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.

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Contemplation

On Jordan Peterson: Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction and Phallogocentrism


Last edited: May, 11, 2019.

Note: Before anyone reads this post, please keep in mind that it is out of date (my views on Peterson had changed). I am not going to bother editing it anymore—nor will I delete it because some of the ideas on here are still helpful on deconstruction. I invite you to read my recent response between Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson’s debate, here, and some of my other posts on Derrida here, here, here, and here.


From Jordan Peterson’s interviews, it is clear that he knows very little about Jacques Derrida’s intentions and the surrounding discourses which constitutes his project on deconstruction. For reasons which I will soon elaborate, it is not my goal to address the political aspects of Peterson’s thoughts because what I will discuss in deconstruction shall be conceived as the condition which grants the possibility of politics. In this post, I will analyze some of Peterson’s arguments through Derridean ideas in conjunction with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis to show you Peterson’s misunderstandings of deconstruction. Other smaller topics will include feminism, sexuality, and speech / writing. In addition, I will provide numerous hyperlinks in brackets which are not essential unless you wish to study the subject mentioned further.

To begin with a summation, Peterson’s arguments on Derridean ideas are at best, a hypocritical endeavor. Peterson manages this by agreeing with Derrida that there are infinite interpretations to any given event and text—something which he takes for granted and ignores in his own argument. The biggest problem of all is Peterson’s interpretation of postmodernism that involves generalizing every 20th century intellectual discourse as if it had a Marxist agenda. To put this in Peterson’s own words, Peterson radically overplays his own hand through a generalization that can only impress those who has never picked up a 20th century continental text. This naive gesture, while appearing to be intelligent when interpreted by the masses, will also strike many as dishonest, ignorant and inconsiderate due to his misunderstandings of many 20th century continental ideas.

This is not to say that Peterson’s arguments are outright incorrect. As we will see, there are similarities between Derrida and Peterson that are only differentiated by context and intention. Contrary to expectations, one can even see similarities between Peterson and Marxism. For example, Peterson’s argument that schools are teaching children Marxist ideologies is actually a famous Marx / Engels argument against capitalism (Base and Superstructure). Unfortunately, my attempts at maintaining this post at a relative length will restrict me from speaking about Marx today.

Deconstruction and Meaning

One of Derrida’s most important argument is how there are infinite interpretations to any given event and text (I wrote an article on this here). This is the result of how the extraction of meaning is based on our subjective phenomenological intentions (in this case, your intentions). Derrida famously makes this claim by deconstructing Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology in his key text called Speech and Phenomena published in 1967. Phenomenology is the study of intentionality through consciousness and the temporal manifestation of space and time (Cartesian Meditations and Logical Investigations)

Let us examine the famous Derridean saying, “Deconstruction deconstructs itself” and how it can possibly yield to political thoughts. Due to the temporal effects of your intentions as you read this text, the meaning of “deconstruction” is only possible until you interpret this word through your own intentionality. Regardless of this phenomenon, “deconstruction” is a translation of Martin Heidegger’s term “destruktion” which in several other instances, Derrida also translates as “solicitation” and “shaking up”. As a result, deconstruction by itself (the word in-itself) is not a political tool. Rather, it is you who would possibly interpret deconstruction (or Derrida’s ideas) as a political tool through your own intentions. Deconstruction “is” the interpretative gesture (the act; verb) of reading a text or event and how such gesture undermines itself as one reads through phenomenological and ontological intentions. At the very interpretative “center”—that is, at the center of your intentionality as a function in relation to other centers—the deconstructive project has nothing to do with politics. Instead, it is this gesture of interpretation relating to other interpretations (differences) that is responsible for constituting politics (though I am sure some Derrideans would disagree with me and argue that there were politics since the very beginning of Derrida’s thoughts). Another words, what a subject does ethically, politically, or philosophically will depend on how and where one situate themselves within these centers of interpretations (Structure, Sign, and Play). For example, of how you interpret the word “deconstruction” (i.e. whether it is political or not)—which deconstructs itself as you interpret the word.

