Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life
Jordan B Peterson
Allen Lane, 2021
What remains to be said about Jordan B Peterson? These days, doesn’t he seem like a creature out of time, an impresario for a near-forgotten age that culminated in a cosplay insurgency over which his shadow darkly flitted? Didn’t it feel like those were some of his dudes out there during the Capitol riots in Washington, D.C., among the fulminating furries and gun jocks, the gamers and beta cucks, all driven into violent incoherence by a culture changing at warp speed, moved to reactionary performance art by a dour liberal orthodoxy they hoped could be LOLed into submission? No?
Of course, I’m being overly dramatic. You’ll have to forgive me: I’ve been reading Jordan Peterson. Tempting as it is, you can’t blame the good professor for all of white male supremacy’s excesses. He has never come close to inciting violence—although a rather absurd mini-revolt by some employees at his publisher’s Canada office might seem to suggest otherwise—and unless you’re a raw T-bone steak, he is not even vaguely bloodthirsty. His career does, however, serve as a précis for conservative intellectual adventurism in the twenty-first-century. He was a first responder in the Obama-era culture wars; a crown prince of semi-mystical masculine regeneration; a new media magnate; a crustacean fanboy; and a philosopher manqué obsessed with the sacred nature of old hierarchies.
But is he still relevant following the Trump revolution, now that the cheerless kente-wearing technocrats are back in charge? Keep in mind, the New York Times once referred to Peterson as ‘the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now’, a quote that adorns the front cover of his self-help sequel, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life. The fact that a deeply loathed bastion of liberal Mainstream Media is employed to sell a book that stands in opposition to the shibboleths of liberal Mainstream Media cuts to the heart of Peterson’s brittle contradictions: it’s lonely out there on the cultural precipice, guarded by Pepe the Frog memes and Twitter bots. There’s no point in being respected if you can’t be respected by the Establishment.
Anyway, four years after the publication of his mega-seller 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, we find Peterson in a much denuded state. It’s apparently bad manners to include an author’s medical details in a book review, but in this case the Foreword (sorry, the Overture) includes a lengthy description of Peterson’s many travails since we last encountered him. In short, it turns out that the guy dispensing lifestyle advice was just as cracked out on anti-depressants and anxiety meds as the rest of us. In his attempts to kick a deep benzodiazepine addiction, and following the twin traumas of his wife and daughter’s health crises, he had a catastrophic breakdown that resulted in experimental treatment in Russia, of all places. (He has a deep fascination with Soviet-era artwork, examples of which famously adorn his Toronto residence, so there is a weird poetry in his Russian detox stint.)
Although a lack of expertise has never stopped Peterson from pronouncing on any given issue, I personally am no shrink. So I hesitate to note that anyone would crumble under the enormous twin burdens of familial ill health and unrelenting career pressure. (The latter likely exacerbated by the fact that Peterson seems gutted by anything resembling criticism: when he found out that the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates put ideas from 12 Rules in the speech bubble of the HYDRA villain Red Skull in a recent Captain America comic book, Peterson appeared genuinely hurt.) And no doubt, if Beyond Order’s Overture is anything to go by, the man has endured unfettered Hell over the past several years.
But—tentative question, asked with real concern—does that not disqualify him from dispensing life advice, considering that batches of it, so stridently and confidently issued, may have been formulated under the influence of literally all of the drugs?
Regardless, here are twelve more rules, adding up to—and I’m running out of fingers here—a full two dozen. That should do it. A close reading reveals a change in tone. This time, there is doubt and fear in Peterson’s prose. This time, there is humility in the conjoining of bad scholarship and worse theology. As usual, however, he writes like a gelded Calvinist pastor from the eighteen-twenties (although he insists that it is healthful for couples to engage in sexual intimacy once a week). As usual, each rule has a pithy and memorable title, like Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement, and Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.
The T-shirts print themselves.
Literature buffs will be thrilled to learn that Beyond Order is not a mere rehashing of 12 Rules. Unlike the first book, it is not the mitigation of Chaos—aka female energy—that we are concerned with on this occasion, but learning how to negotiate its manic, menstrual emanations. ‘When you are visited by chaos and swallowed up,’ writes Peterson, ‘when nature curses you or someone you love with illness; or when tyranny rends asunder something of value that you have built, it is salutary to know the rest of the story.’
I must confess that I don’t know what this means. The rest of what story? Is he saying that bad stuff happens, sometimes out of the blue, and we have to live with the fallout? No shit, Socrates. The book is laden with lines like the one above, which render it aggressively, almost wantonly unreadable. I literally didn’t know how I was going to get through it—I needed a self-help manual to wade through a self-help manual. If, like Christ, Peterson hoped that his suffering would prove enough for all of us, he should know that his readers too will suffer. His ideas are so airless, so devoid of actual historical or philosophical engagement, that they seem carved out of the cheap synthetic nothingness of a Styrofoam cup. When speaking of ‘thinkers powerfully influenced by Marx’, he writes that ‘Ideologues are the intellectual equivalent of fundamentalists, unyielding and rigid.’ (We’re speaking here of Karl, not Groucho. Probably.) The sentence evaporates as you read it, but it lingers around, fart-like, long enough for one to ask—Isn’t that true of thinkers not powerfully influenced by Marx? Also—Aren’t fundamentalists often ideologues, and vice versa?
The man is still banging on about the perils of postmodernism and ‘cultural Marxism’, and while it’s understandable that he’s driven to near-madness by the miserly self-righteousness of the academic left, it’s also worth pointing out that arguments over the nature of subjective and objective truth are actually very fucking old. If you’re hoping to seriously engage with them in a contemporary context, it helps to have a deep grounding in the history of human thought. Peterson does not have that. He is a dabbler, not a digger. This is what makes him a flyweight in the pantheon of conservative thinkers.
12 Rules felt urgent and dangerous—it was a classic case of a terrible book full of awful ideas that was nonetheless wedded to a movement that was in its ascendency. In this, it remains an important snapshot of an intellectual moment, however paltry it may have been. By contrast, Beyond Order is the literary equivalent of colonoscopy by cake shovel. It feels both overly rich and nutrient free, a prog-rock follow-up to a tight twelve-track hard rock album. Who knows, maybe centuries from now Peterson’s twenty-four rules will form the central liturgy of a massive cargo cult, including Helen Zille’s #StayWoke: Go Broke and the collected works of Tucker Carlson. The future will make its own determinations.
In the meantime, Peterson should consider the words of Roland Barthes (although he almost certainly won’t). ‘Better the illusions of subjectivity than the impostures of objectivity.’ Especially when objectivity leads to a rule like ‘Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible’.
Bring on the chaos, immediately, and end this pain.
- Richard Poplak is a filmmaker and journalist. He is editor at large of The Daily Maverick. His latest film is Influence, co-directed with Diana Neille. His latest book is Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes, co-authored with Kevin Bloom. Follow him on Twitter.