For a certain generation, The Transformers: The Movie (1986) is a traumatic and horrible experience that defined childhood forever.
Consider the opening:
We are in space. An eerie, haunting theme plays as, from between two suns, a distant object approaches. It grows closer, and we see it is a large grey sphere, surrounded by spikes, and surmounted by yellow support struts. Two massive yellow claws protrude from its front, surrounding an “eye” of some sorts. It passes by the camera, giving us a close up look at its surface: technologically advanced, covered in crevices and sensors that we know not the purpose of. We see the view from inside, a planet in view from the “eye”, as various scientific/biological processes occur around. A thought occurs: we have never been inside a transformer, have we?
Zoom in on the planet: a metallic paradise. (Is it Cybertron? a young child’s mind asks, grasping for explanation as to how to connect this to Transformers.) A planet of robots, in any case. The music is still wrong, incorrect, despite the happy tunes playing on someone’s radio. Child robots run past on a promenade while older ones conduct experiments. We see the children run past in the back corridor as older, elderly scientist robots walk down a hall, conversing. These robots look like Transformers, but they aren’t. There’s something just wrong about them. The scientists enter a laboratory where an even older robot is conducting an experiment. They deliver some vials of multicolored chemicals (this is how we, as children, know they are scientists: they pour vials of chemicals together). Then, the vials begin to shake on the table. Is it an earthquake?
No. It is Unicron.
Equipment is smashed as its gravitational pull starts to destroy the planet. Just as we saw the planet from above, now we see Unicron from below, on a computer screen. The robots know what’s coming, and they are terrified. The “eye” begins to project a beam, we see the scientists react in horror, and then we truly see how large Unicron is. It is bigger than the entire planet. Its pincer claws dig into the sides, and it begins to eat. The robots run for their lives as roads are scraped up, buildings are smashed, and everything begins to ascend upwards in the unholy light. One robots yells that they need to get to their ships, but even this is futile, as the ships are quickly sucked back into Unicron’s devouring maw. Only one escapes. The other, however, we follow on its journey through Unicron’s digestive system, a comical munching noise in stark contrast to the horror we are witnessing on the screen. The planet and its inhabitants are turned into a grey slurry. Motors and servos whirr with electrical pulses. Nerves glow with life. Unicron glows bright with life.
There is no sign of the planet. There is only Unicron. We pan away.
Two minutes and forty seconds of pure horror. Then right into Lion’s upbeat 80s metal cover of The Transformer‘s theme.
What the hell just happened?
Right after this, we’re treated to a very long battle that consists mainly of killing nearly every named character from the series in gruesome and horrible ways, culminating in the tragic death of Optimus Prime, shot in the back by Megatron. For those who complain that there are no stakes in the fights between robots, no one ever dies, nothing ever changes… Well, here you go. You’ve gotten what you asked for. The lases blasts don’t miss this time.
There’s more to the movie, but, suffice to say, at this point it feels more like a film directed by Takashi Miike or a depressed Yoshiyuki Tomino. Whoever had the idea to make Transformers: The Movie into a Grand Guignol just might have forgotten that their target audience was between the ages of six to ten.
Watching Optimus Prime die was, for a certain generation, our first introduction to real death and religion. As melodramatic as it might seem to some eyes, it never fails to make me cry on a rewatch. It had my partner staring at the screen, mouth agape, unbelieving at the prospect of watching a robot die on an operating table, surrounded by his friends and companions, all of whom are reacting to his death in various ways (grief, guilt, anger, resignation…), slowly fading from bright primary colors to a dull gunmetal gray, and passing along the heart and soul of the Autobot movement to another primary colored robot who denies that he is capable of carrying on the legacy.
“What the fuck did I just watch?” she said.
“A movie for six to ten year olds,” I replied.
The truth of the matter, of course, is simply that there was a new toy line coming out, and they needed to clear out the old stock. Who could sell the ultra cool and hip new Rodimus Prime when you’ve still got Optimus clogging up the shelves? There was no thinking about the film’s legacy post 1986, or how it would look to kids watching it in ’89 or ’95 or even 2019, long after all of those toys had become collector’s items. It simply existed to bridge the gap between TV seasons, and the reaction to it from both fans and parents resulted in some quick additions to G.I. Joe: the Movie (1987) to make it clear that Duke isn’t dead, he’s simply in an off-screen coma, even though he was intended to die in the original script.
