Postmodernism Did Not Take Place: On Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life

The École Nor­male Supérieure, May 1968.

A specter is haunt­ing North Amer­i­ca — the specter of post­mod­ernism. Or at least, that’s what Jor­dan Peter­son would have you believe. Peter­son, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, has entered into an unholy alliance with all the pow­ers of the alt-right to exor­cise this specter. Though he calls him­self a “British clas­si­cal lib­er­al,” Peterson’s appeal feeds into the most reac­tionary ten­den­cies in con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics. He rose to fame when he was cap­tured on video at a protest on the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to cam­pus, telling trans­gen­der stu­dents he refused to use gen­der-neu­tral pro­nouns. He has since joined the ranks of Logan Paul and PewDiePie as a YouTube star. He most­ly eschews writ­ing, instead post­ing videos of lec­tures online for his pri­mar­i­ly young, white, and male audi­ence.

But Peter­son has just released a new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Anti­dote to Chaos. It is his first since 1999’s Maps of Mean­ing, a study of myth in mod­ern thought. In that book, Peter­son based his think­ing on the mys­ti­cism of Carl Jung, fol­low­ing a pat­tern ini­ti­at­ed by Joseph Camp­bell, whose influ­ence is now pri­mar­i­ly seen in Star Wars rather than schol­ar­ship on myth. Peter­son neglect­ed to engage with unan­i­mous­ly rec­og­nized pre­de­ces­sors in the field of study, like anthro­pol­o­gist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who had pos­tu­lat­ed as ear­ly as the 1950’s that myths are based on a recur­ring struc­ture across cul­tures and eras.

The new book, as its lis­ti­cle-esque title indi­cates, is a self-help man­u­al. But amid the boot­strap­ping pablum and folksy anec­dotes that are stan­dard for the genre, Peter­son includes a point­ed polit­i­cal argu­ment. If his read­ers are strug­gling, he says, it is because con­tem­po­rary soci­ety has fall­en into dis­or­der. In spite of the abun­dance and com­fort offered by cap­i­tal­ist inno­va­tion, we have aban­doned the sta­bil­i­ty of tra­di­tion­al soci­ety, one in which the fittest among us held pow­er and resources, in which con­sen­sus was self-evi­dent, and in which, to para­phrase a slo­gan beloved among the alt-right, there were only two gen­ders. But things have fall­en apart. To invoke a cliché, which Peter­son does not hes­i­tate to do, the cen­ter can­not hold. This, he says, is the result of an idea. That idea is post­mod­ernism.

Peter­son traces the dan­gers of post­mod­ernism to a place of ill repute: Paris. In par­tic­u­lar, the École Nor­male Supérieure, a cen­turies-old uni­ver­si­ty found­ed to real­ize the ideals of the Enlight­en­ment. That sin­is­ter insti­tu­tion was where Jacques Der­ri­da and Michel Fou­cault got their start as stu­dents of phi­los­o­phy, ini­ti­at­ing a school of thought that has now tak­en over the world. Not only were Der­ri­da and Fou­cault “the two archi­tects of the post­mod­ernist move­ment,” Peter­son has said in a lec­ture, “they were avowed Marx­ists.”

The con­fla­tion of post­mod­ernism and Marx­ism may come as some sur­prise to those who iden­ti­fy as belong­ing to either side of the equa­tion. Per­haps the best-known the­o­riza­tion of post­moder­ni­ty, Fredric Jameson’s Post­mod­ernism: The Cul­tur­al Log­ic of Late Cap­i­tal­ism, con­ceives of the peri­od as an object of inquiry to which Marx­ist analy­sis may be applied, not a the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tive. Today, it is not uncom­mon to see con­dem­na­tions of post­mod­ernism and pleas for a return to Enlight­en­ment ratio­nal­i­ty in the pages of Jacobin. But Peter­son is not the only ide­o­logue to elide the dis­tinc­tion between these usu­al­ly opposed frame­works. This strange con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry has increas­ing­ly gained trac­tion among the far right, famous­ly appear­ing in 2083: A Euro­pean Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, the man­i­festo Anders Bre­vik dis­trib­uted before he mur­dered 77 peo­ple in Nor­way.

