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Bali, the Camera, and Dance: Performance Studies and The Lost Legacy of the Mead/Bateson Collaboration


Working in Bali in the late 1930s, anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead made an extraordinary advance in the understanding of human performance. They observed bodily practices constituting processes of signification that resembled linguistic communication far more closely than had ever been suspected. The Mead/Bateson theory of human performance prefigured research in performance studies that has only recently begun to challenge poststructural convictions regarding the ephemerality of symbolic action. Essential to Mead and Bateson's achievement was their pioneering use of film. Equally vital, however, was their construction of Bali as a place, phenomenologically speaking. The Bali in which Mead and Bateson lived and worked was a cosmopolitan yet excessively localized product of their own design, to an extent contemporary perspectives find highly problematic. Nonetheless, the actual complexities of Balinese history and culture can be seen to have intervened into their collaborative process in ways that enabled pathbreaking insights.

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