So, what does is it mean for a generation of young people to have their heroes killed off so that a company can introduce a new toyline, and, in the process, demonstrate that God is killable?
Because, make no mistake, there was no climactic storytelling arc happening here, no grand ending planned from the beginning. This was just sweeping the old toys off the table so they could sell you new ones. We got to watch Robot Dad die so that Capitalism could function. It’s little wonder so many of them paid attention, and are getting into socialism now.
And Unicron? Well, he’s the closest thing we see to God ever on Transformers. Gigantic on a scale we can hardly believe, powerful beyond conception, transforms into a robot devil…
I watched Star Wars with a group of teens, most of whom had never seen it before. Here are some of their questions and remarks:
–Is Yoda in this movie?
–Does anyone read that? (referring to the opening crawl)
–Is this one A New Hope? (we were watching the Silver Screen edition, which doesn’t have Episode IV in the title)
–I love that noise, that’s my favorite noise in all of Star Wars! (referring to the sound of R2D2 getting shot by the Jawas)
–(mockingly) “I was going go to Toshi station to pick up some power converters!”
–Why does he [Luke] whine so much? Dude should just listen to his dad.
–That’s like a snap on repeat (referring to R2D2 showing “Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope!” on repeat.)
–His Dad is Darth Vader! (even the kids who had never seen the movie knew this)
–Oh hell no! (when Wuher tells Artoo and Threepio “We don’t serve their kind!”. It was a black teenager who made the comment)
–Oh shit, they look so fake! (speaking about the aliens in the Mos Eisley cantina. They were in hysterics looking at all the various creatures)
–I know this music! This is in that one game… (The Cantina theme)
–Chewbacca’s my husband!
–That’s so gross! Did you see how his mouth went like…! imitates Greedo’s mouth sucking inward to say “Ya-bocca”
–That dude’s got no chin! (Grand Moff Tarkin)
–The is the lowest energy sword fight I’ve ever seen. (I didn’t point out the pun)
–Isn’t that his sister? (I clarify that we don’t learn that until Return of the Jedi)
–But don’t they have the same last name? (I let them know that Leia’s last name is Organa, not Skywalker, because she was adopted.)
–How do you know so much about Star Wars?
Overall, the kids were rapt throughout. A couple of them were locked to the screen from start to finish, only pausing occasionally to get popcorn but otherwise never breaking eye contact. Even the ones who were normally rambunctious and disruptive were really enjoying themselves. We only had one drive by who just wanted snacks who informed us that “Star Wars is stupid and gay” and the other teens shouted him down as he left. Good gender breakdown, about 60% female to 40% male.
Jordan Bernt Peterson was born in 1962, holds a B.A. in political science, and a PhD in psychology. He teaches at the University of Toronto.
Like a lot of smart people, he was a very successful and interesting figure in his own field, who then decided to branch out and start bloviating about other fields he knew jack shit about, because he’s a smart guy, and therefore he must be able to understand everything effortlessly (see also Dawkins, Richard).
It’s easy to attract a crowd by doing two things: giving them an enemy, and giving them simple self-help advice. The latter is so formulaic that it barely is worth mentioning, but it is instructive to touch on briefly because it is done by just about every one of these types, from gurus like Peterson to the bigger groups like the Scientologists or the Objectivists. Basically, it involves two main things: one, focus on fixing your own problems by calming down, making a list of problems that you’d like to work on and a concrete plan for how to achieve them, and then only working on those problems to the exclusion of other things because your problems are self-caused, and two, the reason you’re not successful is because other people are holding you back and there’s a subtle and insidious conspiracy at work to keep down people like yourself, people who want to use hard working and responsible people who are in the know, to get ahead without doing the hard work that you’re doing.
