I’ve noticed that people are as polarized in their visceral, bodily responses to Jordan Peterson as they are in relation to his ideology. Beyond the content and the politics, people get something from him, ranging from exhilaration to nausea.
When I went to see him in person, most of the crowd leaned towards him in a palpable swoon. The guy next to me screamed “There he is! There! He! Is!” over the roar as he bounced onto the stage.
Peterson dropped into his trance-monologue, and the crowd was duly entranced. Two and a half hours wasn’t enough. He went on. And on. And on.
He didn’t cover any of the advertised material except for a few begrudging references to floods in ancient Mesopotamian literature in the last fifteen minutes. He gave really lazy citations. During the Q&A, no one asked him about the content. They lined up to lob him softballs about “Postmodern Marxism” and to offer him coding help for his online projects. No one seemed to care, despite paying $35 per head, that the promised topic had been completely abandoned. (500 head count, 17K revenue for the evening. Looks like he paid a videographer, if she wasn’t a student volunteer. I wonder if he rented the University hall at a discounted faculty rate.)
When I went to the men’s room afterwards, I felt like I was at a hockey game. I waited out the line and then exited the building to find Peterson surrounded by two hundred millennials, 80% men, on the front steps. He held court until 11pm in the May night.
The entire campus was his natural lectern, and why should he stop?
Out on the steps, the somatic deference of the crowd was up close and personal. He spoke in the round. He absorbed every dewy-eyed question into his feedback loop. He made lingering and deep eye contact with every woman in the crowd. The inner ring seemed to think he was speaking to each of them individually, privately.
Some are similarly mesmerized by Peterson on video.
On the other hand, there are scads of people who can’t stand watching him or listening to him. They cringe through every breathless paragraph. His strangulated voice is like nails on a chalkboard. They feel claustrophobic at the long droning whine of performed intellectual brilliance.
Are these guilty judgments? Isn’t this as low-brow as when Peterson’s fans make fun of “SJW” clothing and language? Should we suppress that reflex of disgust and focus on his arguments? Isn’t that the noble thing to do?
Writing as someone who shares the bodily privilege of Peterson, I can’t suppress the visceral clues. I feel all the prickles of those in the latter camp. I but feel them from a “been there, done that” perspective.
Here, I’ll own my part in those sensations, and use them as a springboard for speculation. This may sound close to ad hominem. Hopefully I’ll avoid that by staying rooted in my own experience as someone who has also tried to be at the centre of attention by presenting many of the same tics I see Peterson use. Guys like us are all trained in the same school, you see.
I confess: I adopted the Peterson-body while reading from my poetry and novels back in the 1990s, as a classical music vocalist, while teaching yoga or meditation, and while proselytizing for the two cults that I was in.
In small ways these tics still emerge interpersonally when I feel threatened or I need to convince or triumph.
In and of themselves the affects are not evil, and I never had a conscious thought of wanting to manipulate people. And yet I built them into a choreography of persuasion that sharpened and expanded as it seemed to work.
Now I see these affects might sometimes work because they gobble up social real estate. I look at this very carefully, and try to invent ways of disrupting it. But I still feel them creep up, especially when I’m on a tense phone call.
Here’s what watching Peterson makes me remember about my own public-speaking body, back before I started to tone it down:
- It felt exhilarating to speak freely and without stop.
- It felt private, yet spotlighted at the same time, as though everyone should be forced to see the brilliance of my otherwise lonely internal life.
- There was a thrill in beginning a sentence the ending of which I could not see, but felt the eyes on me draw it out. If the content strayed from the ordained topic, and no one seemed to complain, so much the better. This signalled that the listeners were there for me and not the content.
- I could feel attention pouring into me, filling up the space where the words had flowed out. This happened without me actually connecting with the people who gave that attention. It was a perfect economy of simultaneous extroversion and introversion, without any mediation of contact or intimacy.
- I used repetitive motions with my hands to not only keep myself in rhythm, but to conduct a somatic rhythm into the room that would obviate the stutters that occur through true dialogue. The motions were like martial arts gestures.
- When someone asked a question I could sense how difficult it was for them to break into that flow. Instead of thinking about how I could make it easier for them, I waited for the bit of content upon which I could seize and re-enter my flow, feeling that that would relieve both of us.
I think that before I realized I was doing these things, to embody what I thought of as the comfort of mastery, while never thinking about who that mastery might be over, I could well have been in that camp that ignores Peterson’s intellectual fraud. It feels so good to love what he does with his body, and to identify with it.
Peterson has mastered the muscular ballet of inflated masculine intellectualism. He embodies the wish of otherwise liberal men who feel that speech is the only sanctioned public violence left to them.
He can be pipsqueaky but imperious. He can whine on stage and still be seen as commanding. He can express pain and fragility as an emperor of confidence. He can have his lobster and eat it too.
When Peterson quipped to Camille Paglia that men are disadvantaged in debate against women because social taboos prevent men from hitting women, he’s showing ignorance of more than civics. He’s showing that he doesn’t realize that his privilege plus his affect are already hitting women, trans people, or the scholars in humanities departments he wants to dox.
