I am full of admiration for Murray Smith’s Film, Art, and the Third Culture. For one, it is among the most enjoyable reads I have ever had from a book in aesthetics. For another, it manifests more breadth of mind and a wider philosophical scope than most books in aesthetics, including my own, which usually confine themselves to narrower debates internal to that academic domain. And for a third, it contains a host of analyses of individual cinematic works of art in illustration and support of the book’s main thesis, that a naturalistic, scientifically aware approach to artworks and aesthetic experience is not only compatible with a critical, humanistic approach to them, but can fruitfully complement and amplify such an approach, and that artworks and aesthetic experience, richly described and interpreted, may in turn serve to confirm, challenge, enrich, or fine tune scientific theories and tools brought to bear on their elucidation. The lessons of this book are ones that I earnestly hope will be taken to heart. But I will now, in this review, express some reservations on a few of the aspects of the programme that Smith sets out to make aesthetic theory safe for naturalizing, and then offer some cinematic examples not discussed by Smith that I believe illustrate nicely certain specific theses advanced by him concerning the special capacities of film. My focus in this discussion will be selective, restricted largely to Chapter 2 (‘Triangulating Aesthetic Experience’), Chapter 4 (‘Papaya, Pomegranates, and Green Tea’) and Chapter 8 (‘Feeling Prufish’) of Smith’s engaging book. Let us start with Chapter 2. Smith recommends triangulation among three levels or sources of data—the experiential-phenomenological, the psychological-functional, and the neural-physiological as the best way to make progress in aesthetic theory. At the heart of triangulation is the principle that at the outset of enquiry we take serious three factors—three levels of analysis with their attendant types of evidence—that we have at our disposal with respect to mental phenomena … Triangulation involves locating or fixing the object in explanatory space by … projecting lines from each body of evidence, and following them to see where they intersect. Where any two, or all three, forms of evidence mesh in this way, each of them is corroborated. (60) But what counts as the ‘meshing’ of evidence from these three levels, if they are conceptually and ontologically distinct, as it seems they are, and as Smith allows them to be? This is far from clear. An example offered next, of phenomenology being corrected by empirical psychology, presumably helps with this. Based on experience, we ordinarily think that our visual system affords us a uniformly colored and detailed visual field … but careful testing shows that … only a small fraction of our visual field is in sharp focus at any given moment, and at the extreme peripheries our visual system represents the world in monochrome. (61) But does this show that our phenomenology was mistaken, in the sense that we were wrong about how things seem to us visually? It would seem that only more careful phenomenology, more close attending to our visual experience, could show us that. Rather, what ‘careful testing’ shows is that the phenomenology of visual experience is not an infallible guide to the functional capacities we might actually possess to discriminate colours or details by sight. So is confronting our visual phenomenology and our visual system then an example of meshing or of failure to mesh? I am not sure. At any rate, it looks like the levels remain distinct, and their authorities in their respective spheres remain intact. Moreover, are the three levels posited really on a par, with no epistemic or explanatory priority among them? I think not. I am inclined to think that the first level, the experiential-phenomenological one, both has and must have that priority. In part this is because of what aesthetic explanation inherently aims at. Invoking psychological processes, some of them unconscious, or patterns of neural activation, none of which we are conscious of as such, is presumably done in the service of explaining or understanding or corroborating the existence of the aesthetic phenomenon, that of which we have experience. But the ineliminably experiential aesthetic phenomenon is not invoked to explain or understand or corroborate the existence of psychological processes or neural patterns. This order of explanation, which it seems hard to gainsay, would appear to accord to the experiential-phenomenological level the sort of epistemic priority Smith’s egalitarian triangulationism is concerned to deny it. A sign of the primacy of experience in aesthetic analysis or explanation is that that is precisely what we are trying to analyse or explain, not the psychological mechanisms or neural processes that subtend such experience. In other words, the psychological-functional and neural-physiological levels are ultimately answerable to the experiential-phenomenological level if the explanatory claims of the former are to be validated or upheld. Moreover, many aesthetic problems, including ones about film, seem amenable to resolution without any need to triangulate experiential-conceptual data with that from cognitive psychology or neuroscience. Consider the current lively debate regarding the nature of cinematic motion, the motion or movement we appear to perceive in film, which is reflected in the older name for the medium, ‘motion pictures’. The debate has mostly focused on whether such motion or movement is real or apparent, whereas what are usually assumed to be in motion or moving, whether really or apparently, are images. Insofar as I had thought about my position in this debate I suppose it was that such movement indeed belonged to individual images, located on small portions of