Some one suggested that I explain what was wrong with a Jordan Peterson lecture on Foucault. The lecture is here. In a further article I will try and do a semi-Foucauldian twist and explain how Peterson uses authority, hierarchy and rhetoric to functionally silence Foucault and postmodernism.
First off let us remember that Peterson appears to be giving a university lecture. Such lectures should have much higher standards than blog posts. What we can possibly excuse here as a matter of not having enough time, should not be acceptable in a university. I should also state clearly that I am not an expert in Foucault or in Peterson, and that I am lazy enough to only refer to the lecture referenced above. If you want more detail, then please go elsewhere.
Although I have watched quite a number of his videos, I have yet to see any evidence that Jordan Peterson has read Foucault or, for that matter, any of the so called “postmodernists” he criticises. There is certainly no evidence that he has read these texts closely or carefully. I’ve yet to see, in any of his multiple lectures and talks, any quotations in context, page references, or any attempt to explain what the person being criticised is actually on about with proper documentation.
That does not mean such talks or papers do not exist, but that I have not seen them. He largely seems to rely on his listeners not knowing anything other than rumour about the people he criticises, and probably being predisposed to rejecting those thinkers in the first place because of the listener’s pre-existing political loyalties.
[As a footnote, I’d point out that, although it is ambiguous, in the debate with Žižek, Peterson seems to be suggesting that he had just read the Communist Manifesto for the first time since he was 18. This is rather odd for a person who regularly dismisses and criticizes Marx. In that debate, Peterson provided no evidence that he had read any of Marx’s mature works at all, or perhaps any other Marxists whatsoever. Which is, again, odd for a person who presents as an intellectual authority on Marxism, but does suggest a proneness to criticizing without familiarity.]
Please note that I am not saying that Peterson never says anything worthwhile – his first book for example Maps of Meaning is definitely worth a look, if you are interested in Jungian Psychology (which I am). It seems to be of a completely different level to his contemporary work.
So on to the lecture.
Peterson starts by stating a theme he will reiterate. Foucault is the most reprehensible individual you could imagine. You could not dream up anyone worse.
He gives no evidence for this accusation. We could suggest that Peterson appears to be making the charges simply to support his established truth and discredit the victim. There is no academic impartiality or quest for truth being shown here.
Later on he will argue that Foucault was a bitter and treacherous person, who aimed to undermine the presumably virtuous structure that would not accept him. One problem with this suggestion is that you could also criticise Foucault for being hyper-successful – which he was. For example, he had a professorship created for him at the College de France, which can be described as the most prestigious university in France. He also wrote and had published an extremely large number of well-selling books. Peterson continues by saying that no structure could function with people as peculiar, bitter and resentful as Foucault. Presumably the University did. No evidence of Foucault’s mysterious sins are given, but it is possible that Peterson is referring to Foucault’s homosexuality and interest in sado-masochism. I presume Peterson’s idea is that, if he finds someone unpleasant, then their ideas must be incorrect, or perhaps that if he does not like the ideas the person must be reprehensible.
The talk does not appear to be about uncovering the truth of Foucault or his ideas, but refusing him and his ideas because he is declared to be inferior, by the great judicial authority that is Jordan Peterson. In other words, by example Peterson appears to be arguing that ethics is about power and slander. He would almost certainly deny this, of course. But let us set these ad hominem arguments to one side, and get on with the other arguments.
Peterson states Derrida and Foucault were avowed Marxists in the 60s and early 70s. As usual he gives no evidence for this. I don’t know if there is any particular evidence for this. They were influenced by Marx, and argued about Marx, but then again few thinkers of the period were not either influenced by Marx or attempting to argue against Marx. So it is not surprising they could have discussed Marx, even if they disagreed with him, and thought society could be improved. We might declare that Hayek was a Marxist by the same logic.
