The Zizek Peterson Debate

Having previously enjoyed and written about both Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson, I was interested to learn they'd have a debate. Billed as "The Debate of the Century", its official title was "Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism".

Having watched it (video), I regret to inform you it was neither of those things. But I nonetheless found it interesting.

The debate can best be seen as a collection of interesting ideas from both authors with occasional bridges being thrown accross.

Petereson's Opening Statement

(Video Timestamp)

Peterson opens with a 30-minutes speech where he criticizes the communist manifesto, which he'd re-read for the occasion. I'd say his criticism is essentially well-placed, but as many are quick to point out, attacking the manifesto isn't perhaps attacking Communism or even Marxism as its strongest point. Still, that criticism would be salutary for most "communists" I've talked to (which, unfortunately were more fanboys than rigorous intellectuals). Another issue is that it's hard to pin down what communism is with its constellation of thinkers. At least Marxism is closed off now that Marx is dead and he never amended his manifesto that I know of.

I was surprised (and a bit disappointed) that Peterson didn't seem more knowledgeable about communism. He makes a big deal out of how he obsessed about the cold war, and it would seem to me that understanding the ideological roots of the Soviet Union would be pretty important. Similarly, he's crusading against "post-modern neo-marxists" and it's strange not to understand or at least know your opponent's ideas.

The statement has some interesting ideas though, including the statement that "almost all ideas are wrong".

Zizek's Opening Statement

(Video Timestamp)

Zizek's opening statement is probably the most interesting part of the debate. You can find a transcript of it here. In typical Zizek fashion, it's made of many idea nuggets only tenuously linked to one other — although there is a link, all the more difficult to follow in the spoken form.

Zizek makes many interesting points. First, on how happiness is often the wrong yardstick:

In our daily lives, we pretend to desire things which we do not really desire, so that ultimately the worst thing that can happen is to get what we officially desire. So, I agree that human life of freedom and dignity does not consist just in searching for happiness, no matter how much we spiritualise it, or in the effort to actualise our inner potentials. We have to find some meaningful cause beyond the mere struggle for pleasurable survival.

Second on how modernity is characterized by the absence of authority (and divinity) that could impose meaning from above, and how it's impossible to go back to this pre-modern state of affairs.

He sees the rejections of some systemic failures of capitalism onto external causes (from Donald Trump to migrants).

His thoughts on social constructionism vs evolutionary psychology (comparing them, of all things, to French cuisine) are also worth a listen/read.

What's perhaps most surprising is that Zizek doesn't defend Marxism, which he squarely throws under the bus as failed. He doesn't do much to defend Communism either, but points a problem with capitalism on what Marx called "commons" (I wrote about commons before). Capitalism threatens the commons due to its self-reproducing nature, though he points out that communism had this self-reproducing nature to ("the historical necessity of progress towards communism", though — fittingly — this drive was much more centralized).

In fact, this was a surprise for many, but both men tended to agree a whole lot, with only surface differences (some, though not all, could be chalked to their vastly different backgrounds). The tone of the debate was also noted to be very cordial and respectful, something I really appreciated.

Zizek's conclusion is, in his words "pessimistic": we will continue to slide towards disaster, maybe some catastrophes can shake us out of our ruts.

I encourage you to watch the video or read the transcript (or both), this part is the most interesting.

I'd say this reminds me a lot of what I've seen from him already. Some idea make a reappearance, other are newly developed, but it's clear these are coherent thoughts from the same thinker.

Further Comments

The rest of the debate was (if memory serves) also interesting, but it gets even more disjointed. Zizek was hard to follow in his prepared statement, he becomes increasingly erratic in the rest of the debates. It's funny to see Peterson almost sweating from concentration trying to discern a thread.

Like I said before, I appreciated immensely that both men seemed pretty much on agreement (as well they should, adopting neither deluded far-left or far-right opinions), and that the debate was cordial, even mutually admirative at times.

It's also entertaining to watch, and I suspect this was the mode in which most people consumed the debate.

Peterson is his usual intensely-driven professorial self, which I personally enjoy — while Zizek is his tick-ridden idiosyncratic self. He's also quite semi-intentionally quite funny. It's hard not to crack up when — out of time for his remarks, he starts telling a Slovenian joke, then after the first sentence interrupts himself to add "I will finish immediately" before finishing the joke.

If you're curious, here's the timestamp for the joke.

Regarding how the debate was receiving, judging from Twitter and some quick google, pretty well on the center-right, and pretty badly on the left (broadly).

A good criticism is the one made by Benjamin Studebaker. His argument abbreviated:

There are three necessary features which distinguish a bad Marx paper:

  1. The paper contains a close reading of the Manifesto.
  2. The paper contains almost no references to any other texts, either by Marx or by other socialist thinkers.
  3. The paper contains a long digression about all the reasons the Soviet Union was terrible. I call this the “tankie-bashing” bit.

The article also has a nice summary of Peterson's opening statement.

His charge against Peterson's argument is followed with how he thinks Zizek should have replied to defend communism. It's quite interesting, but it's not what the debate ended up being.

Other commentators opted for snide, which I think is sad — although the linked live commentary is quite funny.

Other than that, multiple commentators (one, two) pointed that the "Debate of the Century" was overhyped (overmarketed, really), and seemed poorly prepared by its protagonists. And I must agree. Zizek is particularly culpable here, for talking about wherever he felt like that was tenuously related rather than sticking to "his camp", but I feel like the resulting discussing ended up more interesting because of it.

And sure, the level of the discussion might have been unappealing to all the critcial theorists that were widely read. But precisely due to the marketing, this event had the possibility to reach a much wider audience. And if you think something wrong was said therein, you ought to engage the content rather than ridiculing the form.

Ultimately, make your own opinion.

Bonus: Zizek on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy