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In this documentary, Astra Taylor interviews or listens to nine contemporary thinkers with a close affinity to philosophy. They are (in order of appearance)
Each piece lasts for about ten minutes, with the philosopher in movement, taking a walk, a drive, or even rowing a boat. They are all interesting experiences for the viewer, although some are clearer than others. Ronell's talk sets the whole documentary up, with a walk around a New York City park. She says something about meaning, but I couldn't make out her point; she is pleasantly ironic and expresses suspicion about the idea of meaning, fuelled by a hostility to right wing politics and popular culture. She is in favor of anxiety in the form of self-scrutiny, and links it to Derrida. By contrast, Peter Singer is a model of clarity, explaining that we need think about our responsibility to the rest of the world, and that the meaning of life resides in making other people's lives better. Appiah, wandering around an airport, ruminates also on our global responsibility, but presents it more as a conundrum to be solved; he recommends the idea of cosmopolitanism, which he proceeds to explain. Nussbaum, on a stroll by the lake in Chicago, talks about theories of justice, and the difficulty of including both women and people with profound mental and physical disabilities. She is in lecture mode, and the filmmakers added some whimsical music in the background, which makes her seem rather preoccupied with her own theories and unconnected with the viewer. West takes a car ride in Manhattan, sitting in the back seat while Taylor drives. He is charismatic, and he is exuberant in his references to the history of philosophy, literature and culture, yet once they drop his off at the end of his ride, it's far from clear what his main point was, except that he thinks the life of the mind is wonderful. Michael Hardt rows in Central Park, deliberates on democracy and revolution, arguing that democracy has been corrupted but it needs to be practiced to be achieved. Zizek's piece is the most dramatic, as he wanders around a mountain of trash, talking about ecology. He argues that we need to become more alienated from nature in order to develop a love for the world, and a true ecologist should love trash. I remain mystified as to why he said this. My favorite piece in the documentary is the conversation between Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor while they talk a walk around San Francisco. Taylor uses a motorized wheelchair and they talk about the meaning of disability, giving a favorable take on the social model of disability. The fact that there is a real discussion here helps the clarity, and the link between their subject matter and their activity helps to make their ideas clearer.
The film is stylized in a self-conscious way, which is mostly entertaining, and occasionally vexing. It will be interesting to people who are curious about philosophy, and could be a good resource in the classroom in introductory ethics courses.
Link: Zeitgeist Video
© 2011 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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