Yes, they contradict one another. If you’re responsible for your own problems, then they are self-caused, and not the fault of the Enemy. But let’s not worry about that. The first part isn’t shitty advice at all, and it works — planning for the future and focusing on one problem at a time are excellent ways to eliminate problems from your life. And having a mantra to help you remember to do so, be it “Clean your room” or “Remember the present moment is all you have” or “Constant and Never Ending Self-Improvement” or “Know very clearly where you want to go,” well, that works too, as corny as it might sound. And because that works, it let’s the second part take hold, and can help foster a dependence on the person, the desire to spread the ideas that made you feel good, and, of course, spending money on the things they’re selling. And they’re always, always selling things you can buy, from books to tapes to online seminars to in-person courses…
Like a lot of gurus, Peterson thinks that his audience is stupid. Really stupid. It might not seem like it at first, because he comes out all pepped up and full of energy, like a gym school coach ready for the “big game”, but if you know anything about the subjects he’s talking about, he’s lying through his teeth most of the time to make himself look smart and his opponents look stupid. But there’s an understanding that you’ll get your information from him, and not from other sources. It’s not stated outright, but it’s understood that people criticizing him are either jealous of his success, or want to tear him down for some political agenda. So who would think to check his sources, or see if his statements are accurate?
A good example of this is the C-16 bill, which launched his career into public stardom. Now, Peterson wants you to believe that this bill makes it so that if you don’t call a hypothetical tumblr strawperson bunself, bun can call the cops and have you thrown in jail. What the bill actually did was just classify trans people in the same manner as, for example, black people or women when it came to being discriminated against for hiring and renting, when criminal actions taken against them, and such. So, basically, if you’re that sort of jerk, just make sure you can say the white guy you hired was at least as qualified or was a better fit for the company, or document them slacking off on the job and don’t say you’re firing them for being trans, and their case won’t go anywhere. The odds of a prosecuting lawyer accepting a case for someone using the wrong pronoun are about the same as the odds of hitting the lottery, and then convincing the judge and jury over the defense attorney… I don’t want to say never, but it isn’t going to happen.
This is not exactly dramatic stuff. Beating up a person for being trans should be treated as a human rights violation, same way it is for beating up someone for being a woman or a minority. It is a hate crime, full stop. But you wouldn’t know it from the way Peterson stomped his feet and threw an adult temper tantrum over how he could tell if someone was serious or not when they asked him to use different pronouns.
Because of course he can.
He also thinks that lobsters are just like humans, because both of them are effected by anti-depressants, according to a study he didn’t understand. Therefore, because lobsters have a dominance hierarchy, so should humans, and we should embrace our “inner lobster”. As you no doubt be shocked to learn, this isn’t the case:
Peterson uses the example of lobsters, which humans share a common evolutionary ancestor with. Peterson argues that, like humans, lobsters exist in hierarchies and have a nervous system attuned to status which “runs on serotonin” (a brain chemical often associated with feelings of happiness).
The higher up a hierarchy a lobster climbs, this brain mechanism helps make more serotonin available. The more defeat it suffers, the more restricted the serotonin supply. Lower serotonin is in turn associated with more negative emotions – perhaps making it harder to climb back up the ladder. According to Peterson, hierarchies in humans work in a similar way – we are wired to live in them. But can a brain chemical really explain the organisation of a human society?
It is true that serotonin is present in crustaceans (like the lobster) and that it is highly connected to dominance and aggressive social behaviour. When free moving lobsters are given injections of serotonin they adopt aggressive postures similar to the ones displayed by dominant animals when they approach subordinates. However, the structures serotonin can act on are much more varied in vertebrates with highly complex and stratified brains like reptiles, birds and mammals – including humans.
If nervous systems were computer games, arthropods like lobsters would be “Snake” on a first-generation mobile phone and vertebrates would be an augmented reality (AR) game. What AR allows us to do and feel are incomparable to Snake, and the mechanisms behind it are a lot more complex. For example, one of the most relevant brain structures for dominant social behaviour is the amygdala, located in the temporal lobe of primates including humans. Arthropods don’t have an amygdala (lobsters don’t even have a brain, just an aglomerate of nerve endings called ganglia).
There are more than 50 molecules that function as neurotransmitters in the nervous system including dopamine, noradrenaline, adrenaline, serotonin and oxytocin. These molecules, however, exist all over nature. Plants have serotonin. In animals (including humans), most of the serotonin is produced and used in the intestine to help digestion. It’s the structure where it acts that determines its effect.
The same neurotransmitter can have contrasting effects in different organisms. While lower levels of serotonin are associated with decreased levels of aggression in vertebrates like the lobster, the opposite is true in humans. This happens because low levels of serotonin in the brain make communication between the amygdala and the frontal lobes weaker, making it more difficult to control emotional responses to anger.
As if that wasn’t enough, he has a great deal of trouble understanding children’s movies, and art in general:
Note that he lists Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Dostoevsky’s Demons and Crime and Punishment, and The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski among his favorite books. By his definition, all propaganda, not art.
But then he starts in with this nonsense, and we hit part two of the cult recruitment pitch: The Enemy.
Don’t bother listening to the entire thing unless you really want to. It’s not really worth it. His his inability to stay on topic for more than a few moments gives me a headache:
As you may have gotten from other entries, this is my personal bailiwick: structuralism and post-structuralism, or, as he calls it, post-modernism.
His analysis is, of course, complete garbage. Early on, he mentions Derrida and phallogocentrism, and even tries to give a definition of it (a definition of the word, certainly, but not quite in the sense that Derrida used it), but then proceeds to just change the subject in favor of “Rah rah go western society!” rather than refute Derrida’s claim that history, as a whole, has favored men over women and privileged the spoken word over the written one, let alone attempting to disprove his much larger point that inside almost everything is an unconscious decision to favor one thing over another, an unconscious hierarchy at work, that we should be aware of and sometimes reconsider. (Not that Derrida thinks all hierarchies are bad (sports teams should have the best players, parents are correctly in power over their children, teachers over their students, etc.).)
But Peterson instead just goes off on how those lazy blacks in America have it better than the ones in Africa, so why are those ungrateful and resentful jerks so unappreciative of what they have? Why can’t they just stay in their place and quit complaining?
To paraphrase his argument: “I guess they have it better than the folks in war torn Libya or whatever, but they get shot by the cops regularly… Sure, relative wealth is a thing, but let’s look at absolute wealth too, like this nice building we’re all in, isn’t it a miracle that we can build something like this? Stupid angry black people…”
What, exactly, does this has to do with Derrida? Good old Jacques never said Logic doesn’t work or to hate people who have what you don’t.
But then we finally come to his actual gripe. He needs something to blame for why he and his friends keep getting booted from lucrative speaking engagements on campuses. The degree to which students should be forced to interact with ideas they don’t agree with vs. students understandably not wanting their tuition paying to bring people they hate to speak is one that’s worth having. But Peterson has already declared that postmodernists don’t do dialogue ever (which, again, is completely untrue. If you’ve ever met someone into post-structuralism, god, we talk constantly, and question everything, don’t we?), so don’t talk to them or listen to them, just stamp them out, like we did with the Reds back in the 50s… These people are the new communists, you see… (even if their work doesn’t have anything to do with communism, and many of them were actively un- or anti- communist… (Lyotard was disillusioned with communism after the Algerian Revolution failed to produce the promised outcome — literally the start of post-modernism was his break with the French communist party and his belief that master narratives are too simplistic to explain actually existing social reality, Foucault dropped communism after his first major book, and Derrida barely engaged with it at all in his work; more on those two below)).
And there they are: The Enemy. Hate them. Fear them. They are omnipotent and omnipresent, and yet, paradoxically, we can band together and defeat them if we just work hard and resist them.
If you take him at his word, Peterson lives in mortal terror that the Postmodernist Neo-Marxists are coming to get him (for someone who hates gulags and Stalinism so much, he’s certainly willing to compile lists of people he dislikes to target for abuse.) As he mentions early on, his understanding of the topic comes almost exclusively from the book Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks, and it’s a dumpsterfire of stupidity.
