Film Review: Examined Life

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As my first Not School group, I led some folks in discussing two Netflix philosophy documentaries, i.e. things that have been on my instant queue forever, and which I feel culturally, given my position here, I should watch, but always seemed too boring. Examined Life (2008) (Netflix link) was the best of the two that we picked, and the well of that sort of thing is dry enough that I’m not going to subject any group to more of them.

The movie is a series of 10-minute-or-so clips of different semi-famous philosophers talking, and so serves as a decent introduction to some of the most generally famous (which of course is not the same as the most academically respected) names in philosophy today, including Cornel West, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Slavoj Žižek. Here’s Žižek:

Watch Žižek in “Examined Life” on YouTube.

All of the guests are political, and all are left-wing. Cornel West characterizes the “unexamined life” not in terms of, e.g. examining your religious beliefs as in most intro philosophy classes or our episode, but as a matter of “dialogue in the face of dominating structures.” Self-examination is necessitated by “desire in the face of death.” These thinkers want us to challenge existing political structures, and there’s a good representation of continental-types here, such that, e.g. Avital Ronell talks about power relations in the manner of Foucault, where it’s not just governments being oppressive but numerous social interactions and even personal habits of mind that can be “fascist.” Both Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler (whose segment is shared with the director’s sister, Sunny Taylor, a disability activist) argue against the independent mindset behind social contract theory; following on the “you didn’t build that” theme, our needs regarding each other, and the extent that society makes it possible for us to flourish already are greatly underestimated, or better put, taken for granted. Nussbaum relates this to Aristotle, who we discussed on this topic.

As a political incentive, I think the film is pretty effective and thought-provoking. It gives you just a little bit of some of these thinkers, such that you can follow up and get the whole arguments yourself. For me, a number of these figures had been mentioned to me or had come up in some readings, so I was glad to have someone go through the work of, essentially, searching for them all on YouTube for me. But really, that’s most of what the film offers. As one discussion group member put it, it was “pretty high school sophomore stuff” if taken by itself and not as an entry point of more serious consideration of some of these figures.


Watch Martha Nussbaum’s segment on YouTube.

Martha Nussbaum (one of the participants) wrote an article critical of the film as “a betrayal of the tradition of philosophizing that began, in Europe, with the life of Socrates,” in that (so far as I can tell from the stub that’s freely available) the speakers are for the most part engaged in monologue, whereas “real” philosophy is dialectical, argumentative. While I’m obviously a fan of dialogue, and find one-man philosophy podcasts generally tedious for that reason, I don’t think it’s a legitimate criticism: articles and books, after all, involve only one person, and the reader must delve further into other articles and books to get the opposing views. Relatedly, these monologists, says Nussbaum, are presented as authorities, but the variety of speakers and their very down-to-earth interview settings to my mind belie that impression. She also argues that some of the guests don’t constitute real philosophers, which is silly. That they “aren’t… all that concerned with rigorous argument, or with the respectful treatment of opposing positions” is more interesting, but somewhat irrelevant for the modest aims of the film.

What the film does try to capture is a calm, reflective space to think and talk about things. The interviews, short as they are, don’t seem rushed, and at times the director (Astra Taylor) purposefully leaves in places where the speakers fish about for words, or just walk along the beach, or comment on the foliage, or whatever. At times I found this irritating, but then again, I was watching this on my phone in 5 minute increments while doing other things and writing notes about the content to myself, so I hardly feel like I entered into its ambiance as Taylor intended. That’s perhaps the difference between seeing the film as a film and watching it like I did as a bunch of YouTube shorts.

In sum, the film could have been much worse, and provides some kind of repeatable formula for creating an effective introductory presentation of a collection of thinkers, so I wouldn’t mind at all if this were a series. On the other hand, a more in-depth, exchange-filled presentation of, say, just two of these thinkers really engaging each other (but yet still nicely shot and edited, unlike a BloggingHeads.TV discussion) would likely have made a more valuable product.

Thanks to Daniel Horne, Adam Arnold, Bill Burgess, Russ Baker, Dom Romani, Steve Lindsay, Nathan Shane, Jason Stable, and the other folks who took part in the group.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Comments

  1. dmf

    October 31, 2012

    if people want more of folks like Zizek, Ronell, and Butler there is a tremendous collection of free lectures @: http://www.egs.edu/
    was the doc The American Philosopher on yer list? there are open-access copies at several web locations and it’s similarly brief in terms of the exchanges but not a bad intro.

    • aashi

      November 4, 2012

      I’m always entertained by Zizek, but usually… perhaps always… Zizek confuses the hell out of me.

      I was hoping someone might be able to help me make better sense of Zizek’s monologue in the film reviewed above. Especially in regards to what he claims are the implications of his analysis. Up to a point, I follow him. But understanding for me falls apart in his conclusion.

      Zizek: “I think ecology, the way we approach the ecological problematic is the crucial field of ideology today. I use ideology in the traditional sense of illusory, wrong way of thinking and perceiving reality… It’s really the implicit premise of ecology that the existing world is the best possible world. It’s a balanced world which is disturbed through human hubris. This is problematic because this notion of nature, nature as harmonious, organic, balanced, reproducing living organism which is derailed through human hubris, technological exploitation… is I think a secular version of the fall. The answer is not there is no fall, we’re part of nature, bur rather there is no nature. Nature is not a balanced totality we disturb, it’s a big series of unimaginable catastrophes… Ecology will slowly turn maybe into the new opium of the masses (related to the way Marx described religion). What we expect from religion is the unquestionable, highest authority. You don’t debate it. Ecology is taking over this role as a conservative ideology. Whenever there is a new scientific breakthrough, biogenetic development, its as is the voice that warns us not to trespass a certain invisible limit, that voice is more and more the voice of ecology. Don’t mess with DNA, don’t mess with nature. It’s a conservative, mistrust of change. This today is ecology.”

      I’m sympathetic to the above view. But in the following, his analysis begins to confuse me.

      Zizek, again: “Another myth that’s possible about ecology… is the idea that Western people in our artificial, technological environment, are alienated from immediate natural environs. We should not forget (ecology tells us) that we humans are part of the living earth, not abstract engineers, theorists that just exploit nature, that nature is our impenetrable background. I think that’s the greatest danger. Why? Obvious paradox. We know what danger we’re in of ecological catastrophes. Why don’t we do anything about it? Example of disavowal; I think very well, but… I act as if I don’t know. For example, in the case of ecology, there may be global warming, everything destroyed, after reading a treatise on it, I step our and see trees, birds singing and even if I know rationally this is all in danger, I don’t believe that this can be destroyed… So, I think what we should do to confront the threat of ecological catastrophe is not all this new age stuff, to break out of this and found our roots in nature, but on the contrary to further cut off our roots in nature. We need more alientation from our life world, from our spontaneous nature. We should become more artificial. We should develop a more terrifying new abstract materialism, a mathematical universe, just formulas, technical forms and so on. The difficult thing is to find poetry, spirituality in this dimension. To create beauty, aesthetic dimension in trash. That’s the true love of the world. What is love? Not idealization. If you truly love a woman or a man you don’t idealize him or her. Love means you accept a person with all its failures, stupidities, ugly points, but that person is still everything for you, you see perfection in imperfection itself. That’s how we should learn to love the world. The true ecologist loves all this (camera pans to pile of trash).”

      (1) His analysis that “we” know we are in peril but we don’t do anything about it is a definition of disavowal doesn’t make sense to me. Rather, some people DO do something about it. Don’t they? Or they think they’re trying to, anyway. Examples? People who claim to be environmentalists and try to live lives taking beliefs about ecological principles into account…

      (2) A paradox I see in one particular line: “So, I think what we should do to confront the threat of ecological catastrophe is not all this new age stuff, to break out of this technological and found our roots in nature, but on the contrary to further cut off our roots in nature.”

      Zizek had previously claimed there is no such thing as nature. But here he saying there is such a thing and we should further cut of our roots from nature. What gives?

