Don’t Trust the Past: Gregory Desilet on Jordan Peterson & Camille Paglia’s Culture Fixing (Guest-Post )

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.

20 thoughts on “Don’t Trust the Past: Gregory Desilet on Jordan Peterson & Camille Paglia’s Culture Fixing (Guest-Post )

  1. Yes we were discussing Foucalt in car line today…. my dentist asked me about Derrida’s phenomenology of post structuralism… haha no they didn’t.
    Who reads Derrida or Foucalt? You dont have to be a barrista to get a headache from Derrida and want to share some opioids with the guy.
    if you even know anybody you know who knows who he is in your daily life, hello tattoo faced man with skull on your neck, yes i would like a bag for my groceries and have you deconstructed post modern positivism today? the BS everywhere is so pervasive in the most mundane of places, like in Whole Foods that the idea of entering this gloomy quagmire of pretentious jargonizational Grammatology is harder to swallow than goat yogurt.

    The sliver of people who navelgaze straight through to the cosmos while ignoring linear history and reality will continue to do so in ivory towers influencing the reflective policies of insanity that ARE currently making the world a mess, and may very well have some Kwon in the game. Peterson and Paglia are on the right track, not that i trust peterson as my hero.

    There is no good from Pandoras dumpster in perpetual dump on the globe. It is a hot mess and we are kidding ourselves with this human evolution crap, we will only change because of nudging, neglect, and forced ignorance and herding, nothing is natural about it.

    • Derrida and Foucault are difficult reads and not common conversational knowledge. So when someone like Peterson says something broadly critical and damning about what they say, he needs to put it in capsule form, state the view, mention where the owner of that view actually states that view, and then provide the criticism. I don’t see Peterson doing that in the videos I’ve been able to see. Instead, he makes sweeping statements about their views that are to the best of my knowledge simply false.

  2. Thanks for prvidmg the distinction between Foucault and Derrida, hadnt examined them that closely and also tended to lump them together as the naughty twins that pulled down the statue of Ozymandias, resulting in the ‘lone and level sands, stretching away’. In reality it was probably mad cackling Einstein dropping a primitive tactical nuke from low altitude in a clapped out piston engined Boeing Bomber that brought down the damn statue. Not a bad shot when he had to crawl into the perspex nose and drop it through cloud clover with angry Zeros buzzing all around.

    Without having investigated the concept of hypermodernism, at first glance it seems you are simply restating the myth of progress, with the caveat that people who are discomforted by it or reject it are simply clumping themselves into gaggles of like minded losers on Faceborg and other platforms. This ignores the highly engineered reality of such technologies which are becoming ever more pervasive and invasive, coupled as they are to the realities of total surveillance in the name of the never ending GWOT.

    Or i could just be plain wrong.

    • I wanna know what comes after Hypermodernisim LOL.

      Hypermodernisim is so, like, 5 minutes ago, according to the new evolutionary “rules”.

      We need to get a leg up on these tastemakers for a change.

    • My point is precisely that “such technologies . . . are becoming ever more pervasive.” And in doing so they are radically transforming “nature” into a kind of “techno-nature” to which humans must continually find new ways to adapt to.

  3. 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.

    In my view this isn’t quite accurate, as in the PC-mandates, people may be being mandated not even for censuring others but for not supporting them in their right to be who they identify with. The right of (say) an 8-year old schoolgirl to self-identify as a boy trumps the right of a school teacher to refer to their own criteria and identify the child as a girl. If I continue to refer to a girl who wants to be identified as a boy as a girl, am I censuring their rights or am I only holding onto my own rights to call it as I see it?

    In this regard, to this degree, I see JBP’s stance on gender pronouns as legitimate (though it may have been opportunistic).

    The human race has not ceased to evolve.

    This statement is central to your arguments and seems self-evident but is it? That human beings are quite different externally and even psychologically now than 4000 years ago seems undeniable. But is this related to evolution or merely to social complexification – assuming that latter isn’t caused by the former. Put slightly differently, can we distinguish the difference between evolution and mutation, understanding that the latter can be a means for evolution to occur but isn’t always (there are unhealthy forms of mutation).

    What is the religious viewpoint? Is it that the human being is already made in God’s image, which is an image of the eternal and therefore cannot evolve, can only mutate and become increasingly distorted or “fallen”?

