Grey Room

The Family as Machine: Film, Infrastructure, and Cybernetic Kinship in Suburban America

Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan

Left to right: William Fry, John Weakland, Gregory Bateson, and Jay Haley of the Palo Alto Group, with a tape recorder used to document sessions with patients, ca. 1955. A diagram on the blackboard models communicative patterns in a three-member family of F[ather], M[other], and C[hild]. Courtesy Don D. Jackson Archive, University of Louisiana at Monroe.


In the 1950s an interdisciplinary team of researchers associated with anthropologist Gregory Bateson embarked on a collective effort to dethrone psychoanalysis with film and magnetic tape. More surprising than their mission has been its resounding success. By the end of the decade Bateson and his colleagues around the San Francisco Bay Area had established the rudiments of a psychotherapeutic approach that eschewed the search for traumas buried in the individual unconscious in favor of investigations into mental illness as the result of interpsychic distortions among individuals interacting in small groups. The group of particular interest to the Palo Alto Group (as Bateson and his colleagues came to be known) was also among the most sacred of postwar social institutions in the United States: the nuclear family. While American popular culture and social science were celebrating the tight-knit nuclear family as a foundation of national strength and moral rectitude, the Palo Alto Group was developing a portrait of the family as a kind of post-Fordist factory for the production and management of psychic well-being. Their claims rested on the intricate analysis of films, photographs, audio recordings, and transcripts said to reveal hierarchies of communicative codes (e.g., denotative, metalinguistic, metacommunicative) structuring everyday interactions such as mealtimes, the bathing of babies, and even play among animals. This notion of mental illness springing from communicative errors gave rise to a new school of mental health therapy that recast psychotherapists as technicians of the family circuit and ushered in an ensemble of cameras, audio recorders, architectures, games, and techniques available to therapists for managing communications in the family. Thus, the family as cybernetic machine was born.