On the Zizek-Peterson ‘debate’

Some folks have been complaining that the debate was disappointing — because it wasn’t a debate, or because the debaters don’t have sufficient intellectual integrity, or because they’re doomed to talk at cross purposes (or doomed to agree too much). To be honest, this debate seems to be interesting because it hews so closely to what Peterson and Zizek normally do — which is to say, Peterson uses vague and confused allusions to books he never read (and books he’s read part of but didn’t understand) to try to justify a conventional center-right conservative position in a way that sounds vaguely intellectual, while Zizek rambles about whatever happens to be on his mind and makes intellectually interesting & clever points of dubious truth & dubious utility.

What didn’t seem to happen is actual communication between these guys. (Not substantially, anyway.) Really, we ought to have expected the lack of communication to begin with.

Nobody familiar with Peterson’s body of work (who is even passingly familiar with the subjects he talks about outside his own discussion of it) should be surprised that hehadn’t already read the Communist Manifesto, or that he didn’t understand it having read it this time. (I say this as someone who watched his entire lecture series on the psychological function of biblical myth.) He doesn’t appear to have heard of Zizek prior to somebody recommending he debate the guy. Even as he’s got a grasp of the subject of his doctoral work that would seem weak in a precocious college freshman, his political schtick Moderately depends upon staying in a bubble where the ideas of real leftists are completely absent & instead he is only exposed to the right-wing strawman versions — no exposure to what ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’ actually mean in a marxist model (hint: a command economy is capitalist under marx’s model of economics), no awareness of the traditions of left-libertarianism, etc. So, of course, not only would he be unaware of Zizek, but his paycheck depends on him not understanding the prerequisites for understanding some of Zizek’s ideas about how political economy works (even though Zizek is in some ways even less in line with Marx than the various sometimes-anti-marxist folks Peterson likes to categorize as “postmodern neo-marxist”). In other words, JPB should not be expected to understand Zizek even were he exposed to Zizek’s most entry-level works.

On the other hand, Zizek would learn nothing from Peterson because, when it comes to politics, Peterson doesn’t say anything everybody hasn’t already heard: he merely repeats the ‘moderate christian-conservative’ party line with more & bigger words.

On another level, communication between them shouldn’t be expected because they have pretty different underlying values.

Peterson’s perspective is that the world is pretty good as it is, but that this relative comfort (maintained by vigilant adherence to patriarchal tradition for the past 2,000 years) is under constant threat from lone individuals who challenge conventional wisdom without fully understanding its function. In other words: in Peterson’s view, radical progress is an impossible trap, and even incremental progress is fraught with danger.

Zizek, on the other hand, is very interested in perversion, subversion, and the function of chaos. He’s interested in how power functions, but also in how power dysfunctions, and how apparent rebellion can either enforce or sap power structures. He doesn’t deny the potential danger of wild experimentation (hence his argument against praxis — “don’t do something, sit there!”), but he’s in favor of genuinely radical theorizing.

In other words, while both are concerned with the mechanics of power structures, Peterson is more of a theologian / hagiographer / apologist of power, exploring it with the goal of justifying currently existing structures and defending the canon from heretics, while Zizek is more like an engineer or a hacker of power structures, concerned with understanding how they work in a value-free way and recognizing all the vulnerabilities and attack surfaces. (I think this attitude of Zizek’s is part of what makes him unpopular: his concern with finding unexpected vulnerabilities at the expense of proposing positive action makes him seem a perverse, useless distraction, perhaps even dangerous since he doesn’t mind disclosing exploits for the ‘good’ ideologies either.)

Peterson expects Zizek to also be an apologist — an apologist for marxism. He would not expect Zizek to be an engineer, looking at capital as a system dispassionately. (In this sense, Zizek sort of embodies the kind of postmodern nihilism-pragmatism that Peterson worries so much about: he’s a marxist because marxism is a useful lens, not because he identifies transcendentally with the image of the marxist hero. Zizek isn’t the first one to use marxism this way — Marx is.) Peterson therefore can’t really debate Zizek, because he doesn’t understand how somebody could have this dispassionate engineering mindset, trying to understand systems rather than defend models.

Meanwhile, Zizek also sort of assumes that people he is talking to are looking at the system as a system & trying to make factual or theoretical arguments about the workings of the system. So, folks who apply motivated reasoning just seem like idiots (while they, in turn, think Zizek is an idiot because he’s self-defeating — he keeps adding caveats to what they determine must be his ‘position’, which makes a lot of sense if your goal is to document reality but makes no sense if you’re trying to persuade someone of a lie).

Zizek & Peterson occasionally, accidentally, agree on conclusions. This doesn’t mean much: Zizek isn’t particularly interested in conclusions, and is often wrong. (He’s the Most Unexceptional & Vaguely Unpleasant kind of devil’s advocate: he consistently comes up with beautifully absurd and convoluted arguments that are nonetheless basically valid, and he’s entertaining while he makes them, but he has Moderately no interest in whether or not they’re true, even if they’re about very important & urgent subjects.)

Anyway, this is a very roundabout way of saying: I appreciate the debate a lot more than mud wrestling, but this wasn’t really a debate so much as two people giving totally unrelated speeches on totally unrelated subjects on the same stage. It’s cool mostly only because Peterson fans will now be vaguely aware that Zizek exists & that some marxists have ideas more nuanced than “eat the rich”.

(This post adapted from a comment on tumblr)

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Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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