'Examined Life'

January 14, 2009

Wandering around the Lyceum with an entourage, Aristotle would hold forth on his conception of the universe: one in which God is the Unmoved Mover, while all else shuttles between the potential and the actual. Part of what we know about Aristotle’s thought comes via notes from those lectures. (You picture a student scribbling furiously as the philosopher pauses to dislodge a stone from his sandal.)

This picture does not square with the usual notion of intellectual activity, which is a cross between Descartes’s self-portrait (the cogito talking to itself in a warm room) and Rodin’s nude dude. But there is a counter-tradition in philosophy -- one which takes thought to be, in essence, shambolic.

“A sedentary life is the real sin against the Holy Spirit,” says Nietzsche, blaspheming tongue not entirely in cheek. “Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value.” And more recently, Martha Nussbaum has insisted that running is an organic part of the philosopher’s professional ethos: “Lawyers tend to be tennis and squash players -- maybe it's the competitive element -- but philosophers tend to be runners, perhaps because of the loner, contemplative quality."

All of this by way of introduction to "Examined Life," the latest documentary by Astra Taylor, whose Žižek ! now turns up on the Sundance Channel from time to time. Taylor’s camera follows nine thinkers of various disciplinary extractions -- here’s a list -- as they walk on the street, ride in the backseat of a car, paddle around the pond in New York’s Central Park, and haul luggage around an international airport. They speak for about 10 minutes each -- sometimes in dialogue with Taylor or one another, sometimes in peripatetic soliloquy.

The trailer for "Examined Life" is now up on YouTube, though viewers should be warned against trying to form an impression of the film from it. "Examined Life" is more than an anthology of short lectures by famous talking heads. Taylor's intelligence as a documentarian extends to both content and form. The film is put together with a subtlety and wit that two minutes of highlights cannot capture. And she has not only scouted interesting or appropriate settings for her subjects (Anthony Appiah discussing cosmopolitanism in an airport, Slavoj Žižek challenging liberal environmentalism in a trash dump) but found common themes and points of implicit conflict among them.

But then Taylor takes another step. What might seem like a gimmick (the “philosopher-in-the-street” interview format, as I called it when blogging about the trailer last week) becomes a way to reflect on questions of context, meaning, and mobility. She does not explicitly mention Aristotle and Nietzsche, but the allusions are there, even so. Confirmation of this comes in her introduction to a book that The New Press will publish this June, based on interviews that Taylor did for the film. There, she cites another inspiration for her approach: Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker.

One of the figures onscreen is her sister Sunuara Taylor, an artist and writer -- shown zipping through downtown San Francisco in her wheelchair with the queer theorist Judith Butler. They discuss what it means for a disabled person to “go for a walk” (and to insist on using that language even when it involv

Photo: Zeitgeist Films

Sunaura Taylor (left) and Judith Butler, in "Examined Life"

es a motor). I don’t dare try to paraphrase the exchange. The segment, which comes near the end of "Examined Life," is beautiful, fascinating, and transformative. It changes the context of all that has gone before in the film, and leaves the everyday world looking strange and new.

A couple of years ago, Tamara Chaplin, an assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published an absorbing book called Turning on the Mind: French Philosophers on Television (University of Chicago Press). It analyzed more than half a century of efforts to put abstract thought on screen. For the United States, no such monograph is necessary or, indeed, possible. The subject could be covered in a treatise the size of a take-out menu for a Chinese restaurant.

In short, Astra Taylor seems to be inventing her own genre of documentary film -- which means she is making it up as she goes along. After pestering her for an early DVD of "Examined Life," I followed up with a string of questions by e-mail about how she conceived the idea and put together the finished product.

When approaching potential participants, she described the project as “a feature length film consisting of a series of short contemplative 'walks' with world-renowned thinkers from various branches of philosophy." The formal challenge was to avoid an overly didactic approach. Getting thinkers out into public space was only part of this; it was also a matter of mode of address.

“When I first conceived the project,” says Taylor, “it was very clear to me that I wanted to try to make viewers feel like they were being engaged directly, or that they were part of a conversation even if there's only one person speaking on screen. So while half the subjects are doing direct address to the camera, the other half are actually talking to me (or in the case of Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor, to each other). I didn't want the audience to feel lectured at, but this was difficult since the movie is monologue driven. The way the movie is directed and edited tries to make some space for viewers to insert themselves, both into the discourse and the environment.”

How did she decide who should appear on screen? “I looked for subjects whose work I value,” she responded, “who have made some sort of effort to speak to an audience outside of the academy, who focus on ethical issues, who seemed like they may enjoy the experience. The final requirement was absolutely essential. If the act of filming isn't fun, isn't a pleasure of some kind, the finished project will feel burdensome, stagnant. Slavoj Žižek, being such a movie buff, certainly brought his cinematic enthusiasm to the making of Žižek ! and that was truly invaluable. I was pleasantly surprised by the energy, playfulness, and sense of spectacle of everyone who appears in "Examined Life".... It was important to me to achieve a certain

Kwame Anthony Appiah, in "Examined Life"

diversity, not only in terms of intellectual outlook but also in regards to race, gender, age, ability, et cetera. But at a certain point it was just an intuitive sense that the cast made sense and that they would bounce well off one another.”

Everyone approached expressed a willingness to participate, but things did not always work out. The Marxist cultural critic Terry Eagleton was busy, and far away. Charles Taylor broke his arm. (I resist the temptation to ask if he didn’t just sprain it from trying to pick up a stack of his own, ever longer books.)

Taylor filmed “between 90 minutes and four hours of talking footage for each philosopher," she says, "shot over one or two days.” It then took “about two weeks to get a rough cut of each individual walk,” followed by a couple of months of work to shape the larger film. That meant “sequencing and refining, trying to tease out and highlight recurring themes, and also to figure out some sort of ‘narrative arc’ in a movie that lacks plot or chronology. How to make viewers feel they've been on a journey when there really no beginning, middle, or end to the tale?”

The result feels like a cinematic essay, instead of an educational filmstrip. It is the product of a sustained engagement with the figures onscreen, an effort to elucidate what they think and how they argue.

“I always had a bunch of prepared questions or talking points that I thought would guarantee usable material,” Taylor says. “Occasionally we worked out the brief argument we wanted to make in advance, though just as often the interview was free-floating, jumping from topic to topic, the central idea to be discovered in the editing room. Obviously a lot of material didn't make it into the final movie, which is why I decided to do the companion book.”

The project, she writes in the introduction to that volume, “doesn’t wrap everything up or pretend to provide a definitive answer to the difficult issues addressed in it; after all, if our answers were incontrovertible, we wouldn’t need philosophy.... If this effort inspires some people to pause and ponder how they come to hold the beliefs they do, to question the ethical assumptions and preconceptions they take for granted, to reconsider their responsibilities to others, or to see a problem in a new way, I’ll be content.”

(A list of playdates for "Examined Life" is available online.)

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