Žižek vs Peterson: A nothingburger.

I guess Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek had their great debate in Toronto yesterday. You know how I feel about debate and Jordan Peterson, while Žižek is simply someone I don’t read and have no interest in, so you can guess how enthusiastic I was about this event. Fine, you like to watch a couple of gomers share a tureen of warm spit on a stage — knock yourself out, have a grand time, I’m not going to tell you you can’t. I’m more interested in Nathan Robinson’s commentary on it.

I didn’t get far in that, even. The debate started an hour late, and practically the first thing out of Peterson’s mouth is that he didn’t have time to read any of Žižek’s work (neither have I, but I’m not the one challenged to debate him), and even more surprisingly, he admits that he, voluble scourge of Postmodernist Communists, studied up by reading the Communist Manifesto … for the first time ever.

Oh, come on. It’s a long pamphlet, a summary of the ideas for the proletariat. This is the minimal amount of effort you put into preparing for a debate that some of your fans are paying $1500 to see? After you’ve spent years damning an ideology that you haven’t read?

It sounds like Žižek’s performance wasn’t much better.

I hope all the attendees got their money’s worth.


  1. hemidactylus says

    It would be interesting to see how far I can get before the coma sets in and my iPhone gets covered in drool. I’ve been interested in ideology as a field for a while. David Hawkes has an interesting book on the topic that covers people as diverse in opinions as Francis Bacon, Marx, Nietzsche, Althusser, Horkheimer/Adorno, Baudrillard and Zizek. All cultural Marxist baddies. Zikek has his own collection called Mapping Ideology. He’s a difficult one for me to pin down. Not familiar enough with Saussure and Lacan to follow his esoteric meanderings. That’s on me I suppose.

    Hawkes has this mind boggling weird review of Gould’s brick (bridging to the structuralism thread):


  2. khms says


    It sounds like Žižek’s performance wasn’t much better.


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

    And NR gave up, too.

  3. blf says

    The Grauniad’s report, The debate of the century: what happened when Jordan Peterson debated Slavoj Žižek:

    The controversial thinkers [sic] debated happiness, capitalism and Marxism in Toronto. It was billed as a meeting of titans — and that it was not. But it did reveal one telling commonality

    […] The size and scope of [Peterson’s] fame registers more or less exactly the loathing for identity politics in the general populace, because it certainly isn’t on the quality of his books that his reputation resides. […]

    I’ve been a professor, so I know what it’s like to wake up with a class scheduled and no lecture prepared. It felt like that. [Peterson] wandered between the Paleolithic period and small business management, appearing to know as little about the former as the latter. Watching him, I was amazed that anyone had ever taken him seriously enough to hate him.

    […] At one point, [Peterson] made a claim that human hierarchies are not determined by power because that would be too unstable a system, and a few in the crowd tittered. That snapped him back into his skill set: self-defense. The people who laugh might do it that way, he replied. […]

    Žižek didn’t really address the matter at hand, either […]. His remarks were just as rambling as Peterson’s, veering from Trump and Sanders to Dostoevsky to the refugee crisis to the aesthetics of Nazism. If Peterson was an ill-prepared prof, Žižek was a columnist stitching together a bunch of 1,000-worders. […]

    The great surprise of this debate turned out to be how much in common the old-school Marxist and the Canadian identity politics refusenik had.

    One hated communism. The other hated communism but thought that capitalism possessed inherent contradictions. The first one agreed that capitalism possessed inherent contradictions. And that was basically it. They both wanted the same thing: capitalism with regulation, which is what every sane person wants. The Peterson-Žižek encounter was the ultra-rare case of a debate in 2019 that was perhaps too civil.

    [… T]hey both agreed, could not have agreed more, that it was all the fault of the academic left. They seemed to believe that the academic left, whoever that might be, was some all-powerful cultural force rather than the impotent shrinking collection of irrelevances it is. If the academic left is all-powerful, they get to indulge in their victimization.

    And that was the great irony of the debate: what it comes down to is that they believe they are the victims of a culture of victimization. They play the victim as much as their enemies. It’s all anyone can do at this point.

    […] It was full of the stench of burning strawmen. A big deal, with huge numbers, and really very little underneath.

  4. drew says

    Mere incoherence was not proof enough of intellect. I guess Zizek had bragged about not preparing for the debate and I from what Peterson said I don’t think he actually read the manifesto. The occasion called for Ayahuasca. I was all out so I stopped the video and went to a bar instead.

  5. =8)-DX says

    Having listened to the debate, it seemed to me the biggest takeaways were:
    1) People cleverer and more read in Marx than me had good takes about it. Read them.
    2) Žižek was at least funny.
    3) If Peterson doesn’t understand Marx (just reading the wikipedia entry would get him FAR ahead), Žižek doesn’t understand intersectional social justice either theoretically or in practice, or how “political correctness” has been used as a backlash against legitimate concerns on the left.
    4) There were ample people in the audience willing to cheer Marxism and revolution, for what that’s worth.

  6. hemidactylus says

    I had to take a break at 1:15:00. One overlap that may be of interest to this group is both Z & P share a problematic relation to transgender identity. Peterson’s is already well known. Zizek’s is critiqued here:


    And (don’t shoot the messenger) articulated here (goes downhill fast):

    On the video of the debate Peterson seemed poised to debate a strawperson. First, I am not familiar with Marx first hand, but Capital, German Ideology, and the Bonaparte thingy seem more apt. And isn’t much of what Peterson hates actually post-Marxist thought? That’s how it’s categorized in Hawkes’ Ideology. P’s critiques of Marxist outcomes seems pretty standard from my market biased perspective, but at some point he’s channelling Pinker’s book I think. Ummm… didn’t Horkheimer and Adorno wonder what went wrong with Marxism vis a vis culture industry etc. Foucault regretted being ignorant of Frankfurt and reinventing wheel. Baudrillard had his own oddly fascinating scifi movie inspiring take. Zizek was a johnny come lately down that path, no? So going back to the Communist Manifesto seems to miss the whole point. Lacan v Jung may have been more rooted? I pick Fromm outside that binary.

  7. hemidactylus says

    Jesus, Peterson is frickin reciting from Pinker’s book while injecting his own biases. As for his slam on SJW oppression focus (1:21:35) I defer to this critique of Pete…I mean Pinker:

    “There is a more serious philosophical point here. The spirit of the Enlightenment was and remains the spirit of criticism. The sceptics on whom Pinker heaps pages and pages of sarcasm continue in that spirit — which is not to say that they are always right, or even always know what they are talking about. But they certainly are not fatalists in the way Pinker insinuates. He thinks that reminding us how far we’ve already come is the best morale-booster, whereas activists he ridicules as “social justice warriors” and “climate justice warriors” think that pointing to the long road ahead might be a better motivator.”- Jan-Werner Müller


    Maybe Zizek should have debated Pinker instead?

  8. hemidactylus says

    Hmmm, the part where they are going back and forth on postmodern neomarxism was disappointing. Zizek goes premarx back to Hegel. Peterson is clutching at straws against the French postmoderns, Zizek contextualizes Foucault confusingly. Bleck.

    But there’s a growing intensity (bromance) brewing here. They share some fundamental pessimism. Zizek set it up much earlier with the Metallica like light at end of tunnel being a freight train coming your way. You can see in Peterson’s body language a perplexity from the outset giving way to fascination. Zizek hit him at the core of his being with that atheist moment for God as Jesus on the cross that rocked Peterson’s world. Amazing to watch removed from much of the rest of the talk. I was even struck by that maybe more in seeing how Peterson grappled with it. Will Zizek join the IDW?

  9. gijoel says

    Somehow debate has gone from a vigorous discussion of an idea and its implication in a variety of forums to stuffy old white dudes talking over each other on stage.

  10. blf says

    Somehow debate has gone from a vigorous discussion of an idea and its implication in a variety of forums to stuffy old white dudes talking over each other on stage.

    Not at all new. (More common? — I dunno…)
    The reports of this “debate” remind me of one I heard on the wireless yonks ago in the previous millennium. One of the Watergate “plumbers” (as I now recall, G Gordon Liddy) vs a well-know leftwinger (memory suggests Abbie Hoffman, but Ye Pffft! of All Knowledge indicates it was (probably) Timothy Leary).

    From memory, that — “stuffy old white dudes talking over each other on stage” — is exactly what it was. Neither, as far as I can now recall, addressed the other’s points at all; at this distance, my recollection is the impression I got back then is they were on two different planets mumbling to themselves in mutually-incomprehensible secret languages on a variety of trivia, no two of which were related, mysteriously lurching from subject to subject within the same sentence…

    The only bit I have any specific recollection of at all is Liddy’s opening monologue, where he defined a bunch of terms. Why? I dunno. Leary never referred-to / challenged any of those terms / definitions, and Liddy never used the terms he had so long-windedly defined! (I don’t think Leary did either…)

  11. hemidactylus says

    There was another hook I think Zizek set but it was too subtle. Early on he made reference to Dostoevsky’s everything is permitted but flipped it to ideology in context of Weinberg’s “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.” In 12 Rules Peterson makes a different Dostoevsky reference per atheism. Not sure if this Zizek move was a warning shot across the bow but coupled with the pessimistic ‘light at end of tunnel is train’ allusion it sure seemed to portend that huge change in interpersonal dynamics based on the forsaken Jesus on cross gobsmack from nowhere. Holy shit! Master stroke.

  12. leerudolph says

    based on the forsaken Jesus

    Skimming along, my eyes read that as “based on the foreskin [of] Jesus” (it was the lack of the “of” that brought my eyes back to the actual text on-screen).