What follows is a guest post from the author Gregory Desilet, in response to the conversation between Camille Paglia and Jordan B. Peterson titled “Modern Times” which I sent Greg for comment. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Greg writes here (and may respond specifically in the comments), but I think he hits on some significant points that are well worth considering.
I can sympathize with many of the concerns of these two who, as Paglia admits at the end of their conversation, seem to be in perfect agreement with each other on the topics discussed. Culturally and politically, not only the U. S. but the entire world is in a mess.
No one seems to know what is up and what is down anymore. Peterson and Paglia have a hard time with this apparent confusion and want to restore sanity and foundations to societies and the cultural traditions giving rise to them—foundations they believe were once sane and sound but have now been eroded by pernicious influences from decadent French postmodern cultural excesses.
The most pernicious of these influences has been what they call “radical relativism”—which they associate with “neo-Marxism” and the eradication of structural hierarchies not only in political and economic spheres but also in the sphere of judgments associated with any manner of evaluation of competencies. For Peterson and Paglia, egalitarianism now means the leveling of all hierarchies and the suspension of judgments of competence necessary to a meritocracy.
This trend in cultural belief and practice results in loss of the ability to censure anyone for anything—aside, of course, from the censuring of those who would censure others and their right to be who they identify as.
But the issues they understand as problems are not caused by postmodern influences on culture. They are instead, like postmodernism itself, symptoms of changes taking place in the environment humans collectively find themselves inhabiting in the current era.
Everything Peterson and Paglia point to as problematic is actually a result of technological innovations, transforming the environment to produce a constantly shifting new state of nature within which humans must learn to operate. What has been called “Mother Nature” is not static. Print technology and the Industrial revolution changed the natural landscape sufficiently to transform the way in which humans live and work in the world.
These changes accelerated the pace of cultural evolution from tribal collectivism toward individualism, an increase in individual power and autonomy through the spread of affluence and knowledge. This trend has continued and even accelerated more in the current era, now often referred to as the Information Age.
Although the conversation between Peterson and Paglia has been titled “Modern Times,” modernity is long gone as is also postmodernity. The situation now confronting global communities may more rightly be labeled “hypermodernity” and “paradoxical individualism” terms borrowed from the book Hypermodern Times by Gilles Lipovetsky and Sebastien Charles, which I highly recommend reading.
Technological developments have further eroded the basis for tribal associations and advanced the autonomy of the individual, and thereby also individual responsibility for every manner of decision and choice. This responsibility is something few can handle psychologically or emotionally because it is experienced as a heavy weight of constant decision. In an abstract sense, everyone desires respect, autonomy, and power, but very few want the responsibility that goes with this kind of liberty, and instead retreat into tribes, where the decisions are already made for them.
Identity politics has nothing to do with personal identity but rather the retreat from personal identity and responsibility through association with a group. Teenagers are famous for this move when they begin the stage of adolescent rebellion from the family and then discover the terror of being autonomous and quickly retreat into the tribes of schoolyard cliques.
Peterson and Paglia lump postmodernists together, seeing no substantial difference between them. In this video linked below, for example, Peterson speaks as if Foucault and Derrida are identical, but what he says here applies almost exclusively to Foucault, and is something of a caricature of him.
Of Foucault, Peterson says, for example, “a more reprehensible individual you could hardly ever discover or even dream up no matter how twisted your imagination.” This is outrageous to say about anyone, with the possible exception of a serial killer. When Derrida had anything at all to say about Foucault, it was in the form of critique—especially regarding Foucault’s discussion of madness (in Madness and Civilisation). (See, for example, Roy Boyne’s Foucault and Derrida: The Other Side of Reason).
The “radical relativism” of which Peterson and Paglia speak is NOT the relativism of postmodernists such as Derrida. Derridean relativism is contextualism, which merely recognizes the structural role the march of time and situation plays in the understanding of any phenomenon, or in the reading of any set of signs.
This relativism is no more pernicious or dangerous than the relativism of Einstein in his general theory, which accounts for the importance of context in understanding motion in the field of space and time. Humans cannot simply choose to ignore such relativism of contexts without the serious consequence of under-theorizing the complexity of the world in which we all work and live.
When attempting to find solutions to the cultural and social ills they identify as tearing apart the fabric of society, Peterson and Paglia look backward instead of forward. For example, they point to the differences between men and women as having evolved over millennia and as therefore grounded in biological structures fixed to such an extent that they cannot be swept aside, ignored, or underestimated by whimsical theories.
But the theory of evolution itself, which they use to advance their argument, also defeats their argument. The human race has not ceased to evolve. And evolution is accelerating because the natural environment is rapidly changing though technological innovations. Like it or not, humans are evolving along with this evolving natural landscape and nothing is set in stone—especially not human sexual biology, which is not only still poorly understood but also vulnerable to the new science of genetics.
Humans face a brave new world that will require much more than courage to confront and navigate. But the way forward is not to go back or to try to restore past cultural structures, regardless of how comforting those structures may seem in times such as these, times in which so many people feel lost and confused about who they are and where they are going.
There is a famous saying among generals about warfare: Don’t fight the current war with the last war’s tactics. That’s a formula for disaster. New situations always call for new insights and new decisions about how to go forward. This requires great effort and cooperation in thought and inquiry.
Understanding the past and admiring aspects of the past is always beneficial but relying primarily on the past and its forms and institutions as the proper means for going forward underestimates the complexities and challenges of the present. Every situation requires in a very real sense a “new” decision and a different way forward.
This fact is frightening and requires a lot of work, and Peterson and Paglia are not doing the work. Instead, they are showing us precisely where not to look for the best answers to current troubles—the past. Does this mean history ought to be ignored? No. It means do not trust the past to show the right way forward.
There are no easy answers. Everything must be continually thought and re-thought, examined and re-examined. This may, for a time, result in what seems like one step forward and two steps back. But that is better than merely two steps back because, in all truth, there is no going back.
Changes in sexual politics, the structure of higher education, social hierarchies, the nature and future of work, global climate, and what it means to be human are each, like Pandora’s Box, full of wiggling question marks released into the world that can only be dealt with through hard-won inventive strategies.
What never works is placing them back into the box from which they came.