Commentaries, Contemplation, Uncategorized

On Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson: Nature, Culture, and the Displacement of Time

Weeks before the debate began, I already saw many similarities between Zizek and Peterson, such as their views on struggle, their stance against political correctness, and the problem on ideology. Then once you factor in the notion that much of Marxism is actually situated within capitalism, there wasn’t much left to debate other than the problems of capitalism and their differences within it. I also anticipated how Peterson would not understand Zizek’s Hegelian / Lacanian moves on Marx.

But some may wonder, who won the debate? I don’t think either won, but Peterson definitely learnt a few things from Zizek despite the latter, who appeared to be quite passive in the debate (Zizek wasn’t as argumentative as usual). Before we get critical about Peterson—someone who made great insights regardless of his mediocre readings of Marx (like his poor readings of Derrida), we should respect him for his expertise in his own field, open-mindedness, interest towards Zizek, and his responsibility on trying to solve worldly issues.

The reason why I think the debate went well was because of a purely psychoanalytic perspective. Many people complained about Zizek’s passivity on not tearing apart Peterson’s readings of Marx (i.e. his ten points against Marx—someone already did this here). For me, Zizek’s entire gesture of passivityintentional or not, has to do with situating himself within Lacan’s psychoanalytic concepts known as the Hysterics Discourse in relationship with the University Discourse. But I will not talk about Lacan today. Instead, I would like to share some of my thoughts on the overall debate and discuss nature, culture and time, which will take us away from Zizek and Peterson. If you are interested in the four discourses of psychoanalysis (University, Master, Hysteric, and Analyst), I invite you to read Lacan’s Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (it is quite a difficult read). Lacan also adds a fifth discourse later on, known as the Capitalist discourse. Basically, the “other side” of psychoanalysis is just more psychoanalysis.

I think Peterson’s decision to talk about The Communist Manifesto was a bad choice. This is because the book is basically an intro text to Marx. Much of Marxism is not about communism, but the criticism of capitalism. Zizek did a good job in pointing out that Marx and Engel’s best work lies within their famous text called, Capital (Das Kapital)a huge book (four volumes; the first volume is over 1000 pages) that critiques capitalism and introduces some of the key components of “ideology”—with the most famous ones being the fetish commodityand the relationship between forces of production. Such ideas were important for thinkers that later expanded on them such as Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, and Louis Althusser who all had an influence on Zizek in various ways.

Marxist ideas, which are known as “dialectical materialism“, came from reversing the philosophy of German Idealist philosopher named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (i.e. Marxist ideas such as class struggle came from Hegel’s master-slave dialectics). Marx turned Hegel’s idealist views of the real world into a materialism. Zizek is known for turning Marxist materialism back into Hegelian idealism. Materialism and idealism are opposites in philosophy—I am not going to explain why, you can look up the famous “mind-body” or “mind-matter” problem that was popularized by Rene Descartes. In order for Zizek to return Marx to Hegel, he also goes through Lacanian psychoanalysis (Zizek studied his PhD in psychoanalysis under Jacques-Alain Miller—a famed student of Lacan, and the sole editor of his seminars). This has to do with the fact that Lacanian psychoanalysis consists of a heavy influence from Hegel which talks about how we perceive materialist reality through language and objects through our imagination. Lacan studied Hegel under Alexandre Kojeve before he “Returned to Freud” (i.e. Lacan read Freud as a philosopher of Hegel). This is one of the reasons why reading Lacan may remind people of reading Hegel.

One of the themes that interested me most in the debate was Peterson’s take on the hierarchical aspects of nature in relationship with society. This point is interesting because it is one of the core aspects of political philosophy (i.e. the debate between Nature vs Culture / Society). Peterson takes on a position where the lack of resources and the competition for them in nature mirrors capitalism and most of the systems before it—something that apparently does not exist in Marx’s domain, which is not surprising if you have studied a little bit of political philosophy. Now, before I go over why I think this scarcity of resource is not apparent within Marx, I would like to quickly skim over Zizek’s response.

Zizek responded to Peterson by saying that nature is not hierarchical. Rather, nature is full of improvisations and contingency which I think is true (a similar argument that Quentin Meillassoux made). Zizek goes on and uses a random example of some French person inventing some type of food by accident. Here, Zizek is alluding to Freud and Lacan, where they think life on earth is an “accident”. It is through “error” (chance) where life and intelligence on earth is born and we invent things through this same notion of contingency and improvisation. The two ideas that I have just introduced (contingency and improvisation) will be the underlying themes that I will address later on in regards to nature and culture.

