Anxiety, the Examined Life and Staying in Trouble

The end of the semester is almost here (less than a month away!) and I am getting very excited for the thinking and writing work I hope to do this summer. In anticipation of my future work, I decided to take a break this afternoon from preparing for next week’s discussions on the Prison Industrial Complex and Hope, Utopias and Optimism to watch a recent documentary about philosophy and critical thinking called Examined Life. I have wanted to watch it ever since it came out last year, so I was very excited to see it show up on my netflix watch instantly page.

Seemingly inspired by the famous saying by Plato that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” this documentary consists of a series of interviews with famous philosophers/thinkers reflecting on their own ideas about thinking, philosophy and meaning. As an aside, I wonder why it is called the “examined life” as opposed to examining life–the past tense seems to suggest that thinking and examining is something that can, at a certain point, be accomplished. Is this ever possible? Do we want it to be? Life, even after death, can still be examined, right? Should our goal be to get to a point in which we have determined all there is to know about our life? Hmm….Anyway, here is how the film is described on the Zeitgeist Films’ website:

Examined Life pulls philosophy out of academic journals and classrooms, and puts it back on the streets…

In Examined Life, filmmaker Astra Taylor accompanies some of today’s most influential thinkers on a series of unique excursions through places and spaces that hold particular resonance for them and their ideas.

Featuring Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor.

So far, I am really enjoying the film; it’s a great way to get an introduction to some of these thinkers’ big ideas, like West and his focus on finitude and blues/jazz, Appiah and cosmopolitanism or Nussbaum and human capabilities (that’s as far as I have gotten in the film). One of the first thinkers to speak is Avital Ronell. I am not that familiar with her work, having only come across it in Butler’s 2nd preface to Gender Trouble, so it was exciting to hear her thoughts on non-meaning and anxiety. Describing the search for meaning as a cover-up or a “way of dressing the wound of non-meaning,” she argues for a politics of refusing gratification and an ethics of anxiety. Here is what she says about anxiety:

Precisely where there isn’t guarantee or palpable meaning, you have to do a lot of work and you have to be mega-ethical. Because it’s much easier to live life and to say, “that you shouldn’t do and that you should do because someone said so.” If we’re not anxious, if we’re okay with things we’re not trying to explore of figure anything out. So anxiety is the mood par excellence of ethicity, I think.

She continues her discussion of anxiety, suggesting that the truly ethical person (which she contrasts with GW Bush) is one who is always anxious and always concerned with whether or not they are doing the right thing; the ethical person is the one who can’t sleep because they are uncertain about what they are doing or failing to do. The responsible being is not the one who does one good deed and then thinks that that makes them an ethical person. The responsible being is the one who thinks they have never done enough, that “they have never taken enough care of the other.” Wow–an ethics of anxiety seems similar to my idea of staying in trouble. I was particularly struck by how she connects this (only fleetingly) to the idea of care. Anxiety and trouble (being troubled, staying troubled) are central to being ethical responsibly and effectively caring for others. Cool. I like her discussion here. I am not sure I like how she describes it as anxiety (in the interview she indicates that she is not suggesting that we should all get anxiety disorders), however. Is anxiety the best (as in most productive, most rewarding, most hopeful, most sustainable) way in which to discuss this mood? Could we describe our vigilant effort to care for the world and others by using some other term? One final note: Ronell’s discussion of anxiety makes me think of Ahmed and her notion of unhappiness and worry (which my troublemaking class is reading about in two weeks).

Here’s the trailer for the whole movie (can I just say, having heard Cornel West speak on three different occasions, at each of the 3 institutions that I got my BA, MA and PhD from, that he is amazing!):

7 thoughts on “Anxiety, the Examined Life and Staying in Trouble”

  1. Um… I must be really ethically inclined since I have panic attacks. While she says we shouldn’t all be getting anxiety disorders do those of us who do live with these realities earn some special prize?! Alright, I must go continue to panic now.

  2. Yes, your prize is a sandwich from Bun Mi tomorrow!…(dot dot dot dot) On a serious note, I think your point about anxiety is a good one. I am troubled by the long term effects of an ethics of anxiety. Does being ethical necessarily require that we get ulcers? Can we imagine other moods for our ethical practices/ideas/activities?

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