    If so, then the desire to get back to a past state – while it may be futile and even regressive socio-politically – may have merit at a spiritual (and even biological) level (i.e., that the only hope for humanity is via a final extrication from technological dependency rather than a final merging with it).

    These are possibilities that may need factoring in to a fuller argument – while it may be true that we cannot go back into the past, it may also be true that we can’t go forward into the future, either. That the “radical” solution lies outside of time and is literally unthinkable.

    • The points you raise here seem to me insufficient against the fact that humans now are in possession of their own genome. What this means is that mother nature has now been preempted from her master role in evolution and that humans are now in a position to take control away from her. In this sense, whether humans like it or not, this new knowledge means we have replaced God and must bear the weight of the responsibility that has come to us via this new knowledge and the technology corresponding to it. We can literally design the future evolution of the species. This is an awesome responsibility and one which I doubt we humans have the maturity and wisdom to cope with. This is what I mean by the acceleration of “evolution.” We are the ones who will accelerate it.

      • Greg: doesn’t the idea that humans have “replaced God” presuppose that God is a human-created concept rather than a transcendent objective reality that corresponds with that which is infinite, eternal, and absolute?

        In the same way, you assign a degree of agency to human beings as “agents of evolution” that I don’t – which is somewhat ironic since you are so skeptical about human beings having the ability to implement covert conspiracies to manipulate history. I tend to see evolution as a limited humancentric interpretation of God-in-action-within (or as)-Creation and human beings merely as one instrumentality in that, albeit one through whom scandals are necessarily coming rather prolifically of late.

        You ignored my main point, which is that I do not see human beings’ ability to create scandals against God and Nature as evolution but as mutation/deterioration; so when you say “We can literally design the future evolution of the species” what I hear is, We can literally become so desperate and demented (traumatized) that we will destroy ourselves rather than face the reality of our powerlessness in the face of the Infinite; or something like that.

        Not that this absolves us of responsibility, but I think our responsibility is largely, or even entirely, just to see this abysmal truth about ourselves, and then, as the book says, repent of it.

        • Jasun–you do love digging deep, don’t you? But then, why not? When I suggested that human knowledge of genetics would enable us to replace God, I was thinking of God only in the sense of God as our creator. If humans can take control of the genetic coding and manipulate it, then in a very real sense we begin to become our own makers, and thus, in a sense, replace God as our maker. Who knows, in time humans might become capable of creating new species of all types of life, or bring back extinct species. Such power would be God-like power and would look to be as such to any human from the 1st century. So, I was not intending to evoke a spiritual notion of God as the infinite, eternal, and absolute. But who knows where human knowledge and power may end? What if our species survives another million years? What then, given how much has changed in the last 100 years of technological development? Maybe the only God that has ever been and that will ever be is contained in the core of life and its evolution in the cosmos. Instead of God creating the cosmos, maybe the cosmos is the creator of God? Or, as I believe the Hindus think of it, maybe God fragmented and dispersed in giving birth to the cosmos and the cosmos is the journey of these fragments back into God again. And we humans and our evolution may be part of that journey.

          As for assigning agency to human beings, I believe we have no more and no less “agency” than Derrida assigns to the “subject.” As I said initially, I really do not believe humanity at present has the maturity (the agency) to know how to manipulate evolution without unforeseen and unintended consequences. To be able to effect genetic changes and yet not be able to see all the consequences is a form of agency, but in a very limited form. So I agree that human agency is limited as is whatever influence we may have on evolution. With whatever agency we may have we are more and more forced to PLAY God but that need not mean we will do a good job in that role. But as far as I’m concerned the God of the Bible didn’t do a very good job in the role either, so we would be in good company in whatever degree we may be seen to fail.

          What I just said meshes with the last point you raise when you suggest we humans may be making a horrible scandal of our agency by ruining Nature and Earth, not to mention ourselves. Perhaps all true. Then again, perhaps not. Why so pessimistic? My skepticism about human agency is primarily a form of caution rather than a form of nihilism. The more powerful humans become the more we need to guard against hubris. Chances are good we will make a lot of bad mistakes on the road to the future. But we really have no choice but to go forward, as I initially suggested. We can’t put all of our newly discovered powers back in a box no more than we can go backward in time. We have to learn how to manage them. Granting as much, what point is there in predicting failure and self-destruction? And what point is there in “repenting”? How does that help? Isn’t repenting nothing more than retreating, nothing more than wishing to put the powers back in the box? Nothing more than saying, oops, sorry, we don’t deserve to be where we are? Do we not deserve to be where we are because we might fail? Do you see the unnecessary negativity in that? Cautious optimism is the only helpful way forward.

