Talking Heads

by Scott McLemee on January 8, 2009

I was in touch with Astra Taylor about her documentary Žižek! quite a long time ago, or so it seems. She has a new film called Examined Life consisting of what might be called philosopher-in-the-street interviews. The talking heads include (to reshuffle the list alphabetically) Kwarne Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Sunaura Taylor, Cornel West, and Slavoj Žižek.

Here’s the trailer:

I haven’t seen the film yet — it’s only showing in NYC now, it seems — but would welcome a screener DVD. It’s not like I’m going to bootleg it out of the trunk of my car or anything. I don’t even have a car, if that makes the folks at Zeitgeist Films feel any better.




Soren 01.08.09 at 11:26 pm

‘Kwame’ Anthony Appiah?


lemmy caution 01.08.09 at 11:34 pm

I am not a big Žižek fan, but I thought the Žižek! documentary was good.


yoyo 01.09.09 at 1:17 am

Goddammit, that looks GREAT!


noen 01.09.09 at 1:40 am

Anything that gets people to stop and think is great. We’ve just had eight years the rule of the “Gut”. Didn’t work so well.


DRR 01.09.09 at 5:52 am

Lots of prejudging here as I’ve only seen the preview but the whole thing seems a little silly. Half of those people don’t even look like they’ve been outside recently.

“I don’t know how revolution is made? It’s easy!, You go up to the mountains, you start an armed cell & you make revolution! (smirk)” — Bold 21st Century Philosopher.


MQ 01.09.09 at 6:47 am

Jesus, this looks totally lame.

Cornell West: “I’m a blues man in the life of the mind, I’m a jazz man in the worldof ideas”. Ummm, right.


Joel Turnipseed 01.09.09 at 6:54 am

I haven’t seen Zizek yet, but I did get a lot of laughs out of Zizek’s Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema. Who knows what this film will be like, but it’s a model trailer: a truly wonderful job of editing!

Undoubtedly this is something I’ll be waiting to see on DVD, as even if it does make it to Minneapolis, it will be for all of a week–and I’ll notice it’s playing the day after it’s left the local Landmark Cinema.


Marichiweu 01.09.09 at 6:54 am

If you’re dissing the film because of inanities the philosophers utter, you may be missing the point.


novakant 01.09.09 at 10:26 am

Hmm, maybe they’re taking “peripatetic” a bit too literally, but I guess it’s always good to get out of the house for a bit.


Katherine Farmar 01.09.09 at 11:35 am

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this in my local DVD rental place. I wonder how it’ll stack up against Derrida (which gave me a new respect for a thinker I’d previously dismissed, in an ignorant curmudgeonly pshaw-that-Continental-nonsense-isn’t-real-philosophy way)? I must check it out next time I have an evening free.


Michael Bérubé 01.09.09 at 1:54 pm

I just saw it the other night (I think the fact that both the Nussbaum and Butler segments are about disability is what led Ms. Taylor to have Zeitgeist send me a screener), and it’s completely engaging. Despite MQ @ 6, Cornel West is pretty damn good (that “blues man in the life of the mind” bit is his low point), Appiah (yes, “Kwame” Anthony Appiah) and Nussbaum are compelling (though I don’t know about that music behind Nussbaum’s segment — tres weird), Žižek is very Žižek, Peter Singer comes off quite well (because he’s talking exclusively about poverty and animal rights and not about disability), and the closing Sunaura Taylor / Judith Butler segment is great. As for Michael Hardt, someone needs to tell him that Central Park is not in fact an “aristocratic” place in which to discuss revolution; Central Park is in fact one of the triumphs for Our Side, as Olmstead held off the Trumps and Helmsleys of his day and kept a huge chunk of Manhattan open to Teh People and off limits to development. And Ronell is, well, not so good. But you should wait to see for yourself.


wj 01.09.09 at 3:15 pm

Berube writes: “And Ronell is, well, not so good.”

Her quote from the trailer:

“Anxiety is the mood, par excellence, of ethicity…I think.”

So profound.


