Sympathy for a Serial Killer: Malick’s Badlands, Visual Metaphor and Frankfurt’s Concept of a Person

British Journal of Aesthetics 63 (3):299-316 (2023)
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Many creatures exhibit desires of various strengths competing with one another for the prize of interacting with beliefs to cause behaviour. Harry Frankfurt famously analyzes persons in terms of the ability to form second-order desires; desires that intervene in this economy of first-order desires in ways that sometimes award the prize to weaker competitors. This paper augments Frankfurt’s analysis with Kendall Walton’s understanding of pretence behaviour and then interprets the central metaphors in several films by Terrence Malick in terms of this augmented analysis. The result is an understanding of those films as investigations into personhood and factors that inhibit attempts to manifest it. Along the way, the discussion touches on the relation between linguistic and visual metaphor, the potentially ethical character of art, and the question of whether a valid interpretation must be congruent with the actual communicative intentions of the artist.



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