25 May Jordan Peterson’s Canonical Agenda (and the Endless Versus of Identity)
ZHUHAI. I work from the idea that we are all involved and implicated in the same ambient matrix that is comprised of various relations of movement, thought and activity. Life works its way through actual events that emerge and fade, and virtual resonances that may gather inertia and shape into whatever occurs. This matrix in process—the matrixial, the womb, the embryonic—is at once ecological, material and spiritual. Events come into action and resonate based on the conditions of the moment. This is why what we know is far, far smaller to what we don’t and how, from this mixture, we believe and decide. It’s why I can sympathize with Jung, for whom the psyche is real in the sense that it is both actual and resonant, and with Freud, whom we can thank for helping us realize that we are anything but rational.
When it comes to ethics, thought is required for any of this to become actionable. But where thought gets into trouble is when one forgets this unassailable milieu, when complementary or associable threads instead curve inward and take on a dominant form through familiar repetitions. Through enough repetition of sameness in these threads, thought becomes more and more “material” in the sense of concentrated intransigence, due to its being formed. An identity is made, named as knowledge. Once attained, thought completes itself and then moves on to determining further events based on the form. This is how empirical sciences function, in that the being of something reinforces itself by allowing sameness to vitalize the next data set or thought that gathers. But here’s the thing: Every cycle, every repetition, may feel like it is reinforcing sameness, but each is in a real sense engaged in a process of differentiating. Yet we too often miss the opportunity of difference in any repetition by appealing to the identity—the idea of sameness—to validate something as a closed image or object of truth. Identity becomes what is, discounting the resonances of thought, matter and spirit that continue to move and be active, but which thereby fail to gain expression.
When one identifies as X, this is the activity at work. But again, conscious thought does not know itself; it gathers. One gathers what one thinks and one thinks what one gathers. If I seem an extreme relativist (which I can be) it’s because in the classic Enlightenment equation of “justified true belief,” all three variables are in constant flux. One cannot “know” oneself nor the object, one can only gather, move, act and continue. The reason I find identity troublesome is that it gathers a conception of the self and other to close the question, to produce “the subject,” to solve the problem. In today’s social justice movement, which thrives on identity, one may say “this is me, this is who I am, and you cannot question this”—or “this is how things are; deal with it”—but it is more likely that this thought is closed by the desire to reinforce oneself against what lives outside, which is a threat to one’s concept. Experiencing this without “knowing” this, desire functions as a desire for closure that lives in continual anxiety. But anxiety—as Heidegger, and Kierkegaard before him, said—has no category; we are all in state of anxiety. Each individual lives in a singular condition of the moment even as we all live in the same matrix going through a process of differentiation. The question is in how one gathers and acts based on any particular assembly.
This isn’t to exclusively target the self as entirely responsible because, again, forces move and shift. As identity is wrapped up in the matrix, it is not only a question of how one identifies but how one is identified. To wit: Black Lives is a potent expression of our time because the movement is not the gathering of personal identity. It is a situation, ongoing, in which being black produces a state of fear, not anxiety. They actually are identified by the institutionally more powerful other as the target of systematized violence. There is very little that is fluid in this, very little to gather toward identity. It is systematized racism and it is immanent. This example aside, what’s happened through media proliferation is that in many discourses identity has become hypermediated into the consolidation of a law of feelings. Social media allows one to gather identity within the vast togetherness into groups who share the same closure; it then demands that others in the social milieu conform to the same closure. This is done in two ways: 1) by admonishing those, via media proliferation, who do not conform to the language of this identity and 2) through legalization and other forms of codification via liberal structures. I sympathize with the effort, as the movement aims to deterritorialize and overcome marginalization in an effort to restructure positive (em)power(ment). But in the process of reterritorialization one finds an “identity politics” that has usurped leftist systemic and shared progress into a divisive new groupthink. It is puritanical, managerial thought control, a “molar” morality. What should be a process of personal soul-searching is redirecting the left into a demand for universal terms rather than addressing systematic social, political and economic unfairness toward empowerment for those marginalized (as per Slavoj Zizek’s critique). What identity brings is the de-personalization and objectification of everyone’s language. If you would like me to use a neutral pronoun, I’ll be happy to; if you demand or legislate that I must, I will resist. This resistance against the demands of the legislative branch of leftist politics is what Jordan Peterson is tapping into and responding to.
