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Examined Life

Director: Astra Taylor
Cast: Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler, Sanaura Taylor

(Sphinx Productions and the National Film Board of Canada; US DVD: 31 Dec 1969)

Documenting and Embodying the Life of the Mind

The tag line for Astra Taylor’s Examined Life is “Philosophy is in the Streets”. This phrase not only calls attention to the film’s mise-en-scène, but also its primary insight: philosophy, rather than being a remote pursuit conducted in splendid isolation, is an activity that is intimately tied to what people do as well as what they think. The eight conversations that make up the film are not only grounded by everyday urban landscapes, but those doing the talking are preoccupied with questions of doing: how people act towards each other, towards (other) animals, towards things, and how they use their bodies.


Taylor’s film is constructed around nine ‘walks’ with eight philosophers and artist Sunaura Taylor, who joins Judith Butler in San Francisco’s Mission District for a discussion about individualism and human bodies. ‘Walk’ here means ‘mobility’ in a broader sense; while some of her subjects do walk in a literal way, others ‘walk’ by different means: Michael Hardt in a row boat, Cornel West in the back of a car, Sunaura Taylor in a wheelchair. Slavoj Žižek wanders around a garbage dump. By whatever conveyance, each walk engages Taylor’s subjects in conversation about distinct, but related topics.


One connecting theme is the social relevance of philosophical inquiry into human actions and choices. While some of the discussions are more directly about themes like justice and ethics, Martha Nussbaum on disability or Michael Hardt on revolution, for examples, even the more abstract discussions of meaning and truth, which most immediately animate Avital Ronell and Cornel West, are about how people relate to the world and negotiate questions of meaning in what they do, not as an abstract matter, but as a matter of everyday living.


Placing the discussants in settings like a Central Park rowing pond, or walking along urban lakes and city streets, frames philosophy as a practical activity, something that people do in much the same way as anybody does anything else. It punctures the image of philosophy as a rarefied field, where philosophers live in some kind of Cartesian bubble, their brains effectively separated from their bodies. Indeed, implicit and explicit connections between mind and body, and bodily needs, desires, and purposes, is another persistent theme in the film’s walks.


Of all of Taylor’s informants, Cornel West makes the strongest case for seeing philosophy, and the life of the mind more broadly, as real work. The others she speaks with do so more by simply focusing on how what they do has implications for life outside of the mind. Indeed, while Peter Singer is the only one who talks about the idea of “applied ethics”, all of the thinkers featured in Examined Life are interested in philosophy as useful knowledge.


Taylor underscores this point with her choice of imagery. She intercuts her mobile discussions with shots of the larger scenes in which her interviews took place. Her choice of imagery is sometimes obvious, as in a series of shopping bags going by as Singer talks about consumption, and at other times more nuanced, as with shots of people and dogs enjoying a beautiful day at Tompkins Square Park while Avital Ronell questions the impulse to assign meaning to all that we do.


In total, Examined Life shows conversations with: Cornel West on the nature of truth and the courage to examine oneself, Ronell on the limits of meaning, Singer on applied ethics and consumption, Kwame Anthony Appiah on cosmopolitanism, Martha Nussbaum on justice and disability, Michael Hardt on the meaning of revolution in the US, Žižek on ecology, human waste and artificiality, and Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor on disability/impairment and the limits of individualism in America. Each of these segments can be viewed on their own, and read independently, or seen in relationship to each other.


The extras on the Zeitgeist Films DVD include: two “extra walks”, Q & A’s with Taylor, West, Appiah, and Ronell at the IFC Center in New York, a theatrical trailer, and biographies and suggested reading for each of the featured philosophers. The printed insert has an interview with Taylor and suggested reading.


The “extra walks” are with Simon Cricthley on a New York rooftop talking about death and Colin McGinn discussing epistemology on a Miami beach. Like most deleted scenes included on DVDs, it isn’t hard to see why these were excluded from the final film. Both are more self-consciously artful and staged than the walks that ended up in Examined Life. The question and answer sessions are interesting enough artifacts, especially when Taylor speaks about her project, but are also just snippets of larger conversations that look and sound as if they were shot by people with phones and camcorders in the audience.


In the Q & A with Cornel West, Astra Taylor addresses the question of the accessibility of her film. She responds by saying that she assumes that people will come to it from different “registers”, meaning that some people will know who the philosophers are, and the references they make, and others won’t know anything. Some of those will be bored out of their minds, but others will be pulled in despite not being able to fully follow the conversations. In serving this purpose, Taylor’s best asset may be her own curiosity, which is evident in the depth of the conversations and the framing of the walks. Examined Life may never find a wide audience, but it will undoubtedly provoke those who are ready to see it, whatever register they view it from.

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Shaun Huston is an associate professor in Geography and Film Studies at Western Oregon University, where he primarily teaches courses in political and cultural geography. He also makes films, including Comic Book City, Portland, Oregon, USA (2012), a documentary on the community of comics creators in Portland, Oregon (view details on IMDB).


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