Hicks is a professor at Rockford University in Illinois, and is… well, basically unknown outside of objectivist circles. He loudly crows about how no one has dared to debate him over his book, thus proving him right, but the truth of the matter is that he just isn’t worth anyone’s time. He’s such small potatoes that any professor who deigned to do so would just be lowering their professional prestige. Thus, he gets to beat up on students, which is just bad form… Students are dumb. They’re enthusiastic, but they’re dumb. They’re still learning, that’s why they’re students. Even if you’re a AAA baseball player, you don’t go play in a high school JV game and then brag about how badly you beat the other team. He’s a friendly enough guy otherwise, but like a lot of objectivists, he’s got his agenda, and he’s going to stick to it, no matter what. Even if it means badly misreading other philosophers.
Now, one of the things you’re supposed to do in philosophy (and in most constructive arguments, really) is called “The Principle of Charity”. You’re supposed to give the person you’re writing in response to the benefit of the doubt, and argue against the strongest possible interpretation of their argument. You should try to fully understand their argument, present it in the strongest terms possible, and then dismantle it (what Daniel Dennett calls “steelmanning”, as opposed to “strawmanning”). This serves two purposes: one, it means that you’ve fully understood the topic you’re addressing and thus your response is all the stronger, and two, it makes you all the harder to argue against, because you’ve preempted many of the responses to you. Despite what some folks might think, Philosophy as a discipline is usually quite rigorous in its argumentation, and the people involved are deep readers and rhetoricians, so if you’re publishing stuff that’s weak, it will get dismantled fairly quick, if it is even published in the first place.
Explaining Postmodernism is like watching Braveheart, only less entertaining. It was initially published by a vanity press (Scholargy Publishing, Inc, also famous for such titles as Complete Guide for Horse Business Success and The Gekkleberry Tree) and then by Ockham’s Razor (which Hicks himself owns (I’ll leave the “self-owning” jokes for the reader to make)).
Hicks does a great job cherry picking to make people look bad. For example, in the very first quotation he chooses from Foucault in Explaining Postmodernism, he states: “Michel Foucault has identified the major targets: “All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence.” Such necessities must be swept aside as baggage from the past: “It is meaningless to speak in the name of—or against—Reason, Truth, or Knowledge.”
He makes it out as if Foucault wants to destroy modern society and destroy Truth, Reason, and Knowledge.
But, when read in context, it is obvious that this is not what Foucault is saying at all. (Bolding added by me, to show where the quotations came from, and the ideas they are removed from)
From Truth, Power, Self. An Interview with Michel Foucault – Oct. 1982:
Q. But what about your interest in social outcasts?
A. I deal with obscure figures and processes for two reasons: The political and social processes by which the Western European societies were put in order are not very apparent, have been forgotten, or have become habitual. They are part of our most familiar landscape, and we don’t perceive them anymore. But most of them once scandalized people. It is one of my targets to show people that a lot of things that are part of their landscape — that people are universal — are the result of some very precise historical changes. All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence. They show the arbitrariness of institutions and show which space of freedom we can still enjoy and how many changes can still be made.
The second quote isn’t even a direct quote from Foucault, it’s a paraphrase of him from Todd May’s Between Genealogy and Epistemology
From Between Genealogy and Epistemology — Todd May – 1993 p.2
For Foucault, the questions of what we hold to to be true, and how we came to do so, especially as regards ourselves, are of paramount importance especially in attempting to articulate an understanding of what our present is.
The significance of these questions is not confined to their relevance for comprehending our situation. In fact, what is at stake in in the questions of what we hold true and how we came to do so is the conduct of our lives. How we understand what we have come to accept about the world and about ourselves, the context in which we place our various knowledges of things, determines not only the theoretical underpinnings of our epistemology but also the political and ethical commitments of our practice. Both the knowledge that Foucault attempted to provide us and the knowledge of his analyses are inescapably political. Foucault was, above all else, a political writer about knowledge.
