Editor's Choice

Avatar and Invisible Republic

I had no particular interest in seeing Avatar, but ended up seeing it the day after Christmas with my family. It seemed futile to resist. I even saw it in gimmicky 3-D, which added nothing to my enjoyment but did cause me to fidget ceaselessly with the glasses that I had to wear over my regular glasses. The film seemed primarily an exercise in glow-in-the-dark crypto-zoology, with little in the way of plausible plotting or character development. (We know Sigorney Weaver's character is cantankerous and outside-the-lines because they have her smoke a cigarette when she gets out of her cryo-travel pod.) It has a half-baked, programmatic but effective sentimentality that elicits emotional responses to the rite-of-passage cues. It kept me engaged by and large, though much of it reminded me of watching my roommate play Final Fantasy 9 (an oxymoronic title if ever there was one) on PlayStation while I was in college.

Only later did its trite politics annoy me. At first, I found it a little bothersome that I had to watch a bunch of humans get slaughtered by cartoons. Humans as a species haven't looked this bad in a sci-fi film since Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (which I strongly endorse). We are given no explanation why the resource the greedy humans are after is so important other than the tautology that it's worth a lot of money. Weaver's character tries to counter the already confusing insistence on resource extraction with a non sequitur about how the "real value" of the planet the humans are pillaging lies in the fact that the trees are networked together to form a giant bio-Internet. (Great. The last thing we need is metaphors that glorify and naturalize digital, mediatized interconnectedness.) What is valuable about that? It's regarded as unimportant by the film's producers.

What is important to them is the quasi-spiritual mumbo jumbo about the native race on the planet, which seems modeled mainly on American Indian tribes and is represented in an extremely patronizing fashion as a bunch of simple primitives who understand their environment only in supernatural terms. It takes a human outsider, naturally, to teach them the significance of their ways and rally them to defend themselves, since they are helpless against aggression and superior military technology.

The Sociological Images blog sums up the racial politics this way:

Avatar is a fantasy in which the history of colonization is rewritten, but it a fantasy specifically for white people living with a heavy dose of liberal guilt. And it is one that, ultimately, marginalizes indigenous peoples and affirms white supremacy.

I don't see how anybody can contest that analysis. I feel a bit ashamed, actually, that I was sitting in suburban Bucks County with all my white, middle-class compadres, complacently consuming the spectacle without becoming disgusted as it unfolded. At the time it seemed curmudgeonly and cliched for me to reject the high-imperialist homilies the film was lazily built on and the blithe righteousness I was expected to share with the "good" humans. I didn't resist being constructed as viewer in that way because it felt good and flattering. It reaffirmed my sense of belonging to a group of wise and morally pure Westerners who would have done colonizing right -- that is, it played to the ingrained sense of superiority that being white and middle class in America provides. I should have been nauseated; instead I was verklempt as the hero claimed his squaw.

By coincidence, I began reading Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic, which in part is about the demise of the 1960s folk movement and Bob Dylan's role in destroying it after having come to exemplify it. The folkies, in Marcus's depiction, had the same patronizing attitude toward Appalachian poverty and civil-rights injustices (the Other America, as Michael Harrington dubbed it) that the makers of Avatar seem to evince about colonization. Capitalism sullied and exploited the pure rural people, as clear-headed bourgeois liberals can best recognize. To adherents, folk music (and Avatar) offers us glimpses of pre-capitalist America, a "democratic oasis unsullied by commerce or greed" in which art seems "the product of no ego but of the inherent genius of a people." The Avatar planet is such a product, for the race occupying it and the film-industry execs who made it.

The substance of this fantasy about indigenous people at harmony with their appropriate environment is the denial of individual subjectivity (the overriding value of the folk revival, according to Marcus), which is rendered unnecessary and impossible. Everyone is at one and merged with one another. Just look at the blue people in the movie sway to the unsounded rhythm as they worship their special tree. Marcus: "As they live in an organic community ... any song belongs to all and none belongs to anyone in particular." This is an attractive fantasy to have about other people, as it leaves oneself as the last unique individual standing -- like the hero of Avatar. Folk music tends to make a virtue out of a subject people's lack of autonomy because its adherents can't see a way to ameliorate those people's powerlessness without surrendering some of their own comfort. Avatar offers a fantasy solution, in which one vicariously becomes one of the subject people without losing one's distinctive identity, and then helps that group achieve autonomy. The story conveniently ends there, before the logic of communal unity eradicates the hero's sense of self.

But the faceless masses are most likely not so keen on being turned into a contemplative object for someone else, not psyched to have their identity and destiny predetermined by historical circumstances. We generally want someone else to be living by that pure code of acceptance of "authentic identity"; we are always tempted to try to reserve for ourselves the power to shape our own destiny and be anything we want. No one seems to volunteer to become the folk if the condition of that is disappearing into holistic anonymity. Instead we impose our notion of authenticity on others, and let their being trapped in it serve to limn the terms of our own private freedom.

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