Accordingly, Peterson agrees with Derrida’s argument of infinite interpretation, but only that we as interpreters of the world and texts, should only extract the “good” and “useful” things which helps guide one to living in our society (Peterson says it here). Certainly, this is already (at least) two ways of interpreting a text. And as I have already pointed out, Peterson does exactly this: interpreting Derrida and postmodernism under a Marxist lens. Whether one reads the text through pessimism or as a way to live amongst other people is also determined by the reader’s intentions. It isn’t that one should not interpret anything “useful” or “good” out of literature, but rather, one should be cautious of what they interpret and claim as “useful” or “good” because the two terms are subject to “pure morphology”—that the possibility of a meaningful discourse (or the possibility of a truth), whatever it may be (political, surreal, sexual, etc.), is born from your interpretation of these words.

If we understand how Peterson interprets Derrida and the entire postmodernism through a Marxist lens based on his own intentions, we will understand Peterson’s claim that people interpret the world / texts through the means of facilitating their own acquisition of power—precisely, of what is “good” and “useful” for them. The acquisition of power is only possible through one’s desire for power (something which will be crucial once we get to Lacanian psychoanalysis). Most of the things we do are self-serving towards individual desires which often undermines others. For Peterson, this is what we see amongst the postmodernists, as he points out that feminists desires for the acquisition of power / rights. However, this argument on the acquisition of power merits truth not only towards postmodernists and feminists, but for everyone including Peterson. Indeed, one should go as far as questioning Peterson’s interpretations of Derrida and his own arguments: are not Peterson’s political maneuvers directed towards his own desire for power? But let us not pursue this any further, for my intention is about Derrida’s thoughts. Nevertheless, we can begin to see that Peterson’s argument on one’s desire for power is also apparent in Derrida’s thoughts: since there are infinite amount of interpretations to any event or text, the reader only read what they desire to read out of any particular event or text. Here, Peterson and Derrida appears to be making similar arguments (because I think they are), even when they are speaking about them under very different intentions.

Postmodernism as Post-…

Marx is a big precursor to postmodernism and no one can deny this. I think it is partly true that postmodernism is a re-branded term for Marxism because some postmodern thinkers such as Louis Althusser were greatly influenced by him. Perhaps Marxism is most apparent in Frankfurt School even if its scholars are usually not considered as postmodernists. Most Frankfurt scholars were (and still are) incredibly influential amongst the humanities and fine arts disciplines.

It is not surprising that the term “postmodernism” is such a vague term that many of the figures that are categorized in it do not associate themselves with such label. The fact is, many mid-late 20th century continental philosophies are not about Marx, but a response to Husserl’s phenomenology, and to a great extent, on Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Ferdinand de Saussure and G.W.F Hegel. Even Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, which influenced many 20th century “postmodern” scholars, was written dedicated to Husserl “in admiration and friendship” (Heidegger was Husserl’s student). To name a few more: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Merleau-Ponty can all be considered as post-phenomenologists. The former three were also hugely influenced by Heidegger and Nietzsche. Then there is Jacques Lacan who we will discuss momentarily, that is influenced by Freud (especially), Hegel, and Heidegger. Finally, there are others like Gilles Deleuze whose magnum opus, Difference and Repetition, was influenced by Nietzsche’s concept of “the eternal return”.

(Phal)Logocentrism and the Psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan

There is a very long and complicated relationship between Derrida and Lacan. The two actually don’t agree with each other in many levels (i.e. Derrida is a critic of Lacan and vice versa). I am just going to highlight some ideas between the two because it is really hard to introduce them unless you have actually put in the time on learning their ideas.

The word logocentrism (“logos” is the ancient Greek word of “λόγος” which means “reason”, “speech”, “word” and “discourse”) focuses on how civilization privileges speech over writing. As Aristotle puts it: “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words”. This implies that speech is the primary mode of acquiring truth since it is closest proximity to our mental thoughts (inner monologue). For Derrida, such idea is eclipsed once we recognize how speech is overlapped by the fact that when one reads a text, the text is also in direct relation with one’s spoken thought through “hearing-oneself-speak” (auto-affection). Another words, one hears their own speech in their heads as they read the text (i.e. as you read this text). To put it simply, the “binary opposition” between speech and writing are one and of the same contradiction. Speech and writing just different forms used to represent the same (English) language.

To be logocentric involves two main aspects: First, logocentrism is to ignore the historical practice that all production of truth and knowledge are acquired through the interpretation of writing or language in general—namely from interpreting books or events (this is to say that inscription is only one form of writing and that everything around us that we see is also a writing). Second, this privileging of logos (reason) is when one favors the system of logical grammar as they constitute meaning based on their phenomenological interpretation of texts. Another words, we don’t just interpret anything from texts and events, we privilege on extracting the logical (grammatical) aspects of it. This latter idea is from G.W.F Hegel (Lectures on the History of Philosophy) which Derrida cited in his early seminars from the 1960s.

With logocentrism, phallogocentrism (phal = phallus) is combined with the thoughts of Jacques Lacan who rebuilt Freudian psychoanalysis into his own school known as Lacanian psychoanalysis. Lacan is infamously renown for proclaiming the absence of feminine sexuality. The passage, “there is no such thing as woman”, is one of the most misinterpreted and controversial sentence of Lacan (Seminar XX). To help us understand this claim, let us understand two crucial points. First, phallogocentrism points to the idea that the construction of language and meaning is privileged towards the masculine and is phallic in nature (from readings of Freud; the symbolic). This meaning is known as the master signifier which functions as an anchoring point by fixing a specific meaning in place (Seminar XVII). Therefore secondly, the claim that there are no feminine sexuality was made not because there are no feminine sexuality, but because there are no symbolic language which can describe it. In order to explain feminine sexuality, one must go in excess (surplus) of the signifier which in this case, is what lacks within the signifier (I will get to this). Expanding from Freud’s ideas of woman’s penis envy, Lacan thinks it isn’t the actual penis woman desire, but the symbolic and patriarchal power behind the phallus. Part of the reason why no one can describe feminine sexuality is because (many) feminists desires for the symbolic power of the phallus. Thus, phallogocentrism points to how our intentions of interpreting the world and the way we construct meaning / language are inherently phallic from the beginning. One privileges and desires for phallic (patriarchal) power and meaning for their own gains—even if one is a self-proclaimed feminist.

Due to this, feminist Helene Cixous developed a “woman’s writing” (ecriture feminine) that tried to challenge masculine-privileged construction of meaning by—as Lacan would remark on James Joyce“stuffing the signifier” with literary allusions. For Lacan, Joyce is the perfect example of woman’s writing because it shows the excess point where the signifier can no longer sustain itself due to the abundance of literary allusions. By compressing allusions into signifiers, one will recognize what lacks in them—namely, the contradiction of the missing literary allusions (this excess lack [of phallic signifier] is where feminine sexuality arises). Certainly, one may think that Joyce is a man (with a phallus) who can’t possibly produce a woman’s writing. For Lacan, sexuality is not determined by our reproductive organs, but by how one experiences sexual enjoyment (Jouissance and Beyond the Pleasure Principle). To be sure, sexual enjoyment can be experienced in all sorts of ways through sublimation, and not just via methods of copulation with object (object cause of desire; objet petit a) that can never be attained. In context of Joyce, the stuffed signifier is our object of desirewe desire to understand the allusions and meanings that Joyce compresses in his writing which can never be anchored as stable “phallic” signifiers. Through sublimation, reading and speaking becomes a form of desire for sexual satisfaction. This is why Lacan once famously said, “For the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking.”

[Note: Alenka Zupancic showed a new interpretation of Lacan by saying that femininity is the phallic signifier (What is Sex?, 2017). A similar strand of thought can also be found in Slavoj Zizek’s writings (both Zupcancic and Zizek are Lacanian Hegelians).]

Phallogocentrism, as Peterson says, relates to how “culture is male dominated” which he thinks is a “radical simplification of the historical story”. As we can see, not only is psychoanalysis far from being a simplification of history, Peterson’s claim that feminists desires for the acquisition of power is reaffirmed by Lacan: that they (we) desire for symbolic phallic power that is inherent in language / meaning. Phallogocentrism is not “exactly” used to describe how the male dominates the female under the the historicity of economical conditions as Peterson thinks (though I do not doubt this claim under his intentions). And despite that Derrida had always been a critic of psychoanalysis (Resistances of Psychoanalysis), phallogocentrism speaks about the problems in the history of philosophy under the context of Husserl, Heidegger, Lacanian psychoanalysis and the privileging of phallic signifier over the lack of one in a woman. Yet, we must not rule out Peterson’s argument (on men being economically marginalized) with Lacan’s thoughts. In order to speak of Petersons argument from Lacanian perspective, one would have to begin with what Lacan calls the Master’s discourse (or Capitalist discourse) in conjunction with his readings on G.W.F Hegel’s master-slave dialectic (Seminar XVII). Something which I shall leave for another time.

What I am trying to point out in this post is the differences in disciplines and how there is a whole history behind psychoanalysis and Derrida’s deconstruction that Peterson had never thought of simply because he was not trained in it.

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