Please don’t imagine that I am criticising Jordan Peterson when I say that he has abandoned the real world. Because he’s absolutely right: we should have never left the oceans.
At the Oxford Union, in his latest book and on Twitter, the Psychology professor, now YouTube sensation and bestselling author, has been busy tendering to his group of predominantly male, frenzied conservative crusaders. Actively feeding them more antiquated, half-chewed thoughts on individualism, personhood and gender & class hierarchies: in part through the medium of some hilarious Tumblr-esque dissections of biblical stories and myths to demystify these concepts and how they are relevant to the human condition.
To explain his success as he might, picture David and Goliath: the triumphant small man facing down a much stronger, giant adversary. In his version of events, he and his followers represent David, while postmodernism and the “social justice warriors” (SJWs) represent Goliath, or some shit. The classic underdog story that everybody loves. Except his underdog story and the dramatic rise in his popularity can largely be attributed to a video that was widely shared featuring Peterson disparaging trans students on campus.
I suppose it’s easy to understand his appeal, his words can read like political ramblings from H.P. Lovecraft on bath salts even when looking at a fairly placid profile featured in the NYT. Reactionary white men will be thrilled with his loathing for the SJWs and his deranged machismo diet of eating nothing but salted meat. Those embattled against political correctness on university campuses will heartily endorse Peterson’s claim that “there are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.” Islamophobes will take heart from his speculation that “feminists avoid criticising Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance.” Libertarians will cheer Peterson’s glorification of the individual striver, and his stern message to the left-behinds of “Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark.”. The demagogues of our age don’t read much; but, as they ruthlessly crack down on refugees and immigrants, they can derive much philosophical backup from Peterson’s sub-chapter headings: “Compassion as a vice” and “Toughen up, you weasel.” One thing that is common across these demographics of his base is their ineptitude in talking to—and overt hostility toward—women. Of course to address this, he applies the melodramatic rhetoric of mythical struggle between chaos and order to explain their fuckless everyday situation.
“Culture,” one of his typical arguments goes, “is symbolically, archetypally, mythically male”—and this is why resistance to male dominance is unnatural. Men represent order, and “Chaos—the unknown—is symbolically associated with the feminine.” Keeping with this and his many soliloquies about modernity that he attributes, in part, to ‘cultural Marxism’, Peterson imbues life with a sense of lurking danger: the world is liberally peopled with sociopaths and psychopaths and even the dullest of conservative academics are actually ideological shock troops in a cosmic battle. He styles himself as a culture warrior against the forces of postmodernism, a worldview which, he says, is “an assault on everything that’s been established since the Enlightenment : rationality: empiricism : science.” He lambasts academia and casts off ‘postmodernists’, a catch-all he uses for any modern thought that questions the superiority of dominant Western political and scientific institutions—from Marxism, to French post-structuralism, to contemporary gender and race theory—again as “an assault on the metaphysical substrate of our culture”. Yet nowhere in his published writings does Peterson seem bothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy—that were essential to maintain Enlightenment ideals—connects too easily with such nascent viciousness as misogyny, anti-semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his ‘maps of meaning‘ aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists.
Like Peterson, many Enlightenment and hyper-masculinist thinkers saw compassion as a vice and urged insecure men to harden their hearts against the weak on the grounds that the latter were biologically and culturally inferior. Hailing myth and dreams as the repository of fundamental human truths, they became popular because they addressed a widely felt spiritual hunger: of men looking desperately for maps of meaning in a world they found opaque and uncontrollable. It was against this (eerily familiar) background—a “revolt against the modern world,” as the title of Evola’s 1934 book put it—that demagogues emerged so quickly in twentieth-century Europe and managed to exalt national and racial myths as the true source of individual and collective health. The drastic individual makeover demanded by the visionaries turned out to require a mass, coerced retreat from failed liberal modernity into an idealised traditional realm of myth and ritual. And this is how, for his admirers searching for some kind of spiritual nourishment, he invokes the Shaman.
Peterson considers himself to function akin to the shaman: a sorcerer and an orator of ancient knowledge (he himself maintaining a clinical practice, which draws influence from shamanic ritual – and this is actually the most consistent commitment of his). But, he and his influencers are no more a Shaman than I would be if I started yelling intellectual aggro on top of the Fjords. He frightens his enthusiasts and patients, in order to be better able to soothe.
In sharp contrast, the extract below is from an ethnography by Barbora Půtová describing the etymology of the shaman:
The Upper Palaeolithic gave rise to many works of art including paintings and engravings depicting these unearthly beings integrating anthropomorphous features, often taking the form of sorcerers. Shamans are usually interpreted to be Upper Palaeolithic sorcerers who can be seen as Earth deities, Great Spirit or the Lord of the Animals. The anthropomorphous potential of sorcerers is often depicted with anatomic features of animals such as a bison or deer.
