Examined Life

Examined Life

Examined Life (2008, Director: Astra Taylor): This doc­u­ment­ary takes philo­sophy to the streets as film­maker Astra Taylor con­ducts inter­views with nine prom­in­ent thinkers in decidedly non-aca­demic set­tings. Most enter­tain­ing is Cornel West, per­haps America’s best-known pub­lic intel­lec­tual, who rhaps­od­izes about jazz, blues and the life of the mind in the back of a New York City tax­icab. Almost as inter­est­ing is Slovenian cul­tural critic Slavoj Zizek (the sub­ject of Taylor’s first film, simply called Zizek!) who holds forth on the envir­on­mental crisis in the middle of a dump. His pro­voc­at­ive sug­ges­tion is that human­ity should become even more arti­fi­cial and sep­ar­ate from the nat­ural world. Martha Nussbaum provides a clear his­tor­ical over­view of polit­ical philo­sophy and dis­cusses why the field is in dire need of new enquiry. The other seg­ments were less suc­cess­ful for me, mostly because ideas were either insuf­fi­ciently unpacked, or else huge assump­tions were left undefen­ded. Though that’s unavoid­able in a film pot­pourri like this one, I think I would rather have had more time with the above three thinkers. As a film, it was only mod­er­ately suc­cess­ful. Though some of the sub­jects seemed happy to be in new set­tings, oth­ers seemed dis­trac­ted by their sur­round­ings or by their chosen method of loco­motion (Michael Hardt strug­gling to steer his row­boat clear of obstacles rather took away from what he was actu­ally say­ing).

I’m glad that Taylor is mak­ing the effort to bring the work of these thinkers to a mass audi­ence, but given the enorm­ity of the issues they’re dis­cuss­ing, it seems a little unfair to limit them to ten minutes each. Since this was par­tially fun­ded by TVO and the National Film Board, I’d be inter­ested to know whether there were any talks about a series for tele­vi­sion broad­cast. I’d cer­tainly tune that in.

The NFB’s web site for the film, includ­ing a trailer


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