the screen and correlated with identifiable objects, and that the movement of such images was indeed real. But a short essay I happened to read recently for a journal convinced me that that was just wrong, and in fact not in accord with my experience of film, once I was enabled to see that more clearly by the author’s argument, one relying only on closer observation of experience and sharper grasp of the concepts involved in the debate.1 For first, what we normally see moving, when viewing a continuous shot without edits in a standard narrative film, is not object-correlated images but the objects those images represent. And second, insofar as we might be said to see an image during viewing it is that which occupies the whole screen, an image we see to be continuously changing, rather than moving, once one recalls that for something to be moving is for it to be in different places at different times, which is absolutely not what the total image coextensive with the screen is doing. Of course, you may not agree with me that this definitively settles the debate in question, but if you at least allow that it might, note that no appeal was made to either psychological processes or neural substrates involved in viewing an unedited film shot, but only to closer attention to what we are aware of during such viewing, closer attention to what the image we see on a screen, whether in a cinema or on a computer, is actually doing, namely, continuously changing rather than literally moving, and a clearer-sighted grasp of what the concepts of ‘image’, ‘motion’, and ‘change’ entail. And not only is no such appeal made to the second and third levels involved in Smith’s triangulation scenario, it is hard to see how they could either contribute to resolving the debate or serve to overturn the conclusion reached by, as it were, ‘better phenomenology’ and ‘better conceptual analysis’. Before I leave this example, I will note that Smith himself, perhaps unthinkingly, subscribes to the notion that normal film experience involves seeing images that move: ‘What Edison invented, and what runs through all of the changes [in film technology] just enumerated, is a picture that moves’ (8). ‘No set of cultural beliefs can change the fact that we see the still frames comprising a strip of film as a moving image when projected at the right speed’ (158). Of course I might also have subscribed to such a notion before my recent theoretical conversion, in which ‘the scales fell from my eyes’—a conversion owing only to better philosophizing, and not at all to empirical psychology or neuroscience. Let me now return to the discussion of the method of triangulation in Chapter 2 with a declaration I found reassuring. Neuroscientific evidence, however, does not straightforwardly trump phenomenological or psychological evidence. The study of the brain alone will yield absolutely no knowledge about the mind unless certain phenomena described at the psychological or phenomenological level are on the table to be explained. (64)2 Here I was reminded of clear confirmation of this from practical medicine. As is well known, data from MRI and CAT scans, even when replete with neurological information, are notoriously unreliable predictors of felt pain, especially that in the back. However, in the context of a discussion of what has been labelled anomalous suspense, or suspense experienced in full knowledge of an outcome to come, Smith offers this: The distinction between fast, bottom-up processes [such as that involved in anomalous suspense] and slower, top-down processes is a classic functional distinction, but it is backed up [my italics] by neuroscience which confirms that different types of cognition are subtended by specific patterns of neural activity. (71) Yet here I must ask, in what sense ‘backed up’? Suppose we could not locate specific patterns of neural activity to correlate with our experience of unwilled anomalous suspense, grounded in bottom-up psychological processes? Would we deny that our experience was as it appeared to be? Naturally, as physicalists we will assume there is some neural story underlying any conscious experience, but in a given case that story may be cognitively inaccessible to us, not something we will ever be able to correlate completely with what we experience. And in the context of a discussion of the phenomenon of empathy, Smith tells us that: The existence of a neural ‘mirroring system’ in humans is significant because it provides evidence [my italics] in support of the psychological theory of simulation, and the phenomenological intuition that we sometimes share the emotional states of others. In other words, that there is a certain kind of psychological state in which we do not merely feel for a fellow human being, but feel with her. (73) But does the mirror neuron system really provide evidence of the psychological process of simulation or the phenomenological impression of emotional sharing? More likely, it simply suggests a possible mechanism underlying those two observable phenomena, whose reality is being assumed. To be fair to Smith, this is what he says in a sentence further along, ‘mirror neurons specify a neural mechanism that may underpin the experience of empathy and the psychological function it performs’ (73), but it remains that the preceding claim is an overstatement, if pardonable. Naturalists, like the rest of us, are occasionally given to uncontained bursts of excitement! In the same vein is a provocative claim made towards the end of this chapter, with which I must also take issue. Recognizing the central importance of behavioural evidence to both psychological theorizing and our understanding of the psychologies of others, Smith proposes that ‘phenomenological and neurological evidence might also be regarded as types of behavioural evidence, if we expand our conception of behaviour beyond expressive and observable behaviour’ (78). Thus in a case of the second sort, such as the neural activation in the amygdala triggered by the sight of a snake, Smith asks whether ‘that neural activity is any less a kind of behaviour than the bodily reaction that follows?’ To which I would reply that it is indeed less a kind of behaviour, since it distorts the notion of human behaviour beyond recognition. In such a case it is no longer the person behaving, but instead the person’s brain. But a brain ‘behaving’ is not really behaving; it is just the brain assuming a different physicochemical state. I have a worry raised by the discussion in Chapter 3 concerning the claim that ‘cognitive architecture is shaped by neural architecture’ (103), where it seems an elision is often operating between a harmless sense of shape, meaning something like ‘have an effect on or influence’, and a more loaded one, meaning something like ‘impart the same form to or constrain the character of’, but let me now move on to Chapter 4, which I found a more congenial terrain. I confess I am strongly attracted to one of the principal theses of this chapter, to the effect that film is an artistic medium with special potential to illuminate the qualitative dimension of experience. (This note is sounded as early as Chapter 1, when Smith underlines that a naturalistic aesthetics need not be ‘fixated on or restricted to the basic perceptual comprehension of works’ (37), but may legitimately explore the expansion of our perceptual capacities that artworks can effect.) The experience-illuminating potential of film manifests itself in at least two, rather different, ways, according to Smith. The first way, illustrated by Ozu’s The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), involves film’s unusual ability to vividly evoke, and then foreground for examination and analysis, a range of non-verbalizable qualia characteristic of ordinary non-cinematic experience, such as that of the taste of the two foodstuffs of Ozu’s title when consumed together. The second way, illustrated by the purely abstract films of Stan Brakhage, involves film’s evident capacity to create and present qualia distinctive of or unique to cinematic experience, through combinations of auditory and visual elements with no counterparts outside of cinema. It is this second power of film, to offer the experience of qualia not encountered in ordinary life, that particularly interests me, especially when it is deployed to further ends in representational film, such as enabling a viewer to inhabit a wholly foreign point of view, or to discover a completely unprecedented state of mind. Mainstream film has occasionally ventured into this territory, as with Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), with its representations of psychedelic or hallucinatory experience, conveying something of the otherness of consciousnesses beyond the quotidian. And the same for experimental film, a notable example of which is Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982), or ‘life out of balance’, with its slow-motion and time-lapse photography of urban and natural phenomena set to Philip Glass’s pulsing score, conveying something of the sense of a world gone seriously out of control. The qualia created by the filmmakers in question, ones not met with in our everyday existence, undoubtedly contribute to what those films express or to what they bear witness to. But rather than dwell further on those films so redolent of their era I now turn my attention to two recent examples of art cinema, namely, Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). At one point Smith makes the intriguing suggestion that perhaps all films offer us a distinct kind of immersive experience, one that contrasts with both ordinary perceptual experience and perceptual experience in dreams, being somewhat intermediate between the two (113). I think there is something right about that, and if there is, then surely the two films just mentioned are no exceptions. But what I will be on the lookout for in their regard is what is so utterly distinctive in the experience and the content of those films that goes beyond what is encountered in film viewing of the garden-variety sort. Also germane is ‘the particularity of the emotions represented, articulated, and elicited by films’ (200); whose importance Smith signals and variously illustrates in Chapter 8. In Under the Skin the unusual auditory, visual, and audiovisual qualia of the film experience are employed to facilitate the imagining of, and perhaps even a degree of empathy with, a truly alien consciousness. That consciousness is incarnated by the actress Scarlett Johansson, a visitor from another planet sent to seduce, entrap, and ultimately harvest the bodies of the unfortunate men she encounters. This harvesting occurs in the form of a black liquid abyss located in a dilapidated house, into which the men sink and disappear, deprived of the carnal pleasures they were led to expect. The Glaswegian patois of much of the film, spoken by the unhappy victims of the visitor’s seductions, which is all-but-unintelligible to most speakers of English, adds to the impression of alienness and alienation that pervades the film and imparts itself to the viewer. As does the spare and spacey soundtrack of Mica Levi, with its uncomfortable deployment of the strings of the viola, while the much-noted ellipses and obscurities of the plot and the situations (such as the motorcyclist who at breakneck speed and for unexplained reasons tracks the visitor’s progress through an oppressively gloomy Scotland) help to fuel, rather than undermine, the film’s peculiar power. Above all, though, it is the unfeeling, almost machine-like way in which the visitor pursues her strange mission that impresses on us the absolute alienness of her