Books

Examined Life ed. by Astra Taylor

These conversations reveal philosophers 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.


Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers

Publisher: New Press
Length: 240 pages
Author: Astra Taylor
Price: $18.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2009-06
Amazon

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.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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