Philosophy, get hip: "The Examined Life" comes to the Herbst


In new documentary The Examined Life, eight of the most famous minds in contemporary philosophy -- Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler, and Slavoj Zizek -- seem almost unintimidating. Detached from the props of intellectual life and presented in public setting away from rapt crowds, miked podiums, and the protective custody of academia, these philosophers appear comfortingly average, for entire milliseconds. For instance, on a sunny afternoon, post-structuralist scholar Judith Butler could almost be any other leather-jacketed San Francisco Missionite with a cool haircut ambling down Clarion Alley, perhaps en route to Thrift Town for some more leather jackets. That is, until she begins to discuss, in a slow and deliberate manner with eyes fixed intently into the middle distance, the body's morphologies as experienced by the subject. Cover blown.

Examined Life director Astra Taylor will be appearing -- along with philosopher Judith Butler and activist-artist Sunaura Taylor (who appears with Butler during the segment filmed in Clarion Alley) -- at a screening of her film at the Herbst Theater on Thu/25, at 7:30 PM. The three women will participate in a discussion and Q&A session following the screening.

In the last few years, Astra Taylor has become known for her documentaries about philosophy. Previously, she directed the film Zizek!. I hold Zizek! partly responsible for introducing American hipsters to the Slovenian Lacanian-Marxist with saliva glands as hyperactive as his intellect who so rapidly became for youngish creativeish urbanites a sort of Mitteleuropean Moses to Marx's Abraham.

As a documentary filmmaker, Taylor is no neutral observer; she openly reveres her subjects. Though it has been criticized (A. O. Scott of the New York Times said the film was "too glamorized by its brainy stars to engage them critically"), Taylor's reverence is fine by me. These eight philosophers are inspiring people who make it their business to think their way through some of life's most difficult questions. Furthermore, I prefer to keep my philosophers on a pedestal, even when they're rambling about jazz in the back of someone's Volvo (ahem, Cornel West).

To be fair, Cornel West could talk about his favorite lunch foods and I would find it interesting. 'Cerebrities' opining about anything, literally anything, makes for entertainment. In this film, the entertainment value is heightened by some particularly bathetic physical settings. Taylor aims to represent her philosophers outside of the stereotypical realm of academe, and she attempts this by filming them in public places that are both neutral to the philosophers' private lives and exist outside outside the structured environment of the workplace. In The Examined Life, Appiah is interviewed while waiting around at the Toronto airport. Hardt is filmed rowing a wooden boat, with some difficultly, on a lake in Central Park that is congested with loud, unseemly geese. And, not to be outdone, Zizek requested his segment be filmed at the dump.

But, funny public settings notwithstanding, there is a discernible soapbox in each section of The Examined Life, one all eight philosophers in the film are given time to use carte blanche. Each thinker is provided an open forum to deliver decontextualized soliloquies as if at an imaginary podium in front of some metaphysical audience, and the camera eyes this dotingly. Pretentious? Yes, but forgivably so. With their contributions to their disciplines, these eight thinkers have the right to believe they have important things to say. Watching them, I am inspired to think more critically and rigorously, perhaps from a contact high off the glaring epistemological glow.

In the middle of all this talking, the philosophers do experience occasional challenges in presenting their ideas in a way that make sense to listeners. This is to be expected; even if you limit the scope of the discussion, it is impossible to unpack an 'examined life' in the time it takes to watch a movie. I commend these philosophers for trying at all. I also commend them for managing to not be dull, even when in their labyrinthine monologues they've lost me completely.

For those interested, I encourage you to attend the screening at the Herbst Theater. If philosophy is the enormous pharmacy we raid to cure ourselves of an unexamined existence, and if an actual philosophy class would be akin to the smallpox vaccine, then The Examined Life is the equivalent a mild herbal supplement. While this film won't heal anyone of a painfully unexamined existence, a dose of it has its benefits. Think of it as a gateway drug. A documentary may proffer only a minute, highly mediated glimpse into how a philosopher thinks, but it does have the power to ask an non-philosophizing audience to think more philosophically.

Herbst Theater
Thu/25, 7:30PM, $25
401 Van Ness, SF.
(415) 621-6600

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