So it seems like Žižek heard the criticisms regarding his approach to the political phenomenon of Jordan Peterson and has responded quite clearly. In this response he attempts to remind us of the ways in which the “radical left” or the “identity politics” left has marginalized his voice from contemporary discourse (like when he ironically supported Trump). In fact, I was well aware of the ways in which Žižek could not stand political correctness. He has a joke in his Žižek’s Jokes book that is specifically directed at Santa Cruz, which he refers to as the “politically correct” capital of the world (1).
For me, I was merely confused by Žižek’s initial interpretation of Peterson because he dismissed him as someone that had only risen in public popularity because of Leftist identity politics. I know that identity politics has been a catalyst for Peterson’s rise to fame, but I think there are many other reasons. I think this is best evidenced by the fact that Peterson may have caught people’s attention with identity politics issues, but once they were aware of his academic content they stayed for his perspective on personal responsibility and psychological self-reflection. Thus, I have always interpreted Peterson as someone who was crucial for the Left to internalize before they could “rebuild their house”. Indeed, the fact that so many Leftist identity politics warriors cannot even bare to have a reasonable argument or debate with Peterson is proof that his views are a repressed element in contemporary Leftist politics that require deeper analysis.
In the last video I was criticized, fairly or not, for using the term “alt-left”. What I meant by the term “alt-left” was merely the rise of people on the Left who use an intersectional identity matrix as their primary social theorizing tool. I think that this is cancerous for Leftist politics and the primary reason for the rise of the “alt-right” which also structures itself around identity politics of a white nationalist ethno-state. However, I do not want to double down here and continue using the term. I merely want to emphasize that my use of the term and my positioning of this discourse is to argue that both Žižek and Peterson stand against identity politics, either of a Leftist or a Rightest persuasion, with Peterson emphasizing more the identity politics of the Left because of his experience at the University of Toronto and humanities departments; and Žižek emphasizing more the alt-right because of his commitments to communist or ‘commonist’ theorizing which points towards the development of a new sociopolitical order which would certainly have transcended identity politics in order to succeed.
Now in the response to public criticism Žižek has now affirmed that he would be open to a debate with Peterson, potentially this Fall, which would be an exciting opportunity to discuss core theory and the future of politics in the Western world. In the previous video I emphasized that there were three main points that I think bring Žižek and Peterson together, namely:
(1) the emphasis on the importance of rethinking Christian metaphysics,
(2) the emphasis on the importance of overcoming post-modern deconstruction philosophy as structuring the metaphysics of humanities programs, and
(3) the emphasis on psychoanalysis as a fundamental discovery of the nature of the human mind that needs to be properly integrated into the future sciences of mind in order to help us understand the nature of dreams, drives and the structure of civilization.
1a. Christianity (Žižek)
Žižek’s approach to Christianity is structured around his negation of the contemporary Western spiritual trend of becoming enamoured with Western Buddhism, other eastern spiritual traditions, and also anti-institutional Christian gnosticism. His reason for negating this spiritual trend is because it is precisely the dimension of institutionalization that enables the establishment of new rules and regulations (or Law) that develop the collective spiritual body of historicity proper. In the absence of such rules and regulations there is no ‘phenomenology of history’.
His fundamental claim is that when religion or spirituality regresses to the level of individual spirituality focusing on “inner experiences” we miss the fact that we have yet to deal with the core problem of how to structure civilization given that this excess of spirituality is irreducible. Thus, in this dualism between institutional religion and individual spirituality Žižek looks for a synthesis between the two forms. Take for example a quote from Less Than Nothing criticizing the gnostic tradition over institutionalization (2):
“the point which the self-erasing mysticism of ecstatic love cannot properly grasp: when mystics talk about the “Night of the World”, they directly identify with this Night (the withdrawal from external reality into the void of pure innerness) with the divine Beatitude, with the self-erasing immersion into Divinity; for Christianity, in contrast, the unbearable and unsurpassable tension remains.”
The second major point Žižek makes about Christianity, which is connected to the first, is that Christianity possesses an irreducible singularity in the death of God which opens up the space for a theological atheism. This theological atheism manifests itself in the community of Love or the Holy Spirit. Žižek here sees an unconventional connection between Christianity and Communism and he often repeats the phrase by Jesus that “When Two or Three are gathered in my name, I will be there” (3); attempting to connect this “saying of Jesus’s name” with the Lacanian notion that the Master Signifier as the entry of the Holy Ghost into the World. In this sense Žižek attempts to connect the death drive in psychoanalysis with the Holy Spirit in Christianity in order to synthesize contemporary individual spiritualism with the authentic negation of institutional religious forms.
The third major point I want to emphasize is that Žižek emphasizes the radical ontological nature of Absolute Love as only truly expressed outside of the twisted mortification also denounced by Buddhism. Thus Absolute Love is only truly expressed when it is done without any transcendental guarantee from the big Other (like a fully substantial God; or a marriage contract; or giving self to the State, etc); and thus something expressed in relation to the core of internal desire coming from within that holds onto its highest expression even when everything in the external environment is lost, and everything is a tragedy.
In this sense Žižek places the highest form of individual expression in the signifier and in the faith of Absolute Love expressed by the individual, which is something that he says cannot be deconstructed away. Here another quote from Less Than Nothing (4):
“Thus even if the object of desire is illusory, there is a real in this illusion: the object of desire in its positive content is vain, but not the place it occupies, the place of the Real; which is why there is more truth in the unconditional fidelity to one’s desire than in teh resigned insight into the vanity of one’s striving. This is why psychoanalysis is firmly entrenched in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition.”
1b. Christianity (Peterson)
Here Peterson starts understanding of Christianity with Nietzsche’s critique of Christian institutional structure. Nietzsche critiques Christian institutional structure because this structure does not emphasize enough that one should embody the archetype of Christ as opposed to giving oneself blindly to the institutional structure of the Church which does not focus on enhancing the individual. In this sense we connect Peterson’s idea that the Christian institutions do not emphasize enough the importance of individual action with Žižek’s idea that we need a synthesis between institutional critique and personal responsibility to build a higher order fidelity to Truth itself.
At the same time, Peterson does not simply deconstruct Christianity as most Western critics do today. He recognizes that there is an incredible historical importance to the nature of Christianity and that it was primarily responsible for training the Western mind on one transcendental object, namely: God (which is quite remarkable) (5):
“The scientific revolution never would have gotten off the ground if it were not for Catholics: the European mind had to train itself to interpret everything that was known within a single coherent framework, focus on the truth and the spirit of the truth, which was essential for switching critique to understand the natural world as an object. The ritual lasts longer than the reason for its establishment.”
Of course, Peterson has also been engaged a very innovative lecture series: The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories. Peterson believes that when we apply the tools and perspective of psychoanalysis to the Bible and to religious thought in general there is an emergent significance in the meta-level pattern of the stories written by the ancient peoples. Peterson believes that this emergent significance has to do with the fact that our world, including nature and society and our minds, are far too complex for us to make sense of it ‘All’. Thus the only way we have been able to make sense of it all is to repetitively tell stories about being itself which allow us to gradually come to understand clearer the mind of God.
In this way Peterson believes that when we turn our back on religious stories we become unconsciously susceptible to ideological pathologies because we are fundamentally narrative creatures that need a coherent story in order to act sensibly, meaningfully and ethically in the world. To quote (6):
“The Bible exists in the space between the dream and articulated knowledge. And that is why we should bother reading those stories. Without the corner stone that that book provides we are lost, susceptible, to psychic pathologies. People who are adamant anti-religious thinkers seem to believe that if we abandon our immersement in the underlying dream then we would all of a sudden become rational like Descartes and Bacon, intelligent clear thinking scientific people, but I don’t think there is any evidence for that. I think we would become so irrational, so rapidly, that the weirdest mysteries of Catholicism would become rational by contrast, and I think that is already happening.”
Then Peterson is also in some sense, we might say, radically Hegelian in the sense that he takes a very engaged historical phenomenological approach to study the nature of religion and the Bible. Indeed he started with the presupposition that everything we experience is the most real thing there is. Furthermore, he understands our experience as fundamentally shaped by a horizon of meaning and that we can detect this meaning in the things that shine forth on our subjective horizon. Thus when he attempts to understand the psychological significance of the Biblical stories he is attempting to do this in order to help us live better today, and to help us better direct our lives in relationship to meaning so that we do not fall into the traps of nihilism and deconstruction. To quote (7):
“Objective reality is not how we experience reality. What matters is that things have meaning, even scientists don’t think scientifically. How we think is in terms of the meaning of things, the significance of objects, the flow of time.”
He also proposes two useful psychological axioms to navigate the real:
“the world is not made out of objects, the world is made out of what objects”;
“the world is not made out of matter; it is made out of what matters”
These ideas are strongly informed psychoanalytically and can be reconciled with Zizek’s understanding of the materialism of the symbolic order.
2a. Post-Modernism (Žižek)
The second connection I suggested was productive to explore between Žižek and Peterson was their mutual rejection of post-modern deconstruction. Now it is totally true that Žižek has always and for a long time been against post-modernism and Derridean deconstruction. He in fact views the American distortion of Derrida in post-structuralist deconstruction to be a fake Derrida that does not accurately represent the true philosophical significance of Derrida’s work. There are even times throughout Less Than Nothing where he attempts to implicitly help Derrida escape deconstruction by emphasizing that Derrida also had a subtle and sophisticated notion of God as a future promise.
However, the first point I want to emphasize is that Žižek’s notion of “and yet it moves…” (eppur si muove) is precisely to capture this objective motion beyond deconstruction; that there is a motion of the signifier that moves independent of or beyond the will. In this sense we can see that ironically post-modern graduate school or academic departments deconstruct the foundations of civilization but they still move ideologically in relationship to an unconscious object of desire that they cannot deconstruct.
Thus Žižek situates this “and yet it moves” on the level of an undeconstructible drive; what Freud called the death drive.
I recently uploaded a lecture series video on Žižek’s Less Than Nothing and I emphasize in this video that the undeconstructible drive is what Žižek places as the crucial psychological notion to escape post-modern deconstruction. Here a quote (8):
“Eppur si muove should thus be read in contrast to many versions of the extinction/overcoming of the drive, from the Buddhist notion of gaining a distance towards desire up to the Heideggerian “going-through” Will which forms the core of subjectivity. This book tries to demonstrate that the Freudian drive cannot be reduced to what Buddhism denounces as desire or to what Heidegger denounces as the Will: even after we reach the end of this critical overcoming of desire-will-subjectivity, something continues to move. What survives death is the Holy Spirit sustained by obscene “partial object” that stands for the indestructible drive.”
Furthermore Žižek explicitly states that the Lacanian real, as located with this drive, is beyond both the scientific noumenal real and the Foucaultian power regime real.
To empahsize further this point of Žižek beyond post-modernism, one of the main ideas that he argues for in Less Than Nothing is the ‘Master-less community held together by belief’. Thus Žižek does not believe in the common post-modern condition that you can just simply ‘believe anything’. He thinks that, on the contrary, what we believe really matters, and even deeper, then that, that we believe even when we say we don’t believe.
However, I think this is an even deeper and more subtle point: Žižek attempts to reverse the claims of post-modernism today that we live in a cynical, nihilistic and post-ideological era, and that in the past we lived in an authentic world governed by true belief. In contrast, to this Žižek believes that it is the ancients who did not believe too strongly, keeping belief at a distance, and it is the post-modern peoples who in fact believe stronger than even the ancients.
2b. Post-Modernism (Peterson)
Peterson in some sense has structured his entire public persona around a negation of post-modernism. Here his claims are straight forward and to the point. He believes that the humanities have become dominated by French theory influenced by Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Furthermore he claims that these thinkers introduce a metaphysics of social power where all truth is replaced with relativity to various discursively mediated power regimes. Thus all historical forms can be deconstructed because their only function is to uphold pathological and oppressive power structures.
Of course, for Peterson this is a disaster because we are unknowingly blowing out the metaphysical substructure of our culture which is not only tyrannical and oppressive (one side of archetypal civilization reality), but also wise and enabling (the opposite side of archetypal civilization reality). For Peterson we should not deconstruct our civilization but attempt to live so that we deserve the civilization that we are lucky enough to have. In other words we should be grateful instead of bitter.
Peterson furthermore claims that the post-modernists operate on the idea that the world is subject to infinite interpretation and that means that our grand narratives about reality are just social constructions that have no meaning for history. Peterson often uses an evolutionary logic to counter this point by emphasizing that although the world is technically subject to infinite interpretation, only a finite number of interpretations are viable. In other words there are fundamental practical and ethical constraints on interpretation if you want to survive and live a fully self-actualized existence, and if you care about other people living a fully self-actualized existence (9):
“There are many constraints on interpretation: Constraint #1. Interpretation should be aimed to avoid suffering and death (unless you are suicidal). Constraint #2. There is a necessity of cooperating and competing with others which also constrains your interpretation of the world. You also have to cooperate and compete with same people over many times, which is an extraordinarily important constraint. Constraint #3. We have aims in mind (things that we want more than other things) and so we aim at those, and then constrain our interpretation so that the probability that what we want to happen will improve. All of these constraints operate simultaneously.”
Thus, instead of moving from Kant to Lacan on this notion, as Žižek does; Peterson moves from Kant to Piaget by emphasizing that Kant’s ethical maxim needs to be extended over as many possible games as possible.
Third, Peterson emphasizes that because you actually can’t live a life under the post-modern worldview that post-modernists end up using an old grand narrative to structure their worldview by re-inventing Marxism under the guise of identity politics. In this structure the Master-Slave dialectic organized around the rich and poor is reinvented with an intersectional gender-sexuality-racial matrix of analysis where everything can be situated as a zero-sum competition between identity groups (like women against men; or black people against white people). In such a structure antagonism and tension rises because people start to think that there is no chance to actually collaborate fairly across time with different kinds of people.
3a. Psychoanalysis (Žižek)
Žižek relies heavily on psychoanalysis and specifically the Freudo-Lacanian tradition. In this tradition Žižek emphasizes that psychoanalysis is a crucial break from traditional morality and traditional beliefs about what constitutes a good individual and social life. In this he attempts to build on Lacanian ethics with the maxim that “the only thing of which one can be guilty is having given ground relative to one’s desire”. In this Žižek does not mean a reduction of desire to liberal hedonism (of giving into simple pleasures), individualist immoralism (doing what you want independent of others feelings), or western buddhism (of happiness as telos); but instead, of really freeing yourself from the constraints of any social moral force that would seek to pre-figure a dream that motivates your action, or the big Other. In that sense his move to Lacanian ethics is deeply connected to the notion of the big Other.
The second reason why Žižek relies on psychoanalysis is to articulate a new vision of what is “most real” or what he calls “the Real”. In this view Žižek repetitively makes the argument that the real is not external reality or some pre-symbolic substance; but rather a gap/rupture internal or extimate to the symbolic order itself: the Real is what prevents the symbolic order from closing in and completing itself. In other words, the Real is what prevents the symbolic order from realizing itself (10):
“Lacanian Real is not a pre-symbolic substance; rather it emerges through the redoubling of the symbolic, through the passage from alienation to separation.”
Third the reason why Žižek relies on psychoanalysis is that he sees in it the knowledge we need to articulate a force beyond the Buddhist negation of desire. Of course, Buddhist philosophy sees only illusion in desire and for Žižek this fails to capture the way in which the real and illusion overlap with each other. In other words, for Žižek, it is not reality versus fiction; but the real that emerges internal to fiction. He often plays on this relationship between fiction and reality and the virtuality that continues to move independent of any negation of desire (11):
“And therein lies the difference between Buddhism and psychoanalysis reduced to its formal minimum: for Buddhism, after Enlightenment (or “traversing the fantasy”) the Wheel no longer turns, the subject de-subjectivizes itself and finds peace; for psychoanalysis on the other hand, the wheel continues to turn, and this continued turning of the wheel is the drive.”
3b. Psychoanalysis (Peterson)
For Peterson, also, he finds psychoanalysis as fundamental to our knowledge of the mind. To be specific in his lectures on Freud he states that modern psychology is fundamentally unfair to Freud by only focusing on his mistakes and not properly recognizing the way in which he fundamentally structured our contemporary models for the mind. Furthermore, Peterson believes that even when Freud was wrong he was wrong in an interesting and productive way which makes him all the more valuable to read. In that sense, Peterson himself is a believer (to some degree) in a (Lacanian) “return to Freud”.
Peterson thus gives massive credit to Freud on the discovery of the unconscious where he questioned the basic axiom of Descartes of “I think therefore I am”; namely that you have a complete awareness of your mind and a complete control over your mind. Peterson admits that it was Freud that discovered just how autonomous the unconscious dimension of your mind really is (12):
“It was a Freudian idea that people are made out of sub-personalities, and those sub-personalities are alive. There are “many active consciousnesses”. Psychologists have still not come to terms with the fact that these “unconsciousnesses” are living things; they describe the cognitive unconscious with machine-like metaphors which are not reasonable. The sub-components that make up people are much more intelligently viewed as personalities; they are uni-dimensional personalities in some sense, so that if you’re angry, you are nothing but angry; or if your afraid or hungry, you are nothing but afraid or hungry. Moreover, Freud was the first to synthesize a coherent theory of the multiplicity of personality that was not immediately accessible to your awareness. You can formulate ideas, you can act out things, for reasons that you don’t understand.”
Finally, Peterson emphasizes the transition from Freud to Jung very heavily; which is a fundamental difference between him and Žižek but nonetheless I think we would all learn if there was a discussion about these differences. One of the main differences between Freud and Jung is that Jung emphasized the collective unconscious as a seat of universal primordial images, the archetypes. Critically, the theory of archetypes is that they are not the fruit of individual experiences but they are universal to all human beings; Jung conceived of them in a type of neo-Platonic world soul sense. Now, Žižek fundamentally disagrees with this interpretation of psychoanalysis because he relies much more heavily on the Hegelian interpretation of historically constituted Absolute Spirit. However, it would be interesting to see if either Peterson or Žižek could make fruitful connections between the work of Jung and the work of Lacan, and it would be good for us to know why and where they differ.
This [essay] was a deeper exploration of the possibilities for a discussion between Žižek and Peterson. As I made clear in a previous video I think that a debate between the two thinkers would be very productive, and it is looking more and more likely that we are going to get one! I hope that this [essay] is helpful for others to think about the type of ideas that we could learn about in a debate (or discussion), and hopefully from this conversation we could better think how we should move forward in terms of personal development and political development. My intuition and personal narrative speaks to the idea that a synthesis between Žižek and Peterson would be great for the culture. Thanks for [reading].
(You can help my efforts by becoming a supporter on Patreon).
(1) Žižek, S. 2014. Žižek’s Jokes: Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation? MIT Press. p. 35.
(2) Žižek, S. 2012. Where There Is Nothing, Read That I Love You. In: Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso. p. 81-82.
(3) ibid. p. 85.
(4) ibid. p. 131-132.
(5) Peterson, J. 2017. Introduction to the Idea of God (The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories). Jordan B. Peterson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-wWBGo6a2w (accessed: Feb 21, 2017).
(8) Žižek, S. 2012. Introduction: Eppur Si Muove. In: Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso. p. 4-5.
(9) Peterson, J. 2017. Political Correctness and Post-Modernism. Ideacity. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5rUPatnXSE&t= (accessed: Feb 21, 2017).
(10) Žižek, S. 2012. The Limits of Hegel. In: Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso. p. 480.
(11) Žižek, S. 2012. Where There Is Nothing, Read That I Love You. In: Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso. p. 131.
(12) Peterson, J. 2017. Freud and the Dynamic Unconscious. Jordan B. Peterson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFWLwYyrMRE (accessed: Feb 21, 2017).