Media critic WJT Mitchell asks the question, What do pictures want? Whenever staring into the eyes of media, I often wonder who or what beckons me. From the initial to closing shots of Avatar, we are invited to connect to a world through the gaze of a floating screen. In the former case eyes open to a world turned upside down, but one yet to be born. In the latter, through another set of eyes we see ourselves transmuted as a cyborg animal in a world right side up, returned to order. In other words, we voyage though Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to a T — one of Hollywood’s most tried and true narrative arks. But what if Avatar’s archetypal roots reach deeper to its Hindu namesake, calling forth the larger cosmic question: is the dreamer being dreamed? Maybe the picture (as in the film) wants to know the answer.
Before moving on, I’ll start by acknowledging the easy criticisms of the film, which are also echoed across the blogosphere. Indeed it’s a cowboy and Indians weekend matinee movie. James Cameron plugged and played a number of tropes, the most obvious coming from Last of the Mohicans, Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves. In the end we have an updated version of the White Messiah violently intervening to resolve a conflict between pastoral natives and a colonial war machine. Which begs the question, Do we really need another crusade to solve a problem of consciousness? One lesson is that we should avoid the right-wing Christian view that takes “spiritual warfare” literally. Certainly the film’s decisive battle scene would mesh with Derrick Jensen’s call to bring the fight to Empire. On the other hand, has there ever been a major film in which the protagonist proves himself a “man” without an act of violence?
Going back to the film’s homage to matinee adventures, I could go on with the genre mash-ups (as many bloggers humorously did), but the film’s conventions ultimately serve as an easily digestible morality play that is context for the special effects and larger issues of global significance. That the film has pretensions of planetary appeal is indicated by its Up With People/ world pop/ ready-made-for-New-Age-bookstores soundtrack.
Nonetheless, given the ecological theme of the movie one has to wonder (tongue jammed into cheek) if the disposable 3-D glasses are made of biodegradable plastic (they are imprinted with recycling code “7” — which I think means a highly toxic amalgam that shouldn’t be recycled, buried or incinerated). Also there is the fact that Mattel will make Avatar action figures made of who-knows-what toxic polymers under who-knows-what labor conditions under who-knows-what kind of authoritarian rule to be shipped across the planet producing who-knows-how much C02 in transit. Not surprisingly, McDonald’s will have Avatar themed Happy Meals with who-know-what “meat” product. Surely we couldn’t expect the culture industry’s machinery to shut itself down in the wake of the world’s greatest blockbuster. No, not when there’s consumer markets to be mined. It may be too much to ask for more purity from Hollywood, but at least we (the audience) can make the cultural intervention by supplying a deeper systems analysis when one is absent. We can thank the film for creating the space to make such a discussion more relevant.
Surprisingly, Avatar makes me optimistic, despite its double binds. The quandary is that in order for the film to connect viewers to nature spirits it must use the technology of the system that it critiques. After all, like the film, Pandora’s alien miners deploy 3-D imaging which enables them to map and exploit the world. But ecology to us modern folks is contradictory in the same way: we call for a return to nature, yet depend on science to map the risk of global peril in order to combat it. For instance, the iconic photo of Earth in space could not have been made possible without NASA’s help, and they deploy a highly extractive and environmentally destructive form of “high” technology (US rocket fuel, for example, is very destructive to the ozone and its toxic compounds are found in baby formula). At our current stage of globalization, arguments for restoring the biosphere, mitigation and remediation, whether we like it or not, require science and technology, and even the Internet, a primary byproduct of military research. The rub is that technology, according to Jacques Ellul, is first a product of “technique,” a way of thinking and categorizing the world that is materially manifested in technology. The bind is that we are now called upon to turn technique upon itself in order to tunnel back to “nature,” something that is itself now just a construct.
The hope is that artists and communicators can tap into the primordial call of Earth by creating stories and visualizations that move us toward a planetary vision of ecology. As Ursula K. Heise argues in her fantastic book, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global, the Internet is often used in popular culture as a synecdoche for planetary connectivity. Avatar takes that one step further by showing how Pandora is itself a kind of organic Internet, its native inhabitants “jacking in” like the cyberpunk cowboys of yore. So while it’s true the system that produced the technology of Avatar is itself destructive, at the same time we should also acknowledge that it offers an emotional reconnection with a feeling of planetary consciousness, its 3-D heart reaching out to us over the silhouetted heads of the theater. In this sense, the film is about itself. After all, when we mindmold with Na’vi Jake Sully in the last shot, has he not become our dream? Or are we in his?