          Just a last comment about humans being capable or not of implementing covert conspiracies to manipulate history. Of course, humans are capable of this, but not without the possibility of unintended consequences potentially capable of producing an outcome the exact opposite of what was intended. Again, a question of the potency of agency. And before I would believe in any such conspiracies I would have to see a lot of compelling evidence, just as I would have to see a lot of very compelling evidence before I would believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life or visitation on Earth by aliens. And why believe in fantastic conspiracies when more mundane explanations are available? Centuries of belief in the fantastic story of Christ as the Son of God is enough evidence to convince me that humans are far too willing to believe almost anything without any real evidence whatever. That may be fine for some, but I need evidence. Otherwise, what difference is there between being a child and being an adult? Between believing in Santa Claus and believing in climate change?

          • Unnecessary negativity is an interesting expression. Are you accusing me of being gloomy? 😉 My mother often used to, and it infuriated me because I was especially gloomy whenever she was around! I learned it from her, you could say, which was perhaps why she objected to seeing it in me, her progeny.

            Point is, if any, that gloom is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t perceive a realistic view of negative circumstances as being negative, but as realistic and therefore positive. I don’t feel gloomy about my interpretation of human beings’ incapacity to use free will for anything besides hubris and self-destruction or surrender to God/reality. It seems a fair shake to me. At least the choice is simple, if not easy. But it is only really possible by taking our own personal trial & error process far enough to see the error of our trials and “repent,” which by the way, is very much the underlying theme of the two books of mine you have read & praised. So maybe you’re assuming I mean something here which I don’t? Repentance is painful and humiliating, true, but it’s also a great relief and hence a source of peace & joy.

            I think our lack of agreement about widespread, far-reaching conspiracies (social and cultural engineering) is especially curious, as you have praised a book (Prisoner of Infinity) that presents just the sort of evidence you refer to, albeit in a non-didactic fashion which allows the reader to reach his own conclusions. I wonder if it altered your viewpoint at all around this subject? My next book, Vice of Kings, presents a more irrefutable body of evidence and, as I said before, it might prove less palatable to you.

            But one man’s evidence is another man’s fantasy. In order to be able to recognize evidence, we first have to confront our own capacity for denial of evidence. I would say conspiracies are only fantastic to you because you haven’t taken the time to go through the evidence in the way I have (for thirty years and counting). To me, conspiracies are simply a central aspect of everyday mundane reality. Not that there isn’t a fantastic element to them, but there is a fantastic element to many things (cats, say, or subatomic particles). I think your view of the field is akin to JBP’s view of postmodernism: over-simplified & under-informed. This creates a language-gulf; it also makes you in a certain sense my optimal reader, i.e., someone who is intelligent and aware and highly educated, who is nonetheless (therefore?) somewhat blinkered about this particular aspect of social reality. (If you are interested in becoming less so, I can put together a reading (or possibly listening) list for you.)

            • Accusing you of being gloomy? No, more than that. Accusing you, indicting you, and bringing you up on charges before the Desilet inquisition into all matters concerning unnecessary negativity, which is to say forms of self-destructive nihilism. All this, of course, done in the spirit of what Nietzsche would call “joyful wisdom” and what Derrida would call good friendship and hospitality and what I would call good humor.

              What evidence may we bring before the court? Well, a statement such as this: “We can literally become so desperate and demented (traumatized) that we will destroy ourselves rather than face the reality of our powerlessness in the face of the Infinite . . . I think our responsibility is largely, or even entirely, just to see this abysmal truth about ourselves, and then, as the book says, repent of it.” And then there is this: “I don’t feel gloomy about my interpretation of human beings’ incapacity to use free will for anything besides hubris and self-destruction or surrender to God/reality.”

              First off, there is no contrast between us humans and the infinite or between our powerlessness and the infinite. We are part and parcel of the infinite, whatever may be meant by “the infinite.” As part of nature we are part of the cosmos and as nature does so nature is. We are the manifestation of the infinite.

