Maybe you’ve noticed—Facebook is freaking people out. And this anxiety of the new seems to be intensifying, because now—as every newspaper writer in the country has pointed out—mom is on Facebook. In this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine , Peggy Orenstein is the latest “oldster” (her term) to ask what it all means—these crazy solipsistic kids with their tagging and their status updates. More specifically, Orenstein seems to be concerned that things are different than when she came of age herself, in the “postage stamp era,” when you could go away to college without the scrutiny of high school buddies who knew that you used to have bangs, or were on the traveling math team, or that you loved Garth Brooks. She asks if it’s possible to reinvent yourself, to “get busy with the embarrassing, muddy, wonderful work of creating an adult identity,” as she puts it, with your “450 closest friends watching, all tweeting to affirm ad nauseam your present self?” It’s a rhetorical question, really, and she seems to think the answer is no.
Well, come gather round people wherever you roam. Because on Friday night at the Walker, I saw Examined Life , a documentary by Astra Taylor that follows eight of the most acclaimed and established contemporary philosophers—big time priests and priestesses of the mind, thinkers revered within the marble halls of academia, but whom most of us probably wouldn’t recognize if we flipped past them holding court on CSPAN. Philosophers like Cornel West, Peter Singer, and Martha Nussbaum. Taylor gives each of them 10 minutes to make their point (she spent 24 weeks editing all her footage down, natch), and almost invariably the point is this: after 3000 years of philosophy, the times they are a’changin’.
Okay, Examined Life is not that glib. In fact, it’s probably the opposite of glib. These are philosophers, so they speak in whole paragraphs, and drop names like Diderot and Montaigne and Adorno like they’re certain we’ve actually heard of them. But Taylor avoids making the movie look like a CSPAN symposium by taking them down from the pulpit and simply moving them around a little. She films West breaking down the dialogue between dogmatism and democracy from the backseat of her car, as she drives around Manhattan. She films Singer discussing the microeconomic effects of personal consumption as he walks around Times Square. She films Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian cultural critic, touring one of London’s municipal dumps as he makes the case for ecology as the new morality.
They are extraordinary looking people, diverse in their physical eccentricity—West with his shocked up Afro and gapped teeth and Avital Ronell wearing architect glasses and a silk Sergeant Pepper’s jacket. Astra’s sister, the agit-prop painter Sunaura Taylor, is filmed rolling down a San Francisco street in her electric wheelchair, stopping to shop a second-hand store with the feminist literary critic Judith Butler. Their theories are just as idiosyncratic, of course, but the thread that moves through all the vignettes—held together with three segments featuring West placed at the beginning, middle, and end—is one that's germane to all this anxiety over Facebook: humans are more connected than ever before, and the idea of the lone heroic (usually masculine) individual is outmoded, or at least under serious challenge, but the need for individual courage in the face of all this modern tumult is as great as it’s ever been, if not more so.
The philosophers that Taylor picks are provocative and charming, and there are even weird serendipitous moments of drama, like when Duke literature professor Michael Hardt, just as he's invoking the age-old dilemma of whether the nature of man is good or evil, runs into a rock while rowing through a channel in Central Park. Or at the end of the film, when Cornel West finishes his closing diatribe on the challenge for the individual to feel whole, then jumps out of Taylor’s car and immediately is recognized by an attractive blonde on the crosswalk. Examined Life works as a movie, not just a string of heavy thoughts—it’s funny, moving, and deep. You may be moved to crack that copy of Kierkegaard you haven’t opened since college. And you will definitely be moved to buy Beethoven’s string quartets on iTunes.
But let’s get back to this Facebook thing. Instinctually, you might believe that many of these philosophers, all in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, when it comes to this brave new virtual world of communication and ego projection harbor many of the same anxieties as Orenstein and the countless other hangwringers in the media right now. But their theories, at least, may pave a path to understanding the virtues of Facebook. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton, talks about the rise of cosmopolitanism. Taylor films Appiah at the JFK Airport returning from a trip to his home in Ghana. He first gets into the Greek etiology of the word cosmopolitan, which means “citizen of the world.” Then he argues that human beings are most comfortable relating to what philosophers call “The Other” in a one-on-one capacity, but as we continue to evolve and grow more sophisticated and interconnected as a species, our challenge will be relating to more and more people all at once. He talks about the tense rivalry between the universalist and the cosmopolitan. The universalist believes that everybody should act the same, while the cosmopolitan tries to come to terms with the truth that many of us do not. Appiah rejects cultural relativism—the idea that other cultures shouldn’t bother reconciling divergent stances on morality—and instead argues for a greater capacity for empathy and compassion while we continue to work towards defining and upholding acceptable universal moral standards. Each group needs to accept that it’s okay to do things differently, he says, “as long as they still get done.”
With that in mind, maybe it’s time to ask more positive rhetorical questions about this looming technological threat to our children’s moral development. We could be asking if in order to accommodate this modern necessity to relate to more and more people all at the same time, maybe Facebook and Twitter are the very tools we’ve been waiting for? Aren’t they an explicit, daily technological admission that you’re not alone, that you need help, and that you need to connect? There seems to be a lot of fin de siecle anxiety about technology right now, whether over the new or the old tech it’s replacing. It's scary because it’s new, but maybe instead of endlessly asking what it all means, we should spend some time working out a cosmopolitan ethic for relating to each other on these things. Etiquette takes some time to work out, sure—but it’s just etiquette. People used to answer the phone by yelling “ahoy!” into the receiver, right?
Who knows how Taylor and her philosophers would answer these questions. Some of them have probably already written about this. And I realize that I might be on the wrong side on this one—in jeopardy of coming off like some nouveau-hippie, a poor-man’s-Timothy-Leary-of-social-media. The movie is, in fact, about walking, which you can’t do on Facebook just yet. One of my favorite parts is when Sumaura Taylor and Butler talk a bout how connected the stroll has been to philosophy. “Walking is philosophy,” Singer says, as she and Sumaura discuss how Socrates, Kierkegaard, Nietzche, and Walter Benjamin all found inspiration out and about, relating to The Other all over the place in their respective cities. At the end of their segment, however, they both agree, “A walk can be a dangerous thing.”
No doubt. Especially when you’re typing on your iPhone.