Its ori­gins were sur­pris­ing­ly delib­er­ate, emerg­ing from a pale­o­con­ser­v­a­tive Wash­ing­ton think tank called the Free Con­gress Foun­da­tion. The FCF was found­ed by Paul Weyrich, a founder of the Her­itage Foun­da­tion and namer of the so-called Moral Major­i­ty move­ment. Weyrich also cre­at­ed a TV net­work called Nation­al Empow­er­ment Tele­vi­sion, a short-lived pre­de­ces­sor to Fox News, which aired a doc­u­men­tary in 1999 called “Polit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness: The Frank­furt School.” Host­ed by a pipe-wield­ing human bleach stain named William Lind, it presents an account of the ori­gin of what we now call “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics.” These came, Lind tells us, from the Insti­tute for Social Research, or the Frank­furt School. There, Theodor Adorno, Her­bert Mar­cuse, and their cronies cre­at­ed a school of thought called “crit­i­cal the­o­ry,” which the FCF gave the name “cul­tur­al Marx­ism.” This fright­en­ing idea fused the imper­ti­nence of Marx with the inde­cen­cy of Freud, pro­duc­ing a new threat to West­ern val­ues far beyond those posed by Coper­ni­cus or Dar­win. This argu­ment was ele­vat­ed to the sur­face of polit­i­cal dis­course by Patrick Buchanan, in his 2001 Oswald Spen­gler rewrite, The Death of the West. As recent­ly as 2017, Buchanan con­demned “Post­mod­ern Amer­i­ca” in a col­umn defend­ing Alaba­ma Supreme Court Jus­tice Roy Moore.

Like all the clas­sic con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, the anti­semitism here is bare­ly con­cealed. One pro­po­nent of the the­o­ry, psy­chol­o­gist Kevin Mac­Don­ald, has argued that cul­tur­al Marx­ism is an expres­sion of what he calls a “group evo­lu­tion­ary strat­e­gy” char­ac­ter­is­tic of Jew­ish peo­ple. Mac­Don­ald acknowl­edges that not all Jews are rad­i­cal left­ists, but argues that regard­less, these move­ments are “Jew­ish­ly moti­vat­ed.”

This repel­lent asso­ci­a­tion hasn’t stopped the the­o­ry from being tak­en up by main­stream polit­i­cal pun­dits even today. The Dai­ly Caller has report­ed that the Frank­furt School “col­o­nized high­er edu­ca­tion in the West.” Jonathan Chait based a com­men­tary on polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness in New York mag­a­zine on the the­o­ry, claim­ing that “the mod­ern far left has bor­rowed the Marx­ist cri­tique of lib­er­al­ism and sub­sti­tut­ed race and gen­der iden­ti­ties for eco­nom­ic ones.” While Chait care­ful­ly avoids the term “cul­tur­al Marx­ism,” he still describes the ver­sion of Marx­ism he sees in so-called “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” as “more philo­soph­i­cal­ly threat­en­ing” than con­ser­vatism.

Peter­son makes a slight adjust­ment to the nar­ra­tive in 12 Rules for Life. A Jun­gian psy­chol­o­gist, he seems to find it nec­es­sary to exon­er­ate Freud. There is a brief ref­er­ence to the Frank­furt School, rep­re­sent­ed only by Max Horkheimer rather than the more fre­quent­ly cit­ed Adorno or Mar­cuse or the still-liv­ing Jür­gen Haber­mas (him­self a devot­ed crit­ic of post­mod­ernism as he defines it). Peter­son then jumps ahead a few decades and cross­es the Rhine. Cre­at­ing a des­ig­na­tion of his own, he iden­ti­fies not “crit­i­cal the­o­ry,” but the “post­mod­ern neo-Marx­ism” of post­war French phi­los­o­phy as his intel­lec­tu­al adver­sary.

Nei­ther Der­ri­da nor Fou­cault is cit­ed in 12 Rules for Life. Appar­ent­ly, not only has Peter­son nev­er both­ered to actu­al­ly read them, he seems not to have even read their Wikipedia entries. The only rel­e­vant cita­tion is of a book called Explain­ing Post­mod­ernism: Skep­ti­cism and Social­ism from Rousseau to Fou­cault, which he cus­tom­ar­i­ly rec­om­mends at speak­ing engage­ments. The author, Stephen Hicks, is Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Ethics and Entre­pre­neur­ship at Rock­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, and an acolyte of Ayn Rand. Armed with this dubi­ous sec­ondary source, Peter­son is left mak­ing state­ments that are not only mired in fac­tu­al error, but espouse a com­i­cal­ly reduc­tive con­cep­tion of how social life and his­to­ry work. He takes a com­mon mis­un­der­stand­ing at face val­ue, pro­ceed­ing to build a whole out­look on it.

