It’s a simple idea really: each philosopher gets 10 minutes of camera time to say a little about his or her work. That’s the whole movie. The exceptions being Cornell West who gets a couple of appearances—he opens the show with what might be a new genre, call it ‘philosophy rap’, and then closes, rapping again, before walking off into the night and into the mid-town Manhattan traffic to end the film—and Judith Butler who conducts a peripatetic interview with Sunaura Taylor as they go for a ‘walk’ through the San Francisco streets. While on the surface of it Sunaura qualifies to be in this film only by being the filmmaker’s sister, she has as much to say as anybody about philos ophy. When she walks, Sunaura walks with a wheelchair. I will say more about this in a minute, for walking and talking are the motifs one takes out of the theater. The name of the film is The Examined Life, and it’s about philosophers walking and talking and if this sounds boring to you, stop reading here. When I saw the film at a theater in New York City, there were four other people in the room. Walking, talking, thinking. Not a sexy film, I guess.
But, Cornell West is sexy, leaning forward to do some heavy name dropping, in his trademark three piece suit—and not walking, but sitting in a car—with a speech he’s made before, intent and intense, explaining what we don’t really need explained, this bit about the examined life: The Socratic imperative of questioning yourself requires courage…It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield. Maybe…but it seems an unhelpful dichotomy. The battlefield might be a likely place for examination of those dark corners…and this idea of examining… It’s not just thinking about your ‘self’, right? It’s examining your ‘self’ as you live in the world, the decisions you make, the place you find yourself in, where you are going and where you have been. ‘Philosophy’ insofar as it becomes the act of questioning one’s self necessitates a questioning of the whole world, a questioning of existence. It’s not simply a matter of getting your ‘self’ a good shrink.
Avital Ronell wants to replace ‘philosophy’ with ‘thinking’, which seems good, except we don’t get too much exploration of what this particular type of thinking is, except to say that Heidegger did it, and that there are analogies with following a path. The sequence with Professor Ronell was filmed in Tomkins Square Park and it seems some of the locals got into the act, disrupting some of the scenes—though this did not make the final print, which is too bad. Sometimes when you’re walking and talking—and being filmed—you’re a walking, talking provocation. Just who does she think she is, anyway? Imagine getting paid to think. You think I can’t think?
Peter Singer wants everyone to keep their shoes on—their old, sensible shoes—when walking. He makes a sensible point that most of us spend more money than we need to, and could turn over a sizable portion of our income to legitimate charitable organizations. Just think of what the world would be like if Oxfam and Doctors without Borders had billions of dollars flowing through their coffers. Has this kind of thinking something to do with philosophy and with the examined life? Is ‘philosophy’ the act of being sensible? Of walking a sensible path?
Tying together thinking and walking goes back at least to Aristotle. The word ‘peripatetic’ comes from peripatoi, the colonnades that Aristotle used to walk under while lecturing at the Lyceum—though today a peripatetic philosopher suggests an itinerant traveler, a rootless soul in search of wisdom. Singer, West and Appiah are all professors at Princeton, in fact, all the participating philosophers hold prestigious appointments at prestigious universities and no matter how you cut it, this does not make you itinerant. Rather, as Anthony Appiah would say, they are all cosmopolitan philosophers, citizens of the world, walking in both the cosmos and the polis. I wonder: Would he say they are in search of wisdom? And if philosophers don’t have/ search for wisdom, who does?
If walking in the cosmos and the polis is what philosophy is, then Sunaura Taylor and Judith Butler might be our 21st Century Socrates. “Sunny”, who was born with Arthrogryposis, is an artist and an activist for the disabled. She and Judith Butler sound out the role of the body, especially the disabled body, in doing philosophy, and in thinking and the path of thinking. Walk this path: Your body can be quite the teacher when it wants to be. Your body can be quite the teacher when you let it. You are your body.
Does philosophy lack metaphors? The Examined Life proposes plenty: Philosophy is the examination of the self and of that self in the world; philosophy is a path thought follows; it is being sensible and ethical; it is being a citizen and cosmopolitan, local and global; it is a study of the disabled body and is the study of how the disabled body might study the body: all good viable, ways of thinking about philosophy. Philosophy is walking and talking. Philosophy is cinema.
For of course, in making The Examined Life Astra Taylor is making cinematic and philosophic decisions. To have seven of the eight philosophers/performers talking to an implied Astra Taylor, who does appear at the edge of the frame now and then, shapes the film and the message: it’s an odd conversation, both lonely and engaged; the viewer is not quite addressed, though she’s not quite overhearing or peering in behind the forth wall either: Philosophy as a lonely, isolated pursuit, intellectual, acetic, eccentric…
…then two women go for a walk and buy a sweater.
Astra Taylor sees her film as being about ethics, human vulnerability and interdependence; this is all well and good, but think of the number of films (novels, poems, paintings, photographs) you could say were about ethics, human vulnerability and interdependence.
So, two women go for a walk and buy a sweater. They talk about the idea of going for a walk. Sunny always uses the phrase ‘going for a walk’, though she cannot walk if you’re talking about using your legs and feet for locomotion. Just as her inability to walk tests the phrase, her physical condition tests our sense of existence, our sense of the good life, what it means to be human, normal and alive. Sunny is feeling a little chilly so they stop in a thrift store and she picks out a second hand sweater, a red one. Trying it on is an ordeal by the standards of the non-disabled, one of the unnoticeable day-to-day aspects of Sunny’s life. Philosophy used to be thought of as a particular type of life, as making a commitment to that kind of life. Being disabled is nothing like that: You don’t choose or commit to being disabled. But you can choose to live in a certain relation to your disability. The word ‘preamble’ literally means ‘to walk before’. So let’s think of disability as a possible preamble to philosophy—one of many—and one that bears further thought—for philosophy and philosophers should be about ideas too and what ideas does being disabled engender?
If The Examined Life has a weakness, it fails to show philosophers thinking. These people are professional talkers and they have their routine down—Cornell West being the worst offender, if offence it is. Of course, one thinks in the bathroom, eating breakfast, commuting to work, taking the kids to soccer practice. One thinks out of the life one lives. Flaubert’s remark that he lives like a bourgeois and thinks like a demigod is striking because it counters our common sense notions—not to say our bourgeois notions—that when we live like a bourgeois we indeed think like one. Perhaps Sunaura’s disability frees her to a certain level of thought. Not a sufficient condition, not a necessary condition, but an enabling condition. Not being taken into the fold in America can be a liberating experience.
Diane Arbus’ famous thought about freaks:
Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot, she wrote. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.
It can also not be a liberating experience. Living in an institution, mis-cared for, uncared for, drugged, pitied, mocked, neglected, left to lie in your own feces. I went to a funeral a few years ago for a boy with cerebral palsy who had been left unattended in a bean bag chair and who suffocated when he flipped himself over. It only takes a moment—and liberating only if you believe in an afterlife. So, Diane Arbus both hits the mark and misses it by a mile: ideas can be like that. You only pass your test in life when you die.
What is the body? What is the self? What is the relationship between the two? Martha Nussbaum walks a windy bike path in windy Chicago, Anthony Appiah walks through an empty airport, Slavoj Zizek is walking around a garbage dump, Peter Singer is walking and talking about shoes: the social contract at the foundation of our society, cosmopolitanism, the importance of awareness, the importance of social awareness, our concern for our fellow man, our values. Sunny and Judith are just up ahead, talking. The examined life. Don’t walk out on it.