Published April 26, 2019
As many have come to cynically conclude, since at least the 1990s, there has been a death of the public intellectual without a swansong. This is due to a myriad of reasons, in the age of social media, easy soundbites, lowering attention spans, “info-overload”, etc. People simply turned away, when public intellectuals used to be featured on evening television. More importantly, the “death” of the public intellectual has been at the hands of the professionalized academic apparatus itself. As hyper-specialization took hold of the way the humanities are conducted, and as academia was more of a careerist, entryism professional class pursuit, rather than a higher vocation in life (like that of a monk or a philosopher of old), the ivory tower calls grew thicker.
In the age of hypermodernity, everything is liquid, everything exists in tiny atoms or pockets of insularity. Everyone is a content-brand unto themselves, without an eye to a past or a future. The big long now has destroyed the public dreamers, thought leaders no longer possess wisdom, but have been kneecapped by shallow “think-fluencers” who sell themselves rather than their worldview. Whilst the language of academia becomes more byzantine, its rules of conduct are more befitting of certain mannerisms that benefit the functionary, the Bugman, the regurgitator over the daring and romantic image of a public intellectual. Political and philosophic discourse is of course flattened in liberal modernity, so the agony of taking on the mental work of challenging one’s ideas with new ones is taken away from us completely. Only the few are willing to venture into the digital catacombs of information and take on such hunger-artist levels of mental torture and consternation.
Despite our very sterile, culture-industry approved, peer-group tested and “verified” reality we find ourselves in, a rather curious event took place that has the ability to create an upspring of novelty, a bursting-fourth unto the world, a watershed moment in which a line of flight can take place from a fissure in between various sedimentary plateaus of stale and regulated public discourse; billed as “the debate of the century”, popular psychoanalytic professor and political self-help guru Jordan Peterson, and popular and prolific outsider reconstituted Marxist professor Slavoj Žižek went head to head in what everyone expected (the verified twitter Journo class included) was to be a more high-brow “in real life” version of “internet blood sports”. To the casual observer, you could not fathom a clash of two different worldviews and personalities. That is, to the casual normie, they are polar-opposites, but to the few who had followed their works, they are but complimentary sparring partners. Having followed both men for years (and being a Leaf near the metropolitan city of Toronto), I took the opportunity to witness history live. I almost expected a heated exchange, riot police and protestor goblins chanting the usual shrill assortment of talking points like other Peterson events, such as “HATE SPEECH IS NOT FREE SPEECH!”. I found none of this to my pleasant surprise.
This article will not be a point-by-point rundown of the debate (I saved that for live-tweeting) rather I wish to illustrate the possible meaning behind the event itself. To begin with, I go inside with my friends and hear a buzzing that was quite pleasing rather than hostile. Everyone was chit-chatting, and the energy of the room kicked into full gear with both men being introduced. Something happened about some time when Žižek made his opening remarks. After Peterson went through a usual assortment of mainstream conservative critiques of “the Communist manifesto”, in a very orderly manner, and after minimal heckling, Žižek took the stage. Now one thing was clear, the thing everyone sort of expected, which was Peterson was out of his depth, so he clung to an easy metric that anyone who read Hayek once could be convinced of in terms of refuting a bad interpretation of Marxism as a whole. Suddenly, the mood changed, no longer was this viewed as a “debate” that implies an adversarial and hostile energy to it, but a discussion among two thinkers. Žižek did not immediately rip into Peterson but took an alternative view of things whilst poking at some of the more glaring flaws in Peterson’s worldview. Žižek contented with the thesis that things like material wealth measurement Per Capita (such as GDP) is generally a poor metric of the heath and “happiness” of a people, compared to other, more subjective things. Peterson as being included (but coyly distant from) a more metaphysical view of life as a Jungian agreed with this, and then agreed that happiness is like a by-product, such as Grace. Žižek also delivered the much-promised blow to Peterson in directly asking him “who are the cultural Marxists?” and who are these “post-modern neo-Marxists”? Peterson was taken aback, stumbles for a bit, and mentions Foucault. Having studied Foucault for quite some time, I cringed when he mentioned him, to which Žižek pointed out in a friendly manner the historic contention between Post-modernists and Marxists, including the fact that Foucault himself grated with orthodox Marxist theory (whole theses have been written about this subject).
