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Deathly jargon

In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education (sub required this time—really), Russell Jacoby discusses Astra Taylor’s new film, Examined Life.  Ms. Taylor generously sent me a screener a few months ago, and though I haven’t blogged about the film, I did offer a couple of comments in this Crooked Timber thread, and I was pleased to see that that thread soon led to this very fine Inside Higher Ed essay by Scott McLemee.  One snippet from that essay:

But then Taylor takes another step. What might seem like a gimmick (the “philosopher-in-the-street” interview format, as I called it when blogging about the trailer last week) becomes a way to reflect on questions of context, meaning, and mobility. She does not explicitly mention Aristotle and Nietzsche, but the allusions are there, even so. Confirmation of this comes in her introduction to a book that The New Press will publish this June, based on interviews that Taylor did for the film. There, she cites another inspiration for her approach: Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker.

One of the figures onscreen is her sister Sunuara Taylor, an artist and writer — shown zipping through downtown San Francisco in her wheelchair with the queer theorist Judith Butler. They discuss what it means for a disabled person to “go for a walk” (and to insist on using that language even when it involves a motor). I don’t dare try to paraphrase the exchange. The segment, which comes near the end of “Examined Life,” is beautiful, fascinating, and transformative. It changes the context of all that has gone before in the film, and leaves the everyday world looking strange and new.

That, folks, is why there’s a Scott McLemee Fan Club, complete with its very own t-shirt.

Anyway, contrast Scott’s take with that of Jacoby, who, as you probably know by now, has an obsession or two that a film like Examined Life is sure to provoke.

You do not have to be a denizen of the American Enterprise Institute to regret the uniform leftism of Taylor’s cast of philosophers. And deathly jargon abounds. Ronell finds “fascistnoid nonprogressive edges if not a core” in the question of philosophical meaning. West flicks off phrases like “structures of domination” and American “imperial power” and emits clauses as if breathing about an “America predicated on the dispossession of the lands of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of African peoples, the subjection of women, and the marginalization of gays and lesbians.” Hardt considers where Lenin may have gone wrong about revolution in America. Zizek himself should be classified a “Left-Fascist,” according to a recent New Republic reviewer.

That there is some grade-A concern trolling, it is.  I too am deeply concerned about the uniform leftism of Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Cornel West, and Slavoj Zizek, just as I am concerned about the uniform leftism of Al Gore, Karl Marx, Gloria Steinem, Noam Chomsky, Emma Goldman, Todd Gitlin, Malcolm X, and Shirin Ebadi.  And what’s all this deathly jargon about “structures of domination” and “imperial power?” Speak English, man!

Ah, but it’s not clear that Jacoby was in a listening kind of mood.  One paragraph up, he writes, “The lines tumble from West in cadences. He sprinkles names about like glitter: Vico, John Donne, Walter Benjamin, Goethe, Adorno, Yeats, Montaigne, Chekhov. West is no intellectual wallflower, but is this philosophy or showmanship? At one point West calls himself a jazzman in the life of ideas. He may be right.” This is clearly intended as an insult—a jazzman!  Heh!  Indeed!—but it’s a tad ill-aimed.  Because as you’d know if you saw the film, West doesn’t merely sprinkle names about like glitter.  He actually quotes the figures he mentions, sometimes at length, always from memory.  That might still be showmanship (West referring to his favorite Beethoven string quartet by its opus number can sound a little pedantic, after all), but it’s not quite as superficial and glittery as Jacoby makes it out to be.  It involves, you know, actually reading and listening and remembering stuff.

Anyway, you should definitely go and see the film if it’s at a theater near you.  (Here’s how to find out whether it is.) As I put it in my little blurb, “Famous philosophers discussing mortality, poverty, justice, cosmopolitanism, relativism, disability, revolution, democracy, ecology, ideology, and the meaning of meaning:  what more could one possibly want in 80 minutes?  Examined Life is a truly engaging and edifying film, reminding us all—by way of a dazzling range of discussions—why the examined life is worth living.”

And join the Scott McLemee Fan Club while you’re at it, too.

Posted by on 02/10 at 02:19 PM
  1. Plus it’s Cornel West, who I’d listen to read his grocery shopping list. He’s just fun to listen to talk. Though I admit, my longest exposure so far are his appearances on Real Time with Bill Mahr.

    Posted by Keith  on  02/10  at  05:11 PM
  2. Zizek himself should be classified a “Left-Fascist,” according to a recent New Republic reviewer.

    Well if Even The Liberal New Republic(tm) says it, it must be true!

    Captcha: “front” as in “popular.”

