Sunday 11 February 2018

An exchange about Jordan Peterson

GS: ....He is clearly seized by his ideas and reading, as much as by his pragmatic yet moral purpose. But I wonder how long before he exhausts himself and flakes out or says something distinctly stupid, something so careless and wrong that his opponents might hang him with it.... 

Exchange follows from here:

SN: He already has said some pretty stupid things. I’m neither a fan nor an opponent, but some the stuff he gets away with is beyond ridiculous.

GS: Which particular things were stupid, and which beyond ridiculous?

SN: I mentioned them in your Peterson thread (having to listened to some of his YouTube output), but to summarise, what stood out was his opinion that Marxism (including what he calls ‘cultural Marxism’) and postmodernism are a) synonymous and b) un-Western and anti-Western.

Another clunker is his analysis of societal categorisations by ‘cultural Marxism’ as though creating social categories was an utterly new thing (when it’s the oldest trick in the history of rulers and ruling groups). 

He also speaks as though rugged individualism were synonymous with Western civilisation - another assumption that does not hold up against intellectual history.

Which is not to say there aren’t some pearls in what he says. He’s clearly a clever, passionate man. But perhaps the eagerness you mention above blinds him to some of his own failings. He’s no longer a teenager, so he can’t expect the same indulgence he received as a super-bright 16-year old.

GS: He talks about neo-Marxism. The association with postmodernism is via group identity, the assimilation of the individual into the group. He sees the individual as a responsible being not merely a recipient of group rights. That seems a reasonable point of view to me. I haven’t heard him say anywhere that rugged individualism is solely a western trait. What he does say is that there is a body of religion and philosophy that is specifically addressed to the individual mind, and that that body of thought is central to western notions of conducting a life. That does not seem ridiculous to me. It needs more argument than a single YouTube lecture but it is worth proposing.

SN: There is such a body of thought. There is also a strong communal, collectivist body of thought that is equally central to Western philosophy and custom, going back as far as the monastic and Beguines traditions. There is also an ancient liberties, that rights-based body of thought that is central to our history from the Peasants Revolt onwards. Its contemporary incarnation is not immune to criticism, but to criticise it on the basis of them being anti-Western or to think bandying the M word like a ghoul is persuasive is intellectually dishonest. I’m more impressed by the conservative argument about rights calling equal responsibilities (which he also uses). Defining those responsibilities is the key, of course - but there we’re on even ground, and can debate accordingly.

It also ignores the fact that Marxism and neo-Marxism (I assume you mean what he calls cultural Marxism) is a child of the Enlightenment, every bit as much as Adam Smith and Nietzsche are.

GS: He uses both terms, neo-Marxism and cultural-Marxism. I take the point that there have been collectivist bodies of thought and rights-based bodies of thought. He may be mistaken in identifying the key to western thought as something based on individual rights and responsibilities but at this point of time, at a time of identity-cultures (people speaking not as individual, considered minds but bellowing and raging as members of this or that group, however intersectional) he feels it is important to redress the balance. I agree with him on that point.

Group identity simplifies matters to a degree that having to be responsible for your own soul or reason does not. He is continually referring back to facts, statistics and processes of enquiry. To some degree he is of Sam Harris's Enlightenment mindset in his use of research. in others he moves to the less easily described life of images and archetypes for a record of human response to questions of spirituality and morality. I am sure he would allow that Marxism - which I regard as a good analytical tool because, after all, classes and class interests exist - is a product of the Enlightenment, but that may be where he departs from it. I don't know how justified his use of neo-Marxism and Marxism is in terms of analysis but he is clearly influenced by the tremendous historical and human cost of bluntly applying Marxist principles to all social questions. He feels much the same about Nazism and I think he is very persuasive when he argues that the concentration camp guard lives within us too.

I don't think his references to the practical application of Marxism are dishonest. He sees a flaw in an idea and in a way of acting on it and he looks to mend it through his understanding of Jungian archetypes. He wants a synthesis between Jung and scientific method. Why? Because he thinks we desperately need it.

There may well be flaws in his own ideas. I think there are bound to be, but I like the way he is going. In the current context it seems almost revelatory, which is why he suddenly has so many followers. It is also significant that he has opened a territory where other minds, from both left and right, can meet and discuss things openly, without mass pressure. I have found a number of others who want to use that space. I welcome that. I too think it is needed.

The discussion goes on on Facebook:

Friday 9 February 2018

Ideology and the small c

I continue to think, in what some seem to consider my idiotic way, about the Jordan Peterson position, but now I am chiefly thinking about myself.

I think I have to make a dreadful confession. Not about anything I know for sure, more a possibility.

It is not impossible that I may be, in certain respects, a small c conservative. By that I don't mean a Conservative but conservative in the way that anyone of almost any political belief, however wavering, may be conservative about keeping some distance from ideology. I think one may be a left, liberal or Tory conservative. It is a temperamental given, not a policy. It is not sexy. I am not a sexy thinker.

I fear ideology. I think ideology kills and has killed in massive numbers, and that maybe, in that sense, my sympathy for Peterson is a sharing of that caution. Small c for caution. It is not the ideology of the left particularly, it is as much the ideology of the right that seems to me problematic.


I have a high respect for Marxism as a form of class analysis. I think it is remarkably perceptive about the economic forces at play in society. What I don't know is whether the prescription it offers has absolute validity. The evidence is not particularly encouraging in that respect.

I tend to have a high respect for religion too. Not as an unshakeable creed or source of authority, but as a way of perceiving aspects of the world. At some moments I can imagine myself a Quaker, at other times a Catholic. I know I prefer ritual to sermons any time. Sermons as exhortations present themselves to me as arguments and I expect arguments from religion to be as consecutive as arguments from anything else.

I have a high respect for most schools of psychology including the Freudian and the Jungian. Neither is the key to all mythologies but both offer remarkable insights that may or may not be proved on the pulse.


I am thinking about myself relatively publicly, ie here, because it may explain some things to people who may be sufficiently interested in hearing an explanation. So let me go further.

I am a Labour voter because my basic perception is that life could be a lot fairer to those at the bottom of the pile than it currently is. I don't care that much about the middle layers because I am not really interested in the differentials of material comfort. I have never cared a jot that someone has a bigger house or car or more holidays. It bores me stiff. Which is one reason I have no fear or awe at all of the rich. I don't feel angry with them or contemptuous of them, I just have no special respect for them. I may well question the source of their wealth and their attitude to those at the poorer end of the spectrum. At bottom, I suppose, I don't entirely trust them. I am quite willing to bite the hand that might possibly feed me.

I am, I sometimes feel, a Labour voter against my small c conservative instincts.I rarely feel the kind of righteous and vehement commitment that would be necessary to be an activist and, to be fair, I am sometimes ashamed of myself for that. You would be a better man if you were, I tell myself. And I may well be right. Maybe I will be that under certain circumstances. Maybe I will at sometime in the near future.

But maybe the small c stands for contemplative rather than conservative.

Maybe this is contemplation. But it's a contemplation that runs pretty fast through the blood.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

The Blind Musician and the Voyeurs

Károly Escher: The Angel of Peace, 1938

If asked why Hungary should have produced a significant number of important photographers my first answer would be in the terms I have just used in talking of my mother: history, health, opportunity, necessity and general circumstance. And, indeed, I am sure all these played a part. But beyond those it may not be fanciful to suppose that the very isolation of the Hungarian language - which, despite producing many marvellous writers, depends on translators of whom very few speak or read Hungarian - forced ambitious Hungarians into the other less verbal arts: into music, film, and photography. It may also be that the anxiety and adaptability produced by the nation’s geographical shape-shifting, the amoeba existence I mentioned at the start, conditions and refines tendencies and sensibilities. A constantly reiterated history of losses and recoveries - the individual now in the bosom of the nation, now marooned – might well make one sensitive to precisely such realms of feeling.

And we should, perhaps, add another destabilising factor. Kertész, Capa, Moholy-Nagy, and Munkácsi were all Jews, each of them part of one particular wave of exiled, expelled, terrified yet ambitious and talented émigré Jews, generations of whom had been washing about the world for a couple of millennia. After the fall of the Bolshevik republic of 1919, the leaders of which were mostly Jewish, the reaction in Hungary led to a series of anti-Semitic laws and produced a dangerous, oppressive atmosphere, especially for those who had supported the revolution. There were plenty of reasons for getting out into the world, to export your anxieties and search for delight in an open, international visual language. That did not mean there was an exclusively Hungarian sensibility to export, but the bedrock of Hungarian existence was always insecure. In that sense it was faulty but almost infinitely adaptable. André Kertész’s young friend and assistant, Sylvia Plachy, was a refugee from the same event that caused my own family to flee. It was in New York that she met Kertész.

Sylvia Plachy: Tightrope Walker, 2011

I think there are two chief tendencies in the Hungarian imagination, one essentially expressing itself as realism in the form of documentary: the other looking to fantasy, a fantasy sometimes violent, sometimes lush. (Hungarian film gives examples of both.) Work at either extreme might be outstanding. But the journey across the extremes could produce an idiosyncratic yet universal blend that speaks to both. Here it is in André Kertész.

André Kertész: Satiric Dancer, 1928

I want, finally, to return to Károly Escher and his Angel of Peace. The photograph is dated 1938, a year before the war. Is the image an example of irony or of hope? Is it perhaps comedy, a bitter joke? Surely, it is all these things, and more.

One last poem, an excerpt, from an early poem on photography written after my first return to Budapest in 1984. It follows my mother in her photographic work. It is called The Photographer in Winter. It is winter in Hungary and my mother is preparing to go out with her camera.

Voice 1
You touch your skin. Still young. The wind blows waves
Of silence down the street. The traffic grows

A hood of piled snow. The city glows.

The bridges march across a frozen river
Which seems to have been stuck like that for ever.
The elderly keep slipping into graves.

Your camera is waiting in its case.

What seems and is has never been less certain –
The room is fine, but there beyond the curtain
The world can alter shape. You watch and listen.
The mirror in the corner seems to glisten

With the image of a crystalline white face.

The white face in the mirror mists and moves
Obscure as ever. Waves of silence roll
Across the window. You are in control

Of one illusion as you close your eyes.
The room, at least, won’t take you by surprise
And even in the dark you find your gloves.


Voice 2
I see you standing there, not quite full length.
Successive sheets of ice preserve and bear

You up, first as a girl with wavy hair,

And then a prisoner, a skeleton
Just gathering new flesh. The layers go on
So fast that I am troubled by your strength.  

And now it’s winter, and this dreadful weather
Is always at the very edge of spring

But cannot make or fake it. I can’t bring
Another year to light. You sit alone
With all the pictures that the wind has blown
Away and art must somehow fit together.


Monday 5 February 2018

The Blind Musician and the Voyeurs 8

Magdalena Szirtes: András by a bench

Kertész’s work covers some sixty years and one could spend pages studying this or that of his photographs from any period. His sense of the significant is clear from early photographs of his naked brother on a rock, of the same brother walking past the lit wall of a cottage late at night, from the delight and play of the magnificent Paris photographs, and even from those desolate yet beautiful views of New York.
It is remarkable that all the major Hungarian émigré photographers should have established and dominated a genre: Capa as the war photographer par excellence, Moholy-Nagy as the leading Bauhaus formalist and Munkácsi as the establisher of a language for the active human body, whether in sport or fashion. All were pioneers: all are masters.

They are not the only masters of course. The names I mentioned at the beginning should include some of the leading women photographers such as: 

Kata Kálmán: Factory worker 1932

Judit Karász: Light and shadow 1933

Erzsi Landau: Water Works 1931

Éva Besnyö Self Portrait 1931

It may be that my mother had such ambitions as a young woman as she was lured away from home, living, for the first time, in a foreign city that had suddenly had become her capital. Maybe that is what photographs like this, the one she took of my younger brother, András, were preparation for.

It didn’t happen for her. History, health, opportunity and necessity often get in the way. Nor, if you showed me that photograph as by an anonymous stranger, would I have been able to tell you whether it was by a Hungarian or not. For, after all, photography is an international language in most respects, especially today when there are so many photographs taken and discarded each day it probably eclipses the total number of photographs in the world from the Great War up to the invention of the phone camera and the selfie. Not to forget the internet, on the wings of which such photographic images travel in vast flocks, almost blocking out the sun.