A Jordan Peterson Biographer Missing the Mark – Merion West

Posted: February 23, 2020 at 12:48 pm


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Jim Prosers new biography on Jordan Peterson portrays him as a Christlike figure plagued by personal demons. Yet the real devil here is in the details.

What does one say about Jim Prosers new biography of Jordan Peterson, Savage Messiah: How Dr. Jordan Peterson Is Saving Western Civilization? The first thing is that its not a biography, at least not in the modern sense of Boswells Life of Samuel Johnsona text thats extensive leveraging of archival records, eye-witness accounts, and interviews effectively bestowed the genre with a veneer of objectivity thats defined it ever since. By contrast, what Proser offers us hereas can be inferred from the titleis essentially a Christ allegory: one in which Peterson is portrayed as being the lone individual capable of saving Judeo-Christian Enlightenment values from the vipers of postmodern neo-Marxism, resurgent since the anti-Western movement of Occupy Wall Street. And should one dispute Petersons candidacy for comparison with Christ on the grounds that the latter was put to death for his sermons whereas the former has become rich off of them, Proser constantly reassures us of the mental anguish Peterson has endured on account of neo-Marxist aggression, which at one point, literally surrounded him, invaded his classroom, threatened his career and the future stability of his family.

Given the apocalyptic sense of importance Proser assigns to Peterson, many readers may be curious as to just who he is. In 2016, Peterson first attracted widespread notoriety for his publication of a video on YouTube, Professor Against Political Correctness: Part 1. The video, which featured Petersons voiceimagine Kermit the Frog trying to evince the air of a truth-telling patriarchdubbed over a handful of black-and-white PowerPoint slides, was austere. It was also factually dubious: in it, for instance, Petersona Canadian, who currently teaches at the University of Torontoconfuses Canadian jurisdictions, waxing on about the threat posed to academic freedom by the Canadian governments effort to legislatively protect gender-nonconforming individuals seemingly unaware that his own vocation falls under provincial mandate. Naturally, few noticed, and Petersons was able to parlay his burgeoning star as a professor capable of legitimating the intellectual pretensions of the alt-right into a best-selling book two years later, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. 12 Rules for Life, which builds on Petersons efforts to map Jungian archetypes onto neuroscience in his earlier book Maps of Meaning isat bottoma pop psychology book sprinkled with a few inchoate philosophy references (Peterson succeeds in misreading numerous thinkers throughout the book, including Heidegger and Derrida). However, by this point, the question of Petersons academic bona fides was largely a moot one. His nonstop polemicizing against the leftwhose ideology he coined the neologism postmodern neo-Marxism to describe, sloppily compounding differences a more rigorous thinker wouldve bothered to delineatesupported by his nonstop lecture tours, had already resonated with a mass audience. 12 Rules was just the tour souvenir.

That Petersons elevation to fame occurred relatively recently poses a distinct problem to Proser as a biographer. Jordan Peterson is 57 years oldhardly an upstart. Yet as he was not a public figure prior to his fiftieth year, writing a genuinely comprehensive biography wouldve required undertaking substantial research to supplement Petersons own accounts (part of the appeal of Petersons books and lectures lies in the way he frequently recounts stories supplied from personal experience). But whether out of laziness (or whether out of a desire not to impinge upon the soupcon of prophecy Peterson has built up around himself), Proser instead elects to use the books first half to furnish his readers with an assemblage of chronologically organized anecdotes about Petersons life derived from none other than Peterson (and virtually all readily available elsewhere). The best thing that can be said about this part of the book is thatin so far as the events in question occurred prior to his transformation into the public intellectual par excellence of the Rightits impossible to say categorically that theyre wrong (though one does get the sense that taking them at face value would be a bit like seeing a long cut of Purple Rain and mistaking it for authentic biography). The worst thing that can be said is that Proser here does the exact opposite of what a biographer should do, inflating Petersons personal mythology rather than slicing through it.

The word mythology is not used here loosely. Peterson, who believes that the world is not made of matter but out of what mattersdeep, brohas in his past works compared his travails to those of mythological and religious figures. Given that Peterson makes clear in Maps of Meaning that he believes there is a symmetry between neurobiological structures and mythic archetypes, it can be argued that this is less preposterous than it seems (even as this argument itself is complicated by the fact that the mythological examples Peterson makes to use it are disproportionately Western). For Proser, however, it is not enough that Peterson simply be an avatar of common experience. Instead, his stress on Petersons world-historical confrontation with SJWs (social justice warriors) infuses even his relaying of the events of Petersons early life. When Peterson refuses to go to church and rejects religion, he, may have felt something like Dantes Inferno. When he experienced depression as a young man, he was, Odysseus traveling through the land of the dead to learn of his future. To top it all off, in Prosers account, Peterson was dogged as a youth by none other than Satan (!) himself, who decided to,be patient with the young man who was so bright and seemed so enthusiastic. Not that his patience was infinite: after Peterson interrupts a college drinking party by shouting about God and war and love and other things he didnt know a lot about, the, Prince abandoned his drunken prospect to suffer in his well-deserved vomit. These kinds of descriptions, coupled with the books title, make you wonder if Proser hasnt forsaken the vocation to which he wouldve been best disposed: that of a metal lyricist.

