Philosophy in the Real World

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(Examined Life is being distributed by Zeitgeist Films and is now available on DVD. Visit the distributor’s official site for the film for more information.)

Can philosophy serve a legitimate purpose in our rapid-paced, techno-charged, money-grubbing modern world? Or is it nothing more than a severely outdated form of brain calisthenics that has no ability to impact our society in even the most impractical of manners? Perhaps the answer to that question resides in the actual film Astra Taylor has made with Examined Life. If Taylor can spin such heady, academic material into an engaging and entertaining documentary, then there just might be some hope after all. Inserting her subjects—some of the world’s most brilliant philosophical minds—into the most routine and commonplace of locales (parks, airports, backseats of cars, landfills, shopping districts) as they casually, though headily, discuss a variety of topics, Taylor delivers an engaging defense for the idea that this type of thinking is exactly what the world needs right now.

examinedlifestillWhat better place to start than with philosophical preacher, professor, author, lecturer, and rapper(?!) Dr. Cornel West. West brings a musical influence to his intellectual pursuits, but it isn’t just the blues, jazz, and hip-hop; it’s classical, it’s 1960s pop, it’s everything and then some. And while he stresses that philosophy needs to go to school with music, not just poetry, he certainly doesn’t dismiss that form of art, unleashing a flurry of references and actual quotes that makes one think, “Just how big is this man’s brain of reference?” Taylor questions West as she drives him around Manhattan. Sitting in the backseat, he bursts forth with enthusiasm. One imagines this is exactly how he would act if he had just hopped into a random taxicab. To West, the life of ideas is deeply connected to our appreciation of life and acceptance of death. Without it, we aren’t really living.

Early on, one comes to understand that Taylor’s structure and style isn’t overly rigid and formal. She isn’t out to tie everything together, to make one concrete point (other than the broader one that philosophy is, in fact, still pertinent). This was clearly her intention, to establish an air of informality that would help to remove the library from the lesson. Because of this, Examined Life doesn’t feel like a lesson at all; it feels like a conversation (albeit a smart one). Her challenge to her subjects was to pretend as if they were speaking to a layperson about these subjects, and they all rise to the occasion. She films them frankly, without drawing too much attention to the cinematography (by John M. Tran), yet uses a score by Heather McIntosh of The Instruments to add a melodic sense of gravity to the words that are being spoken.

As he strolls along Fifth Avenue, passing store upon store of egregious materialism, Peter Singer (author of the seminal Animal Liberation) points out that our moral obligation as citizens is to help as much as to simply “not harm.” In a Toronto airport, Kwame Anthony Appiah acknowledges the difference between the notions of global vs. personal care, but stresses that we must find a way to simultaneously take care of both. Strolling through a downtown New York City park, Ativa Ronell states, “The responsible being is the one who thinks they’ve never been responsible enough.” These three examples are more proof that Taylor isn’t forcing an agenda down her subjects’ throats. She would rather let them make their own points about a variety of modern ethical and moral dilemmas.

examinedlifestill2In one instance, Taylor does tie things together, providing a concrete example of one of these previously abstract notions. Early on, Martha Nussbaum discusses the oft-ignored concept of physical disability and impairment and how when we discuss these issues, we don’t factor these limitations into the equation. Later, we meet the wheelchair-bound Sunaura Taylor and acclaimed professor and author Judith Butler as they go for a “walk” and shop. Watching Taylor go through the exhausting process of trying on a sweater and then buying it is a welcome punch to the gut. As she explains to the cashier that she must be handed the bills and coins separately, this one scene doesn’t just work as a visceral representation of Nussbaum’s point. It brings a sobering reality to the entire film.

Of course, one must not forget Slavoj Zizek, whose appearance rivals West’s for sheer enthusiasm and entertainment value. Taylor devoted her entire first feature to Zizek (which was called, appropriately enough, Zizek!), but here, she gives him the same amount of time as everyone else. Wandering through a landfill, Zizek espouses on the belief that “ecology as ideology” is the most important topic of conversation in this era of mass garbage production. Zizek is a walking quote machine, and to see him dressed like a landfill worker only adds to his, and the film’s, charm.

Examined Life could have been yet another work of non-fiction that preaches to the choir, yet Taylor has done her part to inject some much needed energy into her potentially stiff material. By doing this, she hasn’t made yet another forgettable talking heads doc. She’s made a genuinely relevant walking brains doc.

— Michael Tully

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