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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Live Commentary on the Žižek-Peterson Debate

Our editor willingly exposes himself to several hours of gruesome torture…

Tonight, “philosopher” Slavoj Žižek will debate “psychologist” Jordan Peterson in Toronto, ostensibly on the subject of Capitalism vs. Marxism. It has been said of the debate that “nothing is a greater waste of time.” Tickets to the livestream are $14.95, and admission to the venue itself was running as high as $1,500. By popular demand, our editor has been instructed to stare into the abyss and report on what he sees. Those grateful for his sacrifice should consider purchasing a subscription or making a donation as a means of supporting his recovery expenses, which are sure to be considerable.  

7:15 P.M. — People are cruel. I like to assume they aren’t, but sometimes you are just given incontrovertible evidence otherwise. I put my own happiness and peace of mind up to a vote, and here were the results:

The world, it seems, is full of sadistic bastards, people who would willingly take a perfectly innocent person and subject him to the most unthinkable physical punishment purely because it amuses them.

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. 

7:21 P.M. — The event is billed as a debate on “happiness” under both capitalism and Marxism. I cannot think of two unhappier-seeming men to have this discussion. (Witness Žižek at his own wedding.) Also, Peterson is billed as “Dr. Jordan Peterson” whereas Žižek is simply “Slavoj Žižek ” which I feel shows a great deal of disrespect to the esteemed University of Ljubljana. Also, henceforth I am going to leave the háčeks off “Žižek” because they are a pain in the ass to copy-paste every time.

7:31 P.M. — The event is late to start. I am on tenterhooks.

7:35 P.M. — No activity yet. Classical music is playing, to show that we are in for an evening of illuminating and elevated discourse.

7:46 P.M. — Nothing yet but the mutterings of the crowd and some pleasant Vivaldi. The comments on the bootleg YouTube Livestream are something else. A lot of things like “​WHERE THE POSADISTS AT?” “MARXISM IS HUMANISM” “CAPITAL IS SENTIENT and the obligatory “i am jacking off right now.” Plus “death to western civilization” “youtube wouldn’t exist under communism” “can people stop comparing this to foucault/chomsky”

7:53 P.M. — A warning has been issued that there is a zero-tolerance policy for heckling. Already intolerance is winning. The moderator has been introduced, Stephen Blackwood of Ralston College, which, as far as I can tell, is a nonexistent college.

7:55 P.M. — Zizek and Peterson are being introduced. Zizek has been granted his rightful title of Doctor. Promises “real thinking and hard discourse” and “the life of thought, not merely opinion” in an age of incivility. These “towering figures” are concerned with “fundamental matters: meaning, truth, freedom.” We are promised that we will see “surprising agreement on deep questions.” Dr. Slavoj Zizek is a philosopher, we are told with two doctoral degrees. The crowd cheers when we are told that he has a degree in psychoanalysis. “Let’s hear it for psychoanalysis!” says the moderator. “A dazzling theorist with extraordinary range” and “dialectical power.” Much cheering for this. Peterson has four bottles of San Pellegrino on the table. I am going to need a hell of a lot more San Pellegrino than that to get through this. “Both Drs Peterson and Zizek transcend their titles” just as “this debate will transcend purely economic questions by situating them in the realm of happiness.”

7:57 —  Holy shit, they each get a thirty minute opening statement. I severely underestimated the necessary amount of San Pellegrino.

7:59 —  Peterson begins. He is proud that tickets for the event are being scalped at a higher price than Leafs playoff tickets. I agree that this says something. Peterson says he tried to engage with Zizek’s work but that Zizek has a lot of it and there wasn’t much time, so instead he read the Communist Manifesto. Peterson is now talking about how to read: you read and you ask “Is this true?” “I have to tell you, and I’m not trying to be flippant here… I have rarely read a tract that made as many conceptual errors per sentence as the Communist Manifesto… I have read student papers that were of the same ilk… I have some things to say about the authors psychologically.” Says that Marx and Engels did not grapple with the “fundamental truth” that “almost all ideas are wrong.” First mention of Jung. I am not very interested in what is happening right now, Peterson is saying that critical thinking is good. Presumably we will now get a close reading of the Communist Manifesto. 

8:03 P.M. — Ah, yes, that’s precisely what we’re going to get. Peterson promises to give us ten axioms of the Manifesto and explain why they’re wrong. Since I do not get my politics from the text of the Communist Manifesto, I am about to become very uninterested in what is about to be said.

8:06 P.M. — Peterson is on one of his familiar themes: the class struggle is not about capitalism, but about hierarchical structures that exist throughout the natural world. Struggles for dominance are a “fundamental existential problem.” “There are far more reasons that human beings struggle than their economic class struggle. Human struggles with themselves, with the malevolence that is inside themselves… and we’re always at odds with nature… A primary conflict is the struggle for life in a cruel and harsh world.” Peterson says that hierarchies are necessary and efficient, conflict isn’t economic but a result of nature. “You don’t rise to a position of authority in society primarily by exploiting other people.” An outburst of laughter at this.

8:10P.M. — Oh dear, I think he’s going to mention the kulaks.

8:11 P.M. —Yep, he is. “…This was probably most demonstrated by the elimination of the kulaks.” (inexact quote)

8:12 P.M. — A lot of the usual Peterson refrains. When you divide people up into groups, you end up killing the members of the other group. Binaries are bad, hierarchy is good. Etc etc etc. Dictatorship of the proletariat will result in bloody misery.

I should say at this point why I don’t find anything Peterson is arguing here to be remotely interesting. First, he’s criticizing Marxism, and I am not a Marxist, so he hasn’t said a single word against the kind of socialism I subscribe to. Second, as usual, he has just said the word “nature” in order to justify a vast range of hierarchical structures without any actual evidence that those structures are necessary. Third, he hasn’t used a single actual quote from Marx, his tactic is simply to say things like: Marxists believe in a dictatorship of the proletariat. But not everyone in the proletariat is a good person, and the dictatorship will be bad. He’s not engaging with any of the strong core claims or principles of leftism.

8:23 P.M. — I’ve completely lost the thread. I think he has too.

8:24 P.M. — Oh boy, Peterson really doesn’t get the basic theory of Marxism. He seems surprised that Marx understands that capitalism produces a lot of things. Wonders why, if Marx admits capitalism makes many things, he thinks it’s bad. I do not believe that Peterson actually read a word of Marx to prepare for this debate. He is definitely going to fail his term paper.

8:27 P.M. — Now a recitation of the familiar pro-capitalist arguments: poor people today have iPhones, poverty is going away, etc. He cites the familiar statistic that there are many fewer people living on extremely small amounts of money. This the usual dodge: the question has always been “Why is there so much deprivation that could be alleviated and is not being?” not “Is there less deprivation?” If you adopt the “Have things gotten better?” approach, as Peterson and Steven Pinker do, then you could make the same argument in 1900: oh look, we’re better off than the Middle Ages, therefore things must be great and nobody has any legitimate objections.

8:30 P.M. — Zizek begins by whining about how he has been marginalized by the academy and says he is disowned by the left. Inexplicable. And annoying. Pity poor Zizek.

8:31 P.M. — Zizek correctly begins with China: if capitalism is the force lifting people out of poverty, then why did the greatest reduction of poverty occur in an authoritarian state that intervenes extensively in its market? But he then raises the question that the debate is ostensibly about: what is happiness? Peterson didn’t really talk about this. He just talked about why Marx was wrong about things. I don’t even think happiness came up.

8:34 P.M. — I turned away for a minute and now I have no idea what Zizek is talking about. “Trump is the ultimate postmodern president.” I don’t know where happiness went. Zizek was doing so well at staying on topic… for about ten seconds.

8:36 P.M. — Zizek talking about Dostoevsky’s critique of godless nihilism. Why? Not a word Zizek has said so far has been related to a word that Peterson said.

8:38 P.M. — “White left liberals love to denigrate their own culture” and “through this renouncing of this roots, multicultural liberals reserve for themselves the universal position… [They] embody the lie of identity politics.” Lacan said that even if what a jealous husband says about his wife is true, the jealousy is still pathological. Zizek says that even if Nazi claims about Jews were true, anti-Semitism would still be pathological. Happiness seems a long time ago. I don’t know if we’ll ever return to it.

8:40 P.M. — Zizek is talking about refugees. Says Hitler was one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century. “We are telling ourselves stories about ourselves” to find meaning. Yes. Zizek critiques the idea that “an enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard.” If that’s true, he says, is Hitler someone whose story just wasn’t heard? Fair point. Also, what the fuck are we talking about?

8:42 P.M. — I am becoming very, very tired. I don’t know what this debate is about. Peterson gave a long simplistic critique of what he understands Marxism to be. Zizek is talking about how antagonists are created ideologically. “The image of Donald Trump is also a fetish… the last thing a liberal sees before confronting actual social tensions.” Something about Hegel.

Applause regularly bursts out at lines that sound good. I do not understand why people are applauding. I do not understand the words that are coming out of Zizek’s mouth. I think I am stupid. I must be stupid. This must be elevated discourse. This must be thinking. I must be incapable of grasping the depth of all this thinking.

8:49 P.M. — “They were making cheese in the usual way, but the cheese was rotting.” I turned away and now Zizek is making an extended joke about cheese that is a metaphor for… something.

8:51 P.M. — Zizek is talking about the Holy Ghost and how it lives in all of us.

8:52 P.M. — Something about how democracy extends this principle. We need an authentic master who “forces us to be free.” Kierkegaard is mentioned.

8:53 P.M. — Zizek sniffs loudly.

8:53 P.M. — ZIZEK: “Lobsters may have hierarchy, but the main guy among them… I don’t think he has authority.” This is used to prove that political power and expertise should be kept apart.

8:55 P.M. — Peterson’s entire speech was about the Communist Manifesto. Zizek has not mentioned the Communist Manifesto. So far there is nothing here resembling a debate, to the extent that either man has said anything intelligible whatsoever.

8:57 P.M. — Turned away for a second and now Zizek is talking about forests.

8:58 P.M. — 30 minutes of Zizek. I was hoping this whole debate would be wrapping up by now. They haven’t even finished their opening statements. I am not going to make it through this whole thing. Zizek is talking about the digitalization of our brains.

9:00 P.M. — Zizek is talking about warlords in the Congo. Iraq. Syria. Zizek is out of time but begs to finish. Forced marriages. Homophobia. The world market. Refugees. Global capitalism with a human face. Bill Gates. The solution is not for the rich western countries to receive all immigrants, but to change the situation that creates immigrants. (I agree with this.)

9:02 P.M. — Zizek says we are sliding toward the apocalypse, that if there is a light at the end of the tunnel it is a train coming towards us. The speech is over. Many cheers.

9:04 P.M. — Peterson begins a 10-minute reply. He says, quite correctly, that he heard a criticism of capitalism, but did not hear anything defending Marxism. He says he assumed they would be debating Marxism which was why he opened with a long discussion of Marxism.

9:07 P.M. — My God, Peterson is a hundred times more lucid than Zizek.

9:08 P.M. — “The news on the ecological front is not as dismal as the people who put out the dismal news would have you think.” No evidence cited. Just said. To be fair, there has been no evidence from either man at any point.

9:13 P.M. — I think Peterson is a climate change denier but he’s not specific enough for us to be able to tell.

9:15 P.M. — I can endure about five minutes more of this. Nothing of any value has been said by either party on any subject.

9:18 P.M. — Zizek talks about how too much democracy makes you unhappy because of the burden of responsibility. Any reason to believe this? No.

9:20 P.M. — It’s just stunning to me how little connection there is between what is happening here and anything I would consider rational thought. I have to end this now before my brain melts. I am sorry. I have failed you.

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