Last edited: May, 11, 2019.
Note: Before anyone reads this post, please keep in mind that it is out of date (my views on Peterson had changed). I am not going to bother editing it anymore—nor will I delete it because some of the ideas on here are still helpful on deconstruction. I invite you to read my recent response between Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson’s debate, here, and some of my other posts on Derrida here, here, here, and here.
From Jordan Peterson’s interviews, it is clear that he knows very little about Jacques Derrida’s intentions and the surrounding discourses which constitutes his project on deconstruction. For reasons which I will soon elaborate, it is not my goal to address the political aspects of Peterson’s thoughts because what I will discuss in deconstruction shall be conceived as the condition which grants the possibility of politics. In this post, I will analyze some of Peterson’s arguments through Derridean ideas in conjunction with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis to show you Peterson’s misunderstandings of deconstruction. Other smaller topics will include feminism, sexuality, and speech / writing. In addition, I will provide numerous hyperlinks in brackets which are not essential unless you wish to study the subject mentioned further.
To begin with a summation, Peterson’s arguments on Derridean ideas are at best, a hypocritical endeavor. Peterson manages this by agreeing with Derrida that there are infinite interpretations to any given event and text—something which he takes for granted and ignores in his own argument. The biggest problem of all is Peterson’s interpretation of postmodernism that involves generalizing every 20th century intellectual discourse as if it had a Marxist agenda. To put this in Peterson’s own words, Peterson radically overplays his own hand through a generalization that can only impress those who has never picked up a 20th century continental text. This naive gesture, while appearing to be intelligent when interpreted by the masses, will also strike many as dishonest, ignorant and inconsiderate due to his misunderstandings of many 20th century continental ideas.
This is not to say that Peterson’s arguments are outright incorrect. As we will see, there are similarities between Derrida and Peterson that are only differentiated by context and intention. Contrary to expectations, one can even see similarities between Peterson and Marxism. For example, Peterson’s argument that schools are teaching children Marxist ideologies is actually a famous Marx / Engels argument against capitalism (Base and Superstructure). Unfortunately, my attempts at maintaining this post at a relative length will restrict me from speaking about Marx today.
Deconstruction and Meaning
One of Derrida’s most important argument is how there are infinite interpretations to any given event and text (I wrote an article on this here). This is the result of how the extraction of meaning is based on our subjective phenomenological intentions (in this case, your intentions). Derrida famously makes this claim by deconstructing Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology in his key text called Speech and Phenomena published in 1967. Phenomenology is the study of intentionality through consciousness and the temporal manifestation of space and time (Cartesian Meditations and Logical Investigations).
Let us examine the famous Derridean saying, “Deconstruction deconstructs itself” and how it can possibly yield to political thoughts. Due to the temporal effects of your intentions as you read this text, the meaning of “deconstruction” is only possible until you interpret this word through your own intentionality. Regardless of this phenomenon, “deconstruction” is a translation of Martin Heidegger’s term “destruktion” which in several other instances, Derrida also translates as “solicitation” and “shaking up”. As a result, deconstruction by itself (the word in-itself) is not a political tool. Rather, it is you who would possibly interpret deconstruction (or Derrida’s ideas) as a political tool through your own intentions. Deconstruction “is” the interpretative gesture (the act; verb) of reading a text or event and how such gesture undermines itself as one reads through phenomenological and ontological intentions. At the very interpretative “center”—that is, at the center of your intentionality as a function in relation to other centers—the deconstructive project has nothing to do with politics. Instead, it is this gesture of interpretation relating to other interpretations (differences) that is responsible for constituting politics (though I am sure some Derrideans would disagree with me and argue that there were politics since the very beginning of Derrida’s thoughts). Another words, what a subject does ethically, politically, or philosophically will depend on how and where one situate themselves within these centers of interpretations (Structure, Sign, and Play). For example, of how you interpret the word “deconstruction” (i.e. whether it is political or not)—which deconstructs itself as you interpret the word.
Accordingly, Peterson agrees with Derrida’s argument of infinite interpretation, but only that we as interpreters of the world and texts, should only extract the “good” and “useful” things which helps guide one to living in our society (Peterson says it here). Certainly, this is already (at least) two ways of interpreting a text. And as I have already pointed out, Peterson does exactly this: interpreting Derrida and postmodernism under a Marxist lens. Whether one reads the text through pessimism or as a way to live amongst other people is also determined by the reader’s intentions. It isn’t that one should not interpret anything “useful” or “good” out of literature, but rather, one should be cautious of what they interpret and claim as “useful” or “good” because the two terms are subject to “pure morphology”—that the possibility of a meaningful discourse (or the possibility of a truth), whatever it may be (political, surreal, sexual, etc.), is born from your interpretation of these words.