    Posted by John Protevi  on  02/10  at  05:17 PM
  3. Here here. There was some dissing of this item over at unfogged a little while back, and I for one felt marginalized. Marginalized! I did, frankly, find West ridiculous - very brilliant and all, but “jazzman of ideas” is ridonkulous. Sunaura Taylor with Judith Butler was brilliant, though, and heartwarming: Sunny’s kind of a friend, and seeing her name next to Zizek’s and Butler’s etc was kick-ass.

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  05:42 PM
  4. Or is that supposed to be “hear, hear”? I never actually say it or write it, so somehow I can’t tell.

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  05:43 PM
  5. Well if Even The Liberal New Republic(tm) says it, it must be true!

    It’s axiomatic!

    Or is that supposed to be “hear, hear”?

    Yes.  And sure, West can be ridiculous—it wasn’t too long ago that he was touting his spoken-word CD as Teh R0xx0R or something.  And Singer can be infuriating!  But in these segments they both come off pretty well—and more to the immediate point, it should be obligatory for reviewers to, you know, talk about what these people actually say.

    Cheers to your friend Sunny!  Scott’s right—that’s a wonderful closing sequence, and it changes everything that comes before.  And as I said over at CT, Taylor’s framing of the exchange (with all the strollers and skateboards etc. subtly in the background) was pretty brilliant.

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  06:03 PM
  6. The teasers for the film look just great, and even Peter Singer doesn’t sound too weird. At least for the clip I saw he was limiting himself to a discussion of consumerism and justice. There is a companion volume for the film. It will be out in a month or two from The New Press. The film and book will be rejuvenating introductory courses in philosophy and theory everywhere.

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  06:05 PM
  7. Well, how do *you* refer to Op. 132?  “The A minor”? Now *that*’s pretentious.

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  02/10  at  06:28 PM
  8. Jacoby provides here a great example of why calling a black man “articulate” is a racist insult.

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  06:30 PM
  9. I was going to say - there’s nothing else to refer to Beethoven quartets by.  For some reason they never got cute nicknames, and they’re not numbered consecutively either.

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  07:43 PM
  10. and emits clauses as if breathing

    “As if breathing”. Wow, articulate while holding his breath at the same time!

    And as for knowing the glitter names and what they wrote (see what its like since they killed the canon):

    My scholarship is broad and deep.
    You like to exhibit your learning.
    He is a show off.

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  08:21 PM
  11. West referring to his favorite Beethoven string quartet by its opus number can sound a little pedantic, after all

    It might, to anyone who didn’t realize that that’s exactly how people who are familiar with Beethoven’s string quartets refer to them.  Same goes for the piano sonatas.  The symphonies, you can call by ordinal number.

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  09:28 PM
  12. Well, I refer to Op. 132 as “the Fu Manchu.” I didn’t realize I was the only one.

    Posted by Michael  on  02/10  at  09:37 PM
  13. I didn’t realize I was the only one.

    If you read Frank Miller you’d know these things.

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  09:47 PM
  14. I generally think of Op. 132 by the title of the third movement, Heiliges Dankegesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart.

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  10:04 PM
  15. Sanctuary!!!
    Sorry for wandering slightly off-topic, but is it strange that I feel like I belong in this comment thread a little more now that someone on another blog has accused me of using “fashionable left-wing hate mongering propaganda”?  (see my own last post) I don’t know, somehow I feel like I’ve earned my “American Airspace” wings…

    Anyway, I’ll have to check out the movie, though not surprisingly it is not going to make it to Alabama.  Go figure.

    Posted by Derek T.  on  02/10  at  10:25 PM
  16. And what’s all this deathly jargon about “structures of domination” and “imperial power?” Speak English, man!

    To be fair, I think those were flicked-off phrases, not deathly jargon. Even typing deathly jargon is, well, deathly, so Jacoby had to tread lightly.

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  10:33 PM
  17. West is wonderful, and #8 perfectly explains the double blind of the black intellectual, where the options are predefined as being full of shit or being ignorant....

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  11:50 PM
  18. OK, now that I’ve gotten off my little Pynchon joke about “the Fu Manchu,” can I get back to the main points, namely, that (a) aside from the Ronell segment, there is no jargon whatsoever in the film, and that the verdict “deathly jargon abounds” is therefore, how you say, bullshit, and (b) Jacoby’s treatment of West is kinda cheap-shot snotty and dismissive? 

    And Derek, welcome to the fold.  Here at American Airspace we heart that left-wing hate mongering propaganda only so long as it is fashionable.  Well done, my hateful friend!

    Posted by Michael  on  02/11  at  12:54 AM
  19. For some reason they never got cute nicknames

    Op. 18 no. 2 is the “Compliments” Quartet, Op. 74 is the “Harp,” Op. 95 is the “Serioso,” Op. 133 is the Grosse Fuge, and the three Op. 59s are the “Razumovsky” quartets. Cute? Judgment call.

