Jordan Peterson, Lobster Philosophy and the Limits of Individualism

This article is part of the Time Capsule 2020 project, click here to find out more.

by Jessica Corne

Am not I 

A fly like thee?

Or art not thou

A man like me? 

The Fly, Blake (1794)

A man dons a mask and his face grows to fit it  

Shooting the Elephant, Orwell (1936)

The Return of the Lobster Philosopher

2020 is apocalyptic in the emptiest sense of the word, in the sense that it would probably be far more interesting if the world did end, and then we’d be spared the endless waiting. It is hard to resist the fantastical notion that the world is about to change, Biden is elected, and although not as cool as Obama or as hateable as Trump, he does contain the promise and the possibility of rendering life boring again. 

What makes life boring? That is a very good question. Well there are certain things. Bills and bus-rides for one thing. And being put on hold. And Hollywood cinema. The overuse of irony, intelligence, sarcasm, and cynicism. The media, politics and TV shows about lawyers. Instagram and Facebook. Vegetables and the pressure to eat five of them a day. Outdated self-perpetuating dogmas surrounding masculinity, white supremacy and individualism. Memes. Being told to vote. And Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Especially Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.

Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto Professor, self-diagnosed Super-Hero, and grandfather of the disenfranchised youths is back. In October he released ‘Return Home’ to YouTube, announcing he will be back working on his Biblical Life Advice Series [1]. A few of you ask: who is Jordan Peterson? He wrote a book I half-forgot to read called “12 Rules for Life’’ (2018), has published several YouTube videos which unfortunately I have watched, and plans to save the world again after a whole minute of being offline. His videos, drawing energy from biblical mythologies and Disney movies boil down to very convoluted ways of saying ‘do something with your life.’ 

It’s very hard to take a man seriously who has based his entire career on the philosophy of Lobsters; Peterson has, rather strangely, intellectually mangled those poor orange sea-blobs into some kind of economic propagandic framework about climbing the so-called ‘dominance hierarchy’ (essentially being less of a do-nothing loser.) This is why Peterson had to say about our amphibian friends: 

‘These creatures engage in dominance disputes, what’s so cool about the lobster is when he wins, he flexes and gets bigger. If you’re depressed, you’re a defeated lobster, that’s an indication of just how important hierarchies of authority are, they’ve been conserved since the time of lobsters. If you’ve ever been seriously defeated in life, you know what that’s like: death, dissent, dissolution and if you’re lucky a re-growth.’

Lessons from Lobsters- Peterson [2]

The sad fact is that alot of us used to take Peterson rather seriously, like any 20-year-old who refuses to give up their time-wasting habits and chronic dissatisfaction and grow up. In the true spirit of those dormant noobs from Orwell’s 1984, many of us spent possibly hundreds of hours consuming JBP YouTube videos; swallowing slogans, twisted untruths, carefully constructed monologues about defeating the dragon of chaos, saving the virgin and finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or some such attractive-sounding drivel.

Matters of precision aren’t really worthy of discussion when understanding Peterson’s flawed and morally frivolous logic. Perhaps the charm of the obvious is what propelled Peterson to fame; no one felt undermined or inferior, he was an intellectual Every-man, a virtual Forrest Gump of academic theoretical bullsh*t. His 12 Rules for Life, which unabashedly parody the 10 Commandments, are a mixture of off-beat superfluous movie Grandpa life advice, and weirdly Nazi-sounding rhetoric, that is to say, rules which invoke notions such as guilt, sin and perhaps even punishment. Take for example Rule 8:

  1. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”
  2. “Treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping”
  3. “Make friends with people who want the best for you”
  4. “Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today”
  5. “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them”
  6. “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”
  7. “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)”
  8. “Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie”
  9. “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”
  10. “Be precise in your speech”
  11. “Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding”
  12. “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street”

Google Jesus Messiah Figures

The deep and complex problem of Peterson is that there is absolutely nothing deep and complex about Peterson. A lot of his messages essentially boil down to the fact life is not fair, and often humans are far more ignorant and selfish than they give themselves credit for. And Jordan Peterson is not the first Jordan Peterson. We’ve had Petersons like Tony Robins, Simon Sinek, Ben Shapiro, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and we will probably have an endless streamline of Jordan Petersons before our century realises the utter futility of right-wing white males who tell you how to live your life. My feeling about the Jordan Petersons of this world is that if you are living your life already, you are already half way out the door, and you don’t need him. 

Every mature, self-governed, self-aware, self-respecting and regulated, worth-while, employable, emotionally intelligent, empathetic individual who has a good handle on current politics and is also not a loser and understands how to laugh at themselves whilst also being an attractive commodity on the personality market, that is to say someone who has carefully and gradually annihilated themselves at the feet of the idol of becoming a 21st century person, learnt – probably around age thirteen – that life can be tremendously unfair. You don’t need Peterson to tell you this. No amount of defeating the dragon of chaos or confronting the mythological unknown will make life fair again. 

‘You’re expelled from your mother’s uterus as if shot from a cannon towards a barn door studded with old nail files and rusty hooks. It’s a matter of how you use up the intervening time in an intelligent and ironic way and try not to do anything as ghastly as your fellow creatures’

Christopher Hitchens [3]

A large issue with these Jesus figures of the Internet, or the Google Micro-economy based around self-help, is that they tend to manufacture one great engine and temple of self-disgust. To borrow from Christopher Hitchens’ criticism of religion in ‘God is not Great’, these self-help compassion guru wisdom prostitutes are very good at selling one thing: guilt. They tell us, in their paternal preachy tones, alot like the Big Guy in the sky, how we are all born sinful yet are condemned to be good [4]. Peterson’s pet phrase seems to be something like: ‘worthless as you are, there’s always a chance you can be less worthless.’’ If only people today weren’t in such a mad rush to become commodities. Essentially Peterson is pedalling an oppressive, culturally derivative and bloated ideology, wrapped up in the sugar-coating of sentimentality and hope. In order to understand the deep intellectual perversion of the hundreds of Petersons that have been and will be – while we watch the wheels on the bus go round and round – it’s perhaps useful to delve a little further into Individualism itself. (And why, as a concept, it sucks.)

On the Limits of Individualism

While ‘Individualism’ is an attractive word, full of assonance and forward motion, it is about as well-meaningly vague and vacuous as advertising copy. The idea is roughly this: “freedom of thought and action for each person is the most important quality of a society, rather than shared effort and responsibility.” [5] Yet, more crucially, in Peterson’s language, individualism might mean something like “Defeat the Dragon of Chaos to get the gold (or mould yourself more conveniently into our Western Liberal Capitalist Economy.’’)

If one has the vaguest sense that they are in fact living in a capitalist society, that is to say, a society where money creates a barely hidden fog or gloom of discontent in our so-seeming happy enough lives, the concept of individualism should really wipe its shoes on the doormat as it silently leaves through the back door. Viewed objectively, most people are fundamentally enslaved: a capitalist society is oriented toward avoiding fluidity and differentiation. The armies of individualist, special snowflakes may self-actualise and self-diagnose till our hair falls out and we go blind, but in reality, most of us are forced to exist as one inter-fused mass of automatism, a comfortably enslaved, emotionally drugged, financially embarrassed, competitive generation of lobsters.

One of the major contradictions of capitalism is that it has brought humans into the closest “togetherness” while accentuating conditions that pull them apart. Capitalism socialises the labour force, and knits the whole world into a unit while separating people from one another through the divisive interests of economy, financial guilt and competition. [6] What does this army of lobsters look like? Engels described it as: “This isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme…. barbarous indifference, hard egotism and nameless misery.’’ [7]

Individualism is the new-age fashion of commercially ordained soul-searching. Because the economy, fate, death and the hell that is other people (Sartre) conspire to make life so awkward and uncertain, the 21st century has concocted the perfect poison: narcissistic introspection to distract from the real truth that nobody has control over their own lives.  The idea that we know who and what we are, that we can meditate upon our flaws and insecurities, vices and virtues and so on, and somehow fine-tune ourselves into something less economically deficient is a sinister and cynical exercise in self-mutilation.

Somebody told me recently ‘accept who you were and become who you are’. This charming, sleek, sexy skin of vanity wrapped around my mind and I sort of appreciated this kind, totally useless comment. Our language of individualism passes from mouth to mouth and is tinged with a slightly hysterical sense of carving out one’s own self-mythology. How people describe their lives today is like picking apart a corpse: ‘kind’, ‘people pleaser’ and ‘insecure’ are typically female adjectives, while males usually attempt to write the scripts and stories of practicality, usefulness, strong mindedness and stoicism. Perhaps it is part of a forgivably narcissistic mistake of judgment that other people actually care about our own not-so-unique concoction of personality traits. Perhaps, also, it is a sign that many of us have not quite cut the apron strings from infancy, and like some archetype of the universal unconscious, we try to construct lives of money and accomplishment while never quite leaving the walls of Mother’s womb, that is to say, we grow old without ever quite truly growing up. To be an individual is a sign we must forget everything we were told, the self-delusion that we were ever unique or special or free.

Of course, it’s hard, to resist the temptation towards endless self-annihilating self-discovery, especially when there’s so much money and power, a whole macro economy in-fact, dedicated towards spilling out the contents of your mind and serving them at the table of conversation before anyone even asked what’s on the menu. Perversely, the weird suspicion lurking behind the people desperate to tell you how individual they are, is that most people are terrifyingly in the dark about themselves, and perhaps this is for the best.

Individualism and Ghosting

If Voltaire said to cultivate your own garden, then the Individualist says, yes, do this, but extract and eradicate every evil-smelling weed, until our 21st century garden is nothing more than a patch of plastic grass. Individualism has the entirely selfish consequence that people, that is other metaphorical weeds, can be pruned from our garden until it resembles nothing more than the well-mown lawn of any DreamWorks Hollywood Movie. But when the weeds are human, what does such tribal destruction look like? 

“If Voltaire said to cultivate your own garden, then the Individualist says, yes, do this, but extract and eradicate every evil-smelling weed, until our 21st century garden is nothing more than a patch of plastic grass.”

Ghosting is a childish toy of the individualist modern man. It will probably happen to you especially and inevitably, if you pursue electronic, wifi-operated intimate relationships. Of course, to avoid being ghosted you too could become a ghoster, that is you could preserve your survival imperative by learning how to smile as you kill (or virtually anyway.) Well, if only social relations were so simplistic. 

Perhaps, despite what all the self-help philosophers say, it is possibly worth being more pessimistic about human nature, even for the sake of developing a sense of humour. In “Straw Dogs” the antidote to individualism in the 21st century, John Gray argues for us to view ourselves a lot like animals: they are born, seek mates, forage for food and die. That is all. But humans suffer under the illusion of action, choice, consciousness, self-hood, free-will; the narcotics of wisdom that we design our own destiny. [8] Gray states: “Once we switch off the soundtrack – the babble of God and immortality, progress and humanity – what sense can we make of our lives?” [9] So strangely, if I read Gray correctly, it seems that Peterson is right,  are we really a lot like lobsters after all?

Have Lobsters Conquered Reality?

If Peterson is a sign of the pathologies 21st century living, where people take on absurd self-perceptions of themselves as tragic heroes defeating the dragon of chaos, then he is a symptom of a culture where the artificial has driven out the authentic, in short, a place where entertainment has conquered reality. Gabler has argued that the 21st century resembles something a lot closer to post-reality, and reality itself is only something we can imagine, something which exists only as a longing. Gabler writes: “Is reality, as it was traditionally construed, morally, aesthetically and epistemologically preferable to post-reality? Or: Is life, as traditionally construed, preferable to the movie version of life?” [10] 

This essential debate sinks it’s teeth into both Instagram and the Kardashians, and begs the question: are we on the side of the realists or the post-realists? Do we side with those who choose to live life, or would we rather just recline on the armchairs of morothy apathy, drink from the cup of self-perpetuating brainwashing boredom, and flick through the TV channels of our own lives, until we  decide, rather sadly, that there is just nothing good on, and, finally, let the screen goes black.

Peterson’s individualist entertainment channel is the stuff of 3am re-runs to offset the anxieties and paranoia of insomnia and impotence. He is essentially the last hiccup in a population distracted by trivia and TV talk shows, grown up children reduced to conversing in a rapid-fire series of quotations and baby-talk. [11] In a sense, the men who tell us how to live our lives provide yet another form of escapism, elopement, euthanasia from the role and responsibility of life itself.

Ideology of any kind always reflects some kind of economic coercion [11]. Peterson’s compelling, best-selling narratives about slaying mythological creatures as we stroll down Penny Lane is advertising in the most derogatory sense of the term. In ‘The Culture Industry’ Adorno wrote: “The paradise offered by the culture industry is the same old drudgery…. Pleasure promotes the resignation which it ought to help to forget.” [12] The triumph of Peterson over the hearts and minds of consumers is that we will still seek to buy his Free.99 version of how-to-do-life even though we see right through him.

‘I am an Insect’ and other life-affirming self-help mantras

My favourite self-guide is Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes from the Underground.’ This is a short monologue of a nameless Underground man, paralysed by his own self-consciousness and holed up in his cellar for 20 years. It opens: ‘I am a sick man. … I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.’ [13] The Underground Man engages us in 150 pages of an occasionally psychopathological delineation of his internal profile, self-conscious analysis, moral self-definition and personality dissection.[14] Our hysterical hero of this story knows himself so well, has soaked up so many slogans, he renders others powerless in his search for Omniscience about himself. What the Underground man thinks most about is what others think about him, he tries to outstep others, anticipate and control everyone else’s point of view, definition or evaluation. He sees himself through the mirrors of other’s consciousness. [15]  He is totally divorced from himself in his sad effort to protect himself. “I attacked him, not from compassion for the girls and their fathers, but simply because they were applauding such an insect. Zverkov, without a word, examined me as though I were an insect. I dropped my eyes.” [16] He sees himself from third-person, and it is vaguely amusing. The Underground Man is probably worse than a brain in a vat, he is a brain in a vat who can’t stop studying himself in the vat mirror and arguing with other brains in vats on the shelf next to him about who is better at being a brain in a vat.

Peterson’s charm is essentially the brain-in-the-vat Underground Man mentality. There must be something paralytically self-defeating about wondering whether you managed to wake up and ascend the dominance hierarchy today, clean your room, walk and talk like a lobster, integrate your shadow side, and then at around midday turn yourself into a monster, overcome your Oedipal Complex before tea, and finally chase the gold and kill a dragon before bed.  My feeling is that the cultural flames that fan the Peterson fire will die out over the next few years, especially following his return from his year spent in hospitals, but what next? How many Lobster philosophers do we need? How soon will it be before the 21st century will grow up, stop fetishizing the cult of individualism, and finally leave home for good? The strange relationship between individualism and totalitarian self-annihilation is best captured in this Monty Python Sketch: 

BRIAN: Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals!

FOLLOWERS: Yes, we’re all individuals!

BRIAN: You’re all different!

FOLLOWERS: Yes, we are all different!

DENNIS: I’m not.

FOLLOWERS: Shh. Shhhh. Shhh.

BRIAN: You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!

FOLLOWERS: Yes! We’ve got to work it out for ourselves!

BRIAN: Exactly!

FOLLOWERS: Tell us more!

Life of Brian, Monty Python (1979)

References

[1] YouTube, Peterson, Return Home 

[2] YouTube, Peterson, Lessons from Lobsters

[3] YouTube, Christopher Hitchens: Fear, Life and Free Will 

[4] Hitchens, 2007, God is Not Great

[5] Cambridge Dictionary: Individualism

[6] Novack: Marxism Vs Existentialism

[7] ibid.

[8] Gray, 2002, Straw Dogs

[9] ibid.

[10] Gabler, 1998, Life: the Movie – How Entertainment Conquered Reality.

[11] ibid.

[12] Adorno, The Culture Industry

[13]ibid.

[14] Dostoevsky, 1864, Notes from the Underground

[15] Bakhtin, 1973, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics

[16] ibid.

[17] Dostoevsky, 1864, Notes from the Underground

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