If Peterson could have been bothered to read the Wikipedia article on Foucault, instead of following his own knowledge entirely, he would have learnt that Foucault “left the Communist Party in 1953” being “appalled by the anti-semitism exhibited during the 1952-1953 ‘Doctors’ plot’ in the Soviet Union” and having experienced directly the bigotry of the party. The same article claims that Foucault refuted “core Marxist tenets such as class struggle” and later said “Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else.” In other words Marxism, for Foucault, was not a significant innovation, it was rooted in the 19th Century Western way of thinking and thus completely superseded.
Judging by what follows, the point of bringing in Marx is to reinforce the ad hominem argument, and to discredit Foucault and Derrida without having to argue against them, or exhibit much knowledge of their works.
Peterson states that even Sartre was not a Marxist by then. Well that is convincing. Unfortunately he appears not to know much about Sartre either. Sartre was writing against the Soviet Union from the 1950s from a Marxist point of view. He considered it important to protect Europe’s autonomy from the Soviet Union and from the US, and not be torn to pieces between either of them. Sartre later called himself an anarchist, and opposed the corporate take over of media, but he considered his Marxist oriented Critique of Dialectical Reason, to be one of his most important works
The problem is that Peterson confuses Marxism with support for the Soviet Union or Maoist China. Marxism is a theory of social processes, it is not support for a particular State, indeed Marxism promises the State will wither away after the Revolution – obviously something that did not happen in any Marxist Revolution. And if Peterson had the slightest knowledge of Marxism he would have realised that Trotsky, who is usually considered to be a Marxist, was also against Stalinism. It is, however, not unreasonable to point out, that people who have proclaimed themselves Marxists have been murderous, just as have people who have described themselves as Christians or Muslims.
We could also say to Peterson, that by the late 60s no one with any moral integrity supported unconstrained capitalism – because everyone knew how it went as well; rampaging colonialism, exploitation of workers, destruction of environment, plutocracy etc. This does not mean that US capitalism is as bad as the Soviet Union, but it does not mean that it has to be essentially good. The US was, at that time, attempting a large scale undeclared war against ecology and life in Vietnam and Cambodia; the people of which were not remotely equally equipped or wealthy enough to defend themselves – which they did remarkably.
What postmodernists did, says Peterson, is that they transferred the conflict of rich vs poor into oppressed vs oppressor. The conflict in Marx is not between rich and poor, but between different classes with different imperatives. Is it not reasonable to assume that different groups do not always have the same aims, especially if one is supposed to dominate the other? Can we always assume harmony between groups?
Peterson seems to be trying to deny this. He seems to be trying to argue that those at the top of the hierarchy always have your interests at heart…. I may be wrong, but that may be why he needs to discredit Foucault and Marx.
He states, Foucault’s aim is:
a) to resurrect Marxism under a new guise
b) to justify that it was everyone else’s problem that he was an outsider.
Point ‘a’ is only true if you stretch categories so that whatever different ideas you select are the same, despite their differences. In other words, he seems incapable of recognising difference and blends everything he does not like into a mess.
The second point seems to be another “I, Jordan Peterson, find Foucault, and what I understand of his ideas, unpleasant, so his ideas are not worth considering” argument.
Peterson classifies Foucault’s position as “The rise of the marginalised against the centre.” This is apparently, clearly bad.
He states Derrida’s thinking was the same… but adds another one of his slap down arguments that Derrida is even more treacherous, than Foucault. Yes the argument Derrida supposedly deploys must be really bad in that case. At some moment he reveals that Foucault and Derrida did not like each other and disagreed with each other. He makes a joke. But apparently they are the same even if they disagree. Does Peterson make an argument for this similarity? Not that I can see.
He asserts that the post-modern argument (it is not a Marxist argument, but they are blended anyway), is that there is a Political centre and then there are people outside those central categories.
Peterson admits this is true…. to categorise you have to include and exclude things from categories. So categories involve inclusion and exclusion. Rather dramatically he says that without this you just die. He gives no evidence for this over-dramatic position, and then says that schizophrenic people’s categories break down – but, assuming this is true, and again he gives no evidence for what is a reasonably contentious position, we all know that schizophrenic people exist – they don’t die immediately….
