“This, however, poses another problem because it presumes that mythical truth is somehow free from ideology.”
n Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson argues that myth is an antidote to ideology. He insists that myth, as opposed to ideology, offers complete truth. By complete truth, Peterson means that mythical narratives can represent the totality of conflicting forces in any given situation. In contrast, ideology is biased and one sided; it celebrates positive characters of the story while leaving aside negative dimensions.
Eager to confront this ideological fallacy, Peterson’s oeuvre stages a confrontation between myth and ideology. In both Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules for Life, Peterson believes that prevailing ideologies—almost always associated with left-wing, socialist, postmodern neo-Marxist beliefs—are the arch-enemy of the mythical worldview. In the preface to Maps of Meaning, Peterson rails against left-wing socialist ideology, labeling its followers as “peevish” and “irritable.” Upon reading George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, Peterson discovered “that socialists did not really like the poor. They merely hated the rich.” Socialist ideology, Peterson believes, serves “to mask resentment and hatred, bred by failure.”
Peterson assumes that to step into the world of mythology is to step out of ideology.
12 Rules follow the same trajectory. Peterson offers his polemic against ideologues that cover-up the structure of truth with lies. Ideologues impose “ideological beliefs” in a rational way to achieve a pre-defined outcome. As usual, Peterson directs these charges against the political left, which, according to him, bends reality to fit a predefined agenda. “A left-leaning student” Peterson asserts, “adopts a trendy, anti-authority stance and spends the next twenty years working resentfully to topple the windmills of his imagination.” Such a stance, according to Peterson, is symptomatic of a simplistic ideology. The ideologues simplify things by adopting and operating out of a single axiom: “government is bad, immigration is bad, capitalism is bad, patriarchy is bad.”
In response, Peterson turns to myth, claiming that mythological narratives are the antidote to ideological gullibility. Peterson assumes that to step into the world of mythology is to step out of ideology. This is because, in contrast to ideology, mythological narratives are “balanced and stable.” For Peterson, the knowledge of mythological narratives gives access to a reality that is non-ideological. To Peterson’s credit, he takes the problem of ideology seriously, accepting that the world is not devoid of ideological discourses. In the third chapter of Maps of Meaning, he writes:
“Ideologies are powerful and dangerous. Their power stems from their incomplete but effective appropriation of mythological ideas. Their danger stems from their attractiveness, in combination with their incompleteness. Ideologies tell only part of the story, but tell that part as if it were complete. This means that they do not take into account vast domains of the world.”
In contrast, Peterson offers: “Knowledge of the grammar of mythology might well constitute an antidote to ideological gullibility. Genuine myths are capable of representing the totality of conflicting forces, operating in any given situation…A story accounting for all of these ‘constituent elements of reality’ is balanced and stable, in contrast to an ideology.”
If myth offers truth, then ideology is a distortion of those truths. If myth brings balance and stability, then ideology brings chaos and disorder. If myth reveals the truth about reality, then ideology serves to mask reality through the false appropriation of mythical ideas. However, the first problem to note here is the exact way in which Peterson understands ideology. His critique of ideology assumes a binary opposition between ideology and non-ideology. The world is simply divided into these two categories. A deviation from myth is a descent into ideology. One of his prime examples in Maps of Meaning, when discussing ideology, is Soviet-style communism. For Peterson, Soviet communism represents everything that can go wrong when a system is ungrounded from tradition. In contrast, a return to traditional wisdom—along with a careful study of comparative religious philosophy—can help unearth a universal system of morality predicated upon mythological commonalities.
It is odd that Peterson divides the world into two simplistic categories—myth and ideology —when he has criticized ideologues of doing the same. In the Preface to Maps of Meaning, Peterson is quick to point out that ideology splits the world up simplistically between those who think and act appropriately and those who do not. An ideologue presumes to act and think properly, while denouncing those who fail to do so. Peterson rejects this simplistic binary opposition as an ideological fabrication of reality. Yet, on the other hand, he continues to assume his own binary opposition between ideology and mythology. For Peterson, there seems to be a clear distinction between these two universes. They represent two distinct archetypal realities. In his estimation, a behavior rooted in mythical truth is morally upright, whereas a morality not rooted in mythology is destined for an outburst of social psychopathology. It seems that Peterson breaks his own rule by dividing the world simplistically into those who act properly and those who do not. He ends up operating out of the same premise he is attempting to reject. Judging by his own standards, Peterson falls short by making the same mistakes that he attributes to others.
