Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Jordan Peterson vs. Slavoj Zizek: Clash of the Midgets

It was billed as the clash of the titans. It ended up being a bland discussion between overhyped intellectual midgets. People were paying absurd prices for tickets to the show down—not at the OK Corral—between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek. The Canadian Jungian psychologist was going to face off against the Slovenian philosopher clown. Why anyone thought that anything was going to come of it, I have no idea.

At the least, it received very little press attention. When push came to shove nothing really happened. Nothing was said of very much interest. The two men are symptoms of the general degradation of our educational system. They are, as Stephen Marche writes in the Guardian, defined by their enemies. Peterson has courageously confronted the police state scolds of political correctness. Zizek, radical leftist to his roots, has been taken to task for not supporting identity politics and political correctness.

Marche explains:

Peterson has risen to fame on the basis of his refusal to pay the usual fealtiesto political correctness. The size and scope of his fame registers more or less exactly the loathing for identity politics in the general populace, because it certainly isn’t on the quality of his books that his reputation resides. Žižek is also defined, and has been for years, by his contempt for postmodern theory and, by extension, the more academic dimensions of political correctness.

And they are both redolent of psychoanalytic theories, the kind that have basically gone out of style and favor. Peterson is a self-proclaimed Jungian, thus, a supporter of a man who was an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer, someone who happily promoted pagan idolatry. Peterson pretends to derive his theorization from Judeo-Christianity, but you cannot be a good Jungian and accept Biblical teaching. It is self-contradictory and embarrassing. 

In truth, Jung has been such an embarrassment that his work has found its way into the dustbin of history. The only living Jungian today is Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. That should tell you all you need to know about Jung.

If you are curious to read an effective takedown of Peterson, check on the essay by Nathan Robinson. True enough, Robinson is a man of the left, but his critique gains value from the fact that he quotes extensively from Peterson himself. It’s one thing for Robinson to dismiss Peterson’s ramblings as gibberish. It’s quite another to quote extended passages of Petersonian gibberish. Anyone who thinks that this is great thinking does not know how to think.

Zizek derives his theorization from famed French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Given that I was once a disciple of the great French obfuscator, I feel qualified to tell you that Zizek is bitterly clinging to a great deal of double talk and mumbo jumbo. Not because Lacan was always wrong—far from it—but his legacy has been largely superseded, except perhaps in France and South America, where anyone who rejects Anglo culture is a hero. In any event I wrote about Zizek and about Lacan in my book The Last Psychoanalyst.

As for the substance of the debate, Marche was largely disappointed. Neither man seemed very well prepared and neither had very much to say about the topic: Marxism, capitalism and happiness.

He summarizes Peterson’s opening statement:

Peterson’s opening remarks were disappointing even for his fans in the audience. They were a vague and not particularly informed (by his own admission) reading of The Communist Manifesto. His comments on one of the greatest feats of human rhetoric were full of expressions like “You have to give the devil his due” and “This is a weird one” and “Almost all ideas are wrong”.

I’ve been a professor, so I know what it’s like to wake up with a class scheduled and no lecture prepared. It felt like that. He wandered between the Paleolithic period and small business management, appearing to know as little about the former as the latter. Watching him, I was amazed that anyone had ever taken him seriously enough to hate him.

He said things like “Marx thought the proletariat was good and the bourgeoisie was evil”. At one point, he made a claim that human hierarchies are not determined by power because that would be too unstable a system, and a few in the crowd tittered. That snapped him back into his skill set: self-defense. “The people who laugh might do it that way,” he replied. By the end of his half-hour he had not mentioned the word happiness once.

In short, Peterson had nothing to say. As I say, it was disappointing. As for Zizek, a fully fledged man of the radical left, Marche was no more charitable:

Žižek didn’t really address the matter at hand, either, preferring to relish his enmities. “Most of the attacks on me are from left-liberals,” he began, hoping that “they would be turning in their graves even if they were still alive”. His remarks were just as rambling as Peterson’s, veering from Trump and Sanders to Dostoevsky to the refugee crisis to the aesthetics of Nazism. If Peterson was an ill-prepared prof, Žižek was a columnist stitching together a bunch of 1,000-worders. He too finished his remarks with a critique of political correctness, which he described as the world of impotence that masks pure defeat.

The great surprise of this debate turned out to be how much in common the old-school Marxist and the Canadian identity politics refusenik had.

One hated communism. The other hated communism but thought that capitalism possessed inherent contradictions. The first one agreed that capitalism possessed inherent contradictions. And that was basically it. They both wanted the same thing: capitalism with regulation, which is what every sane person wants. The Peterson-Žižek encounter was the ultra-rare case of a debate in 2019 that was perhaps too civil.

Marche continues:

“We will probably slide towards apocalypse,” he said. And Peterson agreed with him: “It is not obvious to me that we can solve the problems that confront us.” They are both self-described “radical pessimists”, about people and the world. It made me wonder about the rage consuming all public discussion at the moment: are we screaming at each other because we disagree or because we do agree and we can’t imagine a solution?

Both of these men know that they are explicitly throwbacks. They do not have an answer to the real problems that face us: the environment and the rise of China as a successful capitalist state without democracy. (China’s success makes a joke out of the whole premise of the debate: the old-fashioned distinction between communism and capitalism.) Neither can face the reality or the future. Therefore they retreat.

Quite frankly, at the risk of triggering masses of people, I find this remark to be cogent and useful. It’s not so much that the two disagree. The more salient point is that they see no solutions to the current dissolution of the Western world. Forget about the mewling over the environment, Marche makes clear that the problem lies in how best to respond to the only real threat to democracy: Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism. It does not make sense. It is not our way. And yet, it seems to be the wave of the future.

If you want to know what was said, substantively, the only live blog of the event was offered by Nathan Robinson. Like Marche he is anything but enamored of the two combatants. He opens his live blog with this expression of personal feeling:

You may have your own personal idea of Hell. Mine is an eternity trapped in a room with Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek. I do not like these men. I consider Peterson a toxic charlatan and Žižek a humiliating embarrassment to the left. I believe they both show how far you can get in public life without having anything of value to say, if you’re a white man with a PhD who speaks confidently and incomprehensibly. In fact, this is not really a debate at all, because these men are nearly identical as far as I am concerned. I sincerely believe that history will look back on this moment as a dark human low point. 

You might not like anything that Robinson says, but he is very smart and very clever. He is a graduate student, and a man of the left, which means that he spends far too much time trying to figure out why Communism failed, but still, he is worth taking seriously.


Anonymous said...

What a condescending article. How tall are you?

Anonymous said...

It is like two mini-Hitlers and mini-Stalin coming together to argru how to perscute adn mudrer more Jerws and plot agrainst Israel!

Anonymous said...

I wasn't familiarized with any of this, but certainly wasn't a harsh debate, it was just informative to me. I just review some of Nathan J. Robinson, and my impression (possible largely wrong) is that he is extremely prejudgment person.

Sam L. said...

Do I care... No.