And yet, should we follow this line of inquiry too far–that is, should we try to answer the question of what, in their essence, Foucault’s writings _are_–we will only repeat the mistake against which his writings wage a ceaseless struggle. If Foucault was a political writer about our knowledge, it is not because he had anything to say about what our knowledge or reason was like. Indeed, to speak of our knowledge or our reason (or even, at times, our society) invites the kind of blindness that have allowed our knowledges and the strategies within which they are engaged to continue their hold upon us. There is no Knowledge; there are knowledges. There is no Reason; there are rationalities. And so, just as it is meaningless to speak in the name of–or against–Reason, Truth, or Knowledge, so it is meaningless to engage in Politics. The idea that there is one true politics that will lead us to our salvation is a dangerous lie, as the Soviet experience will attest.
So, we have two completely unconnected quotes, one of which Foucault didn’t even say, asking us to pay attention to the origins of our thoughts and ideas, to learn where reason and rationality come from, and to understand that our present sense of everything is contingent upon the knowledge of the past. “Quilt quotations” are just bad form. Hicks’ misinterpretation is garbage on par with Karl Popper’s attack on Hegel, which Walter Kaufmann famously eviscerated. To quote from Kaufmann’s essay above:
From The Hegel Myth and Its Method — Walter Kaufmann, 1959
Here, for example, is a quilt quotation about war and arson: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… . I came to cast fire upon the earth… . Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you… . Let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.” This is scarcely the best way to establish Jesus’ views of war and arson.
What Foucault is saying is hardly controversial or difficult to understand. Our present physics is built upon the back of Newtonian physics, for example, which were groundbreaking for the time, but ultimately inadequate. Ptolemaic astronomy was superseded by the work of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Einstein, and many others. One uses a different sort of reasoning when arguing with a child than one does when programming a computer. While I would look dapper in a Beau Brummel suit in the 1800s, I would look like I was attending a costume party were I to wear such an outfit today. Is it so scary to consider that the world once wasn’t like the way it is today, and that perhaps in the future, it won’t be the way it is now? And is it shocking that studying the history of a country through a military lens would produce a different view than studying it through the history of its royal family? I shouldn’t think so.
There is nothing about how these are all equally “valid” or “good” or anything like that. Merely that to understand them, you need to understand them within the context within which they occurred. If I call Henry VIII handsome, one needs to understand that a very large man in tights and velvet was considered the peak of masculinity in his day, whereas we’d laugh him off the runway by today’s standards of beauty. There’s no judgement about “needing” to find him attractive.
Thus, when one can hardly reach the second page of Hicks’ work without seeing one of the central figures in the book completely mischaracterized, where is the sense in continuing? Given Hicks background in Rand, it isn’t surprising that he dislikes this idea (especially since Foucault explicitly identifies himself as a Kantian, and Rand despises her version of Kant, a version that scarcely resembles dear Immanuel at all), but then, given Rand’s reputation among philosophers of all backgrounds, it’s unsurprising that his thirteen year old self-published book hasn’t gotten any traction among them.
The refutation to his work is “No, they didn’t say that. Read the actual book by these authors and you’ll see that.”
There are plenty of reasons to dislike or criticise Foucault, but he never said “Reason is meaningless, destroy history, follow Marx!”
Oh yes, this is all tied into a grand Marxist conspiracy. Because of course it is.
The Marxist accusations are just as stupid, and seem to stem from a desire to just chain together words to call people you don’t like: the conspiracy theory version conservative of “Stupid cocksucing motherfucking son of a bitch!” becomes “Liberal Marxist postmodernist feminist relativist!”
Even a cursory glance at Foucault’s work would show that, not only isn’t he a Marxist, he’s actually quite specifically un-Marxist.
Foucualt dabbled in Marxism in his early years, but didn’t much care for it as he aged and matured as a philosopher. I’m just going to copy a section of the IEP here, because it’s not worth rephrasing what they already wrote:
The Order of Things charts several successive historical shifts of episteme in relation to the human sciences.
These claims led Foucault onto a collision with French Marxism. This could not have been entirely unintended by Foucault, in particular because in the book he specifically accuses Marxism of being a creature of the nineteenth century that was now obsolete. He also concluded the work by indicating his opposition to humanism, declaring that “man” (the gendered “man” here refers to a concept that in English we have come increasingly to call the “human”) as such was perhaps nearing obsolescence. Foucault here was opposing a particular conception of the human being as a sovereign subject who can understand itself. Such humanism was at that time the orthodoxy in French Marxism and philosophy, championed the pre-eminent philosopher of the day, Jean-Paul Sartre, and upheld by the French Communist Party’s central committee explicitly against Althusser just a month before The Order of Things was published (DE1 36). In its humanist form, Marxism cast itself as a movement for the full realization of the individual. Foucault, by contrast, saw the notion of the individual as a recent and aberrant idea. Furthermore, his entire presumption to analyse and criticize discourses without reference to the social and economic system that produced them seemed to Marxists to be a massive step backwards in analysis. The book indeed seems to be apolitical: it refuses to take a normative position about truth, and accords no importance to anything outside abstract, academic discourses. The Order of Things proved so controversial, its claims so striking, that it became a best-seller in France, despite being a lengthy, ponderous, scholarly tome.
The explicit criticism of Marxism in [The Order of Things] was specifically of Marx’s economic doctrine: it amounts to the claim that this economics is essentially a form of nineteenth century political economy. It is thus not a total rejection of Marxism, or dismissal of the importance of economics. His anti-humanist position was not in itself anti-Marxist, inasmuch as Althusser took much the same line within a Marxist framework, albeit one that tended to challenge basic tenets of Marxism, and which was rejected by the Marxist establishment. This shows it is possible to use the criticism of the category of “man” in a pointedly political way. Lastly, the point of Foucault’s “archaeological” method of investigation, as he now called it, of looking at transformations of discourses in their own terms without reference to the extra-discursive, does not imply in itself that discursive transformations can be explained without reference to anything non-discursive, only that they can be mapped without any such reference. Foucault thus shows a lack of interest in the political, but no outright denial of the importance of politics.
And this is just looking at one of the many philosophers he touches on. Derrida, for example, didn’t write anything about Marx until the 1990s, and even then, it was to say (paraphrasing greatly) “Well, this certainly is an idea that has been around a lot without ever really doing anything, but while still being in the back of everyone’s minds, kinda like a ghost, huh?” And Derrida and Foucault basically hated each other.
So, yeah. Peterson is attacking an idea that exists in his head. A conspiracy of dead French philosophers who are out to get him, somehow, with their philosophy that says such scary things as “people use different frameworks of reasoning to come to different conclusions” and “understand things in context” and “people have different ideas from one another”. Really scary, mindblowing stuff there. They both get more complex, and they both use more examples, but you’d have to actually read their books to learn those, and neither Peterson nor Hicks have done that. They haven’t even reached “I browsed wikipedia” levels of understanding. That takes time and effort. And why bother with that when you could just spout off nonsense and rest assured that no one giving you money will bother to check your work?
Something that has existed since, well, probably forever (even though this paragraph originally started ‘Something that’s become more and more of a problem…’, it’s almost certainly been an forever), is the problem of intellectual laziness.
If you’ve only glanced at a complicated topic, something that people have doctorates in, have written long books about, have done extensive research in, etc. etc., you probably don’t understand it very well, and any criticism you’re going to make of it is going to be rather surface level and will merely question a few of the basic assumptions made by the field of study, as though said base is have never been questioned before.
Why do people think God exists when something would have had to make God, and also Evil exists?
Math has no use in the real world, so why am I bothering to learn this?
We should get the government out of things, because all those regulations do it make it harder for people.
That’s not art, it’s just a bunch of crap thrown on a canvas. My kid could do that.
Postmodernism is just a bunch of gibberish.
Postmodernism is just a bunch of really simple ideas dressed up in fancy terminology.
Science has been wrong before, so why should I trust it now?
I could go on, but you get the idea. It seems to go in three stages:
A negative gut reaction to whatever is being presented.
A refusal to actually engage with the material, which might provide evidence counter to the gut reaction.
Repetitions of the same tired criticisms that everyone else makes, especially dismissal of anyone who cares enough to really be invested in “that crap”.
