Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Examined Life, examined at some length (with commentary from Sunaura Taylor)

Movies seldom have moral impact. For all their potential to do so, it is rare that you see a film that alters the way you think about yourself or life, or changes your relationship with the universe in any noteworthy way. Relatively few filmmakers set out with such ambitions, and those that do often fall short of their goal. Not a single life-change was brought about, for me personally, for instance, as a result of watching An Inconvenient Truth, which would be an example of a documentary that strives very much to make an impact; perhaps I've been more aware of the effects of climate change around me, but I'm living exactly the same life as I ever did, have voted for the same people I would have, have bought the same products, persisted in my stubborn habit of walking to work, and so forth. I would be rather surprised to hear that the case was different for many other people (though one would hope it had some impact on policy-makers); such films may be informative, may assure the converted among the audience that they are righteous, or provoke satisfying feelings of fear or outrage, but they don't place much burden on you, the individual; they would probably not be so successful if they did. Similar politically-engaged documentaries on food production, water scarcity, and various unfortunate political and economic situations throughout the world that I've seen over the last few years have also failed to move me to action, despite at times feverish attempts to impress upon me the urgency of their causes; few remain vividly in my memory, and those that do, like Our Daily Bread or Workingman's Death (the DVD releases of both of which I write about here), do so because they are aesthetically remarkable, not because of any radical changes they have wrought upon my lifestyle or consciousness. I watched the mechanical handling and slaughter of animals in Our Daily Bread with fascination - and quite possibly went for a burger afterwards; if the filmmakers intended to move me to change my life, they failed.

Peter Singer in affluent New York

The new documentary on philosophy, Examined Life, opening Friday at the Cinematheque, has provoked at least one noteworthy and demonstrable change in me. Though it does not set out to proselytize about vegetarianism, or any specific cause, and spends very little time, in fact, on the question of food, which comes up only briefly in an interview with the controversial Peter Singer, pictured above, I have eaten very little meat since I saw it this weekend, and none at all since Sunday afternoon (I am not counting fish as meat, note). I normally would have; in the span of time between Sunday and Wednesday, I would have likely partaken of the deaths of at least four chickens, a cow, and a pig. I had no plans prior to seeing the film of switching to vegetarianism; in the last few years, I've dined with vegans and vegetarians, interviewed one passionate raw food vegan (Nathan Holiday of Tunnel Canary - a much longer version of that interview ran in Bixobal #5, which explored his feelings about eating meat in some depth), and at times contemplated the moral superiority of the choice to abandon flesh food; but I know from past attempts to "go vegetarian" that it requires a certain amount of work to switch over, and a certain inconvenience (most restaurant menus have 75-90% fewer food options, and one must think more about what one eats, at least until the choice becomes habitual). Watching the film and reflecting on it (and doing some follow up reading) have convinced me that I have been ethically lax, and that the only proper thing to do was to try again to eliminate meat from my diet. So far, it's working - I feel energetic, alert, and healthy - though I also feel a tad euphoric and strangely "light."

The reason for Examined Life's impact is very simple: instead of trying to engage the viewer emotionally - to scare and threaten him or her to action or outrage - it appeals to the mind, presenting audiences with the thoughts and reflections of nine very different thinkers, most of whom are shown walking through different environments, in keeping with Nietzsche's aphorism that "The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value." (Maxims and Arrows 34; thanks to The Nietzsche Channel for making it so abundantly easy to search out favourite Nietzsche quotes). True, one person, Cornel West, rides in a car in several segments of the film, but the film achieves a pleasing closure when he finally gets out and walks away. There is some discussion about what constitutes a walk, too - the filmmaker's sister, Sunaura Taylor, is a disabled rights activist who "walks" with the aid of a wheelchair; she discusses walking, help, and individuality with lesbian feminist post-structuralist Judith Butler, as they stroll about San Francisco. The motility of all these thinkers is infectious; one "walks with them," considering their views, and this may well contribute to the film's overall effect.
Slavoj Žižek talks garbage

