Examined Life ed. by Astra Taylor

by Rob Horning

23 August 2009

cover art

Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers

Astra Taylor

(New Press)
US: Jun 2009

Concerned that philosophy is generally regarded as the abstruse province of hairsplitting arguments conducted in an incomprehensible and arbitrary-seeming jargon, filmmaker Astra Taylor, best known for her documentary about philosopher Slavoj Žižek, wanted to bring it back “to the streets” by filming a series of peripatetic dialogues with reputed thinkers chosen apparently on the basis of their current academic celebrity. The result was edited into a 88-minute film that came out in February.

This companion volume consists of transcripts of the conversations in their entirety. Included are Taylor’s talks with Cornel West, Avitra Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, and Judith Butler, and Žižek makes a reprise, as well.

If the goal was to make philosophy seem accessible, the dialogues, in print anyway, seem a success. They are generally jargon-free without being facile, proving that plain language from a theory-minded academic need not automatically be condescending. It helps that Taylor, in her role as interlocutor, usually asks them to unpack those expressions that have become discipline-wide shorthand for more elaborate sets of assumptions and arguments.

It also helps that the thinkers work with broad strokes and, rather than debate truth predicates and quasi-indexicality, take on straightforward, obviously relevant questions: How do we make our lives in this society better? How do we live a more satisfying life? how do we conceive of a destiny for human beings on this planet?

Obviously, these questions don’t receive complete answers, but the conversations do reveal the book’s subjects practicing their craft in a somewhat spontaneous fashion, thinking on their feet, grasping for what must be oft-repeated riffs and rendering them applicable to the moment: West works his blues and jazz metaphors; Ronell, a Derridean, deploys the “hermaneutics of frustration”; Appiah relates contamination to the possibilities for civilization; Nussbaum efficiently casts doubt on social-contract theory; Žižek obsesses about excrement and the “unknown knowns” of ideology.

In America, notorious for its anti-intellectual culture, it can seem shameful to freely demonstrate one’s erudition, so it’s refreshing to see these thinkers talking about Kant and Kierkegaard and other such subjects without embarrassment and with a minimum of self-deprecation. They comport themselves so comfortably, it’s as though they’ve been transported to a mythical place (France?) where intellectuals are not derided but respected.

Ideally, there would be nothing extraordinary about conversations like these; philosophical insight would just be a natural by-product of social participation and theories of the “good life” would be synonymous with the practice of living one. But Examined Life reveals instead how we tend to elevate philosophical discourse, make it the trace of a special occasion—it doesn’t just happen; it needs to be filmed first.

Still, it’s gratifying to think of these talks occurring outside of a classroom, the place to which they are typically marginalized, if not entombed. Each discussion occurs in a deliberately chosen setting—Appiah at an airport, Hardt rowing on the pond in Central Park, Žižek at a London garbage dump—that takes on symbolic resonance, even when the relevance is not immediately apparent.The nature of the analysis the speakers are engaged in tends to have a halo effect, throwing off intimations of deep significance to everything around them.

This seems to be the project’s main purpose, as its title suggests: to illustrate how a philosophical mode of thinking can interrogate everyday life and seem to reenchant the world. As technological rationalism threatens to replace life’s mysteries of life, its obscure linkages and tensions, with functionalism and programmed entertainments, such a reminder seems more necessary than ever. But as you’d expect from a group of philosophers with such divergent interests and methodologies, the array of ideas they present are hard to assimilate and harmonize.

The danger in Examined Life‘s miscellany method is that it can come across like the philosophical equivalent of wine flights, little samples to indulge in so that the reader can feel like a connoisseur of ideas. This in turn encourages the notion that a passing 20-minute investment in these dialogues is all that’s needed to deploy the philosophers’ ideas knowingly in pretentious discussions—as if that kind of namedropping, and not hours and hours alone pouring over inscrutable texts and painstakingly trying to reconstruct tenuous and at times febrile lines of logic, were the essence of understanding philosophy.

In his segment, Hardt notes that “there are certain habits of thought, certain habits of practice, which have a consistency and even an inertia.” What Examined Life does best is reveal some of the habits of a few people committed to the idea that abstract thinking is a meaningful activity—that experiences are enriched and not diminished by taking them apart to consider how they might work. And while the thinkers’ “inertia” may translate into a kind of metaphysical stasis, in which ideas just sit there, collected like orchids in a vase, the project gives hope—reflected in the fact that the philosophers are literally walking around—that the inertia can become a form of perpetual momentum that might carry us toward an ever more enriched life.

Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers


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