Lobster vs. toilet guyStephen Farah
Jrdan Peterson – Slavoj Žižek debate 19th of April 2019 Sony Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
My notes are shorthand for the actual debate and fail to capture the rhetorical devices employed by the interlocutors. I paraphrase throughout and all direct quotes are in quotation marks. My apologies for grammatical errors, I wanted to get these notes out whilst there is still interest in the debate. Consequently, after spending several hours listening to the debate and writing up the notes I have no time left today for a painstaking editing process, please read them with this in mind.
Overall it must be said that Žižek’s reputation as a towering figure of cultural and social criticism comes out not only intact but amplified. Whilst Peterson does struggle at times to keep with the pace and acuity of the arguments presented by Žižek, the characterisation of the lobster having been boiled is harsh and not wholly true. Overall whilst long (2 hours 30 minutes) it was a stimulating and worthwhile debate. It was overdue and maybe these two coming together in this fashion rather than serving some ideological competition, was a worthwhile moment in cultural history. I appreciated Peterson’s closing comment about communication being possible across differences. Finally, and redemptively the closing comments were a joint opposition of “political correctness” and identity politics.
Peterson opening statement
- Marxist “class struggle” misses the bigger issue of pervasive intra and inter-species hierarchies and dominance struggle, as well as man’s struggle with nature and with himself.
- The bourgeoisie and proletariat distinction (“binary class struggle”) is inaccurate and simplistic, missing the multiple overlapping structures of classicisms and cross class pollination/mixing.
- Further problems of the binary, thinking about the proletariat as good and the bourgeoisie as evil. The repeated moral corruption of “proletariat” being placed power makes the point.
- Capitalists (bourgeoisie) do in fact (contrary to the Marxist manifesto) add value to production by virtue of their labour as managers.
- Profit is not in fact theft, there is some type of equitable exchange and contribution of value.
- The need to make a profit creates a natural limit on stupidity and inefficiencies.
- Failure of the Marxists to provide any cohesive plan for the aspiration of hyper productivity and the desired utopian outcome.
- Any aspiration for utopia fails to recognise the inherent desire in human nature for “trouble”.
- Capitalism has proved itself the most effective means of material production, i.e the desired for end of the Marxists.
- Capitalism is producing greater wealth for all, including those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Free market economy the best economic model for all, including the poor.
Žižek opening statement
- Both he and Peterson are academically marginalised by the mainstream.
- The most successful wealth creation and alleviation of poverty state in the world today is visa vie communist china that combines aggressive capitalism with a centralised strict authoritarian state control.
- Happiness is a flawed goal, psychoanalysis has shown that our desire for happiness is illusory. We don’t in fact desire happiness. Meaning is a far more real and sustainable goal.
- Any system that seeks to instrumentalise us needs to be opposed, we necessarily must take responsibility for our own freedom.
- There is no return to conservatism, it is all neo-conservatism now, Trump being the exemplar of the post-modern “conservative”. All returns to conservatism are fake.
- Conservatism claims that a move away from religion has brought about our slide into being amoral. But is this really the lesson to be learned from mob killing, burning, looting taking place in the name or religion? Without religion good people do good and bad people bad, but religion creates a reality (ideological imperative) where good people are also doing bad things.
- Today’s message is clear it is not that the absence of god leads to nihilism wherein everything is permitted but rather the inverse. What 9/11 and the litany of religious violence shows is the ability to kill en mass precisely because one is acting on behalf of God. “As today’s terrorists demonstrate, If there is a good then everything is permitted by those claiming to act on behalf of god.”
- The big problem of ideology is how to make good decent people do horrible things.
- We should a carry our burden, however, don’t fall in love with your suffering. Don’t assume your suffering in itself somehow bestows authenticity. A renunciation of pleasure can lead to its reversal, taking pleasure in the suffering itself (how catholic!).
- Multi culturalism is the final line of defence and attack leaving the white Eurocentric identity as the bar from which otherness is measured. This in their self-effacing (i.e suffering) attitude toward their own identity.
- German anti-Semitism vis a vie WW2, is not about the Jews per se and their perceived transgressions, but the necessary postulation of a causal agent for social fracture in the holed for homogenic cooperative society. An external other has to be postulated in order for the perceived cooperative homogeneity to come into existence.
Note. These are examples of how self-renunciation and suffering can be utilised as an ideological tool to perpetuate a vice.
- Today problems in Europe with the flooding in of refugees serves the same function, i.e we European capitalists would be okay were it not for the disavowed other who impinges upoun us.
- The story we tell ourselves about why we do what we do is fundamentally a lie, the truth lies outside (of the story) in what we do.
- The bogey man “cultural Marxism” used to explain social and moral degradation, actually consequent and immanent to capitalism, is such a case.
- e. the transposition (projection) of an inherent immanent antagonism onto the other in this case cultural Marxism.
- From Hegel, evil resides in the gaze which sees evil everywhere. I.e. it sees its own unconscious shadow.
- #metoo campaign has become an obsession with the perpetrators and less and less about the actual victims, i.e. a way of enacting hater and resentment. This from the originator of the #metoo campaign, Tirana Burke.
- Egalitarianism that promotes the possibility of the development capacities and competencies. Exactly which competences are successful in a capitalist free market economy? Capitalism is nota neutral playing field, it commoditises human endeavour and capacities along a skewed axis favouring a particular kind of production and productivity and fails to bestow real equality.
- Freedom and responsibility are not innate, they hurt and require an effort, we need to awaken (be led) to them.
- “Every good student of theology can out things better than Christ.” I.e. Christ is not legitimised by his -God’s son, virtues (competencies and capacities) but by who he is.
- Political power and competence should be kept apart.
- Not the victory of communism, which admittedly has failed dismally, but the unattainability of the current capitalist, free market economy at odds with the ecology (among other social political problems it has engendered).Nuralink and the possibilities it offers for greater control our relatively independent agency.
- Rogue nations and global problems are not separate from “functional” states, but interdependent and cocreated. I.E we ned to have a global view.
- Conclusion: we will probably slide toward some type of apocalypse, I refuse naïve simplistic optimism.
At the end of his talk Žižek admonishes the audience for their raucous applause. Please, he says, Jordan I’m sure you will agree with me here. We are not involved in some cheap competition (and then with a wry grin, well of course we are) but genuinely trying to confront real and serious issues.
- Expresses his surprise at Žižek focusing more on the problems of capitalism, which JP conceded is problematic, and not on the virtues of Marxism.
- Concedes the commoditisation of cultural life and all other forms of life by capitalism is problematic.
- Broadly agreeing with Žižek on problems around capitalism.
- Makes the point that there is a direct correlation of the decrease of suffering in relation to achieving a certain level of wealth.
- Question the apocalyptic interpretation of Žižek, esp. with relation to the ecology, but simultaneously conceding there are catastrophic ecological issues to be faced. (climate change is not real)
- Suffering is inherent to the human condition and should not be laid at the feet of any specific socio-political system.
- Challenges Žižek on not providing any argument supporting the Marxist alternative.
- Challenges Žižek’s version of egalitarianism which calls for equal opportunities, by the rebuttal that Marxism seeks equal outcomes rather than opportunities.
- Repeats his earlier argument that the problem is not capitalism but Darwinian style hierarchies. (Zizek had earlier in a humorous inclusion of the Lobster metaphor argued that although the lobsters were part of a hierarchy, there was no dominant member among them of the same type of dominance we see in human social interaction, i.e totalitarian leadership etc.)
- Peterson whilst conceding the flawed system of capitalism argues for the best alternative being individual moral responsibility (i.e. the classic Jungian “individuation” argument). The locus of social and moral responsibility is the individual, hence JP arguing for increased personal responsibility.
- Without arguing for the minimisation of suffering induced by poverty Zizek observes the counter-intuitive result of a “happiness poll” conducted globally a decade or so ago. Wherein the Scandinavian countries reported the lowest overall level of mean happiness and the highest was reported in Bangladesh.
- Happiness should be treated as a necessary by-product of ethical activity not its focal aim. Precisely because of what we learn both from psychoanalysis and the observation of social interaction that its aspiration is questionable.
- “My worry is all around the world this eternal marriage between capitalism and democracy is slowly disappearing.” China the most successful capitalist state in recent history achieves its aim precisely by marrying totalitarian control with a capitalist economy.
- Marx does not in fact argue for egalitarianism in an absolute sense, which he sass as a bourgeois aspiration. It is rather excessive hierarchical exploitation he is arguing against.
- Surely the ecological disaster, even conceding the opaque nature of thee exact situation, requires globally coordinated response and not simply free market conditions.
- Tensions in South Africa are terrifying on the edge of a civil war. The only thing that happened with the end of apartheid is the old ruling class was joined by a new black ruling class with no real redemption or alleviation of the suffering of the masses. And with its abject failure they now play they race card.
- We are in a classical state described by psychoanalysis of disavowal, denying the seriousness of the global ecological, social and political problems we are facing.
- Critiquing JP impassioned appeal for personal responsibility at the end of his talk, Žižek replies: I am a pessimist I don’t share your optimism about human character. This sounds to me like the ideology of the Marxists, shake off the bonds of oppression and all will be well. I think we shouldn’t underestimate the reality of greed, envy, hubris and evil. It reminds me of the story he says told in Slovenia. God comes to a farmer and says to him, tell me what you want and I’ll grant you wish. But with the proviso that whatever I give you will be given twice over to your neighbour. To which the farmer, immediate replies, take my one eye!
Notes from Q & A
- Žižek answers JP’s question, why is he with the full knowledge of the failure of communism identifying himself as a Marxist: that Marx writing does not end with the communist manifesto, nor is his thinking as simplistic as JP’s characterisation. Providing examples form other texts of the nuance and perspicuity of Marx. Then goes on to add that essentially, he is Hegelian than Marxist. And that Hegel’s point, missed by the Marxist, is that you cannot accurately project forward with any philosophical system, it (reality) is simply too big and open ended for such predictions. Hegel has in this sense an epistemological modesty. Rather being concerned with analysis of what has been than predictions.
- JP is concerned with the radicalisation of the youth reading Marxism as a revolutionary doctrine.
- Žižek: what you describe as post-modern/colonial neo-Marxism, where is it? Where and who exactly are you referring to? I would claim an absence of any actual Marxists in this onslaught of so called “cultural Marxism”. Those arguing for political correctness (i.e supposedly the cultural Marxists) are not in fact seeking any real social transformation, it is simply a hyper-moralisation indicative of a deeper defeat. “an utterly impotent moralisation”.
- JP: I believe the Marxists, citing for example French intellectuals such as Derrida in the sixties and seventies, replaced the obvious moral bankruptcy of communism practiced in the USSR and China with a slight of hand replacement of oppression through social identity of one group by another. I.e. thereby introducing identity politics.
- JP: post-modernism is skepticism of meta narratives, Marxism is a meta narrative and yet these two things seems to have ben welded together. And in this new meta narrative, like original Marxism, the oppressed group e.g. in identity politics., is automatically morally superior.
- Žižek: I’m sick of the current celebration of marginalism, identity that celebrates its marginalised state.
- Question form the moderator to both speakers: you are both critical of happiness as a form of pleasure seeking, or even an experienced state. Is there some sense in which we can think about happiness positively?
- JP: not happiness but meaning and meaning is to be found in the adoption of maximal personal responsibility and a personal and collective vision. Act ina manner that constantly expands your capacity to do better in the future, confront your own ignorance.
- Happiness is like love. You “fall” in love, i.e.. It is a deeply traumatic experience. Happiness is an act of grace. You are free in the Christian sense, precisely when you realise that the distance from God [or happiness], is not being something, you need to through virtues acts and the development of certain capacities, overcome. Rather, as G. K. Chesterton puts it, the distance from God is inscribed in God himself. In the moment of Christ asking the Father, why hast thou abandoned me, we see God himself symbolically for a brief moment as an atheist. You are simply separated from God, your separation form God is part of divinity itself [and the same can be transitively applied to happiness]. Happiness is not the realisation of some idealised state but precisely the struggle and fall. The process, the striving.
- Žižek to JP: I have a question for you on this. To your slogan of personal responsibility, put your own house in order. Something I don’t understand.is a very naïve simple question, what if in attempting to put your house in order you discover that it is not your house but the society itself that is in disorder? If I use you (referring to JP) as an example. Why are you so socially active? You don’t simply tell your patients put your house in order, it is evident to you that society itself is in disorder. It is like the joke tea or coffee? Yes please [i.e. we cannot distinguish the personal from the social here, both are needed]. I hope we agree to say to someone in North Korea, “set your house in order. Ha, ha”, [would be futile]. To give another example, how do as a private citizen you deal with ecological crises? Do all the appropriate carbon saving et al. behaviours? Is this not ultimately a symbolic but futile act in terms of dealing with the large-scale industrial crisis? Does this not in some sense displace both the problem and avoid the subject form coming to terms with or taking real responsibility, i.e. in the socio-political level?
- JP replies: I very much appreciated the point about God’s own self-doubt, which is something I had never thought about before. It is illustrative of the archetypal myth of Christ’s experience: losing everything, being vilified, unfairly tried, betrayed by those closest to him and suffering an ignominious death. I think if we accept that, the fundamental injustice of life’s conditions but without being crushed by it, without allowing ourselves to be swallowed by evil we can ultimately transcend it. [authors note, this is seriously paraphrased] . I think we if we focus on putting our house in order then in time everyone’s house will be put in order. The best bet for most people is to solve the personal problems that beset their own lives. Quoting Carl Jung, if we treat a personal problem seriously enough, we are simultaneously tackling society’s problems.
- Žižek, Hegel’s idea felix culpa, it is precisely through the fall that we perceive goodness. That is the dialectical paradox it is not that you fall from goodness as some pre-existing state. It is only in the fall that the state of goodness comes into being. That is the dialectical paradox.
- JP some more individual moralising -take the beam out of your eye blah blah and so on…make your way back to the straight and narrow path and so on.
- Žižek, in agreement tells a story about Himmler (the Nazi) that illustrates the point that ideology is precisely that which leads us away from personal responsibility and ethics to serve the “greater good” whatever that ideological position may be. However, Žižek warns about the danger of “false meaning” which masks the ideology it serves, e.g. Zen Bushism at War legitimising killing with a non-attachment.
- Final question from the moderator: what is the one thing you hope people will take away from this debate and why?
- JP, that people with differing views can still communicate meaningfully. In opposition to identity politics that sees people simply as avatars of their identity and suggests that no meaningful communication across identity differences can take place. That mutual goodwill allows for communication despite differences of opinion.
- Žižek: I hope we shown that there is a meaningful alternative to the alt-right – political correctness/postmodern-identity politicking. If you are a leftist, don’t feel obliged to be politically correct. Don’t be afraid to think. Just because someone may disagree with you doesn’t automatically make them a fascist.
End of debate.
Standing ovation for the two speakers.
To watch the full debate follow this link.