              Thus, when you say that we must face “this abysmal truth about ourselves” you are saying that the cosmos must face the truth about itself, which you name as an abysmal truth. You cannot belittle human nature without belittling nature herself. That is what Christianity has done for centuries and why Nietzsche viewed it as a nihilistic religion of resentment.

              Derrida and Nietzsche are in agreement that life calls for amor fati, love of fate, which is to say love of life and unqualified affirmation of life and all it offers. Anything less than this response to life is a form of self-defeating nihilism. Does this affirmation of life mean that all wrongdoing must be affirmed? No, it means that the potential for wrongdoing must be affirmed but not particular wrongdoings.

              Regarding your book (POF) and conspiracies, I didn’t actually read this book as being about wide conspiracies but rather about narrow cults. And I found your critical commentary about such cults to be spot on. So I see cults and conspiracies as different categories. Cults have a front porch and make public or quasi-public appeals for new members. Conspiracies are very private and instead make efforts to conceal themselves from public gaze and access–such as shadow governments and New World Orders. That’s how I was seeing it, but perhaps that is not the right distinction to make. Regarding your next book, I am very open to seeing what you have to say and the evidence. Perhaps it is more about conspiracies rather than cults?

              • First off, there is no contrast between us humans and the infinite or between our powerlessness and the infinite.

                That’s a theoretical position but do you experience it? I am guessing the answer is no (I am assuming you are not enlightened); so then it remains a purely theoretical position. It’s logically sound, since the infinite by definition encompasses everything, but it’s also at odds with your prior comment: “the fantastic story of Christ as the Son of God is enough evidence to convince me that humans are far too willing to believe almost anything without any real evidence whatever.” But where is your evidence that “there is no contrast between us humans and the infinite”?

                You are presenting a philosophical proposition indistinguishable from a declaration of faith, i.e., that we as humans are one with God/the Infinite. I would agree with this as a declaration of faith, but not as a description of my experience of being human.

                I suspect you are trying to win an argument at this point, rather than risking leaving the map and discovering something profoundly unexpected (or unexpectedly profound), namely, that there is nothing necessarily gloomy or pessimistic about my perspective, but just the reverse, if recognizing our powerlessness and insignificance as humans in contrast to the infinite (that is, as long as we are confined to our trauma-generated ego-mind identities or false selves), is the prerequisite to acknowledging the presence of the infinite in our lives and being, but that this is (potentially anyway) a terrible or abysmal step, being one that entails surrendering to chaos. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and all that.

                I admit to being baffled at the contrast between your responses here and how you responded to my books. I am not saying anything different here from what’s contained in those books. Yet based on your reviews, you don’t consider them to be “self-defeating nihilism.” It’s peculiar.

                POI is about how “narrow cults” can be shaped, managed, and exploited (as well as created whole cloth) by wider conspiracies, and how the whole of culture is a conglomeration of such cults arranged, promoted, and implemented as tools in a grand social engineering game of the past century or more. It’s interesting that apparently you missed that. I don’t know if it’s evidence I succeeded or that I failed, that I was just subtle enough or too subtle. Did you read any of the other reviews at Amazon, or even the ones on the back of the book? They provide some clues for how the book is generally understood in this regard.

                • No, I’m not trying to win an argument. I don’t care in the least about winning or losing arguments. And I don’t need to persuade you of anything. I like exchanging ideas in a public forum (when I have time) because that is how ideas are tested and found wanting or not, which is useful information for me going forward. I want to see how my thoughts hold up against other formidable critics such as yourself. This simple process is something I have “faith” in more so than any religion. One of my past mentors referred to this process as “conducting my education in public.” So, with your indulgence, I continue conducting my education.

                  Referring to my statement that there is no contrast between humans and the infinite, you say: “That’s a theoretical position but do you experience it?” I see here another false dichotomy. All theory arises from experience. Similarly, every cognition comes attached to emotion and vice versa. To test these hypotheses, try listing a theory that has no basis in experience. Or try thinking something that has no emotional content or origin. If you can do these things, then my only response is that I cannot.

