In Conversation with Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow Murray Smith

Thursday, May 3, 2018
by Julie Clack

Murray Smith is a professor of film and co-director of the Aesthetics Research Centre at the University of Kent, and until recently, was president of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image.

This year, he is at the UCHV as a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow, where he is working on a project titled “Film and Aesthetic Dimension.”

According to Smith, one factor in the project’s genesis was to address a gap in the book he published last year, “Film, Art, and the Third Culture.” His current project has two aspects: the first to “(re)examine what we mean when we talk about the ‘aesthetics’ or the ‘aesthetic dimension’ of an object or experience, and why we value such things,” the second to “explore the relationship between aesthetic value and other kinds of value — moral, political, and epistemic (truth-related), for example.”

“Oh, and of course, there is a third aspect,” he added. “That is, to consider these two questions in relation to diverse forms of filmmaking. One of my working hypotheses is that these different kinds of value combine and interact in different ways in different kinds of filmmaking.”

He pointed out that this is likely why we look for different things in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” and Errol Morris’ “Wormwood,” and why movies that integrate different types of value, such as “Black Panther” or “Get Out,” can complicate our understanding in “surprising and intriguing ways.”

“Part of my approach is to look at film in the context of the arts more broadly – I just gave a talk at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, for example, which took as its starting point the Talking Heads song ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ and the album from it which comes, ‘Remain in Light.’ And one of the reasons that I work on film in the context of philosophy in general, and philosophical aesthetics in particular, is that I like to be able to set the medium of film, and particular films, in the context of the broader questions asked by philosophers.”

These broader questions of philosophy will be addressed in next week’s “Love and Friendship in the Movies” conference, organized by Alexander Nehamas and Michael Smith, both in Princeton’s Department of Philosophy.  At the conference, eight speakers, working in pairs, will present individual papers on four films connected with the theme of “love and friendship,” a topic that touches on several of Smith’s research interests.

“A key question in my UCHV project is to think about love and friendship in terms of value,” said Smith. “We seem to value friendship and love as the most significant kinds of interpersonal relationship that we can form. That places them very close to moral value, since morality is concerned with our obligations to and relations with others.”

“But love and friendship don’t seem to be reducible to morality,” he said. “In fact, a major theme in film and other narrative art is the tension that can arise between personal loyalty — generated by bonds of love or friendship — and morality.”

“Another way in which the ‘Love and Friendship’ event relates to my interests is in terms of a debate about the extent to which films can act not only as the subject matter of philosophy, but as vehicles of philosophy too. That is, some theorists argue that films can in some sense do philosophy. In a way, this is quite a widespread idea, as many philosophers use films to make philosophical problems vivid – you can look at ‘The Matrix,’ for example, as a dramatic representation of the idea (from Descartes) that all of our sensory experience might be misleading; or you can think about the way ‘Memento’ represents the relationship between memory and personal identity (an important idea in the writings of Locke).”

At the conference, Smith will be discussing “The Sense of an Ending” with moral philosopher Miranda Fricker.

The conference is just one way Smith is engaging with Princeton faculty and fellows across a range of disciplines, including German, neuroscience, music and the Lewis Center for the Arts, in addition to the UCHV and philosophy.

“My aim this year has been to generate ideas, write some initial papers, and above all, to take advantage of the wonderfully stimulating intellectual community created by the UCHV and Princeton University as a whole,” Smith said. “Happily, I can say that things have worked out with respect to all three of these goals!”