Cybernetics of the Self and Addictions

I am revisiting Gregory Bateson’s article, “The Cybernetics of Self: A Theory of Alcoholism” in “Steps to an Ecology of Mind”(1972) now because I am thinking about the meaning of addictions. I have studied various aspects of addiction, to include approaches to healing and recovery. For this post, however, I am interested in the dynamics of an addiction process – from alcoholism to the arms race to cultism. This is what Bateson explores in his cybernetics of self essay.

I will not discuss all of Bateson’s propositions in this post as they encompass a vast theoretical terrain. But there are at least two central ideas which help us understand the dynamics of the addiction process: epistemological errors and schizmogenesis. Let’s take schizmogenesis first. While this term can be somewhat off-putting, we can think of it as progressive directional change in a system. Bateson suggests two types of schizmogenesis or directional change: complementary and symmetrical. Complementary would be when one party, say a man in a Latin American culture, behaves in a ‘machismo’ manner – or an exaggerated masculinity. This may then trigger a women to behave in an exaggerated feminine manner. Each party may exaggerate their different roles in reaction to the other. The addiction is to the split or directional dynamics of difference. Each party (male and female) are addicted to the exaggerated behavior of the other. Another example might be the relationship between a cult leader and his/her followers. They rely on each other to provide identity needs. The more needy the followers of a particular cult or religion, the more paternalistic the messiah or cult leader may behave. They are addicted in a complementary way to each other.There are plenty of examples from Melanesian Cargo Cults to Jim Jones and his followers while in San Francisco then to Guyana and mass suicide, and to include the current occupant of the U.S. White House and his cultic followers who have over-identified with him. He must have them and they must have him.

Symmetrical schizmogenesis would be a competition between two parties in a boasting or chest beating manner and might even include the international arms race, as Bateson suggests. As one escalates, so must the other. The addiction is in the systemic progressive split – a possible runaway system. The prime example, however, the one Bateson studies in depth, is the competition between the alcoholic and the “bottle”. The “bottle” is a symbolic “other” that the alcoholic is geared to challenge with “self-control”. The pride of the alcoholic sets him/her up for believing they can use self control over the addicting power of the “bottle” or alcohol. The addiction is not in the bottle or alcohol (the agent) or in the alcoholic person: it is in the relationship between them. Likewise with other symmetrical relationships and complementary relationships. Addiction is a dynamic process.

The epistemological error is in the pride of the alcoholic and the assumption of self control and in the case of cult followers, the over-identification with the cult leader and the relinquishing of one’s autonomy. With regard to the arms race the error is in assuming that more arms than one’s competitive nation will provide more safety or security. These epistemological errors can lead to systemic runaways and in each case may result in death (alcoholic death, cultic death, nuclear death).

While I have followed Bateson’s lead in exploring addiction as a dynamic systemic process, I am aware that there are likely different types of addiction and not all addictive behavior is necessarily negative. William Glasser wrote “Positive Addiction” in 1976 and focused on two particular positive addictions: long distance running and Transcendental Meditation. The suggestion from Glasser is that one may be able to replace a negative addiction, such as to alcohol or other drugs, with a positive one, which might be generative rather than degenerative. While this may be possible, too much of anything could be dangerous, including running or TM. So addiction as a process will likely need ongoing management and avoidance of a systemic runaway, which epistemological errors may ignite.

In consideration of different types of addiction, we might think alcohol and other drug addiction to be distinct from that of the one cultic followers and leaders have. The process is the same, though the agents are distinct. I propose that both types include a type of schizmogenesis and an epistemological error. And both may also include a predispositional vulnerability, which I proposed in my systems analysis of schizophrenia. In the case of an alcoholic there is likely a genetic predispositional vulnerability (biochemical?), which combined with psychosocial context and epistemological errors, sets up the addictive process. In the case of cult leaders and followers, the predispositional vulnerability may be strictly in the psychosocial realm. The followers of Jim Jones were mostly poor and socially deprived and in need of perceived salvation. Jim Jones progressively believed himself to be their savior. Each had their vulnerability.

Bateson investigates what has made the A.A. twelve steps program and the A.A. philosophy and group support the most effective antidote to alcoholism and other drug addictions. I will discuss in my next post the way that the A.A. approach interacts with the dynamic processes of addiction, schizmogenesis and epistemology.

2 thoughts on “Cybernetics of the Self and Addictions”

  1. Great blog, Bob! Thanks for educating me about schismogenesis. It gave me another perspective on addiction and triggered some thoughts of past experiences with my mom who was alcoholic. I look forward to reading your next post.
    Warm regards from Brazil!

    1. Thank you, Hannah, for reviewing my post on the addiction process. My next post will address the systemic theory of the recovery process.- Bob

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