In 2008, Astra Taylor wandered the streets with a handful of modern philosophers, asking questions of ethics. These conversations were first shown in the documentary Examined Life, which will be playing at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center on Thursday, November 19. Transcripts of the interviews have also been published in a book of the same name. Examined Life is essentially a collection of dialogues, and though these conversations lack the cognitive conflict and clarity of the historical dialogues, the brilliance of the interviewees is a suitable substitute.
The rationale behind the entire project was to bring philosophy down to earth. This is the reason that the interviews took place in taxicabs and on city streets, and the reason that the focus in each interview was ethical. Since the study of ethics is at its root a search for “the right thing” to do, the relevance of the discussion to daily life was an inevitable result of the choice of topic.
Taylor interviewed a total of eight philosophers: Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, and Judith Butler. Some of these men and women elected to tread familiar ground; Singer argues for a greater sensitivity to the needs of the rest of the world, West uses jazz as a metaphor for something that remains unclear. Others explore new territory, such as in Zizek’s discussion of the incredible waste and excess of western culture at large, as he and Taylor toured a large waste processing plant in the UK.
Some of the interviews are more interesting than others; while West’s discussion is poetic but logically amorphous, Nussbaum takes a unique and not entirely familiar perspective on justice. Nussbaum, walking with Taylor along the coast of Lake Michigan, covers some familiar ground, such as cultural relativism, but much of her discussion of justice is new; the setting led Nussbaum to create a new synthesis of modern and ancient philosophy of the same sort that has made her so famous.
Taylor conducted another interesting interview in East Village of New York City with Ronnell and, by accident, a few bystanders. Ronell’s detailed analysis of the context and discussion themselves make this interview particularly intriguing. Having worked closely with Derrida, Ronell discusses many of the ideas they produced together, but the highlights of her interview may be when she picks apart their own choices of words, deriving a seemingly impossible amount of meaning from a fraction of a sentence.
Taylor’s questions for most of the philosophers are basically softballs, designed not to reveal problems in their thinking but instead to give them a chance to express their ideas clearly. However, while interviewing Singer, Taylor asks more difficult questions, revealing Singer’s tendency to shoot from the hip on complex issues. In addition to asking basic questions that bring out Singer’s relentless and admirable pragmatism, Taylor has Singer exhibit his tendency to apply his philosophy at the rhetorically self-destructive extremes, such as infanticide and disability.
The entertainment value of Examined Life suffers in the transition from film to print, and much of the symbolism of the street-bound philosophy is lost in translation. All eight philosophers are articulate in both formats, and the significance of their ideas is inescapable, so either on-screen or in print, Taylor’s interviews should be interesting and valuable to readers.