Astra Taylor's Examined Life
Originally published in loud paper, January 2009

In Astra Taylor's documentary Examined Life (and accompanying book from The New Press), some of the best minds of a generation navigate urban and philosophical terrains: Avital Ronell crisscrosses Tompkins Square Park, Slavoj Zizek rummages through a London garbage dump, and Martha Nussbaum strolls Chicago waterfront. Gavin Browning and Astra Taylor recently stood still to discuss this project, at Manhattan's Studio-X. 

Gavin Browning: Let's talk about representing philosophical ideas on film. Philosophers are known for their ideas rather than their appearances. The film gives a face to their thoughts — their actual faces.

Astra Taylor: Yes, it's interesting because these people are incredibly well know, at least in some circles, and yet you couldn't put their faces on the poster. Nobody recognizes them. It's their name, their written words, that has power.

GB: So, part of representing their ideas is representing them?

AT: Yeah. I suppose that the film does feed into a basic human curiosity: who is the person behind the reputation? I'm obviously attracted to, but also ambivalent towards, that fascination. I show the philosopher — the embodied philosopher — yet I don't delve into their biography or their personal lives.You only glean those details from the moments they happened to offer on the walk. I purposefully avoided asking them where they grew up, where they went to school, how many books they've published, what they had for breakfast. Instead, I'm interested in the way ideas are necessarily embodied, how they come from people. Ideas may be abstract, but they're also concrete, they're lived. They're embodied in a person who moves through space and time. 

GB: You're also representing ideas within different environments. What does this add? 

AT: Hopefully it adds different levels. In documentary films, there's a very, in my opinion, cliche emphasis on story in three acts. I'm not against story per se, but I'm much more interested in structure than story. By structure, I mean some sort of formal device or architecture of the film that provides it with an organizational logic. I've always preferred films that are somehow divided into vignettes,  or that have a thematic unity, as opposed to a chronological narrative. So, even though I have characters in this film, they're constrained and defined within the architecture of the film — these vignettes, these walks, the spaces they are moving in. 

From the beginning, I really wanted the environment to be the second character in each scene. So there's the subject — the philosopher — but the environment can't just be passive. The environment has to be an active environment, because that's what I'm trying to reveal. I'm trying to show that the space around us is always active: it frames and provokes us, and makes us feel certain things and have certain responses. So for me the environment being distinct and also, well, intruding on the scene is really important. The intrusion on the scene happens in different ways: sometimes we'll pass by something that catches the philosopher's eye, sometimes somebody in the spaces comes and talks to us, or sometimes it's simply the fact that the ground is bumpy, which caused us to go one direction and not the other. 

GB: How determined were the topics when you went into them? Did they change with the scenery?

AT: The subjects and I generally settled on a loose theme in advance, something to provide a center to the conversation. Occasionally they would send me a paragraph about what they would like to cover, but there was always room for digression. It wasn't scripted in any way or rehearsed. The conversations were alway extemporaneous. 

In two of the cases [Avital Ronell; Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor], we purposefully did not want to prepare at all, or really decide what the conversation was going to be in advance of documenting it. Avital and I also made a pact to somehow incorporate the filmmaking process into the conversation: to do a sort of self-reflexive sequence. 

Sunny [Sunaura] and Judith knew that they were going to be speaking on gesture. Judith had said, "There is no way I can do this if I'm not speaking about what I'm doing." That didn't mean she had to do it in an obvious way, but rather that she had to somehow speak about the body if she was moving on the screen. I think she and Sunny found a really interesting way to do that by focusing on interdependence, on the way human beings rely on systems of mutual support.

GB: So there's some interplay and relationship between the ideas and the spaces in which they're discussed?

AT: Yes, because I think that's how we experience space everyday. The environment constantly interacts with our state of mind, with our thought processes, with our sense of what's possible or isn't. 

GB: Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses cosmopolitanism in an airport. Is that a more obvious choice?

AT: Yeah, I think it is more obvious. One think that salvages it is that its authentic. He was really there — coming into Toronto to give a talk — so we literally met him at nine in the morning as he was getting off a flight. I think I needed some of the environments to be literal and some of them to be only tangentially connected to the topic at hand. There's actually a mix of more illustrative environments (like the garbage dump for the theme of ecology) and others where the viewer might ask: why this spot? 

GB: Like what?

AT: Michael Hardt in a rowboat in Central Park. What does a rowboat have to do with revolution? We found a meaning — in that it became symbolic of an aristocratic pastime, a lifestyle of leisure and pleasure — but that meaning was discovered while we were shooting.

GB: Tell me about that decision.

AT: Michael and I had decided early on to discuss revolution. He knew the points he wanted to make, and he was keen to do something interesting. I had filmed for a month in Tijuana, and was quite familiar with the wall that marks the border of US and Mexico, and that was one of the sites we were very excited about possibly using. One of the questions we asked was which side of the wall would we walk on? Would it be painful or patronizing to be on the Mexican side of the wall? Should we be on the US side? 

But the timing was impossible, so we thought, okay, maybe an abandoned factory in North Carolina where he lives, because he talks a lot about affective labor and the move towards immaterial production as opposed to the old fashioned production of the kind Marx wrote about. 

Again, it was impossible, schedule-wise. Fortunately, he happened to be in New York on the day I was shooting other subjects. I said, "Well, where do you like to go? What do you like to do in New York?" And he said, "I like the Bethesda Fountain. I used to go there all the time when I lived a few blocks away." 

I got permits and we started walking around the park, but I was completely uninspired by the scenery. I suggested we meet again on the next day, and that we shoot in one of the rowboats. Michael and I had also briefly discussed filming in Venice where his writing partner, Antonio Negri, lives. So, gondolas had already come to mind; a rowboat wasn't far off. 

But while filming we began to wonder, "Why are we here? What are we doing on this lake?" And Michael began to feel that it was incongruous to talk about revolution while rowing, which is very much a vacation, leisure activity. We then began to read the environment as symbolic of all this: not only of wealth and privilege, but also pleasure. And, well, how does pleasure relate back to revolution? At the end of the sequence, Michael observes that most of us associate revolution with poverty, with despair, and maybe we should think of revolution as increasing pleasure instead — increasing leisure, increasing the beautiful life for everyone. We also began to question our own instinct that to talk about revolution we had to do it in a Third World country. Why exclude the First World from the responsibility to create radical social change; don't we, in fact, have the most responsibility? 

GB: That's an interesting sequence, because the landscape inspires the thought that with revolution, we all have increased access, and we are all better off.

AT: Yeah, revolution is not just for the worst-off. We would all benefit from living in a more just, equitable, sustainable world. It made me very happy that we didn't shoot in Tijuana or in a factory, as I don't know if those environments would have triggered such an insight. The sequence is less cliched as a result. 

GB: Some of the environments you chose are contained spaces, such as the lake.

AT: Not always, like when we walk down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. But we're going in circles in almost all of them.

GB: Really?

AT: Yeah, which is interesting — in Tompkins Square Park, we're walking in circles! The lake, as you say, the airport, the garbage dump — we're walking in circles in almost every scene! (laughs) Or they just never get anywhere. Avital Ronnell says very early on, "We're on the path that leads nowhere." And that's the path of philosophy: you walk around and around and around over the same conceptual territory — you go over the same debates again and again, endlessly. (laughs) Even Cornel West, who I drive around Manhattan, seems to randomly get out of the car at the end of his sequence. 

GB: What's the destination?

AT: There's no destination! (laughs) He just goes off into the night, so to me, it's as though he's just continuing the walk even though the camera's off. 

GB: That's amazing! And you anticipated my next question, which was to ask about the meandering quality of the film. 

AT: Hmm, well, that's part of why walking is under siege, right? 

GB: I don't know. Why is walking under siege?

AT: For a lot of reasons. The lack of truly public space, issues of accessibility, the fact that our cities and suburbs are designed for cars, because we work too many hours a day too many days a week and are pressured for time, because walking is slow. Think about when someone says they're going for a walk — it typically means they're just going for some air, to clear their head. It doesn't necessarily imply a destination. It isn't purposeful in the sense of having some sort of productive tangible outcome. So...the meandering quality of the film: I really wanted to convey that feeling. I see the movie's main message as: take a beak from this instrumental, focused, hyper-productive, efficient mode of existence. Let your mind wander.