The manifest thesis of Astra Taylor’s compelling new documentary, Examined Life (IMDB), is embedded in the title’s citation of Plato’s Apology, in which the philosopher writes, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Cornel West, the self-proclaimed bluesman-philosopher, quotes this passage, chapter and verse, in much the same way that a church pastor might refer to a sacred text. West goes on to add that philosophers operate from a “critical disposition,” challenging us to see the world differently, to question the unquestioned habits and practices that guide our daily life.
To complete this exploration of philosophy’s function in the social world, Taylor conducted ten-minute interviews with eight prominent philosophers in locations they saw as illustrating or resonating with their ideas. Peter Singer takes us on a stroll down Fifth Avenue in New York to reflect on the ethics of purchasing designer clothing. Is buying that $1,000 suit a harmless act or is the failure to donate that money to alleviate poverty potentially unethical? Similarly, Michael Hardt rows a boat in the midst of Central Park in order to discourse on the possibility of revolution in the midst of some of the great monuments of capitalism. Martha Nussbaum also walks through a city park in order to reflect on the social contract and its failure to consider the problem of bodies with various forms of ability, while asking how this social contract might inform political ethics. Kwame Anthony Appiah takes us to an airport to illustrate his argument that globalization demands a new ethic of cosmopolitanism, reminding us that a typical airplane passenger would likely encounter more people in her journey than some ancient peoples would meet in their entire lives. Perhaps most famously, the Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, the subject of Taylor’s previous philosophy documentary, Žižek!, takes us to a dump in London in order to reflect on his theory of ideology.
In all cases, the philosophers and theorists seek to address the very possibility of meaning, but the film is at its strongest when addressing the problem of political ethics, especially as it applies to human bodies. Although a number of commenters at Crooked Timber have expressed some skepticism, Taylor manages to keep the film moving at a brisk pace, and much like Errol Morris, whose films often feature philosophers, researchers, and eccentrics theorizing about the world, Taylor subtly draws connections between concepts discussed in the film, posing as a kind of inquisitive student in order to draw out ideas from her subjects (in fact, the CBC referred to Taylor as “the Errol Morris of the egghead” set).
These questions about the possibility of meaning are introduced in an early segment featuring Avital Ronnell, the deconstructionist literary critic, who interrogates the very possibility of meaning, slyly joking that it would be a “scandal” if she were limited to ten minutes while also addressing the impossibility of knowing where, how, and under what conditions the film would be received, in a faint echo of Jacques Derrida’s Post-Card (which was itself inspired by an image of Plato and Socrates). Although Ronell’s segment is perhaps the weakest in the film, it does serve as a reminder that Taylor’s documentary is a constructed object, that the conversations we see have been arranged, cut, and reassembled in orer to make meaning. Brief glimpses of the camera casting a shadow on the ground may appear to be accidents. With Ronell speaking, these shots seem to serve as a gesture toward the role of the filmmaker herself in making meaning.
Perhaps the most compelling segment was the film’s final section (excluding a brief denouement featuring West), consisting of a conversation between Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor. Butler, of course, is best known for her work on gender and performativity, while Taylor is an artist and activist in the disability movement. the two of them walk through the streets of San Francisco and discuss the idea of what Butler calls “the human as a site of interdependency,” a concept they develop out of the recognition that all humans, disabled or not, need assistance to navigate the physical and social world. This realization emerges from Taylor’s explanation that despite using a wheelchair, she describes her movements across the streets and sidewalks of San Francisco as “going for a walk,” with Butler recognizing the degree to which all walking depends on various modes of support. I think this segment works well, in part, because of the way in which the two thinkers place their ideas and experiences in dialogue, and I would have enjoyed seeing more of these conversations, especially if the two ubjects might have ideas that seem initially incompatible.
If I’ve made Examined Life sound like a dry philosophical treatise or a filmed version of the midnight meanderings of drunk, or stoned, graduate students, it’s far more than that. There are some genuinely human moments, with many of the philosophers grounding their theories in their personal experience. Hardt’s interest in and skepticism about revolution builds, in part, from his experiences in Central America in the 1980s. West, perhaps playing to the crowd a little too much, conveys his love and appreciation of many of the material things of life, especially music, both classical and blues. Finally, the scene in which Butler and Taylor shop at a vintage clothing store is a lovely moment, with Butler assisting Taylor with trying on clothes and joking about her “queer eye.”
For readers who are overly familiar with the philosopher interviewed by Taylor, it may feel, initially, as if there is nothing new here, but in fact, I think the use of film to create juxtapositions between these thinkers is a worthwhile endeavor. When I watched the film with a couple of friends, both of whom are graduate students at my university, we all wanted to stop the film at various points, to argue ideas, to make sense of or take apart various arguments. But I think the montage of ideas, the result of the film’s anthology structure, actually allowed for a subtle reflection of philosophy and ethics, something that might have been missed by artificially chopping up the film. Examined Life is far more than a mere recording of philosophers engaging in their craft. It is, in fact, offering an ethic of philosophical engagement with the world, bringing philosophy into the streets and bringing the streets into philosophy.