February 2018 Reading Review

I wrote this back in February.  I’m blaming this cute guy for the delay…
26th February 2018

  • The Manual, Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond (1988)
  • 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson (2018)


The Manual, Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond (1988)
The Maual

“[….] a book that will be completely redundant within twelve months. An obsolete artefact. It’s only use being a bit of a social history that records the aspirations of a certain strata in British society in the late eighties.”

A superficially accurate self-assessment of The Manual from Cauty and Drummond.  It underplays though just how evocative of a time the book is.  Ostensibly about the practicalities of producing a hit single from scratch – and amusing in its treatment of this process – it brings to life a different era, and the different freedoms and restrictions of life in the late 1980s.
As they predict, technological change means you could ‘sod off all that crap about going into studios.’ But to do so you’d lose both some very funny writing, and thoughts and advice applicable to any project.  The manual contains repeated advice to listen and learn from everyone involved in the process, from engineers, tea boys and accountants, through to promoters, pluggers and distributors.  They are clear ‘[o]nly YOU can make each decision along the way’ and must take responsibility for these.  You must remain alive to the motives of others, and they set out clearly the different pressures different actors in the process are operating under. Nonetheless, the focus though is on successfully getting buy-in from those involved, learning from them and ensuring all have an interest in making it work.  There’s also a straightforward warning of the emotional turbulence any creative project goes through – despair and doubt through to ecstatic highs – the unreliability of both, and the need to include some downtime.
There’s some great writing and they pick out some gems from others (my favourite: ‘I am as mopish as if I were married and lived in a provincial town’ from G. H. Lewes).  Here’s a comment on cynicism – an accusation that could seem fair to level at their project:

Cynicism is a terrible, disfiguring character trait if used by the individual who is forced to carry a bitter chip. He will use his cynicism to cope with the weight of life and all its trials. But cynicism harnessed to your advantage can help debunk fraudulent mysteries that prevent us from sharing in what is possible and what is ours. At all times cynicism must be balanced with a belief and faith in the intrinsic goodness of our fellow man. Nobody really wants to be bad, even when they are pulling the trigger or handing out the towels for the non-existent showers.
You are not going to be able to cheat your way to the top. It is only by nurturing the goodness that everybody wants to express are the doors going to be held open for you.

This I think characterises the ethic of the book overall, and is an approach that transcends the specifics.  Alongside this, the era of pay phones and giros, and simply signing on when unemployed, are brought to life.  That freedom is gone now, and whilst reading I couldn’t help wonder how much possibility, for how many people, has been lost by our move to a punitive welfare system.
The book is short.  I got through it in an afternoon at work.  I recommend you do the same.

12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson (2018)
(Or: Self-Help Secrets of the Bible: A Clinical Psychologist Gets in Over his Head)
12 rules
I read this because I found the Jordan Peterson phenomenon fascinating.  The Cathy Newman interview was everywhere and a few of my friends were talking a lot about the furore surrounding him.  Having graduated from Sussex, and with friends and acquaintances on the fringes of current SOAS politics, I’ve also developed a more than passing interest in the follies of importing American identity politics to the UK. I still think the debate surrounding Peterson is useful to study and interesting for what it tells us about the current mode of politics, and perhaps the effects of the internet on political discourse – Peterson is very much an internet phenomenon . However, I restrict myself to the book here, and succinctly: It is mostly dull, poorly written, and poorly argued.
There are some good points in there – though none supported by solid and coherent full arguments – and, maybe, some of the advice might be useful to some readers.  The device of structuring his thoughts around these ‘rules’, twelve pithy pieces of advice, is unsuccessful though.  Stand alone, the advice is banal (‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’, ‘Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie’).  However, when he tries to develop these points to give them greater meaning, he seems to lack the discipline to control his discussion of the topic.  It felt as though he has tried to crystallise and compress an overarching world view and his justification for it into 12 trite pieces of advice.  The result is that what worthwhile content there is, is overwhelmed by meandering dross. The over-riding impression I was left with is of a man trying to construct a grand theory with a woefully inadequate understanding of the fields necessary for such an endeavour.
As becomes clear very early, Peterson is unable to think coherently beyond the individual, individual responsibility, and a representation of this in a socially conservative version of liberalism.  He indeed calls himself a liberal, yet nowhere here, or elsewhere (that I have found at least), will you find any kind of political-philosophical consideration of liberalism, its strengths and weaknesses, or its relationship to social conservatism.  As an example, Philip Blond’s recent review of a book on post-liberalism (here, I enjoyed reading it) gives an overview of the debates he’s either unaware of or uninterested in and outlines the contradictions between liberalism and many of the values Peterson holds dear.  The more of the book you read, the more aware you become that Peterson has not got a strong enough background in political or social theory to undertake what he is attempting here.
Large chunks are dubious biblical exegesis – I would be interested to see a theologian’s thoughts on his interpretations – and a repeated return to his dreams.  (I’m afraid it is true, nothing is as boring as other people’s dreams.) The basic point he is making through their use, that the myths that people have used throughout our history to makes sense of and order society should not simply be discarded or expelled or expunged  – as perhaps some more simple minded militant atheists would have it – is sound I think.  However, as he proceeded to simply and directly use his biblical interpretations to structure advice for contemporary living, I was repeatedly brought back to the opening paragraph of Mark Corrigan’s masterwork, Business Secrets of the Pharaohs:

The first thing to note when discussing the business secrets of the Pharaohs is an acknowledgement that their era was so completely different from our own that almost all cultural, political and, particularly, business parallels we draw between the two eras are bound, by their very nature, to be wrong.

Not only have things changed, but we understand a lot more about society than we did.  I am sure Peterson would be unimpressed by anyone seeking to disregard 20th century psychology in understanding human behaviour. Yet he maintains a high handed disdain for the social sciences in both his rejection of any sociological approach and superficial engagement with political science.
The Peterson phenomenon is interesting and important.  His book is neither.

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