Metalogue 6: Why a swan?

In this metalogue, Bateson and his daughter talk about the meanings evoked by dance.

This tells us something about what it takes to build a strong brand.

Unfortunately, if we want to know how to put this secret into practice, Bateson tells us, “It’s a secret.”

(Well, almost.)

In this metalogue, Bateson and his daughter talk about the ballets Swan Lake and Petrushka. (This second ballet is about a traditional Russian puppet or ‘petrushka’, made of sawdust and straw, who comes to life and develops emotions.)

Father and daughter wonder why the composers chose to write about a swan and a puppet, and reflect on the extent to which they find themselves caught up in watching ‘a puppet’ on the stage, or ‘a swan’, rather than simply watching ‘a human dancer wearing a costume’.

They realise that when the puppet or swan displays strong human characteristics, it becomes somehow even more ‘human’ than the other characters on the stage.

They decide that they are watching something that is ‘sort of’ human, and a ‘sort of’ swan / puppet. But what does ‘sort of’ mean?

They realise that ‘sort of’ can have two meanings: a ‘subset of’, and ‘having similar characteristics to’. On the one hand, a swan is a sort of bird. (And the dancing swan is a sort of swan — a ‘pretend’ swan.) And on the other hand, the behaviour of this particular dancing swan is sort of birdlike,  sort of human.

When we say the puppet Petroushka is sort of human we mean that there is a relationship, a metaphorical relationship, between some of the ideas we have about puppets and some of the ideas we have about what it is to be human.

Father and daughter then talk about the Christian practice of taking bread and wine. For some people these are ‘sort of’ the body and blood of Christ. For others they are literally the body and blood: they are a sacrament, a sacred rite.

Bateson thinks that ballet works in the same way. For some people the costume and the movements of the dancer are metaphor for a swan or a puppet. But for others they are a sacrament [a sacred rite… ‘by which divine life is dispensed to us‘].

How would we tell the difference between a dancer who was dancing a metaphor and one who was dancing a sacrament? [And is this the difference that marks out a truly great dancer?]

Bateson wonders whether the difference lies with the dancer. Or with the audience. Or is it a combination of the two? That audience and dancer come together to create a sacrament on a particular night?

He decides that neither the dancer, nor the audience has control over whether a particular performance is a sacrament. [Which implies that control lies with both and neither of them.]

Beyond that, he says, it is a sort of a secret where the difference comes from. It is something that we cannot tell. “Great art and religion and all the rest of it is about this secret,” he says [and also branding as we shall see]. “But knowing the secret in an ordinary conscious way would not give the knower control [over the secret].” [Which implies that the secret must be known unconsciously.]

“The swan figure is not a real swan but a pretend swan. It is also a pretend-not human being. And it is also ‘really’ a young lady wearing a white dress. And a real swan would resemble a young lady in certain ways.”

He continues: “It is not one of these statements but their combination that constitutes a sacrement. The ‘pretend’ and the ‘pretend-not’ and the ‘really’ somehow get fused together into a single meaning.”

Logicians and scientists like to keep them separate. But they do not write great ballets, or sacraments.


This metalogue is ‘sort of’ about branding. It appears to be about something completely else. And at the same time it is absolutely about what happens deep within the branding process.

Great dancers and great actors, touch us and evoke in us an emotional or even spiritual connection with what it is to be human.

Great brands do the same. They combine a number of elements and mix them up: emotional connection, reliable delivery, adaptability and innovation. They “fuse together the ‘pretend’ and the ‘pretend-not’ and the ‘really’ into a single meaning.”

For example, the top five global brands in 2012 were:

  • Coca-Cola
    ‘Pretends’ it is a great tasting drink (and ‘pretends it is not’ a highly effective marketing machine) and it is ‘really’ an averagely-flavoured fizzy water drink, well-marketed.
  • Apple
    ‘Pretends’ that it is all about incredible human-centred design (and ‘pretends it is not’ a company with a hard-nosed business strategy), and it is ‘really’ a hard-driving, hardware innovation company, with strengths in design.
  • IBM
    ‘Pretends’ it is an innovative, reliable behemoth (and ‘pretends it does not’ have any weaknesses), and it is ‘really’ a large, innovative, multifaceted technology company, with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others.
  • Google
    ‘Pretends’ it is a flawless technology company (and ‘pretends it is not’ evil [or we might say not flawed or human]), and it is ‘really’ a software company with an evolving portfolio of money-making and money-losing products that has lined itself up against many (more specialised) rivals.
  • Microsoft
    ‘Pretends’ that its software is exciting and sexy (and ‘pretends it is not’ a company that is still living off a lucky break it got over 30 years ago), and it is ‘really’ a reasonably good technology company with a historically dominant market position that is slowly being eroded.

(You can test this against your own favourite (and un-favourite) top brands of 2012, here.)

A strong brand, in summary, is created by both the customers and the company together. That brand is just as much about what they agree together that the brand isn’t, as it is about what they pretend it is. And behind any strong brand there is ‘really’ just an ordinary company that is pretty good at some run of the mill stuff.

Unfortunately, as Bateson tells us, if we want to know clearly how to create this, then a) it’s a secret (or a sort of a secret), and b) it’s unconscious.

But we have a clear ‘hint’ that good branding (or sacrament) comes out of the interaction between the dancer and the audience, and this is something that will be developed further in Bateson’s later writings, and which I will write on in future.



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2 Responses to Metalogue 6: Why a swan?

  1. Byron Woodson says:

    This reminds me of a line of thinking that John R. Searle puts forth in his theory of language and about social reality. He makes a distinction (or as Bateson would say, a ‘difference that makes a difference’) between activities ‘constituting’ something and other happening ‘by way of’ something. This is all by memory so please forgive the paraphrasing.

    For example, when you vote by raising your hand, you both vote ‘by way of’ raising your hand and the act of raising your hand ‘constitutes’ your vote. By contrast, one gets married ‘by way of’ a marriage certificate, but that certificate doesn’t only/really ‘constitute’ the marriage. (again, forgive the bad translation and mis-remembering).

    Whether one perceives this activity (the swan dance) as a a sacrament or not hinges on the subjective affirmation that the dance is/isn’t a sacrament. By saying it is, you’re saying that the dance constitutes a sacrament. There’s no ‘objective’ yes or no aside from the individually affirmed or socially agreed upon status. And whichever you choose, sacrament or not, does not belie anything except your internal categorization of that thing. It is the daylight/gap/choice between whether one considers it a sacrament or not that is the secret. The secret is that the difference of whether something is or isn’t a sacrament is that saying whether something is or isn’t is a choice. The magic happens when you choose ‘it is a sacrament’ because that gives you an access to a different dimension of experience (metaphorical & meaningful).

    • Finn says:

      Hey Byron,
      I didn’t know about John Searle, so thanks for this info.
      I think the key is in your last line — that it is possible for us have access to a different level/dimension of experience, which we label ‘sacrament’. To me this is where Bateson is saying something more than Searle.

      Having understood this, the question I am trying to answer is, “How do we behave differently as a result?” How do we use this difference in our understanding to create a difference in getting more of the results we want? How can we apply it to business?

      To me the strongest branding occurs when the brand comes closest to being a ‘sacrament’ in the eyes of the customer.

      So Bateson, I realise, is hinting that it is not just down to the performer/business. It is also to do with the audience/customer. It is to do with the performer-audience or business-customer as a system. And there is more on this in his later writings.

      Many thanks for your comment, and hope you’re keeping well 🙂

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