On Monday, we featured Žižek!, Astra Taylor’s documentary on the eponymous Slovenian cultural critic. Today we have a sequel, of sorts, in Examined Life. This project has Taylor talking to Slavoj Žižek once again, and to seven other high-profile academics whose names should ring bells with the Žižek-savvy. From her car’s driver’s seat, she talks to a backseat-orating Cornel West about jazz, blues, and mortality. She talks to Kwame Anthony Appiah about cosmopolitanism as he passes through a strangely quiet airport. She talks to Martha Nussbaum about justice on a stroll to the waterfront. Sitting at one end of a rowboat, she talks to Michael Hardt about political revolution as he sits at the other end, rowing. She talks to Peter Singer about the ethics of spending amid the crowds of Manhattan’s thickest commercial density. She talks to Avital Ronell about blame and gratification. She talks to Žižek in a garbage dump, which allows him to riff on the ideology of ecology. She recruits her sister, the artist and disability activist Sunaura Taylor, to talk to Judith Butler about bodies and embodiment in society (and to go sweater shopping with her).
“Philosophy, as much as I love it, is really associated with academia,” says Taylor in an interview.” I wanted to break philosophy out of that rarefied ivory tower space and show how compelling it can be when it’s directly connected to ordinary life.” She premises the entire film, in some sense, on a gag: if philosophy should come out from academia and into the streets, then Taylor takes a handful of philosophers and drops them literally there. But Nussbaum herself, who went on to publish a critique of the movie, objected to the lack of traditional philosophers and presence of more “figures in cultural studies or religious studies.” “What they do,” she writes, “is not exactly philosophy as I understand it.” Given the “academic rock star” status of most of its interviewees, perhaps we’d do best to view Examined Life as a kind of fish-out-of-water documentary about ivory-tower celebrity. What happens, the film seems to ask, when you get these people talking about the real world in the real world — just the setting you’d assume they would avoid?
You can purchase your own copy of Examined Life on Amazon.