Peterson and I learned how not to hit people. That doesn’t make us non-violent.
I haven’t punched anyone since I was 12. I learned how to sublimate punches into sentences, and so did he. I believe that many of the young men who love what Peterson does with this body — “There he is! There! He! Is!” — love him because his affect validates that sublimation within their own bodies.
Peterson’s body tells them it’s okay to strike out from an avoidant bubble of self-fascination. It says that you can be as wimpy and whiney as you really feel inside, and yet still dominate. His body tells them that their own endless internal monologue of grievance is noble, smart, productive, and should be monetized.
I don’t know how men get out of this if it is habitual. It’s not resolved for me, but it’s gotten better. I credit more secure attachments as I’ve aged for small improvements, along with the benefit of being able to reflect on where some of my chronic skeletal, especially spinal, pain was coming from: not from posture but from posturing.
I stopped doing those forms of yoga that were about standing up straighter, which for me translated into “more defensively”. I still speak publicly for part of my living, so I’m always able to reflect on how that takes up or perhaps steals space. I try to pay attention to that scrim of hardness that drops over me when my speech begins to accelerate, when I begin to feel animated.
It’s still good and creative to be excited about what I say. These days, I’m also a lot more interested in why I want to be excited, what I need in return for that passion, and whether there are other ways to sooth myself, and to give something, rather than take.
So Nellie Bowles wrote this piece of magic.
My post here will avoid the content weeds to zero in on a single syntax transition that Shapiro made, and that somehow made it through editing. The indented graf is Bowles. The second sentence is a direct quote from Peterson. The second graf is Shapiro.
Read how the highlight connects them.
Slow down if you have to.
Bowles: “[Peterson direct quote]” he said.
Shapiro: This is not what Peterson is saying.
This freaked me out. I talked it through with my partner Alix to get clearer on it. Here’s what we explored together:
It never matters what Peterson said.
It matters what he’s saying.
Duff McDuffee pointed this out to me first on a Facebook thread. When Alex Jones — Infowars conspiracy theorist and hawker of survivalist protein powders — gets on a roll, the content of what he says is secondary to the state he embodies. He’s not communicating something to be understood, but rather broadcasting a trance state.
The content supports the transmission of this state only to the extent that it helps defamiliarize whatever hold on consensus reality he and his audience have. Yes, he is talking about aliens here, but this only underlines the alienating experience of a body that needs to transcend its pain and confusion.
You can watch a bit of the following with the sound on to get a sense of this intersection of content and somatics. But then you can mute it and just watch what he does with his body. Or: what his body does with him.
Gazing off to the right and up. Conjuring the completeness of his vision by caressing an invisible sphere in front of him face, as though the sphere were his face, perfected. Leaning with his eyes into the vastness or the void before him. The conspiracy theories seem rooted in the conspiracy of his being bodily possessed.
And — maybe the most important detail McDuffee pointed out: when Rogan interrupts the freestyle in any way, Jones’ primary goal is not to answer the question, let alone hear it. His goal is to maintain the self-enclosed-but-extroverted trance state. He needs to get back on that train as soon as possible, perhaps because it’s where he feels most at home, most protected.
A comparison to Trump here isn’t lazy: when we ask why he can’t stick to the teleprompter, something similar might be happening. Reading from the teleprompter, like taking in Rogan’s question, would stop the trance train.
Reading the teleprompter would be like being distracted from masturbating, which may tell us something about the adolescent anxiety informing it all, not to mention the overwhelming intersection between alt-right spaces and porn.
Other things that interrupt masturbating? Oh, you know — evidence, citations. Those little facts of external reality that call us into responsibility, that tell us our pleasure is not the only thing that exists.
Jordan Peterson rides a similar train, only in first class, and tenured. This modestly-titled clip is typical of his in-person somatic strategy, marked by constant repetition: pacing, hand gestures, head-tilts, the pretence of making eye contact. Again: try watching for a minute with the sound muted.
Back in June I went to one of his public lectures. It was sold out: 500 people, $30 each. $15K gross on a regular Tuesday night. Crowd was 90% white. Lots of buzz cuts, ball caps and sun glasses amongst the men, who made up maybe 70% of the crowd. Amongst the 20% of the crowd who were over 40, the vast majority were men. Going for a pee was like being at an NHL hockey game in 1978.
As Peterson strode onto the stage, the guy beside me yelled out over the applause, “There he is, there he is!”
The lecture was a stream of folksy megalomania: one long off-book, beyond-scope-of-practice-for-clinical-psychology digression after another of his alt-right sweet spots. He held out for 107 minutes before substantially addressing the published topic for a 2-hour event — The Tower of Babel (appropriately), and The Flood. And the actual substance he got to seemed designed to avoid distracting anyone from the mystery of himself. A key slide cited a banal remark from Mircea Eliade on the ubiquity of flood narratives (1:47:59). No citation provided.
It was like he wasn’t even trying to conceal the fact that he’s not interested in the content.
Why should he? Nobody was there for the content, advertised or otherwise. They were there to commune with Peterson’s body, his performance of radical bravery, his fragility and grievances. Their adoring gaze on him was only broken by thrilled shudders elicited by phrases like “cultural marxism”.
Okay, full disclosure:
I know what this stream of loghorreic bliss feels like. Both of the cults I was in in my late 20s / early 30s were led by men whose social and somatic power hinged on being able to flip into these states at will.
In both organizations, I progressed far enough up the hierarchy to be invited to give sermons to entry-level members. The content was spiritual revelation, and I was to mimic the guru.
Before it felt terribly wrong — which was pretty quick — it was exhilarating. The format was “dharma talk”, or “satsang”. The premise was that I had something deeply subjective yet universally applicable to share. I could feel myself “filled with the spirit” of the guru. No other resources were needed. I opened my mouth, and something “inspired” poured out, fast. I created a wall of sound around myself that gave some kind of relief. I felt as though I was within a ring, but also rising above myself.
I’d had experience with this before, albeit “secular”. As a young poet and novelist, I would give readings from my work around town. (That was “social media” in those days.) I remember feeling that the microphone was like a gun-shield, and that if my text could fire out and overwhelm the room, my brilliance would be clear to everyone. My presentation style was loud and fast. I inflated myself with every inhalation.
It wasn’t unique. Many of the men I worked with and loved nurtured a similar affect. One of them, the now-famous Christian Bök, was then famous for reading his language poems so loud and fast that he literally foamed at the mouth. But Bök was self-consciously performing a kind of mania, mimicking the machine-like virality of language itself. Most of the rest us were just trying to emote, without receiving anything. As with punk rock, I think it was very hard for us to find the line between catharsis and aggression.
I haven’t lost my taste for holding forth, though it has declined to the extent I own my general shame. And to the extent that writing helps me sublimate an impulse I believe flows out of a deep wound. When I lecture now, I feel distinctly inadequate, and I try to respect and treasure this rather than overcome it.
I emailed a friend and veteran psychologist about the phenomenon of speed and overwhelm in speech. She wrote back:
In psycho-traumatology the concept of “pressurised talk” is considered symptomatic of a cry for help that went unanswered. It’s a new addition to the fight-flight-freeze-submit roster. And it’s helped me sit with many traumatized people who fill their hours with a wall of words. Simple, ongoing listening, with facial & gestural attunement (rather than the frustration, disbelief or boredom that this defence is unconsciously intended to re-create) slowly works its wonders. It seems that it is dangerous for them to allow a pause or moment of reflection. “Going inside” means losing your constant, necessary vigilance against the world.
I talked about Peterson with another friend. He remarked that Peterson sounds like he’s trying to speak while someone is throttling his neck.
I hear it too. He’s always running out of time. Why? Because things are always so bad, culture is always dying, the world is always ending. Patriarchy always holds the apocalypse over our heads like some fantasy of ultimate violence: wait till your father gets home.
Peterson’s fans have pointed out that he sounds like Kermit the Frog, which lets them fantasize about his archetypal resonance with Pepe the Frog.
Again, it’s not about data, or content. It’s about free association, rhythm, dream states, and the passions unleashed by all three. Which is why it makes sense that another alt-right babble-mouth Mike Cernovich compares himself to a DJ:
I would say that I pay more attention to what DJs do and how DJs manage their gigs and their fan base than anybody in traditional media.
Alex Jones has the same throttled, pressurized voice. So does Tony Robbins, though he powers through it. So did the late great B.K.S. Iyengar. So does Michael Roach. So does Trump, though in a less obvious way: you can hear all of his vowels bottlenecking through jaw tension.
This might be a weak correlation. Jones’ voice also sounds soaked in bourbon, while Robbins lives with acromegaly. And of course vocal strain or awkwardness does not imply traumatized charisma.
My gut telling me there’s something more going on with these guys might be more of the same self-centred speech, but I’ll risk it:
Yes, they speak through the feeling of being choked, of having to overcome attackers. They also speak through the strain of the pubescent boy’s voice. as it breaks into a dangerous vision of manhood they feel it’s better to dominate than change.
1. I just love this photo of Jordan Peterson. It shows him in his natural element, shining in the darkness of the age. Look at that stairwell slanting upwards behind him, to parts unknown. I love that indigenous pole-thingy in the margin. It’s so primal and raw. Just look into those eyes — I’m sure you’ll feel what I feel.
2. I could be Jordan Peterson. A few different turns of the screw is all. I have always read a lot and been deeply confident in my multidimensional understanding of the big picture, and I’m not afraid to talk about it. The feminists call it mansplaining. Whatever. That’s what it takes to get that tenure, that oak-paneled office. I would have my cleaned and pressed shirts delivered there. I don’t need all that stuff of course, but I’m worth it. Continue reading “Complaints and Confessions of a (Liberal White Male) Jordan Peterson Fan”