Monday, January 7, 2019

SIMULTANEITIES IV: The Wind's Twelve Quarters


There's a paradox in Le Guin. One the one hand, she was seemingly an ardent believer in the communitarian ideals of anarchism. On the other hand, she was a libertarian-exemplifying individualist. 

The first assertion might be false in the realm of belief. Perhaps she did not believe in anarchism, but wrote about it as a fictional ideal in which her characters did the believing (but not her).

The second assertion might be factually false. On the other hand it might be borne out by a gap between actions and words.

Writers are a pretty self-reliant lot, on the whole. The writing of fiction requires loads of self-directed time through the fog of which no boss looms; there's no external cracking of the whip except that which, perhaps, the paying of bills and generally bringing home the bacon provides.

So she was one of those. That doesn't make her a right-winger. Look at all those writers on twitter: they're a bunch of lefties, creating an online non-hierarchical community both like-minded and supportive (at least the ones I follow are).

But Americans are a pretty individualistic lot. Le Guin's ancestors, alluded to both in stories like The Dispossessed, and in her non-fiction, where she describes her settler grandmother out on the frontier in the late 1800s, they had to be self-reliant. At the same time, none would've made it on their own.

There's a dialectic at the heart of Le Guin's fiction, epitomized in her stories of Martian settlement, of weird sentiences in far-flung solar systems, of pyschologies abnormalized by isolation, fear, and God (in the case of the excellent "Field of Vision").

Where, before, reading Le Guin I was reminded of how much her anthropoligist father must have influenced her world-view and by extension her writing; now, in reading the short stories, see the influence of Le Guin's psychologist mother.

These stories are really disturbing. I do mean every single one of them, as well as the volume taken as a whole. It is truly a story made of stories, a short-story collection that surpasses both congeries and fixes to excel at a whole other level of discourse.

The discursive psychological function of these stories is to present the dialectic of the individual against God, the universe, and the whole; and to break it down. Once broken down, the revolution can occur, as it does in the dual-story structure of "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" and "The Day Before the Revolution", both award-winning stories. 

I can't say a lot more beyond the existence of the individual/communitarian dialectic Le Guin performs in this collection; but I can say that naming performs a key function. One of the stories is explicitly about names. It is a fantasy story. The naming aspect has to do with not being able to tell others your real name (if they know it they know it, and that is fine), because to use the real name is to control the person/thing named.

An individual exists in this (fantasy) community for whom no-one else knows his real name. As it turns out, this should have been the first sign that something was amiss. Reading this story I am not surprised that Le Guin had rubbed shoulders at one point with Derrida. Her grasp of philosophy of language is unparalleled in what I have read so far within the SF genre.

The second set of stories immediately picks up this language-game thread, presenting a series of 'writings' by animals, as presented in a fictional academic publication "Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics." It's fascinating. I'm going to go read more now.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

SIMULTANEITIES III: Semley's Necklace

This story evokes, for me, both Aldiss and Tolkien; it makes me wonder if the basis for SF is racism; if, at the same time, SF is inherently post-colonial. Le Guin, Aldiss, Tolkien, all from 'dominant' societies: none subaltern, except in the case of Le Guin (her gender).

So is this her advantage in the end; is this why she can get away with casting her obvious anthropological knowledge of different cultures, peoples, races in terms of different species? Characters within this story correct each other when 'derogatory' terms like 'troglodyte' are used, but does this get the author off the hook?

Helliconia is somehow present here, in how a gaze, looking from outside, uses ideas of scientific classification to present the life-forms being observed. I don't know enough SF lore to know which way the fertilisation goes.  But clearly both Aldiss and Le Guin were writing 'social'/anthropological science fiction.

The approach makes it automatically feel a lot more like fantasy than science fiction, though clearly there is a spectrum. The sections containing 'reports' on the species, on the progress of their civilisations and their technologies would seem to be the only 'scientific' part about these stories.

Telekinesis, telepathy, these are present in the life-forms, in how the Gdemiar and the Fiia peoples communicate, and these 'technologies' present a stronger cognitive challenge that constitutes for the reader the 'novum' of the story.

The protagonist is chasing down a piece of jewellery that is 'on loan': "All the Exotica are technically on loan, not our property, since these claims come up now and then. We seldom argue. Peace above all, until the War comes..."

And the tone is pacifist, as are the actions taken by various characters. The fantasy flows from strength to strength, though we can tell it is an 'early' Le Guin, an adumbration glints within. There is a post-colonial sensibility to the critical commentary produced in and through the actions and objects herein, and we would expect no less of any stage of Le Guin.

She is a genus unto herself, her technology post-colonial, advanced. She has no ax to grind, but her strength lies in projecting a moral economy through story, a sense of doing what is right in the face of challenge, threat, men.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

SIMULTANEITIES II: Words Are My Matter


Words Are My Matter (WAMM) is a book about writing, with a wide variety of pieces included. At first it resembles one of those 'how to write' books, but it's not.  

WAMM is a story told in stories. That story WAMM tells is 'about' a life in writing, but also about a woman around whom many myths and stories have grown. 

