“It may hearten aggrieved fans of Jordan Peterson, whose status as representative of Jungian thought I took umbrage with in a previous article, that I recognize some value in this aspect of Peterson’s work from a psychoanalytic or psychotherapeutic perspective.”
my previous response to Matt McManus and Conrad Hamilton that I wrote after reading a preview of their new book Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Petersonn this article, I would like to expand on . (The book was co-authored by McManus and Hamilton, along with Ben Burgis and Marion Trejo.) In the preview, McManus and Hamilton leveled an interesting and engaging analysis on the figure of Jordan Peterson, as well as on his work as a public academic, political figure, and psychological professional. Putting aside their critiques of Peterson’s political views, which I would largely like to sidestep (as this is not my area of expertise), for the purpose of this article, I am again interested in their writing on the psychoanalytic aspects of Peterson’s ideas. This is particularly the case when it comes to their descriptions of the dialogue Peterson identifies within the psyche between “chaos” and “order.” It may hearten aggrieved fans of Jordan Peterson, whose status as representative of Jungian thought I took umbrage with in a previous article, that I recognize some value in this aspect of Peterson’s work from a psychoanalytic or psychotherapeutic perspective. However, I would like to point out how similar some elements of Jacques Lacan’s work, which is often labelled incorrectly with the moniker “postmodern,” are to Peterson’s preferred Jungian perspective. I’ll also re-state some problems I have with the mixing of Jungian and evolutionary psychology within Peterson’s work. To begin—in following from my previous article—I would like to identify similarities and analogies between Jung’s work with the psychoanalysis of Lacan when it comes to the question of what chaos consists of. I will, then, move on to some psychoanalytic critiques of the concept of order in development and discuss why I think it is healthy to retain it as a teleological goal.
The Real and the Dragon of Chaos
When responding to McManus and Hamilton’s article on political psychoanalysis, I surmised that similarities between the psychoanalytic ideas of Jung and Lacan perhaps had been overlooked. These similarities may have also been ignored by Peterson and Slavoj Žižek, with Peterson perhaps viewing Lacan as a “postmodern neo-Marxist” and Žižek expressing public disgust at the idea of debating a Jungian. At first glance, one might be inclined to believe that the perspectives these two thinkers represent are utterly irreconcilable. Occluded similarities may, however, be partly the reason Peterson and Žižek were able to find common ground in their public debate in April of 2019. It may also be partly the reason why the anti-Oedipal, “social justice warrior” Left has alternately targeted both Peterson and Žižek. McManus and Hamilton’s previous article mentions briefly the Lacanian concept of the “Real” and the “mirror stage” of development. As such, in this article, I would like to begin by exploring how these may be analogous to the Jungian idea of the “psychoid” and the primordial experience of the undifferentiated “Self,” as well as how this reflects what Peterson represents as the uroborus, the “dragon of chaos.”
The Lacanian Real
McManus and Hamilton describe the “Real,” as applied to Lacanian theory, as a sort of teleological void in the psyche, drawing the person’s attention towards it. Their suggestion was that an infant starts life within what Lacanians call the mirror stage. The infant then moves towards the Real through entering into the symbolic (the register of language and symbols we use to make up our world) and encountering the “gaps” in it. This is the point at which words fail. These gaps fascinate and horrify us in equal measure. This description is partly correct; however, this is not quite the whole story, though I empathize with how hard it is to grapple with Lacan in a short article.
The Real in Lacanian psychoanalysis is not just a teleological attractor in the psyche, but it is also a dimension of reality which is ever present—yet inaccessible to consciousness. This permeates the life of the person, forming the “raw” matter upon which one’s perceptions are built. This Real constitutes an omnipresent reality, which, unfortunately, one can only experience as absence within one’s alienated, everyday consciousness. This manifests in different ways in different times, throughout the duration of one’s life. Encounters with the Real evoke experiences of horror, eroticism, disturbingly uncomfortable uncanny experiences, or—as the Lacanian Raul Moncayo (who was influenced by Zen Buddhism) suggested—even sublime emptiness. As a being first comes into life, it does not immediately experience the mirror stage of self-contained identity, as McManus and Hamilton suggest. Instead, the being exists utterly unalienated within this primordial Real. This existence consists not of a unified sense of “I” but, instead, a plurality of disconnected, chaotic drives that have no central unifying identity.
This sense of unification often comes from a parent’s hard work in recognizing his or her infant as a unified person and, in turn, reflecting that realization back to the infant through the parent’s behavior.