He also appears to ignore the idea that categories can be more or less accurate, and perhaps more or less oppressive: we don’t have to exclude gay people from being able to discuss politics, simply because they are gay, or women because they are female, or whatever. Making our categories fit their task better, could be considered one of the primary tasks of philosophy.
So I don’t understand his point here. But perhaps it is to suggest that people who don’t accept Jordan Peterson’s preferred categories, perhaps like Foucault or Derrida, are insane (or can be classed as schizophrenic). In which case we have another ad hominem argument, this time by a very tenuous association, and I’m starting to get tired with this style of thinking.
We are then told that this is an incredibly crooked part of their thinking, because category systems exclude, political systems exclude, any hierarchy of value excludes. So far, if he is correct, he is agreeing with them. He then asserts they think that the reason those hierarchies of value are constructed is to maintain the hierarchy of power. While he does not explicitly argue that such a position, can never be true, it would seem to be implied; he is not exploring when it might be true and when it might not be true. But unfortunately for him, the position that hierarchies of value are sometimes about power is plausible.
The wealthy can construct a hierarchy of value which asserts that wealth is a mark of virtue, of hard work, of ‘talent,’ of God’s favour, and that those who are not wealthy are not virtuous, hardworking, intelligent enough to become wealthy, or favoured by God – they are implicitly inferior, and should be guided by the wealthy because the wealthy have demonstrated the right virtues. In reality, they might add, those few of the wealthy who argue for the rights of the poor are corrupt and don’t have the normal set of wealthy virtues.
I think I’ve seen hierarchies of value like that on all sides of politics.
As a side point, the French thinker most associated with this kind of position is Pierre Bourdieu, who is not Foucault, and not a post-modernist in any meaningful use of the term, but let us keep blending everything together.
Peterson adds that this claim that hierarchies of value maintain hierarchies of power, is an incredibly crooked claim. He does not explain why, but he does assert there are hierarchies everywhere and perhaps continues to imply that they are all unproblematic. He does not argue that hierarchies may be both necessary and may distort, or act as tools of power.
His example is that in order to laud musical genius we have to exclude those musicians who are crap. He does not discuss the fact that people may disagree quite vehemently about this. I know people who don’t appreciate Bach, and others who can’t understand any techno. I personally don’t like much Beethoven other than the late string quartets. Wagner bores me. Some people prefer Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix. There is, as we say, “no accounting for taste”. Music is not really an area of social compulsion in our society, so opinions can be varied. However, liking the ‘right music’ could become a marker of status. We can easily imagine statements like “No one who dislikes Wagner could possibly be high class. We don’t have to listen to such a person.” Or “people who don’t like blah are just not up to date” or whatever, because most of us have experienced how hierarchies of value can be primarily about power, status and exclusion….
Peterson claims this is the postmodernists’ essential claim but makes no reference, yet again. He does not explore the issue. Maybe his aim is to condemn rather than explain? I don’t know for sure, but it is starting to look that way.
Peterson remarks that for Hobbes people in the state of nature fought – this is the chaos of individuals, so people had to be organised by force.
I agree with his remarks that people and social structures can be good and evil – and that we don’t like having this pointed out. So can we assume hierarchies can be good and evil at the same time? Apparently not.
He continues arguing that postmodernists added a collective element, in which groups of individuals struggle for power. Most political theorists talk about groups, classes, etc. not just postmodernists, so I don’t get the point again. To me, this assertion seems reasonable, most people are individuals who exist in [categorisable] groups, and are shaped by the relations within and between those groups. Very few humans have survived without groups. This is another paradox, the individual may require groups to learn to be individual, and to be recognised as an individual. This is not Peterson’s position here. Later on he dimisses the idea that people can belong to identity groups and find it hard to discuss with each other across the borders. I’m not sure why. After all, postmodernists appear to find it difficult to talk with Petersonites and vice versa.
I’m not sure this stuff about identity groups is in Foucault, by the way, but I’ve already asserted I’m no expert, and the idea of ‘identity groups’ other than right wing or suppressive identity groups, has become one of those slur terms used to discredit people’s politics when they suggest that some people might be excluded, as a group, from the wholesome righteous vision of society. (There is a series of posts on Identity Politics, on this blog).
