Cover image: 2 weeks in Spring, by Rainey Straus: https://www.raineystraus.net

Keeping it real: a warm data ‘UNtopia’

Unpsychology Magazine’s issue number 8 — An Anthology of Warm Data — is out now and is available FREE to download from here: www.unpsychology.org.

Warm Data is information that is alive within the transcontextual relating of a living system. (Nora Bateson)

When I approached Nora Bateson to suggest that we devote the 8th edition to Unpsychology Magazine to Warm Data — the growing field of complexity inquiry, theory and practice that she is building from the work of her father, Gregory Bateson and others — I didn’t have a sense of what would emerge; I just thought it was a good idea for an issue. I couldn’t imagine that it would grow into the 268 page e-book of riches that we eventually published!

In the event, she agreed enthusiastically to the idea, suggested a couple of people who might be interested in supporting the editing work from within the Warm Data community (the excellent Lesley Maclean and Phillip Guddemi), and we got started — putting out the call for submissions in October last year.

What came through was astonishing.

As editors of this magazine, Julia Macintosh and I are are used to curating beautiful and groundbreaking writing and art (that’s the privilege of being an Unpsychology editor!), but this edition is truly spectacular, in both scope and in the quality of the work. And as with all our magazines we are offering it as a free download at www.unpsychology.org (though you are very welcome to give a donation to our work if you choose!).

Start with a story…

Nora Bateson’s Warm Data Labs always start with a story, so here goes…

I’d been following Nora’s work for a while, admiring her book Small Arcs of Larger Circles and catching other pieces of writing and video that were appearing online. So, when I saw she was running a Warm Data Lab at Hawkwood College in March 2020, I jumped at the chance of attending. It was a strange event: the day with Nora was excellent, but we were right on the cusp of the first COVID lockdown, and everyone there was a bit uncertain and nervous. There was hardly anyone around that evening (unusual for Hawkwood) and the usual excellent catering had been scaled down (I collected my evening meal from the deli section at the local Tesco!).

Over supper, I chatted to Nora about Warm Data and Unpsychology and a myriad of other topics. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to talk — and to share perspectives and clarifications. In the morning, I gave her a lift to Stroud station — us both hoping that she was able to get on her plane back to Sweden before lockdowns were imposed — which they were in the next few days in both the UK and Sweden. I got back to Wales too, and that was the last time I left home for some time!

After that, like many others, I hunkered down. Unpsychology 7 (Climate, Complexity, Change) was just about to come out, and we were able to bring a little of the flavour of this new and unknown COVID context into the mag. Otherwise, in the Spring and early Summer of 2020, it was a waiting game. I stayed in touch with Nora’s work — and signed up for an online course on ‘intergenerational learning’ that she ran with a team of educators from her network — and then in August joined her online People Need People training — a replacement for the week-long face-to-face Warm Data Host trainings she had been running around the world for the past few years.

It was strange and wonderful to work, entirely on Zoom, with over 100 people at a time on a call. When, in other ways, the world seemed to be shrinking, I was having living warm conversations with people from all over the world! The theory and ideas in the course were demanding and rigorous, and the practice work surprising and delightful. Here was a relational space in which something amazing and perhaps essential was happening; where the unexpected popped up, and the warmth was tangibly felt (even over a Zoomed distance!). And something happened to the Warm Data community too: it grew and seeped into more places and reached more people in just a few months than the face-to-face trainings might have taken years to do!

That was then and this is now…

So, that was then, and this is now — and we are on the edge of publishing the first big collection of ideas and practices on Warm Data. This is Unpsychology Magazine’s first collaboration with another practice community* and its been a joy to be involved in.

*You can find out more about the Warm Data and PNP community of practice at https://www.peopleneedpeople.online and https://warmdatalab.net.

Over the past eight years, one of the things that Unpsychology has done (I think and hope quite well) has been to invite artists and writers to respond to important themes in our troubled world, as they apply to ‘mind’ and ‘psyche’ — whilst also recognising the interdependence of all contexts. We have known that to separate ‘psychology’ out from the world, and locating it in the individual ‘mind’ or ‘body’ is limiting and sometimes even violent in its outcomes. We know that to treat a human being as a so-called ‘sovereign’ individual, is to ignore the relational embeddedness of all life and the complexity and diversity that makes up every organism.

The Batesonian story of transcontextuality, ecology of mind and warm data is one that recognises relationality as being at the heart of living systems — and puts every phenomenon and entity within the contexts-upon-contexts that make up a living world. Psychology, like all the other human academic and practice ‘disciplines’ can only make sense if it takes on board these existential inter-relational realities. And, if it does, then perhaps it ceases to BE psychology – just another facet of the whole that cannot be taken apart: the “difference that makes a difference” as Gregory Bateson put it.