Their animal sexual activity, fertility, vitality and strength are in some cases demonstrated with an erect phallus which is complemented with an animal tail. The images of sorcerers can be also regarded as a shaman during a magical ritual that was significant for the community which used the cave. Religious rituals played a prominent role in the society as they consist of the “ability to enter into ecstatic states via a number of techniques and to create strong, emotionally binding relationships with other people”.
Many aspects of Upper Palaeolithic art document that caves were used for shamanism and illustrate the ability to project introspective images on the surface. Furthermore, elements of cave art reflect the structure of the mind derived from internal feelings, dreams, memories, visions or altered states of consciousness. Prehistoric sites with cave art include shaman equipment, including percussion instruments, flutes made of bird bones and heel imprints indicating to ritual dances. The structure of the cave symbolises a journey into unconsciousness and a lower (under)world, representing the shaman’s inner journey. The use of deep caves was taken to be a symptom of magical intent. Shamanismus could have played a crucial role in cognitive and social evolution as altered states of consciousness facilitated adaptation to ecologic and social changes in the Upper Palaeolithic.
Further examination of shamanistic mythology and practice would evoke a more accurate comparison, one which doesn’t look like a right-wing fantasist slowly degenerating into Christopher Lee’s Dracula. And one that is actually characterised by postmodernity.
In the 30,000 years it has been since people first started depicting strange beings whose bodies symbolised the duality of the man and the animal, these beings integrating animal and human elements acquired a new dimension. Postmodern relativism and the desire to seize the human substance with alternative resources gave rise to a new type of a sorcerer — half human and half animal, known as a furry.
The oldest example of one of these [Shaman] can be found in Chauvet Cave in Ardèche (ca. 30 000 BC), it depicts a figure part human and part bison. At the end of the leg of the bison there are parallel lines hanging down. The body of the bison with a horned head is directed towards a vulva, a pubic triangle and two tapering legs of Venus that is being transformed in the back part of a feline, suggesting some sort of chase involving human and animal coitus.
Where a Shaman’s ecstasy is perceived as an altered state of consciousness, setting on a journey to other worlds—to achieve for e.g. successful hunting, good weather, healing—a furry acquires extraordinary abilities when entering the virtual reality in the form of a personal furry. The virtual space creates possibilities for constructing new identities that may provide more perceptual experiences, fantasies and illusions. Furries can change their own representation in cyberspace. Cyberspace opens to furries according to their needs and provides them ecstatic freedom, discovering new worlds. Shamans and furries thus trespass the threshold of the profane world, though in different times, in order to modify their original personality and find new existential horizons of human feelings and cognition.
Furries—in-part, defined by postmodernity (in that they are procedural identities, based on constant choice, search, configuration and representation)—are a liminal being in this sense, just as Shamans are, functioning to achieve a form of spiritual liberation. While closer interrogation of Peterson’s claims reveal his ‘ageless insights’ as a typical and painfully confined, if not archetypal, product of our own times: right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations. But it’s important for his followers to consider that it is not the duty of intellectuals to be reassuring and edifying, to create a serious world for adult children to wrap themselves up in. Intellectuals are supposed to be critics not clerics. If they do have a role, it is to provide tools to weather the sometimes enervating, painful, and confusing path of reflection and thought, not to allow for its easy interruption with images of glory and government-mandated girlfriends.
In his war with postmodernism, as elsewhere, Peterson wants to somehow keep the Enlightenment intact as a positive value, without realising its actual stakes or costs. In his work, he never really identifies the evils caused by belief in profit, slavery, genocide, and imperialism but he will surmise that a belief in egalitarianism, in this postmodern age of ‘cultural Marxism’ (he uses these interchangeably), leads straight to the guillotine or Gulag.
With his reactionary views and avuncular displays, Peterson functions far more as a huckster than the shaman, handing out quick fixes and vague sentiment, using his semi-related field to prey on college-aged males. Little of his work can be classed as ‘philosophy’. I’m not sure that he’s ever acknowledged—or read—any studies and findings that would still be credible in either the sociology or anthropology disciplines today. And it isn’t really politics or science either. Instead, his work is a kind of grappling with the excesses of what human beings have done or believed in the past, in the hope that it clarifies something about the present. If Peterson has a particular skill, beyond his undoubted eloquence, it’s the ability to move so seamlessly back and forth between scientific research and metaphysics, the primordial and the modern, that his audience scarcely notices the joins. And that’s the crux. That’s how Peterson is effectively able to sell his brand of intellectual and political fearlessness to them: imposing a world of mysticism upon the world that already exists, which is one of complexities that he doesn’t have the ability to grasp.
Disclaimer: This is a Frankenstein’s monster of an essay in that it’s a conglomerate of my own writing/research and some excerpts pulled directly from articles by Pankaj Mishra and Will Davies. I’ve written a kind of auxiliary blog piece for this essay on my Patreon.