      I wonder if he’s pulling my leg when he asserts: “We should develop a more terrifying new abstract materialism, a mathematical universe, just formulas, technical forms and so on. The difficult thing is to find poetry, spirituality in this dimension. To create beauty, aesthetic dimension in trash. That’s the true love of the world. What is love? Not idealization. If you truly love a woman or a man you don’t idealize him or her. Love means you accept a person with all its failures, stupidities, ugly points, but that person is still everything for you, you see perfection in imperfection itself.”

      I don’t see why taking it to this extreme is necessary. Even if we do not further “alienate” ourselves from “nature” the world, life, will still be imperfect. So why develop a more “terrifying new abstract materialism, a mathematical universe, just formulas” … what does this even mean? What is he positing? Why am I having such a hard time connecting to what he’s saying?

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        Mark Linsenmayer

        November 9, 2012

        I’m just going to paste in Daniel Horne’s attempt to make sense of this from the Not School forum for this group:

        (1) environmentalist advocacy tends to visualize “nature” as virgin wilderness to which humans can do nothing but despoil, and this romanticized image is so powerful that we feel it emotionally, even if we understand rationally there is more to it than that, and

        (2) we therefore idealize a return to “natural” (read “pre-industrial”) existence, which ultimately becomes a conservative (in a bad way) vision of human existence.

        I see Zizek attacking the late-Heideggerian view of technology as inherently corrupting and corrosive. We needn’t look back to a pre-industrialized, “natural” past to solve our environmental crisis. (And specifically, we needn’t fear, say, biotechnology, which I feel is more a European than American bogeyman.)

        Instead, we should embrace a new kind of materialism, apart from current consumerist madness, but also apart from a Thoreauvian “back-to-nature” movement. Technology is not inherently ugly, and “nature” qua Walden is not inherently beautiful. Zizek wants us to instead evolve to a new kind of aesthetic appreciation, based on mathematics (or perhaps Platonic Forms generally.) Whether I agree with him or not, I found it a thought-provoking notion, and it was perhaps the high point of the film for me.

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          Mark Linsenmayer

          November 9, 2012

          And here’s a comment from Dom Romani:

          There is in fact a self-centered element to environmentalism, which envisions humans as the center of the earth (life), or omnipotent with regards to all other life. To a large degree, this is true, especially in the short-term (deforestation, death of coral reefs, etc). However, this thinking becomes problematic when it follows what may or may not be a natural course and people begin to lament the extinction of human beings. And this point is undeniable, many mainstream environmentalist individuals and movements (McKibben, Chomsky, Klein, all people I admiew) do in fact focus on the major detrimental effect to the human race, i.e. extinction, and the factions that do not privilage humans in this equation are vilified and marginalized (Earth First! , Peta).

          A major theme in Zizeks’ work is self-denial, negation, loosing site of the big picture (class struggle) to focus on minutia (identity politics). I remember he once said something to the effect that the effort to deny smoking as a habit is in some ways as detrimental to society as smoking itself (those familiar with Zizek will be familiar with his oft repeated phrase of “we are a society that wants “safe” sex, non-alcoholic alcohol, de-caffinated coffee, canned laughter…).

          So the way i interpret his segment is that we are so caught up in the minutia (extinction; negating ourselves) that we lose the big picture (the phenomena of “life” does not depend upon “life of humans”). More specifically, “minutia” = recycling, “big picture” = radically re structuring society to one that consumes and wastes less. Less aggressive environmentalism like recycling is simply internalizing the external damage and creating a guilt complex that is handicapping our ability to function as a society that is able to mobilize around a problem. I think Zizek might say that capitalism perfectly accepts externalizing our guilt by recycling, or using cloth shopping bags, because both examples allow the consumer to go on consuming and potentially sedate the recognition of its disastrous effects.

          We are going to degrade the environment and create waste to some extent regardless of what we do. We need to accept it and get over it, we cannot function or become fully actualized as a society with all of these hang ups. We need to love the shit. And regardless, if our destruction does us in, the world itself will not end. Something else some will be familiar with is another of Zizeks’ oft repeated phrases: “it is easier for people to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” I would adapt that to this scenario by making it: “it is easier for people to imagine the end of all life than to imagine the end of human life.”

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