Posts Tagged ‘Cornell West’


March 22, 2009

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?

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The Buzz

January 29, 2009

Ever wonder what a fly-bottle is? Wittgenstein mentions one rather casually, like it’s obvious. What is your aim in philosophy? He asks. To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. But, you know, why would a fly have a bottle? What’s he doing in there in the first place? What, in point of fact, does one do with a fly-bottle? Turns out, showing the fly the way out is the last thing you want to do. The fly-bottle’s purpose, its whole reason for being, its raison d’être, is to capture, confuse, and kill flies. A fly-bottle was used for pest control.

“Ludwig, how many times do I have to tell you? Leave the flies alone. They’re supposed to die in there. Go outside and play.”

It’s seems there’s two models of fly-bottle, one prevalent in Asian countries and the type they used in Europe. The European model looks a little more sophisticated, with an opening at the bottom that allows the flies to crawl in, rather than fly in the top, but the idea is the same, you lure the fly into the bottle with a succulent, fatted calf—or anyway a pile of sugar—and the fly, once inside, can’t figure out how to get back out. Your common house fly is phototropic; he will fly towards light. He doesn’t understand that while the glass lets light in, it won’t let him out. Confusion and repetitive action sets in. Often at the bottom of a fly-bottle you’ll find some sort of poisonous liquid; when your fly finally tires of buzzing the glass, he falls down and drowns. So much for phototropism. It’s an easy death.


One of the implications of this idea, though, is that once out of the fly-bottle, the fly has no more need of philosophy. He won’t have any moral issues to ponder; he won’t need to think about his place in society (such as it is for a fly); he won’t have any nagging epistemological problems, wonder about consciousness, other minds, the good life, virtue, justice…. He’s free, man! The examined life is not worth living.


The phrase ‘the examined life’ comes from the Apology where Socrates, who is apologizing for nothing, explains: I say that the greatest good for man is to fashion arguments each day about virtue…and that the unexamined life for man is not worth living.

So it’s a big claim: the greatest good. Socrates prefers to die rather than to live the unexamined life. And he proves it too. Over the years the examined life has become synonymous us with the practice of philosophy, with philosophy as a lived discipline.

The Examined Life is also the name of a new film by Astra Taylor. I haven’t seen it yet. It will be in New York in February, but the trailers are intriguing: Cornell West comparing the philosopher to a bluesman, a jazzman of ideas; Peter Singer bringing down the shoe industry with a deft, entrapping example. The list of names is impressive; in addition to West and Singer, there is Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler and of course Slavoj Zizek, who it seems, will give us a discourse on garbage and why we need to pay attention to it—perhaps because it attracts flies. Read the rest of this entry »