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  Astra Taylor's 'Examined Life'
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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.

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This story was published on March 17, 2009.

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