If we understand how Peterson interprets Derrida and the entire postmodernism through a Marxist lens based on his own intentions, we will understand Peterson’s claim that people interpret the world / texts through the means of facilitating their own acquisition of power—precisely, of what is “good” and “useful” for them. The acquisition of power is only possible through one’s desire for power (something which will be crucial once we get to Lacanian psychoanalysis). Most of the things we do are self-serving towards individual desires which often undermines others. For Peterson, this is what we see amongst the postmodernists, as he points out that feminists desires for the acquisition of power / rights. However, this argument on the acquisition of power merits truth not only towards postmodernists and feminists, but for everyone including Peterson. Indeed, one should go as far as questioning Peterson’s interpretations of Derrida and his own arguments: are not Peterson’s political maneuvers directed towards his own desire for power? But let us not pursue this any further, for my intention is about Derrida’s thoughts. Nevertheless, we can begin to see that Peterson’s argument on one’s desire for power is also apparent in Derrida’s thoughts: since there are infinite amount of interpretations to any event or text, the reader only read what they desire to read out of any particular event or text. Here, Peterson and Derrida appears to be making similar arguments (because I think they are), even when they are speaking about them under very different intentions.
Postmodernism as Post-…
Marx is a big precursor to postmodernism and no one can deny this. I think it is partly true that postmodernism is a re-branded term for Marxism because some postmodern thinkers such as Louis Althusser were greatly influenced by him. Perhaps Marxism is most apparent in Frankfurt School even if its scholars are usually not considered as postmodernists. Most Frankfurt scholars were (and still are) incredibly influential amongst the humanities and fine arts disciplines.
It is not surprising that the term “postmodernism” is such a vague term that many of the figures that are categorized in it do not associate themselves with such label. The fact is, many mid-late 20th century continental philosophies are not about Marx, but a response to Husserl’s phenomenology, and to a great extent, on Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Ferdinand de Saussure and G.W.F Hegel. Even Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, which influenced many 20th century “postmodern” scholars, was written dedicated to Husserl “in admiration and friendship” (Heidegger was Husserl’s student). To name a few more: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Merleau-Ponty can all be considered as post-phenomenologists. The former three were also hugely influenced by Heidegger and Nietzsche. Then there is Jacques Lacan who we will discuss momentarily, that is influenced by Freud (especially), Hegel, and Heidegger. Finally, there are others like Gilles Deleuze whose magnum opus, Difference and Repetition, was influenced by Nietzsche’s concept of “the eternal return”.
(Phal)Logocentrism and the Psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan
There is a very long and complicated relationship between Derrida and Lacan. The two actually don’t agree with each other in many levels (i.e. Derrida is a critic of Lacan and vice versa). I am just going to highlight some ideas between the two because it is really hard to introduce them unless you have actually put in the time on learning their ideas.
The word logocentrism (“logos” is the ancient Greek word of “λόγος” which means “reason”, “speech”, “word” and “discourse”) focuses on how civilization privileges speech over writing. As Aristotle puts it: “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words”. This implies that speech is the primary mode of acquiring truth since it is closest proximity to our mental thoughts (inner monologue). For Derrida, such idea is eclipsed once we recognize how speech is overlapped by the fact that when one reads a text, the text is also in direct relation with one’s spoken thought through “hearing-oneself-speak” (auto-affection). Another words, one hears their own speech in their heads as they read the text (i.e. as you read this text). To put it simply, the “binary opposition” between speech and writing are one and of the same contradiction. Speech and writing just different forms used to represent the same (English) language.
To be logocentric involves two main aspects: First, logocentrism is to ignore the historical practice that all production of truth and knowledge are acquired through the interpretation of writing or language in general—namely from interpreting books or events (this is to say that inscription is only one form of writing and that everything around us that we see is also a writing). Second, this privileging of logos (reason) is when one favors the system of logical grammar as they constitute meaning based on their phenomenological interpretation of texts. Another words, we don’t just interpret anything from texts and events, we privilege on extracting the logical (grammatical) aspects of it. This latter idea is from G.W.F Hegel (Lectures on the History of Philosophy) which Derrida cited in his early seminars from the 1960s.