Odds are, if your criticisms can be found in the first two links of a google search for Anti-[whatever], and those aren’t from .edu sites, or are being shouted on YouTube by a man with an ill-chosen pseudonym, you haven’t engaged deeply enough.
(A parable: a fellow was writing a story about a leprechaun, and doing some research into the origins of the mythical figure — what they represented, why they endured as symbols of Irish culture and heritage, how their depictions had changed over time, how the stories told about them gave differing moral lessons. While out drinking one night, a friend of his, one of those folks prone to outbursts and moods, yelled “Your work is shit. You believe in nothing. Leprechaun’s don’t exist. I don’t need a degree in leprehuanology to know that!” Obviously, thought the fellow, but didn’t bother saying anything out loud, because you know how those types can be once they’re in their cups.)
A better method, albeit one that requires effort and opens one up to actual criticism, is Dennett’s “Steelmanning”. Described in his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, the Steelman is the opposite of a Strawman. You attempt to present the other person’s argument in the strongest terms possible, giving them the most charitable interpretations, making an actual case for them being correct, and demonstrating that you understand them completely. Then, and only then, do you begin any criticism.
Now this, of course, requires more than skimming the Wikipedia article on a given subject, and then making up what you think someone (some idiot?) might think about this (stupid) topic. Books are involved. Knowledge of the different schools of thought within a discipline. Replying to actual assertions, rather than the simply the existence of what you assume the thing is.
An short example contrasting the two:
“John Searle is stupid. His stupid Chinese Room doesn’t prove anything about learning or AI, because a person isn’t a computer. Some guy with a bunch of books wouldn’t be able to translate Chinese as well as a super computer, and therefore the other person would notice, and the Turing test would fail. What an idiot.”
“Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment, in which it is asserted that there is no difference between a computer interpreting commands and a person executing commands in a language they do not understand, is an interesting thought problem. The basic conclusion is that no artificial intelligence will be capable of contemplating itself, or understanding it’s own actions, just as the person manually executing the ‘program’ will not understand the language they are working in. There will be no ‘Strong AI’, to use Searle’s term. However, many objections have been raised to this analogy, and the one which I find the most compelling is that Searle’s conclusion (“Therefore there is no Strong AI”) does not follow from his premises. He assumes a dualism between Strong and Weak AI, and, because his experiment seems to demonstrate that there is not a Strong AI, he assumes it must be Weak. This does not follow. It merely proves that, in this particular instance, thought is not just computation. It does nothing to positively identify criteria for thought, nor to establish that computers are incapable of it. It does not prove that, simply because computational processes and their output can occur in the absence of a cognitive state, that thought is not occurring in this instance. Is there any way for Searle to prove to me that he himself is thinking, and not simply interpreting and executing external commands which his unconscious interior does not actually understand? Even more generally, is there a difference between the real thing and a perfect simulacrum? That is a question far too broad for discussion here. Needless to say, despite its numerous flaws, the Chinese Room is an interesting thought project that has entertained philosophers and AI researchers for years.”
As much as I might disagree with John Searle, and find many of his ideas based on incorrect premises, I would never call him a stupid person, or think that he should stop writing. It is chiefly because he is such an intelligent person that he is capable of producing such brilliant (if wrong) things as the Chinese Room. And I assume he’s writing in good faith, because he’s a doctor of philosophy at UC Berkeley.
Try it out next time you feel tempted to, say, claim that Islam is horrible because of the actions of a tiny minority of Wahhabists, or that Feminism is a cancerous political movement because of Andrea Dworkin rather than a multifaceted approach to cultural theory through which any number of subjects can be interpreted, or if you’re about to type “That’s Economics 101!” while not realizing that there is a 102, a 301, a 505, and other much more complicated classes that expand on and systematize the dumbed down and simplified explanations given in 101 classes so that students aren’t overwhelmed and can basic concepts (By analogy, they don’t cover friction when calculating motion in Physics 101. Does friction exist?).
Update: There will be further discussion of John Searle, rest assured.I have a lot more to say about Chinese Rooms, Limited INC., and, well… A lot. We’ll get there.