“Cerebral Celebrities” – Coming Down to Earth
“It takes tremendous courage to think for yourself and examine yourself, this Socratic imperative requires courage.” This quote is taken from the trailer of the second documentary from Astra Taylor and is spoken by Cornel West in the back of Taylor’s car. Taylor’s first film, Zizek, was a documentary in which the ‘intellectual rock star’, Slavoj Zizek, is shadowed on his lecture circuit. Taylor’s new film “Examined Life”, set to open in New York City, once again attempts to bring the erudite musings of social thinkers into the gaze of the public. This documentary includes interviews from eight of the world’s foremost and exemplary social commentators (Kwame Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Cornel West, and Slavoj Zizek). Though the film perhaps falsely conflates intellectualism with progressive political views, a thread in its fabric is Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach. This thesis states “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” The leitmotif of this film is Marx’s sentiment. Too often have our greatest thinkers been isolated and removed from the very individuals, collectives and environments they claim to elucidate. This film dislocates the philosopher from the safety of their ivory tower and places them in the trenches, or more specifically in the back of a car, on Fifth Avenue or in a waste disposal site. The interviews take place with the public sphere in mind. In order for the dialogue of these academics to escape the boundaries of their own limited spaces and circles, bombastic language is avoided and context is provided. If, what Marx suggested one hundred and sixty years ago should be the telos of academics, then films like these, even if they only dip their feet in the ocean, create a space in which social critique can effect change. Academics must be willing to take center stage touching ground ‘in the real’ and thus possibly transforming what it means to be a social analyst.