Le Guin has a certain reputation to defend "[w]hen critics treat me -- even with praise -- as a methodical ax-grinder..." but I would say she has a didactic intention in all of her fiction.

Her essays and talks even more so. But thankfully, for the most part, I'm very sympathetic to Le Guin's politics, her takes, her stances. 

For example, in a long review of the novels of Saramago the latter's moral backbone forms the basis of her praise. She stops very early in her reading of Blindness because of a very real concern around the representations of violence that recur in that story. 

After reading a few other books, and here The Cave is singled out for praise, Saramago's ability to convey the appropriate message is confirmed, and she returns to Blindness. It subsequently receives only her highest praise.

This is in very direct contrast to her comment, on page 244 about "Cormac McCarthy, and others, [who use] essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially." While this comment does not address violence directly, it is implicit, and telling the McCarthy is mentioned in this text.

Le Guin reviews an edited collection with sole focus on The Dispossessed, and objects to its portrayal of the latter as a political tract with an ax to grind. This prompts much soul-searching, a digging back into her past, the architectures of her thinking. We get a lot about her reading habits growing up.

It is a strength of the whole volume, and it is why this book is the starting point for my 'year of reading Le Guin.'  It's not just how she approaches Saramago.

The introductions to Wells are illuminating, as with the whole lot, and shine light upon the place of Wells early novels taken as a whole, as a turning point, as the starting point for what was to become science fiction.

Throughout, we have a defence of genre writing against those who would disown it: Wells downplaying, diminishing, the importance of The Time Machine in relation to the later, realistic, fiction, lest the latter be contaminated by the former's less serious intent, its infection as 'scientific romance.'

Or Margaret Atwood's insistence that she doesn't write science fiction, which Le Guin points out makes it a lot harder to apply the right critical tools and thus repay the justice deserved in return. Jeanette Winterson does the same thing. 

Le Guin presents her hesitations about other writers: those she adores, admires, likes. I adore Le Guin and apply her logic to the work at hand: what are my hesitations about Le Guin as I head into the bulk of her work?

That she might have an ax to grind, for sure, especially in The Dispossessed. But her writing overcomes any didacticism; and besides her politics tend to agree, even if (or perhaps because) they occasionally tend towards the libertarian/individualistic side of the anarchist spectrum/ethos she espouses.

All her books are undoubtedly political, satirical, serious in intent. This could become a negative, if I wasn't in fact in the market for her product, ready to agree, primed with my own sympathetic politics of non-conformism, more anarchism than anything as rigid or consistent as Marxism. 

She reviews Mieville in a way that makes me want to read him: everything by him, to become a follower. 

Le Guin evokes Suvin in places, giving her own synopsis of SF definition: "one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near future that's half prediction, half satire." It's her own: there's no novum there, this from the woman who 'invented' the ansible.

Any other hesitations? Perhaps, I might think, maybe she's dated, part of a golden age past. But Le Guin's work ages better than just about any other writer I've tried to re-read from that time. Its literary quality, well-crafted imaginative exactness, and human capability all are timeless, and these pieces equally so.

In a final piece, a journal of a time spent at a writer's retreat, we get the story of a week in which Le Guin wrote a 40-page short story, a wonderful meditation on just how lovely the woman's approach to life could be. 

Perhaps we are seeing her only at her best moments. Or perhaps she was, unusually capable of maintaining her poise even when no-one was looking. 

I'm excited by this project, and have just received another title in the mail, one that I'll add to my list for this year's reading project. It's The Lathe of Heaven printed in a copy of Amazing Stories, sent to me as a Christmas present from my mother, all the way from Oklahoma. It's a blast from the past for me, straight from my grandmother's cupboard, where my aunt used to stash her books:


Next, I'm diving, this very evening, into The Wind's Twelve Quarters & the Compass Rose.



SIMULTANEITIES I: A Year of Reading Le Guin


Here is the running order and rationale for my year of reading Le Guin:

I will only read what I currently have in the house, in the following order, and without any real regard for chronology, comprehensiveness, and coherence:

1. Words Are My Matter (Small Beer)
2. The Wind's Twelve Quarters & The Compass Rose (Gollancz)
3. Earthsea: The First Four Books (Penguin)
4. The Left Hand of Darkness (Gollancz)
5. The Dispossessed (Gollancz)
6. The Complete Orsinia (Library of America)
7. Always Coming Home (Gollancz)

The above represents ~3000 pages of material, more than enough to keep me going for a few weeks at least. If I find that I have extra time at the end, or still want to read more, I'll acquire more titles (possibly covering poetry and non-fiction in more depth) and blog about them.

I have made the title for this set of blog posts deliberately much broader than just Le Guin, because I'd also like to expand the reading into geography (Massey), anthropology (Levi-Strauss), and post-colonial studies.

SIMULTANEITIES is a larger story about stories, genres, and decolonising the mind.

Initially, I want to use a 'complete' reading of Le Guin as a way of improving my own writing (academic, creative, and otherwise). It will inform my thinking generally, and will most likely appear in some form in future works beyond this blog.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

CYBERPUNCTUM: Metaphysics of Cyberpunk

Notes delivered at the Sublime Cognition conference 14 September 2018 at Birkbeck, London:

1




At the heart of (post)cyberpunk lies a puzzle about belief.  The Lockean belief in self-as-punctum (0-D object) from Taylor’s book Sources of the Self is here the origin of the concept; and the Lockean belief in the blank slate theory of human nature and property from the latter’s treatise on government.  The self-as-map, invested in reductive Lockean philosophies (and to some extent critical of them), is bolstered by cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk sensibilities.  Where Frankenstein is deeply critical of the Lockean paradigms of self and property, (post)cyberpunk in many ways capitulates or gives in to Lockean impulses that drive the paradigm.  Exceptions tend to be schizoanalytic, as when Kovacs bifurcates, or is copied into two bodies.  This represents progress over monolinear (but still bifurcated) Neuromantic cyberspace, that tends to leave the essential Case intact (or hardwired as Foster might put it).

This slide uses Kripkean categories to map out a hypothesis on the evolution of cyberpunk to its post-sensibilities.  Case’s identity is maintained retroactively over the course of Neuromancer. Case remains essentially the same in every possible world (contra Butler’s shaky reading of how this works in her otherwise excellent Bodies That Matter).  Kovacs, on the other hand, is essentially the same, but with a repetitive difference, especially after the bifurcation or copying of his ‘stack’.  That copying introduces a new kind of contingency that transcends death and troubles the very idea of possible worlds.  I here term this (the more difficult) a priori necessity, a schizoanalytic term derived from Butler’s performative sense of naming.

2



“…history, I’ve since come to believe, is the ultimate in speculative narrative, subject to ongoing and inevitable revision…Science fiction tends to behave like a species of history pointing in the opposite direction, up the timeline rather than back.  But you can’t draw imaginary future histories without a map of the past that your readers will accept as their own…The less you think your map of the past imaginary (or contingent), the more conventionally you tend to stride forward into your imaginary future.  Many of the authors I read as a boy [Bester, Lieber, Sheckley] possessed remarkably solid maps of the past.  Carved, it seemed, from doughty oak.  Confident men, they knew exactly where we were coming from, exactly where we were, and exactly where they thought we were going.  And they were largely wrong on all three counts, at least as seen from this much farther up the tracks”


(from the Introduction to William Gibson’s 2003 collection Burning Chrome (page xv))

The question with which this paper is concerned is: what do Gibson’s and Morgan’s maps of the past, as mapped in Neuromancer and Altered Carbon, say about them as writers and seers into the future?

My thesis is that, on the one hand, Gibson is a synchronic writer who, in Neuromancer, was primarily concerned with the rise of unchecked corporate power; and on the other hand, Morgan is a diachronic writer who, in Altered Carbon, is primarily concerned with the fate of the individual after the consolidation of corporate power.  Both writers propagate ideology through the strategic deployment of names and blank slates.


I will address the question and build towards confirming the main thesis through the use of philosophical theory combined with evidence from Neuromancer and Altered Carbon.   I then evoke Kripke’s puzzle about belief and apply it to the ‘problem’ of cyberspace in cyberpunk.  That problem is, to what do we refer when we talk about cyberspace.  I posit here that we talk the problem of reference itself, and in the philosophy of language we are talking about names.  Here I stick mostly to proper names rather than the more generalised sense of names as noun-phrases referring to things in the world. 

3

Csicsery-Ronay’s techno-evolution, anthropology, and memetics saturate every pore of the synchronic  work of Gibson, especially Neuromancer (Gibson’s first and greatest published novel).  Hinting at a singularity to come (both in genre and in the world), cyberspace, like its protagonist Case, proceeds iteratively, recursively, and incrementally (almost cautiously despite the cowboy junkie quality of Case) as a self-made (virtual) map.  Synchronic in the sense that identities (both real and virtual) retain necessary qualities that gain in rigid designation a posteriori.  Case, like Kripke’s Aristotle, would still be (the) Case, now described as brain-dead, or as a musician, rather than the role Gibson has him perform in Neuromancer.  The a posteriori necessity of the novel applies equally well to two further rigid designators: cyberspace, and cyberpunk.

Though of a different kind, the class designators (like Kripke’s ‘gold’ and ’tiger’) are equally subject to both the strictures and freedoms of the ‘communication chain’ paradigm for naming adopted by Kripke, and modified by Butler in Bodies That Matter (however crudely).  These stipulate that names, from their original (and probably mythical) baptismal moments, are communicated  without causality in the enchaining.  Thus drift in the actual name is inconsequential, but the fact of enchainment and communication is essential.  Called by other names, cyberspace and cyberpunk hit the same referents, things-themselves-in-the-world that may not have changed in essence.  The mere existence of evolving references, a la Butler, may in turn change our opinion, as the difference behind repetition begins to sway belief.  Whence thus the ‘Stack’ of Altered Carbon, the lurking singularity of Harkaway’s Gnomon, the hack of Levy’s Rig, going back, from whence Frankenstein, his grotesque, his sublime?

4

The fictional UN resolution 653 is part of the novum-assemblage of Altered Carbon, serving, alongside the idea and implications of the ‘Stack, to structure the plot of the novel.  In this sense, “a minimal novum produce[s] a fictive change of perspective into a new perspective” (Csicsery-Ronay, 2008, page 124) in an SF thought experiment.  Without the UN resolution, the Stack is not nearly as interesting or new.  It is less novum, more philosophy, one that posits complete separability of body and mind, with the latter constructed as software, the former (the body) hardware.  The resulting memes could be straight out of Gibson or Dennett.  The human and social (and socially implicated) parts of Altered Carbon are what gives it both interest and impetus. 

I posit here that Altered Carbon uses an a priori contingent construction of identity that relies on repetition with a difference (and thus Butlerian naming structures) with a schizoanalytic  bifurcated tail.  This evolutionary structure is certainly unique, and represents a tail-end of (post)cyberpunk, as well as a key reference point for larger emerging biopunk sensibilities that, alongside Anthropocenic explorations of climate-change induced SF thought experiments, will continue to become the century’s SF dual-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox.

A prior contingency of repetition-with-a-difference means there is an inherent rigidity and analyticity to the SF proceedings that might emerge: there may be two heads, but there’s still one name this has implications -- do we still call this beast SF, or is it now a branch of philosophy, an inexact but necessary science, dedicated to working out variously possible scenarios with tightly constrained empirical climate and genetic data firmly in mind?

5

In a nutshell, Kripke’s puzzle about belief is concerned with the statement “London is pretty,” and the precise sets of conditions, subject-positions, and referential quantifications under which the truth of the statement pertains. 

“Cyberspace is pretty” – when one enters cyberspace (or cyberpunk) one enters a reified form of consciousness, one that is about property in/properties of mind/consciousness.

The truth of each parallel statement, about London on the one hand, and about cyberspace/cyberpunk on the other, depends upon which part of London/cyberpunk one is in, but does not necessarily change its value or axioms

Evidence for these claims (as stated above) lies in examining how names lie along spectrums of value resulting in axial truths produced by narratives in/of cyberspace that are, essentially, maps of the mind.  These names are posited as memes – discrete, particulate, essential aspects of mind unique to cyberspace/cyberpunk.

The Kripkean puzzle about belief about where we are in cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk is confounded by Butlerian repetition with difference both within and between cyberspatial productions (and this now includes novels as disparate as Gibson’s Spook Country, Harkaway’s Gnomon, Allan’s The Rift, and Levy’s The Rig).  This has to do with both individual works and the genres to which those works contribute and are comprised.  Ghosts (of genre) are made out of stars (of individual works) that in turn form medial and structuring constellations that overlap and blur, just like the manifold names that comprise Neuromancer do for that originary work of cyberpunk (and I might argue provocatively, an origin point for science fiction itself).  Ontogeny (of the work) in this way recapitulates phylogeny (of the genre/system) that nonetheless retains a ghostly character and cognition.
  

To take just two examples of how patterns of evolution and transmission are produced and evoked in cyberpunk (Neuromancer) and post-cyberpunk (Altered Carbon), we look at the name “Case” in the former, and “Kovacs” in the latter.  Case has a singular death-drive that is essentially self-referential, endlessly rejuvenating itself in and through juxtapositions of cyberspace and the ‘real world’ of BAMA (the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis that retains much of the actual character of late-twentieth century west coast cities like Vancouver, Gibson’s home city).  The self-referential Case is a repetition-with-difference unto death of the body that maps one-to-one between body and mind, despite the blurrings between cyberspace and the real world.  By contrast, in Altered Carbon, Kovacs could be read as ‘two emptinesses’ (of body and mind), a name that changes bodies in a repetition-with-difference that pertains to the body only, keeping the ideal copy of consciousness intact through time, to infinity.  This takes place in a more vertical setting that evokes the class hierarchies the underpin Altered Carbon’s social world. 

6

[Dual-aspect theory: when you get too close to a ghost/genre it disappears/blurs.  Of what is it composed?  Different answer whether zoomed in or out.  If a name/genre is a punctum, then it becomes much easier to see in isolation, though it is deceptive, because when manifested as this kind of representation (a point) its zero-dimensional objectivity provides a false sense of provision.  In fact its essence is very dispersed (and ghostly, in the case of ‘dead’ genres like cyberpunk), as one sees when one zooms out.  If the ‘punctual’ genres are represented as points, then one sees a shifting constellation of points in relation to each other.  As ghosts, one begins to see their (dead) forms, and how they can overlap and interact in an assemblage of ghostliness]
  
[But when one zooms in, one can add another ‘layer’ by opening up the genre-point to access the constellation of works that make up the genre.  Within each individual work (itself yet another ‘third’ layer) is a constellation of names, primarily proper (person) names, but also place- and category names.  Once we’ve zoomed in to the level of the individual work (the third zoom-level down) one can still experience the dual-aspect noted above, such that when one pulls back from the novel (e.g. Neuromancer) it can be seen to have a ‘ghostly’ form or aspect, associated both with its datedness, and in terms of its outline and overlap with other works (e.g. Vinge’s True Names)]


[The thing about ghosts is: they act, and they are acted upon (Rieder, 2017, page 34), they may even interact.  Genres, people, texts, mediations, and representations must be allowed to do the same, to haunt us in their various ways, even as we react.  Cyberpunk offers an especially appropriate example for exploring the idea of ghostly genre, because it is rich with names and categories ‘all the way down’, and therefore as metaphorical and metonymical driver of much of what comes after (see Luckhurst, 2018 on the current state of play in literary science fiction)]

7

Locke’s theory of the ‘punctual self’ (Taylor, 1989), as a zero-dimensional mappable object, plays out in synchronic and diachronic ways in cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk respectively.  Furthermore, the punctum of (post-)cyberpunk applies to both fictional selves and subjectivities in particular works like those examined here; as well as to the works themselves and the genres to which they belong (however blurry and overlapping).  Mapping genre as constellation and ghost (‘ghosts are made of stars’) has brought forward the dual-aspect of self, cyberpunk, and larger structures of genre (and origin stories of same). 


To take the Kripkean line again, (post-)cyberpunk is indeed pretty, in both its aspects – from its smooth outer surfaces to its constellated interiors.  There really is no puzzle, as (post-)cyberpunk’s gritty-prettiness is part of its enduring appeal (just like London in fact).  But its experience its punctuality, will appeal variably across subject positions, times, and spaces (this has been pointed out by Foster in The Souls of Cyberfolk, in which Locke is only very briefly mentioned, a brevity that was part of the impetus for this discussion); and in sensibilities more in tune with embodiment, other genres may appeal more (though we have Cadigan’s Synners for example and other cyberpunk works that emphasise embodiment, and thus diminish the ‘punctal’ aspect, to greater or lesser degree).  The critical function of seeing (post-)cyberpunk as a puzzle is to highlight its map-like (and thus blank-slate and name-dependent) dual structure and, with Gibson, to attempt to see how effective its maps have been at teaching us about the present’s potential future(s).

References

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. 2008. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction.  Wesleyan UP.

Foster, Thomas, 2005.  The Souls of Cyberfolk.  U Minnesota Press.

Luckhurst, Roger. (ed.). 2018. Science Fiction: A Literary History. British Library.

O’Brien, Michael Kvamme.  2018. “Post-cyberpunk and the potential ontological emancipation of cyberspatial education in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age”. Fantastika.

Rieder, John.  2017.  Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System.  Wesleyan UP.

Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self.  Harvard UP.

Monday, August 6, 2018

12 Rules for Life

Endure 24, June 2018
Peterson's 12 Rules, reviewed:


1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back

2 Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

3 Make friends with people who want the best for you

4 Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient) 

8 Tell the truth -- or, at least, don't lie

9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't

10 Be precise in your speech

11 Do not bother children when they are skateboarding

12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

****

1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back

I was already doing this on account of my running.  Even at the end of a marathon because it is more efficient to run that way, with your body aligned over the top of your feet as they hit the ground.  Standing or sitting I might tend to slouch a bit more.  But I do very much agree with this rule, and will continue to apply it, running or not.

But I can definitely see the point of this rule, as well, from a non-running perspective.  I do think posture can have a positive effect on outlook, but I don't think it looks great to always be puffed out and beaming like a lunatic.  So, apply in moderation (this applies to all 12 Rules, and I'm sure Peterson would agree with my moderation qualification).

This chapter includes extensive observations on the behaviours of lobsters, ostensibly included to illuminate points about human evolutionary psychology, territoriality, and hierarchy.  Peterson is big on hierarchy and is at pains to show how human origins in the animal world, a thinly veiled socio-biology, have resulted in such 'archical behaviour in humans.  And how, in fact, we thrive upon and need vertical stratification and strife in order to achieve both individual and collective goals.

This lobster bit is meant to reel us in, but for me it had the opposite effect to such an extent that I considered not reading the book.  I found the lobster bit hokey, and disagreed quite strongly with the Bloomblurb on the back of the book calling this section on lobsters "breathtaking".  It was not.  Besides, how is a lobster supposed to keep his or her shoulders back standing straight up?

Actually I thought quite a few times about Spongebob Squarepants during this chapter and it made me laugh.  The book is not without humour, but overall it is a very serious book, quoting Nietszche and Dostoyevsky frequently, and evoking Heidegger throughout.  I really really dig the seriousness of this book, just not the lobster bit quite so much.

2 Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

This is an interesting one in that it assumes the reader has already internalised the rule "treat others as you would treat yourself", and then counter-intuitively flips it around.  I really don't think the order matters though, as long as you've internalised the rule to do better for both others and self.

The interesting thing here is that Peterson assumes the reader is already a 'moral' person, trying not just to think of themselves all the time, and treating others better than they might treat themselves.  We know it is wrong to do so, and therefore make attempts not to be selfish, to focus on others' problems as a way of taking us out of ourselves, and our self-centred concerns.

So I do very much agree with this rule.  You cannot take care of others if you have not, first, taken care of yourself.  When I took swiftwater rescue training near Kitimat, British Columbia in the late 1990s they taught us how to pull someone out of a swiftly moving river.  The way not to do it?  Don't get in the river, and don't tie the rescue rope to yourself as you throw it out into the current.  Both will result in your own, and the other's, death.  Take care of yourself as best you know how, then treat others with equal care.

Now, I should mention that each chapter of this book is accompanied by an illustration (a drawing) that is meant to resonate with the content of the chapter.  Chapter 2 shows a child looking at a painting of a biblical scene with bodies in various states of ageing and decrepitude.  The child motif recurs throughout, highlighting the intergenerational knowledge transmission aspect of the book: these are rules to teach your children, to pass on through time.  The bible is a theme throughout.

So far, a biblical tome about teaching the children well, and one that has the reputation of being a 'darling of the American right' (as a security guard at Vancouver airport told me upon seeing the book in the tray I had readied for scanning).  So far so good?

I don't know, but I really liked chapter 2, and this is really where the book started to pick up for me.  It maintained its momentum for the entirety and subsequent chapters, in the sense that I couldn't poke holes in the 'internal' logic of its arguments, despite often having that hierarchical, patriarchal, right-ish flavoured tang about them.  I kept reading.

Through chapter 2, Peterson mentions dual-aspect theory of experience that resonates really well with map-based metaphorical thinking.  Not only can life be experienced in terms of chaos/order, but it can be experienced also subjectively (from within) and objectively (like a map).  Peterson, like Nagel, is, in a very liberal-humanist vein (i.e. not really right wing, more maybe a bit neoliberal) trying to get us to pull ourselves out of ourselves and our constrained ways of thinking.

Another book that I really like that did this is Adam Roberts masterful speculative fiction work, The Thing Itself.  Both Peterson's Rules and Roberts Thing resonate together by presenting the Kantian worldview (of rules, of phenomena) in very accessible ways, de-ontologically, i.e., not based on what we (think we) know, but based upon a liberating logic that leapfrogs dread due to the clarity of its aim and vision.

3 Make friends with people who want the best for you

This makes sense too, especially if you think about how easy it might be to do the opposite given ulterior motives and downright devilishness.  By the latter I mean sometimes it feels good to be bad, and that can become reflected in the company we keep.  This could be so easy to do, to start hanging with a shady crew because of that 'feel-good/freedom' factor of 'being bad' (or maybe even Breaking Bad).

If we follow this rule I think we might find our friends-list is a bit sparser than before, that we are only picking people we can really rely upon to take our interests to heart, and to treat both our- and them-selves very well, and with reciprocation driving the relationships forward.

I see in this reciprocal-action aspect (and in the intergenerational knowledge aspect mentioned above) a very anthropological approach to life and philosophy.  This did not hurt my appreciation of the book.  On the contrary it heightened it.  So far so good, I was on board with the first three rules, agreed with them, and wanted to keep driving forward along with Peterson, who writes and thinks, like Nietszche, with a hammer, in hard crystalline chunks of thought and short declarative sentences.  So far so biblical, so poetic.

(By this time, as well, I was wondering if this was a self-help book, a work of philosophy, or psychology, or what?  It turns out it is all of these things, though on the back it is listed as "Psychology -- Self-Help", and the 'data' for the book quite often draws upon Peterson's extensive experience as a clinical psychologist).

4 Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

Makes a lot of sense, but in the day-to-day fray of existence, it is very easy to forget.  To what, to whom, against which person or thing should I compare myself (if I were to do such a thing), by way of measuring my progress towards some goal, some improvement I want to make in myself?  Ok, but first you have to want to have a goal, you have to want to compare yourself to anything at all (as opposed to just being, or even just muddling through, as many of us do much of the time).

But what we can get into the habit of doing is comparing ourselves to something that represents a cop-out or a very low baseline, and this makes it easy to look good.  We do this all the time when we say anything like "well, at least I'm not" x (where x is someone who is currently perhaps not doing well, is in a ditch, or is performing poorly).  The baseline for comparison must always be yourself, not someone else.

And if you compare yourself to yourself too long ago, you are essentially comparing yourself to someone else again (and thus presenting a false baseline).  Thus the essential 'yesterday' in this rule.

These rules are, by the way, in very Kantian vein, universalisable.  Kantian de-ontology requires this condition, that all the rules apply all the time everywhere.  It is precisely why we need to be careful with rules (but not with applying them too strictly if they represent a careful selection of all potential rules available).  We know what trouble can arise with the idea of a rule is taken to extreme or too literally.  It results on a Rule-bag Archipelago, a series of misfortunate happenings base on overzealous application of de-ontological logic, become complicit with murderers' and Nazis questioning  because suddenly we cannot lie to save the life of someone on the run.

Peterson loves to cite Solzhenitsyn as the ultimate individual who stood up to ideological power, who questioned the reigning powers-that-were (Stalinism), and that individual speaking truth to power is, for Peterson, king.  Individualism, a kind of Kantian-anarchy, based upon the cognitive power of the person acting according to their own atomistic consciousness (and thus free of the distortions of collectivised consciousnesses of both fascistic and communistic varieties), has the power to internalise key rules for living and apply them against chaos (as the subtitle of this books suggests), for order.  For the universe tends towards the former, and therefore we (each of us separately, but reciprocally networked together by our transcendent ability to each apply rules consistently and in action) must push towards the latter through the application of the universal cognitive power of the rules (within the strictures, of course, of the data in relation to any given problem at hand).

5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

This is where I thought the book might start to go south again, but I was wrong.  Peterson's logic continued to hammer home, to strengthen, and to elucidate the human condition.  I do not have children, but I began to look at them in a new light.  I already knew, at the very least, how manipulative and aggressive children can be if you let them get away with things.  Establishing who's boss through strict boundaries as to what kind of behaviour is acceptable and what is not can require a remarkable amount of creativity and fortitude from a parent.

For Peterson this falls just short of corporal punishment, and has, at times, physical aspects.  One must prepare to do battle, and the only acceptable outcome is a win.  The consequences of not winning are simply too dire, especially when in comes to one's future as a parent and the lifetimes of relationships that stretch out before each and every parent (or not-parent, for each and every one of us has been a child at one time, with parents with whom we have various kinds of relationships).

This chapter made me think of my childhood and why my parents may or may not have made certain choices about how to deal with the way we behaved (or more importantly the ways in which we absolutely did not behave, and how they tried to correct this).  My parents are both teachers of young (elementary school or younger) children, and are therefore conversant in the language of boundaries, early learning, rules, and rewards.

We are behavioural beings after all.  One of the ways that readers will object to Peterson is his emphasis on Skinnerian behavioural outcomes.  But when applied to children, and thinking what it might be like to have to bring up a child, I think it would be very natural to want to have some baseline behavioural psychology in place.  Therefore, I agree with rule 5, that if a child is being a real bastard, a little jerk, you fix it right then and there through the application of your superior adult knowledge and experience.  You fix it firmly and fairly and without violence.

It might take a thumb-thump or two (my own grandfather loved to surprise me at least once a year with one of these, and it damn well worked), or a finger to the chest; it might once in a lifetime take a spanking, but persistence will result in something resembling respect.  I am glad that my father brought me up in a strict household, in the sense that there were rules that were meant to be followed.

At my father's memorial service last month I quoted The Loney: "you will come in time to thank the man who made your mind".  Strictness and adherence to rules have the potential to make minds, for good, and for the better.  Peterson's Rules are far from misplaced in this regard.  The world might very well be a much better place if everyone followed (and debated and questioned) them.

6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

By this time I know both that I will finish this book, and that I will read it again...soon!  The previous chapter on children was exceptionally clear and convincing, and in the present chapter, about setting one's house in order, Peterson switches into top gear with an opening discussion of mass-murders, e.g. the Columbine and Sandy Hook mass shootings.  If you were not convinced in the previous chapter that letting children take advantage, manipulate, and overstep boundaries, with potential criminal outcomes, the present chapter brings it home.

We explore here the depths of abnormal psychology, illuminated again by liberal doses of the Bible, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Heidegger, and Solzhenitsyn (these are the key 5 for Peterson).

At the very moment I read this page, there was an active shooter on Toronto's Danforth Avenue, an unfortunate almost Jungian synchrony that made reading this chapter both very eerie and exceptionally effective.  What are the consequences of anti-human outlooks on life?  Peterson is at great pains to demonstrate that such (postmodern) outlooks have real consequences.  Not that the shooters were necessarily reading Foucault and Butler before performing their heinous acts, nor that society is so infected with such thinking ungrounded by morality that it results in increasing occurrences of phenomena like mass-murder, but that one must be very careful not to lend credence to sloppy or slippery thoughts that might lead to unintended consequences.  The direction we travel is largely in our hands, and we have many tools with which to make some good decisions to avoid tragedy (Peterson's book included).  Peterson himself is a case in point.  He read Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, et al, and comes out (perhaps years later, yes), on the other side, with a clearer sense of direction than before.

Perhaps the call, therefore, is for a return to precursors.  Of course both the postmodernists and Peterson (definitely not a postmodernist, nor even an alt-righter thankfully) read Nietzsche.  If so, let's return to that key thinker on his own terms: let's be better, more radical Christians rather than garden-variety atheists.  This was Dostoyevsky's message too, if we've read him correctly, with due care and attention.

Rule 6 is a re-stating of a maxim to be your best self before you attempt to make changes in others.  How would they take you seriously otherwise?  This is a call to take the high road, to pull each other up out of the slime of existence, to make the world a better place, one house at a time, each ideally stocked with a copy of Peterson's Rules on the coffee-table right next to the Bible and the existentialist classics.  The Kantian (anarchist-individualist) utopia awaits.

7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

So many people are going to set their heels in right at the start of this book.  I did not.  I went with the flow, I was critical, I believed!

OK, so rule 7 is a bit banal, but after chapter 6 we needed a bit of relief (I mean it's all relative at this point).  But, again to Peterson's credit, we do tend to do this.  We tend to pursue expedience over meaning, and it often boils down to not being able to see the map of our existence outside of ourselves.  In this sense it is not just about delayed gratification or correct application of de-ontological structures.

It is about meaning-creation in an inherently chaotic world, and about finding ways to push back and use the chaos that is all around in creative ways the result increased sense of meaning in our lives.  This is way beyond by now, so the second half of the book is just a ride.

8 Tell the truth -- or, at least, don't lie

The rules get more fun towards the end (especially the last two, which we'll get to).  I mean, #8 is a tough one in a sense because followed too strictly it could be problematic, but Peterson isn't talking about hiding Jewish folk on the run during WWII (but he does love to bring up the Nazis and the Communists, and Hitler and Stalin lot, in very equal measure).  Peterson is talking about generating a personal practice that, through consistent application, will become a collective (and thus societal) practice of more truthful behaviour.  What if Trump followed this rule?  If he really did (truly), he would essentially no longer be Trump (and that would be a very good thing).  This realisation alone made me think there is something very valuable happening in 12 Rules.  It seems to withstand various thought experiments about its application in the real world very well.

Anyone ever accused of lying knows how much it hurts.  But we all remain children at some level, full of defence mechanisms, and overblown senses of our own niceness.  We think we are good people when very often we are not.  We justify, we fudge, we are self-serving and manipulative.  We want to get what we want after all (not necessarily what we need...see rule 7).

Peterson points out that we are not as nice as we think we are, and that it requires very careful reflection to begin to build a core of resilience against our own worst natures.  We do have badnesses hard-wired within.  It is a kind of super-man (or -woman) that can rise above them.  But it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to do so each and every day.  Peterson is very much helping in this regard.

**9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't
(**This is my favourite rule)

After rule 9, the rules become quite a bit more 'lefty'.  Peterson knows this, and 'admits' to lefty beliefs that he holds, mostly around unfair distribution of wealth in society, and how to remedy inequality.  Perhaps he is showing his true 'Canadian-ness' here, or simply his liberal side, but any question as to whether Peterson is a martinet or not I think are laid to rest in the final four chapters of 12 Rules.

Rule 9 is a case in point, because it makes assumptions about 'the other' that can only be read as compassionate, liberal, and generous.

It also takes the default (and very Freudian) position of listening.  This again might be down to Peterson's clinical psychological practice, but if so, it works, and it is inherently liberal in outlook.

This might also be the hardest rule to put into action.  We tend to think inside our own brains, and to assume perfect knowledge (for some reason).  We tend to act like we already have the map.  What we actually have is a map, and a very partial and sketchy one at that.  Furthermore, that map is infected by subjectivity that blurs its boundaries and clear lines, names and signposts very significantly.  Someone else always has another map, their view from above that they think is right.  To get two such beings to come together and actually listen is nothing short of a miracle.

I have rarely seen it happen, but I think with Peterson we have a much better chance of increasing its frequency (i.e. of actually assuming the 'other' or Other might know something we don', and that is worth listening to, considering, and internalising into our own map).

10 Be precise in your speech

The flip-side of rule 9 is rule 10.  We switch from listening to speaking and when we do so we must communicate back to the other person (dialectically, or in conversation) that we have actually understood what they've said BEFORE we go on to make our own points.

What this might mean in practice is, actually literally, repeating back to the person with whom we are having a conversation or argument, what they've just said to us, and having them verify that our understanding of what the other has said is correct.

This might seem pedantic; it might seem overzealous, but it might also in practice avoid a lot of chaos, strife, and unnecessary conflict.   Who does not want to avoid a fight, a conflict, or an argument.  Ask yourself, if you like these things, what are your ulterior motives, your hang-ups, what's your deal?  We all have at least some issues.

Peterson is consistently counter-intuitive throughout.  We think him a right-winger (well, this is partly because of what he's said before about boys being boys, and them having hard time in the world today, while girls having it comparatively easy and the like), and sometimes he might be, but this is a very a-political book, and thankfully so.

This is a book about communication, about value- and meaning-creation, and it builds up a philosophical foundation from first principles, as the best works of philosophy must do.  It does so with admirable economy and force, without artifice, and yet in a way that is not hostile to creativity (even artfulness...think Nietzsche here, or any time you might be in doubt as to where Peterson is coming from).

11 Do not bother children when they are skateboarding

We are letting the light in now, we are being liberal, taking risks, exploring, staying open to the world, in a way to which only children (and a few select adults) can do justice.  This is the essence of what is meant by letting children skateboard.

It is all too easy to think of some rule-creating and -following adult being the exact same type of person that would become irate about noisy chaotic skateboarding wielding children.  Peterson (again counter-intuitively, and not disingenuously) does not fit this stuck-in-the-mud adult mould.  I feel that Peterson is probably the type of person (risking an ad hominem observation here) who becomes more liberal as he ages.  From this, I take inspiration.

12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Peterson likes dogs, and starts this chapter talking about dogs.  So he is saying in essence that whatever kind of person you think you are, be a different one.  Pet a cat even if you are a so-called 'dog person'.  Both dog- and cat-being have their strengths.

Reading the bible as a tool-kit of metaphors for living also has immense strengths.  So does reading Nietzsche.  And reading Dostoyevsky (though beware the Notes from Underground, for that text is suspect.  Instead read The Brothers Karamazov, and look to Alyosha for instruction on how to avoid nihilism).

I like Peterson a lot and as mentioned above will immediately begin reading his book again.  It resonates (though doesn't wear this as a badge on its sleeve) with other 'Kantian' texts, but it does so without being a rigid designator, and without being against a certain liberality, and even occasional 'fun'.

****

These are the 12 Rules.  Follow them for a better life.  I believe this, without irony.  Well done, Peterson (...slow clap).