Bubble : Anat Biletzki

One More Story

The movie “Examined Life” (2008) is touted as a film that “pulls philosophy out of academic journals and classrooms, and puts it back on the streets.”19 The movie follows a number of philosophers (Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Žižek, Cornel West, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Hardt, Avital Ronell, and Judith Butler) as they talk philosophy “on the streets”—in parks, on Fifth Avenue, in a taxi, at a garbage dump—telling the movie audience about philosophy in general, about their own philosophy, about their thoughts on philosophy and philosophical questions and answers. They are asked very few questions on film (perhaps these were supplied in the run up and preparations for filming). One early query is, “Is philosophy a search for meaning?”—and they give captivating replies, which aim at overstepping the conventional perception of philosophy done in “journals and classrooms.”

Indeed, there is a conscious—artistic?—attempt to bring philosophy out of its bubble by situating the performance of each philosopher in apposite, or at times in intentionally inapposite, material, concrete surroundings. Žižek speaks from inside a garbage dump, Singer is shown in ironically posh environments, Hardt, Ronell and Nussbaum have the backdrop of nature, and West travels through the film in a taxi. But is that really so different from what is done in institutional philosophical venues? Does presenting and engaging in philosophical discourse in a different medium, on diverse stages, really mean moving out of the (academic, intellectual) bubble?

They are all, in a sense, giving a lecture—admittedly, a fascinating lecture, defiant of the formal and orderly template of university lectures. But it is still a lecture. West begins with a quote from Plato about the unexamined life, followed by, “for me philosophy is fundamentally about our finite situation.” Ronell invites us to partake of Heidegger (writing about thinking rather than philosophy). Singer, not one to be accused of disinterest in the real world, illuminates the ethical issues that invigorate his thought and connects them to the question, “does life have meaning?” The moral significance of Cosmopolitanism and Humanity is heralded by Appiah. The Capabilities Approach, as a theory of justice, is explicated as relevant to politics by Nussbaum, and Human Nature as essentially changeable is made relevant to politics by Hardt. Žižek’s inimitable style seems to throw us off for a moment, to a different discursive context, but makes its way back to a lecture on ecology. West, the silk thread appearing throughout the movie, challenges the idea of philosophical isolation and elitism when he says, in reply to a question about the necessity of going to school to be a philosopher, “Oh God, no! . . . a philosopher is a lover of wisdom.” But lest we find ourselves too close to the ground, he reinforces the bubble sensation by saying explicitly:

There’s a certain pleasure of the life of the mind that cannot be denied. It’s true that you might be socially isolated, ’cause you’re in the library, at home, and so on, but you’re intensely alive, in fact you’re much more alive than these folk walking the streets of New York in crowds, with no intellectual interrogation and questioning at all.

The movie ends with West exiting the taxi and being recognized—as a star—by a passersby.20

Only one philosopher does something different: Judith Butler’s contribution to the movie can in no way be described or perceived as a lecture or, for that matter, as any familiar model of academic discourse.21 She strolls around San Francisco’s Mission District with Sunaura Taylor, a friend in a wheelchair, talking about subjects that range from disability to bodies, to social mores, to fashion; i.e., seemingly talking about nothing to do with philosophy. She does not explicitly talk about philosophy, and says very little, explicitly, about politics. Beginning with something that sounds like an introduction—to what?—she says, “I thought we should take this walk together and one of the things I thought we should talk about is what it means for us to take this walk together.” She is addressing Taylor, not the audience; she is engaging in dialogue, not presenting her thoughts as a lecturer, an actor, or a star. At no time is this Butler’s show and, in fact, I dare calculate that Taylor takes up more screen time than Butler. When Butler does speak she constantly speaks to Taylor, interrogating her about what she does and what it all means to her.

The conversation is unpredictable, going in diverse directions: to language (what does “taking a walk” mean when one is disabled?); to the physical and social environments that matter for walks; to the social acceptability that is dependent on physical access; to disability as a political issue of social repression; to the idea of self-sufficiency; to movement; to embodiment; to plum trees! And then, when Taylor complains of the cold, they go into a clothing store where the talk turns to clothes and colors and fashion. “It’s gonna be a new show,” says Taylor, “‘Shopping With Judith Butler.'”

All the while the camera plays around, closing up on body parts, some healthy, some less so, some utterly bended, twisted, distorted to the unwarned eye. Suddenly serious again, there is dialogue about social isolation, now in a context which seems its exact opposite. In the only moment devoted to philosophy (as we know it), Butler mentions philosophies of gender and disability and motions towards Deleuze. “A walk can be a dangerous thing,” she says. Dangerous indeed, because Taylor is now enticed to ask a philosophical question, so different, even in wording, than those voiced by the “philosophers.” “When do you count as a human?” And Butler replies,

Do we or do we not live in a world in which we assist each other? . . . Hopefully people will take it up and say yes, I too live in that world, in which I understand that we need each other in order to address our basic needs . . . and I want to organize a social and political world on the basis of that recognition.

That is the end of the conversation, its closing words—but that culminating thought, the need of one another, has been on the film-stage all along. Never alone on the screen, Butler has done her philosophy; the realization of the other has been the acting out of her “lecture.” Stepping out of the bubble—was she ever in it?—she has enacted her philosophy morally and politically. This is how she does philosophy; this is how she does politics. This is simply what she does.

Anat Biletzki is Professor of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University and Albert Schweitzer Professor of Philosophy at Quinnipiac University. Her professional and philosophical interests converge in the area of human rights and she has been active in the peace movement in Israel for decades, serving as chairperson of B’Tselem – the Israeli Information center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories – from 2001-2006. She was nominated among the “1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005.” She is the author of (Over)Interpreting Wittgenstein (2003), What Is Logic? (2002) and Talking Wolves: Thomas Hobbes on the Language of Politics and the Politics of Language (1997).


Anat Biletzki is a professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and Quinnipiac University.


Published on August 15, 2013

19. Internet Movie Database (IMDb). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1279083/, accessed April 2012.

20. To dispel any misconstrual let me stress that my report holds no tongue-in-cheek; the admiration for these speakers and, more so, the appreciation I express here are bona fide.

21. Butler, a recognized postmodernist, is a paradoxical protagonist of the story, given the context of my diatribe and its focus on, among other things, postmodernism.

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