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Jordan Peterson and Camille Paglia

the following is extracted from a recent conversation on social media:

I have had several people mention Jordan Peterson to me this year, or ask my opinion on him. I initially tried to ignore him but he seems to be getting increasingly popular. I sympathize with many of his concerns but have found his scapegoating of postmodernism to be tiresome and ironically projective. Here I think the always entertaining Camille Paglia helps make some of his points more informed and reasonable. She has her problems and exaggerations too (Foucault had no knowledge of antiquity…what?), but the dialog is at least a reasonably informed and nuanced example of this movement against postmodern thought.

But most of what they argue against is an ideological caricature that has been used by career intellectuals and does not do justice to the rich ideas of that tradition. But they have a point that proponents of romanticism have been making throughout the modern and postmodern eras, but which takes on new dimensions in our current culture. People are increasingly ignorant of history and are becoming ever more divorced from the experience and contexts that have molded the meaning of our words and lives. Postmodernism didn’t cause this and romanticism–in whatever form–cannot save us from disaster. We need new myths and metanarratives that learn from and build off of our past and embrace the possibilities of our future.

While the uncreative on both sides of these debates continue to scapegoat certain groups and struggle over who is to blame on the sinking ship of Western culture, new worlds await those who can come together to transvalue our culture into what both postmodernism and romanticism were reaching for, what both art and science, image and word both long to capture and create: contact with the source of meaning that is the living spiritual reality inside us all.

Gregory Desilet has thought a lot about why deconstruction is so often misunderstood, and he probably has a different opinion than me despite my debt to his scholarship. But I think a lot of this boils down to Derrida being conflated with his politically motivated followers here in the States who misuse his ideas. Peterson conflates a complex social phenomenon down to a naive conspiracy theory, whereas Paglia I think is coming from a more informed position. Many people in the English departments of American universities resent the effect deconstruction has had on their profession. I used to read a lot of Harold Bloom, and more recently Colin Falk both of which influenced Paglia. Falk attacks poststructuralism more directly from the Romantic position; Bloom tends to attack more of the post-colonial politicized aspects of the movement. In fact Bloom is often lumped together with postmodern literary theorists like Paul deMann and even contributed to a book on deconstruction and literary theory. What he resented was not deconstruction but the destruction of the Western literary canon by political motivations.

Lumping all of post-war continental theory into one movement is problematic enough, but blaming all the radical cultural changes in late 20th century society on left wing professors as Peterson does is a conservative conspiracy theory with no base in reason. Paglia rightly differentiates between the true Left and the phony careerists who just use the language in their power games. I still think she misunderstands deconstruction but she seems less interested in critiquing Lacan or Derrida’s ideas than the way they are applied by some of his followers. She tends to have appreciation of all ideas as literature, rather than taking a hard stance on truth with a capital T. You see this in Bloom, and I think one can get there from postmodernism in general.

What they all are critical of is the privileging of any discourse to the master narrative. They all, including Derrida, are very critical of elevating any discourse just because it has been previously repressed. Jordan Peterson gets that wrong every time he opens his mouth on deconstruction. He seems to think this is the main idea in deconstruction, but it is completely false, however common the mistake is. Derrida does not invert hierarchies out of any assumption that they are all injust. That would clearly lead to chaos and is in practice impossible. He is interested in making our judgments and selections, all of our choices in context and interpretation, an object of scrutiny requiring justification. If the “method” of deconstruction is often thought of as inversion, it is only to break up the naturalized context that rendered the previous hierarchy invisible and put things in a different perspective that shows the previous context to be not so natural or foundational after all. That some people have used this as a political program of elevating every marginal figure or group to the center or top, even if only as a temporary restitution, is very contrary to Derrida, Deleuze or Nietzsche for that matter. Resentment is exactly what they are trying to get away from and Nietzsche and his postmodern progeny were all very critical of those aspects of the Left they saw as embodying resentment.

The idea is never to play the power game of those tied to the system but to redraw the boundaries of the system through the creation of new values (Nietzsche), by destabilizing the assumptions on which the power structure is based (Derrida), creating a line of flight to new multiplicities free from the territorializing power of ossified power structures(Deleuze), or in Bloom just the creative misreading that can overcome the anxiety of influence. Frankly in Peterson I see a failed attempt at exactly what he demonizes in those he misreads, an anxiety of postmodernism’s influence that he attempts to overpower through misreading, but which ends up mirroring postmodernism’s shadow in a negative dialectic. Deleuze in his own hatred of dialectic, attempts to overcome the shadow/power game by taking his influences from behind and producing a monstrous offspring. This is what all great artists do, as Bloom made a career of pointing out. In his book Kabbalah and criticism he quotes the great Paul Valery:
“We say an author is original when we cannot trace the hidden transformations that others underwent in his mind; we mean to say that the dependence of what he does on what others have done is excessively complex and irregular. There are works in the likeness of others, and works that are the reverse of others, but there are also works of which the relation with earlier productions is so intricate that we become confused and attribute them to the direct intervention of the gods.”