perspective, despite the all-too-human Johansson body in which it is situated—a body that we learn at the film’s tragic conclusion is only a shell encasing the visitor’s true physical form, of a singular unearthliness. But an additional achievement of the film is to allow for an evolution in the visitor’s perspective, whereby she begins, ever so haltingly, to grasp from within something of the nature of the perspective on the world of the humans she has been sent to seduce and exploit, an evolution that allows us to begin to empathize with her, which makes the ending of the film as shocking and as moving as it is. Reflecting on the well nigh absolute particularity of emotional tone of Under the Skin, and inspired by the example of ‘prufish’, a quality undetachable from Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, I am tempted to coin the term unterdiehautisch (or ‘under-the-skin-ish’) to denominate that elusive affective quality, and find myself itching for the chance to apply it elsewhere, knowing the opportunities for doing so will be slim. But remember, you met it first here! Unterdiehautisch ... To turn to my other example, The Turin Horse is a highly singular exercise in film art, composed entirely of long takes, thirty in all, and lasting almost three hours. To give some idea of its special character one could do worse than to note that it induces in a viewer, at one and the same time, a state of utter fascination and utter boredom, its stark repetitions and studied leisureliness exercising an effect on the viewer that oscillates between absorption and ennui. This is even true of the striking four-minute opening shot that follows a short spoken prologue, to my mind one of the most beautiful in all of cinema, in which we see a man driving a crude horse-drawn cart through a windswept barren landscape, our angle on this changing slightly in the course of the shot, as does its focus, varying from the horse, to the man, to the cart, to all three together. Though we see plainly that the man and horse and cart are moving, the way it is filmed gives us the impression that they are nonetheless making no progress. The apparent lack of progress in that opening sequence fits well with what Bela Tarr, the director of The Turin Horse, has said to be the film’s theme, namely ‘the heaviness of human existence’, in perhaps oblique rebuttal to Milan Kundera’s assertion of its ‘unbearable lightness’. Surely no other film with which I am acquainted conveys more forcefully the brutal and elemental character of life on Earth for perhaps a good part of humanity. The plain in which the action is situated is desolate, the house in which the man and his daughter live is of the utmost simplicity, the man is one-armed and rheumy-eyed, the daughter is unloved and unkempt, and the horse seems on the verge of dying of despondency. And the parallels between the humans and the horse are underlined at every turn: the horse eats only hay, the humans only potatoes; the horse draws the cart with a human in it, but later the humans draw the cart and the horse; the daughter regularly dresses and undresses her handicapped father, while father and daughter regularly harness and unharness the horse; the horse’s mane blowing in the wind when pulling the cart, the daughter’s hair whipped around mercilessly by the wind when going to the well for water; the horse has a starkly restricted range of activities, the humans have hardly a more expansive one. And though I forbear any interpretation of this here, the same fate awaits all three at the end of this tale, a kind of reversal, as one critic has it, of the first week of the world according to Genesis: a last, seventh day characterized only by dead silence, darkness, and nothingness. It is hard to put one’s finger on the experiential qualia that emerge from, on the one hand, the constrained situation of the protagonists and their dispassionate and resigned behaviour within it, and on the other hand, the unobtrusive but carefully measured black-and-white cinematography and the drone-like hurdy-gurdy music heard throughout most of the film. But above all it would be the impression produced and feeling induced by the sight and sound of basically unchanging conditions and endless repetitive actions, all backgrounded by the unceasing gale blowing across the bleak landscape in which the minimalist events of the film transpire, which untiringly tosses leaves and twigs about in a haphazard yet mesmerizing display. This is life reduced to its elements—earth, wind, water, fire—not as life is experienced in reality, but as it can perhaps only be experienced in cinema, thanks to a film like The Turin Horse. What James Hoberman has written of The Turin Horse, in a liner note to the DVD, applies equally well to Under the Skin, in contrast to standard mainstream film: ‘It can’t really be described; it’s an experience that has to be lived.’ And as Murray Smith suggests, and as I believe these two films amply confirm, that has much to do with both the unusual qualia the filmmakers have managed to impart to their creations, and with the highly specific states of mind, emotional and otherwise, that they manage to express and to evoke in viewers. Make no mistake about it. Smith’s is an important and thought-provoking book, which no one interested in philosophy of film, philosophy of art, or the methodology of aesthetic theory can afford to miss. Footnotes 1 Rafael De Clercq, ‘Does the debate about cinematic motion rest on a mistake?’, Analysis 77, (2017), 519–525. 2 Smith quotes from Owen Flanagan, Consciousness Reconsidered (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992) 12. © British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The British Journal of Aesthetics – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 31, 2018
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