The Examined Life Is Good
Sometimes I wish I were somewhere else. Who doesn’t? On a beach, maybe (done that). Or at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Obama says the action is now. But on some days, my goodness, New York is pretty hard to beat.
Tonight at the glorious Brooklyn Academy of Music, I got to see a screening of Astra Taylor’s (of Zizek! fame) new film, Examined Life, in which she casts some of today’s most attention-getting philosophers as noble peripatetics—and most of them on the streets and in the parks of New York City. Cornel West, Judith Butler, Martha Nussbaum. Yes, Zizek too. Peter Singer, who’s in the film, came to participate in the most bizarre Q&A I’ve ever experienced (two conversations at once, one audience member talking half the time, don’t ask). Through sounds and images, the film exposes us to the ideas and personal ticks of some incredible thinkers. Kwame Anthony Appiah has never looked so good as posed in front of elevators in JFK Airport (and, thanks to this city, I’ve seen him in person twice in the last month). The theater at BAM was packed with mostly young people really engaged with what was going on.
So while I was sitting there remarking at how maybe philosophy has become somehow cool, I had to ask: Which philosophy? A unifying thread isn’t obvious. West is a Christian pragmatist, Singer is an atheist utilitarian, and Zizek an (intellectually) anarchic psychoanalyst. Nussbaum talks justice, Butler talks body, and Michael Hardt talks revolution. Singer keeps talking about world hunger, but the die-hard folks wish he’d keep talking about animals. In a pointlessly nationalist mood, one might ask, is a particularly American philosophy emerging here? All but Zizek, after all, are primarily based here, and he’s around pretty often.
Nah. Connectedness is big, in one way or another. Responsibility for others. The badness of commercialism and of Bush. But beyond that, not that I can detect. So what is Astra Taylor giving us, if not the image of a movement? Beyond, at least, that most of these guys are great self-promoters.
A conversation, I think. An image of the eschaton. By tossing philosophy out into the streets of our insane cities, she holds out the possibility of Athens—the rosy-remembered world of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle where thought was in the air. The streets, the legend goes, were practically paved with ideas. In good old anti-intellectual America, a philosopher in the street seems like a fish in the desert. I like the film, in all its scatterbraining, because it invites us to do something new with our streets. To take them as an opportunity to think, to talk, to criticize, and to imagine.
tags: celebrity, conversation, music, New York City, responsibility, utopia