Marxism is definitely a big part of post-war continental theory, though it tends to be completely divested of its Utopianism, hence the postmodern appellation. There is also a lot of tension between influential Marxists and what they see as postmodern theory. My favorite contemporary marxist David Harvey wrote a whole book critiquing Postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism. It is a great book, with important insights about how the logic of so much of postmodern theory was exploited by neoliberal strategists. Compared to this “cultural marxism” stuff I have sen Peterson spew right out of Pat Buchanan’s nonsense, it has a basis in reason and evidence.

As for narratives, there is no getting around that. Everybody has at least one. Agendas and ideologies maybe a little more suspect but often they are just terms for the other guy’s creative vision. There is no need to add post-structuralism as a cover for Marxism, they are parallel and intersecting traditions in the academy. I think what you are talking about is what I mentioned in my first comment, that young people are increasingly ignorant of history and divorced from the contexts of ideas. This may have something to do with postmodernism, I agree. I don’t think it is as extreme as Paglia suggests. Foucault was not as historically myopic as she claims. But there are those that are. They tend to be my least favorite. Vattimo, Rorty, etc….
But yes downplaying grand narratives definitely prevents getting a deeper sense of history and context. This is definitely one of postmodernism’s weaknesses. But it was never meant to be a master discourse. It is mostly the culturally illiterate Americans that take deconstruction and make a religion out of it. But we do need larger narratives to connect and make sense of different narratives, and history is crucial for that. This is why the cutting edge in academic theory is taking on aspects of the modernist tradition and analytic philosophy, with their desire for systematic philosophy and combining it with postmodernism’s talent for addressing critical contextual limitations. My favorite contemporary philosopher Manuel Delanda wrote a Deleuzean book of history called “A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History”. Him and others like his friend the Heidegger influenced Graham Harman, and other realists in England are offering fertile alternatives to Marxist Utopianism, where there are definite historical processes, but they are understood topologically not teleologically. But you can find all of that in Deleuze’s attack on Marxist orthodoxy 30 years ago, or in other forms within the Marxian tradition itself which has had a long history of self critique of its utopianism.

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I hear you. But we can be critical of something and still appreciate it. In fact as any reader of Nietzsche knows, critique and respect go hand in hand. Paglia asserts in the video that she is an atheist but considers religion the pinnacle of culture. I don’t see the problem as one of excess but of shallowness and insincerity. People would rather find an excuse to dismiss all of Western culture than take the time to understand its problems, challenges and achievements. Similarly Peterson seems to want an excuse to dismiss a whole half century of Western culture rather than doing the important work of answering the challenge for the future it sets up. I had similar feelings about postmodernism when I was young, but thankfully I took the time to understand it as best I could and it lead me to new worlds. The answer isn’t a return to Modernism, to archetypes and Jung, to naive realism and canonical narratives but to embrace the chaos of a world in transformation and find patterns and connections in the complexity.

Paul Feyerabend, one of my great heroes who could be considered
a postmodernist, went all the way into the chaos and emerged with one of my favorite quotes “There is no idea no matter how ancient or absurd that cannot add to our knowledge”. This is true multiculturalism, not enforced diversity codes. It critiques everything and finds value in everything. It is only in that chaos that the deeper patterns emerge, which as been the story in the system sciences I look to for the future. The deeper truths have been emerging out of the chaos for this past half century of post-classical science and postmodern culture. Granted most people aren’t paying attention, but the spirit is there in the New Age, no matter how shallow it may be at times. Though not in its romantic Jungian versions, but rather the new mythologies of esoteric science and its scifi cosmology. It was Steiner and Reich not Jung who pointed this direction. Jung merely appropriated romanticism into rationalism; Steiner, as the great critic Owen Barfield claimed, developed Goethe and Coleridge’s Romantic spirit to its fruition. The New Age should move past Jung and the mythopoetic aesthetic and turn that intellectual energy towards its crazy and creative UFO fringe, where all the new myths are being formed. At least that is what I am doing.

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Skepticism to me is more of an emotional reaction than a sign of any insightful critical intelligence. Real thinking demands a realism that embraces the virtual, the abstract. No thought is without reality. Some have more value and reality than others, but that is partly made by decision. We decide what ideas to invest life in. My favorite Derrida quote is instructive: “form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. that is, to create”

I find Jungian thinking to have limited potential for life because it reduces everything down to universal forms rather than creates as Aurobindo did, new meaning and myth out of old symbols. If you read any of the essays on my website you will see I do not wish for a single universal language for all the good postmodern reasons but rather an understanding of the universal within each particular, which is what my philosophy is developing: a creative coherence, not an authoritative one.

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I think that (there is a reality) goes without saying in all philosophy. The assumption is that the world is a cosmos not a chaos. The ideas have just gotten more refined. The chaos of chaos theory is not really chaos. There really is no randomness in the universe in the sense of having no connection or meaning. The order is just no longer reduced to generic archetypes or “laws” of nature. Gregory Chatain’s definition of random, referenced often in the complexity theory literature is all about incompressibility. You can’t compress a random number down into an algorithm. It is truly unique, not determined by anything predictable. When we leave the platonism behind we don’t get absolute disorder, we get a higher order. Deleuze’s replacement for essence/archetype he takes from mathematics: a multiplicity. The difference is in the level of detail. We are moving from some rather generic thinking that the ancients were doing that reduced things down to vague types and categories to a new science and mysticism where the Gods are coming down to Earth and are rendered visible in their specificity.

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