Der­ri­da and Fou­cault are indeed asso­ci­at­ed with trends vary­ing­ly described as “post­struc­tural­ism” or “post­mod­ernism,” not just by reac­tionar­ies, but by lib­er­als like Mark Lil­la and left­ists like Noam Chom­sky as well. The for­mer term may have some cor­re­spon­dence to real­i­ty. It shows how Der­ri­da and Fou­cault fol­lowed and respond­ed to a trend in French intel­lec­tu­al life known as “struc­tural­ism,” based on the lin­guis­tic the­o­ries of Fer­di­nand de Saus­sure and epit­o­mized by Lévi-Strauss’s stud­ies of myth, and depart­ed from its basic ori­en­ta­tions. But nei­ther thinker ever advanced a the­o­ry of “post­mod­ernism” or claimed it as a the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice — in fact, they hard­ly ever used the word. In a 1983 inter­view in the philo­soph­i­cal jour­nal Telos, Fou­cault was asked to iden­ti­fy the place of his thought in the post­mod­ern era. “What are we call­ing post­moder­ni­ty?” he respond­ed. “I’m not up to date.”

The term had been used spo­rad­i­cal­ly in late 20th-cen­tu­ry cul­tur­al the­o­ry, most promi­nent­ly by lit­er­ary crit­ic Ihab Has­san, in 1971’s The Dis­mem­ber­ment of Orpheus: Toward a Post­mod­ern Lit­er­a­ture, and archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an Charles Jencks, in 1977’s The Lan­guage of Post-Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture. But it was intro­duced to the philo­soph­i­cal lex­i­con by the French philoso­pher Jean-François Lyotard. In 1979, Lyotard wrote a study com­mis­sioned by the Coun­cil of Uni­ver­si­ties of the Gov­ern­ment of Que­bec, called “The Prob­lems of Knowl­edge in the Most Devel­oped Indus­tri­al Soci­eties.” It was reprint­ed in France with the more straight­for­ward title, The Post­mod­ern Con­di­tion.

“Our work­ing hypoth­e­sis is that the sta­tus of knowl­edge is altered as soci­eties enter what is known as the postin­dus­tri­al age and cul­tures enter what is known as the post­mod­ern age,” Lytoard wrote. He described post­mod­ernism as “increduli­ty towards meta­nar­ra­tives,” the lat­ter term denot­ing a sto­ry that explains all oth­er sto­ries, like the doc­trine of orig­i­nal sin. Among those meta­nar­ra­tives was Marx­ism. The world of the late 1970s was becom­ing inscrutable to the human sub­ject, with com­put­er­ized stor­age of knowl­edge sur­pass­ing the capac­i­ty of the mind, and automa­tion of labor lead­ing not to a utopia of leisure, but ris­ing inequal­i­ty and eco­nom­ic cri­sis. “Our increduli­ty is now such that we no longer expect sal­va­tion to rise from these incon­sis­ten­cies, as did Marx,” Lyotard con­clud­ed. While Peterson’s argu­ment is that post­mod­ernists replaced a Marx­ist dichoto­my of pro­le­tari­at and bour­geoisie with a gen­er­al­ized con­cep­tion of oppressed and oppres­sor, this was hard­ly Lyotard’s con­cern.

Lyotard’s clos­est com­pa­tri­ot in phi­los­o­phy was Jean Bau­drillard, who drift­ed out even fur­ther towards sci­ence fic­tion; he was an acknowl­edged influ­ence on The Matrix. Bau­drillard was as much provo­ca­teur as philoso­pher, but he was not the polit­i­cal rad­i­cal of Peterson’s imag­i­na­tion. Like Lyotard, and like Jor­dan Peter­son, he broke with the left­ist lean­ings of his youth. He con­sid­ered him­self not a com­mu­nist, but a nihilist, and his work dealt pri­mar­i­ly with infor­ma­tion and per­cep­tion. One of his most derid­ed state­ments, the title of his book and essay The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, is among the least extra­or­di­nary. In an age of elec­tron­ic infor­ma­tion trans­fer, when the doc­u­men­ta­tion of an event is simul­ta­ne­ous to the event itself, our access to events is high­ly medi­at­ed. What we see on tele­vi­sion is fil­tered through the desires of state and cor­po­rate influ­ences. Baudrillard’s claim was that the image of the Gulf War pre­sent­ed to the West in mass media was not iden­ti­cal to what hap­pened in the Per­sian Gulf.

