If you want tickets for the forthcoming showdown between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek, which will be held later this month in Toronto, better act fast: There are two left — as of this writing, anyway — and they’re $1,500 apiece. The unlikely and unshaven pair will square off at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, which seats about 3,000, where they will debate whether capitalism or Marxism leads to happiness. News of their debate, which has been in the works since last year, has been greeted with giddiness from their respective fan bases, and fervent eye-rolling elsewhere.
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If you want tickets for the forthcoming showdown between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek, which will be held later this month in Toronto, better act fast: There are two left — as of this writing, anyway — and they’re $1,500 apiece. The unlikely and unshaven pair will square off at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, which seats about 3,000, where they will debate whether capitalism or Marxism leads to happiness. News of their debate, which has been in the works since last year, has been greeted with giddiness from their respective fan bases, and fervent eye-rolling elsewhere. Slate offered that there is “no one to cheer for” in this highbrow tête-à-tête, while The Stranger sniffed that “nothing is a greater waste of time.”
That might be true, but it’s hard to deny the rubbernecking appeal of the spectacle. How often do two garrulous, ill-tempered, theory-spouting academics fill a venue usually reserved for musicians and comedians? The weekend before, the Sony Centre will host a different AARP-eligible duo — Steve Martin and Martin Short. While they’re both comedy legends, their views on cynicism as a form of ideology or Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious aren’t as widely known.
How often do two garrulous, ill-tempered, theory-spouting academics fill a venue usually reserved for musicians and comedians?
In capitalism’s corner will be Peterson, the alternately excitable and stern Canadian psychologist who shot to prominence as a critic of, as he sees it, political correctness gone wild, and has since become the subject of a thousand furrowed-brow think pieces. He has more than a million Twitter followers and his self-help manifesto, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has sold north of two million copies. Granted, the acclaim is not universal: Peterson recently had a fellowship at the University of Cambridge rescinded after students there protested that his views were “in opposition to the principles of the University.”
Making the case for Marxism will be Zizek, the fidgety Slovenian philosopher whose bibliography includes three books on Lenin, four on Lacan, and a compendium of selected witticisms (featuring jokes about both Lenin and Lacan). Zizek, aka the Elvis of cultural theory, has been the subject of several documentaries, including 2012’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, during which he dissects the class politics of the movie Titanic while re-enacting Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s icy death scene.
While 56-year-old Peterson is a newcomer to the league of intellectual firebrands, Zizek, who just turned 70, is a grizzled veteran. The Chronicle took notice of him way back in 1992, calling him “an up-and-coming theorist” with a “gift for zippy titles.” For a brief, golden period in 2004, The Chronicle also published “Zizek Watch,” an occasional series devoted to tracking his most notable utterances.
The debate came about after Zizek criticized Peterson in a column for The Independent, poking at “the paranoiac construct which he uses to interpret what he sees as facts” and his “crazy conspiracy theory” that sinister Marxist forces lurk behind progressive social movements. The essay, though, was largely focused on what Zizek views as the failures on the left that help bolster Peterson’s popularity. When it comes to postmodernism, Zizek and Peterson are often singing from the same hymnal.
Still, Peterson didn’t take kindly to the suggestion that he’s a paranoid crazy person, and called out Zizek on Twitter:
One problem: Zizek isn’t on Twitter. The account at which Peterson directed his ire is a seldomly used fan account. Even so, the gauntlet had been thrown, word got back to Zizek, and the challenge was accepted. So here we are.
While their meeting is more UFC fight night than plenary panel, Zizek and Peterson remain very much creatures of the university. Despite the best attempts of his harshest detractors, Peterson continues to be a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Zizek holds a bunch of academic appointments, including professor of philosophy and psychoanalysis at the European Graduate School, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London.
But they’re also frequent and vociferous critics of the university. Peterson’s stated beef is that certain disciplines have been overrun by left-wing activism (he’s pointed an accusatory finger at ed schools and social work), and that instead of preparing graduates to contribute to society, they’re training them to join the ranks of the perpetually aggrieved. “The university, which is the repository of human wisdom and the attempt to expand that, may have already moved outside the university,” Peterson has said.
To that end, he’s spoken seriously of founding his own online university in order to drive the flailing academy into the ground, an entity that would presumably be free from the sort of influences he deems corrosive. (Lately, he seems to have backed off that ambitious plan a bit and is talking instead about offering “modules” on subjects like writing. Yale is safe … for now.)
Meanwhile Zizek scoffs that the university has become a “factory producing experts” rather than an institution that encourages and facilitates revolutionary thinking. “Only hysteria produces new knowledge, in contrast to the university discourse, which simply reproduces it,” he’s said. “Universities should be ivory towers — you are doing something, you don’t know what. All great things happen like that.”
Battle of Words
Peterson: “The purpose of life is finding the largest burden that you can bear and bearing it.”
Zizek: “The only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle.”
Peterson: “I don’t think that you have any insight whatsoever into your capacity for good until you have some well-developed insight into your capacity for evil.”
Zizek: “We are all basically evil, egotistical, disgusting.”
Peterson: “People camouflage against the herd.”
Zizek: “Humanity is OK, but 99 percent of people are boring idiots.”
Peterson: “The university is not a home. It’s not a safe space.”
Zizek: “I like universities without students.”
Peterson: “It’s not the state that’s the place of salvation, it’s the individual psyche.”
Zizek: “You cannot change people, but you can change the system so that people are not pushed into doing evil things.”
Peterson: “Political correctness is the elevation of moral posturing about sensitivity over truth.”
Zizek: “There is something so fake about political correctness.”
Zizek isn’t keen on everyday professorial obligations either. For instance, he reportedly warned a class at the New School in New York not to “give me any of your shitty papers” because doing so might result in a lower grade. Better to sit quietly and pray for a B. He also isn’t enthusiastic about dishing out life advice to his students: “My standard line is: ‘Look at me, look at my tics, don’t you see that I’m mad? How can you even think about asking a madman like me to help you in personal problems, no?’”
Then again, it’s a mistake to read any of Zizek’s proclamations as necessarily earnest. His rhetorical style is ironic rapid-fire adamance — he speaks as if he’s trying to squeeze in one last insight before a buzzer sounds — and he obviously loves to provoke.
So does Peterson. He revels in sharp back-and-forth and appears to thrive on eviscerating would-be-challengers. Search YouTube and you’ll find that Peterson has “destroyed” or “obliterated” the following opponents: Overconfident Leftist Interviewer, British Feminist, and Entire Panel on Transgender Pronouns.
Such performances have helped garner a sizable, cult-adjacent following for Peterson. He has not been shy about monetizing that appreciation, recently debuting his own line of merchandise, which includes lobster-themed leggings, socks, and pillows (Peterson used lobsters once in an analogy to explain social hierarchies). For $44.99, you can order a hoodie emblazoned with his much-repeated injunction to “STAND UP STRAIGHT WITH YOUR SHOULDERS BACK.”
Zizek isn’t himself hawking any self-branded tchotchkes, but others are, and you can get T-shirts with beloved Zizekisms like “I Would Prefer Not To,” which he appropriated from Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and most famously “And so on,” which he routinely appends to his assertions to suggest that, were there sufficient time and audience patience, he could provide countless more examples.
Whether the debate turns out to be a waste of time depends on what you expect. There will be no final resolution to the question of whether capitalism or Marxism leads to happiness (sidenote: Zizek is on record saying he doesn’t believe happiness is important, which might throw a wrench into the proceedings). Peterson acolytes eager to witness their hero vanquish yet another typical liberal will probably be surprised to learn that, on many issues of the day, the two aren’t that far apart — and where they do differ, Zizek has a history of holding his own. Those who assume it will be a mere shouting match between highly credentialed blowhards with big vocabularies may discover a more thoughtful encounter between two figures who, like them or not, do attempt to apply their interpretations of history, philosophy, and science to society’s current predicaments.
Who knows? Maybe they’ll end the night as buddies. As Zizek once said, “The one measure of true love is you can insult the other.”
And so on.
Tom Bartlett is a senior writer who covers science and ideas. Follow him on Twitter @tebartl.
Illustration by David Plunkert for The Chronicle. Scott Seymour, senior art director, contributed to this presentation.