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.
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.