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