June 3, 2021
A letter from Gregory Bateson to the social psychologist Uriel G. Foa dated February 7, 1969 reads:
A schizophrenic patient once pointed out to me that there are two worlds. The first he called “commodital.” The other world he called “dementiaprecoxal.” We discussed the commodities of the first world, and he mentioned automobiles, money, and no-doze tablets. Finally, he pointed out that of course, the dementiaprecoxal patients are commodities in the commodital world.
I was shocked to find that love is one of the commodities in your world.
However, in discussing these matters at your round table I shall endeavor to avoid the ethical and esthetic implications of your epistemology.
Bateson was responding to Foa’s suggestion that he join a roundtable on “Resource Exchange, Social Communication, and Cognitive Organization,” which was to take place in Washington, D.C. between August 31 and September 4, 1969. The roundtable proposal states that participants would integrate the “overlapping of notions of resource exchange, interpersonal communication, and cognitive organization” and “explore the possibility of interpreting social disorganization and personal maladjustment in terms of malfunctioning of resource exchange.” The curious mixture of shock and receptiveness in Bateson’s response—he would participate in the roundtable while avoiding certain “ethical and esthetic implications”—serves as an opening onto the range of ostensibly disjunctive epistemologies that are harmonized by a world of social relations mediated by the commodity form. The archives of cybernetics are particularly rich with examples of this harmonization, in part because the cybernetic sciences synthesize centuries of work in physics, engineering, biology, and social sciences via the figure of communication, and in part because the resulting models bear a remarkable (if often unnoticed) likeness to the abstract realm of commodity exchange. Consequently, it is possible to observe in those archives—and Bateson’s exchange with Foa is exemplary here—a range of sometimes frictionless, sometimes tense encounters between cybernetics and commodity logic.
The concerns elaborated in the roundtable proposal and the draft article that accompanied it anticipate those of Societal Structures of the Mind, the 1974 monograph Foa co-authored with his then wife and former graduate student, Edna B. Foa. Nowhere in the panel proposal, the draft article, or the book is love posited as a commodity. The proposal states that the “assumptions of classical economics, on the exchange of money and goods, need to be reconsidered with regard to other resources.” In the article, the Foas wrote:
A resource is anything which can be transmitted in a social situation: a material object, money, an activity performed on the body of a person (cutting his hair, giving an injection) or on things belonging to him (cleaning his clothes), an item of information, an expression of love or warmth, of respect, esteem, or admiration.
It is suggested that resources can be classified into the following classes: love (affect, warmth); status (prestige, esteem); information (including the processing of pre-existing information); services (activities on the body of a person or his belongings); material goods; and money. Sex does not appear to constitute a separate class of resources, as it may be included in either love or service.
Although I lack the space here to properly engage with these implications of the Foas’ project, the facts 1) that their attempt to devise a rigorous basis of commensuration for money, goods, services, information, love, and status occurs at the very start of the period of so-called deindustrialization in the United States, and 2) that sex work is the site at which their categories blur should not go unremarked upon. Finally, in Societal Structures of the Mind, the culmination of their work on social exchange, the Foas stated:
If two persons who need money, exchange dollar bills with one another, neither of them will benefit much. On the other hand, an exchange of love increases the amount of it possessed by both participants. The reason is that in love, unlike money, giving to the other is positively related to giving to the self; consequently, one cannot reduce his amount of love by giving it to another, as he could do with money, since by giving love to the other he also increases the amount possessed by him. The positive relationship is also reflected in negative exchange: when one takes away love from the other he simultaneously takes away from himself. Lovers’ quarrels may have this homeostatic function: keeping the amount of love below the upper limit of the optimal range.
Each of these texts situates love (as well as status and information) alongside goods, services, and money, and each defines the circulation of these social resources in communication-theoretical terms that would be very familiar to Bateson. And each is concerned with identifying the significant differences: “The identity between giving to other and taking away from self,” for example, “holds for money but not for information and even less for love.” The word “commodity” appears only once across these materials: in Social Structures of the Mind, in a passing reference to the advantages of large groups in the “stock or commodity exchange.”