As Bruce Fink describes within his excellent (and relatively accessible) work on Lacanian analysis, the mirror stage follows afterwards. It is—in layman’s terms—the stage in early infancy at which the sense of a unified identity, a primordial “self,” is cleaved from this undifferentiated morass of drives. Although this has often been taken literally (as a child seeing his or her reflection), the “mirroring” from which the name derives actually occurs through the recognition of the unity of one’s self being reflected back by a caregiver (or some other kind of relational “mirror”). This helps the child to gain some basic sense of unity or order within the primordial conflicting chaos of multiple drives. This is the case even if this is “imaginary” (and undifferentiated, as one’s identity rests on someone else’s recognition). Anyone who is a father or mother probably has had good insights into this, having likely watched one’s child move away from the absolute newborn stage: from a dis-unified defecating-eating-screaming-sleeping machine (a familiar image to any readers of Deleuze and Guattari’s work in Anti-Oedipus) towards beginning to attain a sense of unification. This sense of unification often comes from a parent’s hard work in recognizing his or her infant as a unified person and, in turn, reflecting that realization back to the infant through the parent’s behavior.
The Psychoid and the Uroboros
This process of the differentiation of the identity at a primordial level that Lacan describes—from inaccessible chaos to primordial unity—can, I believe, be meaningfully compared with the work of Jung. In his later work, Jung began to speak of a “psychoid layer” within the unconscious. Again in much the same mode as the Lacanian description of the Real, this is an inaccessible-to-conscious material bedrock from which archetypes emerge. And, it constitutes the meeting point between matter and psyche. I believe that this may be where Peterson has drawn justification for his biological reading, though I believe that trying to concretize archetypes with reference to neurobiology is perhaps a mistake. Andrew Samuels—in his 1985 work Jung and the post-Jungians—draws an analogy between this psychoid layer and the Real. Both constitute the material reality, which forms the raw material for psychic experience; however, both the psychoid and the Real cannot be directly known in themselves. Although Lacan talks about “drives” existing within the Real—as opposed to Jung’s archetypes existing within the psychoid—these concepts overlap to a degree, and a meaningful analogy can be drawn. As such, there are many similarities between these two psychoanalytic descriptions of the primal layers of reality.
Following the psychoid, Jungian thought proposes that the first archetype which can be perceived is—according to Edward Edinger in Ego and Archetype—the Self. This primordial Self constitutes a closed unity. Also, it is chaotic—in the sense that there is not a differentiated ego that is able to experience itself as separate from its inflating and overwhelming libidinal energies. This reflects very much the image of what Peterson calls the uroboros, a circumscribed dragon image also employed by the classical Jungian Erich Neumann in his descriptions of the emergence of consciousness. This image—as McManus and Hamilton articulate—is united but chaotic, a primordial unity that the person has to individuate and alienate himself or herself from in order to form a sense of egoic separateness. The analytical psychologist from the developmental school Michael Fordham supports this archetypal image with evidence from his clinical work with children, viewing the Self as the primordial archetype of unity that has to be broken from in order to establish a sense of ego.
After all, both Jung and Lacan were clinicians first and theorists second.
Although it is easy to dismiss the femininity of the “dragon of chaos” as being some kind of outmoded outgrowth of patriarchal mythology, I implore readers to think about this clinically. After all, both Jung and Lacan were clinicians first and theorists second. If one’s first sense of unified identity is created by one’s recognition by (and interaction with) someone else—as Lacan also suggests with his theory of the mirror stage—it is likely that, in most cases, this will be one’s primary caregiver (i.e. dear old mother). As a result, it makes sense to identify this first archetype as maternal, and moving away from this archetype is a natural part of growing up. In fact, this is again very similar to the Lacanian formulation in which the “father”—in the form of language and culture— separates one from this imaginary unity with the “mother” within the Real. If one’s “father” does not make this separation adequately, then psychosis and narcissism await, according to Lacan, which is much the same fate for those who are unable to differentiate from the Self adequately (according to Edinger).
Critics of Order and Culture Wars
This formula of development—in which the desired result is that the “father” interjects and separates the individual from the primordial unity with the mother, causing an alienated ego to develop—was attacked by Delueze and Guattari in their critique of Lacan. This, then, might be why Žižek has suggested that if he were ever to attend a book burning, this would be one of the books that he would place on the bonfire. Around the same time, the focus and emphasis upon the archetype of the Self and the heroic “slaying of chaos” was similarly critiqued by the work of the archetypal psychologist and Jungian James Hillman. Hillman emphasized differentiation into a polytheism of archetypes, rather than following a single point of development. Both of these critiques presented valid counterpoints, considering the cultural context in which they emerged.
For them, the tyrant preventing development was not the coddling of the mother but the tyrannical, monotheism of the father, the “Oedipal” configuration of the psyche, as well as the dominance of the “heroic” ego that was born as a result. This was equated with established dominant rules and modes of consciousness making up culture and dictating the bounds of acceptable behavior and normative psychological development. Although these differing conceptions have been prominent in academia and theory for a while, it is interesting to note that there has not been much of an emergence of a Deleuzoguattarian clinical practice. (Their work precluded the individual clinic somewhat through targeting the individual ego in their critique.) However, the points of criticism that they put forward bare some relevance and influence on the emergence of the challenges to institutional power (and psychiatric power) that we witness within many academic institutions today.
