Utopia v. the possible

I’ve been reading my Bateson, as well as a couple festschrifts and essay collections devoted to him, and meditating on this lately.

‘Corollary to the pragmatic perspective is what may be termed a premise of possibility. This is articulated in Watzlawick’s exposition of the “utopia syndrome” as a problem-engendering pattern resulting when the ideal is mistaken for the possible.  (Watzlawick, Weakland & Fisch, 1974: 47-61)  This position is based upon the belief that life, at best, is fraught with difficulties and challenges.  Even the most joyous events – marriage, childbirth, milestones of professional achievement – carry with them stressful changes.  In courting accomplishment of any sort, one is often inclined to overlook the heightened pressure, expectations, and complexity that accomplish successful attainment.  The darker side of “self-actualization” has been little explored.  The myths of Horatio Alger, Hollywood and the human potential movement still prevail in middle-class American culture, promoting the belief that anything less than a life which moves from peak experience to peak experience is somehow lacking.  While it might be unreasonable to suggest working for less than the best life, more brutal to the human spirit is the relentless pursuit of chimerical bliss.  In situations where change in the realities of circumstance is all but impossible, Watzlawick writes, “it is the premise that things should be a certain way which is the problem and which requires change, not the way things are. Without the utopian premise, the actuality of the situation might be quite bearable.”  (Watzlawick, Weakland & Fisch, 1974: 61)

It is likely that Watlzawick and his colleagues in affluent Palo Alto see more than their share of utopian clients in therapy, but whatever the case the premise of possibility guides their problem-oriented, behaviorally-focused, goal-directed approach to interactional therapy.  In contrast to many contemporary humanistic therapies which lead one to believe that by focusing upon life’s miracles its problems will vanish (when in fact it is often the miracles which vanish under scrutiny), the message here is more like “attend sensibly to life’s difficulties, and the miracles will take care of themselves.”

The premise of possibility does not compel one to abandon hopes, dreams, ideals or visions of the best human condition; rather it directs one simply to consider the difference between what is possible to achieve within a given set of constraints and what is not, and to act accordingly.’

“Rigor and Imagination” by Carol Wilder-Mott, from Rigor & Imagination: Essays From the Legacy of Gregory Bateson, ed. C. Wilder-Mott & John H. Weakland. Praeger, New York, 1981.

Thoughts on it a little later.

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