McLuhan & Peterson: competing fundamental myths 1

Imagine that the human environment might be better considered as “what is and has always been common to all domains of human experience, regardless of spatial locale or temporal frame.” The environment, construed in such a manner, consists not of objects [in the first place], but of phenomenological constants… (Jordan Peterson)1

Very early in his career McLuhan had a notion of what Jordan Peterson calls the “constituent elements of experience”. His undergraduate philosophy mentor at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, argued that all philosophy is built from three fundamental forms, acting alone or together: idealism, realism and pragmatism.2 Although McLuhan was always more interested in literature than philosophy, as a more concrete expression of human “types of temperament”, this did not mean that he considered literature as lacking comparable fundamental forms. The “artistic expression of such temperaments”, he argued, exhibits a “consistency of conformation” at least equal to that of the “thought processes” of philosophy:

The poet plants himself upon his instincts and permits his temperament sovereign sway. And he has quite as much right to do this as the philosopher has to trust his thought processes. In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.

This is from McLuhan’s 1933-4 M.A. thesis at the University of Manitoba on the English novelist, George Meredith. McLuhan was 22. Ten years later in his Cambridge PhD thesis, he described 2000 years of intellectual history, from classical Greece to Elizabethan England, in terms of the interplay of the three forms of the trivium — dialectic, rhetoric and grammar. Their constant interplay, he submitted, constitutes an “ancient quarrel” underlying and accounting for the formation of the surface level of human experience across all the areas of its expression in (say) literature, philosophy, theology and education generally.3

In his thesis McLuhan did not yet consider just how these constants come to concrete expression in an individual and in groups. Known or unknown to themselves, humans must somehow come to their experience via a process played out aside from (or inside of?) historical time — for there is no delay in our experience of the world while we consider its possibilities. There must be another time in which these constants are surveyed and then one of them, or a combination of them, ‘selected’ (through submission) for adoption/adaption as experience.4 Humans are the beings of (subjective genitive) such multi-dimensionality.5 Over the next decade McLuhan would come to characterize this process as a ‘descent into the maelstrom’ (aka the ‘worldpool’). But like everyone else since at least Plato, he would fail in the attempt to explicate this process enough to spark its collective investigation — despite the fact that during his lifetime we all came to mime the process by ‘going to the movies’.6  

By his early 30’s, then, McLuhan saw human experience as multilevel (surface and depth) and multi-chronological (history with its underlying dynamic “quarrel”). He would spend the next four decades investigating this “whirling phantasmagoria” (as he called it in the ‘Preface’ to The Mechanical Bride) and attempting to communicate what he more and more believed was its potential contribution — a potential contribution that conceivably was unique — to human survival.

Now, although explicitly referenced by McLuhan mainly in its derivative form of the attack on the heavens represented by the tower of babel,7 what was at stake in his whole career from the 1930s to 1980 was a myth described in Plato’s Sophist as the gigantomachia peri tes ousias,8 the originary battle of the gods and giants over reality:

What we shall see is something like a battle of gods and giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality (…) One party [the giants] is trying to drag everything down to earth [their mother] out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands, for they lay hold upon every stock and stone and strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch. They define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word. (…) 
Their adversaries [the gods] are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen  [their father], maintaining with all their force that true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless forms. In the clash of argument they shatter and pulverize those bodies which their opponents wield, and what those others allege to be true reality they call, not real being, but a sort of moving process of becoming. On this issue an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps. (…)
It seems that only one course is open to the philosopher who values knowledge and truth above all else. He must refuse to accept from the champions of the forms the doctrine that all reality is changeless and exclusively immaterial, and he must turn a deaf ear to the other party who represent reality as everywhere changing and as only material. Like a child begging for ‘both’, he must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once. (Sophist 246a-249c)

