Examined Life Further Examined

from The New Press

from The New Press

Examined Life, directed by Astra Taylor (who also made 2005’s Žižek!, one of my favorites) is easily one of the best things I’ve seen this year. In it, eight philosophers respond to Socrates’ statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Its companion book is now out, and I believe it includes the full transcripts of the philosophers’ discussions that were cut down to 10-minute segments in the film. Are you as pumped as I am?

If you’re still into magazines (and I admit, I felt a little ridiculous purchasing one), Astra Taylor is in the summer issue of Venus Zine, with fellow refreshingly atypical ladymag-lady Ximena Sariñana on the cover.

Below the fold is my review of the film.

Filmmaker Astra Taylor proved with 2005’s Žižek! that with the proper balance of theory and celebrity, a challenging and engaging film about philosophy can be made. Her new film Examined Life takes a step back from that documentary’s one-star focus and brings us eight philosophers giving their answer to the fundamental question of what it means to live the “examined life” prescribed by Socrates.

The question of celebrity is not entertained in this film, and so to keep an audience visually interested in a film about that which is usually written or spoken from beyond a podium, she keeps it moving at all times. Cornel West speaks from the backseat of the director’s car; Avita Ronell walks through the park; Michael Hardt rows a boat. We are able to silently bridge the philosophy and the every day as shoppers pass by Peter Singer on Fifth Avenue while he argues that buying designer shoes is immoral. Having Kwame Anthony Appiah discuss cosmopolitanism in an airport is an obvious idea, but Taylor executes it in a way that makes not engaging with his proposal for a global citizenry that finds the middle ground between universalism and cultural relativism impossible.

Though eight philosophers are featured in the film, it runs only 88 minutes. With 10 minutes to speak, each must give a simplified response to the central query, but despite this manage to present challenging concepts. Cornel West is the only exception to the 10-minute segments, and also the philosopher who speaks most broadly about the discipline’s nature, use, and application. The star of Taylor’s first film, Slavoj Žižek, speaks about ecology as ideology in a garbage dump, calling it the “new opium of the masses.” Predictably, he doesn’t quite address the matter at hand, but in doing so illustrates how philosophy’s ceaseless interrogation of all facets of life offers new approaches to our most pressing political problems.

Only Judith Butler’s segment of the film does on screen what would be truly impossible to communicate on paper. She takes a walk through San Francisco with the director’s sister, Sunaura Taylor, who is disabled. Taylor is an accomplished artist and activist, and speaks to our cultural notions of what constitutes able-bodied. By discussing the convergence of gender and disability,  and how it all goes back to a conception of what the body “should” be, Butler is able to bring this around to her work in the end. She says that we have to be “re-thinking the human as a site of interdependency.” The concept of a  functional interdependency arrived at through the individual’s act of living consciously (examining life) is a common thread throughout each piece in the film.

Stimulating visuals, a few certified academic celebrities, and each philosopher having space to speak to their interests combine to make Examined Life a powerful case for dragging philosophy further outside the walls of academia. And for anyone left unconvinced of the viability of such a pursuit, the final scene is a shot of Cornel West exiting the car, unable to make it across the street before being approached by fans.

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2 Responses to “Examined Life Further Examined”


  1. 1 Ted Hesson June 16, 2009 at 10:36 am

    I actually haven’t seen the movie, but I read AO Scott’s review of it and then wanted to see it (his take on West is especially funny).


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