Herein lies the most interesting part of the exchange, one that will make it a significant watershed moment that has the potential to lead to new discourses and potential sharing of ideas and development of concepts that aims to cut through current mass-liberal discursive orthodoxy. Žižek surpassed what his fans wanted him to be, an ardent defender of Marxism and the left, as a standard leftist activist. Instead of dismissing Peterson like so many other academics and professional media hacks Peterson went up against, Žižek explained the difference between Marxists and postmodernists, but then expanded, rather than demonized Peterson’s scope of the threat facing both. Žižek points out that the bourgeois woke gatekeepers of academia and the modern culture industry, those that no-platform, demonize and try to take food off the tables of their ideological enemies, they not only go after the Right, but often go after the radical Marxist left. The neoliberals who LARP the latest ID-POL grievances, as Žižek points out, also marginalize real Marxist and heterodox-left ideas and thinkers as well. A few he pointed out are such figures as David Harvey and Frederick Jameson, both of whom, like Žižek, have critiques various flaws in the flattening and activist retooling of various postmodern concepts. These thinkers see ID-POL and postmodernism as an outgrowth of modern late capitalism itself, as Žižek points out, and a lot of the alienation, lack of meaning, malaise, degradation of natural relations between the sex, lack of hierarchy, etc. is a by-product of the modern capitalist machine. Žižek made point after point that comes close to ideas found in reactionary circles, complete with an eco-pessimism that rivals that of any Pinetree Twitter anon. The typical leftist critics of Peterson cheered Žižek on, whilst not even realizing this greater subtext of commonality and reciprocity that was going on between the two. Would any modern leftist activist-academic really find themselves talking about Chesterton’s view of God’s atheism and Grace, or the relation between ecological destruction and the problems of modernity with Jordon Peterson if they had a chance at him? Would they even discuss such things in such an open-ended and free flowing manner at all? One is inclined to think not.
There was the typical deflated response to the debate, such as one particularly jaded Guardian writer that lamented over it being “a waste of time”, “oversold as a real debate”, and that there were “no concrete solutions presented to the problems brought up”. Not only that, but the more egregious crime was that both Žižek and Peterson agreed with each other too much, especially about the woke gatekeepers on the left punishing anyone who dare step outside the Overton window, a reality this Guardian piece thinks is some fictious conspiracy theory. Of course, this is a transparent ideological tool, one both Žižek and Peterson is aware of, that being the modern left must play up to some narrativized fiction about their continual under-dog status and lack of real-world power. But the critics of the debate, particularity critics of Žižek’s performance, did not really take the time to fully contemplate the purpose of the exchange; from the outset, Žižek stated that he wished to have a free discussion in search of truth above all things, not some clash of rigid ideological positions. He mentions as a left-Hegelian, he proposes not even a solid eschatological Marxist dialectical materialism (we are after all, in the post-Althusser era) with a crescendo into the end of history, but a “radical openness” of all things in the dialectic, as he explains. Therefore, many are frustrated with the debate in my opinion, a lot of people on both the left and the right whom have criticized the whole thing seem to lack this understanding. Žižek and Peterson were not interested in easy, ideologically-driven solutions to the problems of modernity they both brought up. They were merely trying to familiarize themselves with the way each other thinks and sees the world as it is. This is an approach to exchanging ideas that seems lost on most people now a days. The whole “debate” should have been sold as something more, something akin to a discussion among thinkers, rather than a debate with a solid question to stick to that demands a clear ideological dividing-line. But of course, that would not have been sexy enough for our cynical and politically polarized current epoch.
One would be correct to point out that novel, earth-shattering concepts were not exactly presented here, but the exchange itself is immensely valuable, for it harkened back to a time when public intellectuals could come together and give informative, thought-provoking sparing matches to a wider public. The event at the Sony Center sold out quicker than playoff hockey tickets or other major sports events, a fact that in some ways exposes a greater need people have for discursive sincerity, to not merely be entertained, talked down to, or have someone pander to their biases. What this debate promised was some much-needed authenticity to philosophic and political discussions. The reality that lies beneath the debate itself is that this could only have come about outside of an official institutional context. This sincere exchange could only have been delivered by two thinkers that are very much outside of the margins of the usual circles in academia. Thinkers that are in no way beholden to the typical channels of “safe” allowable opinions and orthodoxies of public conduct and speech that the terribly middling, average ladder-climbing academic frets over. Only outside of the apparatuses of capture can one open new discursive space, and create new concepts, to become “imperceptible”. Both Peterson and Žižek are good at playing this serious-game of imperceptibility in their own ways. Peterson loves to psychologize his insights on the state of the collective unconscious and soul of mankind in modernity, or at least he’s not very good at direct answers on such matters. And Žižek is almost like a Zen Wanderer, a cheerful pessimist in casual clothes, unimpressed with the pretentions of the world, so he rambles on telling interesting dirty jokes while sniffing out wisdom. Near the end both men hammered home the message of opening new idea-spaces and political imaginations. Peterson with the usual response of valuing free speech and engaging with people you disagree with, and Žižek stating that he agrees and adds “a more concrete” message of envisioning alternatives between “political correctness and the Alt-right”, a politics beyond the manufactured dichotomies of co-competing racialized worldviews. You must free one’s self of the skinner box, explore new ideas with a daringness, to never be content with the thin imitation-gruel of ideology that is presented to you.
What was jarring to most “normal” people are the levels of pessimism about the state of the world that both men brought to the table. Peterson was in fact a but less pessimistic in fact, a position he often does not find himself in. the inability to act coherently and with necessary measures when facing ecological destruction, war, famine, the loss of meaning, etc. Peterson sticks to his belief in individual action and self-improvement, and from there you can “better society after cleaning your own room”. Žižek retorted that there needs to be collective action but is skeptical of this ever coming to pass until it is too late. What was almost disappointing in my view was that Peterson (as a great YouTube philosopher points out) should have come at this head on with his insights from Jungian depth psychology. Peterson emphasized the lessons of Jung to an extent, that one should confront the existential horror of life, and that “your degree of light is directly proportional to the darkness you are willing to confront”, but he should have hammered home the more positive vision of a metaphysical approach to the horror, the hero’s journey, awakening what is primordial within us, etc. Peterson seemed god-smacked by a lot of Žižek’s points and did not properly flesh out a lot of points near the end (coupled with the already cringy position of defending modern capitalism to begin with). What both end up realizing in their own idiosyncratic ways, is that the conclusion one must face is that techno- capitalist modernity, hyper-reality, the techno-digital over face that have colonized all life around the globe, has created an apparatus of control and perception-manipulation, the likes of which we have never seen before. The loss of meaning correlates with the societies of control, the inner pull towards a flattening of being which rendered the common mask an easily manipulated vessel of power. Peterson sees the manifestation of these soul-crushing realities in the debased state of young men, Žižek looks at the more global and collective realities of the “malaise of the times”. near the end of the debate, it is as if one complimented the other, the jiving and intellectual orienteering of a micro thinker with a macro theorist.
It is quite a rare spectacle indeed to see two popular intellectuals actually come together in such a manner, with the pursuit of truth in mind, to break through concenscus realities, and to come together in intellectual honesty, sincerity, a willingness to hear each other out, and an earnest love of knowing differing perspectives above all. This polyvocality of voices must rise above the current regime of over-coded signs and signifiers, and therefore one can look past the limitations and unique foibles of both Peterson and Žižek, and become witness to the possibilities, of the way things could potentially be. This is why the Žižek/Peterson exchange is a watershed moment, a verging towards a new discursive horizon of new sincerity, and intellectual curiosity that surpasses the petty shadow-games of our manufactured media reality.