Following the intellectual ‘debate of the century’, many have criticized Žižek for his very participation, and also for not being critical enough or not refuting Peterson’s points one-by-one. We argue that Žižek’s associative and hysteric discourse, seemingly lacking a refutation, was in fact one. He was well aware that the debate was a performance addressed to the general public and not an academic affair. It was to the former that he wanted to show Peterson’s limits, and he did show them by way of de-monstration.
Alain Badiou differentiates between monstration and de-monstration apropos of the Lacanian psychoanalytic treatment, where the demonstration of the real is at stake. As he explains: “‘Demonstration’ means that the real is not what is shown or monstrated [ce qui se montre] but what is de-monstrated [ce qui se dé-montre], hence that it’s the undoing of the showing” (2018: 169). What many consider as missing, i.e., a structural refutation of Peterson’s claims, was as such the demonstration of the debate’s real limitation through Žižek’s position.
Imagine you are with a friend, and a (third) madman suddenly addresses you in gibberish and overall nonsensical utterings. A monstration on your part would be explaining to your friend why the madman’s sounds do not correspond to any linguistic units and are thus meaningless. The friend already knows that, so s/he does not require such a rigorous linguistic analysis; the supposed knowledge of the same symbolic space or order (language in this case) is already shared by him/her. In this case, the monstration, analysing the sounds and exposing their non-equivalence to words, is itself meaningless.
In the debate, Peterson presented a model of 10 problems he finds in Marxism, exemplified in the Communist Manifesto. People, including Peterson himself, expected Žižek to jump on the opportunity, showcase his expertise on the matter, and refute all 10 points. However, we argue, Žižek needed not explain Marxism and thus conflate the classroom with the auditorium. Remember what Hegel said apropos of arguing with his wife: when one comes to the point of having to explain, it is already too late.
Rather, Žižek aimed to show that his opponent’s factual model was in fact inconsistent without bringing forward a model of his own. A confrontation of models would situate the debate entirely in the symbolic realm, since the real point of it, which ‘resists symbolization’, is still repressed by such a confrontation. Thus, he replied with his usual repertoire of rhetorical questions, jokes, and examples. That response was as distanced as possible from the traditional academic performance—from what Lacan called the University Discourse, which states supposedly objective facts with no subjective intervention.
For the non-duped who err in assuming there should have been a more structured refutation, we remind that it exists already, even free of Žižek’s idiosyncrasies. Terry Eagleton’s “Why Marx Was Right” (2011) is exactly the model that many have fantasized about to fuel the debate, make it ‘academically serious’, and debunk Peterson’s anti-Marxist position. Reading it will supply you with what you desire, in an analytic rather than synthetic way: 10 concise answers to the 10 ‘problems’.
Why Žižek did not use his model, which is repeatedly found in many of his works? Following his Bartleby politics, he preferred not to hold the common, condescending and exclusive academic position, occupied in fact by Jordan Peterson. This position, which Lacan called the subject supposed-to-know, assumes that the public does not know, i.e., that it lacks the assumed knowledge required to refute Peterson’s factual model and requires Žižek to fill this gap.
The lack of a coherent model in Žižek’s response is a gesture directed at the audience, affirming its sufficient knowledge to follow the inconsistencies in Peterson, shown via vulgar jokes, subjective experiences, and the like(s). So, Žižek resisted the temptation to monstrate his model, and de-monstrated the limits of Peterson’s by doing so. Therefore, criticizing him for not participating in the debate or engaging directly on Peterson’s terms misses the point.
Beyond playing the purist for whom Peterson is unworthy of discussing with, or the expert empirical critic with better facts, he enacted a psychoanalytic parallax: a shift in the subjective perspective of the audience, which changes the object as well. No new knowledge was required of the audience in order to gain a novel understanding of Peterson’s model. This epistemological shift (from University to Hysteric discourse) revealed it to be inconsistent and at times superficial, instead of complete and self-evident as may have been initially perceived.
Whenever we resort to explaining the structure that makes a joke funny, it immediately stops functioning as one. On a similar note, if Peterson’s factual discourse is a ‘joke’ for not taking into consideration the fact-factory itself, then Žižek did NOT need to explain it. Expecting such a response is tantamount to projecting one’s fantasy of a ‘perfect debate’ and symptomatically criticising him for coming short. Instead, we suggest, traverse the fantasy and do it yourself!
Notes: Alain Badiou. 2018. Lacan: Anti-Philosophy 3 (New York: Columbia University Press).