Back in college, I saw a philosophy professor of mine eating shitty Chinese in the mall food court. He wore a button-down Hawaiian t-shirt with black pants and running shoes. He looked slightly sweaty when I said hello. I'd been to parties with him before, but these were wine-and-schmooze events with everyone lounging around on leather sofas and discussing metaphysics. It was startling to see him against the noisy-neon background of capitalism and trans fat gluttony. What was going through his head? Was he thinking about the moral implications of eating processed meat? Was he considering the notion of population control as babies wailed from their strollers? Was he experiencing Descartes' dreaming reality? Or was he simply thinking, damn this sweet and sour chicken is delicious?
I admire the premise of Astra Taylor’s new film, Examined Life. Philosophy is taken outdoors and put in motion, with philosophers like Peter Singer and Judith Butler answering the same basic question — what is meaning? — as they walk the streets of New York and San Francisco. Cornel West sits in the back of Taylor’s car and muses on death, democracy, and blues musicians. Avital Ronell walks in Central Park and theorizes otherness and the anxiety of ethics. Slavoj Žižek puts on an orange vest and shuffles through other people’s trash at a landfill, comparing the ideology of ecology to religion as a sort of postmodern opiate of the masses. Every philosopher is in motion, and their surrounding environment lends an additional poignancy to their words.
As a girl who grew up on Great Books and was, quite often, the sole female in a predominately male (and white) philosophy department, I took pleasure in seeing a film about a diverse group of philosophers walk away from the fringe and toward the center of their ideas. Within the humanities, there has been a divide between activism and academia, with (mostly) feminist epistemologists arguing for the former. The struggle to realize theory in the streets has been articulated by such branches of philosophy as black and queer feminism. Minorities and subcultures were hot topics in the classroom but remained ignored outside the walls of institutions. Stop talking about it and start doing it, was the mantra echoed by activists. And this desire to bridge the gap between academy and action seems to be at the heart of Examined Life.
However, Taylor's subjects never really make it to the center/realization of their ideas, because they are still removed from the everyday. Ultimately, the film fails in its attempt to challenge the institutionalization of philosophy. Rather than engage the philosophers in discussion, Taylor films each philosopher individually, offering monologue instead of dialogue, which only emphasizes the solidarity and isolation of academia. Besides the philosophers being in motion (walking, rowing a boat, riding in the backseat of a car), there is little action behind the ideas. Avital Ronell theorizes otherness as she walks past these “others” gazing absent-mindedly at the camera or covering their faces with a magazine. Her academic jargon reeks of hierarchy, as she conceptualizes minorities into theoretical abstractions. Martha Nussbaum asks how do we deal with justice or the idea of a social contract when people are unequal — such as disabled individuals, as she walks along Lake Michigan in a big designer jacket, never once interacting with the disabled or the disenfranchised for which she advocates social equality. Michael Hardt sits in a rowboat in Central Park and talks about making revolution. He notes the irony behind such an “aristocratic setting” and the topic at hand, but leaves it at that. Why not film him in El Salvador, where he initially began his pursuit of starting a revolution? Ditch the rowboat, the buildings, the loafers and the khakis, and match your words with your environment.
The closest Taylor comes to challenging any preconceived notion about philosophy and mobility is with Judith Butler’s segment. Butler takes a walk down Mission Street in San Francisco with the director’s sister, Sunaura Taylor. Sunaura, a painter and disabilities activist, discusses the meaning of “taking a walk” as she navigates her own wheelchair. Butler responds with the idea of politicizing body parts in motion, citing a hate crime where a boy was killed because he had a distinctively “feminine” walk. They talk about San Francisco and its uncommon accessibility for disabled persons. Butler helps Sunaura try on a sweater at a thrift store, and when she purchases the sweater, she tells the cashier how to distribute change: “Give me the bills first,” Sunaura says, “because I can’t hold both in my hand.” This small moment offers weight to Butler’s discussion of what bodies can do, not what they are, and Sunaura’s own body politic as someone who lives in a largely non-accessible world. We witness theory in action, but it’s too little too late for Taylor’s film to be anything but talking heads preaching to the choir.