Jordan Peterson vs Slavoj Zizek was more a performance than a debate


Last nights sold-out debate between Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson at the Sony Centre was pitched as a no-holds-barred throw down between two of the worlds most towering public intellects. One is a charismatic, funny, vulgar thinker who has, in a 30-year career spanning dozens of books in multiple languages, developed a highly novel critique of contemporary life, framed through the unlikely philosophical dovetailing of the German idealist Georg Hegel and the maddeningly complex structuralist psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan. The other is Jordan Peterson.

This big-ticket spectacle was the culmination of a year-long run-up, which saw the two men challenging each other in the press and social media. The debates ostensible subject was Happiness. More specifically, which political-economic model provided the great opportunity for human happiness: capitalism or Marxism. In advance of the event, jokes flew about the apparent irony of two acutely miserable-seeming men warring over the most efficient route to well-being. But in truth, the debate found them both in relatively high spirits.

Determining who won the debate feels impossible. And ultimately immaterial. Though the two men agreed on much including a shared distaste for the puritanical fervour of modern Social Justice Warriors and a mutual fascination with the image of Christs agony on the cross (a fun Holy Week digression, admittedly) they didnt really refine the topic in any meaningful way, so much as take turns performing well-honed versions of their intellectual personas.

These performances played well to their respective assembled camps, who clapped and hollered and cheered and, in spite of a pre-recording warning against it, gamely heckled. (I will confess to literally hooting out loud at the mention of Hegels owl of minerva metaphor, if only because the chance to enthusiastically cheer a passage from the preface of Philosophy of Right isnt likely to present itself again.) An early energy of rowdiness which included one fellow near me being ejected from the nosebleeds, and taking the opportunity to bark Youre stupid! at Peterson while being escorted out eventually settled into a drama of respect and civility one might associate with a structured, formal debate.

The evening opened with Peterson, who attacked Marxism by attacking what he saw as its source: Marx and Engels Communist Manifesto (1848). He exposed what he believed were deep flaws in its authors conception of not only capitalism which, per Peterson, does not trend toward exploitation, because a smart capitalist knows that the best way to maximize returns is to keep their workers happy and non-exploited and human nature itself, which sees people morally corrupted not by their relative class position, but by their adjacency to power itself. This latter lesson, as Peterson underlined, has borne itself out in pretty much every historical case of communisms implementation. Turning to various Steven Pinker-ish data sets about minimum wages increase and wealth increasing globally under capitalism, Petersons argument rested on a slight revision of Churchills famous maxim about democracy: Capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others.

Zizeks turn at the podium was, well, typically Zizekian. He not only abdicated his apparent role in defending Marxism itself (forgoing a conventional argument for his Mobius-like riffing on subjects ranging from Chinas massive economic reform, to pathology of xenophobia, to the bad faith reasoning of good liberals), but went so far as to attack the debates central question. Happiness, for Zizek, is no noble end in itself. This is because desire, for Zizek, is always determined by external forces, such that the satisfaction of that desire produces not happiness, but only further misery. More to the point, Zizek claimed that some wooly notion of transcendent happiness is not an ultimate goal, but a byproduct of social, political and economic life itself. And while Zizek (in his compulsive and frustrating tendency to not be reductive or overly prescriptive) never quite said as much, it was implicit in his argument that horizontal-ized, less hierarchical, more egalitarian social structure would stand to produce great amounts of this auxiliary happiness-runoff.

During the back-and-forth rebuttals, Zizek seized the opportunity to interrogate Peterson on his superficial reading of Marx, and his much-publicized distaste for so-called postmodern neomarxists. (Where are these Marxists? Zizek snapped. I want names!)

Indeed, much of Petersons intellectual authority derives from his attacks on these other academics, who he believes have hijacked the academy and the broader cultural discourse. Zizek, as patiently as possible, attempted to explain that the currents in French thought Peterson was attacking often have little concern for Marxism or (as in the cause of Michel Foucault, one of Petersons postmodern neomarxists par excellence), with many attacking the structure of Marxist thought itself. In time, Peterson humbly confessed that, perhaps, Marx himself offered up some more substantial critiques of capitalism in his latter writing, which he (of course) has not read. One of the better things about this debate was Zizek continually offering reading recommendations, useful to the gathered audience and, even more so, to Peterson himself.

It is here that we can also see the ultimate incommensurability of these two intellects, such as they are. Zizek is, for lack of any better term, an actual philosopher. That is: he is deeply conversant with ideas and the scholarship, from Marx to Lacan to Christian theology. Yes, he is able to interpret these texts in novel and exciting ways. But more basically than all that, he has read them. Peterson, meanwhile, is capable only of his (by now rather polished) common sense shtick, wherein he strides the stage, wiggles his fingers excitedly like a man fiddling with an invisible theremin, and encourages anyone who will listen to find the courage to take charge of their own life.

Its not a bad lesson, necessarily. But it feels like the rallying pep talk of a minor hockey coach, dressed up in references to the Bible and Nietzsche. Whatever his academic pedigree as a psychologist or, in his term, psychometrician his celebrity is the result of his work as a self-help author, and his insights have all the depth and nuance of something culled from Chicken Soup For The Morally Besieged Soul. Thats fine, of course. And Im sure Petersons best-selling 12 Rules For Life has offered genuine comfort and guidance to those turned on by its archly prescriptive life lessons about room-cleaning and cat-petting. But he just cannot compare to someone like Zizek, whose thought is not only deeply original (a compliment echoed by Peterson himself) but philosophical in the purest sense. It is concerned not with prescription or problem-solving, but elucidating the complexity of the problem itself.

Again: Zizek was not even interested in mounting some conventional defence of Marxism (let alone communism proper). He is well aware of the horrors of various regimes operating under the name (if not the spirit) of Marx, and as a result, almost pathologically wary of advocating for a naive return to revolutionary rabble-rousing. Put more simply, he doesnt have answers. (This dithering on the subject of how to best, and most usefully, marshal existent revolutionary energy has earned Zizek many skeptics and enemies on the Left.)

Contrast this with Peterson, whose persona is deeply tied up with his projection of capability, of togetherness, even of wisdom. He is an avatar of reason to which his readers and YouTube subscribers aspire they could be just like him, if only they cleaned their rooms. And even when his grip on philosophy and history operates at the level of a C+ sophomore reading response paper, he nonetheless radiates a kind of confidence, which is rather obviously intoxicating to the kind of person drawn to it. He has all the answers. Or at least 12 of them. And as someone like Slavoj Zizek who studies such things intensely likely knows, such appearances have a way of winning out over reality.

Zizeks ability to point out the massive gaps in his opponents knowledge was no doubt entertaining, but likely insufficient in seriously destabilizing Petersons cult of celebrity. (Petersons more die-hard fans tend to indulge a form of what Zizek, following from German theorist Peter Sloterdijk, might term reflexive cynicism even when made aware of their heros intellectual shortcomings, they will nonetheless act as if they do not possess this awareness.) And beyond seeing two middle-aged white men agree on hollow moralism of many modern liberals, not much ground was gained on either side in these ongoing culture wars.

As to the matter of which of these two men possess a greater claim to what we might call, reductively, the truth, it is useful to return to the Socratic paradox so fundamental to philosophy. What I do not know I do not think I know, said Socrates. The statement is often rendered as zippier, fridge magnet-friendly terms, like, All I know is that I know nothing. And that, perhaps, is the crucial difference between the philosopher and the fraud: only one possesses the genuine wisdom to know how little he knows.




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