    Posted by  on  02/11  at  01:27 AM
  20. For Keith, i wholeheartedly recommend finding and watching Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union.  It should appear on CSPAN live and then rebroadcast.  This year is the 10th anniversary of the event, and for each of the previous years Cornel West has been a major contributor.  It is amazing to see/hear in dialog with peers (all of whom are his equals, though not all part of our great “we are all uniformed leftists now party”, discussing the state of being black/african americans in the 21st century.

    It involves, you know, actually reading and listening and remembering stuff.
    Oh dear, how dare you suggest that people, some people, have chosen to become functionally incompetent through an addiction to ignorance.  My quandry is whether Jacoby wishes to further slink towards Rush and Sean, or stay the epitome of Mark Twain’s remark about fools (or is that Marx, Eliot, Einstein, Lincoln).

    Posted by  on  02/11  at  02:16 AM
  21. or stay the epitome of Mark Twain’s remark about fools

    He will soon be parted from his money?

    He hires himself as his lawyer?

    The Constitution gives every American the inalienable right to make a damn fool of himself?

    (OK, OK, so I stole that one!)

    Captcha: “low” as in the elevation of the fruit I tend to go for.

    Posted by John Protevi  on  02/11  at  09:15 AM
  22. Mr. Protevi:

    Yes.

    OK, now that I’ve gotten off my little Pynchon joke about “the Fu Manchu,”

    Hmmph.  My follow-up Melville joke in the “Barely Tolerable” thread crashed and burned, so my first inclination was to pass over this erudite reference.  Still, I have always found that work is the best ointment for the crashes and burns.  I will therefore apply myself forthwith to crafting a follow-up which appeals to this whole sick crew of commenters.

    Posted by  on  02/11  at  02:50 PM
  23. What the hell is deathly jargon, anyway?  Have that many people really died from reading Derrida?  I can only think of two or three, myself.

    Posted by Lance  on  02/11  at  03:27 PM
  24. 22: I will therefore apply myself forthwith to crafting a follow-up which appeals to this whole sick crew of commenters.

    Hmmm ...If only there were a list of works that one could assume that everyone was familiar with.

    Posted by  on  02/11  at  03:33 PM
  25. Have that many people really died from reading Derrida?

    Oh, right, Lance, just go ahead and ignore the twenty million dead from reading Heidegger.  Misdirectionist.

    Posted by Michael  on  02/11  at  04:02 PM
  26. In my world, “Jazzman” is a compliment.

    Can I get any creds here for having been accused of “rhetorical showboating” at a conservative blog?

    Captcha: tax.  What is the subliminal message?

    Posted by jazzbumpa  on  02/11  at  05:23 PM
  27. I would have to drive to Austin to see this.  I might do it… depends upon how much nudal frontity there is, though.  Just to check—there aren’t any actual naked philosophers in this film, right?  It’s all body doubles and/or CGI?

    Posted by  on  02/11  at  07:59 PM
  28. Lacanians are to philosophastry as like the Beatless are to Bleathoven..........with a red nose on, Zizek would at least entertain (other appendages might be imagined for Fraulein Buttler & Co)

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  02/12  at  05:38 PM
  29. I too am deeply concerned about the uniform leftism of Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Cornel West, and Slavoj Zizek, just as I am concerned about the uniform leftism of Al Gore, Karl Marx, Gloria Steinem, Noam Chomsky, Emma Goldman, Todd Gitlin, Malcolm X, and Shirin Ebadi.

    I was deeply concerned about the Fascistnoidism inherent in your choice to rigorously alphabetize that first list of commies, but then you subverted my expectations by presenting the second list of names in a random (?) order. You devious crypto-anarchist, you! Somebody should put you on a list of dangerous professors.

    P.S.: Jonah Goldberg also alphabetizes lists in a fiendishly inconsistent manner. You bloggers are all alike.

    Posted by  on  02/14  at  11:51 AM
  30. Your revue of a review. I was hoping for turns on a trope, but will settle, at present, for remarks viz re: marx.

    Posted by  on  02/14  at  06:18 PM
  31. Sorry, corrected link for remarks viz re: marx.

    Posted by  on  02/14  at  06:46 PM
  32. Oh, right, Lance, just go ahead and ignore the twenty million dead from reading Heidegger.  Misdirectionist.  http://endxsoftware.com

    Posted by  on  02/24  at  01:10 PM
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  34. West is wonderful, and #8 perfectly explains the double blind of the black intellectual, where the options are predefined as being full of shit or being ignorant

    Posted by Bono  on  03/28  at  05:11 AM
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