But in 12 Rules for Life, Peter­son doesn’t con­cern him­self with the his­to­ry of the idea he is obsessed with defeat­ing. His atten­tions land square­ly on Der­ri­da — Fou­cault is left off the hook this time around. The book offers this whirl­wind gloss on Derrida’s work, which amounts to some 30 or 40 vol­umes:

Accord­ing to Der­ri­da, hier­ar­chi­cal struc­tures emerged only to include (the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of that struc­ture) and to exclude (every­one else, who were there­fore oppressed). Even that claim wasn’t suf­fi­cient­ly rad­i­cal. Der­ri­da claimed that divi­sive­ness and oppres­sion were built right into language—built into the very cat­e­gories we use to prag­mat­i­cal­ly sim­pli­fy and nego­ti­ate the world. There are “women” only because men gain by exclud­ing them. There are “males and females” only because mem­bers of that more het­ero­ge­neous group ben­e­fit by exclud­ing the tiny minor­i­ty of peo­ple whose bio­log­i­cal sex­u­al­i­ty is amor­phous. Sci­ence only ben­e­fits the sci­en­tists. Pol­i­tics only ben­e­fits the politi­cians. In Derrida’s view, hier­ar­chies exist because they gain from oppress­ing those who are omit­ted. It is this ill-got­ten gain that allows them to flour­ish.

Else­where, Peter­son has ridiculed Derrida’s char­ac­ter­is­tic way of putting things, ques­tion­ing the valid­i­ty of terms like “logo­cen­trism” and find­ing mal­ice in every neol­o­gism. In an inter­view, he claims it was Der­ri­da who “most tren­chant­ly for­mu­lat­ed the anti-West­ern phi­los­o­phy that is being pur­sued so assid­u­ous­ly by the rad­i­cal left.” Wor­ry­ing­ly, Der­ri­da and his fol­low­ers are “extreme­ly rad­i­cal, post­mod­ern left­ist thinkers who are hell­bent on demol­ish­ing the fun­da­men­tal sub­struc­ture of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion.”

In actu­al fact, Derrida’s work was root­ed in con­stant dia­logue with the his­to­ry of West­ern phi­los­o­phy. He was a clas­si­cal philo­soph­i­cal schol­ar, often pre­sent­ing detailed and rig­or­ous research on fig­ures like Pla­to, Hegel, and Rousseau. His con­ver­sance with Euro­pean thought extend­ed into the 20th cen­tu­ry as well. He can be con­sid­ered one of the fore­most crit­ics of struc­tural­ism, but his ear­ly works addressed phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy, pre­sent­ing both trans­la­tions of and com­men­tary on the writ­ing of the turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry Ger­man philoso­pher Edmund Husserl. Der­ri­da drew on a wide range of influ­ences, espe­cial­ly Friedrich Niet­zsche and Sig­mund Freud, both thinkers Peter­son deems accept­able, as well as Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger. Apply­ing their skep­ti­cal out­look to the phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy and struc­tural­ism in which he had achieved mas­tery, Der­ri­da was able to inter­ro­gate these meth­ods from with­in.

Fou­cault, while also pro­found­ly influ­enced by Niet­zsche, belonged to a dif­fer­ent, unique­ly French tra­di­tion. This was the field of inquiry opened by Jean Cavail­lès, a math­e­mati­cian by train­ing who had fought in the French Resis­tance and been shot by the Gestapo, Gas­ton Bachelard, who was trained in physics and chem­istry, and Foucault’s the­sis advi­sor, for­mer med­ical doc­tor Georges Can­guil­hem. This was the tra­di­tion of epis­te­mol­o­gy and the his­to­ry of sci­ence; it is the tra­di­tion with which Peter­son, for all his talk of the sci­en­tif­ic method, fails to engage. This tra­di­tion insist­ed, as Cavailles put it, on a phi­los­o­phy of the con­cept rather than a phi­los­o­phy of the sub­ject. Fou­cault sum­ma­rized these diver­gent paths in an intro­duc­tion to Canguilhem’s The Nor­mal and the Patho­log­i­cal:

With­out ignor­ing the cleav­ages which, dur­ing these last years after the end of the war, were able to oppose Marx­ists and non-Marx­ists, Freudi­ans and non-Freudi­ans, spe­cial­ists in a sin­gle dis­ci­pline and philoso­phers, aca­d­e­mics and non-aca­d­e­mics, the­o­rists and politi­cians, it does seem to me that one could find anoth­er divid­ing line which cuts through all these oppo­si­tions. It is the line that sep­a­rates a phi­los­o­phy of expe­ri­ence, of sense and of sub­ject and a phi­los­o­phy of knowl­edge, of ratio­nal­i­ty and of con­cept.

