Behind the Derridas and Foucaults, There Is Absolutely Nobody
by Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte (Basel, Switzerland)
EDITORS’ NOTE: This essay was originally published as “The Biggest Show on Earth,” a chapter in Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte’s 2023 book, There Is No Such Thing as ‘Continental’ Philosophy. To work as a stand-alone piece, the original has been slightly modified. For another sample from the book, which is based on the PICT course of the same name, check out the dePICTions article, American French-ness: The American Appropriation of Contemporary French Philosophy. For in-depth treatments of all topics sketched out here, we enthusiastically recommend the book itself. The material is reprinted courtesy of PICT Books.
WAS it some sort of concert? Maybe one of those famous unplugged sessions? Certainly, the crowd’s age and the stir it created could have made one assume it was an event akin to that. Maybe it was something different still—perhaps a spectacle of the Cirque du Soleil? Had it not been for that towering banner displaying the faces of those involved in the evening’s event, divining what was about to happen on the stage of the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto on April 19, 2019, would have been extremely difficult.1 That the Sony Centre is Canada’s largest soft-seat theater and that it had a full house, with tickets being scalped for up to Can$300, would have rendered it even more difficult to win this particular guessing game.
Following the event live online, or even watching the official video later, would not have made discovering the actual nature of the happening any easier. True, the notes of the opening movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, heard against the background noise of the hall as it fills up, do diminish the chances of it being a rock concert (even though some doubts remain).2
Contrary to most expectations, Ontario’s capital was, in fact, hosting a philosophical debate. Thirty-eight years after the famous encounter between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky, the world was—at least so it was portrayed—finally going to witness a new battle of ‘heavyweight’ thinkers. And even though the year was only 2019, and more than 80 years still separated us from 2100, according to some, the debate that was to take place was nothing less than “the battle of the century.”3 The intellectual gladiators that were going to compete with each other were the Slovenian philosopher-psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek and the Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. And the title given to this public discussion was nothing less than “Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism”—strangely, or maybe even revelatorily (or should it be ironically?), the word capitalism featured next to the picture of Žižek on the banner and the word Marxism next to that of Peterson.4
For as much as the two protagonists can be considered controversial—Žižek is a Lacanian Leninist who has never shied away from polemics, and Peterson doesn’t mind the appropriation of his outings by the ‘new’ alt-right5 and rose to fame because of his disgust for political correctness and identity politics—it has to be said that, if anything, the whole debate did not rise to its expectations at all (especially not to those promised by its powerful marketing machine). Peterson’s (self-acknowledged) lack of knowledge on Marxism, of which he, nonetheless, talked at great length, and Žižek’s by now all-too-familiar iconoclastic rhetoric, combined with the pair’s extremely rare but still banal observations about ‘happiness’ (supposedly the main topic of the discussion) all culminated in a debate that failed to live up to its billing.
That the debate did not rise to the occasion should not be a surprise. This type of event hardly ever does. The already mentioned Foucault-Chomsky debate, although of a much higher level than the encounter between Žižek and Peterson, was hardly enthralling. One commentator even called it “the worst blind date of all time.”6 Similarly, the much earlier encounter (1929), in Davos, Switzerland, between two other intellectual giants, Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer, was a disappointment. A chronist—probably Professor Ernst Howald—from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung gave the following description of the debate:
Rather than seeing two worlds collide, at best one enjoyed the spectacle of a very nice person and a vehement person, who was however trying terribly hard to be nice too, delivering monologues. In spite of this all members of the audience seemed to be very gripped, and congratulated one another for having been there.7
Luckily for us, our interest in the Žižek-Peterson debate is limited to only a small section of it. And, more importantly and maybe even a little cynically, it is given extra strength and vigor precisely because of the mediocrity of this “Rumble in the Realm of the Mind.”8
The general context of the part of the discussion that is of interest to us concerns Peterson’s enemies: the postmodernists—or postmodern neo-Marxists,9 cultural Marxists, or even postmodernist/ Marxists,10 as he at times is wont to call them.11 In fact, there is hardly an occasion where Peterson does not accuse these postmodernists, or postmodern neo-Marxists, of being the cause of most, if not all, things that are going wrong in contemporary society (which for Peterson means political correctness and identity politics). True, Žižek is not a fan of these so-called postmodernists either (for completely different reasons than Peterson), but he has never reached the level of obstinacy or even ‘hatred’ against this postmodernism or these postmodernists that Peterson has.
