Philosophy is fundamentally about our finite situation. You can define that in terms of we’re beings toward death, featherless, two-legged, linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces whose body will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. That’s us.
— Cornel West
“What’s at stake here is really rethinking the human as a site of interdependency,” says Judith Butler. She’s speaking near the end of Examined Life, Astra Taylor’s lively, compelling assembly of philosophers, each pondering in his or her way that very question: “What’s at stake here?” Each granted 10 minutes of interview with Taylor; Butler, best known for her work on gender, performativity, and ethics, shares hers with Sunaura Taylor, painter and disabilities activist. Their conversation begins with Butler’s question to Taylor, concerning her daily habit of “going for a walk.” She uses that phrasing, Taylor says, though she is in a wheelchair due to her affliction with the rare congenital disability Arthrogryposis, and with this the two begin to think through what it means to walk, to have access, to exist in a social environment.
Their questions and their conversation take them through streets in San Francisco, where Taylor lives, she says, because it is “the most accessible place in the world,” designed to meet the needs of the disabled in ways many cities have not yet considered. They move throughout their conversation, as do the other interview subjects in Taylor’s film, emphasizing the concept and activity of movement — of bodies, minds, and time. All the speakers make their ways through populated spaces, cameras tracking them through traffic, along sidewalks and airport corridors, striding through parks or, in the case of Michael Hardt, rowing a boat on a pond. Slavoj Žižek appears at a trash dump, where he wears an orange workman’s vest and holds forth on ideology against a backdrop of discarded refrigerators (“We need more alienation from our life world, as it were, our spontaneous nature; we should become more artificial”). Yet even as he appears isolated here, he is, of course, contemplating the waste of social life, the result of people living together, sharing experience and waste.
This combination of social context and mobility pulls together what might seem disparate discourses. While they don’t come together on a single subject matter, the subjects do engage with a basic question, that is, to put it clumsily, the meaning of meaning. This question’s necessary context is the social world; though it’s true, as Cornel West observes, that philosophers spend long hours alone, they remain intensely engaged in social work, sometimes abstracted, sometimes expanded beyond recognition, but always urgent. He describes his experience of reading books as dense interaction with other minds and sensibilities. “It’s true that you may be socially isolated,” he admits — his own interview set in a car that rides him through the streets of New York. “But you’re intensely alive, much more alive than these folks who are walking in crowds.” The comment gives pause, as the camera looks out on folks crossing the street, their ears attached to cell phones and their arms filled with shopping bags. It’s unclear how “alive” any one of them may be, but they serve as a convenient other here, consumers unmindful of consequences and possibilities. Peter Singer, walking along Fifth Avenue past shrines to high end consumption (Saks, Bergdorf’s, Kenneth Cole, Cartier), proposes that shopping does indeed encourage non-thinking, or at least, acclimates so-called citizens to behavior that is selfish and irresponsible. “We have obligations to help,” he says, “Just as we have moral obligations not to harm.” He’s made his way to Times Square, where the camera tips up to show that he’s now standing before a McDonalds, looming emblem of carelessness and exploitation.
The film offers other, similar illustrations, some quite clever. Princeton professor Kwame Anthony Appiah trundles his bags through an airport as he discusses his proposal for “cosmopolitanism,” understanding ourselves as “citizens of the world” who have responsibilities and opportunities premised on present-day (and future) modes of transportation and communication. “You have to begin that we’re responsible collectively for each other,” he asserts, which leads to a next step and ongoing exchange of “ideas about what’s right and wrong.” Given the current U.S. media obsession with political bipartisanship, Appiah’s proposition sounds especially timely. Echoing Singer, who submits that “When you put yourself in the position of others, [you see] the priority of reducing suffering,” Appiah says we must comprehend and accommodate the “huge diversity of values” that comprise global populations, and not dismiss out of hand other, different views or beliefs.
This sounds lofty, and NYU professor Avital Ronell reinforces the notion as she walks through Central Park while considering the limits of meaning as a desired end. “I’m very suspicious, historically and intellectually, of the promise of meaning,” she says, “Because meaning has often had very fascisoid, nonprogressive edges, if not a core of that sort of thing.” That is, meaning, especially as bestowed or determined by institutions (religious, educational, administrative) tends to be totalizing, a way of closing off and defining others. Ronell sees the logical end of meaning as death to those others: patriotism and god, she says, are “cover-ups, ways of dressing the wound of nonmeaning.” Pausing to observe a trio of dogs at play in the park, she sees in them an alternative, “the arbitrary eruption of something that can’t be grasped or explicated, but it’s just there, an absolute contingency of being.”
Of course, the film is unable to be quite so radical, to let go of meaning. Its narrative layers, its thematic overlaps and connections, its coherence (and even its incoherence) all tell a story that makes sense in some way, or at least allows viewers to make sense of what’s in front of them. And so Ronell’s challenge to meaning appears alongside Hardt’s search for practical ways to make revolution, Martha Nussbaum’s dissection of the social contract, Butler and Taylor’s shopping for a thrift store sweater while discussing the “disabling effects of society” (social relations — trust and potential and exchange — come down to “what the body can do”), and, at last, West’s rejection of romanticism.
“When you have a romantic project,” West contends, “You’re so obsessed with time as loss and time as a taker.” Instead, he recommends that we drop the “language of failure,” as well as the notion that, say, America is a “paradisal city on a hill and all this other mess and lies,” and take up what has and can be done. Learning from the past and looking forward, appreciating struggle but letting go of heroic fantasy, he sees as well the value of telling stories. “Making sense of meaninglessness is an achievement,” he asserts.