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Jordan Peterson: Shepherd of the Easily Freudened

Sometime between 1922 and 1939, James Joyce wrote the following cryptic passage in his equally cryptic book, Finnegan’s Wake:

Be who, farther potential? and so wider but we grisly old Sykos who have done our unsmiling bit on ’alices, when they were yung and easily freudened, in the penumbra of the procuring room and what oracular comepression we have had apply to them!

What on earth did Joyce mean? Most scholars are in agreement that this passage is aimed at psychoanalysts. Joyce calls them “Sykos,” the Greek term for “fig” that makes up half of the term “sycophant,” which means, literally, “revealer of figs.” Sycophants were litigants in ancient Greece that brought unjustified prosecutions to the court. They were, in short, false accusers. Joyce seems to be saying that psychoanalysts are seedy, “grisly old” men who use false testimony against young women when they are “yung and easily freudened” in order to lure them into their “procuring room.” Say what you will of the literary and moral merits of James Joyce, he certainly seems to have understood psychoanalysis.

Joyce formed his conception of psychoanalysis rather early on, before the movement had become properly institutionalized. He was ahead of his time in this regard. When Joyce was writing, psychoanalysis was identified as a radical movement that sought to demolish bourgeois moral norms. This is, in fact, precisely what it was. Take, for example, Freud’s 1908 essay “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness,” where he writes:

Civilized sexual morality has still worse effects, for, by glorifying monogamy, it cripples the factor of selection by virility—the factor whose influence alone can bring about an improvement of the individual’s innate constitution, since in civilized peoples selection by vitality has been reduced to a minimum by humanity and hygiene [emphasis in the original].

Freud and his followers were promoting a system of ideas that directly attacked bourgeois and Christian sexual morality, together with the family, in favor of a quasi-Darwinian struggle of the vitalistic sexual will. Why then did Joyce, also a cultural radical, attack these doctrines? The answer seems to be that Joyce sensed in Freudianism a new form of authority that he was afraid would replace the throne and altar of yesteryear, and he wanted to head it off before it gained institutional traction.

After the Second World War, psychoanalysis certainly did gain institutional traction. Psychoanalysts, in a very real way, became the moral policemen of Western society. The more radical elements of Freudian doctrine were hidden from view—either in the dry “ego psychology” of Freud’s daughter or beneath layers of New Age mythologizing in the work of Freud’s would-be heir Carl Jung. But at bottom the doctrine still contained the worship and “liberation” of the instincts sold to the buyer under the aegis of “self-actualization.”

The cultural radicals of the postwar era saw the new institutionalized and partly sanitized psychoanalysis as something that needed to be overturned. Yet they also saw in psychoanalytic doctrine radical ideas that could be appropriated. Jacques Derrida, in an early essay entitled “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” borrows from Freud’s essay on the mystic writing pad to form the basis for his own radical attack on Western philosophy. In their work Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatteri appropriated Freudian psychoanalysis—mainly in its then-fashionable Lacanian transformation—to form a theoretical basis to attack traditional society through a process that they called “schizoanalysis.” Schizoanalysis was basically a means of encouraging people to totally ignore any conscientious scruples they had about their behavior and fully “actualize” their basest desires. In Britain, R. D. Laing appropriated psychoanalysis in his Sanity, Madness and the Family to argue that the family as an institution had to be dissolved.

What is my overarching point? Simply that psychoanalysis is a radical doctrine. The doctrine forms the basis of many of the theories that today are referred to as “postmodernism.” Even some of the activist language heard today on college campuses is a direct outgrowth of radicalized psychoanalytic ideas. The idea of “microaggressions,” for example, grows directly out of Deleuze and Guatteri’s notion of “micropolitics,” the idea that everyday cultural interactions should be politicized to further radical cultural goals. “Micropolitics” is grounded in the psychoanalytic idea—an idea that can be found in the original psychoanalytic writings—that society imposes “repressive” moral and cultural norms that damage the individual and do not allow him or her to “actualize” their innermost desires.

