April 24, 2009

Philosophy on the Streets

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“The unExamined Life is not worth living.” Such is the quote from Plato that opens Examined Life, directed by Astra Taylor. So where’s the “the”? The documentary’s title describes an unspecified substance, a sort of universal life-stuff. But it is the connotation implied by the quote, and left out of the title, that makes the movie itself worth watching. Examined Life makes charmingly clear the differentiated specificity, the very the-ness of life. In her most substantial line, Taylor says, “I’m thinking about the challenge of making a film about philosophy.” What she gets is a film about philosophers — a less grandiose entity, but no less intriguing. Examined Life is a meditation on the interactions between individual philosophers, those famously monastic entities, and the worlds that, depending on who you ask, they either create, destroy or interpret. The philosophers in the film are mostly of the political/social bent, precisely that subgenre which most lends itself to forays into the outside world. And the locales, coupled with medium-range shots that tend to look cribbed from the Travel Channel, are often just a shade off of cliché.
Peter Singer, titled by two almost-oxy-morons, “applied ethicist” and “Australian philosopher,” muses on the morality of consumer spending in Times Square. Outside of a cathedral, Singer boldly states that ethics should come not from religion, but from within oneself. Kwame Anthony Appiah advocates cosmopolitan multiculturalism from a sprawling airport, and boldly states that humans must embrace one another without religious proselytizing. Martha Nussbaum explains the social contract and boldly states that human beings are drawn together out of love to create a working society. After all this, one cannot help but wish for something a little more edgy, perhaps a neo-fascist cross-dresser or a gun-toting evangelist, spouting Carlyle from a NASCAR infield while waving the Confederate flag.
Enter Slavoj Zizek, the Yugoslavian bear of pop culture philosophy and the subject of Taylor’s last film. Bellowing over the sounds of garbage trucks and sporting full landfill worker’s garb, Zizek describes the impulse to reduce waste and return to nature, advocated by the political left, as the philosophical kin of the religious right. He insists that humanity become even more artificial, completely severing its ties with nature.
And maybe Zizek’s cyborg battle cry isn’t so revolutionary after all. For doesn’t philosophy itself work to artificialize the natural, to make strange the everyday? To quote Taylor quoting Diderot, “The first step towards philosophy is incredulity.” Examined Life is at its best when its incredulous subjects must choose between confronting reality and recoiling from it, and the asides are always more interesting than the set-pieces. While rowing at Central Park, just after having praised democracy as “the rule of all by all,” Michael Hardt notices a group of turtles sitting motionless on a rock. The would-be connection hangs there in metaphorical purgatory, hinted at but never completed. Judith Butler, in her conversation with disability-rights activist Sunaura Taylor (Astra’s sister), makes the streets of San Francisco the very arena in which people with disabilities must re-conceptualize the human body. Butler herself uses her “masculine” dress to support her claims to performative gender in feminist theory, which she compares to disability studies. Indeed, for those of us humanities students cautiously wading into a sea of faceless tomes, just seeing what Butler looks like is itself a jarring experience.
But her representative dress pales in comparison to that of Avital Ronell, the deconstructionist who walks around a New York park in all black, bearing the dark gift of meaninglessness and relating eerily well to the world around her. The film’s best cinematic moment comes at the end of Ronell’s interview, as Taylor zooms out to a low-res shot capturing both Ronell and the filmmakers, revealing the composition that frames the discourse itself.
But perhaps the most interesting reckoning with the outside world comes from Cornel West, whom the movie’s website calls “America’s best-known public intellectual” (with sure apologies to Stephen T. Colbert). The Princeton preacher/philosopher is the interviewee most eager to equate philosophy with something else, something external: “I’m a bluesman in the life of the mind, I’m a jazzman in the world of ideas.” Yet he is so singularly intense that the world of things fades helplessly into the background, leaving only West in the backseat of Taylor’s car, crouched eagerly forward and improvising polysyllables. He’s comfortable interacting with humanity’s finer creative specimens — he drops casual references to Beethoven, John Donne and Charlie Parker — but the sidewalk New Yorker is something else entirely. West actually invokes the mundaneness of the outside world as a break from the heightened existence of intellectual pursuits. When, at the film’s close, West gets out of the car and is immediately accosted by a good-looking blonde, one cannot help thinking about his interactions with the lowly non-cerebral. What does he say? Does he state his “tacit assumptions” and his “unarticulated presuppositions?” Cornel West’s inimitable game, like all philosophy, cannot be completely known, and that’s the point. But whatever it is, I gotta get me some.