How this investigation began
“Neurosis, with its propensity for repetition, does seem to be incompatible with the free deployment of criticism. But, precisely because they are trapped in repetition, neurotics are in fact the best at encouraging criticism. [N]eurotics can, in certain conditions, become the best spur to criticism.” —Dany-Robert Dufour, The Art of Shrinking Heads
I first took an interest in Jordan Peterson in September of 2016, due to his refusal to submit to Bill c-16, which he claimed compelled speech around gender pronouns. I was at the time wholly sympathetic and in full support of his stance.
As Peterson’s popularity grew, however, and the focus shifted onto Peterson himself and his various theories about human existence, my interest level dropped. Then, in early 2018, Peterson did the interview with Cathy Newman and released his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and his fame exploded. This happened so rapidly, and so improbably, that he once again caught my interest.
Actually, it was my wife’s interest in Peterson—her insistence that something remarkable was happening here—that compelled me to pay attention. And as a many-times-published author who has achieved neither fame nor income from writing, I found her interest in Peterson (not to mention Peterson’s miraculous ascent) extremely annoying. Naturally, the more she insisted I pay attention to Peterson, the more I resisted, and it reached the point where we couldn’t discuss Jordan Peterson without getting into an argument.
What Some Call Conspiracy Theory
I possess—or I am possessed by—the firm belief (roughly and crudely summed up) that anyone who achieves a position of power and influence in our society is either consciously or unconsciously complicit with a ruling cryptocracy. But don’t worry, this is not the focus of the present series—I have just finished a trilogy of books for that; I only mention it because this belief was, in some sense (along with my wife and the following dream), the impetus for it.
Because of these combined factors (i.e., my distrust for Peterson now he had become Man of the Hour, and my wife’s apparent admiration of him), I was feeling quite a bit of hostility towards Peterson. While this certainly put me in the company of a large number of other people, they weren’t the sort of people I wanted for company (to this day I find the anti-Jordans far more objectionable than Jordan even at his worst).
The final straw—appropriately enough since Peterson is a psychologist deeply influenced by Jungian ideas—was when I had a dream about Peterson.
Jordan Peterson as Solar Father Figure
In the dream, he gave me a nugget of gold. The gold belonged to my wife (who was doing a course with Peterson and being counseled on her narcissism) but for some reason it had to come to me via him. I put the gold in my mouth and swallowed it. After that there was some business about a letter Peterson had written which I was helping him deliver.
That same night, I dreamt of my father. I met him at an outdoor café with my sister and gave him a letter. There was violence erupting on the streets and he expressed concern for me. I was touched by this and I told him I loved him. He said “I love you too”—something my father never said to me, at least that I remember.
When I told my wife about the dream, she said, “Maybe that was the gold you swallowed.”
Whatever the meaning of the dream, my resistance to “The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon” was effectively dissolved by the workings of my unconscious, and I began to listen to his lecture series “The Psychological Significance of the Bible.” While I was still less than halfway through, I began to write the first exploratory notes for this series.
Destroying My Own Ideal
In the lecture in the Bible series I had just listened to (“Cain and Abel: The Hostile Brothers”), Peterson talked about the slaying of Abel by his jealous brother Cain (a myth I used as a partial blueprint for understanding my own filial relationship in Paper Tiger).
Peterson said that, when Cain killed Abel, he destroyed “his own ideal.” He then used the phrase, “the desire to pull down people you would like to be,” to describe Cain’s self-destructive motivation.
I realized at once that this was a close partial match with what I was doing—at least potentially—with Peterson.
I had embarked on one more in a series of “takedowns” that have characterized my literary career since I turned forty: Carlos Castaneda, my brother (Paper Tiger, Seen and Not Seen), Whitley Strieber (Prisoner of Infinity), Clint Eastwood and Pauline Kael (Seen and Not Seen), John de Ruiter (Dark Oasis), Stanley Kubrick (The Kubrickon, unpublished), and Aleister Crowley (The Vice of Kings).
In many ways, Peterson is the closest I have come to a mirror image of myself, or at least to an idealized version of myself which I once held. But if Peterson is a close match to an old ideal of mine, this means that, to some degree, he is still that.
The internalized image of a past hope for a future self must be present now, in the present, if only in the form of disillusionment. And disillusionment means not just a clearer view of reality (and of my own true potential, outside of idealized images), but also the emotional quotient of disappointment.
This is a feeling that cannot necessarily be negotiated away by rational insights.
The Problem of Status
“[W]e can say that history is a series of subjections to great figures placed at the center of symbolic configurations.[T]he subject has been subjected to a variety of fictions and a great deal of effort was required to construct each of them. Each of these fictions was a major production or a very demanding scenography.”
—Dany-Robert Dufour, The Art of Shrinking Heads
When someone attains the status that Peterson has attained, in the way he has attained it—by apparent virtue rather the whim of consumer tastes, or worse, political graft—he becomes something extremely rare: a symbol of greatness, a heroic cultural signifier.
I don’t think it’s possible, for men at least, to respond to a heroic signifier like Peterson in a neutral way. We can be indifferent to Peterson as a person, but not to his position of power and social influence. It was my acute awareness of this that fueled those arguments with my wife (and I knew it). Peterson has been talking about this for decades: status as the primary determinant of our feelings about ourselves and others.
As men of inferior social status (if not virtue), we have no choice but to respond to Peterson—whether we consciously acknowledge it or not—with a degree of admiration, envy, or outright hostility (which I don’t think can be separated from envy). Admiration equals alignment with the great figure via subjection to him; envy, which aspires to equality, amounts to opposition, often violent.
The Mimetic Double-Bind: Why Cain Slew Abel
[This passage has been added for clarification since first posting the article, in response to feedback.]
To expand on this a little: when we admire someone, we are using them, to whatever degree, as a model for emulation and so we become subject to them, i.e., we adapt or try to adapt our own subjectivity to match our view of them. That’s what emulation is, and, similar to transference in psychotherapy, while it’s not inherently sinister, it does involve risks.
Envy equals aspiring to equality because, when we envy someone, we want what they have, and this then leads to an oppositional position because we see them as having what we want (as described in Rene Girard’s theory of the mimetic double bind).
Admiration/alignment might seem like the safer route than opposition. Yet, according to Girard, the one invariably leads to (and/or obscures) the other. What we aspire to emulate, we are eventually driven to compete with.
As we emerge from being subject to the heroic/paternal figure, we enter into competition with him, as in (Girard’s adaptation of) the Oedipal Complex. This is implicit in the saying “It is a poor disciple who does not surpass his master,” and explicit in the one I used as the title for this article.
In our struggle to order chaos, an ideal starts out as a motivational tool but ends up as an obstacle to be destroyed (or at least got around). Cain slew Abel. The ethic that structures our perception eventually becomes oppressive to it.
Every patriarch becomes a tyrant in the end.
An Internalized Father-Image
The degree to which Peterson is a mirror for an internalized father-image—an image I need to “take down” to see myself accurately—is, I think inseparable from my belief about successful cultural figures being necessarily corrupt (my father was a very successful businessman).
Both these factors are central to my reasons for “taking on” the challenge of a literary examination of Jordan Peterson, in relation to his soaring (initially I typed souring) success, and how this all-but convinced me he could not possibly be up to any good in the world (even if he believed he was).
Writing the present work is a chance for me to reexamine this belief and discover how much is sourced in childhood dis-appointment (not being met by my father at the appointed hour, i.e., when I most needed him to be there), and how much stems from a genuine capacity for “smelling a rat.”
But of course there is more to it than this, otherwise I might just as well keep these musings to my private journals and spare the reader.
Because, to whatever extent Peterson has acted as a mirror for my own ancestral patterns, it is apparently nothing compared to how much he has affected others in a similar fashion. It is only because Jordan Peterson has “gone viral” and had such a rapid and far-reaching impact that I find him sufficiently compelling to want to address his ideas at all.
Jordan Peterson & Conceptual Contagion
What compels me to write about Jordan Peterson is a combination of his transmission with its reception.
This is a curious realization in itself: do ideas become more interesting and meaningful simply by becoming contagious? Such is indeed the case.
My own position on Peterson is certainly mixed. Just as he divides people into camps of fiercely for and against, so I am divided within myself (though not especially fiercely).
Having read his 12 Rules book, I am less than impressed but far from uninterested. It is tempting, as an obscure, long-suffering writer, to express my frustration that a work so apparently flawed, and in many ways quite simplistic, should receive such massive endorsement and success.