This is where we come to Jordan Peterson. Peterson has recently achieved surprising popularity precisely by attacking these postmodern ideas. At one level, Peterson appears to be rallying disaffected and intellectually unmoored young men under a culturally reactionary flag. But this is a misreading. In fact, Peterson is pushing “soft” radical psychoanalytical ideas that seem tame when confronted with the violent “hard” radical ideas of the so-called postmodernists. This is probably what makes Peterson so popular. He is telling his audience that they can embrace modern, late-capitalist, hyper-individualized consumer culture, with its vitalistic quasi-Darwinian “will” ideology, while rejecting the same ideology pushed to its logical end point—that is, pushed to the actual violence that inevitably occurs when one will meets another with no mediation. Peterson, on this reading, is not a conservative; rather he is a pre-1960s cultural radical who is trying to channel the anger of his audience into the moral and economic jungle of a late capitalism that is falling apart under the weight of its own contradictions.

Maps of Meandering

Reading Peterson’s own major work—Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, a 550-page tome published in 1999—gives a strong sense of Peterson’s intellectual milieu. In the introduction Peterson describes how he was raised in a conservative but disinterested Protestant environment. He describes how he ceased believing in religion and how the people around him seemed to think this perfectly normal. After this, Peterson briefly turned to radical leftwing politics. This soon evaporated, too, he claims, and he became disillusioned with ideology. He writes

My religious convictions, ill-formed to begin with, disappeared when I was very young. My confidence in socialism (that is, in political utopia) vanished when I realized that the world was not merely a place of economics. My faith in ideology departed, when I began to see that ideological identification itself posed a profound and mysterious problem.

Soon after, according to Peterson, he began to have what seemed like obsessive violent thoughts, and this led him gradually to an interest in psychology as he began to question where these thoughts were coming from. He had, he says, never been a violent person, and so he could not understand the origins of this new obsession with violence. This led Peterson to Jung, where he found assurance in the notion that he, Jordan Peterson, was not, in fact, real—an intellectual strategy popular in circles where pragmatic psychological need trumps reason, experience, and intuition.

I read something by Carl Jung, at about this point, that helped me understand what I was experiencing. It was Jung who formulated the concept of persona: the mask that “feigned individuality.” Adoption of such a mask, according to Jung, allowed each of us—and those around us—to believe that we were authentic. . . . Despite my verbal facility, I was not real. I found this painful to admit.

The young Peterson then undertook a comparative study of Jung and Freud. He found Jungian mysticism preferable to Freudian sexualism because he intuitively sensed that religious iconography was in some way important. This, it seems, is the crucible in which Peterson’s ideas were formed.

Carl Jung and Liberal Protestantism

In order to understand the Jungian theory behind Peterson’s ideas, we must briefly circle back to the history of psychoanalysis. As Freud established his psychoanalysis at the beginning of the twentieth century he was searching desperately for an heir apparent. A key problem for Freud was that many early psychoanalysts and supporters, like Freud himself, tended to be people from the fringes of intellectual society. Freud was utterly convinced that he had discovered a new science, and he was terrified that it would become identified as a fringe movement. He also feared that psychoanalysis would be dismissed as a “Jewish national affair” (Freud’s own words), a common trope used against it. What Freud needed was an heir with a prominent and respected position in society, and preferably a Christian. And he thought he had found such a person in Carl Jung, the son of a Swiss Reformed pastor and a noted psychiatrist, whom he once called his “adopted eldest son, crown prince and successor.”

Jung grew up at the forefront of the liberal movement in Protestantism. Indeed, the Swiss Reformed Church was constantly experiencing schisms because of how unhappy some of the clergy and laity were with the liberalism that took root in the church. That liberalism was, of course, an outgrowth of developments in nearby German theology. Under the sway of G. W. F. Hegel, theological debates around this time became especially focused on the history and comparative study of religion. A key figure here was the nineteenth-century theologian David Strauss. Strauss, in his Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, argued that most of the claims in the New Testament were not historically accurate. He instead proposed that the New Testament should be viewed as part of a mythic construction.

In some ways influenced by Hegel, it seems that Strauss saw this interpretation as consistent with the larger Hegelian idealistic tradition, in which the development of religious systems could be interpreted as part of the progressive unfolding of reason in history. But the Hegelians—for whom Christianity still held a privileged, if unorthodox, position—largely rejected Strauss (as, for different reasons, did Friedrich Nietzsche). They seemed to sense that Strauss’s project aimed at a total relativization of all religions and mythologies, rather than the Hegelian realization of reason. Nevertheless, these historicist approaches continued to gain traction within liberal Protestantism.

Coming of age within this tradition, Jung’s genius was to weld it to the new Freudian theoretical edifice. Freud offered Jung two things: a theory of psychological repression which supplanted the Christian notion of sin, and a new confessional together with a church in the form of the international psychoanalytical movement. Jung, meanwhile, effectively integrated psychoanalysis into the liberal Protestant tradition. In doing so, however, he brought the Straussian movement in Protestant theology to its logical conclusion.

There is a clear line between the Christological mythology of Strauss and the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung. Jung essentially radicalized the liberalizing tendency in mainstream Protestantism. If the story of the gospels was meaningful only as a “mythic construction,” then why privilege the Christian myth above all others? The substantive content of any tradition could be analyzed mainly in terms of its mythic quality, the underlying themes of which were ultimately reduceable to Freudian psychological phenomena. And so Jungian theory delved deeply into any spiritual tradition that it could get its hands on—from Hinduism to Native American tribal traditions—seeking insights into the common elements of various mythic constructions that could be psychoanalyzed.

Jung thus accomplished for religious spirituality what Freud had done to bourgeois sexual morality: he blew it into a million tiny pieces and totally relativized it. Jung destroyed any real notion of rational cultural truth. Instead what we get is a smorgasbord of “narratives” that possess vague similarities to one another, upon which Jungian analysts can use their wholly mystical methods to detect and “reveal.” Gone is the careful logic-chopping of the Scholastics or even the old Protestant theologians; enter instead a confident analyst who discerns, using methods that seem basically identical to haruspicy, a mystic web of harmony beneath anything that can be deemed a “mythic” construction.

This is the ideology—yes, it is certainly an ideology—that Jordan Peterson sells his audiences. His breathless, rambling performances give off the scent of great learning to the uneducated and the stench of total ignorance to specialists in any of the fields he touches upon. What the audience gets is a sort of shotgun blast of Jungianism where vague connections are made between even vaguer ideas at a rate of maybe four per minute. This is interspersed with well-meaning, and often not terrible, advice to young men who have become estranged from a culture that has rejected them and their masculinity. His audience does not need to know anything at all about, say, the “Hero archetype”—much less recognize that it is an extremely vague analogical idea completely closed off from rational scrutiny—rather they must simply identify themselves as the hero in whatever vague narrative Peterson is helping them construct in their minds.

If this is not postmodernism—the very thing that Peterson decries—then what is? Peterson’s talks provide the same vague spirituality and self-esteem boosterism to young men that, say, Eckhart Tolle’s self-help books offer middle-aged women. Members of Tolle’s audience are usually mourning the loss of a loved one; Peterson’s are mourning their loss of place in a “feminized” society—both are given a strong dose of vague, sub-rational New Age jiggery-pokery and a few mechanical exercises to get the self-esteem and good feels flowing again. Once that happens, the person is ready to plug back into the fast-paced fluidity of the neoliberal—though Peterson is noticeably reluctant to use the N word—moral and economic machine. Their employment prospects may be poor, their wages stagnant, and their family and relationships frayed and broken, but they now get a sense that they can identify with the “Hero archetype” or understand the “deeper meaning” of some form of animal worship practiced by a tribe in Malaysia.

Peterson and Postmodern Neoliberalism

There is a difference between the Jungians and the postmodernists proper, however. While the latter have a deep—and often rather healthy—distrust of quantitative research techniques in the social sciences, the former downright fetishize them. This is by no means surprising. Jung was an early pioneer: in his Studies in Word Associations, Jung attempted to bring to psychoanalysis a quantitative, even experimental edge. In that book, Jung discussed the experiments in word association that he carried out on patients in his psychiatric care. These tests, in themselves, were rather boring, but they did lend some scientific credibility to psychoanalysis—something Freud saw quickly when Jung presented him with the results. Soon, crossover testing between neurology, quantitative clinical work, and psychoanalytic theory began to pour out in droves. What resulted was a bizarre situation where the most oddball sexual theories and discussions of woolly New Age mythology stood next to carefully laid out statistical tables and references to neurology journals.

