Monday, March 23, 2009

McLemee, Scott. "Examined Life." INSIDE HIGHER ED January 14, 2009.

Wandering around the Lyceum with an entourage, Aristotle would hold forth on his conception of the universe: one in which God is the Unmoved Mover, while all else shuttles between the potential and the actual. Part of what we know about Aristotle’s thought comes via notes from those lectures. (You picture a student scribbling furiously as the philosopher pauses to dislodge a stone from his sandal.) This picture does not square with the usual notion of intellectual activity, which is a cross between Descartes’s self-portrait (the cogito talking to itself in a warm room) and Rodin’s nude dude. But there is a counter-tradition in philosophy -- one which takes thought to be, in essence, shambolic. “A sedentary life is the real sin against the Holy Spirit,” says Nietzsche, blaspheming tongue not entirely in cheek. “Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value.” And more recently, Martha Nussbaum has insisted that running is an organic part of the philosopher’s professional ethos: “Lawyers tend to be tennis and squash players -- maybe it's the competitive element -- but philosophers tend to be runners, perhaps because of the loner, contemplative quality." All of this by way of introduction to Examined Life, the latest documentary by Astra Taylor, whose Žižek! now turns up on the Sundance Channel from time to time. Taylor’s camera follows nine thinkers of various disciplinary extractions -- here’s a list -- as they walk on the street, ride in the backseat of a car, paddle around the pond in New York’s Central Park, and haul luggage around an international airport. They speak for about 10 minutes each -- sometimes in dialogue with Taylor or one another, sometimes in peripatetic soliloquy. The trailer for Examined Life is now up on YouTube, though viewers should be warned against trying to form an impression of the film from it. "Examined Life" is more than an anthology of short lectures by famous talking heads. Taylor's intelligence as a documentarian extends to both content and form. The film is put together with a subtlety and wit that two minutes of highlights cannot capture. And she has not only scouted interesting or appropriate settings for her subjects (Anthony Appiah discussing cosmopolitanism in an airport, Slavoj Žižek challenging liberal environmentalism in a trash dump) but found common themes and points of implicit conflict among them. But then Taylor takes another step. What might seem like a gimmick (the “philosopher-in-the-street” interview format, as I called it when blogging about the trailer last week) becomes a way to reflect on questions of context, meaning, and mobility. She does not explicitly mention Aristotle and Nietzsche, but the allusions are there, even so. Confirmation of this comes in her introduction to a book that The New Press will publish this June, based on interviews that Taylor did for the film. There, she cites another inspiration for her approach: Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker. . . . Read the rest here:

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