The curse of the lobster man

While I’m writing this rather overextended post on modeling, complexity and generalized pedagogy:

Perhaps it is because of my barbaric background and all—being a middle eastern to the core—but I really cannot figure out what this fuss about Jordan Peterson is. From what I have seen so far, the majority of criticisms are coming from people who are fine with greedy naturalism but unwilling to embrace its consequences. It’s like being a follower of David Icke or being a fan of Land and then getting surprised by the fact that your world view at the end of the day degenerates into lizard epics and adolescent intergalactic skynet battles fought between white males with zero scientific literacy and dressed in elf-uniforms fighting the good larping fight for a messainic capitalism.

This has always been the bane of greedy naturalization: Once you arrive at an inadequate concept of nature that does not allow you to move upward toward the autonomy of reason and downward toward the heteronomy of causes, the sapience and the lupus to use Plautus’s phrase, then such scenarios are inevitable. Naturalization was always supposed to be a two-way street moving toward autonomy and heteronomy. However, these days with the advent of neoliberal science you only get a dead end. Any paradigm of naturalization that endorses a one-way movement suffers from an inadequate concept of nature.

My friend Tahir Al-Tersa came up with a great comment in response to my initial reaction that should be quoted in its entirety:

At first I didn’t understand why Peterson was becoming so relevant either, my thoughts were the same – particularly because not only was what he was saying the logical conclusion of already very common presumptions, but because it wasn’t even a particularly unique conclusion. But it’s clear Peterson isn’t popular solely because of the intellectual contents of his position – the same goes for individuals like Milo, etc. – it is principally because he was able to align them with a real political/cultural position many already have. By proving the ability to argue these ideas on popular mediums such as television, and make sense of worldly controversies with them in a way that penetrates popular consciousness, they take on a power that is in excess of their actual contents. And in my view, it would be mistaken to underestimate the extent to which those of us immersed in the intellectual sphere are all in a way beholden to this ‘lower’, more vulgar one.

I agree with Tahir wholeheartedly. It seems to me that the image of the public intellectual today has become almost synonymous with this brand of greedy naturalism (sappy human conservatism and mysticism peddled under anti-humanist evolutionary fables and bravados). To use Lucca Fraser’s term, greedy naturalism coincides with supernatural mysticism. Once you develop a sloppy unscientific conception of nature, you almost invariably become liable to endorse a supernatural thesis about the world of which we are part. In other words, Peterson’s greedy naturalism and his Jungian supernaturalism are actually the two faces of the same coin. If there is a viable image of the leftist public intellectual that ought to be endorsed in opposition to the right-leaning public intellectual is that of an intellectual who takes nature as anything but given, that is to say, nature not as a fixed entity or something god-given but as a manipulable or constructible explanation in the space of n-hypothesis.

This is to say that the leftist public intellectual today should be the very child of scientific enlightenment, at once observant of the negative socio-cultural baggage of the enlightenment project and devoted to its core commitments i.e. science and rationality, broadly understood.

A friend of mine, Alice Sinclair, cautioned me about the category of rationalism: Today’s liberalism is rationalist, and people like Peterson are simply the inevitable consequences of the liberal brand of rationalism where reason is treated as a ‘teleo-ideological force legitimizing the status quo’. This is true, but this is another reason why the left should reclaim the collective conception of rationality. The unbinding of the collective conception of reason is in fact tantamount to the negation of the liberal recognition of reason as an Aristotelian telos that safeguards the legitimacy of the established order of things. How can it be reason if it does not recognize its own limitations here and now? So in a sense, when I say reason is necessary but not sufficient, I mean that true rationalism should coincide with communism as the real movement that abolishes the so-called completed totalities of history and overcomes the status quo. This includes the parochial conception of reason that protects the liberal polity. I think one of the tasks of leftism today is precisely to wrest rationalism from the liberal conception of reason as a teleological force, to demonstrate concretely that the project of reason is the negation of such ideologies erected in favor of the status quo and whoever or whatever that represents it.

To this extent, I don’t see a viable alternative other than scientific rationality. To those leftist comrades who fear even the remote mention of the words reason, science or computation: The trash bin of history is waiting for you!

To be a leftist means to endorse history as science (Marx), to take the idea of critical and rationalist science seriously. Ultimately, I believe Tahir is right. Nothing is going to change in the public arena unless the left puts forward its own public intellectuals who are not afraid of science (broadly understood), but fully submerged in it. To use McKenzie Wark’s term, what we need is vulgar marxism (not to be confused with kitsch marxism that I have criticized in the past)—that is, a popular marxism i.e. vulgar in the positive sense of the people. We need vulgar leftists who can once more bridge the gap between science and egalitarian ideals, who can demonstrate that the ideas of Peterson and his ilk are not just ethically problematic but above all, are patently false on scientific and methodological grounds. Short of that, we are in every respect doomed.

6 thoughts on “The curse of the lobster man

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