Whenever a philosophical and academic furor becomes the object of public attention, opprobrium and excitement, it is the duty of the critic to isolate, criticize, and work out the ideological stakes that make the debate relevant outside the fixed scholastic boundaries to which the form is limited. Moreover, as one begins this work, one tends to discover that the real implications of the positions assumed by debating parties exist elsewhere than in the terms of the debate, Zizek vs Peterson. In this case, the conclusions from the debate are to be drawn more from the reactions it provoked than from its content. Following this thread, it is an inescapable conclusion that the audience’s reaction of confusion and mild anticlimax reflected the fact that their expectation was not fulfilled: instead of their chosen hero destroying the opponent with facts and logic, each gave their perspective more or less alone to the crowd, not engaging with each other beyond the most abstract generalities about biogenetics, historical fact, and the ideology of common sense.
The disappointment of those waiting to capitalize on the debate, both on the left and the right, is basically a groan of disappointment: our heroic public intellectuals refused or were unable to give us established lines to follow, and the polemic was not decided by great men onstage. Basically, each delivered the polemic into the hands of the audience, one out of courage, the other out of cowardice. The vast majority of those disappointed are knowingly insufficient to the task, for they are confined to disputing claims, invalidating evidence, and refuting predispositions as if both Zizek and Peterson were operating using the same, neutral logical terrain, the same neutral rationality in relation to which we, mortals, can now take a stance. One man says that the basis of our drives, actions and impulses lies in immutable genetic code, another rebuts that the genetic basis of behaviors does not imply their immutability or their governance of global social relations. A casual observer might indeed surmise that the two perspectives result from different interpretations of the same premises, the same data or principles.
What escapes such a reading is the fact that the very form of rationality from which each of them argues, builds his system, etc is fundamentally seated in the practical attitude occupied by each in relation to his work. Peterson’s critique of contemporary society as adopting mores unnatural and contrary to our most profound instincts is linked to a broader tendency of viewing antagonisms and problems in the social order as emergent from a perversion or distortion of an otherwise organic whole. This is the conservative-traditionalist style of reasoning, and it permeates the very manner in which such people can conceive of society and social change (in principle they’re “against it”, a totally meaningless phrase). What does this actually mean? Far from implying that Peterson is simply “experiencing reality differently”, a relativist cop-out, this attitude directly challenges the idea that reality itself is neutral territory from which we are distanced a priori. Instead, Peterson’s very form of reasoning, his logic itself, is historically constituted in a partisan way, because he is committed, before any inquiry is made, to the defense of the state of things.
In a similar vein, Zizek’s insistence that subjectivity survives the discoveries of neuroscience and evopsych buffoonery does not depend on different occult data or on positions to which he clings irrationally in the face of information, but rather a fundamentally different logic than the one sustained by Peterson. For Zizek, an avowed and committed Marxist, social change, indeed, social revolution is the basic stake of all philosophical inquiry to the extent that the latter succeeds in revealing the contingency of the existing order, including that of logic itself. The very rationality embodied by his way of living in relation to his philosophy, and his accompanying status as a pariah of the academe, is testament to the different standard under which he operates. This standard is his partisan position of critique.
The result of this separation in terms of the debate, ‘Zizek vs Peterson’ also revealed a remarkable homology in their styles of address. Where Zizek spoke from notes, almost oblivious to Peterson, critically attacking the underpinnings of the debate itself in order to question and challenge its premises (Happiness, Capitalism, and Communism), Peterson gave generalities and commonsensical commentary, platitudes and hearsay. This is reflective of their basic attitudes, since the former is a practical application of the critique central to Zizek’s entire body of work, and the latter is the bedrock of antitheoretical or anti-speculative social conservatism. Incidentally this reliance of Peterson on common sense platitudes and generalities is the reason for his immense popularity; it is an everyman’s common sense reactionary politics.
The debate was proposed to exhaustively work through a problem, a problem which, on the surface, is basically irrelevant to any practical stake. But it assumed nevertheless the status of a public event, a cage fight of the great ideologies. The appeal of such a debate and the notion that it would lay to rest the antagonism to which it is a testament was not widespread. It pertains to a very specific class of “intellectuals” sharing two characteristics: obliviousness to the practical stakes of philosophical engagement and parasitic dependence on public personalities, philosophers on the basis of whose image they can demonstrate their engagement, intelligence, and participation in public philosophical polemic.
Dependent on the formulaic recitation of the theories produced by their favored intellectual, (in this sense, siding with Zizek or Peterson is an a posteriori distinction, not the point at all), each cheers at the polemical thrust and parry. The role of the public intellectual is in this sense always conservative, since inevitably their petty bourgeois “fans” ossify and make sacred the words to which they can only aspire. This is why Zizek’s attitude during the debate was one of destructiveness not with regard to his opponent but with regard to the entire formation of the debate, and why he refused to grant it any serious attention: in order that the viewer not be able merely to parrot and imitate him, but should be forced into the labor of inquiry, or abandon the path out of cowardice. Anyone familiar with Zizek’s work and notoriously weird style of writing will recognize this as his basic method in all his works.
The disappointment of the fans of the respective debaters is the best possible outcome of the debate. The demoralization of those self proclaimed intellectuals content to depend on sycophantic parroting, realizing that their parroted perspectives yield neither certainties nor access to occult truth when calcified into imagined consistent positions, is what opens up the door for their liquidation as a class. In the place of this fawning, the space is opened for a living theory, where theoretical elaboration can be approached only through a practically committed stance. The illusion of neutrality, of the stance of the philosopher looking down at the cold, dark ocean of reality from his lighthouse, without taking a side, making judgements on the basis of a sacred rubric which, mysteriously, always remains outside the scope of his critique, is only decisively smashed when his position in society is compromised, when the preening semblance of objectivity is replaced by fear for his life, his position, and his placid transgression. This dual process, demoralization and the fall into disrepute, is precisely the chief outcome of these debates, which far from cheapening the profundity of the perspectives, punt their proponents into the Atlantic waters, offshore of their private academic retreat. One thing is clear: Zizek can swim.
Luca Vallino is an American Translator and student of the classics