Newspaper logo  
 
 
Local News & Opinion

Ref. : Civic Events

Ref. : Arts & Education Events

Ref. : Public Service Notices

Travel
Books, Films, Arts & Education
Letters
Open Letters:

Ref. : Letters to the editor

Health Care & Environment

07.03 George Lakoff: Why Pope Francis Killed It on Addressing Climate Change

07.03 This dome in the Pacific houses tons of radioactive waste – and it's leaking

07.03 Jairam Ramesh: India can't remain on the path of further destruction

07.03 Greenpeace and utilities launch suit against Hinkley nuclear plant

07.03 New study warns of dangerous climate change risks to the Earth’s oceans [ginormous graphic]

07.03 BP set to pay largest environmental fine in US history for Gulf oil spill

07.02 Australia must cut carbon emissions by 30% by 2025, says Climate Change Authority

07.02 Germany to mothball largest coal power plants to meet climate targets

07.02 Supreme Court Decision Unlikely to Stall the Shift Away from Coal Plants

07.02 Hope for Alzheimer's treatment as researchers find licensed drugs halt brain degeneration

07.02 The Death Treatment

07.01 Rich countries' $100bn promise to fight climate change 'not delivered'

07.01 Climate change a security risk second only to terrorism, says defence report

07.01 China makes carbon pledge ahead of Paris climate change summit

07.01 Brazil announces massive reforestation and renewable energy plan with US

07.01 Are we on the brink of an electric car revolution?

07.01 Billions have no access to toilets, says World Health Organisation report

News Media

07.02 This despicable “O’Reilly Factor” segment exposes the fundamental ugliness of the right-wing worldview [5:24 video]

07.01 How Chris Christie trapped himself in a political quandary [A paper-of-record spreads an old Social Security lie]

Daily FAIR Blog
The Daily Howler

US Politics, Policy & 'Culture'

07.03 Elizabeth Warren Reams Private Accreditor Who Certified Corinthian College Up to Its End [6:17 video]

07.03 Economic exodus means two-thirds of Puerto Ricans may soon live in US

07.02 America’s worst governors want to be president: Jindal, Walker, Christie — can Sam Brownback be far behind

07.02 Bernie Sanders draws crowd of 10,000 at Wisconsin rally[2:59 video]

07.01 How Chris Christie trapped himself in a political quandary [A paper-of-record spreads an old Social Security lie]

07.01 KKK plans South Carolina rally as Confederate flag debate continues

07.01 How Seattle Is Reclaiming Its Waterfront From an Elevated Urban Highway

07.01 Affordable Housing Crisis Grows Across the Country as Apartment Rents Skyrocket

06.30 Wealth Doesn't Trickle Down, But the Effects of Housing Discrimination Do

06.30 What's Really Happening in Puerto Rico? [As with Greece, expect mass population shift to avoid local government debt-service taxes]

06.30 The GOP Fails Its Empathy Test

06.30 Barack Obama moves to double US salary limit on overtime pay

06.29 Bernie Sanders can give America what it needs: Some good old-fashioned class warfare

06.29 Puerto Rico’s Governor Says Island’s Debts Are ‘Not Payable’

Justice Matters
High Crimes?
Economics, Crony Capitalism

07.03 Europe’s Many Economic Disasters

07.01 How the euro became a weapon of mass destruction

06.30 Robert Reich: America is facing an economic apartheid

06.30 Europe’s Attack on Greek Democracy

06.29 The economic plan that could save America (but scares conservative billionaires senseless)

06.29 Report: Millions of dollars in fraud, waste found in charter school sector [a BIG overlooked story of the failure to sensibly regulate]

06.29 The world is defenceless against the next financial crisis, warns BIS

International

07.03 Boko Haram attack on Nigerian village leaves nearly 100 people dead

07.02 Nicholas Winton, Rescuer of 669 Children From Holocaust, Dies at 106

07.02 Weak Power Grids in Africa Stunt Economies and Fire Up Tempers

07.02 Greece's economic crisis: 100 Greeks give their view

07.02 Hillary Clinton emails reveal powerful families' intricate relationships

07.02 Attacks on Egyptian checkpoints signal escalation in Isis capabilities

07.02 Islamic State threatens to topple Hamas in Gaza Strip in video statement

07.01 A Paradox of American Religion: Diversity Brings Tolerance [Obvious countries should learn from this!]

07.01 The United Nations in a Post-Nation World

07.01 Prime Minister Signals Greece May Accept Bailout Terms

07.01 The Hard Work of Taking Apart Post-Work Fantasy

07.01 Iran's nuclear program may have cost the country $500 billion or more

We are a non-profit Internet-only newspaper publication founded in 1973. Your donation is essential to our survival.

You can also mail a check to:
Baltimore News Network, Inc.
P.O. Box 42581
Baltimore, MD 21284-2581
Google
This site Web
  Astra Taylor's 'Examined Life'
Newspaper logo

FILM REVIEW:

Astra Taylor's 'Examined Life'

Talking, walking, and thinking at the same time. Is it possible?

by Chris Knipp
Tuesday, 17 March 2009
The eight philosophers featured in this documentary get back to basics. All of them are talking in one way or another about how to live.
"Examined Life" introduces what may be a lovely, if frustrating, new sub-genre: the philosophical chat documentary. The title's an obvious allusion to Socrates' famous statement: The unexamined life is not worth living. He didn't say whether the examined life was worth living or not. But let's see... The film's eight philosophers are peripatetic, though Taylor doesn't claim this alludes to Aristotle, who, they say, walked around while lecturing. Which reminds me of how the philosopher of running, Dr. George Sheehan, liked to quote someone, Thoreau I think, as saying, "Trust no thought arrived at sitting down." If that's true, maybe we'll have to distrust two of the speakers, because one is in a car and another is rowing a boat on a lake.

It's good if you can lure the public to watch a documentary film that provides a taste of what philosophical thinking is like. Unfortunately, the talkers—Cornel West, Avita Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler, and Savoj Zizek—aren't really making philosophy as they go along, the way Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore did, as did their followers, A.J. Ayer and Gilbert Ryle. Instead, they're just summarizing some of their main ideas or repeating riffs they've done before or answering questions from Taylor—all the while as they're being filmed walking, rowing, riding, or, in the case Zizek, fidgeting around in front of some piles of rubbish at a London dump. (Taylor previously made a film about the showy, provocative Slovenian.)

While anyone asks about the meaning of life at some point or another, it's not a sure thing that philosophy is of any use, even to itself. Wittgenstein famously said that, of what matters most to us, we can say nothing. After a pungent name-dropping riff by West sitting in the back of Taylor's car, Ronell, a "deconstructionist," begins her sequence, pacing a Central Park sidewalk, with a strong dose of skepticism, not to say metaphysical and moral angst. "If you have a good conscience, then you're worthless," she opines. Disdainfully asserting that though ten minutes to speak may be fine for the others, it's ridiculous for herself, she haughtily makes a point of distinguishing between philosophy and thinking. So there's some question whether anything said by these eight people is of any use, or whether presenting them sequentially (with Cornell West injected at three points as a motif) makes any logical sense. But it does, because philosophers do get back to basics, and all of them are talking in one way or another about how to live.

In his Village Voice review of "Examined Life," J. Hoberman falls into the inevitable trap of rating the speakers one by one. He finds Singer smug and obvious and says his "neo-Kantian platitude" about "commitment to the common good" "stops the conversation" and illustrates that distinction between philosophy and thinking. Actually, Singer's stroll down Fifth Avenue while advocating vegetarianism and suggesting it's better to donate a thousand dollars to charity than to spend it on an elegant suit seemed effective and thought-provoking to me; and Singer had the best command of everyday, unshowy language.

Singer's position coheres with those of Nussbaum and Butler, both of whom speak of the need to act democratically. The image of a Bushian un-compassionate conservatism hovers behind their assertion of our collective obligation to provide for and protect those who are different, or poor, or handicapped. Nussbaum points out that everyone is "handicapped" in infancy and old age, so the need for help is universal. Butler explores a San Francisco second-hand clothing store with a wheelchair-bound friend, Sunaura Taylor, discussing the need for accessibility and fairness in facing gender issues. All of this adds up to the need for a more liberal and humane society. Appiah adds another consideration: culture. As he walks through the international wing of a airport, en route to somewhere, he talks about growing up in a shack and having a Ghanan mother and English father and describes cosmopolitanism—and distinguishes it from cultural relativity. It's important to realize that people can live well (be good), he says, while following different values.

There is the danger in this medium of peppy visuals and extended sound bites that these important thinkers and writers may wind up over-simplifying or parodying themselves.

One may be a cosmopolite like Appiah, but it may be better to stay at home. So you might conclude from the word of Michael Hardt, co-author of the book Empire. In his youth he and others went to Latin America to engage in revolution, but they were advised to go back and make their revolution here. As he rows around the lake and runs aground looking at big turtles, he may seem ineffectual. There is the danger in this medium of peppy visuals and extended sound bites that these important thinkers and writers may wind up over-simplifying or parodying themselves.

Zizek, like Jean Baudrillard, makes puzzling and provocative pronouncements that seem to defy common sense. It may simply be that while he can devastate you in the sound bites, with a kind of hit-and-run effect, he can't ever be properly understood in such small chunks. His primary point this time is that "shit" doesn't go away as we imagine, when we flush. We need to, as it were, "embrace" our mountains of waste, forget about living in nature, and accept being more artificial. But since he acknowledges that global warming is a real problem, why does he insist that "ecology" is the comforting new orthodoxy, like "religion" to Marx? What are we to do with this information, if it be true?

And it's hard to see what to do with West's dazzling high culture jive talk about history, jazz, blues, slavery, courage, and much else, which is peppered with quotations, slogans, and an array of names that would send any freshman rushing to the library, or at least to Google or Wikipedia.

Maybe Hoberman is right in calling this filmmaker "a purveyor of intellectual vaudeville." But what choice does she have? Otherwise, how can 85 minutes of professional philosophers talking get even the tiny distribution this film is up for? The thing about Cornell West is that, like Zizek, you may come away only with questions, but you may also, especially if you're young, come away thinking you want to be able to talk like that and think like that, and have all that stuff in your head. Somewhere out of this you may get the urge to think or act in new ways. Or read a book. Even Eric Schmidt, the Chairman and CEO of Google, thinks doing that is still the best way to learn about something.


©Chris Knipp 2008. Chris Knipp writes from San Francisco.



Copyright © 2009 The Baltimore News Network. All rights reserved.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.

This story was published on March 17, 2009.
 


Public Service Ads: