Obligatory Avatar Post

But the problem with my analysis is, you will say, that Cameron is not the Department of State or Labor nor is he the official mouthpiece of some quasi-empire. You would be right. Yet Avatar is consensus. It is the consensus of nearly $300 million dollars – pored over every lovingly rendered pixel flesh and woodenly crafted “I got this!”. It is more importantly, a global consensus of consumption – fast approaching the $1 billion dollar mark. As such, I think it provides a credible archive against which to read the past decade.

Sitting through Avatar reminded me of the edifices of empire – not the halls of power (palace and parliament) but those edifices constructed for both the citizen and the colonial subject – simultaneously convincing one of the righteousness of the imperium and the other of the sheer inevitability of imperial power.

Avatar mirrors the techno-capital apogee of this American empire as well the grave ambivalence at the heart of it. Avatar is our Crystal Palace and our Delhi Durbar of 1911 as well our Hastings/Burke moment.

There are more than enough readings out there on the inherent biases and contradictions in Avatar. Read Aaron’s take, for one. Or Bustillos, as well. There is both merit and substance to these readings but I am much more interested in parsing the broader milieu which has produced Avatar. Where previous Empires (without going into whether America is or isn’t one) created magnificent physical edifices of their power and glory, we build monuments of light and shadows (3D) that provoke much of the same reactions: awe, glory, camaraderie. We are united in our appreciation of the technological wonder that created this spectacle and united in our consumption of it. Note that the end-credits stretch across the North (digital houses from New Zealand to California to London). Note as well that from Cairo to Dubai to Bombay, Avatar is playing to packed houses.

Where the Mughals borrowed curlicues from Damascus to Vijaynagar or the British incorporated “Eastern” motifs into the Lahore train station, Avatar borrows the Iraq War. It serves a decorative purpose. Mind you, that doesn’t make it a “throwaway” or “inessential”. On the contrary, it constitutes the very ethos the project itself – which is, after all, a simulacra itself. “Shock and Awe”. It will forever be the curlicue glued to the outside of any edifice – either with a wink, or a nudge, or with a scowl. When Avatar employs it, the audience (in Berlin) smirks loudly. They got this. The parallels are now as explicit as a minaret. No one notes the irony that the company has too few troops for the job. It is only a matter of time before the “surge” happens. But, let that be. Let’s just go back to the Iraq War. Some have suggested that there is a “critique” of the Iraq War buried inside the movie. The war in Avatar is not between the haves and the have-nots (one with tech, the other without; one with mineral resources, the other without) but between different ideas of having and not-having. At some level, however appropriated, Avatar grants some equivalence to the notion that these two civilizations can indeed differ in their reading of what constitutes as essential for survival. But the debate over the Iraq War is not, and will not be for a while, about granting equivalence – either hypothetical or literal – to our civilizational mission (democracy and freedom) and their claim to self-rule and self-governance. In that frame, there may be a mild nod towards Iraq, but there is no critique of war in Avatar. It is pro-war all the way. Eco-tech vs. mech-tech.

I greatly enjoyed Avatar. I will probably see it again on DVD and I will certainly try and teach it in class. Here are some thoughts – out of order – but in the order that they occurred to me.

related: Aaron expands his comments

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12 thoughts on “Obligatory Avatar Post”

  1. Return of the natives
    Slavoj Zizek
    http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2010/03/avatar-reality-love-couple-sex

    “The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them. In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man’s fantasy.
    At the same time as Avatar is making money all around the world (it generated $1bn after less than three weeks of release), something that strangely resembles its plot is taking place. The southern hills of the Indian state of Orissa, inhabited by the Dongria Kondh people, were sold to mining companies that plan to exploit their immense reserves of bauxite (the deposits are considered to be worth at least $4trn). In reaction to this project, a Maoist (Naxalite) armed rebellion exploded.
    ….
    The Indian prime minister characterised this rebellion as the “single largest internal security threat”; the big media, which present it as extremist resistance to progress, are full of stories about “red terrorism”, replacing stories about “Islamist terrorism”. No wonder the Indian state is responding with a big military operation against “Maoist strongholds” in the jungles of central India. And it is true that both sides are resorting to great violence in this brutal war, that the “people’s justice” of the Maoists is harsh. However, no matter how unpalatable this violence is to our liberal taste, we have no right to condemn it. Why? Because their situation is precisely that of Hegel’s rabble: the Naxalite rebels in India are starving tribal people, to whom the minimum of a dignified life is denied.

    So where is Cameron’s film here? Nowhere: in Orissa, there are no noble princesses waiting for white heroes to seduce them and help their people, just the Maoists organising the starving farmers. The film enables us to practise a typical ideological division: sympathising with the idealised aborigines while rejecting their actual struggle. The same people who enjoy the film and admire its aboriginal rebels would in all probability turn away in horror from the Naxalites, dismissing them as murderous terrorists. The true avatar is thus Avatar itself – the film substituting for reality.”