On one side, said Fou­cault, was the tra­di­tion of Jean-Paul Sartre and Mau­rice Mer­leau-Pon­ty. The oth­er was that of Cavailles, Bachelard, and Can­guil­hem. These rep­re­sent­ed “two modal­i­ties accord­ing to which phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy was tak­en up in France,” after Edmund Husserl had lec­tured in Paris in 1929. “Con­tem­po­rary phi­los­o­phy in France,” said Fou­cault, “began in those years.”

Despite an align­ment with struc­tural­ism in Foucault’s ear­li­est works, ulti­mate­ly the phi­los­o­phy of the con­cept chart­ed a dif­fer­ent path from both phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy and struc­tural­ism. Sartre and Mer­leau-Pon­ty had adopt­ed Husserl’s frame­work, deal­ing with con­scious­ness and expe­ri­ence; this school of thought is now known as exis­ten­tial­ism. Where exis­ten­tial­ism devel­oped a cer­tain mode cen­tered on the human sub­ject, the “phi­los­o­phy of the con­cept” turned to the his­to­ry of math­e­mat­ics and the sci­ences to study the forms of knowl­edge which made the sub­ject pos­si­ble.

Struc­tural­ism had replaced existentialism’s wisps of tobac­co smoke with clouds of chalk dust, tak­ing a detached atti­tude towards the hero­ic self-exam­i­na­tion espoused by the likes of Sartre and Camus. Dis­pens­ing with the sub­ject alto­geth­er, they built from Fer­di­nand de Saussure’s claim that expe­ri­ence is pre­ced­ed by already estab­lished sys­tems of mean­ing. But while struc­tural­ism scan­dalous­ly shift­ed focus, it still orbit­ed around a fixed cen­ter: real­i­ty could be explained by an essen­tial nar­ra­tive.

Both phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy and struc­tural­ism saw the whole chaot­ic spec­trum of social life as a uni­fied total­i­ty, in which an essence is expressed. For phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy, this was con­scious­ness and sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence, for struc­tural­ism, a “com­bi­na­to­ry” of struc­tures, like kin­ship rela­tions. In a sense, struc­tural­ism actu­al­ly had its roots in phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy as much as it did in lin­guis­tics. It grew from Husserl’s ear­ly attempts to estab­lish a for­mal log­ic, which Der­ri­da had close­ly stud­ied in his first works. As Der­ri­da wrote in a 1959 paper on phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy, Husserl had attempt­ed to “rec­on­cile the struc­tural­ist demand” with the “genet­ic demand.” While the for­mer sought to describe a total­i­ty by the orga­ni­za­tion of its ele­ments, the lat­ter was engaged in “the search for the ori­gin and foun­da­tion of the struc­ture.” He con­clud­ed that “the phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal project itself is born of an ini­tial fail­ure of this attempt.”

In 1966, Der­ri­da pre­sent­ed a paper called “Struc­ture, Sign, and Play in the Dis­course of Human Sci­ences” at a con­fer­ence on “The Lan­guage of Crit­i­cism and the Sci­ences of Man” held at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty. This event can be con­sid­ered the inau­gu­ra­tion of a fusion between Amer­i­can lit­er­ary stud­ies and French phi­los­o­phy, with then-arche­typ­al struc­tural­ists like Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan in atten­dance. But Der­ri­da was already propos­ing a pow­er­ful cri­tique of struc­tural­ism, through a close read­ing of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Der­ri­da opened his paper by read­ing the event itself. He pro­posed that the remod­el­ing of the human sci­ences around the for­mal log­ic of lin­guis­tics con­sti­tut­ed an “event” in the sense of think­ing the “struc­tural­i­ty of struc­ture.” The con­cept of struc­ture, Der­ri­da point­ed out, was not the inven­tion of struc­tural­ism – it was “as old as west­ern sci­ence and west­ern phi­los­o­phy.” But what he called the struc­tural­i­ty was not always easy to grasp. The fact that a struc­ture is com­posed by a par­tic­u­lar orga­ni­za­tion of ele­ments means that it is not some tan­gi­ble thing, but a set of rela­tions, between ele­ments which are con­sti­tut­ed by their dif­fer­ences from one anoth­er. But in the his­to­ry of West­ern thought, this struc­tural­i­ty had “always been neu­tral­ized or reduced, and this by a process of giv­ing it a cen­ter or refer­ring it to a point of pres­ence, a fixed ori­gin.”

