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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

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 Michael on 02/10 at 02:19 PM
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