I enjoyed Astra Taylor’s film Examined Life when I first saw it a couple of years ago, and, having just watched it again, I’m glad to see that it bears re-viewing.
As one might expect, some segments are more lasting than others. Slavoj Zizek wearing an orange safety vest talking about ecology at a London trash heap (above) is the most brilliantly conceived segment, and one gets to hear the full (and in its own way brilliant) incoherence of his position on the topic. “The true ecological attitude is to hate the world: less love, more hatred,” as he puts it in the full interview (available in the book-of-the-film, p. 180).
The complete interview shows that Taylor didn’t let him off the hook easily, but that, realizing they won’t arrive at any agreement on ecology, she wisely tried to move on. When pressed, and despite himself, Zizek of course ends up saying things we can all agree on, such as that his “ecology without nature” is one in which “You are aware that you are in an open process where the consequences of your acts are ultimately unpredictable.”
Zizek — and Tim Morton and others who’ve taken up that argument — are right that nature, in the age of Disney, has become too soppy-sentimental, too “harmonic.” But the long tradition of so-called “nature writing” (a term I’ve never liked), from Thoreau and Muir to Loren Eiseley, Annie Dillard, and Terry Tempest Williams, is all about radical openness to what happens, not about the kind of predictable smoothening of life’s edges that Zizek disdains. Critiquing the first (Disney nature) is fair and useful, but pretending the second (radical nature) isn’t there is sloppy. Radical nature includes dark nature and bright nature, alongside inexplicable nature, crossed-out nature, nature sous rature, nature. To the extent that nature is conceived not as part of a duality set against culture, with one or the other triumphing in the dyadic boxing ring, but as the sense of how things are in their reliable groundedness (the kind that underpins mortality in its joys and its sorrows) and radical unencompassability, to that extent it’s still a useful concept.
Next to Zizek, Examined Life‘s best segments are Cornel West extemporizing from the backseat of a taxicab and Judith Butler strolling with artist and disability rights activist Sunauara Taylor through San Francisco’s Mission District. Timothy Stanley provides nice summaries of the film’s ten or so segments on his blog.