  2. Manan’s comments have made me reconsider the film somewhat, though I think it is quite poor at least on anything not related to SFX. But it is pretty obvious to anyone who has seen the film and hasn’t been under a rock for the last 10 years that some of the vocabulary is explicit lifted from the WoT rhetoric; ‘shock and awe’, ‘fight terror with terror’ and the concept of pre-emptive attack are all very clearly embedded in the film. You would need a lobotomy to miss them, given that Cameron isn’t exactly sublte about it.

    Most comparisons mentioned Ferngully and Dances with Wolves (and indeed some scenes are almost lifted wholesale from these movies); it seems to draw on a tradition as well of some of the more ‘progressive’ Westerns like Broken Arrow, which sought to mediate between the two communities of White settlers and soldiers and the native Amerindians. But unlike earlier cases, where the hero either failed in reaching a settlement or achieved some sort of compromise between the two warring groups, here he decides to fight, in a manner reminiscent of De Niro’s character in ‘The Mission’. While one can make a number of criticisms about Cameron’s political message and some of the ham-handed symbolism; certainly the debate has moved on in terms of whom our sympathies are meant to be with. Anupama Roy, talked about the fantasy of mimicry and control in fiction like Master’s ‘The Deceivers’ and how the colonial Anglo-Saxon hero’s superiority and knowledge (as well as the dynamics of the plot) required him to adopt brownface and ‘go native’ for a while to neutralise the threats posed by the natives or that emanated from native society. Inevitably, this initiated a crisis of identity, whereby the hero was in danger of losing his ‘colonial self’ and going completely native. Part of his muscular colonial (and Christian) strength was the ability to overcome this and re-integrate properly back into Colonial society having accomplished his mission. This crossing over was vital because it not only gave him the knowledge of both societies and therefore validated his choice to return to the one that was superior but because it also underpinned the morality of the narrative structure for the audience. Here though, this is completely reversed as the moral choice is presented as losing one’s identity so completely as to actually cross over and become a member of another species and the relative positions of the natives and the intruders/colonialists have been reversed as well. Despite the weakness with which this is done, Cameron deserves some credit for this, though it is very much in line with the transformations that have been happening in such themes within films over the last few decades.

  3. Haven’t seen Avatar, but I have to back any comment that links it to Namak Haraam (which itself owed more than a little to Jean Anouilh’s “Beckett”, probably by way of its rather “straight” cinematic adaptation as a historical film featuring Richard Burton in the title role, and the even more memorable Peter O’Toole as Henry II; true seeti-taali dialoguebaazi all the way)…

  4. “Avatar borrows the Iraq War.”

    I dont agree with this view. this is an old story on which even Hrishikesh Mukherjee made a hit movie in 1973 Called Namak Haram .
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070434/
    The storyline of Avatar is exactly the same (no change ) , and the theme express the same “universality of Goodness” which is beyond any race, caste, creed or religion. what avatar does is that it adds species in this list .

  5. You’re probably giving too much credit to Cameron. The story was such a mash-up of the best-selling archetypes out there- conquest of the mysterious indigenous(ala spaniards in the americas), outsider-finds-native-love, a boy steps into manhood etc.- that it’s hard to buy all that you say.

    For me, the genius of this film lay not in the archetypes and symbols it simulates but the skill with which it simulates them; its answers seem stupid because it doesn’t attempt to give any to begin with. It represents the rupture in the final Scene, and Baudrillard must so be chuckling in his grave.

  6. This is kind of brilliant, and a much more productive way of approaching this film than the sterile “I am outraged!” vs. “I am entertained!” split that is nevertheless so hard to avoid. But I’m also interested by the point Jonathan raises, which illustrates (if nothing else) how easily a Clinton-era narrative can not only incorporate but positively channel a Bush-era ethos. It’s easy to think of the two as fundamentally opposed, yet the counterfactual in which President Gore invades Iraq and Afghanistan (on the advice of SecDef Powell) is utterly plausible, even likely. And not only do we forget all the Clinton-era adventurism (because of the so much more obvious example of Bush imperialism), that contrast gives positive cover to the former, as it is doing for Obama’s escalation right now; as you really nicely point out, the Avatar narrative implies a surge in the future, but avoids the question by only implying it, by creating a false narrative closure after the big battle climax. But real life goes one, innit? Which is the real perniciousness of the movie, I think, and its true vacuousness; the only answers it has are stupid ones: the natives should fight back! Gloriously! And then, magically, they will win!

  7. Cameron made Avatar to provide hours of enjoyment to intellectuals and plebes alike. In that sense – if no other – it may be likened to the great epics.

  8. It might be worth noting that the film was originally conceived in the early 90s. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway; how much of the film was a reflection of Cameron’s Clinton-era thinking — we were a friendlier empire without an enemy, but an empire nonetheless — and how much grew in the last ten years. It might, arguably, be a meditation on both Iraq wars, or at least the left’s critiques of them.

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