Despite recently receiving my masters in Visual and Critical Studies I have always had a love/hate relationship with critical theory. Within my graduate program there is a running joke that critical theory is “like a stain you can’t get out.” My biggest frustration is the disconnect I feel between what is discussed and generated within the sterile walls of the academy and the communities that exist beyond those walls who are often the subjects of the theories produced and studied. Over the past two years, as I was buried in theory and thesis writing, I found myself often questioning the relevance of philosophical texts for those who exist within activist circles, public services, and that which is often described as “on the ground.”
My frustration with the inaccessibility of critical theory hit home after reading a portion of the text, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex by philosopher, Judith Butler in a course entitled Critical Race Art History. Butler is infamous for her incredibly dense and often incomprehensible language that consists of the kind of sentences that most people have to read over and over to gain even the slightest understanding. In Bodies that Matter Butler discusses the materiality of the body and the repetitive performativity of gender, pushing for the destabilization of normative gender binaries—or at least, this is what I’ve gathered from my second and third reading. This theory speaks directly to our intimate understandings of bodies, desire, and expressions of gender. It is immensely relevant for many people and therefore can be considered a potentially liberating text and yet is written in a language that is inaccessible to so many people beyond and even within the academic institution. This is the contradiction of critical theory that drives me a little bit mad. When expressing this discontent in class, my professor, art historian Jacqueline Francis, gently intervened asking where it is that one has the experiences that inspired Butler’s text: the gay bar or the academy?
I was reminded of this question after watching Examined Life at the Red Vic Movie House last month. Examined Life, produced by Zeitgeist Films and Sphinx Productions and directed by Astra Taylor, features eight philosophers who are interviewed by Taylor in public, mostly urban, spaces including Central Park and Times Square in New York City, the Mission District in San Francisco, an airport and a dump. The philosophers include Kwame Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler with Sunaura Taylor, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Cornel West and Slavok Zizek. The subtitle of the film “Philosophy is in the Streets,” sounds like a slogan for an action movie and yet, I admit that it is a fitting description. In Examined Life the often impenetrable written language of theory and philosophy takes the form of a conversation complete with all the nuances of cadence, accents, hand gestures, body language, and facial expressions. With the backdrop of cityscapes, the philosophy becomes a kind of performance. Appiah discusses globalization as an opportunity to appreciate and understand site-specificity and cultural relativity while walking through and resting in an international airport. Singer makes a case for our responsibility to use our resources ethically among the advertisements, busy storefronts, and neon lights of Times Square. Zizek discusses human impact on ecology as he sports an orange construction vest and paces among trash heaps at a dump. Butler considers the possibilities of the body with Sunaura Taylor as they walk through San Francisco’s Mission District. Weaving these locations and thoughts together are soundbites from West, whose own interview took place in the backseat of a taxi cab as Taylor drove him throughout Manhattan.
There was a humbleness to seeing philosopher rock-stars like Butler and Singer strolling around the streets of cities, making bad jokes, and stumbling over their words or observing Hardt as he theorizes about revolution while struggling to dislodge his row-boat from rocks in the lake of Central Park. These scenes are a reminder, if even only metaphorically, that philosophy and theory emerge from the everyday. Certain moments of this film made this connection all the more obvious—as West remarks on the inevitability of mortality we see a man lift a stark white mannequin from a moving truck through the window of the cab. In another scene, Singer discusses his decision to become a vegetarian as an advertisement on a food delivery truck passes by. In the case of Appiah and Zizek, the location of their interviews—an international airport and a dump—became sets or backdrops that point directly to their remarks and theories. At first I thought these visual puns were a bit contrived but I believe they were conscious decisions by Taylor and are necessary to emphasize the connection between our surroundings and the thought which emerges from our everyday existence.
When my professor asked me to consider the gay bar versus the academy she was questioning the site of knowledge production and experience. Of course, I don’t think the answer is one or the other, rather the question itself acknowledges that realizations occur within multiple sites and through a myraid of experiences. Maybe then the issue is how one site is privileged over the other—how what is produced within the academy gains a reputation of prestige and rigor, while what happens at the level of praxis or daily resistance is considered trivial or somehow less evolved. I think it is also an issue of language and I continue to be uncomfortable with the designation of “academic” as it implies that somehow my words carry more weight than someone without the access or even the desire to engage in educational institutions. One of the things I appreciated most about Examined Life is that it makes visual the ways in which the seperation of the academy and that which exists beyond its walls is, in a sense, a falsity. The threads that weave from our personal lives and intimate experiences make their way to into philosophical and theoretical texts, often returning to effect change or at the very least, generate thought and discussion. My hope is that this not forgotten at the level of the academy and even more so, that this reciprocity is acknowledged and cultivated.
Thanks to Eric Kuhn for our conversation that helped jog my memory about the details of the film, Examined Life.