Petersons reception during the early stages of his academic career, was, as Proser explains, not much different than the one he encountered assailing besotted college students with his philosophic theses at house parties. At least so far as his colleagues were concerned. After serving as an assistant professor at Harvard for five years, Peterson failed to acquire a tenured position there due to, in his own words, a lack of presence of mindwhatever that means. Even at the University of Toronto, a prestigious albeit considerably less prestigious institution, Peterson was nearly rejected by the psychology departments search committee on the grounds that he was too eccentric. Throughout his description of these events, Proser is so committed to portraying Peterson as a concentrate of titanic significance that he fails to countenance the possibility that his academic work just might not be that good. But while hardly a model of intellectual rigor, whats also clear from this part of the book is the way that Petersons indisputable skills as an orator furnished him with opportunities well above his academic station. At Harvard, he purportedly built up a cult following among his studentswho also nominated him for the Levenson Teaching Award in 1998, which he subsequently won. And a few years into his stint at the University of Toronto, he landed a gig delivering lectures on Maps of Meaning for a publicly-funded broadcaster, TVOntario (which also invited him to frequently serve as in interlocutor on The Agenda with Steve Paikin). Predictably, Proser fails to notice the irony thatwhile Peterson frequently rails against the oppressive diktats thrust upon him by politically correct government apparatchikshe is also a product of government, having received a quotient of support throughout his career denied to many of the postmodern neo-Marxists whom he regularly decries.

Its at this point in Prosers bookas Petersons public visibility begins to increasethat it degenerates into deep nonsense. Absent extensive research, and unmoored from the coming-of-age narrative that undergirds its first half, the latter part of Savage Messiah is a mess of phrases copied verbatim from public websites, tidbits of Petersons lectures, and Prosers crass polemicizing. Much of it is, moreover, factually inaccurate. The competition for the worst burst of prose in Savage Messiah is a fierce one. But in Prosers description of the political ascent of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, we seem to have found a winner:

Arriving just in time, young Justin ascended quickly to the leadership of the NDP. Then riding the wave of progressive outrage over the repeated defeat of their agenda and the rise of traditionalist voices like Jordan Peterson, he led the Liberal Party to a sweeping national victory in 2015. The Liberal Party went from third place with 36 seats to a dominating 184 seats, the largest increase by a party ever in a federal election. He was sworn in as prime minister of Canada on November 4, 2015.

To be clear, the Liberal Party and NDP (New Democratic Party, though Proser elsewhere refers to it in the text as the National Democratic Party) are, in fact, completely different political organizations. Nor is this the only example of Proser sloppily conflating different political traditions: at another point, he declares that Sartre and French pro-fascist writer Louis-Ferdinand Cline as exponents of different forms of Marxism (though perhaps Cline is indicted here because he actuallyunlike Peterson or Prosertook the time to read Capital). And for the coup de grace, we learn that anti-fascist Antifa fighters are none other than the modern-day version of the violent Black Shirts, the voluntary, paramilitary wing of Benito Mussolinis Fascist Party of Italy. Oh, and in case you wondering: the cause of the violence of Antifa is possibly the theory of toxic masculinity.

Whats disturbing about these kinds of claimsapart from the fact they made it by an actual copy editoris that its not clear that describing them as errors fully does justice to the mind in question. Some may be oversights. But one also harbors the suspicion that Proser is so in the thrall of a conspiratorial vertigo that he thinks hes offering up the unvarnished truth. This speaks to the fundamental flaw of Savage Messiah: that it never even momentarily allows the facts to stand alone. Of course, narrative structuration is the essence of biography, and it would be unreasonable to expect any author to not bring some kind of predisposition to a project dedicated to a figure as divisive as Peterson. But if Prosers goal is to honor Petersons work, his exaggeratedly hagiographic approach actually has the opposite effect. If Petersons brilliance is so self-evident, why is it necessary for Proser toin arguably the most surreal moment in a book rife with themcite student ratings on ratemyprofessor.com in order to attempt to discredit one of his ideological opponents? Moreover, one gets the sense that Proser, who identifies openly as a follower of Petersons work, has not even fully assimilated it. Where Peterson, for instance, has criticized the adoption of identity politics by both the right and leftalbeit been more severe in his condemnations of the latterProser is alarmed by an Amazon.com product review that refers to a two-decade-old journal as, seeking to abolish the white race. Likewise, where Peterson couches his misogyny in improperly applied statistical data, Proserwhos elsewhere described women as having a last fable dayis hardly so discreet. For him, should we examine the subtext of one of Petersons lectures, it is clear that its not right-wing authoritarians, but women who most wanted to control speech.

Savage Messiah is a colossal embarrassment. But if its most disquieting passages can credibly pass themselves off as analyses of Petersons work, is it solely Prosers? Petersons has mastered the art of disavowal: of selectively deploying statistical data in order to infer bigotries he then can subsequently distance himself from. This book is just another example: as Proser explains in the books epilogue, Peterson gave it his assentbut never in a way that would impede him from later disowning its contents. Maybe, then, its not Peterson but, rather, Proser who manifests the archetypal traits of the Messiah. Jesus, after all, let himself be pinned down.

Conrad Bongard Hamilton is a PhD student based at Paris 8 University, currently pursuing research on non-human agency in the work of Karl Marx under the supervision of Catherine Malabou. He is a contributor to the text What is Post-Modern Conservatism, as well as the author of a forthcoming book, Dialectic of Escape: A Conceptual History of Video Games. He can be reached at konradbongard@hotmail.com, and a catalogue of his writings can be found on Academia.edu.

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A Jordan Peterson Biographer Missing the Mark - Merion West

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February 23rd, 2020 at 12:48 pm

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