I believe—in applying a therapeutic eye to culture—that these rival positions taken in regard to the “optimum path” of psychological development are partly embedded within (and partly underpin) the “culture war” we experience today. This is perhaps why we get Lacanians such as Howard S. Schwartz in his book Political Correctness and the Destruction of Social Order attacking the “Anti-Oedipal psychology” of Deleuze and Guattari. This closely mirror Peterson’s attacks on “social justice warriors” but through the lens of Lacanian—rather than Jungian—theory. It also might be why many on the identitarian left have no patience for Žižek, Jung or, especially, Peterson. As a clinician, I find that I can find space for both sides of the argument. Sometimes, I find people are coddled by the “mother” of subjective indulgence and need fatherly boundaries and adjustment or they simply will not be able to function within the world. Sometimes, on the other hand, they are oppressed by the rigid “father” of a narcissistic, oppressive culture and need the ability to express their subjectivity and overthrow rules and rebel; otherwise, their life becomes empty and oppressive.
These two extremes are the biological essentialism of ossifying the social order, on one hand. And, on the other hand, is solipsistic narcissism, believing the world starts and ends with us.
The difficulty, I think, in Peterson seeking to escape Jung’s more transcendent and religious conception of an organizing principle in the Psyche—and instead creating a secular version that biologizes (with reference to lobsters etc.) aspects of the given order—is that this creates what Jungians might call an identification between our current societal roles and the archetype. McManus and Hamilton have explained the difference that Jung saw between archetype and image, and I think that Peterson makes this mistake by identifying psychic order as an archetypal principle with particular cultural or biological images of order that we find today. As a result, our perception of order in society becomes identified and inflated with the archetypal energy of a psychic ordering principle and, in turn, becomes rigid. Accordingly, this also constellates the opposite viewpoint, where one’s own identity is paramount over the established order in all circumstances. No adjustment to tradition ever needs to happen, and any demand to constitutes an unacceptable violence. This identifies one’s own immediate impulses with the Self, and, as we have occasionally witnessed with the social justice warrior phenomenon, this often demands its own tyranny of order to manifest in reality. I believe this constitutes another form of archetypal inflation and narcissism. As I mentioned in my previous article, together these two modes of archetypal inflation constitute the “Senex” (the grey old man, resisting social change) and the “Puer” (the eternal youth unable to ground himself in reality).
In my mind, to have a drive toward some kind of order as an archetypal, transpersonal point of aspiration—which we acknowledge can never be completely manifested concretely but propels us forward nonetheless (similar to Žižek’s idea of ontological incompleteness acting as a psychic motor)—keeps a happy medium between two extremes. These two extremes are the biological essentialism of ossifying the social order, on one hand. And, on the other hand, is solipsistic narcissism, believing the world starts and ends with us.
The acclaimed philosopher of religion and great critic of Marxism Leszek Kolakowski writes incredibly presciently on the need for this archetypal, transpersonal aspiration for order and truth within the individual. Kolakowski does this in his 1975 book Husserl and the Search for Certitude, as well as in many of his other works. Interestingly, as Vladimir Tismaneanu has pointed out, Žižek wrote a glowing obituary for the acclaimed Polish anti-communist, which was never published in English. Although a philosopher rather than psychoanalyst, Kolakowski’s comment on the importance of the sacred aspect of tradition and culture summarizes beautifully the importance of retaining some form of aspiration towards a transpersonal (and transcendent) order, which I have tried to describe in this article. Rather than either trying to see our current social order as immutable, biologically-derived concrete truth or, alternatively, discounting the importance of order utterly for the satisfaction purely of our own immediate proclivities and impulses, I believe that Kolakowski’s (admittedly religious) approach finds an interesting balance, and perhaps forms a fitting ending for this piece:
“Culture, when it loses its sacred sense, loses all sense. With the disappearance of the sacred, which imposed limits to the perfection which could be attained by the profane, arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization—the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is ‘in principle’ an endlessly flexible thing, and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man’s total autonomy and thus to deny man himself.”
From Kolakowski, we can absorb the merit in healthily denying both the perfectibility of ourselves and the perfection of our current culture. By doing this, we can keep a distance between us and the archetype. This seems to be a strong medicine from Kolakowski to be applied to our current cultural situation. By drawing on the work of Lacan and Jung—and without being pulled to the extremes of some of their interpreters—I believe that we can find some guidance in how to be able to do this, even in times that are so dishearteningly polarizing.
Nick Opyrchal is a psychotherapist in private practice. For his M.A., he researched the intersection between Lacanian and transpersonal perspectives in psychotherapy. His current doctoral work investigates the intersection of identity politics and the transpersonal within psychotherapy.