                  So, in reply to your question, “do I experience” no contrast between my human being and the infinite, my answer is YES/NO. I do not consider myself to be enlightened in the sense of having achieved some mystical oneness with the universe. I don’t experience such oneness and do not aspire to it. What I experience Derrida calls “two-fold roots.” This is a division that goes all the way to the core such that in every contrast one side does not exist without the other and yet neither side can be reduced to the other. This forms a unity that is also division all the way through. I think this describes what the yin/yang symbol attempts to picture and what the Tao imagines to be the nature of the WAY. This is a philosophical position that may also be seen as a spiritual view on the cosmos and everything in it. It applies to every dichotomy and shows the dichotomy to persist but in such a way that contrasts are no longer absolute. Derrida calls this the law of irreducible contamination. So, in saying I don’t experience a contrast between my human being and the infinite I mean to say I don’t experience any absolute contrast that would be consistent with traditional philosophical dualisms. This is not for me just at the level of theory. It is a palpable sensation and something I felt even as a child before I could articulate it.

                  Regarding your books and “self-defeating nihilism”: I saw your books as you demonstrating how to escape from the self-defeating nihilism of the cults you comment about. In that respect I found your writing to be extremely timely and admirable. Nevertheless, I did detect a bit of a shadow of this nihilism continuing to hang around some of your words like a bad hangover. I might here be detecting some effects of what could be described as a continuing influence of Christian metaphysics. This is what lingers on in a person’s belief system past the stage of abandoning institutional Chrisitianity and church-going (which I am assuming is the case with you, but perhaps not). It is what Derrida calls the metaphysics of presence–the belief in the pure, the ideal, the absolute, and the transcendent. These beliefs belong to systems of radical dualism, from which Taoism (ancient Taoism) and Derrida’s deconstruction significantly differ. I say all of this only to suggest that these views have extensive genealogy beyond my personal opinions.

                  Regarding your books as discussing narrow cults within the fabric of more extensive conspiracies, that was not lost on me. It’s just that I found the evidence for the broader conspiracies to be much less convincing and fleshed out than the accounts given for the cults. But this may simply be a symptom of my instincts to require more extraordinary evidence for what I regard (rightly or wrongly) as extraordinary theories. So, for me, your book worked best at the cult level but did not work so well at the conspiracy level. That may be (likely is) more my failing than your failing. I am prepared to continue reading!

                  But I would include a note of caution. My experience with those who believe in broad conspiracies is that there is no evidence that can be offered to refute such theories (whatever they may be) that cannot be spun in such a way as to be brought into line with the theory. Belief in conspiracies, therefore, cannot be refuted by any evidence. They can only be abandoned (if they are actually false) by a change in disposition and motivation. a change from needing and wanting to find someone or some group to blame for what is wrong in the world (i.e., a scapegoat) to being motivated to learn what may be genuinely true about the world. Most conspiracy theorists, I believe, are not really interested in the truth. They are motivated more by anger and revenge. So, the caution is: be interested in truth not scapegoating and constantly check the pulse for that.

                  • I’ll accept your claim not to be interested in winning an argument, even tho it lacks the (to my mind necessary) proviso of ‘so far as I know,’ since after i wrote that to you I found myself wondering, ‘maybe that’s what I am doing?’

                    it may be ironic that you perceive residual religiosity (tho i was raised without belief) in my statements and yet so many of your own arguments refer to a “higher authority”, that of Derrida, whose ideas I am considerably less interested in than your own (assuming there’s a difference!).

                    I think that your idea of theory vs experience being a false dichotomy is another theory, and one that doesn’t really match my experience, and here’s why. While it’s a truism that no theory can arise without experience dictating the manner in which it arises, it’s also I think demonstrably true that our experience, i.e., our perception of reality, tends to conform to the theories we hold (our crucial fictions), at least as long as we are able to give precedence to our own thoughts over our sense perceptions. (Now I expect you will tell me this is another false dichotomy, at which point you will leave me no other recourse but to counter that your distinction between true and false dichotomies is false!)

                    The notion of repentance I raised here relates, I think, to a willingness to surrender up our theories to direct experience and cease to impose the former onto the latter but also, harder still, to use experience to give rise to ever-mutating theories. This I fear is the Derridian matrix which you inhabit, and I would tentatively suggest that its greater complexity makes it not less but more of a trap than Christian metaphysics.

                    Ironically, here’s also the distinction between your idea of conspiracy and mine: to you it is about theories; to me it is about facts, which is precisely why I attempt to let the facts speak for themselves and so leave a loophole for those, like yourself, who adhere to anti-conspiracy theories, such as the one about scapegoating (which has no bearing on facts, only on how they are interpreted). Conspiracy, as you are aware, is a fact of human existence. Introducing blame is unnecessary (though it may be automatic), for it might just as easily be construed as credit.