Today quantitative research—by which I mean the simple collecting of statistics—does not quite have the same air of authority about it. Due to the flood of statistics that most of us experience on a daily basis, much less the “experts” who step out from behind every alleyway offering to interpret them, postmodern man is more inoculated to these tricks and traps than were audiences in Jung’s day. Nevertheless, the mystery of the regression still reigns supreme, and Peterson uses it to full effect. Occasionally, what he is saying is sensible. When he complains that the “wage gap” between men and women is a misleading statistic that is mainly attributable to the fact that, on average, women tend to have different life aspirations to men (rather than, say, personal discrimination), he is probably not far wrong. Pointing this out, however, should encourage some skepticism of the Grand Truths handed down in statistical language. But Peterson almost always employs the multivariate linear regression as his tool of Truth, frequently engaging in one of today’s worst intellectual vices, scientism.

This should not surprise us. Today’s postmodern neoliberalism sits very cozily with vulgar scientism. The idea that truth is only arrived at through empirical and experimental methods is a key component of the ideology that we all live under today. But it is a dreary ideology. New Age faddery thus shows itself to be its perfect supplement. Peterson’s talks give the impression to his adolescent audience that he has “totally destroyed” whatever radical interlocutor he has dug up with “the facts,” while at the same time suggesting that he has something deep—but vague and hard to grasp—to say about the soul itself.

In truth, however, what Peterson offers is almost the exact opposite. Far from revealing the depths of the soul, he is merely regurgitating Jungian mysticism. Nor does he represent any real challenge to the established intellectual order. If anything, he only reinforces it. First, his scientistic Jungianism conforms perfectly with the scientistic postmodernism that dominates public debate. Moreover, the effect of his teaching is almost always to reduce every problem to a matter of personal will or maladjustment. Things like the present structure of the market economy or the existing political order are typically taken for granted by Peterson. Problems are almost always treated as a matter of individual psychology—which can, of course, be remedied by listening to Peterson—while any systemic political or economic critique is effectively proscribed.

Far from “destroying” the established social order, Peterson is mainly promoting the rather mindless integration into it. This can be seen by simply examining the advice he actually gives to people. Amid the vagueness of this advice one glimpses that it is nothing more than a self-help speech, something approaching a Jungian prosperity gospel. In his 12 Rules For Life, Peterson writes

Attend carefully to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a right to them—at least, the same right as others. Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead. Dare to be dangerous. Encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.

Waxing more grandiose, he later adds, “What is expedient works only for the moment. It’s immediate, impulsive and limited. What is meaningful, by contrast, is the organization of what would otherwise merely be expedient into the symphony of Being.”

None of this is inherently terrible advice, but it appears to say nothing more than “do what makes you feel integrated and secure.” And the easiest way to do that is simply to plug yourself into the neoliberal socioeconomic machine and live a life of office work and consumption—presumably with some sexual titillation on the side. In referring to this as “meaning” or “Being,” Peterson empties both of those terms of any real significance. This is adjustment and conformism. Let us not pretend it is anything else.

It is also utterly vague. There is plenty of talk about the Good and the True and Being, but these terms simply wash over the reader and seem to be deployed to foreclose any serious metaphysical or moral reflection. It is not in any way clear, for example, what sort of life one should live. You and I could both follow Peterson’s advice, and I might be led to join a drug gang while you could end up a missionary—whatever makes the serotonin flow plentifully. These details obviously matter, and if they are not supplied, we can only assume that the person following the advice will simply go with the contemporary cultural flow. It is an indictment of both the Right and the Left that either could think Peterson represents any serious challenge to the status quo.