So Peterson then. Attempting to learn more about the phenomenon rather than simply cast a quick judgment, I read several essays about him and watched several videos by or about him. These I feel present a range of views and responses to get a rounded sense of what’s going on here. (See endnotes for links and more information.)
- “What’s So Dangerous About Jordan Peterson?” by Tom Bartlett.1
- “Why Can’t People Hear What Jordan Peterson Is Saying?” by Conor Friedersdorf.2
- David Brooks of the NYT did a piece on him, which is brief and not very insightful. (You can google it.)
- “Postmodernism Did Not Take Place: On Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life” by Shuja Haider.3
- Zizek wrote two brief pieces on him and I find myself in near total sync with not only his critiques of Peterson, but the left’s problematic approaches to identity.4
- Then there are the videos, and there are many. But I would point to his frenetic conversation with Camille Paglia, which I’ll be referencing often in what follows.5
In exploring Peterson’s project, I found a few areas where I understand his critique, but only in the subject matter and not in his contributions to anything resembling thinking. I believe that academia is failing in the advancement of ideas but for different reasons; my problems are that both the practice and the profession has lost its necessary freedom against the techo-capitalist turn that has occurred over the past 20 years. But much of this is systemic of the capitalist bloodstream itself that we’ve all injected thanks to a move away from philosophy and humanities in favor of links to science and business that Peterson advocates. I believe as well that identity is divisive and takes focus away from shared progress. Identity is not actionable, it is stated. While ostensibly about tolerance and rights, as a socially mediatized, technologically driven movement, it is a largely engaged in assailing others, a detached effort to bring the barbarians to confront and accept a universal morality. It begins with identifying the terms of what is and moves to badgering others, sans discourse, into also identifying what is and apply the same terms. But more on all that later.
My critiques of Peterson, from what I have gathered from reading about him (I’ve not read his books) and listening to him on YouTube, are: 1) his critiques of “power” and postmodernism are uninformed at best; 2) he applies his misunderstandings to promote his unshakable agenda; 3) he generalizes what is fluid and inter-relational; 4) he contradicts himself; and 5) he’s mean-spirited, closed-minded and does nothing to advance anything other than an emboldening of white male power. He decries “identity” to advance the dominant identity. On this last bit, if white male power is not his agenda, then he’d be well served to distance himself from that, but I find no evidence he’s done so. I’ve found nothing in his cause that elevates the power of the feminine (in the Jungian sense) nor women, and is rather an appeal to his base of revenue-generating, white male angst.
On the topic of power, it seems to me that Peterson has read enough of Nietzsche and Foucault to read them poorly and name them as a means to discount them. I’ve read my share of both authors, but when he cites them I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. For example, he states that postmodern academicians reduce everything to a “power game” fed by ressentiment. It’s a befuddling statement because it’s very clear that Peterson is thriving on the very condition of ressentiment. It is the spirit of his audience. (Peterson’s example of ressentiment is to presume that academics “resent” businessmen because they reside at the same IQ level but the businessmen make more money.) But this is Peterson’s method (and often his contradiction). He identifies something in order to call it out without attempting to unpack the significance of the concept and without offering a substantive critique of that concept. He simply names it. He does this with philosophers, scholars, feminists, “the postmodernists,” “the neo-Marxists,” etc. Pick a YouTube video and note the pattern. He’ll say a word (power or ressentiment) or name a philosopher, then says nothing about it/them, instead moving along his own agenda. It’s a sneaky, insincere debate tactic aimed at obfuscation: I will employ the word they use, acknowledging their discursive weapon, and then invalidate its use, knowing that my audience does not understand it. Power is a good example. Philosophy’s use of the word “power” is different in different thinkers, but one recurring theme is that power is the ability to become—movement, change, action, etc. It is a potential capacity to emancipate people from a concept of some fixed, deterministic form as much as it is employed to dominate, enslave and determine meaning. Power is not itself dominance, it is opportunity and agency. In many writers power is metaphysical in the sense that it cannot itself be “known” or contained—a force that moves through its agents. So for him to have disdain for discourses of power hides an agenda to cripple the source of agency that marginalized groups possess while also brushing aside its capacity for control. He only sees it as a game in which there is a winner and loser because he knows his audience does not understand the context of power in which he falsely employs it. He knows his audience well and he is using terminology to befuddle them into his divisive and simplistic agenda. Put another way, he is adopting the appearance of intelligence to uphold ignorance.