                    What’s more essential IMO is attributing apparent causes to apparent effects, tho even here only within a relative context, that of human agency, which I don’t much believe in anyway! My guess is your theory about “conspiracy” or the lack thereof would not be able to withstand my experience, or indeed the facts such as they are. You may be able to retain your position against scapegoating, true, but it would no longer be relevant as an argument against interpreting the facts to deduce conspiracy from them (as to me it is not relevant, except as something to watch out for, as you say).

                    If an uncle is sexually abusing a child with the complicity of the parents, that is a harmful conspiracy and nothing changes the fact. But what theories one extrapolates from it (e.g., that the world is a malign place or that the child’s life was ruined by malevolent humans) is entirely separate from the facts, the child’s experience, of the conspiracy itself.

                    So again, to my mind (in my experience) theory and experience are not inseparable, at all; the child needs no theory to understand a conspiracy is at work, and understanding this does not necessitate the assembling of any theory (tho it may lead to it). The converse example is the case of, let’s say, a transhumanist who profoundly believes his theory that human consciousness can be converted into digital data so he can attain immortality. Or perhaps more apropos, someone who believes that enlightenment can be induced through infliction of trauma and that they have attained “enlightenment” thereby and are now on a mission to “enlighten” others via inflicting abuse (MKULTRA, what a theory!). This leads to forms of behavior and experience that take the person further and further away from reality while, in their own mind, their theory is becoming more and more real-ized, or “proven,” because they are creating false evidence via their own pathological behaviors. (A more fashionable example would be suicide bombers.)

                    Now I think of it, are you pointing at something similar when you profess to distrust conspiracy theorists because you distrust their motives? Are you here implicitly acknowledging that the theory has only a negative relationship to the experience, i.e., that the person is using their theory to confirm a false perception of reality?

                    This is certainly what I most look out for in others and aspire for in my own expression: absolute congruity between perception and expression, reception & transmission. Unlike you I consider enlightenment a worthwhile (if potentially deceptive) goal, not some relativistic concept devoid of ontological reality (you are def. too postmodern for me, as I am too metaphysical for you). That said, I would add the proviso that an individual’s enlightenment must always be relative to the lack of enlightenment of the rest of humanity, i.e., incomplete until everyone realizes their “oneness with the infinite” to the degree they can live in on a moment to moment basis (the only proof of which would be peace on Earth).

                    So there you go; you are certainly getting my fingers moving, however authentically.

                    • Re: winning arguments. Most, though not all, of what I say may be understood as explaining myself so as to be seen (rather than not seen). For example, there is no “religiousity” in referring to Derrida. This is not me offering argument by authority. I discovered Derrida as a kindred spirit and did not come to him as one would a higher authority. I learned certain deconstructive philosophical moves and was already receptive to them, from a professor at UC Santa Barbara when I was an undergrad. This was before either he or I had heard of Derrida.

                      It just turned out that I later found these same “moves” being made by Derrida and so recognized them and then used some of Derrida’s terminology to explain my own views since more people have read Derrida than have read me and therefore may find the reference to him and his thinking as helpful locators.

                      Beyond that, no one’s thinking is “their own” in the sense of being original. It all comes from some prior source. This should not be taken to mean that everyone appeals to a “higher authority.” There is such a thing as making ideas your own, which occurs when you can generate the position on any given issue without having to refer to any authority once you have grasped the essence of the generating idea or ideas. This is what I feel to be the case with me regarding Derrida. I can tell you what his position would be on a given issue without having to refer to any of his texts because the idea generating this position is one owned by both Derrida and myself. Which is not to say I am as smart as Derrida! Only that I share much (not all) of the locus of his thinking, which is not something he alone owns.

                      Re: theory and experience. Here is my view, with partial justification (to keep things brief): No experience comes to us free of theory just as no “fact” comes to us free of interpretation. Perceptions are signs and signs must be read, which means interpreted. No sign, no perception is merely understood as self-evident in its meaning or import for the lifeform experiencing it. Which is to say, contrary to your claim: facts DO NOT speak for themselves. A fish operates with a system of interpretation (theory, hypothesis) for distinguishing food from non-food. When the fish bites into a hook, which it interprets to be food, and escapes with a ripped jaw, that experience prompts revision of the theory and more refined perceptions. Or perhaps not. In which case the fish will likely not survive for long. Perception is always accompanied by interpretation (theory) and vice versa. Humans are no different in essence only in sophistication of perceptual/interpretive apparatus.

