"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

“Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster..."

"I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."

I think of "intellectuals" as very intelligent people with very interesting, if not always sound (because "sound" is what the hearer agrees with) thoughts.  People like Reinhold Niebuhr and Noam Chomsky, or Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, even people like Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.  Not all intellectuals are publicly identifiable, but the term usually denotes a public, rather than publicly obscure, figure.

And then there are people like Jordan Peterson, someone I hadn't even heard of until his name came up at Thought Criminal, and now in an article at Vox.  TC convinced me that Peterson is somewhat of a Man To Be Reckoned With, if only because some bloggers with better than average credentials take his thought seriously.  Reading the Vox article, I'm not so sure about that anymore:

In the lecture, Peterson weaves together an incredibly broad set of topics — ranging from Soviet history to the biblical story of Cain and Abel to Nietzsche to lab experiments that involve feeding rats cocaine — to produce a kind of unified theory of modern politics. At base, he argues that that Soviet-style communism, and all the mass murder and suffering it created, is still a serious threat to Western civilization. But rather than working openly, it seeps into our politics under the guise of “postmodernism.”

Peterson’s argument starts with a vivid denunciation of Marxism. Human society, like all animal kingdoms, is in Peterson’s mind defined by certain biological truths — including the reality that some people are naturally more gifted than others, and that life will always involve suffering. Marxism, he believes, is rooted fundamentally in the hatred of people who succeed in a capitalist economy — and thus will always result in violence when one attempts to implement it.

“Are these Marxists motivated by love or hatred? Well, is it love or hatred that produces 100 million dead people?” he asks in the speech, rhetorically.

Peterson believes that the failure of Soviet communism has not actually deterred communism’s fans in the West, who still secretly cling to the old hateful beliefs. He argues that they do so under the guise of a school of thought he refers to as “postmodernism,” which he sees as his archenemy.

There's a whole lot of stupid swimming around in there, starting with Red Scare era anti-communism, and continuing through vapid denunciations of postmodernism.  Postmodernism is really just a term meant to demarcate literary and social categories in history.  The Romantic Era gave way to the Victorian writers, who, especially in American literature, gave way to the Realists and then the Naturalists, who gave way to the Surrealists (borrowing from the fine arts in Europe), who were part of the Modernists, the post-WWI group that included, among Americans, the "Lost Generation" of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others (the name came later, from Edmund Wilson, IIRC).  Eventually modernism had to run its course (as Romanticism did, although like the Roman empire, although defunct, it continues to hold a powerful influence in the way we think about ourselves, history, philosophy, literature; all that "liberal arts" stuff) and scholars and professors soon noted "post-modernism," because they couldn't come up with a better name.  But blaming it for anything is rather like blaming an astrological sign for a bad economy, or a Chinese Zodiac year (valid, so far as I know, only on restaurant placemats) for bad weather.  It's a stupid, vacuous claim, in other words.  "Postmodernism" is not a school of thought, it's a convenient grouping of artistic (usually literary) work, as much responsible for content as "baby boomer" or "millennial" is controlling on the personalities of millions depending on their birth-year.

So why I need to take a guy like this seriously?  I might as well worry about Rick Warren's impact on the body politic (anybody remember him?).    Or James Dobson's, or Jerry Falwell, Jr., for that matter; or the preaching of Franklin Graham.  Billy Graham was supposed to be one of the most influential preachers in modern history:  name two of his sermons, or one of his ideas.  If you can get beyond a vague notion of some kind of Christian soteriology based on Jesus and your "heart," you remember more about him than most people do, or ever will.  No slight on Mr. Graham, but "influential" is a curiously ephemeral measure.  Reinhold Niebuhr was influential once, and deserves to be remembered more fully, but whether his work will remain vital or be as forgotten as that of Schopenhauer and Feuerbach remains to be seen.

Frankly, to even talk in the 21st century about "Marxists" as if they still exist and exert influence (even China isn't "Marxist" anymore) is to betray yourself as a Deeply Unserious Person (I'm going to try to make that phrase happen!).

“Western leftist intellectuals are [fundamentally complicit] in the horrors of the 21st century,” he says. “It’s not that they’ve learned anything since; they’ve just gone underground. And that’s what I see when I see postmodernism.”
And they stole his lunch money and beat him up after school, too!  "Western leftist intellectuals"?  Really?  And who would they be?  And when did they "go underground"?  Are they being pursued with arrest warrants or something?  And "horrors of the 21st century"?  It's only 17 years old; what "horrors" have we seen that "Western leftist intellectuals" were "fundamentally complicit" in?  9/11?  The invasion of Afghanistan by the U.S.?  The invasion of Iraq?  The collapse of the financial markets because of mortgage backed securities?  Lehman Brothers and Dick Cheney and John Bolton are "Western leftist intellectuals"?  Who knew?

Turns out "Western leftist intellectuals" are Foucault and Derrida, responsible for these "horrors" because they worked in the French philosophical tradition of language and rhetoric (the use of words).  How Foucault and Derrida influenced W. is not explained (or influenced anybody beyond a handful of literary theorists at the end of the 20th century), but it might as well be through radio waves beamed into his fillings.

It gets worse from there, with his popular books about 12 Rules for Life:  An Antidote for Chaos.  You can just imagine, although the description of it in Vox is interesting:

The book is a kind of bridge connecting his academic research on personality and his political punditry. In it, Peterson argues that the problem with society today is that too many people blame their lot in life on forces outside their control — the patriarchy, for example. By taking responsibility for yourself, and following his rules, he says, you can make your own life better.

For some reason it puts me in mind of the advice of Rick Santorum; although its certainly akin to Ayn Rand's objectivism, and about as foolish.

I'm sure this is all deeply influential because its on the best-seller list at Amazon; then again, students (and high schools!) have kept Ayn Rand in print for 75 years now, and the world is not markedly the worse for it.

Of course, it was clearly a better place when an Ayn Rand work was published in a pulp magazine alongside Kafka's most famous story.  Besides, the lobster is the cockroach of the sea......


Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

Peterson is more a political problem than an intellectual problem, to call him an intellectual light-weight is to insult light-weight intellectuals.

I doubt anyone is going to be talking about him in five years, though I'm still surprised people are talking about Sam Harris, with whom he shares a good deal.

His arguments about lobsters are a symptom of the really terrible education in biology provided by English language education. It's related to Dawkins' brand of Darwinist doctrine and most of what he says relates back to evo-psy, itself a symptom of bad science education.

In the mean time it gives a "scientific" justification for discrimination, discriminatory pay rates, coercion to follow set gender roles, racism, etc. So, again, it's a political problem.

It is good that Peterson is so generative of mockery like what they regularly do of him on Majority Report.

8:10 AM  
Blogger steve simels said...

"'m sure this is all deeply influential because its on the best-seller list at Amazon; then again, students (and high schools!) have kept Ayn Rand in print for 75 years now, and the world is not markedly the worse for it."

Apparently you think the world is a better place because of Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

No worse than it is for you being here.

10:35 AM  
Blogger steve simels said...

Ooh, snap.!

12:20 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

No more than your comment merited.

12:32 PM  

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