Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Examined Film: Review of Astra Taylor's "The Examined Life"

"The place of philosophy in modern public life" - that is the phrase I remember catching my attention from some web site for this film (though it is not on this one), convincing me that this must be an important film, and one that neatly intersects my mission here. Would that that impression were justified by what I just saw at the IFC theater in Manhattan. After 20 years as a professional philosopher - a bit more studying some of the leftist literature that informs some of the subjects of this film - my reaction was to wonder if it could possibly have been as dull for those viewers not already saturated with the intellectual content conveyed here.

Let me first say this: I have known, or met, philosophers who I would not hesitate to spend hours listening to; chewing the fat with over a beer; or just passing the time with in idle conversation that might range from Quine to Brahms to memorable camping trips. I do not limit this class of people to my personal friends or classmates. I mean people, for example, like Sidney Morgenbesser (a true character in the best Socratic sense) or Marx Wartofsky (who was really the last Renaissance man), both unfortunately resting in Plato's heaven, or
David Pears, to the best of my knowledge alive and well and living in England, any of whom could hold court or be the subject of anecdotes for hours on end. I mean people like Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Hilary Putnam, Eddy Zemach, Bas van Frassen, Stephen Davies, Jerrold Levinson, Stephen Toulmin, or indeed the Brooklyn native who made the phrase "the examined life" famous as the title of one of his books, Robert Nozick. I don't mean that these are my favorite philosophers - not by a long shot, in many cases - but they are people I have met or heard and who I know can hold the attention of of an audience, have interesting things to say on many subjects, and might just convince a film audience that there are philosophers, neither superstars, crackpots, nor stuffed shirts, who are capable of taking them on a tour of reality or morality that goes just a bit deeper than what they are used to. They speak with passion, humor, and erudition, without being pompous, boring, obscure or intentionally asinine.

But it seems as if Taylor was not looking for good film subjects, but rather for philosophers who fit a certain conception of who would have something to say to a mass audience: feminists, multiculturalists, Marxists, gender theorists, literary theorists, African-American philosophers, or animal liberationists. Forget those stodgy, mainstream Anglo-American analytic types, who would want to hear them? And actually, that's largely true - who would want to hear most of them? But then again, who would want to hear a Continental or Marxist philosopher, or some slightly outré ethicist, who is trying to sound very important and relevant and only succeeds in restating their well-worn theories (because it is all they really know how to talk about)?

That, unfortunately, describes quite a bit of what Ms. Taylor captured on film. Here is Peter Singer walking ever so appropriately down Fifth Avenue, commenting on the wildly extravagant designer items, then standing in the Diamond District, etc., and calling forth references from "Famine, Affluence and Morality" and Animal Liberation that he has been working for about 35 years now. There is Martha Nussbaum going on, predictably, about Aristotle and virtue and feminist ethics, with about as much connection to the audience as a passing cloud. Michael Hardt, co-author of Empire (with Antonio Negri), ponders his failed revolutionary impulses in the 1980's and sets about thinking, in terms no more enlightening than the average activist's park bench conversation, how one can be pro-democracy and pro-revolutionary, or how one can be revolutionary at all in the face of global capitalism. Yawn. In his book, if I have gleaned his views correctly (I have not read it, but I've read several discussions of it), Hardt says that globalization is, in spite of itself, the crucible in which the new democratic society will be born. This is just an updated version of the old "revisionist" idea about how democratic socialism will come about (not a "communist manifesto for the 20th century" as it is sometimes called), but more on that later.

Though other reviewers have been duly reverential towards the sequence in which gender theorist Judith Butler takes a walk, goes shopping, and meditates on bodies and movement in the company of the filmmaker's physically impaired, wheelchair-bound sister Sunaura Taylor, while trying to say very meaningful and supportive things, I found it artificial, cloying and in some spots bordering on condescending. You cannot somehow normalize physical impairments that affect a small portion of the population by meditating on the limitations of bodies in general; all you can do is encourage those unfolding social and scientific developments that give people with physical limitations greater degrees of physical and social freedom, and permit them to participate in ever greater degrees in the type of activities that most of us consider normal, and rewarding. And you don't need a philosopher or gender theorist to do that, just a reasonably sensible and sensitive person. But more than that, in my view, the only dialogic stance that truly delegitimizes and undermines discrimination and prejudice against physically disabled persons is to treat them as exactly equal partners in respect of that asset which is not disabled, i.e., their minds. And that is not what I heard here; rather, I received the impression of a philosopher utilizing a dialogue with a disabled person to create a platform for her own ideas about bodies and movements. At other points she seemed to assent to what Sunaura Taylor said with benign reassurance but little critical consideration. Throughout the conversation I felt a lack of give and take, as if there had been a pact not to challenge one another's presuppositions, or engage in a real exchange of views. Perhaps this reflects the caregiver view of ethics, which is at the heart of the feminist approach, and emphasizes allegedly female virtues of nurture and loyalty to the circle of human beings closest to you. But respecting the dignity of persons also means not patronizing them in the way we patronize children and others for whom we are responsible. The responsible caregiver, be it a mother, nurse, social worker or home attendant, must limit the respect they show for the dignity and independence of the person in their care. Otherwise they will not be effective when they need to make decisions on that person's behalf. That ethical model does not work for normal adult relationships.

Other sequences in this film involved a pretty dry, academic set of thoughts from Avital Ronell, an NYU literary theorist who could not resist the urge to drag Heidegger into the proceedings, ending up sounding like she did not quite get this idea of philosophers (we are applying the term loosely) standing in front of a camera and saying something to a mass audience. As for Slavoj Zizek, who makes an appearance in this film after having a Taylor film of his own, he comes off as a slightly incoherent nutcase who enjoins us to love the piles of garbage among which he has chosen to be filmed for his sequence. Indeed, we are to despise the notions of nature and ecology and embrace filth and excess as the key to overcoming global warming and other environmental threats. This is the type of philosopher who should be kept as far from public view as possible, lest the world at large confirm its prejudice to the effect that philosophers are people whose job is to confuse others by arguing that absurd things are true. Be that as it may, I think there is something resembling a coherent point underlying Zizek's charades, only it would be a minor miracle if anyone understood it from this film. Again, I'll come back to this later.

I have left two people for last: Kwame Anthony Appiah, on whose contributions I'm afraid I can't comment because they came at a time when I had briefly given up trying to prop my eyelids open; and Cornell West, whose wide-ranging and wildly intertextual remarks provided the one bright spot in the film, though their import seems to have passed by most of the reviewers and for that reason probably a bit of the audience as well. While ranging over the history of art and ideas from Plato to Goethe and on through Charlie Parker and the Beatles, West focused his remarks primarily on the idea of life as a space between nonexistence and death, and emphasized the ways in which we give that brief flash of spirit some meaning and make it worth holding onto. Taylor wisely edited West's engaging remarks into several sequences, interspersed around the others, which at least broke the monotony of the other lifeless talking heads as they either failed to focus or rehearsed well-worn ideas in stiff language. While West's parts may not have been perfect, especially for indulging in a lot more references than necessary to make his points, he at least gave a hint of what a philosopher can do when he has a command of popular as well as intellectual culture and has actually thought a bit about life, death, and our place on earth.

While Zizek did display a certain fervor, what really attracted our attention with him was waiting for a payoff that never came, as he tried to convince us that trash on stilts is way cooler than ordinary waste and pollution. Personally I find it extremely unfortunate when philosophers stake out baldly idiotic positions to demonstrate that philosophy can see deeper into the nature of reality than ordinary common sense. It can, but that ain't how. But let's try to tie things together a bit, because there is a little more here than mere antics for the sake of getting attention. We can start by going back to Hardt and his globalization fetish. Since at least the Utopian socialism of the 19th century, t
here has been a way of thinking about the good (social democratic) society as a kind of algae, or mold, that under the right conditions grows outward from one or more initial sites until it swallows everything in its wake. The Utopian societies were supposed to do this, spreading socialism by example. Then Eduard Bernstein contributed the idea of capitalism "evolving" into socialism. Karl Kautsky conceived of an "ultra-imperialism" that spread peace due to its very reach. Even Lenin suggested that in the globalization of finance capital, the organizational framework of socialism was being incubated in the womb of international capitalism. But Lenin, unlike the others, never imagined that this globalization of capital would just roll over into socialism without a violent revolution.

The core idea that seems to be repeated in Hardt's view is that the endless penetration of capitalism into every corner of the world, and the ever-growing neural network of connections between people and nations, is destined to finally evolve into a vast world culture in which war, racism and other conflicts are submerged in the interest of the great global leviathan. But while these conflicts are removed, the fundamental exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie
remains - a kind of 1984-ish dystopia in which the underlying injustice of the whole system is hidden beneath the surface of harmony and uniformity. Hardt's and Negri's main contribution seems to be the idea that we can push this capitalist leviathan to the brink of self-destruction by pushing the democratic logic it hypocritically represents as its own as far as it can go. (This too is not a very original idea, but never mind.) Thus they suggest certain key democratic demands we can make within the framework of capitalism to help the system undermine itself.

So what does this have to do with Zizek? Well, first, he wrote a lengthy article about Hardt's and Negri's book in the journal Rethinking Marxism, in which he accused them of not going far enough in rejecting the logic of capitalism. Zizek suggests that operating within the framework of demands that can be accommodated, if not entirely met, by capitalism itself is self-defeating. He therefore finds it unhelpful for revolutionaries to associate themselves with the progressive movements that capitalism (as the classic Marxist analysis has it) allows to flourish in order to "blow off steam". Environmentalism, as perhaps the movement of the moment, plays into the hands of capitalism by suggesting some sort of idealistic return to nature. Instead, Zizek thinks (not that his ideas are very clearly formulated, but this is the general drift) we should force the issue, let the contradictions of capitalism increase and destroy it from the inside. You see, it is essentially the same kind of Hegelian line, the new form of Being incubating within the old and then splitting it into opposites, the class struggle finally revealed for what it is. In a moment of inspired obfuscation and trendiness he somehow imagines the World Wide Web as the modern counterpart to Lenin's idea of capitalism preparing the framework of the new society and the seeds of its own destruction within itself. Okay, that's about as hip as Herbert Marcuse finding the source of socialist revolution in the student and intellectual movements of the 1960's.

Anyway, what I wanted to show is that Zizek's ultimately loony love affair with garbage follows the logic of a well-worn idea from the Communist Manifesto, that capitalism nourishes the germ of its own destruction within itself. From there it is an easy (but to me, long discredited) step to the idea that a true revolutionary should help capitalism make itself as bad as possible - love those discarded spring water bottles, my friends, rather than protesting them, for they are the spring of self-destruction of global capitalism, or something like that. I guess I should be honest and say I'm doing a lot of interpreting here. Zizek himself tends to stick to safer ways of putting his views, emphasizing that revolutionaries should reject the invitation to engage in the liberal-democratic critique of the shortcomings of "bourgeois democracy". But to give him credit for not being a self-contradictory lunatic means to take his views to be something like this. (I do wonder if he would tell us to love all those nuclear missiles too. I think Zizek's philosophy contains the seeds of its own destruction too.)

Okay, so much for political theory, which is not exactly in short supply in The Examined Life. But there is an aesthetic point here too. Zizek's rants about the virtues of garbage fit into a worldview that is just one step beyond that of Hardt. And this view obviously suggests that the various feminist, anti-racist, anti-discriminatory, post-colonial politics of the other interviewees are just what capitalism needs to continue to dominate us. The filmmaker, however, being apparently no less naive about political theory than philosophy, fails to give the audience any clue that this is the case. So while the rather boring and pedantic pastische of left-liberal interventions based on
Continental and feminist philosophical trends is disturbed from within by a philosophical and political rift, this is not even visible to the audience. There is, in effect, an intellectual fight going on here, with Zizek on one side, most of the others on the other side, and Hardt sort of moderating with a foot in both camps, but it might as well be one loose chain of vaguely related thoughts on ethics and society for all we can tell from the film itself.

It would be unfair not to mention that Taylor does attempt to use some aesthetic means to liven things up, encouraging constant movement during the interviews and letting the camera capture dozens of naturalistic images along the way. At its best, it gives us the impression that the generally ordinary landscapes trodden by the film crew and its subjects (few scenes other than those of the dump are more exotic than Central park) are as teeming with life as the philosophers' heads are teeming with ideas. Too bad the gulls and turtles are so much more interesting than most of the ideas that one wants to resist the camera's return to the philosophical promenades.

Another point, no more positive (I guess I am not feeling very charitable today, in case you hadn't noticed) is that Taylor makes only the most limited effort to guide or draw out the philosophers in ways that might get them thinking outside their predefined, well-rehearsed boxes. All I can really recall her asking, in various ways, is whether philosophy is a search for the meaning of life. The answer to this question was actually supplied so well by Cornell West that she should have left it alone for the rest of the film. The truth is, few philosophers know what to say to that question, because "meaning" itself can have so many meanings that it is not even clear what the question is. Is the "meaning" of life like the meaning of a sentence? of a work of art? of an act or event? Is the question implicitly asking if I believe in god?

My advice is, don't ask that question unless you are prepared to give a philosophical answer to the reply, "What kind of answer are you actually looking for?" Otherwise it is sort of a blank check - "say something, anything, about the meaning of life". And if I were to give an immediate answer to that, it could only be that in itself, it means about as much as a pointless film. Because either no one is directing it, or they are doing it without any clear sense of overall purpose. Which, I guess, is as good a place as any to end this review.

(Note: This post was originally published on Friday 3/6/09 at 2:06 a.m. After re-reading it I felt that it was much too sloppy, both in editing and expression of ideas. It returned to Edit mode after about 48 hours online. It is now republished with substantial alterations, mainly intended to clarify many of the original points.)


Bhuvan Chand said...

nice article. I have also a blog on climate change.

Anonymous said...

ALL philosophy and theology, and indeed every aspect of the personal habits and strategies of our lives is an attempt to avoid the hell-deep fear and trembling of our normal dreadful sanity.

This author points out that Right Life only begins when you have really understood the meaning and significance of death.

Otherwise you are helplessly and unconsciously bound to an infinite klik-klak checker board which goes on forever life-time after life-time and which is completely indifferent to your well-being.

Until you wake up.


But how does one wake up, or pass through and beyond the grinding klik-klak machine?