Another thinker he likes to mention in passing is Carl Jung. Here as well it’s hard to grasp where he’s going (or coming from) but his rambles on Jung’s archetypes seem to conceive them as proof that canonical truths are immutable—archetypes as fixed repetitions of sameness independent of conditions of individual psyche and environment. I recently finished reading Jung’s memoirs and I have a different reading. His archetypes come from not only his work in analytical psychology but also through his direct experience, his personal dreams and visions. While archetypes are a priori, this doesn’t mean that there is a single narrative waiting to be dug up. Rather there’s something more Deleuzean in that it is a kind of movement—passing through, repeating and returning—a virtual array of imagery that finds itself assembling into new combinations once consciousness attunes to them. Jung was admittedly obsessive about it, which lends itself to essentialist, mystical readings by others, perhaps fairly, but it is philosophically and psychologically informed. Jung was well-read—Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were strong influences—and we can perhaps think of archetypes as a more adventurous version of Kant’s pure concepts of intuition, Bergson’s elan vital, Schopenhauer’s will, Nietzsche’s power—something there before and as it comes into actuality. Peterson seems to suggest that there is a single, universal narrative lying in wait for lazy minds to accept, when it seems in Jung it is something less dogmatic: a universal imagery given life through conscious existential attunement—a potentiality.
But this is not narrow enough for Peterson, who requires an appropriation of Jungian archetypes to ground what is taken as canonical, as essential, forgetting that what is canonical is not essence but translated through interpretation, analysis and context, becoming “truth” through this process—the canon that has emerged dominant. Nietzsche, whom Peterson is also fascinated with but without any comprehension I can find, wrote about what is canonical in an essay that I wish every follower of Peterson would read: “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.” Nietzsche writes
“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force…”
Contra Nietzsche, this is what Peterson wants in his bewilderment over postmodernism: a return to canonical truths, a return to dogma, setting aside that one cannot remove power from the question of truth. This vital ethics of Nietzsche is that power (or force) is in process and available to necessarily shake what is canonical, not to become galvanized around it to uphold it.
We could turn here to any of Peterson’s wildly popular videos, but I want to focus on Peterson’s conversation with Paglia. There’s a lot to take in here, but what I find interesting is that the two of them express agreement but are often discussing different things. They’re both weary of postmodernism, and I understand the weariness. Like Paglia, I feel that art through postmodernism has elevated language, textuality and reflexivity to the detriment of beauty and sensation. During the first 15 minutes of the discussion, Paglia lays down some deep food for thinking and shows what a true intellectual she is, if one can forgive her personal agendas. She’s lamenting the loss of 1960s movements that emphasized the body, spirit and sensation to make way for language that dictates political terms rather than encouraging political action. I’m right with her on this. But things begin to fall apart at the 15:00 mark. At this point, Peterson wants to find the root of the causal relation between postmodernism and neo-Marxism. He identifies here a relation without engaging or unwrapping it. He is convinced—such a canonical guy he is—that there is a causal relation without saying what that is. I quote him directly:
“The central postmodernist claim… is that because there is a near infinite number of ways to interpret a complex set of phenomena, which actually happens to be the case, that you can’t make a case that any of those modes of interpretation are canonical. And so if they’re not canonical… then it serves some other master. And so that other master that it hypothetically serves for the postmodernists is nothing but power because that seems to be everything that they believe in. They don’t believe in competence; they don’t believe in authority; they don’t seem to believe in an objective world because everything is language-mediated. So it’s an extraordinarily cynical perspective, … (that) you can attribute everything to power and dominance.”
(Side note here: I found an old interview of Paglia in which she said “I believe in all forms of power.” But in this YouTube interview she just nods at Peterson as he speaks.) By repeating the words “central postmodernist claim,” as he does, he is trying to establish something that does not exist. There is no central postmodernist claim, not one that I know of. He identifies it as endless interpretation, which is a kind of barstool dismissiveness employed by anyone who has not read any. (But I’m giving him too much credit by even attempting to give him audience here. I’d challenge any Peterson supporter to tell me: what does that quote up there mean? The other master is power because that’s what they believe in. What. Does. That. Mean?)