The film presents two paradigm extremes: the Mechanistic World Eaters, and the Organic World Grokkers. In-between are the bridge people, those who have a foot in both worlds, represented by Sully the wounded hero who becomes a shaman, and the chief’s daughter Neytiri, who is schooled in the language of the oppressor. The love between them is one conduit to transformation; information technology and art is the other. As such, the film presents different aspects of technological prosthetics. There are the machinery versions of the Robo Cop variety, and there is the Avatar Project, which allows humans to control biologically engineered clones in order to infiltrate Pandora’s natives. Finally there is the film itself which is a prosthetic of our enlarged senses. Like us, the film’s avatars are digital natives, which inhabit a hybrid domain of modern network technology and the primeval matrix of interconnectivity. Despite the popular belief that we are disconnected from the natural world (reflected by the fact that we talk as if there is a dichotomy between the two), like the avatars we are biologically and imminently part of the biosphere. We are not on earth, we are in earth. And just as my mirror neurons enable me to empathize and connect with fellow humans, they also extend to other animals, plants and minerals (yes, minerals!). We are naturally interweaving with all aspects of our world, but due to our domestication (best exemplified by Avatar’s comically named antagonist, Parker Selfridge), we are trained to experience nature as if it were alien. As bridgers, though, the minds that navigate the avatars are extending their awareness into a larger reality.
Still, though the technological net that encompasses Pandora can model and map it in 3-D, it fails to garner empathy from the World Eaters. Only through hybridization with the Primal Matrix can it happen. This occurs through technological bonding with the world’s natives, who are themselves a kind of animal hybrid (though they wouldn’t see themselves that way). Indeed, humans are animals too, lest we forget. Na’vi are part cat, part humanoid, which invokes some of Donna Haraway‘s work about cyborgs and hybridity (“We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs”). On a biological level, if we were pressed to evaluate what is it that defines us as human, you would be shocked to learn how much of us really is water, parasites and bacteria. Moreover, our DNA contains even the most ancient strains of evolution. Indeed we are part lizard, bird, fish and algae. Where the distinction begins and ends is cultural.
In order for us to reach beyond the reality bubble of technique, we start by burrowing our way through with what we can grasp. When Sully enters the world of the Na’vi for the first time, the only way he knows how to survive in the foreign landscape is to use fire — our first technology. But it is only when the flame is extinguished that he can see the world alive with light and energy. As many bloggers have noted, such a vision is not unlike the kind you have when imbibing the “fruits of gods.” If Avatar pushes the Vatican to criticizes the film’s animism, then I think it’s on to something.
The most useful aspect of Avatar is its ability to defamiliarize the concept of “alien.” I read some reviewers refer to the indigenous inhabitants of Pandora as aliens. Wrong. As the dialog and schematic clearly shows, the humans (we don’t know much about their history) are clearly the aliens, in the same sense that when the Spanish invaded the Americas, they too were aliens to the native societies.
The film’s machines — as cartoony as they are — are literal world eaters, visual manifestations of the very system that exists in our planet, right now, be they rain forest consuming corporations or imperial invasions (references to mercenaries and “Shock and Awe” might confuse some of the film’s fans who don’t see Pandora’s connection with Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan). Avatar’s weakness is to not elaborate more on the RDA Corporation’s home society. Like the war machine we see on the evening news, they are decontextualized from history (I imagine the sequels will flesh this out more — fingers crossed). It would be more courageous if their parent “civilization” was identified as a democracy. That could help us see more directly our own way of life as connected to the world-consuming ways of Pandora’s colonizers.
If you are like me, the most powerful moment of the film comes in the last shot, when Sully’s consciousness reawakens fully merged with his Na’vi prosthetic. In that moment my heart’s aperture opened widely, encompassed by an enlarged sense of recognition and unity that comes from a true connection with the world. From the screen’s eyes to mine, tears welled.
Cameron remarked that the Na’vi are like our higher selves. Connecting to this realm is refreshing like a purification dream. Indeed, the film’s very roots are in dreams, our one border region that still actively engages spirits of Earth. First, the Na’vi’s physical form was inspired by a dream of Cameron’s mother. Secondly, the image of blue avatars also draws upon the mythological vision of Hinduism, in which gods manifest themselves on Earth as dreamers dreaming themselves into existence. For us film can be a contact point to the liminal zones where such entities are realized by technologically aided human imagination.
Though a reviewer cynically called Avatar this season’s “ink blot test,” as a kind of zeitgeist film, Avatar’s popularity may indeed indicate that our higher selves are calling us home. Our inner hippies are still there, feeling the groove of our filaments snaking with the global matrix, our mutated and war-damaged bodies ready to be compost for the World Tree.
In answer to my initial query — What does Avatar want? — Mitchell argues that the dominant motif of the modern era has been, “things fall apart.” This can be represented by our literature’s earliest version of bio-engineering: the monster Frankenstein. Such a creature doesn’t dream, but is instead a nightmare. For so long his yellowed irises have stared us down in one form or another, perhaps beckoning us to re-enchant ourselves, and to rid our culture of this horrible vision of what we have become. I suspect that this is what Avatar really wants. Finally, as we stare back at the cultural dream’s refashioned eyes, they invite us to download our higher selves by responding, “now things come alive!”