There are many things to be said about this provocative film. For those who associate philosophy with the painfully pompous or abstruse speech of elitists jockeying for academic position or seeking to mystify themselves - to the ends of creating a cult following or making their arguments unassailable due to the sheer difficulty of figuring out what the fuck they're talking about - rest assured that many of the speakers featured in Examined Life talk in the plainest of English; only one, Alvital Ronell, comes across as being at all aloof and (as some unkind critic has said) "gaseous" in her word choices - which is quite unfortunate, because her comments about the need to resist the easy recourse to fast and soothing "meaning," and to be willing to accept the anxiety of uncertainty as a precursor to actual thinking, are extremely well-placed and valuable. (Slavoj Žižek, the subject of Examined Life director Astra Taylor's previous film Zizek!, is of course also a little difficult to follow, given as he is to odd and sometimes shocking formulations that sometimes sit ill at ease with the viewer, but he speaks with such irrepressible passion and enthusiasm that he comes across as a highly intelligent eccentric rather than a snob). It is remarkable, too, that Astra Taylor manages to weave such a coherent film out of her interviews with nine different thinkers; various themes - the need to resist easy meaning, to avoid romanticized views of life or nature, to behave in an ethical and socially conscious way - emerge again and again in the interviews, with certain words one does not expect to hear more than once in a film of this nature (like "catastrophe," say) occurring repeatedly, creating a sense of interior resonances and cross-references that would lead someone less familiar with the discipline of philosophy shocked at how much consensus there is among thinkers (anyone who has actually spent time in a philosophy department would likely not be deluded thus). The sense of having taken in a cohesive, almost systematic argument, woven together out of the statements of nine unconnected individuals, is so strong and striking it leaves one wondering just how Taylor achieves it. Did she select philosophers whose work she knew could be easily reconciled, to get at areas she was interested in exploring? Did she cue them in certain ways to elicit the sort of statements she wanted? Did she just let them talk and then seek out quotes when editing that could be productively played off one another? Or - least likely at all - did she assemble the film intuitively with no sense that it would all seem, in the end, "of a piece?" I would be most curious to find out (Astra Taylor was unavailable for an interview before the film's release, but she's invited to comment at her leisure if she chooses).

The most interesting question raised by the cohesiveness of Examined Life is whether anything significant has been omitted to achieve it; Nietzsche has also said "the will to a system is a lack of integrity," I believe in the section of Beyond Good and Evil entitled "On the Prejudices of Philosophers" (go look it up on the Nietzsche Channel if you like; I might be wrong). At least one thinker, Peter Singer, mentioned above, is highly selectively represented in the film. Singer is an Australian who divides his time between Princeton and the University of Melbourne. He is most famous for his book Animal Liberation, in which he coined the term "speciesism" - a term I am pleased to see he admits is somewhat inelegant (I am currently reading the book, just distributed in a nice new edition; the film prompted me to do so). Singer's current work, The Life You Can Save, deals with the duty to help the world's poor; Singer has said he gives 25% of his income to help developing countries. You can read his arguments as to why he feels people should give much, much more to the poor on his site, at the top of his FAQ; you will get a sense of his impressive clarity of language and seriousness by so doing, two qualities of his which are very much visible in the film and make his books a pleasure to read.

If you scroll down that page, however, you will also encounter a view he holds that has attracted considerable controversy, on infanticide; Singer believes that "killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all," a view he elaborates at some length in his works Practical Ethics and Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse Of Our Traditional Ethics. It is one thing to support abortion and euthanasia, but quite another to advocate killing handicapped babies; Singer suggests in Practical Ethics that parents, perhaps, should be given a one month window after birth to see if a baby should be allowed to live, a proposal that - however solid his argument may seem - intuitively strikes me (and I suspect most people) as a tad grotesque in all but the most extreme cases. Lest you think he means only brain dead infants - which in some statements of his position seems to be the case - in Practical Ethics, he appears to consider spina bifida babies, Downs Syndrome babies, and even haemophiliacs as leading lives that might be best ended, so that parents can get on with the business of having healthier, happier babies that they can better care for.

I won't try to replicate Singer's arguments at length here, let alone engage with them. Suffice it to say, Christians and anti-abortionists have not taken kindly to his views; nor have Germans ill at ease with the awareness of Nazi eugenics programs (that link is to an article, "On Being Silenced in Germany," that you must pay to read; you can also find it as an appendix to current editions of Practical Ethics, which provides perhaps the broadest introduction to the main facets of Singer's work). As you might expect, Singer's statements have also attacted the wrath of many disabled rights activists... disabled rights activists like, say, Sunaura Taylor.

Sunaura Taylor with Judith Butler

Perhaps you begin to sense how curious an omission the film makes. It does not deal with Singer's statments about killing handicapped babies; and it features a substantial interview with a woman born with arthrogryposis - a condition that Singer might well include on his short list of "possible reasons for infanticide" - whose work revolves in part around greater rights for the disabled. Though this woman is herself the filmmaker's sister (which the film doesn't mention, note), she is not asked to comment on Singer's more controversial statements; nor are these statements represented in any way. While these choices on the filmmaker's part admirably set her apart from cheap trends toward controversy-mongering, and are not in themselves problematic - I don't presume to lecture Astra Taylor about being insufficiently intellectually honest, in noting her choices or even querying them; I expect documentary filmmakers to shape their work with craft and care, and appreciate that she has done such a good job here - they leave you wondering at what price the film's cohesiveness has been attained: "What else am I not being told about what these people think?"

Though Astra Taylor was not able to engage with me on this matter, Sunaura Taylor has taken up some of my questions in an email to me (thanks!). Note that she too is an animal rights activist - a facet of her work not represented in the film. Readers are directed to her website to learn more about her - I find her watercolours and paintings of chickens particularly delightful, especially "Self-Portrait Marching With Chickens." She has explained in regards to her paintings that "I am not making metaphors between the life of a disabled person and the lives of farm animals. The connections between the two areas are really in the concept of value- who has value and why? My animal industry paintings are really about exposing the fact that these are individual sentient beings that we treat as commodities in brutal ways. The more ridiculous images of myself with chickens are really just strange stream of consciousness drawings of the things that occupy my thinking."

What follows is from Sunaura Taylor, on Peter Singer and Examined Life.

So, you've asked one of my favorite question regarding my participation in the movie... the Peter Singer question. We actually just screened the film in Berkeley to a large number of my disability studies colleagues and had a great discussion/debate afterwards.

So firstly, it is important to understand that Astra and I are both vegan for ethical reasons. Peter Singer was virtually our hero as child animal rights activists, because of his book Animal Liberation. I became vegetarian at 6. Astra, my brother and I all demanded the family stop eating meat. My parents agreed and my family has been vegan and vegetarian ever since.

So obviously when I got older I was disheartened to hear the things Singer was saying about disabled babies and euthanasia. I DISAGREE WITH A LOT OF WHAT SINGER SAYS. He makes ridiculous quality of life assumptions about disabled people and does not take culture into account enough. Singer is concerned with reducing unnecessary suffering, but he doesn't seem to recognize that much of the suffering physically and mentally disabled people experience is the result not of bodily pain (that is, medical conditions), but discrimination, social stigma, a lack of cultural inclusion, and able-bodied people's often-ignorant assumptions about what it must be like to be disabled and what disabled people are capable and incapable of.

HOWEVER, I also think the disability community has been too quick in criticizing everything he says, often without really reading it and/or taking into account his utilitarian philosophy. He's actually arguing for something very nuanced - he's not just saying all disabled babies should be killed. And I agree with some of what he says - again, what I really find frustrating and offensive are his quality of life assumptions.

Personally I also feel that the disabled community has weakened their position by not grappling with the animal rights issue. You can't just ignore one ethical question, while demanding another be examined... especially when they are so connected philosophically. I agree with Singer that if we are going to give certain right to life rights to severely developmentally disabled people and infants, than it follows that there is no reason not to give them to the animals that we consume in various ways, given their sentience is not in doubt. In my opinion the disability community would get much farther with Singer if they looked at there own biases against other sentient beings. That said, many disabled people are doing this - there is growing emphasis on animal rights thought within the disability community.

Basically I really agree with Singer and like him, and I also really disagree with him. If Astra had only put people in the movie who had never said something she'd disagree with, most likely no one would be in the film. Also many of the people in the film eat meat, but we didn't censor them because they participate in oppressing and murdering animals.

I think Astra didn't have Singer talk about disability for many reasons. Most importantly being the flow and themes of the film. Plus Singer's current work is on the issues he discusses in Examined Life and that work made more sense within the film as a larger whole.

It is complex... A good disabled (and vegetarian) friend said that she felt the scene was troubling because he comes off as being this compassionate and empathetic person. And it is confusing - I think he is compassionate. But I think he also just doesn't understand disability. But certainly I think someone who argues with Peter Singer about protecting the life of an un-sentient human, while eating chicken, has no real argument to base their ideas on.

This is a ramble, but I hope it helps clarify. There is no easy answer.... maybe just to say that all of the most beloved thinkers through history have said some things that many people would disagree with. No one's philosophy is perfect.

I think both Astra and I hope to use this as a way to open up a more nuanced discussion with Peter Singer about disability and in the disability community about animal rights.

(End quote!).

Anyhow, as you can see, Examined Life has proven a thought-provoking film for me. It's a good film to see with people whom you can talk with afterwards, so bring a friend, if possible. I've only touched on a small fragment of themes referenced in the film; there's a lot else going on, which will keep your mind quite happily alert. A bit of background on the concept of the "state of nature," which comes up in the Martha Nussbaum segment, might be useful, if you feel like doing a bit more homework. If my article actually prompts you to see the film, do revisit the site and comment!

Examined Life plays at the Cinematheque (1066 Howe) starting Friday, in alteration with Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived. Examined Life's showtimes are as follows:

Friday, March 20, 2009 - 9:10pm
Saturday, March 21, 2009 - 7:30pm
Monday, March 23, 2009 - 9:10pm
Wednesday, March 25, 2009 - 7:30pm

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