The Examined Life
directed by Astra Taylor
Two episodes from Plato’s dialogues, familiar to any liberal arts student, have enjoyed longstanding, dedicated attention from philosophers, exerting their influence upon the practice of philosophical inquiry throughout the Western tradition. The allegory of the cave, related by Socrates in the Republic, and the tale of Socrates’ condemnation (his sentencing to death by his own hand for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth) have, over the ages, become the Ur-myths of Western philosophy, been interpreted and reinterpreted, subjected to scholarly debate, and assigned to undergrads as their inauguration into philosophical analysis. These tales have in common a questioning that continues to pervade the thoughts of intellectuals even today: what is the proper relation between the philosopher, who has dedicated his or her life to the investigation of self and world, and the people, those blissfully distracted by the play of shadows?
The question of the philosopher’s responsibility has been the conceit of ethical thought, endlessly debated both in scholarly papers and over midnight pints. But can the philosopher and the people, two entities separated by what seems to be a chasm of kind and not degree, be reconciled? Once the philosopher has accomplished the perilous ascent into the light, how is return possible? How might philosophy be taken back to the streets?
These are serious, indeed, mortally dangerous questions. The threat posed to the affairs of society by Socrates apportion of doubt resulted in his untimely death, and there is no shortage of thinkers who faced similar fates when their ideas began to gain traction among the masses. To be sure, the relation between the philosopher and the people has always been fraught; the specter of exile or worse threatens whenever the thinker dares breach the confines of the ivory tower. Still, the call to the philosopher to descend sounds from the very beginnings of philosophy. Thus the contemplative life has always existed alongside—albeit separately from—the larger population. The hazardous relationship between the philosopher and the people is the subject of The Examined Life, Astra Taylor’s second foray into documentary philosophy. It is an engaging and surprisingly restrained film featuring several of the most celebrated and outspoken of the progressive vanguard.
Proving that what may seem dubious in theory may potentially prove consequential in practice, Ms. Taylor has gathered the pin-ups of postmodern intellectual celebrity, each of whom the filmmaker has cunningly convinced to join her in a public space for a walk and a bit of free speech. The result is a provocative, yet reassuringly lighthearted cinematic rap session with the likes of Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Michael Hardt: all celebrated and expansive thinkers. Slovoj Žižek, of Taylor’s eponymous film debut, is a garrulous recipient of her attention once again, soliloquizing on the aestheticization of the human technological wasteland while rummaging through the contents of a garbage dump outside London. An idiosyncratically clad Avital Ronell joins the filmmaker for a stroll through Manhattan’s Tompkins Square Park freely discoursing on the refusal of the gratification of meaning and the ethical implications of utter contingency. And Judith Butler joins Taylor’s sister, the artist Sunaura Taylor, for the film’s only true conversation; their walk through San Francisco’s Mission District calls into question our very sense of what it means to move through the world.
With two exceptions, The Examined Life progresses as a series of highly edited ten-minute monologues. Judith Butler is alone among the featured thinkers to engage in a two-way dialogue, while Cornel West, the film’s muse, appears at intervals, gesticulating from the backseat of the filmmaker’s old Volvo, the passion of his thought simultaneously animating his entire body and the film. The success of The Examined Life, its ability to draw philosophy from the staid airs of the university and philosophers from their impenetrable interiority, depends on the Taylor’s ability to navigate the material and bring into sharp relief her chosen themes of intersubjectivity, responsibility, and the potential for an applied ethics. This is achieved with deftness, and it is testament to both the technical skill and conceptual understanding of Taylor and her editor, Robert Kennedy, that the film never veers into didactic sermonizing or falls back on the unnecessary deployment of abstract concepts and philosophical jargon. Hence this illuminating film invites further reflection not just for the black-clad, urban intelligentsia, but for anybody with the curiosity and fortitude to follow along.
Undoubtedly, when an artist resolves to capture within the limits of a film some of the most compelling voices in contemporary thought, we can be sure the work will ooze with contradiction. Taylor’s steadfast refusal to let her voice dominate the film and the allowance of her subjects’ free speech, dissonances and contradictions to arise without resolution elevates the film above ideology. This is not to suggest that The Examined Life is not a personal film, however. It is clear the filmmaker desires to illuminate very specific themes, drawn from various meditations, and she smartly edits the material for cogency. But while the audience is left with a sense of what is at stake by the questions raised, they are, crucially, left without much sense of what the resolution might be.
Walking has long been acknowledged as performative of a kind of thought that refuses the gratification of meaning. In a memorable scene from Plato’s Phaedrus, for example, Socrates enjoys a stroll beyond the city walls with his young interlocutor. It is beyond the confines of Athens, out among the barbarians, where Socrates and young Phaedrus speak of eros, rhetoric, and the proper comportment of the philosopher. Just as it is with a walk where paths course along no predetermined route, beyond the city walls the philosophers’ question is maintained as a question: nothing is settled.
Avital Ronell takes it to the streets
The basic movement of philosophy requires that philosophers, once they have emerged from the cave, go back down. Thus, out on the street (among the barbarians) the philosophers in The Examined Life heed the call of philosophy and attempt to bring to those bound to darkness the gift of the light. There is no doubt, however, that this type of self-imposed and self-regarding task will always face stiff resistance, and Astra Taylor’s film captures all the conflicts, contradictions, and dangers inherent in such a descent.
Perhaps this resistance is best exemplified by an anecdote shared by Taylor with the friendly crowd after a recent screening of her film at Bluestockings Cafe, a feminist collective bookstore on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Commenting on the experience of filming the interviews (some of which lasted several hours on the streets of various cities) she recalled the curiosity shown by some onlookers, indifference by others, and, in at least one instance, outright aggression. While walking with Avital Ronell in Tompkins Square Park, the film crew had to be constantly vigilant, guarding against the violent interference of the local gutter punks—New York’s own modern day barbarians. The experience, she suggested, only served to reiterate the basic theme of the film—sometimes a walk can be a very dangerous thing.