Con­trary to com­mon belief, said Der­ri­da, the cen­ter has held all too fast; attempts to dis­lodge it tend­ed to sim­ply install a sub­sti­tute. He gives the exam­ple of eth­nol­o­gy: in an attempt to over­come Euro­pean eth­no­cen­trism through an engage­ment with the larg­er world, it employs Euro­pean modes of sci­en­tif­ic obser­va­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion.

This brought him to Lévi-Strauss, and an engage­ment with Peterson’s pur­port­ed spe­cial­i­ty, myth. In his read­ing of myths, Lévi-Strauss had to con­tend with a prob­lem that lit­er­ary crit­i­cism had pre­vi­ous­ly been able to avoid. Unlike a nov­el, a myth has no author; it is a prod­uct of the struc­ture of mythol­o­gy itself. “The absence of a cen­ter is here the absence of a sub­ject and the absence of an author,” says Der­ri­da. Lévi-Strauss replaces this with a per­ma­nent struc­ture that defines the form.

In response, Der­ri­da set out to show how the struc­tural­ist desire to pro­duce a cen­tral total­i­ty, to deter­mine all its ele­ments and show how they joined togeth­er in a whole and expressed in them­selves the very struc­ture of the whole, nev­er­the­less had to acknowl­edge the con­stant pos­si­bil­i­ty of dis­rup­tion. But this did not mean that Der­ri­da believed any word could mean any­thing. In response to a ques­tion from the audi­ence, Der­ri­da said:

First of all, I didn’t say that there was no cen­ter, that we could get along with­out the cen­ter. I believe that the cen­ter is a func­tion, not a being — a real­i­ty, but a func­tion. And this func­tion is absolute­ly indis­pens­able. The sub­ject is absolute­ly indis­pens­able. I don’t destroy the sub­ject; I sit­u­ate it. That is to say, I believe that at a cer­tain lev­el both of expe­ri­ence and of philo­soph­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic dis­course one can­not get along with­out the notion of sub­ject. It is a ques­tion of know­ing where it comes from and how it func­tions. There­fore I keep the con­cept of cen­ter, which I explained was indis­pens­able, as well as that of sub­ject, and the whole sys­tem of con­cepts to which you have referred.

In depart­ing with the seem­ing­ly dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent approach­es of struc­tural­ism and phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy, Der­ri­da and Fou­cault left behind a total­iz­ing ide­al­ism shared by both schools of thought, which had left their adher­ents unable to explain the dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed and uneven real­i­ties of both phi­los­o­phy and his­to­ry. It is not Der­ri­da and Fou­cault who repro­duce this total­iz­ing ide­al­ism, but Peter­son. Con­trary to his self-pro­fessed rep­u­ta­tion for straight talk and hard truths, Peterson’s con­cep­tion of all the var­i­ous phe­nom­e­na of social life as expres­sions of a curi­ous­ly inter­pret­ed intel­lec­tu­al episode hap­pens to be con­sis­tent with the most spec­u­la­tive of philoso­phies: an ide­al­ism that claims ideas descend from heav­en to earth.

Draw­ing on his read­ing of west­ern phi­los­o­phy, Der­ri­da showed that through­out its his­to­ry there were vary­ing yearn­ings of a “meta­physics of pres­ence”: the notion that some pure, unadul­ter­at­ed truth exists inde­pen­dent of the deriv­a­tive and dis­tort­ed forms in which it is expressed. Begin­ning with Pla­to, this was dra­ma­tized in the oppo­si­tion between speech and writ­ing. In speech, said Pla­to, one was faced with the pres­ence of the speak­er and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of direct­ly access­ing the truth of his utter­ance. But in writ­ing the speak­er was absent, and his words could be mis­in­ter­pret­ed. This is all Der­ri­da means by “logo­cen­trism” — the pre­sup­po­si­tion that speech was pri­ma­ry to writ­ing, that it was a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of ideas that pre­ced­ed its utter­ance. The logo­cen­tric way of think­ing, long cus­tom­ary to the point of being a tru­ism, is an eva­sion of the fact that phi­los­o­phy, and there­fore any quest for truth or knowl­edge, can only take place with­in the impure, in-between field of lan­guage.

Derrida’s med­i­ta­tions on these ques­tions are both more com­plex and more pre­cise than some dorm­room solil­o­quy punc­tu­at­ed by the bub­bling of bong water. The ques­tion Peter­son accus­es him of answer­ing with dan­ger­ous equiv­o­ca­tion — whether there is such a thing as objec­tive truth — is not one he pos­es. That ques­tion is so vague­ly and poor­ly framed as to be irre­solv­able. The point is that we have no direct access to truth, that it can­not sim­ply be made present. Instead, we have to pay atten­tion to the var­i­ous forms of sec­on­dari­ness, impu­ri­ty, dif­fer­ence, and dis­tor­tion which actu­al­ly con­sti­tute our thought.

