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Walking heads: on ‘Examined Life’

February 24, 2010

Since olden times philosophers and those calling themselves philosophers have self-aggrandized in public and self-medicated in private by repeating the Platonic mantra that the unexamined life is not worth living. Like all good PR, this slogan creates a sort of negative space–note the dual negativizers ‘un-‘ and ‘not’– into which you can throw all your vague ideas about just what the examined life actually is and what actually makes life worthwhile, all while everyone else  does exactly the same with vague ideas of their own. Like all good advertising, it holds out a promise to you–YOU!–that your own personal existence will get better, more meaningful if only you’ll turn on your mind and drag out those inchoate ideas you’ve been accumulating on your mental periphery.

Astra Taylor’s documentary ‘Examined Life‘ (streamable on Netflix, btw) is a series of brief talking head interviews with prominent philosophers conducted on the move. They expound in cars, in rowboats, on airport moving sidewalks, in parks, on busy streets, and in front of large piles of trash. They are out in the real world, among the people, taking it to the streets. That’s the premise, I guess, and the movie consciously plays up the incongruity of it all: pure mind plopped down in the middle of a messy world of which it’s the last, best hope. Thus we get Cornel West, a man who dresses like he should be hailing a horse-drawn hackney carriage, riding in the back of car. We get Peter Singer amid the high-fashion carnival of Times Square wearing utilitarian gray and speaking in the most measured monotone . We get Avital Ronnell dressed like she’s from the Chinese future strolling by schlubby, bewildered New Yorkers. Meanwhile, Michael Hardt, voice of the global multitude, takes an aristocratic-seeming boat cruise, and Kwame Anthony Appiah wanders around an eerily deserted airport looking rather lonely. Ideas certainly do belong in the world, but in order to make this conclusion dramatic the movie thinks it has to first play up the silly thought they and the people who think them up ever came from anywhere else.

The best and rarest moments are when the subjects break character, stop being pedants, and talk less at us than with us. Hardt has a funny story about getting absurdly impractical career advice from El Salvadorean guerrillas, as does Appiah about how his Ghanaian father and English mother got together. Fleetingly, seemingly against the filmmakers’ wishes, we see that philosophers are people too, and that some of them are even halfway interesting.

By contrast, one of the most painful moments is when Sunaura Taylor, a disabled rights activist, herself disabled, and the one non-professional philosopher in the movie, struggles to articulate the theoretical distinction between disability and impairment and gets gently but rather smugly corrected by Judith Butler. It’s not cruel or anything but it sort of raises the question of what ultimately the value of theory is. If it gives people a productive way to think about themselves, if it can make the callous more empathetic, great, but it’s nothing to hold over people. I don’t know about unexamined, but the untheorized life is almost certainly still worth living.

By far the weirdest thing about ‘Examined Life’ is that for a movie ostensibly about ideas engaging the world no one ever really does anything beyond basically walk and talk. Hardt crashes his rowboat and S. Taylor and Butler buy a sweater, but that’s it. The rest of the time everyone just sort of floats along leisurely, in the world but not of it. I suppose this might be to show how life-examination can be done anywhere, anytime, and without accessories sold separately, but still. It’s as if simply examining your life were enough by itself: in essence, if the unexamined life isn’t worth living, then clearly all that’s needed to make life worthwhile is a little examination, a little engaged but disembodied thought or, as certain philosophers like to say, interrogation. But a) you need to act well as well as think well, and b) thinking is easy, thinking well is the hard part. It’s what matters and based on the documentary evidence it’s not clear that professional philosophers are in any meaningful way better at this than others. This is, as it were, the fine print under Plato’s timeworn slogan.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 28, 2010 2:08 pm

    I saw this movie too and have no truck with your observations. You are dead on. That said, I still get excited by Cornell West’s back seat soliloquy. How can one help otherwise? It is exciting to find individuals, like West, who can think and talk like an NBA player can move a ball. Perhaps it is nothing more than that, sport of the mind. But, hey, I bought a ticket (or got the Netflix membership).

    The thing I find comfort in regarding Socrates admonition is it’s looseness. He didn’t say come to a conclusion, or use this formula or even measure against this set of criteria. Yes, it is negative, which is a good point. But the implication, the examined life is worth living, is a valid observation, starkly simple and without pedantic weight. Sadly, the lemmings of modern society, I think, on the whole, lack the capacity to examine much of anything, let alone life.

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