Jordan Peterson and Marshall McLuhan

It has not escaped notice that Jordan Peterson has recapitulated in the first decades of twenty-first century what Marshall McLuhan achieved in the mid-twentieth. Namely, these two longtime University of Toronto humanities professors became world famous through the then new electronic networks of television (McLuhan) and social media (Peterson). To the consternation and envy of their academic colleagues, especially at UT, both became in the process not only enormously influential in the extra-academic world, but also — horror of horrors — relatively wealthy. 

The talent of both was sharp insight into what might be called the surprisingly obvious. They could see against the tide and could and did trace individual and social problems to the utter obliviousness in which those individuals and whole societies went about their unhappy and dangerous business: “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”1 The surprise they elicited in making an observation partly came from the consternation people had in wondering how they had not seen it before; but there was also a sense of the catastrophic effect that would result in their lives if the observation were allowed its potential to decenter them. Their observations were made from and of a depth that was at once obvious and unseen — and powerful.

There are, however, many other parallels between the two men suggesting a kind of commonality of vocation that calls for thoughtful consideration:

  • both born in Alberta (McLuhan in 1911, Peterson in 1962 — almost 50 years apart)
  • both grew up as Protestants, but in their teens became alienated from it
  • both obtained their BA degrees from western Canadian universities (McLuhan from the University of Manitoba, Peterson from the University of Alberta)
  • both obtained their PhD degrees away from western Canada (McLuhan from Cambridge, Peterson from McGill)
  • both began their teaching careers in the US (McLuhan at St Louis University, Peterson at Harvard)
  • both returned to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto (McLuhan in 1946, age 35, Peterson in 1998, age 36 — almost 50 years apart)
  • both stressed the importance of Carl Jung2
  • both suffered near fatal health problems — almost 50 years apart — that disabled them for years in the middle of their careers (McLuhan had a large brain tumor removed in 1967, age 56, Peterson suffered a series of excruciating health issues culminating in 2019, age 56)
  • both developed akathisia as a result of their health problems3 
  • both studied ‘the meaning of meaning’ and suggested that the essence of it was to be found in the different configurations that relationship can take in (better: as) human experience
  • both therefore insisted that human identity was fluid and fundamentally plural — and that investigation of it had to be fluid and plural — exploratory — in turn
  • both therefore stressed that border crossing was essential to human being (vertically between actual and possible forms of experience, horizontally between different actual forms over time)
  • both employed a cross-disciple approach to their work in which literature was used to illuminate contemporary social and political problems
  • both insisted that mythology and other forms of narrative (especially in religion) provided unique access to the range of human existence
  • both insisted that illumination comes to humans, or can come to them, and is not something that might be made up by them
  • both insisted that tradition was not a properly discarded irrelevance but an active source providing the key to an understanding of the present
  • both turned to Gestalt psychology and to its signature appeal to figure and ground as critical to their investigations of human experience
  • both appealed to the left and right hemispheres of the brain in their explication of experience
  • both were led fundamentally astray by the demands of colleagues to supply a  measurable ‘scientific basis’ for their work 
  • last but not least, both maintained their marriage and family life in the face of constant attempts to seduce them away from them4

Of course, the two also had fundamental differences. As Bob Dobbs has nicely articulated, McLuhan was a literary figure who put on tribalism, while Peterson was a tribal figure who put on literary values. These mixed messages were an important aspect of the success of each of them. But the great question in both cases was and is: what is the medium of these mixtures?

As will be detailed in later posts, Peterson would put the answer to this question in terms of the masculine hero who penetrates a feminine chaos. In doing so, the hero becomes illuminated by new possibilities through which both individual and social regeneration may be prompted.

Now while McLuhan saw a roughly similar need to go “through the vanishing point”, he knew that the hero could not do so and remain the hero. The hero would necessarily become a “nobody” in the process — in extreme opposition to Peterson’s hero who “as a consequence of such activity (…) necessarily meets himself (…) broadened and extended“.5

For McLuhan, it was only as the hero was utterly dispossessed that the search for meaning could take on the sort of hopelessness through which alone a new sort of identity might be found for our individual and social lives.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate (Dante Inferno, iii:9)6

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (East Coker)

A world of multiple individual and collective identities could not be organized through a heroically maintained focus without distortion and even violence.7 The need was therefore to learn “how not to have a point of view8 and the requisite trial by fire was to go through the dissolution of the hero into the nobody. Only the nobody could come upon new ground that would not be heroically stipulated — and therefore be only ‘figure’.9

Put differently, Peterson’s hero would need to undergo complete immersion in Nietzsche’s nihilism and Beckett’s solipsism10 in order to turn away from misleading pathways like brain materialism11 and the postulation of a “thing in itself”12. Both of these typically Gutenbergian attempts at anchoring would uselessly attempt to provide “a rock-solid foundation”13 for the understanding of human experience via a physical (“neural underpinnings”) or conceptual (“the perceived object is thus a low-resolution image of the thing-in-itself”) reduction of an irreducibly ‘gapped’ plurality to a merely stipulated ‘basis’ in singularity.

 

  1. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Burnt Norton).
  2. McLuhan to his Jesuit friends, Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, December 23, 1944: “Increasingly, I feel that Catholics must master C.G. Jung. The little self-conscious (…) area in which we live today has nothing to do with the problems of our faith. Modern anthropology and psychology are more important for the Church than St. Thomas today.” (Letters 166)
  3. In regard to McLuhan, see Judith Fitzgerald, Marshall McLuhan: Wise Guy: “In a note attached to the Report (on Understanding New Media, 1960), McLuhan reveals his health has broken under the stress of prolonged overwork on the project. (…) When McLuhan returns to teaching (…), however, he cavalierly pretends he never suffered a stroke. But his family and close friends can clearly see the toll it’s taken: the man who was a robust and animated specimen has turned into an old man overnight. His nervous intensity’s more pronounced. He’s incapable of relaxing for more than five minutes at a stretch.”
  4. Throughout this post the past tense has often been used referring to McLuhan and Peterson — although Jordan Peterson is very much with us. Readers should see in this past tense a kind of ‘also present’ as in ‘was/is’, ‘had/has’.
  5.  Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, 2006.
  6. A few lines before this:
    Per me si va ne la città dolente,
    per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
    per me si va tra la perduta gente.
    “Lasciate ogne speranza” is a technical requirement to the understanding of the enormous range of human experience. Whereas Peterson sees in mythology and literature “
    imaginative roadmaps to being” (‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’, 2013), McLuhan was clear that we must find in them ‘roadmaps from being’! Between ‘to’ and ‘from’ is a gap — the appreciation of whose significance lies on the other side of all heroism.
  7. The problem, of course, is that such heroic focus is part of the class it purports to organize. But whence its privilege?
  8. Often called by McLuhan ‘the technique of the suspended judgement’.
  9. For extended discussion of this point, see the further Peterson posts in this blog.
  10. Nietzsche and Beckett were well aware that neither nihilism nor solipsism could withstand their own disintegrative force. They should therefore be understood as nihilism and solipsism , where the strikethroughs indicate that these strange conditions are nothing conceptual; they are black holes falling though themselves into the unknown and unknowable. Hence Beckett’s great closing text to his trilogy, The Unnamable.
  11. See Hirsh, J. B., Mar, R. A., & Peterson, J.B., ‘Psychological Entropy: A Framework for Understanding Uncertainty-Related Anxiety’, Psychological Review 119:2, 2012: “the need for an integrative theoretical framework to establish its psychological significance and provide a context for its neural underpinnings and behavioral consequences has become increasingly apparent”; “the probability of any given action or perceptual frame being employed p(x) is a function of the weighted neural input for its deployment, as influenced by the combination of sensory input, strength of memory representations, and goal-related attentional processes.” Imagine what Dostoevsky’s underground man would have made of this!
  12. See Peterson’s ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’ in K. Markman, T. Proulx & M. Lindberg (eds), The Psychology of Meaning, 2013: “Intelligible arrays have been identified at many levels of resolution: from that of the quark, 1/10,0002 as large as an atom, to the supra-galactic, at 1025 meters. All things-in-themselves exist simultaneously at all those levels, and partake in multiple arrays, at each level. A perceptible object is thus an array segregated, arbitrarily and for subjective purposeful reasons, from its participation in endless other arrays. However, some aspect of the original array must be retained. Otherwise, the object cannot be said to truly exist, and must be regarded as fantasy. (…) The perceived object is simpler than the thing-in-itself (a prerequisite to comprehension) -– while remaining importantly related to the actual thing. (…) The perceived object is thus a low-resolution image of the thing-in-itself.” Compare Nietzsche (who certainly agreed that “the object cannot be said to truly exist”): “Radical nihilism is (…) the realization that we lack the least right to posit a beyond or an in-itself of things.”
  13. Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.