McLuhan & Peterson: competing fundamental myths 2

As Bob Dobbs has nicely articulated, McLuhan was a literary figure who put on tribalism, while Peterson is a tribal figure who puts on literary values. These mixed media were/are1 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“.2

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)3

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)4

A world of multiple individual and collective identities could not be organized through a heroically maintained focus without distortion and even violence.5 The need was therefore to learn “how not to have a point of view6 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 not be only ‘figure absent ground’.7

Put differently, Peterson’s hero would need to undergo complete immersion in Nietzsche’s nihilism and Beckett’s solipsism8 in order to turn away from misleading pathways like brain materialism9 and the postulation of a “thing in itself”.10 Both of these typically Gutenbergian attempts at anchoring would uselessly attempt to provide “a rock-solid foundation”11 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. The past tense will often be used in this post to describe McLuhan and Peterson, although Peterson is very much with us. In such cases, the present should be understood as implicated in the past.
  2. Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, 2006.
  3. 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.
  4. Compare Little Gidding: And what you thought you came for / Is only a shell, a husk of meaning / From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled / If at all. Either you had no purpose / Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured / And is altered in fulfilment.”
  5. The problem, of course, is that such heroic focus is part of the class it purports to organize. Whence its privilege?
  6. Often called by McLuhan ‘the technique of the suspended judgement’.
  7. For extended discussion of this point, see the further Peterson posts in this blog.
  8. 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.
  9. 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 verbiage!
  10. 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.”
  11. Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.