It is tempting to pick apart all the ways in which it fails as a work. But this would be counterproductive for my current endeavor. Peterson’s critics—or more accurately his attackers—wish to argue (and believe) that the fact so many people respond to Peterson only proves that people lack discernment.
What they can’t allow themselves to consider (I suspect not even in the privacy of their own thoughts) is that it might just as well indicate that there is something about Peterson which they are not getting, and that they need to look closer before looking away.
Jordan Peterson-the-Scapegoat (A Series of Hit-Pieces)
Most of the critical pieces about Peterson and his work have been less than balanced or well-argued analyses (see for example one of the better hit-pieces, “The Intellectual We Deserve“). It is as if the authors find it too galling to take Peterson seriously, either to give him credit for any good ideas or positive influence, or, to give his work sufficient attention to formulate cogent arguments about why it is not worth their attention.
They seem to think a superior, derisive tone will be more effective at discouraging people from taking Peterson seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth.
By denigrating Peterson as if anyone with any taste ought to know better than to take him seriously (except possibly as a crypto-fascist shoehorn for Trumpian social terrors), they are also denigrating everyone who does take Peterson seriously, and who believes he is a positive cultural figure (because he has had a beneficent effect in their lives).
It is likely that such people will only find their loyalty deepening—and growing in ferocity—as a response to such “critical arguments.” Since many of them read more like persecutions than reasoned criticism, they only reinforce Peterson’s role as scapegoat—which was front and center from the start.
By doing so, they continue to bestow upon him that special power granted by a culture founded on the worship of an archetypal scapegoat.
By attempting to tear down the Peterson icon, they reinforce its Messianic nature.
Are Peterson’s errors portals of discovery?
My perspective for this present work is that it doesn’t actually matter if Peterson is getting everything wrong when he has this many people’s attention. (By that I mean, he would be no less worthy of our attention.)
If we give him Peterson benefit of the doubt, he is at least trying to figure these things out publicly, and he deserves respect for doing so, regardless of what we think of how he is going about it.
Even if we withdraw that benefit and decide he has collapsed the superimposition of possible interpretations into his own neo-traditional dogma by writing his own rulebook, and got it all wrong, he has still opened up some new possibilities for looking at how and why he got it wrong.
This can create new opportunities for dialogue, both with ourselves and with one another.
Joyce wrote in Ulysses, “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
I don’t think Peterson is a man of genius. I don’t even necesarily believe in men of genius ~ as anything but fictional constructs “placed at the center of symbolic configurations” in order to make us subject to them. Nor do I believe Peterson’s errors are volitional. But I do consider them to be potential portals of discovery. The aim of this series is to line up those potential portals so they can be used to arrive at the truth.
At the very least, as a cultural phenomenon that is making as many people happy as unhappy, Jordan Peterson is worth a closer look in more or less the same way that Elvis or Marilyn are, or once were, worth a closer look.
What these figures say about the audience cults (and the channels of mass media) that made them popular—and pervasive—that turned them into pop archetypes, clearly has social relevance independent of the value of their particular cultural “transmissions.”
Their popularity, in fact, points towards their very archetypal qualities, as well as imbuing them with such via mass projection. Not just any surface serves as a cultural mirror.
With Peterson, there is an extra layer of complexity, nuance, and irony at play, because Peterson is talking about archetypes, and has created a philosophical (and many would say ideological) platform primarily centered around the idea of archetypes and the narratives that host and define them.
In his role as professor-prophet who uses stories as teaching devices, Peterson has effectively stepped into an archetypal role and narrative, that of the wise elder-teacher.
By volunteering to act as a spokesperson (or spokesfrog) for archetypal meanings, Jordan Peterson has offered himself up for archetypal possession, to become a mouthpiece for those meanings, an avatar on the world stage.
The emergence of chaos
It is at this point that the message becomes indistinguishable from the medium. It is also at this point that the medium-who-would-be-messenger becomes a channel for the unconscious—and perhaps also the unconscious will—of the collective.
The proof is that it is this same collective that lifts him up to a “high place” of influence.
Is this perhaps the emergence of chaos into a habitable host? It is the stuff not just of melodrama but of tragedy, history, and of myth. No wonder if it is difficult to tear our gaze away. And if we are going to gaze into this opening abyss, we may as well take notes.
This is my own Petersonian endeavor to articulate the chaos I am seeing, and invite you to inhabit it.
#SaveJordanPeterson and share this damn article.