From there he claims an alliance of postmodernism and neo-Marxism—without saying anything about Marxism—and that this pairing is what gives us identity politics. Quoting him again: “The skeptical part of me thinks that postmodernism was … intellectual camouflage for the continuation of the kind of pathological Marxism that produced the Soviet Union…” This is another way of saying that postmodernists are trying to trick us into becoming Communists. He even calls Foucault and Lacan “tricksters.” He states his belief that postmodernism has another grand narrative in mind, meaning: there is an ideology behind it, an agenda that is antithetical to what is canonical. But 1) it doesn’t, 2) he doesn’t say what that agenda is. Again, returning to the influence of Nietzsche on Foucault and beyond, postmodernism/poststructuralism’s intellectual/political project is to break “truths” apart so we don’t become enslaved to the ideology that may arise or have already arisen if we submit to any grand narrative. Postmodernism’s very effort is to subvert any ideology through a continual re-evaluation of its statements and appearances. What it advocates is a field of play, taking joy in the act of play. Marxism is dialectical, but dialectics is always responsive to a prior form; postmodernism is non-dialectical as an exercise in breaking form to take flight from the repeating cycle. In any instance, any act, any work of art or political statement, there may be areas where PoMo and Marxism overlap, particularly in this aspect of promoting radical change. But in PoMo, there is no agenda, nor alliance.
Peterson either can’t understand such a distinction or chooses not to. But I suspect it’s both. He chooses not to understand because he most certainly has an agenda: a disdain for leftist scholarship and left-leaning tendencies in academia. Strip away all the “postmodernist” and “neo-Marxist” bullshit talk and what you have is someone pissed off at liberal-left academia. This is really where he got his start toward fame: bashing leftist academics, the last institutional hope of change in a world otherwise caught in the vice grip of rampant conservatism and neoliberalism. He says that he wants “foundational thinkers” and “grand narratives” and toward this end he conflates two presumed evils into one easily consumable target. In Peterson’s science background, collisions are knowns against knowns. Postmodernism recognizes that this kind of battle just leads to endless structural wars over this or that model within the structure. Its attempt, at least in my readings, is to subvert the grand narrative through a variety of means, not because “it” wants to trick anyone, but because there are other untold narratives, other interpretations, other openings, and that we might just want to stop for a moment and consider how these canonical truths have formed and whom they are serving. Postmodernism advocates neither chaos nor power but the immanence of terms, the reality of terms that people wield; and if it occasionally gets caught in wild speculation, the task of academics, writers and thinkers is to reel things back in and then explode again. It’s a process. But Peterson wants the whole baby thrown out.
Parsing the language and the objects of his attacks, it seems that Peterson’s agenda, at least at the socio-cultural level, is to advance a dominant ideology of white and male supremacy. I must be clear here so I’m not misunderstood, since I recognize that those are flashpoint words: This is not the same thing as white nationalism or racism, rather that what he advances as supreme, what is canonical, what should be returned to, is (not whiteness per se, but) the idealized supremacy that white/male power has given birth to. If one wants to accept this dominant ideology as canonical and needed—to continue the dogma—one might find oneself gravitating to Peterson. But if one feels that there are multiple narratives to any event and that real people have unquestionably been marginalized in service to a dominant one, and if one wants to then throw a wrench into its dominance by encouraging these other “possible” threads to emerge and shine, one might find postmodernism worthy. There is no end game to the latter other than challenging identities and preconceptions of truth, which again are impossible to quantify. If one is a true Peterson believer, one is against the questioning of dogma in favor of identifying what is canonical, not because I say so but by his own statements.
To me Peterson is the trickster, but unlike those he attacks he takes no joy in the act of intellectual exercise and expression. He is a consumable product of an generation of 20- and 30-somethings who don’t read. They don’t have time for Nietzsche or Foucault or Jung because they’re too busy disliking things. Peterson feeds on this. He is a YouTube magnate, a phenomenon, an opportunist, an angry “gut feeling” perfect for media-saturated attention spans, a guru made for short-sighted thinking, convenient conclusions and cardboard portraitures. He never cites—again, he names names without offering textual evidence—but rather paints in broad and uninformed condemnations intended to stupify. There is no writing in his writing, no thinking in his thinking, rather an “it,” a boogeyman, an ideology that does not exist. His is the ideology, an infant one nestled deep in its embryonic fluid of capitalism and ignorance, coupled with an implied hatred of not only others but of free and open thought—a dangerous combination indeed, as the magazines say. He appeals specifically to the angry white male who feels left out, left behind, even “marginalized.” I personally don’t understand this need to find a figure who is going to bolster whiteness or maleness because it simply retreats to the other pole of identity it disdains. But I do “understand” why it occurs, which leads me to shift into my own wider critique, one that resonates our current problem of Trumpism.