Petersonian “Conservativism”: An Exercise in Wheel-Spinning

Peterson is flogging a tired old horse. Up until recently the main source of morality for the Western ruling class was some version or other of mainstream liberal Protestantism. But this has fallen apart. The number of Americans identifying as mainline Protestant—which in practice typically means liberal Protestant—has fallen from 18.1 percent in 2007 to 14.7 percent in 2014; a fall of nearly 20 percent in just seven years, according to a 2015 Pew study. Peterson has simply taken the fading echoes of this tradition and combined them with psychobabble and mysticism to give ex-Protestants an easy consumerist spirituality—one that helps them adjust themselves to the moral and economic chaos of late neoliberal-postmodern culture and economy. Historians may well look back and see the ideology that Peterson is peddling as a sort of desperate death rattle of a dying cultural tradition.

The odd thing, however, is how behind the times Peterson’s spiritualism actually is. While it certainly provides a very good ideology to adjust people to the present moral and economic arrangements, it is totally out of step with serious contemporary religious scholarship. When Jung was writing in the early and mid-twentieth century, most scholars accepted the historicist and mythic readings of religion that had prospered in the nineteenth century. Theologians were interested mainly in existentialist theories that did not look that different from the theories of Jung. But that is not the case at all today.

These days religious scholarship sounds wholly different. Whether we look to New Testament scholarship, the relationship between Christianity and science, or proofs for the existence of God, all of these things are discussed in a most rationalistic manner. Hare-brained, half-baked mysticism of the sort that Jung promoted mid-century is generally snickered at. Amongst Catholics, the Scholastic tradition of tough-minded Aristotelian rationalism is back in vogue—with figures on both the political right, like Edward Feser, and on the political left, like Alasdair Macintyre, returning to the work of Thomas Aquinas and his protégés. Amongst Protestants, serious textual interpretation, hard-headed historical scholarship, and a reengagement with the sciences and the philosophy of science can be found in the work of various scholars.

What these authors all share in common is a recognition that moral truths cannot be subject to the vagaries of self-help and mealy-mouthed mysticism. These authors recognize that attempting to turn religious and moral systems into an ideological supplement to late neoliberal postmodern capitalism is not only misguided, but ends up blowing up the very religious and moral systems that such attempts are supposed to salvage. Peterson’s mysticism is self-defeating because it has no deep, solid, rationalistic grounding. In fact, it is a particularly insidious form of cultural radicalism—much more insidious than the more honest postmodern theories—that seeps deep into the pulp of our religious and moral systems and rots them from the inside out, turning them into sycophantic ideologies for the moral and economic order that we live under today.

What Peterson’s popularity shows is that there are a lot of people out there—mainly young men—who are craving some sort of religious moral system that can be discussed in an intellectual, rather than merely emotional, manner. But what Peterson is offering them is an irrational ideology that simply fits them out to be absorbed back into a highly dysfunctional society. That leads us to ask: why are these same young men not gravitating to something more substantial? And this is where I will make engage in a somewhat pessimistic piece of speculation. Perhaps these young men are not gravitating to something more substantial because that would ask too much of them.

Peterson’s New Age spiritualism asks very little of those that it addresses. Sure, there is some stern father rhetoric about taking responsibility for your actions and so forth. But this is all done in an utterly vague way, leaving ample room for Peterson devotees to “interpret” the message in any way that they see fit. Peterson is not asking so much for sacrifice as he is for a simulacrum of sacrifice. In that, it is just another narcissistic consumerist ideology. If Peterson’s fans were made to ask real moral and ethical questions in a sustained, rational way they might not like the answers they were led to. These answers might call on them to make substantial changes to the way they concretely live their lives, and many of these changes would be difficult and out of step with contemporary social mores.

The Peterson ideology, born of Jungian mysticism, is a soporific for the young and easily frightened. It is not so much a true moral self-evaluation or a new vision for society as it is a security blanket grasped at jealously in a dysfunctional and chaotic world. What Peterson’s popularity really shows is the intellectual vacuity of contemporary conservativism. This conservatism is not really conservatism at all. Rather it is a sort of radical liberalism or libertarianism that only looks conservative relative to closely related ideologies that revel in more radical forms of anomie. The young should be frightened. They should be frightened that so many are able to see in Jordan Peterson a potential savior.

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