With logocentrism, phallogocentrism (phal = phallus) is combined with the thoughts of Jacques Lacan who rebuilt Freudian psychoanalysis into his own school known as Lacanian psychoanalysis. Lacan is infamously renown for proclaiming the absence of feminine sexuality. The passage, “there is no such thing as woman”, is one of the most misinterpreted and controversial sentence of Lacan (Seminar XX). To help us understand this claim, let us understand two crucial points. First, phallogocentrism points to the idea that the construction of language and meaning is privileged towards the masculine and is phallic in nature (from readings of Freud; the symbolic). This meaning is known as the master signifier which functions as an anchoring point by fixing a specific meaning in place (Seminar XVII). Therefore secondly, the claim that there are no feminine sexuality was made not because there are no feminine sexuality, but because there are no symbolic language which can describe it. In order to explain feminine sexuality, one must go in excess (surplus) of the signifier which in this case, is what lacks within the signifier (I will get to this). Expanding from Freud’s ideas of woman’s penis envy, Lacan thinks it isn’t the actual penis woman desire, but the symbolic and patriarchal power behind the phallus. Part of the reason why no one can describe feminine sexuality is because (many) feminists desires for the symbolic power of the phallus. Thus, phallogocentrism points to how our intentions of interpreting the world and the way we construct meaning / language are inherently phallic from the beginning. One privileges and desires for phallic (patriarchal) power and meaning for their own gains—even if one is a self-proclaimed feminist.
Due to this, feminist Helene Cixous developed a “woman’s writing” (ecriture feminine) that tried to challenge masculine-privileged construction of meaning by—as Lacan would remark on James Joyce—“stuffing the signifier” with literary allusions. For Lacan, Joyce is the perfect example of woman’s writing because it shows the excess point where the signifier can no longer sustain itself due to the abundance of literary allusions. By compressing allusions into signifiers, one will recognize what lacks in them—namely, the contradiction of the missing literary allusions (this excess lack [of phallic signifier] is where feminine sexuality arises). Certainly, one may think that Joyce is a man (with a phallus) who can’t possibly produce a woman’s writing. For Lacan, sexuality is not determined by our reproductive organs, but by how one experiences sexual enjoyment (Jouissance and Beyond the Pleasure Principle). To be sure, sexual enjoyment can be experienced in all sorts of ways through sublimation, and not just via methods of copulation with object a (object cause of desire; objet petit a) that can never be attained. In context of Joyce, the stuffed signifier is our object of desire—we desire to understand the allusions and meanings that Joyce compresses in his writing which can never be anchored as stable “phallic” signifiers. Through sublimation, reading and speaking becomes a form of desire for sexual satisfaction. This is why Lacan once famously said, “For the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking.”
[Note: Alenka Zupancic showed a new interpretation of Lacan by saying that femininity is the phallic signifier (What is Sex?, 2017). A similar strand of thought can also be found in Slavoj Zizek’s writings (both Zupcancic and Zizek are Lacanian Hegelians).]
Phallogocentrism, as Peterson says, relates to how “culture is male dominated” which he thinks is a “radical simplification of the historical story”. As we can see, not only is psychoanalysis far from being a simplification of history, Peterson’s claim that feminists desires for the acquisition of power is reaffirmed by Lacan: that they (we) desire for symbolic phallic power that is inherent in language / meaning. Phallogocentrism is not “exactly” used to describe how the male dominates the female under the the historicity of economical conditions as Peterson thinks (though I do not doubt this claim under his intentions). And despite that Derrida had always been a critic of psychoanalysis (Resistances of Psychoanalysis), phallogocentrism speaks about the problems in the history of philosophy under the context of Husserl, Heidegger, Lacanian psychoanalysis and the privileging of phallic signifier over the lack of one in a woman. Yet, we must not rule out Peterson’s argument (on men being economically marginalized) with Lacan’s thoughts. In order to speak of Petersons argument from Lacanian perspective, one would have to begin with what Lacan calls the Master’s discourse (or Capitalist discourse) in conjunction with his readings on G.W.F Hegel’s master-slave dialectic (Seminar XVII). Something which I shall leave for another time.
What I am trying to point out in this post is the differences in disciplines and how there is a whole history behind psychoanalysis and Derrida’s deconstruction that Peterson had never thought of simply because he was not trained in it.