All too often, what I find occurring as discourse is Peterson and his response reinforcing and validating each other through exclusion. I’m reminded of Peter Gabriel’s introduction to his song “Not One of Us” at concerts: “it’s to do with groups of people who make themselves into smaller groups of people in order to feel strong by excluding others.”6 Must desires a no in response for those who feel they are absent a sense of belonging; and the safest negation is another belonging with its own Must. This is Peterson’s formula; it requires an antagonist. The entire dialectic is a re-invigoration of the traumas of correction, punishment and bullying. He is capitalizing on this trauma. He preys on a weakness (identity) as a means of offering strength to identity—put another way, re-establishing the power of the identity in order to combat identity. So in this he and SJWs make a perfect foil for one another: my identity against yours.
I mourn the loss of philosophy in all this, an openness of thinking that curves outward rather than inward. But for those in the privileged world—the terrain in which this fight is engaged—with no wars to fight, no plagues ravishing neighborhoods, no one offering even a hint of a threat to their Netflix account, this is where discourse leads. This is the battleground of Western socioeconomic advantage that transcends any identity: the paradox of progress. Rather than moving into what’s possible, we regress into what hurts the most. If using the signifier “women” rather than “people who identify as women” is going to offend some people then that potential pain is what we all must rally to, we the neighborhood watch on each other’s sensitivity scores. Paglia is right to criticize this, and if she could let go of her own anger long enough she might say it better: the discussion should be about experience and sensation, not all these terms, all this language and socially constructed correctness perfectly palpable for media-bread, digitally fed thinkers. It isn’t that language is unimportant, but the opposite: it’s because it matters, because it does have an effect, that it becomes nuclear. In contrast to Paglia, Peterson has no interest in either language or spirit. He aims straight for the animal-mind within. Nowhere in any of this is a call to engage in open questioning about how all of this sidedness is affecting the ecological, material, spiritual conditions we all share. But that’s not going to generate a heck of a lot of YouTube likes.
I’m not about to tell anyone how to think or whom to read, but I do wish followers of Peterson would read a bit more before following a questionable guru-capitalist trying to destroy the last institution of progressive thought left on Earth. (Again, Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies…” is a fantastic start.) Nor do wish to dampen hopes of progress. Not at all. I want more diversity, more life, more of the joyful passions. But to feel these aspects of life we need, I need, something other than the codification of terms. The demand shouldn’t be about equality for types, but inequality as a condition that involves all in the shared milieu who need this world to change, now. In a wonderful piece by a conflicted SJW, Frances Lee writes: “If we are interested in building the mass movements needed to destroy mass oppression, our movements must include people not like us, people with whom we will never fully agree, and people with whom we have conflict.”7 This sentiment echoes a political ethics offered by Deleuze and Guattari, one that advances inclusion, the breaking of identities, a difference that is molecular not molar: diversities that move, the courage to become affected, the desire to express rather than codify, “becoming woman” not “being man.” This is possible, but we need to move, together.
- This is what got me started. It paints a balanced portrait and is almost too kind but gives good background on the man. https://www.chronicle.com/article/What-s-So-Dangerous-About/242256?cid=FEATUREDNAV
This is also complimentary, and for good reason. The author focuses on an interview he gave for British broadcaster Cathy Newman, in which Newman harmed the left by not listening to him and instead interjected her own preexisting agenda, which he deftly shot down and made his cause that much stronger. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/putting-monsterpaint-onjordan-peterson/550859/
It’s a great piece (albeit a tad snarky) on Peterson’s strange conflation of postmodernism and neo-Marxism. He calls out Peterson’s misreadings (or non-readings) of postmodernism and situates it well for a reader. https://www.viewpointmag.com/2018/01/23/postmodernism-not-take-place-jordan-petersons-12-rules-life/
The first is here: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jordan-peterson-clinical-psychologist-canada-popularity-convincing-why-left-wing-alt-right-cathy-a8208301.html and the second was written partly it seems because Peterson’s goons unleashed fury on him: http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/a-reply-to-my-critics-concerning-an-engagement-with-jordan-peterson/. Zizek is having a hard time getting published right now in left-corporate media because of his criticism of identity politics.
His chat with Paglia is long, but well worth the entire journey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-hIVnmUdXM. It covers the range of Peterson attacks on his hit list, but she is the one who steals the show. His confrontation with social justice warriors is also compelling and you can search for that on YouTube.
The quote comes from the album Plays Live (1983). I can’t find a video of the same recording, but here’s a variation at a different concert during the same tour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlowHBCzLFY