The saddest tweet I read today (always a tough contest) was this one:
If you don’t know Andrew Sullivan, he’s a gay conservative terrified at the potential for racial justice conversations to put him out of a job. He likes also to holler online about how leftists are trying to shut down “civilized debate” while also throwing tantrums when people push back about his falsenesses:
In short: he’s one of a number of mediocre thinkers paid—still, in 2020, confusingly—to profess opinions. But Sullivan is not my focus here, it’s the unfortunate person in the first tweet who lauded Sullivan for “making sense of all the chaos.”
My point in this post is that that’s how despots come to power.
These ideas stem from two sources. One is Lewis Hyde’s incredible book Trickster Makes This World. The other is what little I was able to stomach of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos before I deleted the ebook version of it I found for free online somewhere. (Extremely relieved not to have given that guy any of my money.)
Hyde’s book focuses on trickster figures in global myths (coyote, Hermes, Loki, Krishna, etc.), with a whole chapter on what he calls “dirt-work”, trickster’s predilection for using shit and filth and shame/lessness to “make this world”—i.e., create art, artistry, industry, knowledge and then give it to humans.
By working/playing in the dirt, trickster assures his art can begin in a form unsullied by the Pure, or the Ideal, which both belong, Hyde shows, in the realm of the gods, and which reflect values centered on effort and s(t)olidity. Trickster art, on the other hand, is always playful, agile, and fluid.
(Quick aside about how purity likes to pose as strength but it’s much more of a weakness. Purity is very easy to stain and ruin. Think of washed hands, the myth of virginity, all-white furniture. Whiteness in general. Hyde notes how formulations of race in the antebellum South believed that “one drop of black blood” made anyone black. Whiteness is so fragile it cannot survive a single procreative act from a non-white person, whereas blackness can procreate with anyone and stay fully intact.)
Here’s a quote I found in my notes:
[T]rickster’s freedom with dirt means he can operate where fastidious high gods cannot and as a result heaven’s fertility and riches enter this world.
Myths show this process again and again. Not only can trickster do things the gods cannot, his dirt-work also inserts fluidity and flexibility within a system or culture. Consider Carnival/Mardi Gras, the annual dirtwork-sinfest the Catholic Church allows everyone to get out of their systems before its grueling demands of Lent. Through the chaos of Carnival, through its mockery of the pure/godly/ideal,
ritual dirt-work operates as a kind of safety valve, allowing internal conflicts and nagging anomalies to be expressed without serious consequence. If everyone secretly knows the Pope is not perfect, the secret can harmlessly endure if once a year, for a limited time only, the people make a fool of the Pope.
In other words, the presence of chaos (however controlled) allows order to continue, even to take control. Eradicating chaos—or trying out that impossibility—will only bring more chaos.
Chaos makes neo-fascists (here we turn to Peterson) very afraid. It is, in Peterson’s imaginary, the force we must all fight, avoid, or transcend. School shootings, transgenderism, the fact of disease, single mothers—they’re all evidence that life is full of chaos and trouble and that we need to return to “Western values”.
The work Peterson does to help us accomplish this is giving young men shoulders-back-type advice (literally: shoulders-back is Rule 1 of the 12 Rules), and reminding them that the yin of the yin and yang symbol is the chaos side of the balance, and is tied to the feminine. Peterson’s work is, in Hyde’s formulation, lordly, godly work—it’s rigid, pious, inflexible, humorless.
I don’t think I need to spell out the sterility of order. It produces nothing new, it works desperately to sustain itself, it seeks a kind of deathfulness. (If you’re thinking about Marie Kondo right now, I want to point you to a great essay on this by Deb Olin Unferth.) I tell my students to seek always to make a mess in their first drafts, because in a mess you can create something. In a mess something can grow. Write a swamp, I say, not a desert.
(Ecologist readers are probably rolling their eyes at my ignorance re desert ecosystems. Fine.)
How does the desire to seek order in chaos lead to despotism? Because if you can’t handle chaos you can’t handle the everyday mess of life on a globe of difference. And if you look for leaders, charismatic or otherwise, who promise to lead you away from this discomfort, they’re going to need to make that messy world smaller, and more sterile. They’re going to need to point you to a future where that seems possible.
And the only way that’s truly possible is by controlling people until they make sense, or eradicate those who don’t from the face of the planet until the planet makes sense.
The only sense to make of chaos is that we’ve always lived among it, and while cosmos literally moves the world, it’s through chaos that the world moves forward.