Fig.1: Classification of Resources by Particularism and Concreteness. Source: Uriel G. Foa and Edna B. Foa, “Means and Modes of Exchange: Toward a Theory of Social Economics.”
The Foas sought to show how the circulation of love, status, and information takes place within the same reticular, self-regulating social system in which goods, services, and money are exchanged. On the basis of this putative commonality, they defined “social disorganization” and “personal maladjustment” as results of the suboptimal exchange of one or more of the six basic resources. It is striking, then, that Bateson not only misreads the Foas’ claims in the manner that he does, but also supports his misreading with the words of a schizophrenic patient, one of the “maladjusted” persons the Foas’ method promised to correct through the optimization of resource exchange.
As Orit Halpern has shown, Bateson’s involvement with the study of schizophrenia dates to the mid-1930s, when he and Margaret Mead conducted photographic studies of trance and ritual in Bali with funding from the Committee for the Study of Dementia Praecox. “The hypothesis guiding the research,” Halpern writes, “was that trance states and the performance of possession and haunting demonstrated weak egos. These schizophrenic performances of the Balinese might, Mead and Bateson postulated, therefore teach something about the etiology of mental illness.” This fieldwork led to the publication of Balinese Culture in 1942, the same year Bateson and Mead participated in the New York meeting on cerebral inhibition from which emerged the Macy conferences on cybernetics. Between 1953 and 1963, armed with a vocabulary and a set of methods that was (often torturously) refined over the course of the ten Macy meetings, Bateson conducted sustained research on schizophrenia in collaboration with the psychiatrists Don Jackson, John Weakland, and William Fry, and the psychotherapist Jay Haley.
The so-called Bateson project explained schizophrenia in communication-theoretical terms, as an incapacity to distinguish between or properly hierarchize contradictory messages, which the researchers classed as double binds. In an early presentation of this research, Bateson formulated the project’s basic questions as follows:
- Is there any indication that certain forms of psychopathology are specifically characterized by abnormalities in the patient’s handling of frames and paradoxes?
- Is there any indication that the techniques of psychotherapy necessarily depend on the manipulation of frames and paradoxes?
- Is it possible to describe the process of a given psychotherapy in terms of the interaction between the patient’s abnormal use of frames and the therapist’s manipulation of them? 
The “‘word salad’ of schizophrenia,” Bateson continued, “can be described in terms of the patient’s failure to recognize the metaphoric nature of his fantasies. In what should be a triadic constellation of messages, the frame-setting message (e.g., the phrase ‘as if’) is omitted, and the metaphor or fantasy is narrated and acted upon in a manner which would be appropriate if the fantasy were a message of the more direct kind.” The participants in the Bateson project argued that this failure resulted from sustained exposure to double binds during childhood, most often in the family situation. In their longest elaboration of the project’s methods and findings, the researchers described a family including a mother who becomes anxious and withdraws when the child responds to her lovingly and performs loving behavior because she cannot accept feelings of anxiety and hostility toward her child. Bateson, Jackson, Weakland, and Haley argued that in the absence of anyone in the family able to help the child resolve this contradiction, “such as a strong and insightful father,” and lacking a means of exiting the communication system, the child “must systematically distort his perception of metacommuicative signals.” The “easiest path” is to “accept the mothers simulated loving behavior as real.”
When schizophrenic communication is reported or imagined in Bateson’s publications from this period, it is to illustrate the specific form of communicational incapacity that can arise following sustained exposure to double binds. Bateson, Jackson, Weakland, and Haley gave the example of a patient who wishes to complain that their therapist is late but, being unable to interpret what kind of message the lateness constitutes, and thus unwilling to accuse the therapist of not wanting to see them, tells the therapist that “I knew a fellow who once missed a boat, his name was Sam and the boat almost sunk, …etc.” In a 1960 talk on “The Group Dynamics of Schizophrenia,” Bateson recalls a patient who had difficulty with the first-person pronoun, who used a number of aliases, and who to his great satisfaction got around the requirement to sign his name in order to receive a weekend pass from his ward by using a slight variation that went unnoticed by the officials. Nothing like the “two worlds” statement that Bateson uses to support his response to Foa appears in any of these texts. And in his reproduction of that statement, Bateson does not subject the patient’s diagnosis of the “commodital world” to the mode of analysis he and his collaborators developed over the course of their clinical research. Finally, he says nothing about the schizophrenic’s second world, the “dementiaprecoxal” one. Instead, the schizophrenic’s description of the “commodital world” is extracted, deployed as raw material for Bateson’s cybernetic-humanist misgivings about the notion of love as commodity.
What do the overt and covert negotiations of the commodity in the archives of cybernetic social science reveal about the relationship between value—the commodity’s “content”—and communication-theoretical visions of social life? I want to suggest that, read alongside the Foas’ texts, Bateson’s misreading, his leap from love as sharing a system with commodities (goods, services, money) to love as commodity, discloses more than the foundational processes through which the value-mediation of social relations, as Karl Marx tells us, both operates “behind the backs” of individuals and is “reproduced directly and spontaneously, as current and usual modes of thought.”
Bateson and the Foas each sought to model social life as a distributed, self-regulating system—a system with no central node or directing agent, composed of and steered by the uncoerced (or indirectly coerced) actions of individuals. For Bateson, this network comprised actors and objects whose interactions could be understood in terms of communication, the transmission of bits. Village layouts, temple architecture, agricultural patterns, respect, trance, and ritual in Bali: communication. The relationships among genes, environment, and organism: communication. The family dynamics that produce schizophrenia: communication. Schizophrenia: defective communication. For the Foas, the circulatory mechanics of love, status, information, goods, money, and services, while exhibiting significant differences, were isomorphic and linked modes of resource exchange that could be modeled in communication-theoretical terms. But neither Bateson nor the Foas were able to include in their systems the mode of domination that functions behind the distributed, putatively spontaneous organization of social life under capitalism, and this failure manifests in different ways in their handling of the commodity, or the fetishized form of appearance of value. It is this mode of domination, oriented around value, the formalization of socially necessary labor time, that both effects the basal organization of social relations—what Marx called a world of “exchangers” engaged in “spontaneous interconnection”—and, as Beverley Best has argued, gives rise to a perceptual economy premised on its own occlusion. The iteration of this perceptual economy found in the Foas’ work posited goods, money, and services as different from but ontologically equivalent to love, status, and the forms of social interaction that shape and are shaped by them, so that the allocation of love or status can solve problems that appear to have been caused by the uneven distribution of goods, money, or services. Bateson, by contrast, forensically excluded the forms of appearance of value from his communicational ontology. This is why the patient’s suggestion that his treatment is inseparable from the logic of capital—that “dementiaprecoxal patients are commodities in the commodital world”—marks his otherwise quite commonplace account of commodity vehicles, currency, and pharmaceuticals as delusion or faulty information processing. And it is why Bateson could be “shocked” by the prospect of a relationship between love and exchange even as he was prepared to discuss social exchange theory more broadly.
More significant than the proliferation of these slightly different iterations of capital’s perceptual economy, though, is the fact that each has in common the differential allocation of capacity to particular bodies not through exclusion but through those bodies’ positioning in relation to networks of exchange. Both iterations thus show that however they are mediated, the processes of abstraction central to both the value relation and communication-theoretical models of social interaction don’t only equalize but also differentiate populations for the purpose of extracting value and/or data. The different ways in which they awkwardly negotiate the commodity form underscores how the procedures of the cybernetician and the social psychologists are derivatives (rather than allegorizations) of value. And understanding them as such reveals how the latter too is predicated on differentiation, which is to say, the gradated allocation of the capacity for social reproduction.
As is implied by their gendered mapping of, in Mary Bateson’s words, the mother as “‘double-binding bitch’ and the father standing aside,” Bateson and his collaborators’ theorization of the schizophrenic situation as a network of actors and objects did not do away with the biopolitical-disciplinary (and thus both individualizing and grouping, always already gendered and racialized) model of incapacity; rather, it redefined the differential attribution of capacity in communication-theoretical terms. In positing schizophrenia as a specific disability that arises through “normal” structures of social communication—structures in which all social actors and their genetic substrates are bound through communicative interactions—the researchers on the Bateson project implicitly suggested that those same structures accommodate (rather than generate) an array of differentially able people, or “components” that are more or less able to properly process the informatic inputs they receive from their environment. This confluence of an ostensibly technical and deindividualizing model of analysis and therapy with the differential arraying of populations is underscored in a 1955 paper originally titled “How the Deviant Sees His Society,” where Bateson defined the schizophrenic as a person who is “intelligent enough to know something is wrong” and “not so intelligent as to be able to see what it is that is wrong.” By locating genetics within the communication network, he was able to suggest that this state is “hereditarily determined.”
The Foas came closer than Bateson and his collaborators to a direct encounter with the logic of value. But they did so unintentionally. They were not trying to make legible those mechanisms that operate “behind the backs” of the persons that constitute and are dominated by them, to show how value-mediation limits, severs, reconnects, and enables social relations. Rather, they sought to produce a method for optimizing social life by treating love and status as resources that really did circulate in a manner analogous to value’s primary forms of appearance (money, goods, services), and that might be substituted for those other forms in order to solve certain problems of “social disorganization and personal maladjustment”—problems that encompassed explicitly racialized dynamics. One of the principal outcomes of such “disorganization” and “maladjustment” was “ghetto riots,” which, along with “cross cultural misunderstanding” and “mental illness,” the Foas presented as the consequence of “incongruent or malfunctioning exchange systems.”
It seems necessary to observe here that the research informing the roundtable proposal, the “Means and Modes of Exchange” essay, and Societal Structures of Mind was conducted at the University of Missouri in the late 1960s. The “resource exchange” roundtable would take place 52 years and three months after the East St. Louis massacre, in which up to 250 Black people were killed and another 6000 left homeless, and 45 years to the month before the Ferguson uprising. The Foas’ project can thus be positioned between two moments at which the devaluation that is grounded in, reproduced by, and necessary for value’s expanded reproduction was expressed as direct violence against those most severely affected by it. Yet the Foas’ research did not seek to eradicate this violence nor the devaluation that informs it. Rather, it was directed at the abjected form of rebellion directed against those conditions, the “ghetto riot.” The conditions such rebellions sought to destroy—the differential valuation of life and the attenuation of the social-reproductive capacities of those valued below a certain level—are not addressed and are in fact encoded in the settler logic of the Foas’ model at the level of data collection, where married couples in Tel Aviv composed the entirety of the “normal” category and “delinquent” boys and girls, schizophrenics, and neurotics in Missouri made up the “maladjusted” category.
Fig. 2: Populations and Positions. Source: Foa and Foa, “Means and Modes of Exchange.”
Fig. 3: Intercorrelation of Giving and Receiving Status and Love in Various Populations and Family Positions. Source: Foa and Foa, “Means and Modes of Exchange.”
This gradated distribution of life is nowhere clearer than in an extraordinary passage from “Means and Modes of Exchange” in which the Foas wrote:
The problem of the American blacks may also be better understood in this framework [of suboptimal resource exchange]. In modern culture impersonal and/or concrete resources have come to be regarded as most important. Thus money, services, and goods are suggested as means to achieve a solution, while the resource of which blacks have been deprived most, status, is rarely mentioned. It is significant in this respect that, as soon as they have some money, Negroes frequently rush to exchange it with conspicuous consumption goods like flashy cars, clothes, etc., exchangeable, in turn, with status. The actions of the more activistic black groups appear designed to achieve status for the Negro community more than anything else. The use of violence for achieving self-respect or status has been noted by Fannon [sic] (1963, p.73). This book being quite aggressive may, one hopes, have provided its author with a good deal of self-respect. Through violence status is taken away from the out-group object and is received from the in-group. Thus disparate means, like violence (taking away love) and conspicuous consumption (goods), may constitute different exchange paths to achieve the most needed resource, status. Apparently [i.e., according to the Foas’ resource exchange model] a direct giving of status would provide more immediate satisfaction.
This world, in which centuries of attenuated reproduction can be undone through “a direct giving of status,” is truly “bewitched, distorted, and upside-down.” It is the same world in which a schizophrenic’s speech can be parsed into sensible and pathological on the basis of its degree of correspondence to a cybernetic-liberal humanism. Bateson’s response to the Foas’ “epistemology”—like the “homeostatic” lovers’ quarrel the Foas described—illustrates the kinds of dissent this world is able to accommodate. What are the responses this world cannot accommodate so comfortably?
 Gregory Bateson to Uriel G. Foa, February 7, 1969. Box, 2 folder 53, Bateson papers, U.C. Santa Cruz Special Collections and Archives. Dementia praecox is (and was by the 1960s) an outdated term for schizophrenia.
 “Proposal for a Round-Table Discussion at the 77th Annual Convention of APA, Washington, August 31-September 4, 1969.” Box 2, folder 53, Bateson papers.
 Uriel G. Foa and Edna B. Foa, “Means and Modes of Exchange: Toward a Theory of Social Economics” (unpublished manuscript, nd). Box 2, folder 53, Bateson papers.
 Uriel G. Foa and Edna B. Foa, Societal Structures of the Mind (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1974), 126.
 “Proposal for a Round-Table Discussion.”
 Foa and Foa, Societal Structures of the Mind, 186.
 Orit Halpern, “Schizophrenic Techniques: Cybernetics, the Human Sciences, and the Double Bind,” Scholar & Feminist Online 10:3 (2012).
 Gregory Bateson, “A Theory of Play and Fantasy,” paper delivered (by Jay Haley) at the APA Regional Research Conference, Mexico City, March 11, 1954. Reprinted in Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 190.
 Bateson, “A Theory of Play and Fantasy,” 190.
 Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John H. Weakland, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia” (1956), in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 212.
 Bateson et al., “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,” 214.
 Bateson et al., “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,” 209.
 Gregory Bateson, “The Group Dynamics of Schizophrenia,” Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 228.
 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, translated by Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), 135, 682.
 See Gregory Bateson, “Double Bind,” paper presented at the same APA conference as Foa’s “Resource Exchange, Social Communication, and Cognitive Organization” roundtable. In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 271-273.
 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, translated by Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1993), 241, 161. Capital’s perceptual economy, Best writes, is “an economy of appearances organised by the exigencies of the socially mediating value form.”It “establishes the foundation, building blocks, or ‘raw material’ for the development of collective imaginaries, common sense, and so on.” And its basic element—the appearance of equality between sellers and buyers of labor power—“conceals the real movement of [value’s] substance, the extortion at the heart of the wage relation, the appropriation of an unpaid portion of the product of labor by the capitalist.” Beverley Best, “Distilling a Value Theory of Ideology from Volume Three of Capital,” Historical Materialism 23:3 (2015), 104, 106, 121.
 Mary Catherine Bateson, With A Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead (New York: William Morrow, 1984), 59.
 Gregory Bateson, “Epidemiology of a Schizophrenia,” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 197.
 “Proposal for a Round-Table Discussion.”
 Foa and Foa, “Means and Modes of Exchange.”
 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 3, translated by David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1991), 969.