Now, let us try and reconceive Peterson’s problem under a different light. Just because nature consists of a scarcity of resources and a hierarchy which predates capitalism and human existence, does not mean that societies would follow a similar path. What if society was created out of the necessity of an attempt to radicalize and transgress itself away from nature? Here, we confront the paradox of destination. On one hand, humans intentionally moves away from nature to create society and culture. Yet, on the other hand, humans looks back into their natural origins “as if” it was nature’s destination for humans to transgress beyond nature into the unnatural.

This is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously refers as “Nature denaturing itself”. Things that nature cannot provide us with (i.e. warmth in the winter), humans supplement it with their own intervention (i.e. by making fire—think of the movie, The Jungle Book where the animals are afraid of the “red flower” since they can’t create fire, but humans can). Nature cannot provide us a path across the river, we build a bridge. Nature lacks the resources of X, we supplement it with something unnatural (i.e. think of things like genetic engineering of agriculture). Yet, this non-natural—this denaturing originates from nature when we look back through the displacement of our time.

In this sense, it is not surprising that societies were formed due to the necessity to create an environment that supplements what nature cannot consistently provide humans with. Society is an “attempt” to guarantee resources as long as we meet its “conditions”, where we have to be good citizens and follow its laws, etc.—even if for Marx, much of these laws are exploitativeOf course, by joining together as a society, one also gives up their “natural freedom” so to obey instituted laws. Here we are getting into Kantian territories of politics such as the notions of “guaranteed peace” within the State versus ideas like “natural peace”—where the former, just like resources, are never absolutely guaranteed since it is always in the position of transgression. 

Humans recognizes their natural origins only in so far that they move away from nature to create a society by supplementing its resources. At the same time, humans also recognize that it is nature’s goal for them to denature nature. In our time, it is easy for us to make the claim that society is always already in the process of leaving nature because many of us are already living in a society with a history that is technologically advancing rapidly in an attempt to, let us suppose, “make the world a better place” (i.e. to supplement this lack of resources, inequality perpetuated by nature through hierarchy, to make the poor wealthier, etc.). Therefore, our system of hierarchy which has been the “hi(story)” of society, allows Peterson to look back into the “origins” of nature and see a hierarchy, even when it is such hierarchy that humans have not yet overcome in our time. However, from Peterson’s point of view, we can make a counter argument by saying that it is as if human’s notion of hierarchy was nature’s goal, which lead humans to create a society with a hierarchy as such. But if we consider that humans are to transgress nature by pushing beyond its boundaries and supplement what it lacks, social hierarchies would imply that nature began as a balanced ecological system without hierarchy—a theory that is rejected by most ecologists and scientists.

Nevertheless, what I have proposed is reminiscent to the idea Marx tried to conceive: within a possible future that is to come, civilization would overcome the scarcity of resources and the hierarchies of nature—which is part of what communism consists of. Peterson thinks Marx did not account for the struggles of nature, even when Marx did factor in such problem. Peterson is not aware of the people who influenced Marx, such as Rousseau, who was one of the first philosophers to attack the concept of private property.

But why the paradox of destination? Society mirrors nature only insofar that nature reflects society—a society that is always-in-“progress” of supplementing nature through this double bind, transgressing the boundaries of nature and culture (whatever “progress” could mean in relation to temporality and its history). The displacement of time is juxtaposed with history. We are always living in a today viewing backwards of yesterday into history. Every today becomes yesterday. The historian’s fatal mistake is to claim that everything had already been conceived, even when they have to first interpret contemporary ideas in order to look back into history to make such claim. We can see this in the history of psychoanalysis. Freud before Lacan: everything Lacan said, Freud had already said because he lived before Lacan (hence Lacan had to “Return to Freud”). It is easy to see Lacan within Freud only if we read Lacan before Freud—even when Freud would have never thought what Lacan would say and how he expanded and departed from his ideas in the future after his death. This historical reading of Freud through Lacan, along with whatever else history demands, is the arrival which takes itself away from ever arriving at Freud. 

In the exact same way, we have nature before culture. It is easy to find nature within culture after-the-fact of humans living in culture (its society and history) before nature. Even when nature would have never “thought” what its “goals” were until humans reached such point in culture through pure contingency and improvisation of nature. Thus, nature is anterior to our culture which is at once, within the process of denaturing and supplementing itself as culture (this is what Rousseau calls, “the dangerous supplement”)We never arrive at the destination of nature that denatures itself because such denaturing and supplementing is always in progress as culture continues to unfold through time. Thus, to arrive is to fail at arriving—to arrive without ever arriving. One never arrives at their destination—this is the secret.

The point I wish to make is the problem of intentionality driven by the force of history: of what appears to be present which moves forward in time as it looks backwards—namely, our experience of the infinite deferral of time. This is perhaps, the most classic of all Derridean “problems” exemplified through his famous structure called, “Trace” (the unity of past and future) and “Differance”—which is to say that it is not a problem, but a fundamental experience of ek-sistence (I hyperlink my Derrida posts all the time to accommodate new readers, here it is again). The presence of our contemporary moment is always displaced in time through a force of history and a future to come. We originate from nature, yet we live in a time away from nature, where we rediscover the nature of yesterday within the unnatural society of today. And it is also this today which becomes the becoming of yesterday, and the becoming of tomorrow as today. We are never “here” but elsewhere in time. We are always living in between time—where the future is always to come.


On Continental Philosophy

I think what comes down to measuring the difficulty of a text is the method used and the way that it is written. When I say this, many would be thinking about the split between analytical and continental philosophy and their methods. This split is usually an academic one. I mostly read continental works and therefore I will be somewhat bias here. I don’t necessary hate on analytical thoughts, but it seems inevitable that if you put a continental and an analytical thinker in the same room, they will eventually end up in a debate (like John Searle and Jacques Derrida).

Most of my philosophical journeys are made on my own (though I have taken philosophy courses on ethics, film theory, history, etc). And over the year, I feel like I have made a significant progress in understanding Jacques Derrida (I read Derrida without secondary commentary sources). My interest in philosophy mostly lies within media (photography, film, etc), aesthetics, phenomenology and language. This is probably because of my photography background.

The Analytical tradition

Although I am no expert at it, analytical philosophy in general are written in crisp clear arguments. After all, clear logical arguments written in ordinary language is what they are consistently proud of. But their entire scope of the argument might be huge (say, linguistics), which would make their writings difficult to understand. Analytical methods often strives on logic, clarity and mathematics. They consider their own work as parallel to natural sciences. In short, analytical philosophers writes philosophy with little to no regard about its relevance to history most of the time. They are ideas that can stand on its own through pure logic and reasoning.

I can’t really give insight on how to read these because I am not a fan of how they write.

Continental tradition

Continental tradition came from mainland Europe. My experience with continental thinkers is that they tend to include and consider the history of philosophy along with their own ideas (think about Hegel or Kant). Thus, there are no simple way of addressing philosophy because everything is connected. For continentals, it is naive to write about philosophy and not consider historical discourses. Hence, continental philosopher’s works will tend to be written in response to other philosophers works (ie. Derrida responding to Heidegger, Saussure, Husserl, Hegel, Plato, Aristotle etc). Therefore, to understand one philosopher, you must also understand the previous, where such philosopher also writes according to another, etc. This would ultimately turn continental philosophy into a highly technical text, loading it with a very complex prose which will often frustrate the reader, causing misreadings or a complete disregard of their ideas. Not to mention that the history of philosophy is over two thousand years old.

Furthermore, continental thinkers rejects natural science as the most accurate way of interpreting our everyday phenomena. There are several reasons for this, but one being the idea how natural sciences are based on a certain phenomenon. A phenomenon which is pre-logical, and pre-theoretical (experiences that comes before a theory or language is created). It is only after one interprets such phenomenological experience (via an articulation through a language, or an episteme of sorts) where it becomes a science of something.

Reading Continental Philosophy

The best way to learn continental works is to keep reading them. The more you read it, the easier it gets. Sometimes, even if you don’t understand something, you should just keep going because they might explain it in a different way 200 pages later. Keep in mind that you don’t always have to read entire books of major works (there are exceptions). You have to learn when you can just encyclopedia some of the philosophers that so and so are talking about, or find secondary sources. Yes, by reading a secondary source, you will miss out many important detailed information, but as long as the secondary source is reliable, then you should be “okay” for now.

There are a lot of reputable secondary sources that are quite readable. But if that is still too hard, you can try writers like Alain de Botton, he seems pretty easy (maybe a bit too easy). Reading original works in original language is preferred. The next best thing are translations from well known translators (for example, scholars who translates Derrida are esteemed Derridean thinkers; ie. Geoffrey BenningtonGayatri Chakravorty Spivak, or Leonard Lawlor). Again, secondary sources are acceptable in certain situations (ie. Christopher Norris is also a world leading Derridean intellectual who writes commentary on Derrida, but not a translator of Derrida’s works). Most of the time, you also want to make sure that you are reading books from reputable university publishers like Cambridge, Chicago, Oxford, Stanford, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, etc (though this is not always true).

Many continental works are written in a non-linear format. Each chapter somewhat functions simultaneously to its former and latter chapters / sections. So it is up to you on how you can synthesize these concepts at once (Lacanian psychoanalysis is a good example). This takes practice, and it is also arguably one of the most important skills in reading such books. It gets easier over time.

Continental philosophy are the type of philosophy where you have to reread in a few years down the road. Especially after you have read other continental books. As one of my teachers like to say, these books leaves crumbs that you pick up and piece back together from the crumbs of other books. Not to mention that it is often such crumbs which will get you to read other continental books or lead you into sculpting a new idea. It will help you learn about the different discourses that so and so might be talking about.

In general, I would say that continental philosophy requires an acquired taste (knowledge) from past experience to enjoy.

…and More

Continental writing takes many different forms, some appears with a more poetic prose (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard), while others appears as different forms of art (Pollock, Godard, Beckett, who were all known for being a part of the existential movement), mathematics (Badiou), or other highly technical apparatuses. I personally think that continental thoughts are closer to real life than analytical. There are of course, other philosophers before the continental and analytical split (or pre-Kantian) that were amazing. For example, Jean Jacques Rousseau (the father of romanticism), and Renes Descartes.

Not all continental works are as hard as the Critique of Pure Reason, Phenomenology of the Spirit, Of Grammatology, Ecrits or Being and Time. For example, some of the writings from Roland Barthes are easier than to understand than others. Even when his ideas are actually quite complex when you analyze it. In his narcissistic book,  A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes consistently speaks about the “Other”. This concept of the Other is made famous by several prominent continental scholars such as Lacan, Hegel, Levinas and Derrida. In general, Barthes had a huge influence on post-structuralist thinkers like Jean Baudrillard whose later works are not written academically, but in a rather “romantically pessimistic” tone (not surprising, since Baudrillard was Barthes’ student). Baudrillard is famed for practicing a certain type of writing called pataphysics (one should not be surprised that pataphysics is recognized as pseudoscience).

If phenomenological experiences are pre-logical and pre-theoretical, then some of these thinkers will be obscure. This is because what comes before our interpretation of such experience will always remain uncertain. This obscurity is where this famous “gap” lies – between phenomenon and our interpretation (or in a Derridean sense, our articulation) of it. Another words, we can never fully interpret the phenomenon that we experience in front of us through the production of meaning and languages. Most importantly, for thinkers like Baudrillard (and even more so for Derrida), we tend to interpret / produce only the things we desire to see out of a particular phenomenon.

From personal experience, if you start reading late 20th century continental (post-structural) works, you will begin to recognize that often times, the reason why you don’t understand something is because you are still thinking within the structure of language (to be fair, that is all we can really do…but not really, say for example: love, spirit, and grace). Understanding post-structural continental works don’t just require good reading comprehension and vocabulary (which I am terrible at), but also a large capacity for imagination. You must think with an open mind and beyond the structure.

Existentialism and Phenomenology

I don’t have much experience with reading existentialism. But from reading Derrida and Baudrillard who were both heavily influenced by Nietzsche, I can tell you that existentialism is quite a different breed of continental philosophy. 20th century philosophy and “postmodern philosophy” has been incredibly influenced by existentialism. It is like what Derrida has said about Nietzsche, he “has written that writing”. Where as Martin Heidegger is often known for combining existentialism and phenomenology called existential phenomenology. The same goes for Jean-Paul Sartre who famously and very influentially writes in between philosophy and literature. Sartre was also known for declining the Nobel Prize in 1964. Other incredible existentialists includes, Soren Kierkegaard, Simone De Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Furthermore, existentialism can also be seen as a cultural movement. As already mentioned, renown novelists like Samuel Beckett, artist Jackson Pollock, or French New Wave film director Jean-Luc Godard are often associated with it.

Phenomenology on the other hand, while being quite slippery, was an incredibly influential discipline. It is as the study of phenomena from a conscious first person point of view, such as the way you are reading this text, and how you hear yourself speak in your head (auto-affection); or how we experience our everyday phenomenon of reality, signs, time, our body, touching, feeling, seeing, hearing, etc. It was invented by Edmund Husserl who furthered the split between analytical and continental philosophies. His book Logical Investigations  influenced many 20th century continental works including Heidegger, Derrida, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. 20th century was the century of phenomenology.

Reading and Learning with Passion

Given its technical sophistication, is there even such a thing as casually reading continental philosophy? I’m not sure. I would say that continental philosophy (and even analytical, but again I have no experience in that regards) requires a huge amount of determination. You really need to love it in order to understand it. And when you teach it to someone else, your passion will really show. Most importantly, don’t give up. You will always run into people that think you are insane or accusing you of making things up because you are thinking the unthinkable.