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Rolling over the city in Examined Life

Written By: daveski on May 28, 2009 No Comment

Two nights ago I went over to the Red Vic on Haight St. in San Francisco at a friend’s recommendation for a screening of Astra Taylor’s Examined Life. It was an immensely pleasurable experience – a compelling movie, tasty pizza next door (yes, pizza lives on on FIT!), fog sweeping in over Golden Gate Park putting the neon of the street into relief, the ever-present buzz on Haight St., and the whole experience bookended by a sometimes harrowing but always invigorating rolling engagement with the contours of the city, on blades, up and down those hills…

The film, as can be gleaned from any number of reviews, is made up of moving interviews in the out-of-doors with some amazing thinkers reflecting on ethics, consumerism, individualism, revolution, gender, democracy, and the meaning of a philosophical life. From the movie’s site (with hyperlinks added),

Peter Singer’s thoughts on the ethics of consumption are amplified against the backdrop of Fifth Avenue’s posh boutiques. Slavoj Žižek questions current beliefs about the environment while sifting through a garbage dump. Michael Hardt ponders the nature of revolution while surrounded by symbols of wealth and leisure. Judith Butler and a friend stroll through San Francisco’s Mission District questioning our culture’s fixation on individualism. And while driving through Manhattan, Cornel West—perhaps America’s best-known public intellectual—compares philosophy to jazz and blues, reminding us how intense and invigorating a life of the mind can be.

Not mentioned here are further outdoor interviews with NYU’s Avital Ronell strolling through Central Park, Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s meditations on global citizenship while navigating the non-place of super-modern airport, a waterfront walk with U of Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum, and Judith Butler’s Mission-walking ‘friend’ Sunaura Taylor, an Oakland artist and sister of the director. And here’s the official US trailer:

There isn’t room—and honestly I’d have to see the movie again—to do justice to the breadth of ideas expressed, the calls to thought and action that, for me, were a big success of hearing and seeing philosophical ruminations outside, on the streets, in the city. As a small example, one question Judith Butler asked stands out for me: namely, how the ideology of walking as an autonomous activity disguises the myriad ways in which the support of the pavement, the traffic controls around us, and our own shoes sustain us as we walk. This is not a point that could have been made in the same poignant way if she and Sunaura Taylor had not been discussing disability while themselves navigating the sidewalk cutouts, traffic signals, and other pedestrians on the street. And there are many such examples in the film of thought-provoking juxtapositions of language, concept, and physical scene (Žižek’s aesthetics of the garbage dump was fantastic!), so much so that Scott McLemee, in his engaging Inside Higher Ed review, wrote that “Astra Taylor seems to be inventing her own genre of documentary film”.

While I was enervated by this new ‘genre’, in the time since I saw the movie I’ve been bugged by the feeling that, with the exception perhaps of Butler and (Sunaura) Taylor’s walking conversation, the city was more rolled over than it was walked in. In a real sense, much of this movie was filmed with the camera mounted on a hand-pulled cart, allowing for the focal ‘thinker’ to stroll along and be seen and heard in full sight of the camera. This put the movie viewer on the cart with the camera, rolling backwards, observing while the city/park/waterfront/airport interior unfolds behind the thinker, with the other ‘real’ people on the streets living their lives captured only in brief moments, occasionally turning to look or wave at the camera. Cornel West’s remark while being driven through the Manhattan streets struck me as encapsulating this dichotomy between city-as-backgrounded-object and thinker-as-dynamic-subject: at a red light, he happened to look outside while talking about the merits of a life of intellectual pursuits. Mid-sentence, he took in a scene of people standing on the sidewalk, waiting for a traffic light, looking at storefront displays, and he remarked that that is what stands in contrast to a life of thinking.

Of course, I know that West meant anything but that: the intellectual life is available to all, and he said as much earlier in the movie. Indeed, the much-touted success of Taylor’s film is that it brings philosophy “to the streets”. Yet what seemed to be at play in the conventions of filmic capture and representation, where the fish-eye camera takes in entire cityscapes as background, was an evisceration of the heterogeneous processes that make up the very life of the streets. That’s why, for me at least, the most interesting scenes in the movie came when the camera moved away from the philosopher’s face and allowed itself to play more with the line between subject and object, where the philosopher’s own body and likeness become accountable to the words she is speaking: in one shot, the camera follows the feet of Avitall Ronell, marking a deliberate rhythm along the dirt surface of a pathway in the park, a pace that is interrupted (shockingly, even) by a stutter-step just as her voice is heard to reflect on walking as a philosophical act.

As Michel de Certeau writes, walking is itself a space of enunciation, a practice that “creates a mobile organicity in the environment”, and one which, like most ‘good’ objects, remains beyond reach:

If it is true that forests of gestures are manifest in the streets, their movement cannot be captured in a picture, nor can the meaning of their movements be circumscribed in a text. Their rhetorical transplantation carries away and displaces the analytical, coherent proper meanings of urbanism; it constitutes a “wandering of the semantic” produced by masses that make some parts of the city disappear and exaggerate others, distorting it, fragmenting it, and diverting it from its immobile order.

(from de Certeau’s The practice of everyday life, “Walking in the City”)

Indeed, especially in a documentary-esque film like this, it seems like it’s the framing, the contextualization, the methods that matter. I’m looking forward to seeing how future movies in this possible ‘genre’ might realize dialog between people and place, movement and sight, philosophy and life on the street.

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