctly you said that I would be payed for my troubles. If I remember correctly that was a long time ago.

F: I should assure you there was no attempt to pull the wool over your eyes, I've just continuously either put off or forgotten to send the check, and I apologize for that. My bad.

D: Don't feel threatened, do the right thing, if you don't my mom will personally go to your house and ask you for the $50.

F: Your mom did remind me at one point a while ago on the phone, but sometimes it just take a couple times with people.

D: If I was a grown woman would you have paid me right away or would you have waited 5 months to do so?

F: I'm only telling you all this because you put the effort into writing such a professional email.2

2 D: I don't seem to understand it all very well. Everything seems to be everything else, and I get lost in it.
F: Yes, I know it's difficult. The point is that our conversations do have an outline, somehow—if only one could see it clearly.
D: But I don't understand. You say it is important to be clear about things. And you get angry about people who blur the outlines. And yet we think it's better to be unpredictable and not to be like a machine. And you say that we cannot see the outlines of our conversation till it's over. Then it doesn't matter whether we're clear or not. Because we cannot do anything about it then.
F: Yes, I know—and I don't understand it myself. . . . But anyway, who wants to do anything about it?

D: Think about your profession and how you can make it develop without making enemies in the process.

F: The sad truth is that you have to maintain a forceful but polite balance with your clients.

D: Don’t think of me as a mean person. I think you're a mean person.

F: I'm working 12 hour days on a job in Chicago right now until next week, so I can't just jump to and send it. When I get back to town, I'll send you the check, or possibly paypal you.

D: I'm sorry I have no idea what a paypal is.

D: Daddy, what's a black box?

F: A “black box” is a conventional agreement between scientists to stop trying to explain things at a certain point. I guess it’s usually a temporary agreement.

D: But that doesn’t sound like a black box.

F: No—but that's what it's called. Things often don't sound like their names.

D: No.

F: It’s a word that comes from the engineers. When they draw a diagram of a complicated machine, they use a sort of shorthand. Instead of drawing all the details, they put a box to stand for a whole bunch of parts and label the box with what that bunch of parts is supposed to do.

D: So a “black box” is a label for what a bunch of things are supposed to do…

F: That’s right. But it’s not an explanation of how the bunch works.

D: And gravity?

F: Is a label for what gravity is supposed to do. It’s not an explanation of how it does it.

D: But, Daddy, do you also change the rules?

F: Hmm, another dirty crack. Yes, daughter, I change them constantly. Not all of them, but some of them.

D: I wish you’d tell me when you’re going to change them!

F: I wish I could. If it were like chess or canasta, I could tell you the rules, and we could, if we wanted to, stop playing and discuss the rules. And then we could start a new game with the new rules. But what rules would hold us between the two games? While we were discussing the rules?

D: I don't understand.

F: Yes. The point is that the purpose of these conversations is to discover the “rules.” It’s like life—a game whose purpose is to discover the rules, which rules are always changing and always undiscoverable.

D: But I don't call that a game, Daddy.

F: You said there were "so many questions." Do you have another?

D: Yes—about games and being serious.3 That's what we started from, and I don't know how or why that led us to talk about our muddles. The way you confuse everything—it's a sort of cheating.

F: No, absolutely not.

D: Well … if you're … I don't know.

3 F: Suppose you tell me what you would understand by the words "serious" and "game."