Peterson’s main source (and unique source?—in his 12 Rules for Life  he only gives this single one) on his enemies, the postmodernists, seems to be Stephen R. C. Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism (2004). Hicks’ volume, and this will be a repetitive feature of all the great critics of postmodernism (and of so-called ‘Continental’ philosophy in its totality), hardly quotes these so-called postmodernists. Some authors are named (and they, too, will almost always return) as the great leaders or culprits: “[T]he names of the postmodern vanguard are now familiar: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Richard Rorty. They are its leading strategists.”12 However, these same authors are hardly ever directly present (quoted), and when they are, it is with some simplistic quote from a minor interview.
In all, Hicks only engages directly with the work of the mentioned four authors 39 times in Explaining Postmodernism. Eight of the fourteen direct engagements with Foucault’s work are from interviews or small essays. That leaves only six real quotations from his books—and these are the usual ones concerning the so-called ‘end of man’ from his The Order of Things (2005) and his ‘personal’ remarks in his Archaeology of Knowledge (2002). Derrida is only quoted five times (actually four, as one quotation is basically repeated—and is probably taken from a secondary source since this source is present on both occasions and the same passage is referenced). Also of interest, from the more than 40 books that Derrida wrote during his life, only three are mentioned. Finally, Lyotard (who was, besides Rorty, the only one who actually applied the term postmodernism to his own writing, at least for a short period of time—Foucault and Derrida refused this identification wholeheartedly, but I will return to that later) is only quoted twice (once indirectly).
This is truly slight. Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and even Johann Gottlieb Fichte are quoted and discussed more in the context of their own words than any of the so-called postmodernists. In sum, then, a book that claims to explain postmodernists blatantly ignores the actual work of these so-called postmodernists. How scholarly, but also how serious, can a volume like this be? In all normal conditions, the answer would simply be not at all. But we will come to discover that the conditions are anything but normal in the discussion around postmodernism (or so-called ‘Continental’ philosophy as a whole).
One more thing in closing this digression: 95% of Hicks’ references to these postmodernists are the same as the ones present in those little booklets that carry titles such as Postmodernism for Beginners, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, or Postmodernism in 60 minutes. The question, then, is whether Hicks (and Peterson, who seems to base himself solely on Hicks—no direct quotation of any work by Foucault or Derrida is made in Peterson’s work13) actually ever read further than these small booklets that shouldn’t even be read by children.
Let us now quickly turn to the part of the debate that is of interest. I have edited the dialogue drastically in order to make it more legible.
Who are these postmodern neo-Marxists? The question couldn’t be more simple or direct. No philosophical or rhetorical trap seems present in Žižek’s question. He simply wants to know who they are.
Peterson: Well, I mean organizations like Jonathan Haidt’s […] what’s it called […] Heterodox Academy and other organizations like that […] have documented an absolute dearth of conservative voices in the social sciences and the humanities. And about 25%, according to what I think are reliable surveys, of social scientists in the U.S. identify themselves as Marxists. And, so there’s that.
Obviously, Žižek is not satisfied with this stammering and evasive response, so he justly spurs Peterson on. Name me one, he dares him.
Žižek: But can you name me one? I know a couple of Marxists. For example, and he does very solid economic work, David Harvey. And that is one. But he writes very serious books of economic analysis. Then there is the old guy, […] Frederic Jameson.16 But both are totally marginalized today in this politically correct mainstream. So again, who are they? I don’t see them.
Once again, though, Peterson doesn’t come up with a straightforward answer.
Peterson: Well, yeah, your question seemed to me to focus more on the peculiar relationship that I’ve noticed, and that people have disputed, between postmodernism and neo-Marxism, and I see the connection between the postmodernist types and the Marxists as a sleight of hand that replaced the notion of the oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie as the oppression of one identity group by another.
Still no name. And so, Žižek applies an even narrower angle.
Žižek: I totally agree with you here. But that is precisely a non-Marxist gesture par excellence.
Finally, Peterson divulges two names.
Peterson: I guess that’s where we might have a dispute. Because of what I think happened, especially in France in the 1960s when the radical Marxist postmodern types like Derrida and Foucault realized that they were losing the moral battle, especially after the information came out of the Soviet Union in the manner that it came out.
We can stop Peterson here because no other names will follow. So, after all these years of researching and battling with these heinous postmodern neo- or cultural Marxists, Peterson can only stammer two names: the French philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
But if we listened carefully, Peterson didn’t even name Derrida and Foucault. What he referred to, and this is an extremely important aspect, were “radical Marxist postmodern types like Derrida and Foucault.”
Now, where for many people the usage of the word ‘type’ would not be of particular importance, it is for somebody like Peterson (especially in this context), a psychologist with an extensive knowledge of the work of Carl Gustav Jung, for whom the concept of types, or archetypes, was the basis and fundament of his research. And Peterson’s ‘magnum opus,’ his Maps of Meaning (1999), is a book fundamentally indebted to Jungian psychology. So, when Peterson refers to types, even if it might be a mere lapsus, this is not without meaning. In fact, the suspicion—and this is also the reason why I consider this discussion to be so paradigmatic—is that what is at stake here is not the actual philosophy of these two French philosophers, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. This is not about Jacques or Michel,17 who certainly don’t represent, nor are they members of, a supposed so-called group of neo- or cultural Marxist postmodernists.
If we look at some historical facts, both Foucault and Derrida were more anti-Marxist than pro-Marxist. For as much as Foucault was a member of the French Communist Party from 1950 until 1953, he was never highly involved in it, and as can be seen from the brevity of his membership, the infatuation did not last long. The disapproval, we might add, was mutual. After the publication of The Order of Things (2005), Foucault got nothing but attacks from the Marxist side. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, he had done nothing less than construct “a new ideology, the last rampart the bourgeoisie can erect against Marx.”18 Foucault was thus considered by the French Marxists (or Maoists, as Sartre did for a time flirt with this form of Marxism) as a petit bourgeois, even a “positivist,” as Sylvie Le Bon, Simone de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter, stated.19 One has to truly hide one’s Marxism well for the majority of contemporary Marxists to consider one a representative of the loathed bourgeois class and a “Gaullist technocrat.”20
Derrida, for his part, never hid the fact that he was no communist or Marxist. He plainly and simply admitted in one of his few texts dedicated to Marx, Specters of Marx (1994), that he opposed both: “[I]n particular for those who, and this was also my case, opposed, to be sure, de facto ‘Marxism’ or ‘communism.’”21 He even repeated this in the same text: “[W]hat is certain is that I am not a Marxist.”22 True, they obviously engaged with the theories and the work of Marx, Foucault a bit more than Derrida (Derrida even admits in his Specters of Marx that he hasn’t reread The Manifesto of the Communist Party for “decades”23), but this also holds for Peterson, who dedicated almost the totality of his presentation preceding the debate with Žižek to his (mis)reading(s) of the Communist Manifesto.
As to “Derrida describ[ing] his own ideas as a radicalized form of Marxism”:24 Besides the fact that Peterson also takes this directly from Hicks25 without acknowledging his source, it is simply a demonstration of the partial and enormously partisan reading by Hicks (and copy-pasting by Peterson). For as much as Derrida did write in his Specters of Marx that deconstruction was a radicalization of something, the radicalization is not of Marxism as such, and what Peterson does not mention/know is that this book was hated by Marxists.26
“Deconstruction,” Derrida writes, “has never made any sense or interest, in my view at least, except as a radicalization, which is to say also in the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism.”27 To make a long story short, what is at stake in this radicalization is not a ‘marxizing’ of deconstruction, but a ‘deconstructizing’ of Marxism. He is very simply—be that a clever move or not (I personally have some serious doubts about this ‘move,’ but that is not the point [before one can doubt something one needs to be able to read correctly])—placing Marx, post-datum, in the tradition of deconstruction.
In the end, I think Terry Eagleton captured the interaction between most French scholars from the 60s and 70s well when he claimed that their thoughts were “born out of an extraordinarily creative dialogue with Marxism. It began as an attempt to find a way around Marxism without quite leaving it behind. It ended by doing exactly that.”28 They “were […] Communists in the sense that Kennedy was a Berliner.”29
Both Foucault and Derrida were, furthermore, also wary of the whole postmodern movement to which they never adhered. They both explicitly denied belonging to this postmodernism, and they also explicitly denounced it. Derrida made it perfectly clear that he was no postmodernist and that those who claimed him to be one were not particularly intelligent people. He thus wrote:
I am taken aback by a certain eagerness to speak of […] my work in general as if it were merely a species, instance, or example of the ‘genre’ postmodernism or poststructuralism. These are catch-all notions into which the most poorly informed public (and, most often, the mass-circulation press) stuffs nearly everything it does not like or understand, starting with ‘deconstruction.’ I do not consider myself either a poststructuralist or a postmodernist. I have often explained why I almost never use these words, except to say that they are inadequate to what I am trying to do.30
Shortly hereafter, Derrida adds something quite important in this context: “I have never spoken of ‘the announcements of the end of all metanarratives,’ let alone endorsed them.”31
Foucault, for his part, goes from jokingly denying knowledge of what people are talking about when they mention postmodernism (be they German Frankfurter Schüler or North American sociologists) to questioning what it could possibly be that united these so-called postmodernists (or post-structuralists, for that matter). There is no shared problematic nor methodology that unifies them, he maintains.32 He also explicitly criticizes postmodernism numerous times. For example, in his What is Enlightenment? (1984), he clearly accuses the concept of postmodernism—which he puts in between brackets, denouncing as such the plasticity of the concept—of being “enigmatic” and, especially, “disquieting.”33
In fact, by mentioning Foucault and Derrida, or better, their types, we witness how Peterson, besides merely repeating the revisionist and completely ahistorical thesis phrased before him by Hicks, also inserts himself in a—by now already rather old—tradition. I am talking about the tradition of considering the philosophical ‘current’ known as ‘Continental’ philosophy as a term of abuse for everything that was and is bad in philosophy.
My goal in this book is not just to write the history of this tradition. Neither is it to simply reveal the modalities in which this tradition operates (its resorting to vile and offensive language, its enormous and impossible generalizations, its general and almost required lack of knowledge of the necessary material, its frequent slogan- and namedropping, etc.). For as much as we will cover all these aspects, the main scope of this text regards two less known, but much more fundamental, aspects of this tradition. The first is the simple fact that behind all the names, there is nobody there. Behind Peterson’s—and so many others’—Derrida and Foucault, there is absolutely nobody. Although the contrary will often be maintained, behind those names there are no actual philosophers who lived and worked in Paris, no Jacques nor Michel. And the same holds for Peterson’s neo- or cultural Marxist postmodernists (which can be seen as interchangeable labels for ‘Continental’ philosophy). They simply don’t exist.
Secondly, this tradition does not just operate negatively. It can also operate in ways that are not merely destructive. In fact, one of the main examples of this tradition today is positive and constructive. I’m referring here to what is generally known as Theory. In this scholarly endeavor too, and this is the second aspect we will highlight, there are no Foucaults, Derridas, and postmodernists to be found. Also in this positive (reverse) usage of the tradition, they do not exist.34
Our final quest and question will be whether we can’t simply do away with this tradition. With so much ado about nothing (and the nothing is surprisingly real), why don’t we simply leave all this behind?
1. The Sony Centre for Performing Arts has since been ‘rebranded.’ It is now (mid-2020) known as Meridian Hall.↑
2. The more than 7-minute opening scene which offers the all-too-familiar background noise, the typical murmur of a lot of people talking together while waiting, the sudden dimming of the lights, followed by a roar of applause and teenage screams, could have perfectly well been the beginning of a rock concert. The fact that the crowd reacts when one of the protagonists is introduced as having not one but two doctoral degrees makes me think that some of the spectators did consider the debate as some sort of concert—or at least on the same level of pastime as a concert.↑
3. Stephen Marche, “The ‘Debate of the Century’: What Happened When Jordan Peterson Debated Slavoj Žižek,” The Guardian, 20 April 2019 [10 March 2023].↑
4. It is quite ironic that a debate where Marxism would be the elephant in the room was about ‘happiness,’ considering that, as Terry Eagleton quipped, “[W]hat everyone wants is happiness, despite Marx and Nietzsche’s withering opinion that only the English desired that” (Terry Eagleton, The Illusion of Postmodernism, Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, 1996, 76, emphasis in original).↑
5. These can be seen as the mainstream considerations on these two scholars. Both are, however, not so easily reduced to these superficial ‘labels’ or ‘appropriations.’↑
6. Thomas McGrath, “Chomsky and Foucault: Was Their 1971 Debate the Worst Blind Date of all Time?” Dangerous Minds, 18 July 2013 [28 January 2023].↑
7. Reported in Wolfram Eilenberger, Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy, New York: Penguin Press, 2020, 334-335. I have slightly altered the translation proposed by Eilenberger. Particularly the description of Heidegger as a ‘violent man’ seemed inappropriate. As Krois reported the message from the Zurcher newspaper, Heidegger was “ein sehr heftiger Mensch” (J. M. Krois, “Warum fand keine Davoser Debatte zwischen Cassirer und Heidegger statt?” in Cassirer – Heidegger: 70 Jahre Davoser Disputation, edited by Dominic Kaegi and Enno Rudolph, Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 2018, 234-246, here 234). Although heftig can be translated as violent, describing Heidegger as violent in the context of a scholarly—and seemingly boring–debate in 1929 seems highly ill-fitting and colored by what we know happened afterward.↑
8. Marche, “The ‘Debate of the Century.’”↑
9. Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, London: Allen Lane, 2018, 220.↑
10. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, 228.↑
11. his pair of opponents is basically the same that was accused of destroying the Humanities in the university during the late 80s and early 90s, the only difference being that they were not called neo-Marxists but still plain and simple Marxists, and that the postmodernists were occasionally also referred to as deconstructionists (see, for instance, Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008 [Kindle edition], loc 2858).↑
12. Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, Tempe: Scholarly Publishing, 2004, 1.↑
13. Peterson once stated (confessed?) he had read Foucault’s History of Madness (2006). None of his comments on Foucault can, however, vouch for the exactness of this claim (again, as far as my knowledge goes, he never quotes Foucault), and he does not seem to have made any similar statements about Derrida’s work. ↑
14. That Žižek is suspicious of this label should not be a surprise. As is widely known, when the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard started using the term postmodernism, defining it as being above all the suspicion of grand narratives, the grand narrative he had in mind was none other than Marxism.↑
15. Žižek’s main problem, namely that what Peterson describes as postmodern neo-Marxism has no real Marxist element in its reasoning, is not what makes this part of the debate interesting to me.↑
16. Both these authors have, together with a third ‘Marxist’/socialist, Eagleton, written important works against or on postmodernism. Peterson should have been familiar with their work—something which he clearly doesn’t seem to be—not least because Jameson even declared himself to be a Marxist who had ‘become’ a postmodernist (see Frederic Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998, London and New York: Verso, 1998, 33). Jameson’s Marxist postmodernism is, however, nothing of the kind Peterson (can) imagine(s).↑
17. And this is also confirmed by one of Žižek’s interruptions: “It’s so strange that you mentioned […] somebody like Foucault, because as I see it […] his main target was Marxism […] and his game was never radical change.”↑
18. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Jean-Paul Sartre répond,” L’Arc, 30 October 1966, 87-88, here 88.↑
19. See Sylvie Le Bon, “Un positiviste désespéré,” Les Temps Modernes 248 (1967): 1299-1319, here 1299.↑
20. David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, London: Vintage, 1994, 230.↑
21. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, London and New York: Routledge, 1994, 15, emphasis added.↑
22. Derrida, Specters of Marx, 110.↑
23. Derrida, Specters of Marx, 2.↑
24. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, 222.↑
25. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, 5.↑
26. See François Cusset, How the World Swung to the Right: Fifty Years of Counterrevolutions, South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2018, 136.↑
27. Derrida, Specters of Marx, 115, emphasis in original.↑
28. Terry Eagleton, After Theory, New York: Basic Books, 2003, 35.↑
29. Eagleton, After Theory, 36.↑
30. Jacques Derrida, “Marx & Sons,” in Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, edited by Michael Sprinker, London and New York: Verso, 2008, 213-269, here 228-229.↑
31. Derrida, “Marx & Sons,” 229.↑
32. Michel Foucault, “Structuralisme et poststructuralisme,” in Dits et écrits II, 1976-1988, edited by Daniel Defert and François Ewald, Paris: Gallimard (Quarto), 2001, 1250- 1276, here 1265-1266.↑
33. Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in The Foucault Reader, edited by Pail Rabinow, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, 32-50, here 39.↑
34. One can thus witness here an almost ironical return and overturning of the tradition registered by Peterson in the very group that is so ‘hated’ by Peterson—and vice versa.↑