Another implication of this binary opposition between ideology and non-ideology further problematizes Peterson’s position. Oddly enough, it assumes a traditional Marxist understanding of ideology, which posits ideology as “false consciousness,” or “illusion.” In The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels questioned the “illusion of ideologists” in their attempt to understand how ideological discourses successfully obfuscate the truth of social condition. As such, Marx and Engels assumed that some of our ideas do not match or correspond to the way things truly are, while others do. In other words, there is the possibility of a correct way of viewing the world. It is intriguing that Peterson also believes that ideologies distort truth through misappropriation of mythical ideas. As a result, ideologues blunder around in the mist of illusion, not able to see how things truly are.
In contrast, mythical optics unequivocally offer a correct way of viewing the world in all its totality. Ideological discourses, in Peterson’s view, are false because they distort subjects’ awareness of the true nature of reality. But such a barrier, posed by ideological fallacy, can be overcome through a knowledge of mythical literature. While ideology serves to mask the real state of reality, mythical narratives accurately capture the sense of reality. Once again, Peterson’s argument unconsciously engenders a theoretical position that he consciously opposes. By denouncing ideology as a distortion of mythical truth, Peterson surprisingly turns out to be unconsciously espousing the Marxist theory of ideology.
This, however, poses another problem because it presumes that mythical truth is somehow free from ideology. For Peterson, true knowledge of mythical narratives grants access to a non-ideological reality. A mythical vantage point is a position from which ideological discourses can be spotted—and against which it can be discredited. For Peterson, there is a pre-existent mythical truth waiting to be discovered. By reorienting ourselves back to traditional wisdom, we will discover the true nature of successful human existence.
Instead, he silently officiates a marriage between unbridled capitalism and a regulatory morality emerging out of mythological narratives.
The problem is that Peterson fails to consider that truth is not a neutral phenomenon. It is possible to “lie in the guise of truth,” as Slavoj Žižek claims in Mapping Ideology. Even if mythical narratives can unproblematically grant us access to a mysterious pre-existent truth, it, nevertheless, cannot speak for itself. Instead, it is “made to speak by a network of discursive devices” (Emphases original). Its reception can take differing forms, depending on the ideological conditions that precede it. Readers can read the same text to make opposing arguments depending on their ideological biases. Truth, if there is one, emerges out of (and is subject to) the socio-political discourse that precedes this emergence.
This is most evident in Peterson’s derision of left-wing politics. While Peterson is quick to condemn socialism and Soviet communism, he is silent on right-wing politics and the failure of capitalism to produce a balanced and stable order, as if capitalism is somehow miraculously insulated from ideological corruption. Peterson turns a blind eye to the fact that there might be structural causes beyond individual control, contributing to the chaos he is trying to overcome by grounding a social order in a mythical universe. Žižek, for example, makes a similar point in his introduction to Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson, arguing that the “causes of problems immanent to today’s global capitalism are projected onto an external intruder.” Indeed, Peterson fails to acknowledge that the reality of moral decay might be inherent to the dynamics of global capitalism itself. Instead, he silently officiates a marriage between unbridled capitalism and a regulatory morality emerging out of mythological narratives.
Peterson’s silence on capitalism and right-wing politics anticipates the Foucauldian understanding of discourse as a repressive mechanism that covers what it does not say in silence. According to Foucault, a silent presupposition is at work in all discourses. They are “never-said” but “already-said.” Subsequently, the question is not what the mythical truth reveals but, rather, what it conceals. Žižek’s theory of ideology notes the fact that for ideology to be functional, it must conceal the very logic that legitimizes the relation of domination. As such, any assertion of non-ideological practices is a result of ideological dynamics because such practices continue to preserve and reproduce the pre-existing power relations in the guise of non-ideology.
Peterson’s espousing of mythical truth does not say what it conceals in silence. In trying to seek refuge from ideology in the mythical universe, Peterson simply glosses over the contradiction and crises immanent to capitalism itself. Consequently, then, mythical truth remains deeply entangled in the cobweb of neoconservative ideology, which, on the one hand, maintains the hegemony of capitalism, while, on the other, marks a return to traditional morality as a regulatory force for maintaining authoritarian politics.
Abhishek Solomon is a postgraduate student at the University of Otago in New Zealand. His research interests include religion, psychoanalysis and ideology. He can be reached at email@example.com.