In his highly treasured and vilified work, 12 Rules for Life, An Antidote to Chaos,* Jordan Peterson posits a reasonable, even insightful notion, in the overture:
I suggested (in the earlier work, Maps and Meaning) that our ancestors portrayed the world as a stage—a drama—instead of a place of objects. I described how I had come to believe that the constituent elements of the world as drama were order and chaos and not material things.
Order is where the people around you act according to well-understood social norms, and remain predictable and cooperative. It’s the world of social structure, explored territory, and familiarity. The state of Order is typically portrayed, symbolically—imaginatively—as masculine. It’s the Wise King and the Tyrant, forever bound together, as society is simultaneously structure and oppression.
Chaos, by contract is where—or when—something unexpected happens. Chaos emerges, in trivial form, when you tell a joke at a party with people you thing you know and a silent and embarrassing chill falls over the gathering. Chaos is what emerges more catastrophically when you suddenly find yourself without employment, or are betrayed by a lover. As the antithesis of symbolically masculine order, it’s presented imaginatively as feminine. It’s the new and unpredictable suddenly emerging in the midst of the commonplace familiar. It’s Creation and Destruction, the source of new things and the destination of the dead (as nature, as opposed to culture is simultaneously birth and demise.
Order and chaos are eth yang and tin of the famous Taoist symbol: two serpents, head to tail. Order is the white, masculine serpent; Chaos, its black, feminine counterpart. The black dot in the white—and the white in the black—indicate the possibility of transformation; just when things seem secure, the unknown can loom, unexpectedly and large. Conversely, just when everything seems lost, new order can emerge from catastrophe and chaos.
For the Taoists, meaning is to be found on the border between the ever-entwined pair. To walk that border is to stay on the path of life, the divine Way. (Peterson, op. cit. ppxxvii-xxviii)
While I take no issue with the inferences, drawn by Peterson, I wish to draw attention to the notion that Order and Chaos are traditionally and symbolically represented as masculine and feminine respectively. Literature, art, dance, religious liturgy are all vehicles of the symbolic language of any culture. In this space, previously, I argued that men, historically, traditionally, predictably and almost “naturally” penned, designed, conceptualized, designed and “poured” the metaphoric concrete of the foundation of western culture. And it is that masculine foundation, based on a masculine intellect, a masculine imagination, and masculine political and economic and religious concepts that contemporary western culture is still attempting to unravel. Thousands of years on, in the twenty-first century, we no long are bound to ascribe to this application of gender roles to Yang and Yin.
Order, for example, is clearly not the sole or even the primary purview of men, nor is chaos the sole or primary purview of women. In fact, we are not only capable, but we are compelled to think outside this symbolic, poetic, imaginative, box. And the implications of holding fast to the original assignment of gender to Order and Chaos continue to haunt not only our culture generally, but more specifically, these stereotypes continue to haunt our symbolic configurations of masculinity and femininity.
Men, while bigger and stronger physically, and louder verbally, can no longer be either reduced to or depicted as the carriers of, the originators of nor the custodians of order. It is the premise that God is also masculine that comes out of this metaphysical conceptualization. And linking the masculine God to those three universally known concepts, omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence, has contributed to many of the misunderstandings of contemporary western culture.
It is argued here that this Order/masculine and Chaos/feminine as symbolic presentations, originated and perpetuated primarily by men, stands as a significant psychological, philosophical, political, and ethical barrier on the road to what is a much more salutary set of symbols: androgyny, in all of the arts, and in education, and in our political vernacular. And androgyny is also to be considered symbolically, metaphorically, rather than, as more and more parents are considering, refusing to assign a gender to their newborn child. We need not ascribe to, nor have forced upon us, a specific pronoun designation for a specific person’s gender preference. Humans, including the whole range of LGBTQ persons, perhaps especially that population, are more than capable of the cultural, imaginative metaphoric identification of forces such as Order/Chaos as both masculine and feminine.
It is not only feasible to imagine a culture in which such symbolic, literary and artistic and even spiritual/religious symbolism embraces an androgynous deity, as well as an androgynous Order, and also an androgynous Chaos. Let us not be impounded by the very real and highly significant symbol and reality of nature that women only can and do give birth. Let us, as many have already, explode the notion of birth to include new creations in all fields of human endeavour. It is our reductionistic empirical, scientific notion that new “discoveries” in the lab, for example, do not ‘rise’ to the metaphoric heights as a Bernstein symphony. And, even, when pondering the language of symbols, both Order and Chaos represent a unique highlighting of what some consider the sine-qua-non of nature and human existence, a perpetual conflict/tension/between these two forces. Is that the fundamental notion of the drama of human existence?
Is love part of the Order side of the equation, or is it exclusively assigned to the Chaos side of the equation? Is beauty uniquely and exclusively consigned to Order, or to Chaos? Is death exclusively to be assigned to the Chaos side of the equation? The emphasis on conflict, suffering, pain, and the inevitable notion of competition between the forces of Order and Chaos posits a symbolic representation certainly of those lobsters, and birds to which Peterson makes reference.
However, implicit in the Order/Chaos symbolism is a kind of external war of forces, thereby rendering human existence, at least in the abstract, to the drum beat of this application of physics to human existence. Are we, humans, little more than pawns on the chessboard of Order/Chaos?
Or course, readers will immediately jump to the notion that these words are merely another tilting at ‘the windmills of my mind’ that only distract from the much more cogent, relevant, academic, cognitive and professional point of view of the renowned psychology professor. Caring notions of good sleep, healthy diet, erect posture with shoulders back, and taking care to mount the presentation of a confident, self-respecting, human individual, while reckoning with the powerful forces that impinge on the diligent attempts at living a life worth living, and warding of ancillary assaults from bullies…these are all positive, productive, appropriate and readily easily comprehended and applied pieces of supportive guidance. And Peterson deserves the millions of adherents, disciples and students he has amassed over the last few years.
At a time when we are all being bombarded with highly attractively presented evidence of the range of biological, psychological, neurological, anatomical/gastronomic research findings about our human bodies, and the volcano of chemical concoctions that are designed to address specific maladies, (along with triggering a plethora of serious side effects), resisting a biological/physics kind of orientation to the complexity of being a human and living a fulfilling, purposeful and creative life may seem somewhat if not fully quixotic.
Nevertheless, it is to the quixotic that some have deferred, not merely seeking solace and refuge from the onslaught of “chaos” but more imaginatively, to search for and to grasp, if ever so briefly, a higher calling.
Imitating lobsters, or territorial birds, or even voracious and scavenging wolves is hardly a model I seek to emulate except perhaps to strengthen my honourable ‘warrior’. Jon Meacham, U.S. presidential historian, whose book, The Soul of America, ponders what life might be like were Americans (and citizens of other countries) to follow their better angels. Angels, whose character, precociousness, strength, and capacity to discern Order from Chaos, seem to offer a much more ‘poetic’ and perhaps even idealistic image on which to hitch are highest aspirations, our most ambitious and life-giving imaginative journeys.
And angels, like humans, cannot and will not be reduced to any of the various anatomical, physiological, or even cognitive capacities, categories, and processes rendered so eminently and unambiguously, when dissected into either or both microscopic slices or binary numerals.
It is to the human spirit, including the pre-eminence of the soul, including the unconscious, the biography, and even such unscientific features likely disdained by the academic community as ‘presence’ and personhood and aura and for some even colouring that we are committed to underscoring. And it is the human spirit that cannot and will not respond to an equation of finding the boundary between Order and Chaos.
In fact, as Henri Nouwen so succinctly put it in reviewing his tenure at Notre Dame university, in words to this effect:
I spent much of my time preparing lectures, reviewing papers, attending meetings, and when I look back, it was those times when I was completely interrupted in which I found the most meaningful experiences.
States of silence, solitude, reverie, creative and tremulous dreams and nightmares, dark nights of the soul, and reflection….these are not reducible to Order or Chaos, nor can they be disassociated from either of them. They extend far beyond the intellectual, imaginative, and psychological boundaries and definitions of Order and Chaos, where much of life is found.
And similarly, masculinity, femininity too cannot and will not succumb to the intellectual, academic, philosophic, “mapping” even if those maps are generated as a way to find meaning.
I neither want nor know of any map pointing out directions to meaning and purpose. Being, that Heideggerian notion of all of life, as distinct from A Being, wrestles with ontology, the nature of being, is a philosophic concept debated, dissected and discussed for centuries, without final conclusions. And perhaps what I am arguing here is that humanness, too, is beyond human comprehension, intellectual grasp, and psychic management, however worthy is the attempt to wrestle with it.
And, if that position echoes Chaos, from the Peterson perspective, I accept that. However, even under the rubric of Chaos, I continue to plod only somewhat aimlessly, and somewhat purposefully, in the deep perception and even belief that I rejoice in the prevailing assumption that I am not and never have been nor ever will be in control of my person, my circumstances, even my perceptions. And what is more, there is no genius, regardless of his or her domain of expertise, who can or will unpack the essence of any of our persons.
All of the multitude of attempts to gain intelligence, facial identity, societal surveillance, and thereby national or international security are fortunately fraught with a hubristic premise that “control” is both worthy of pursuit and attainable by some various authorities, whether they be state or private.
Not only will they never succeed; never should they. And all of the increasingly sophisticated and even now out-of-control devices that attempt to measure human motivations, thoughts, feelings, beliefs and dreams, are more examples of the kind of “belief” in thinking that we can “know” how to predict, plan, and organize our existence, as a sign of our superiority, among the other creatures in nature.
Even the ideal of androgyny, as a guiding principle, merits serious scepticism, for it alone will not offer any kind of utopia, or even necessarily a more peaceful and sustainable world. Nevertheless, extricating our symbolic representations from reductionistic identifications with “man” and/or “woman” would be one first step toward a world view that begins to appreciate how the pursuit of personal, and political/economic power, for its own sake, as the satisfaction of meaning and purpose, so championed and revered by millions of men and women, is by definition self-defeating. Not incidentally, it is also a sure path to succumbing to the several existential threats we all face.
Relinquishing our clutching, clinging, knuckle-bending hold on dominance, even if it contravenes patterns in nature, can only begin to offer solace, release, and potential comfort from the illusion that our clinging makes us more safe and secure. Admitting our deepest fears, together, is a sign of our collective and collaborative maturation, and then re-evaluating their potential as gifts and threats simultaneously, could conceivably moderate our dependence on pain and anxiety meds.
*Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, An antidote to Chaos, Random House Canada, 2018