                      Re: the child needs no theory to understand a conspiracy is at work. Of course the child needs a theory, which is why children often get into further trouble by inventing the wrong theory to account for the abuse. To suppose a “conspiracy” is at work in the sexual abuse requires a particular theory. My wife is a psychotherapist and she has had cases where a child must be convinced that the sexual actions in question are not normal or are not a kind of requirement of children of a certain age or are not a form of punishment the child has brought on through bad behavior. What you are calling a self-evident “conspiracy” against the child might instead be understood by some children as normal or justified behavior. This in turn creates a different kind of pathology in the child that must be treated differently. Again, here there are no facts or self-evident signs for those involved in particular situations. There is always the need for interpretation, which here is another word for theory.

                      I realize all these responses may seem very argumentative and defensive. But that is not where I’m coming from. I’m simply trying to explain my views and my reasons for having them and get clear for myself and for others more precisely what these views are and what coherence and credibility they may or may not have. Thus far, I feel that you have largely misunderstood what position I am advocating when making certain claims or statements. Perhaps I am doing some of the same with regard to you and your views. So, maybe these exchanges are helping. At least I feel I am getting clearer on what you think, which leaves me prepared to read more of your work. That won’t necessarily mean I’ll agree with you.

  4. Can’t comment on the differences between Foucault and Derrida, as I’ve read only a little bit of the former. But as for the other points:
    I would have to say that
    “evolution is accelerating because the natural environment is rapidly changing though technological innovation” is largely incorrect, in that evolution doesn’t arbitrarily speed up to match any given rate of external change. In fact it is generally orders of magnitude slower than cultural or political changes, typically working over dozens of generations. That very slowness, indeed, is arguably the point of having to develop mythologies and culture.
    Another possible risk here is to uncritically assume the ubiquitous “accelerating progress” narrative, when it can at least as forcefully be argued we’re now in technologically stagnating or decelerating times. (Moore’s law has stopped, and a wide array of other economic sectors now need exponentially increasing inputs to produce a merely linear output of innovations.) More and more, by “progress” I find people actually mean something like “increasingly fine-grained and pervasive deployment of decade-old information technologies to achieve heightened intellectual conformism”…
    Also, I’d suggest it’s a red herring to expect meaning of the kind that people really crave to come from evolutionary mythologies–and in a hand-wavy field like evolutionary psychology they will seldom if ever be more than that–even if evolution did act at anything like the speed imagined here. On the contrary, the now common insistence on evolutionarily “jargonizing” every human problem or impulse surreptitiously injects a nihilism into every corner of the discussion that reinforces the very problem that Peterson and others like him claim to want to resolve; it actually serves, I would argue, as a kind of cognitive self-policing that aggressively prevents the development of new arrangements of thought and life.
    I feel like this point by Jasun is an important & subtle one: “it may also be true that we can’t go forward into the future, either. That the ‘radical’ solution lies outside of time and it literally unthinkable.” I read this as: until we stop reflexively fetishizing the future as the rainbow that must surely hide a pot of gold I suspect we (ironically enough) will be quite unable to move forward. And, until we permit ourselves to encounter the past through any other lens than that of differentially reproducing mammals and gene flows, we will (also ironically) remain helplessly determined by it.

  5. For me Paglia’s summary of postmodernism in this interview is a bit more accurate, prosaic, and nuanced than Peterson’s: rather than being a conspiracy to sneak Marxism through the back door, it’s more of a way that Anglophone academics found to advance their careers by aping the clumsy, inefficient language of verbose French theory translated into English.

    As regards Foucault and queer theory, I saw this video on Twitter that may be of interest:

  6. Actually, I don’t think either Peterson’s or Paglia’s responses to postmodernism are very nuanced, especially with regard to Derrida. They simply do not understand Derrida at all. I know it’s frustrating to see a statement like that, but to justify such a comment would require a really extensive treatment. So I would refer those who are interested in the ways in which Derrida is commonly misunderstood to see my commentary on L. Kirk Hagen’s Skeptic article here:

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