The same story was told in Egypt as many years before Plato as we are after him. This was at the very beginning of written history, but there is no reason not to suppose that humans have always known this story and always recounted it in one way or another.9 In the Egyptian version, Horus, the hawk son and/or reincarnation of Osiris, battled his snake brother, Seth, for domination of the land (always divided between the arable riverside ‘overseen’ by Horus and the always threatening desert of Seth). Their battle laid the earth to waste — in particular it stirred up the holy pool before the temple of Atum in Heliopolis so that it no longer served to reflect the above in the below. The nine great gods then met in council to decide how the rift in the divine family might be healed. The council of the gods was headed by Atum, the sun, who was the grandfather of Geb (the earth) and Nut (the sky) and great-grandfather of  Osiris-Horus and Seth. The conciliar decision was to anoint Thoth (god of letters and sometimes called a further brother of Horus and Seth) with the authority and the power to settle their dispute — which he was thereby able to achieve to the satisfaction of the two warring combatants. This action of reconciliation, first within the council of the nine gods in reaching its decision, and then in the work of Thoth in reconciling Horus-Osiris and Seth, became the model of justice ‘before Geb’, that is, both in the place and time of the gods and in the place and time of Egypt (where the pharaohs of Egypt occupied the ‘throne of Geb’).10  

The parallels between the Greek and Egyptian myths are plain. A familial battle of originary forces takes place concerning domination of above and below. The contest is settled in a philosophical way through a reconciliation of both together. In neither case, however, is the action linear such that reconciliation would simply do away with strife (or strife simply do away with reconciliation). Instead the action is, as Plato says, “an interminable battle [that] is always going on between them”.11 “Going on”, this is to say, in another time from chronological time in the depths of both ontology and psychology — where the imperative need of the latter (currently in indescribably dangerous eclipse) is to retrieve the reconciliation of the former. The possibility of this retrieval is grounded, in turn, exactly in that reconciliation which is ‘before’ it, a priori.12

Most important of all to under-stand concerning this contest is that it is not ‘about’ reality, as if the contesting figures disputed at some remove from it. Rather, this gigantic agon ‘is’ reality.13  

Reality itself — “real existence” or “true reality”, as Plato says — is plural and, therefore, abysmally gapped in the borders between its multiple contestants.

One of the foremost implications of this mythological ontology is that justice is possible among individuals and states because it is first of all a possibility in reality itself. It is ‘true’ — where the etymology relates to ‘tree’ and has to do with ‘deep roots’ and ‘steadfastness’. Justice as ‘truce’ (another cognate), even among original powers in their unsurpassable power (like the gods and giants, and Horus and Seth), is grounded in a reconciliation that is just as original and mighty as they are.14

In the course of the 1950s McLuhan became increasingly clear about the practical ramifications of this background “quarrel” and hence of our need to initiate collective investigation of it. Here he is in Network #2 from 1953:

The area of spatial communication is that of politics, business and power. Time is the sphere of language and knowledge. Equilibrium between these interests means social viability. Divorce between them is the breakdown of communication — the jamming of the social networkNineteenth century development of spatial communication widened the gap between knowledge and power, [between] poetry (all the arts) [on the one hand] and politics [and] business [on the other]. The withdrawal of the arts to an ivory tower and of politics and business to a tower of Babel is the figurative way of citing the current divorce between knowledge and know-how. Irresponsibility and loss of bearings occurred in both domains. Yet major developments in each sphere were strikingly parallel, and even belated recognition of common problems and solutions may help mend the broken network.

From his Cambridge English School training McLuhan was well aware, of course, that ‘space’ and ‘time’, the ‘arts’ and ‘business’, and so on, are utterly ambiguous and could never be used to define the archetypal struggle between “divorce” and “equilibrium”. Instead, they needed to be defined by it. But he didn’t yet realize, apparently, just how important this distinction was and is. Hence it was only a full 5 years later in 1958 that he first declared that “the medium is the message”.

His guess was that a definition of media along a spectrum, characterized at its two extremes by “divorce” and at its centre by “equilibrium”, might enable investigation of human experience in a new — but “ancient” — way. Through such investigation, the rift “between knowledge and know-how” might be healed and the demonstrable power of “know-how”, after two centuries of its unbridled domination of the planet and all the endless disasters resulting from that domination, might now itself be turned to our desperately needed reconciliation. As McLuhan already noted in his ‘Preface’ to The Mechanical Bride

Since so many minds are engaged in bringing about this condition of public helplessness, and since these programs of commercial education [like the news and advertising in the general environment and all based on “know-how”] are so much more expensive and influential than the relatively puny offerings sponsored by schools and colleges [in the classroom], it seemed fitting to devise a method for reversing the process. Why not use the new commercial education as a means to enlightening its intended prey? Why not assist the public to observe consciously the drama which is intended to operate upon it unconsciously?

In short (in the same place):

Where visual symbols have been employed [via “know-how”] in an effort to paralyze the mind, they are here used as a means of energizing it.

Now Jordan Peterson, too, appeals to a myth which he terms “the most basic of plots”15 and “the oldest and most fundamental story that mankind possesses.”16

Here are some of his accounts of this myth:

  • The Sumerians, ancient Egyptians and Old Testament Hebrews settled by all accounts17 on a world-story that made of existence and experience the eternal battleground of order and chaos, mediated by the heroic aspect of consciousness –- the Logos, the Word, truth, light, enlightenment, illumination.18
  • the categories offered by traditional myths and religious systems (…) present the world as a place of constant moral striving, conducted against a background of interplay between the “divine forces” of order and chaos. (…) The capacity for creative exploration –- embodied in mythology in the form of the “ever-resurrecting hero” -– serves as the eternal mediator between these fundamental constituent elements of experience.19
  • Human beings, “made in the image of God”, construct their familiar territory, their cosmos, out of chaos -– the unknown -– and then strive to maintain the dynamic equilibrium of what they have constructed and now inhabit. The capacity to engage in such activity is “incarnation of the divine Logos”, embodiment of the creative, exploratory “Word”, whose activity finds eternal dramatic representation in the figure of the hero, the dragon-slaying savior.20
  • The story of the hero is the most basic of plots, therefore, because it deals with the most basic of encounters [between order and chaos].21
  • the elder [Mesopotamian] gods elect Marduk, god of exploration, vision and speech, as King, top of the sacred dominance hierarchy, and send him out to voluntarily confront Chaos (…). This is the oldest and most fundamental story that mankind possesses.22 It echoes through ancient Egypt, and that state’s conceptions of Horus, the redemptive, attentive eye; Isis, the goddess of chaos; and Osiris, the god of the state. It serves as the source for the creation story in the Hebrew bible, and profoundly influences Christianity; it is the story of St. George, and of Christ, the perfect man, the second Adam, and the deadliest enemy of death, and the eternal serpent.23

There are, of course a great many parallels between Peterson’s hero myth and the mythological ontologies of Plato’s gigantomachia and the Egyptian Horus-Thoth-Seth proceedings. He describes some of them himself. In all three cases “a world-story [is recounted] that made of existence and experience the eternal battleground of order and chaos, mediated by (…) Logos, the Word”.24

But the most important part of the Peterson’s “willingness to risk”25 is his assumption of the contemporary state of the world’s mind. That is, he ‘puts on’ an understanding of this “world-story” that largely26 dis-places it from multi-dimensional spaces and times, and from a phenomenological or dynamic ontology, to an “evolutionary/historical perspective” with a unidimensional space-time. This displacement may be observed in many features of Peterson’s account of the myth:

  • the hero is sometimes said to be “eternal” and so seemingly a third archetypal power with “order and chaos”; but this implication constantly elides into heroic action that human beings do or, at least, might do if only they had “willingness to risk”. It is a matter of (subjective genitive!) “consciousness”, “enlightenment”, “creative exploration”: “Human beings, (…) construct their familiar27 territory, their cosmos, out of chaos.”
  • myth as explanation (explanans) constantly elides into a matter to be explained (explanandum) — where ‘to be explained’ is understood as bringing it into a unidimensional framework that Peterson terms “the adoption of a much broader evolutionary/historical perspective”.28 Here “our culture” is said to be “an emergent consequence of an ancient process”20 that may be reflected in myth, but that is ultimately not only not mythological-ontological, and not even specifically human, but biological.30
  • the originary power of myth constantly elides in Peterson’s telling into something secondary, something that is only a representation of something else, something that is “embodied in mythology” but is subject to further “enlightenment” — “developing more and more coherence over stretches of time” through our “creative exploration”.
  • hence, instead of experience always deriving from the multiple possibilities of mythological ontology, Peterson would investigate that mythology as “imaginative roadmaps to being”.31

It is exactly because Peterson ‘puts on’ the dire state of the contemporary world that he turns mythology-ontology around to where it might indicate something (existence itself!) — if only we could “illuminate” it more brightly via further heroic investigation. The result is just that of Nietzsche’s “History of an Error” which Beckett so nicely capsulated in Three Dialogues: “There is more than a difference of degree between being short –- short of the world, short of self -– and being without these esteemed commodities.”

For Peterson’s hero, the quest is an eternal matter of linear degree — the “thing-in-itself” is to be reached through its refractive object. He is unable to take on the thought of eternal recurrence which Zarathustra endured as the condition of his ‘convalescence‘. In the circularity of eternal recurrence the arrow of time is not linear and does not point to the goal of reality and truth. In this fundamental circularity we are “without these esteemed commodities” as conceived in Gutenbergian perspective.

Peterson’s project has led him into the cul-de-sac of the contemporary world disaster in which humans know nothing — but know enough to terminate life on earth. The latter possibility is of course infinitely more dangerous given the former actuality.

Peterson’s task is to under-go the reversals and involutions of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in order to find that incipet the world so desperately needs. The outstanding question is whether he will fulfill his mission.

 

  1. Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’,  Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006, emphasis added. It is unclear why Peterson uses quotation marks in this passage. Is it a citation of some sort? Or does he mean to mark out this part of his text for special attention — more or less like italics?
  2. For discussion see The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge.
  3. The echo is clear here of McLuhan’s idea, from 10 years before at the University of Manitoba, of applying Lodge’s work outside of philosophy. But all important further questions are raised. First, how to identify and hence to name (or vice versa) the “types of temperament”? Second, what are the times of the “ancient quarrel” of those forms and of their dynamic expression? One of the profound difficulties of these questions is that they are knotted together and cannot be answered separately.
  4. A similar ‘process’ takes place in speaking a language. Only some possibilities of sound and grammar make sense in any given language. And only some of these make sense in a given situation. Humans must decide these questions, but, of course, they mostly do so unconsciously and, seemingly, im-mediately.
  5. See the previous note.
  6. McLuhan’s debt to filmmakers/theoreticians like Eisenstein and Zavattini cannot be overemphasized. See ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954): “The movie reconstructs the external daylight world and in so doing provides an interior dream world. (…) Another way of seeing this mysterious medium for transforming experience is to consider it as the exact embodiment of Plato’s Cave. The dreaming eye of the movie god casting his images on the dark screen corresponds to that image of human life offered to us by Plato in the Republic: existence is a kind of cave or cellar on the back wall of which we watch the shadows of (…) reality.”
  7. This not to mention Christianity which may be understood as a form of this “ancient” myth — or as the realization and consummation of it. For McLuhan, of course, the latter was the case. For discussion of some of the implicated issues here, see Pre-Christian Logos and Babel.
  8. Plato: γιγαντομαχία τις εἶναι διὰ τὴν ἀμφισβήτησιν περὶ τῆς οὐσίας: the great battle of the gods and giants in their dispute about reality. Sophist 246a.
  9. It is, after all, the story of the first spoken word. At that originary moment, two isolated figures came into communication through a third figure, the Word, ‘combining’ both.
  10. For ancient Egypt generally, and the proceedings of Horus, Seth and Thoth in particular, see the great works of Jan Assmann.
  11. ἐν μέσῳ δὲ περὶ ταῦτα ἄπλετος ἀμφοτέρων μάχη τις (…) ἀεὶ συνέστηκεν. Sophist 246c.
  12. How to reach what is already at hand is the great question.
  13. The rise and spread of Christianity depended in large part upon its ability to absorb variations of this complex ontology and phenomenology (the ‘shining forth’ or dynamics or ‘incarnation’ of ontology) (dual genitive!!!) into its multiple forms of an archetypal threefold: God-Spirit-Son, Joseph-Jesus-Mary, God-Jesus/Christ-world, God-Mary-world, God-Saints-world, etc. ‘World’ in these cases was usually a specific locality, much as there had once been a Zeus or an Apollo of different localities. The death of Christianity occurred at that moment when politicians felt themselves able to give away its superlative localities, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, as one-dimensional pieces of a purely secular world checkerboard.
  14. Peterson certainly understands and indeed emphasizes the explanatory power of myth. But he fails to discern, or at least he fails to accept, it’s more fundamental ontological bearing. But this undercuts its explanatory power leaving its claims, as he himself says in describing ‘rights’ in the contemporary world, no more than “castles in the air, historically and philosophically speaking” (‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights’, 2006).
  15. ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  16. Peterson’s emphasis in ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’, in K. Markman, T. Proulx & M. Lindberg (eds), The Psychology of Meaning, 2013.
  17. “By all accounts” = on Peterson’s own insistent singular account. Here as always, and intentionally, Peterson plays a ‘risky’ game since “in scientific endeavour, as elsewhere, the willingness to risk Is everything.”
  18. ‘Maps Of Meaning: The Architecture Of Belief (Precis)’, Psycoloquy 10, 1999.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  22. Peterson’s emphasis.
  23. ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’, ed. K. Markman, T. Proulx & M. Lindberg, The Psychology of Meaning, 1-23, 2013.
  24. The full passage here (” a world-story that made of existence and experience the eternal battleground of order and chaos, mediated by the heroic aspect of consciousness –- the Logos, the Word, truth, light, enlightenment, illumination”) illustrates how Peterson tends to equate “existence and experience” and therefore the actions of the mythological (“existence” or being itself) and historical (“experience”) hero. But even where the two are properly differentiated, it remains the case that an “eternal battleground” characterizes both — although in fundamentally different ways. The hero of Peterson confronts the battleground as an eternal antagonism that in some way is older than him. He does so, so to say, from the outside. The philosophical-child of reconciliation (subjective genitive!), in deepest contrast, is itself just as original as the other contestants and represents a recasting of the “eternal battleground” into a more ‘familial’ dispute. Its confrontation is internal.
  25. See note 17 above.
  26. Because the  “world-story” at stake (en jeu) is so powerful and originary, neither Peterson nor the contemporary world he bears with him can entirely shut out its shining forth. McLuhan already knew this at 23 and so was able to see it then as the distinctive genius of Eliot’s poetry: “the (Eliot) poems I am reading have the unmistakable character of greatness. They transform, and diffuse and recoalesce the commonest every day occurrences of 20th century city life till one begins to see double indeed — the extremely unthinkable character, the glory and the horror of the reality in life — yet, to all save the seer, (only) behind life (if at all) — is miraculously suggested,” Letters, 41, emphasis, bracketed clarifications and punctuation added.
  27. The ‘riskiness’ of this suggestion may be seen in the word ‘familiar’, which of course is from ‘family’.  Absent an existing family, how construct familiar territory?
  28. ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, 2006.
  29. Ibid.
  30. In this same essay, Peterson notes that “chimpanzees, ever so closely related to human beings, live in dominance hierarchies, like their human cousins.” Behind chimpanzees, in turn, the explanatory trail leads back to unicellular lifeforms. The familiar Gutenbergian form of the argument here is that of calculus: if you make the pebbles (calculi) small enough and extensive enough, you can explain anything you want! The mind faints at some point along the infinitely long trail!
  31. ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’, 2013.