Perhaps, then, it becomes UNpsychology…

A new evolution of Utopia (or UNtopia)?

While I’ve been working with my co-editors (Julia Macintosh, LesleyMclean and Phillip Guddemi) on this issue, I have also been listening to a podcast series Crafting with Ursula (part of the Between the Covers podcast hosted by David Naimon). Authors talk with Naimon about the work and writing of Ursula LeGuin and, as a longtime LeGuin superfan, I am finding these fascinating and moving.

In each era of my life, it seems as if LeGuin’s writing has spoken to a different ‘need’ in me. For a time, she was central to my ‘escapism’ — my scifi habit that took me out of my (troubled) self and out of the (troubled) world, and into the imagination of the great storytellers and, in LeGuin’s case, the best storyteller of her era.

She also spoke to a need for healing; something, it seems in this world of trauma, that never goes away. And I read her as a poet — for her poetry, prose and her “clear, clean line”: the way she says so much with so little, unveils so much even as she keeps so much hidden and transforms so much with the ordinary, revealing complexity with the simplest lines.

Now, I am reading her again and am reminded that ‘utopia’ might again be beckoning. That, in these troubled days — as her fellow Californian, Nora Bateson, put it in a conversation back in those COVID times — “so much tenderness is needed”. And that change cannot come without deep imagination, and the courage to ask big questions (as she did in one of her late-in-life short essays It Doesn’t Have To Be the Way It Is, 2011):

“Why are things as they are? Must they be as they are? What might they be like if they were otherwise?” To ask these questions is to admit the contingency of reality, or at least to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken.

LeGuin wrote utopias into her stories — into the worlds she crafted and the universes she imagined. She was never a straight-liner. There were threads in her tales to follow, but they were most often winding and tangled. In all of her worlds there were always more stories to be told and, for us too, every new story gives more information about the world as it is in its fullness — no one story ever holds everything that can be imagined and told.

So it might be with Warm Data. Just as LeGuin’s Californian utopianism (shifted to Oregon, where she lived for much of her adult life) is reflected in her stories, so Nora Bateson has cooked up a Californian utopia of her own (now transplanted to Sweden, with all the juicy cross-fertilisation and cultural messiness that this entails!) in the idea and practices of Warm Data.

Just as words — clean and clear — can hold something beyond the tangible in LeGuin’s stories, so Bateson’s “new words to hold the invisible world of possibility” — warm data, symmathesy and aphanipoiesis — open up possibilities of things being other than they are right now. And Warm Data carries another possibility. That what is possible isn’t simply ‘change’ (which is impossible to get to by simply wanting to!), but something more powerful: the deep seeing of how things really are — in all their complexity and messy webbiness — and the following of the flow of possibility through the systems and contexts of our lives. As Nora Bateson suggests (in her new essay in unpsychology 8):

Imagine a forest — each organism responding and shifting as the other organisms shift and respond over seasons, epochs, millennia — they are all in relationship, communication, and open-ended continuance of life. Evolution requires both continuity and discontinuity; a fish that grows legs stops being a fish — remarkably, the interdependency between the organisms, i.e., life, keeps producing more relationships; it “finds a way.”

The way that is found through evolution, symmathesy, aphanipoiesis and, in the best imaginative fiction might be the new utopia. Not the equal and opposite, wished-for antidote for the sickness of the world, but something entirely new and imagined; a world that is fully seen and experienced for what and how it is — and we who people this place also revealed to ourselves in the full contexual and relational reality of our lives.

But maybe this isn’t utopia, after all, but UNtopia…

Join our UNsychological UNtopian conversation!

Contact us at editors@unpsychology.org if you are interested in getting involved. Find out more about Unpsychology and Warm Data through the links below:

Unpsychology Magazine website: the place to download all the issues of the magazine since 2014 0 including the latest, An anthology of warm data at www.unpsychology.org

Unpsychology Voices on Medium: this place, where we publish supplementary pieces, dialogues, videos, stories and new perspectives at https://medium.com/unpsychologymag

Warm Data Labs & People Need People: the homes of Nora Bateson’s Warm Data and People Need People training at: https://warmdatalab.net & https://www.peopleneedpeople.online

Nora Bateson on Medium: Nora regularly posts new material and essays on Medium at https://norabateson.medium.com and on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/norabateson

Ursula LeGuin and utopias: https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/10/the-uncertain-utopias-of-ursula-k-le-guin & https://www.ursulakleguin.com/blog/28-it-doesnt-have-to-be-the-way-it-is

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