There are rea­sons to see this approach as com­pat­i­ble with Marx­ism, which is also based on a philo­soph­i­cal cri­tique of ide­al­ism. Twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy could be described as an ongo­ing attempt to elab­o­rate an alter­na­tive, called mate­ri­al­ism, which in the Marx­ist canon is nev­er clear­ly explained. So Marx­ism, too, exists in writ­ing, and the yearn­ing for a pure and uncor­rupt­ed Marx­ism on the part of some of its adher­ents ulti­mate­ly repro­duces ide­al­ist modes of thought. But the notion that Der­ri­da is a the­o­rist of pow­er, who mod­i­fies Marx­ism to apply a bina­ry of oppres­sor-oppressed to all forms of social life, not only dis­plays igno­rance of his work, it attrib­ut­es to him all the errors his work was designed to crit­i­cize: bina­ry oppo­si­tions and the total­iz­ing of dif­fer­ent phe­nom­e­na accord­ing to a sin­gle orig­i­nary essence.

It is Fou­cault for whom “pow­er” was the oper­a­tive word. At its most fun­da­men­tal, his argu­ment stat­ed that pow­er does not mere­ly pro­hib­it, like a cop stop­ping you from enter­ing a build­ing. Pow­er is also pro­duc­tive; it can make us fol­low rules even when we know we could get away with break­ing them. As he wrote in Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish, it was nec­es­sary to rec­og­nize that there was no knowl­edge inno­cent of the con­text of pow­er, “that pow­er and knowl­edge direct­ly imply one anoth­er; that there is no pow­er rela­tion with­out the cor­rel­a­tive con­sti­tu­tion of a field of knowl­edge, nor any knowl­edge that does not pre­sup­pose and con­sti­tute at the same time pow­er rela­tions.” This is where Judith But­ler fol­lows Fou­cault, show­ing how pow­er pro­duces sex and gen­der, threat­en­ing what appears to be a deep-seat­ed inse­cu­ri­ty around mas­culin­i­ty that afflicts Peter­son and his dis­ci­ples.

Although, unlike Lyotard, Derrida’s rela­tion­ship to Marx­ism was not one of out­right dis­avow­al, nei­ther was it straight­for­ward­ly lin­ear. The most per­ti­nent work in ques­tion is Specters of Marx, a vol­ume which Peter­son does not even both­er to name. While Peter­son claims that “Der­ri­da described his own ideas as a rad­i­cal­ized form of Marx­ism,” any read­er of this book knows he did no such thing. Specters of Marx is an uncon­ven­tion­al text, part­ly read­ing the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo onto­log­i­cal­ly rather than polit­i­cal­ly. Derrida’s neol­o­gism here is “hauntol­ogy,” after Marx and Engels’s famous open­ing sen­tence — the con­cept even­tu­al­ly caught on in cul­tur­al crit­i­cism in the new mil­len­ni­um, through the late Mark Fisher’s appli­ca­tion of it to the music of the enig­mat­ic dub­step pro­duc­er Bur­ial. Though Der­ri­da claims a mate­ri­al­ist method of inquiry, he does not call for a return to the com­mu­nist project. He instead sees Marx as a ghost­ly pres­ence with­in lib­er­al democ­ra­cy, after the fall of the Sovi­et Union and the so-called “end of his­to­ry.”

The book does con­tain a sin­gle ref­er­ence to post­mod­ernism, with­in a litany of con­tem­po­rary threats to democ­ra­cy:

Entire reg­i­ments of ghosts have returned, armies from every age, cam­ou­flaged by the archa­ic symp­toms of the para­mil­i­tary and of the post­mod­ern excess of arms (infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy, panop­ti­cal sur­veil­lance via satel­lite, nuclear threat, and so forth).

Specters of Marx is unequiv­o­cal­ly loathed by Marx­ists of a cer­tain per­sua­sion, for whom there is only one true Marx. Even those who found some­thing of val­ue in Derrida’s read­ing were sur­prised by it at the time, giv­en the pre­vail­ing oppo­si­tion between Marx­ist and decon­struc­tion­ist camps in the acad­e­my. Peterson’s fan­ta­sy of neo-Marx­ist wolves in post­mod­ern sheep’s cloth­ing has lit­tle bear­ing on actu­al debates in 20th-cen­tu­ry polit­i­cal the­o­ry.

If Derrida’s work was appro­pri­at­ed by Amer­i­can aca­d­e­mics to sim­ply express a banal form of sus­pi­cion of all forms of objec­tive truth, in ser­vice of some kind of mor­al­iz­ing pol­i­tics of iden­ti­ty – and indeed, this did take place through­out the 1980s and 1990s – it is an appro­pri­a­tion which com­plete­ly miss­es the point. We do not need to pro­duce a myth of the pure and uncor­rupt­ed writ­ings of Der­ri­da to point out that this is a mis­read­ing; rather, we sim­ply need to rec­og­nize, as Der­ri­da both insist­ed and prac­ticed in his own work, that the “decon­struc­tion” of a meta­physics of pres­ence requires close read­ing. This begins at least with some­thing Peter­son has not done: actu­al­ly open­ing the book.

In 12 Rules, Peter­son takes Der­ri­da to task for a famous and eas­i­ly decon­tex­tu­al­ized quote: “there is noth­ing out­side the text.” Peter­son reads this as the “nihilis­tic and destruc­tive” claim that “every­thing is inter­pre­ta­tion.” To call this an over­state­ment would be an under­state­ment. Der­ri­da was not claim­ing that there are no side­walks, birds, and build­ings beyond the edges of a page. He was ques­tion­ing the idea that there is a mean­ing to a text that is dis­tinct from what is actu­al­ly there in the text. There is no pure trans­mis­sion, uncor­rupt­ed by a sec­ondary medi­um, that makes us one with our lis­ten­ers or read­ers. To engage in decon­struc­tion is to show, through close read­ing, how even the advo­cates of a meta­physics of pres­ence end up acknowl­edg­ing the inescapa­bil­i­ty of writ­ing and all that it rep­re­sents. And decon­struc­tion, too, inevitably falls prey to its own work.

There is not a trace of this kind of humil­i­ty in Peterson’s writ­ing. His mega­lo­ma­nia is so extreme that he once pro­posed a kind of machinic McCarthy­ism, announc­ing his intent to cre­ate an arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence pro­gram called a “post­mod­ern lex­i­con detec­tor.” This algo­rithm would sort out course descrip­tions at uni­ver­si­ties that includ­ed any unsa­vory con­tent, list­ing them on a direc­to­ry for free-think­ing stu­dents to avoid. Among its oth­er remark­able qual­i­ties, this is a strange way to advo­cate for the free­dom of speech. Peterson’s col­leagues talked him out of it.

But that hasn’t stopped Peter­son from air­ing his views all over North Amer­i­ca and the inter­net, includ­ing fawn­ing pro­files in the Guardian and the Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion. In spite of his failed attempt to give his pol­i­tics intel­lec­tu­al heft, it should be obvi­ous to any rea­son­able per­son that his world­view is unfound­ed on its face. Con­sign­ing the right to deter­mine someone’s gen­der to the eye of the behold­er places exces­sive faith in the imme­di­a­cy of per­cep­tion and the uni­ver­sal equiv­a­lence of cul­tur­al norms, besides being obvi­ous­ly unkind. His blus­tery objec­tion to the gen­der-neu­tral sin­gu­lar “they” puts Peter­son him­self in oppo­si­tion to “West­ern civ­i­liza­tion,” giv­en that the con­struc­tion appears through­out canon­i­cal Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture, includ­ing the works of William Shake­speare and Jane Austen. Peterson’s fix­a­tion on the chem­i­cal foun­da­tions of bio­log­i­cal sex and mea­sure­ments of cog­ni­tive intel­li­gence is not prag­mat­ic, but meta­phys­i­cal, attempt­ing to extract essen­tial qual­i­ties from social behav­ior.

Peterson’s attempt to but­tress these reac­tionary posi­tions with read­ings of con­tem­po­rary phi­los­o­phy, now pre­served for pos­ter­i­ty in the pages of 12 Rules for Life, is not with­out prece­dent. But the ten­den­cy finds its most thor­ough real­iza­tion in his zealotry. Peter­son goes beyond Lil­la, Chom­sky, and Buchanan, argu­ing that what he calls “post­mod­ern phi­los­o­phy” is not mere­ly a symp­tom of social unease, but its cause. By charg­ing this poor­ly defined dis­course of post­mod­ernism with shap­ing con­tem­po­rary soci­ety and bend­ing the arc of his­to­ry, he is doing pre­cise­ly what he has accused his adver­saries of doing: impos­ing a world of ideas upon the actu­al­ly exist­ing world, one which is more com­plex than he has the abil­i­ty to grasp.

Author of the article

is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn.