This past week, my university hosted philosopher Slavoj Žižek as distinguished guest lecturer. The following night he participated in the so-called“debate of the century” with Jordan Peterson, much to the chagrin of many of his admirers.
There is much that I chafe against in Žižek’s pronouncements— his dismissal of identity politics as a form of political correctness; his riding roughshod over Foucault and Derrida’s thought as though the ascription “postmodernism” is at all perspicacious. Then there is his rather unfortunate nostalgia for the “Christian tradition,” which, putatively, “is worth fighting for.” But what I am coming to appreciate more is his art of suasion, a style often wrongly characterized as polemical. He is not a polemicist; he is a gadfly, in Socrates’ sense. And the debate was, in my view, a masterful goading of his opponent.
Many commentators (such as Stephen Marche in the Guardian) colluded with Peterson’s banal summary that these thinkers have more in common than one might suppose. It is easy to draw such a conclusion. Both thinkers target political correctness; both draw on the “Judeo-Christian tradition.”
Walter Benjamin, speculating on the messianic interruption of history, said that “when the Messiah comes, everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” In other words, the revolutionary end of history is not a dramatic reversal, but an interruption in which history is hollowed out from within. In Peterson’s view, the end of Communism represented the unambiguous triumph of Capitalism; for Žižek, it is simply more of the same: the replication of repressive regimes, of the same inequalities, the same ideological distortions. Real revolution is not the overthrowing of authoritarianism— it is its unraveling through its own inherent contradictions.
This foundational premise on Žižek’s part accounted for his demeanor in the debate in my view. One does not overthrow a buffoonish opponent through challenging him head-on; one ought to instead grant him space and ask irksome questions so that the opponent eventually impeaches himself. As Žižek writes,“Perceiving reality as in itself antagonistic, a dialectical approach does not try to undermine it actively; it just lets it be what it is (or claims to be), taking it more seriously than it takes itself, and in this way allows it to destroy itself.”
One of the most telling moments in the debate was when Peterson perceived that Žižek and he were in essential agreement on the significance of Christ’s passion. Both thinkers wish in some sense to retrieve insight from Christianity, but their interpretation of the cross makes all the difference in the world. For Žižek, the cry of dereliction represents an ontological rupture— “You are free as a Christian when you realize that the distance between you and God is inscribed into God himself. For a brief moment God himself becomes an atheist… You are not simply separated from God; the separation is part of divinity itself….” Happiness is not a destination for Žižek; destination and the end of struggle veer dangerously and inevitably toward ideology. “Happiness is the very struggle—the fall.”
Peterson perceives an essential agreement, but tellingly, for him, Christ’s dereliction upon the cross is a moment of identification with the pain of humanity. It is that moment in which, “God himself might despair about the essential quality of being.” This is not the Fall in Žižek’s sense of complete separation; it is instead a moment in which “even God is tempted to doubt.” Peterson proceeded after this Christological detour to talk about resilience—about the various challenges that individuals struggle to overcome, such as despair. Because Christ ostensibly suffered and prevailed, so can we.
This moralistic reading of the cross is all too familiar among Christians. It is one that reduces the cross to personal pain and redemption to the overcoming of individual challenges. Žižek is making a much bolder (and more orthodox) Christian claim. The world is deeply and profoundly out of joint. And the solution is far more complex and demanding than merely “setting one’s house in order.”
In other words, Peterson perfectly illustrated Žižek’s observation: “the Fall retroactively creates what you fell from.” In seeking to overcome the moral relativism he so eschews, Peterson left it utterly untouched.