Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 6a, The Emergence of Anomaly

Even if the book has more than 10 hours left, I can feel my mind starting to wrap it up. Maybe it’s because Peterson has already said “and this will be the focus of the rest of this audiobook”, or words to that effect, or perhaps it’s because it just feels like it’s on repeat. But, I will probably start to pull together some concluding thoughts. And the topic that the rest of the audiobook is about ― the Emergence of Anomaly ― is probably a good tool to start doing that with.

As discussed early on (part 1 or 2), an anomaly can mean anything: it might mean changing your strategy to reach the same goal or completely changing your goals. And even within that, it can be a bad thing, destroying your plans and replacing it with something worse, or a good thing offering an opportunity to achieve something more than was originally conceived of. And in that set up, we have all of Peterson’s characters.

The culture is the universe. As a group, the community or society has some knowledge and basic feelings about things and that defines the whole universe in Peterson’s thesis. Those feelings are shaped by culture. The power within that culture is “the Father”. In a democracy, the role of Father is spread across the people, although heavily concentrated in politicians, the wealthy and the influential. Every individual within it is potentially a Hero. Although, until they become heroes they are acting out the role of some fictional hero, going about their lives. In this sense, perhaps there is room to talk about ‘money’ being the Father, as so much of our routine is based around capitalism. Perhaps that is our myth…

Anything that threatens that system threatens the system through which we understand the world we live in. And when our tools for understanding our world no longer work, we don’t understand the world. We can’t act in a world like that. We are “at sea”; nothing works in a way we understand; to us, everything is chaos. Without a leader, this could spell death. Anything could be a threat.

Peterson would say this is a pre-cosmogonic state; it is a state we cannot understand and therefore cannot meaningfully build a universe from. Cosmogony is a discipline that deals with how our universe came into being, and so pre-cosmogonic is to say it is not just chaos but specifically that a new ‘universe’ is about to be created. Again, Peterson’s “universe” is a method of understanding societal function and hierarchy.

But, that pre-cosmogonic state is the Mother, terrible or otherwise. Threat or opportunity. And so, a society that has been plunged into chaos needs to be agile; to have many tools to adapt. In a book as long as Peterson’s, he had plenty of opportunity to give a real historical example of an agile society that faced a threat that could crumble one civilisation but another adapted. Instead, he vaguely allude to the former Soviet states and WWII, but doesn’t grapple with the relvant differences. One assumes the former lacked the cultural agility and western Europe proved it had agility by largely overcoming WWII.

It might be worth an aside to talk about the idea of a narrative being used to bring together what otherwise looks like chaos. In the UK, and I imagine this happened around the world, the Government was accused of confused messaging about coronavirus restrictions; the criticism was that they didn’t make sense. They did make sense, of course: it was just a list of what was not allowed, and what was still allowed. That feeling that it didn’t make sense was that we couldn’t imagine the story that pulled them all together; there wasn’t a public health thread obviously pulling through, with horse racing going ahead for example. And that is just a little peek into the fact that we do need a narrative to pull together our reality, otherwise we worry that it doesn’t make sense.

The thing is, there are a lot of related ideas in books I have enjoyed that have no need at all to call on ancient myths and story arcs to get their ideas across. The fact that we organise ourselves around things that are largely made-up or false is discussed in Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harrari. The idea of facing problems and the unknown with a sceptical optimism is discussed in David Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity. Both gave concrete examples and convincing principles.

Maps of Meaning, though, discusses an infinitely flexible structure around a small band of characters and insists that any stories that use this band of characters ― death, life, tyranny, order, adventure and exploration, fear, culture, confidence, conformity, revolution ― is a myth we create to explore and navigate our sense of meaning. I cannot imagine, recall or create a story that cannot be shoehorned into that structure, though. And something that explains anything ― as this does ― explains nothing.

There are things to take away from this book. Deutsch’s articulation of fallibilism (see, there are better books) would insist Peterson can’t be entirely wrong, and to that end, Deutsch has a point. There is a sterility to attempted-pure reason that people find entirely unconvincing. We are a social species and we are, at large, more readily convinced by a story we can all share than a series of facts.

I learned this over the Brexit campaign. A broad story about English exceptionalism (and it broadly is English, not British) and the Terrible EU, to which claims and lies could be appended, was more convincing than the facts. The UK had been forced into a pre-cosmogonic chaos ― senseless rules about bananas, unsafe laws about criminal immigrants, political correctness, a lack of autonomy because of a tyrannical and now-defunct EU ― and a merry-band of Heroes could save us and return order. It was a myth, and encapsulated in it was nothing but lies. It was powerful, and it served the purposes for the liars, but it won out against the sterile myth-less multicultural Britain.

In terms of myths being “true”, that’s nonsense. It is in this sense that I begin to wonder what “meaning” is encapsulated in a myth. The subtitle of Peterson’s book is “Architecture of beliefs”, and it is in these moments where I try to apply Peterson’s work where I glimpse at what he’s saying that might well be right. At the end of Moana (see previous post) a new myth is all it takes to get a fearful land-loving people to become sea-farers, but that’s wholly written out and the cause and effect is directed. With Brexit, a myth built entirely on lies (told over many years ― the EU has a reference page for common lies about the EU in mainstream media, and they’re largely UK “newspaper” lies) directed an entire vote. But it appealed to something; it didn’t reshape the UK’s beliefs. We are a xenophobic country, and that’s whipped up every election; Brexit utilised that, the myth didn’t build that belief. We are weirdly WWII obsessed; and again, the Brexit myth didn’t create that, it utilised it.

But, this isn’t about Brexit…

Peterson points out that an anomaly is a catastrophe for any culture not swift enough to adapt. Again, you can get the same message without myths ― and convincingly. Beginning of Infinity has a central thesis that is about creating and utilising knowledge quickly enough to solve problems (and the solution will cause problems, and you get new knowledge to solve them ad infinitum). The idea of myth is superfluous to the explanation.

However, if we see Peterson’s book as a myth in its own right, designed to a particular moral end, instead of a strictly ‘true’ book, then there are good little gems. For one, Peterson argues that a multicultural society is a swift one and thus a more successful one in the face of anomaly and threat. He adds caveats: when two cultures mix, they see each other as threatening to send oneself into chaos or subjugation. And so, there is a principle behind how to make a multicultural society work; both have to unify under another hierarchy.

Peterson imagines this as many dead kings being resurrected, and as each sees themselves as a great landowner and patriarch, each sees the other kings as trespassers and threats. And so, if you could get them to bow before a yet greater king (he chooses Jesus ― but national myths would allow for flags etc), then they could peacefully coexist. A nice story, but literal nonsense. But, as with all myths (as Peterson would claim), there is an inarticulable value encapsulated in there that might just work for stable multicultural societies. (Just kidding, of course it can be articulated. For one, most of us don’t have the hubris to think ourselves kings fighting others for dominion.)

Again, the Christian myth ― which allows Jews or Christians to take slaves from the foreigners around them ― is antithetical to this idea of bringing different cultures in under a shared roof. Christianity isn’t useful here, but Peterson might be. But, as is my basic position on Christianity, you have to already know what you’re doing to figure out what is useful in Peterson’s book.

4 thoughts on “Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 6a, The Emergence of Anomaly”

  1. Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! BS Alert! BS Alert! Danger!

    There is too much even in your post to comment on, so I had to pick something, so . . .

    Re “Peterson points out that an anomaly is a catastrophe for any culture not swift enough to adapt.” WTF? The system he says underlies all of everything is so fragile that it can’t withstand a little nonconformity? On the contrary, all of that nonconformity is what is keeping the whole thing from being static. Nature tells us: change or die under most circumstances. So, all of these “anomalies” can be looked at as social experiments, attempts to try on a new suit, culture-wise.

    I think it was the Durants who stated that history is driven by the tension of the young wanting change and old wanting sameness or stability (working from memory here, so don’t quote me–here is a supporting quote “In old age, you understand how good it is that there should be radicals and how good it is that there should be conservatives. The radicals supply the gas and the conservatives apply the brakes. Both of those functions are indispensable. That tension is required for a functioning society.”).

    Society only falls apart when there is too much change and not enough stability.

    1. There’s also the question of what lends adaptability to a culture.
      Is entirely shifting emphasis from one part of christianity to some other (perhaps contradictory) part considered adaptation? Or do you have to throw out the old entirely (as he frequently suggests in other areas) and build anew?
      If we’re capable on building anew, what do we build from, if not the values that survive (i.e. exist independent of) the death of the previous myth?

      I want to double check you realise we’re in the same page: I find his thesis to be fundamentally nonsense with the occasional useful grain in it.

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