Peterson asserts that in the postmodern Marxist universe there is nothing but power. Which, if true, implies that postmodernists are not Marxists, because Marxism is materialist. There is the world, its resources, what we call ecology. There is social organisation. there are ideas that grow out of actions in the world etc.
He then asserts that postmodernists don’t admit any standards, don’t believe in the real world, or science. He makes jokes about science denialists using mobile phones. He does not extend the joke to right wing climate change denialists who dismiss science as ‘socialist’. Perhaps it is only relevant to criticize those identified as leftist. I don’t know enough about Peterson to wonder if he is one of those people who deny climate change because he does not like the politics of it, and is thus the subject of his own jokes? I guess you might have to do the research if you want to find that out.
He asserts that for Postmodernists there is no such thing as ethics or high order value.
I would say that Derrida and Foucault actually seem to be obsessed with ethics. Perhaps the problem is that they may think ethical problems are difficult, and cannot be resolved by an appeal to authority, even though that is routine and perhaps necessary? But I’m not claiming to be an expert.
Peterson appears to simply deny their ethical concerns and asserts that postmodernism is self defeating (apparently if an argument appears to have unpleasant consequences it cannot be true). He concludes by saying that postmodernism is obviously a mask for the continuance of Marxism because Marxism has an ethic and involves struggle even if its ungrateful… This is not remotely logical in my view; postmodernism does not have an ethic and does have an ethic. I cannot follow the argument. So I might be missing his point.
He suggests that postmodernists suggest that Western culture is pathological, and responds by apparently saying that as pathological as Western culture is, its less pathological than everything else. His only argument for this is that people are said to immigrate to the west in greater numbers than go in the opposite direction. Even if this is the case, it may mean that Western propaganda is good, not that Western culture is good, or accepting of migrants. I don’t know, the level of argumentation and documentation is not high.
He remarks that there is an argument that the only reason the West functions is because it has raped the rest of humanity and the planet. There is an awkward pause as he apparently cannot think of anything to rebut this position – and he concludes the less said about that the better. Which is, I suppose, another slam-dunk argument. Who could wonder about incoherence being an effective argument. This is perhaps very postmodern or zen or something.
He then says that postmodernist don’t believe in grand narratives. He could point out this was an argument made by Lyotard, not Foucault but, by now, we should be used to this merging of different thinkers, and different thought, into a mess. Again Peterson employs the argument by unpleasant consequences: If there are no grand narratives then there is no meaning. However, his argument does not mean grand narratives such as the ending of capitalism in workers revolution are true because they are grand narratives, no matter how nice it might be to think with that.
Peterson suggests we need an ethic. He again appears to ignore the ethics of postmodernists. He argues that postmodernists are demolishing the fictions that unite us as people, and that we cannot cooperate without these fictions. In other words, the unpleasant consequences of non-cooperation mean the argument can be dismissed.
Consequently, he appears to be suggesting that we should just accept these fictions and they should not be challenged. This is an ethical position, but it is not one we have to accept. Indeed the normal “Western position” might be that “noble lies” should be undone, and that our grand narratives should have some relationship to truth or accuracy. We should at least be able to discuss these narratives. If we accept this, then surely postmodernist are carrying on this tradition, while Peterson is shifting it to one side – perhaps in the interests of established power? I don’t know.
He then asserts that it is unbelievably corrosive, to assert hierarchy is about power. He argues brutal people don’t establish stable hierarchies. Hopefully this is true, but we are not given many reasons to think this is correct, other than some discussion about chimps, who generally don’t organize armies very well, and how on earth does this mean that hierarchies are never about power?
He asserts that stable hierarchies are about relationship. This also may be correct. I would like to think so, but Foucault, if known for anything, is known for the assertion that power is in relationships, it is not something exerted by one person who has it, on another who does not – where there is dominance there is resistance. Foucault appears to assert that power is not just about brutality, it is necessary to exist humanly – it can be what is needed to uncover and cultivate one’s self. Relations of power can also hide their brutality. So while it appears that Peterson uses Foucault without acknowledgement, he does not use him in his complexity.
