Maybe you’ve seen the screen grab before: out of a mountain of garbage appears Slavoj Žižek, white foamy spittle collecting in the corners of his mouth, gesticulating wildly among the instant-noodle packages, guffawing at what the non-galaxy-brained population might call “porn.” Wait, I skipped to the good part. OK, instead: out walking in Tompkins Square Park, the filmmaker Astra Taylor tells Avital Ronell that she’s trying to make a film about philosophy, and this task will be hard, since philosophy is made with words and films with pictures. Out of this challenge—how to visually represent philosophic thought?—the structure emerges: eight public intellectuals, 10 minutes per intellectual, in an environment of their choosing, to philosophize on their chosen topic.
We could start thinking about Examined Life (2008) by delineating everything that it is not. It is not a satisfactory introduction to the bodies of work of any of the intellectuals featured, given its time constraint. It is not a suite of conventional interviews in Louis XIV wingback chairs, shot with a large aperture, with the frame cut off at the speaker's nipples. And now it is no longer recent—the majority of the thinkers featured aren’t very fashionable these days. The film’s singular intervention then (and the reason to watch it now) is the collision of intellectuals with environments that they think deeply about.
Which begs the question: what is a public intellectual? Is it Judith Butler performing as the intellectual in public, swaggering around the Mission in San Francisco, fingertips pressed together, looking essentially, ontologically nonbinary? Well, yes, maybe. But to be a modern philosopher is also to turn inward, to read and write locked away in your elite university corner office that smells like old soap and someone else’s farts. To perform philosophy is often about closing the door on the “real world” in order to really access it. Yet by some strange turn of events, these thinkers have created celebrity out of their philosophies. Some of the intellectuals are more public than others, which is funny to watch. Cornel West gets flagged down for a handshake outside Union Square by a blonde woman while people swat away Peter Singer on Fifth Avenue as he holds court on applied ethics in front of the Versace store.
We (the public) have, in all likelihood, not read the work that made the careers of these intellectuals. But it doesn’t really matter. And in Examined Lives, it shows; we see the public picking their noses in the periphery for the entire 88 minutes. At their most forgiving, the intellectual will simply sidestep the public to continue their lecture. On the other end of the spectrum, West raises his finger from his cab ride and points to the unknowing public on the other side of the window—The “people walking the streets of New York in crowds with no intellectual interrogation at all” don’t know what it means to be “intensely alive,” he says. Why not? Uh, they’ve never read Moby-Dick. But Avital (in academic circles, she's known by her first name only, “like Plato or Cher,” per Andrea Long Chu) warns us against the artificial construction of meaning. OK, fine. Examined Lives against meaning: Avital’s chrome-blue toenails peeking out of her sensible footwear on the worn asphalt, Singer’s wispy white hair dissolving into the Midtown sky, Martha Nussbaum’s color coordination, Žižek’s trilled r’s, bluish sweat on West’s forehead—actually, everyone’s sweat, glittering brilliantly in low-resolution.
Examined Life screens Sunday afternoon, November 26, at Metrograph on 35mm as part of the series “Zeitgeist Films at 35.”