Michael Bérubé 01.09.09 at 4:23 pm

It gets worse.


astrongmaybe 01.09.09 at 5:18 pm

Where is it showing in NYC? I couldn’t see it in any of the listings pages.


parsimon 01.09.09 at 8:57 pm

Avital Ronell is just kind of like that, though, no? In a world of her own. Doesn’t translate well to anything. I haven’t seen the film, but for reasons that are slightly unclear to me, I almost always give her a pass. Why she was selected for this film is a question.


rea 01.09.09 at 11:29 pm

Anxiety is the mood, par excellence, of ethicity

Well, that’s baffling . . .


Michael Drake 01.10.09 at 12:59 am

Bafflement is the ground, tout court, of perplexivity.


Martin G. 01.10.09 at 11:58 am

Wankiness is the result, vis a vis, I think, sesquipedalianism in its philosophical modus.


Michael Bérubé 01.10.09 at 4:27 pm

Hey, before people stomp too hard on that one line, let me explain a bit. (Warning: spoiler alert! I’m gonna ruin the suspense!) Taylor asks Ronell whether philosophy involves a search for meaning, and Ronell bats the question away with some OK Zen-sounding stuff about how we shouldn’t be reducing everything to meaning. But she then follows this with the suggestion that meaning = fascism. One wonders what Jonah Goldberg will do with this! Let’s just say I prefer Adorno’s take on Beckett’s Endgame (in which he complains, justly, that the existentialist take on Beckett reduces meaninglessness to a kind of meaning). Ronell then argues that ethics is bad too (and anxiety is its mood), because it reduces Otherness to a form in which we can know it . . . and therefore kill it. There are two problems here: one, Ronell paraphrases Levinas on the Other and pisses on ethics even though Levinas’ insistence on the ultimate unknowability of the Other is (for him) the basis of ethics; two, more pragmatically, one could counterargue that most of the historical record suggests that we kill Others not when we understand them but when we don’t.

But definitely, definitely see the film. You wouldn’t think you could get a good sense of these philosophers’ ideas and demeanors in ten-minute segments, but Taylor does a fabulous job. Appiah defending cosmopolitanism in a pristine, airless airport; Nussbaum talking about disability and capability as children play on the Chicago lakefront; Sunaura Taylor and Butler talking about mobility as they thread their way through San Francisco, framed by all manner of wheeled conveyances. Taylor has pulled off an exceptionally difficult task here, and she’s done something of a public service to philosophy in the bargain. IMHO.

And yeah, I’ll blog about this sooner or later.


Scott McLemee 01.12.09 at 1:47 am

Having now seen the film on DVD — evidently Zeitgeist decided to risk it — I’d say that Michael is exactly right. The trailer is nothing to judge it by. Which seems like stating the obvious, but sometimes you have to do just that.


Michael Bérubé 01.12.09 at 4:58 am

OK, Scott, now let’s bootleg the thing out of the back of your car. C’mon, you do have a car. Admit it.


Scott McLemee 01.12.09 at 11:32 am

Well okay, but the bootlegs are going to have “For Preview Only” across the bottom of the screen the whole time.

Maybe this could be marketed as an Extra Bonus Feature.


Matt 01.12.09 at 12:19 pm

_but the bootlegs are going to have “For Preview Only” across the bottom of the screen the whole time._
Would that be unusual on a bootleged DVD in the US? When I lived in Russia and took the train between Moscow and the city I lived in (a few times a month, usually), the “first class” cars showed movies. If it wasn’t a Soviet or Russian movie they _always_ said “Review copy only- if you have bought this tape call 1800 no pirates” or something like that on the bottom. These were, of course, state-run trains. I’d assumed this was how most bootleg films were made, but I don’t think I’ve ever watched on in the US. Do they often not say this here?


Righteous Bubba 01.12.09 at 2:52 pm

Do they often not say this here?

Lots of American DVD screeners have this, but companies have realized that Russia and other countries do a lot of pirating so they now release low-quality DVDs in those regions so they can realize quick cash before the pirates get their releases out.

And of course these become available back in America again without those screener subtitles.

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