Peterson then talks about hierarchies of competence, which again is plausible, but has little to do with Foucault, that is, if you are not going to ask how competence is socially decided.
One problem Peterson ignores, and it may not be relevant for him, is that hierarchies can tend to hide mistakes, and to hide the past, in order to justify their behavior in the present. That this might be disconcerting does not mean it is incorrect. Indeed anyone might learn this from Foucault.
For example, we often think we treat mad people better than they used to, but we might find out through study that in the early modern period they did not lock up, drug or punish mad people or abandon them to poverty in the streets. They may have thought of them as different rather than inferior or incompetent. The ‘moon struck’ might even have wisdom useful to others (the fool for example). In these societies, some poorer people could live outside of a total labour hierarchy (The History of Madness).
Foucault might also lead us to wonder if medical hierarchies have tended to dehumanise us, breaking us down into isolate parts rather than be considered as a whole people, or persons with emotions, fears and relationships. Indeed some doctors might have listened to some of this, and be attempting to improve practice (The Birth of the Clinic)
Different historical periods might have different patterns of thought, that strongly influence what can be argued successfully and taken as true. This suggests we might not be improving in knowledge, simply changing our patterns of thought, and if we want to understand the past, or other cultures, we have to be willing to accept the presence of other patterns of thinking (The Order of Things).
The contemporary prison system might support or reinforce the social hierarchy by isolating people and hiding the cruelty they experience away from sight of others, who might come to empathise. The prison might well have become the model of the factory, and hence the office, where the workers are under constant surveillance by their superiors, and have to exist for their superior jailers. Indeed the prison might become an ideal factory in which employees are under-paid, or not paid, supported by the tax payer, and without the power to resist. Control can exist without overt violence (Discipline and Punish).
We may well have medicalised sex, or subjected it to a confessional process, both of which could be considered hierarchical submissions, rather than learnt how to cultivate the pleasure of it for ourselves and partners….(History of Sexuality Vol.1)
Peterson does not discuss any of these major writings of Foucault but after reading Foucault, it may be harder to just assume we are better than we used to be, or better than other societies, just because it is pleasant for us to think so…. This might be a good thing.
Peterson’s final argument seems to be that contemporary processes are incredibly complex so you want disciplined people who are super smart to make it work, and to rise to the top. Yes we do, but that does not mean we will always get them.
We often get incompetents who appear brutal and stupid – for god’s sake he was talking about Stalin ten minutes ago! The Peter Principle should be well known to him, and other people – it is about how hierarchies undermine themselves by promoting people who were competent to their levels of incompetence. Is it not, at least, conceivable that an undisciplined, not very clever, or coherent person, could become US President and take down all the competent machinery of government? Apparently not.
Peterson argues that competence must be everywhere. Yes, there must be a lot of it about or everything will fall down, but that need does not mean we get it, or we are not falling down. It merely means it would be nice to get it, and we should perhaps guard against dangerous incompetence. He then asserts that postmodernists were after both the destruction of competence, and the idea of the world. He refers to Derrida. There is some awkwardness here, because Peterson is aware that we interpret the world as Derrida states, but he asserts there is more than just that. Of course.
Then lecture ends…. Perhaps it gets better in the part we have not seen.
But my point remains. If you are interested in Jordan Peterson, please ask him for evidence and please don’t think you can learn about people he has declared to be his enemies from him alone.
If you want to understand someone, read them, don’t listen to Peterson or me. There are also many introductory books and articles to Foucault, or other postmodernist thinkers, which are far better documented than anything I’m going to bother to write for a blog, and which would give you a better idea of what Foucault, or other postmodernists are about than anything I would have time to write.
The second part of this blog tries to list and explain, the modes of silencing of discussion, that Jordan Peterson uses in this lecture
Other possibly relevant blogs: