Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Examined Life

The other night I went and saw a movie at Cinema du Parc with a friend, a documentary called Examined Life. The film interspersed a number of interviews with philosophers/theorists like Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, and Cornel West. Zizek was incredible and totally punk rock, describing the conservative impulse behind ecologist ideology and decrying it, arguing what seemed to be a conception of nature as including humanity and our products. It was a confusing rant that neither I nor my companion completely understood, but it was interesting to watch and intriguing to hear conservative and liberal doctrines reversed with regards to the environment. Judith Butler was in fine form as well, describing frustrating attitudes about human morphology and “correctness” in a conversation with the director’s sister, who suffers from a disease that fuses her joints. It was an interesting discussion of “natural” humanness, and an interesting look at San Francisco, which is evidently very open to disabled people, for lack of a better descriptor immediately on hand.

The real star of the show, though, was West, with his comparisons between jazz and poetry and life and philosophy. The film cleverly used his at the beginning, middle, and end of the film, and he provided not only some of the most poignant moments of empathy but also the best jokes from any of the philosophers. You couldn’t help but laugh with him and take as much pleasure in his ideas as he clearly takes in life. He espoused a day-by-day type approach that really resonated with me, but that I’m having a hard time explaining here. I’m going to link a few videos here to try and give a sense of what he’s talking about, but honestly the movie itself should just be seen, end of story. Maybe I’ll watch it again and take another crack at ths in a more refined form. Cornel's ideas certainly deserve the time and thought. I absolutely loved his citations of everything from Ruskin to Wordsworth to Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, it was a treat to hear him blend in so many different sources into his incredible ideology. What an incredible speaker...

There's an article on the movie in The McGill Tribune that decently summarizes a few of the speakers, and so I'm posting it here:

FILM: Discussing ethics on Fifth Avenue

Walking and talking with contemporary philosophers in Examined Life

Carolyn Gregoire

Issue date: 4/7/09 Section: A & E
Outside of luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, philosopher Peter Singer-author of the well-known essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality"-explains his theories of distributive justice and the ethical implications of wealth and poverty. Singer is one of eight contemporary thinkers featured in Examined Life, a documentary that explores unquestioned assumptions engrained in the Western psyche, and reminds us that great ideas can emerge from everyday life.

Directed by Astra Taylor, the film is structured around 10-minute-long "walks" with philosophers through places that are particularly meaningful to them, ranging from an airport terminal to Central Park. While on a walk through a sunny city park, one of the philosophers, Avital Ronell, introduces the Heideggerian notion of paths that lead nowhere to explain that it's the journey that matters.

Gliding along a moving sidewalk in a major international airport
[Toronto's Pearson - Max], suitcase in hand, Anthony Appiah discusses his theory of "cosmopolitanism"-being a citizen of the cosmos in the Greek sense, or the world as a whole-in the context of globalization and modernity. He explains how in one trip to an airport we confront more people than a member of a primitive civilization would have in a lifetime. University of Chicago professor of political philosophy and ethics Martha Nussbaum walks along the shores of Lake Ontario discussing Aristotle's theory of justice and the social contract, while Michael Hardt talks revolution from a rowboat in the Central Park pond.

Slavoj Zizek, the subject of Taylor's documentary Zizek! which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2005, also makes an appearance. Zizek discusses his theory of the "ideology of ecology" at a garbage dump. Surrounded by waste, he explains that just as true love is not idealistic but sees perfection in someone even with all of their flaws, we must love the world and see perfection in all of its imperfection.

From the backseat of a car, American philosopher and civil rights activist Cornel West emphasizes philosophy as a way of dealing with our finite situation as human beings. West's humour livens up the film, particularly in his discussion of aesthetic pleasure-he explains that sometimes he'll be reading Ruskin or Melville and will just need to throw the book against the wall because he feels so alive. He compares philosophy to Romantic poetry, Beethoven's sonatas, and the blues to emphasize how invigorating philosophical inquiry can be.

Examined Life promises to be a highly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating experience for philosophy buffs or the naturally inquisitive. However, an hour and a half of continuous philosophical discourse clearly doesn't comprise the ideal movie night for everyone. While the film succeeds in its concept-bringing philosophical theories from academic ivory towers to the real world-it's not particularly well-made and loses momentum towards the end. The music is ill-chosen and at times distracting, while the flat cinematographic style certainly doesn't enhance the overall experience. Those without a strong interest in philosophical inquiry may be hard-pressed to sit through this film without dozing off.

Examined Life succeeds in its endeavor to disprove the common misgiving that philosophy is so tied up in abstractions, circular reasoning, and lofty theorems that it is essentially inapplicable to the real world. Taking a cinematic walk with these contemporary philosophers substantiates Plato's famous dictum "the unexamined life is not worth living," emphasizing that self-examination and the search for meaning extends far beyond the domain of academic philosophy.

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