Saw Avatar last week, and apparently I must weigh in. Lot’s o’ spoilers ahead…
Is Avatar racist?
Sure, but that’s not a very interesting question. Back before I saw 300, I was prepared to be irritated by its racism, ethnocentrism, and violence to history, but after watching for about 20 minutes I realized that all of these complaints were simply beside the point. 300 is racist and ahistorical, but seriously, who cares? It’s not just that 300 is about abs and spears and gay giants and fat guys with knives for hands, although it is about those things. Nor is it to say that 300 should be treated as off limits for serious literary or philosophical inquiry; “you’re over-thinking it” is one of the least useful complaints that one can make about serious criticism. Rather, it’s to suggest that the racism and ethnocentrism of the story are among the least interesting, least novel, and least productive avenues of such inquiry.
Now, I will grant that Avatar is more complex than 300, and that the racism/racialism is, in some relevant sense, more deeply embedded in the story. I think that Westerners sometimes like to fancy that imperialism is something that they did to other people, but that’s not quite right; the Western experience of imperialism is so deeply embedded in our narratives of self that it’s essentially inextricable. In a hundred years, when China and India dominate the world economy, tales of Western imperialism, conquest, and exceptionalism may lose their charm for film-going audiences. For now, the background notion of dominance, modified only by Western forebearance, itself evidence of Western moral superiority, remains a foundational way of thinking about the confrontation between the West and the Other. While there are certainly examples of narratives in which humankind represents the oppressed rather than the oppressor (V, Battlestar Galactica), and narratives which essentially sidestep the question (Star Wars), stories in which human/Western/American dominance is the unproblematic assumption have their own intuitive appeal. Star Trek, in which human moral superiority prevents the full exertion of military superiority, is a science fiction example of this genre; another might be Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Ursula K. Leguin’s The Word for World is Forest takes this narrative as a starting point and further problematizes it, but then Leguin is considerably more thoughtful than we have any right to expect James Cameron to be. In any case, Avatar takes this assumption about the relationship between the West/humankind and its subjects as a starting point, and as such is fundamentally about colonialism. Moreover, while Avatar is anti-colonialist it doesn’t particularly challenge the basic colonial/imperial structure of the narrative. More on this in a bit.
At the same time, I think it’s worth noting that the idea of an alien Messiah was present in Western civilization prior to the colonial period. The story of Miriam, Moses, the reeds, and the daughter of Pharoah can be read as an extended effort to “naturalize” the leader of the Hebrews. Even Jesus Christ is, in some important sense, alien to the population of his ministry. The alien messiah is also present in explicitly anti-colonial ideologies that nevertheless accept the basic narrative structure of Western imperialism; I have no doubt that Che Guevara understood his work in a messianic sense when he tried to draw the Indians of Bolivia into a revolution that they didn’t particularly care about. I suspect that there are a few idealistic converts to anti-colonial Marxism that understood themselves as playing the Jake Sully role. Nevertheless, there’s considerable synergy between the “alien as messiah” narrative and the colonial/anti-colonial narrative; Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, for example, are based around combinations of these narratives.
So what can we say about Avatar’s politics?
And so if the racial question is only mildly interesting, what else can we say about Avatar’s politics? From a foreign policy point of view, it’s clearly a very left wing film. Much has been made of the difference between the mercenaries employed by the Corporation and actual marines, but to my mind the distinction didn’t mean very much. It’s clear that the (genocidal) mercenaries were veterans of the (presumably American) military, and the film gives us very little reason to think that the interventions they carried out while serving under the flag (a couple are alluded to, including a war in Venezuela) are any more just than that depicted in the film. Colonel Quaritch and Parker Selfridge are about as complicated as Billy Zane’s Cal Hockley, and the film falls very comfortably into a neo-Marxist explanation of the sources of American foreign policy. Unfortunately, Cameron feels the need to laden the already obvious analogy with relatively direct allusions to the Bush administration and the Iraq War. Cameron doesn’t trust his audience enough to make the blindingly clear connection between resource based imperialism and… resource based imperialism. I think that in our rush to interpret Avatar as racist/racialist, we run the risk of forgetting that a fundamentally imperialist/colonial story can also be very left wing in the contemporary political context. This is not to say that the politics of Avatar are particularly liberal; the closest theoretical fit would probably be a kind of left-wing Burkeanism.
I’m surprised that I haven’t read more about Cameron’s troubling vision of gender relations(and probably has been; forgive me for not fully exploring the literature produced on Avatar thus far); it’s true enough that the Na’Vi women hunted, but the gender division of labor nevertheless seemed very traditional, with women maintaining the spiritual health of the community while men manage its temporal affairs. Also, on passing their coming of age ceremony, Na’Vi men get their choice of (lifetime) mate, even though Na’Vi women apparently have to undertake exactly the same coming of age test. I also think that the question of disability could be profitably investigated. There’s a potentially productive parallel between Sully’s effort to escape disability in Avatar and Lieutenant Dunbar’s utter terror of amputation in Dances with Wolves.
Is it Dances with Wolves in Space?
Sort of. It reminded me more of The Mission than of Dances with Wolves, primarily because the tension between the scientists and the Corporation was reminiscent of the tension between the Jesuits and the colonists. The narrative of personal redemption (apparently necessary to any big budget American film) is more reminiscent of Dances with Wolves, although some parallels could be made between Sully and Robert De Niro’s character in The Mission. The montage of death near the end of Avatar was also echoes the final scenes of The Mission. On the other hand, The Mission rarely involved serious conversation between Indians and Jesuits, while Avatar and Dances with Wolves both include extended conversation in native language. To explore the comparison more deeply I’d need to watch Dances with Wolves again, which will never, ever happen. I suppose that the extensive use of the oboe in the scores of both Avatar and The Mission may have brought the parallel further to mind.
In any case, though, the three movies clearly sit within the same imperial family. In every case, Western/human/American domination is assumed. In every case, the only thing capable of preventing domination of the worst sort is Western et al moral superiority; the natives are assumed to be morally pure, but their morals and their military capabilities aren’t very important to the story. In all three cases, morality essentially fails to limit or modify temporal power. In Avatar and Dances with Wolves, a small group or single individual prevents or mitigates the domination (at least for a while), while in The Mission the Catholic Church is supposed to provide Spanish imperialism with a conscience. I further think that there’s some interesting ground to be covered in the comparison of the role of the Church in The Mission and the role of “science” in Avatar. At her other place, Charli wrote:
Other “good” characters too seem all too easily to manage the cognitive dissonance of knowing what is in store for the Na’Vi they consciously respect and love. Grace the xeno-biologist makes a few half-hearted attempts to dissuade when the tanks are already rolling. But surely she understood what was coming sooner? Soon enough to avoid feeding all the relevant facts to “the company,” or to warn the Na’Vi, or to engage Jack Sully about the ethics of his duplicitous posturing. If anything this is not a story about assuaging historical guilt but about forgetting the lessons of history. It is as if these characters are blissfully unaware of every mind-numbingly obvious political metaphor in the story.
This is interesting because the conflict between the spiritual authority of the Jesuits and the temporal power of the colonial state in The Mission is historically genuine; Jesuits and Franciscans often resisted state power, sometimes bitterly, in an effort to protect Indian populations in the New World. At the same time, the clerics themselves served as the vanguard of domination, giving the Spanish state a taste of Indian revenue, mapping out the physical and human terrain of native peoples, and in general providing the structure through which the colonial state was able to exert control. Indeed, the clerics themselves regularly engaged in the physical domination of the populations to which they ministered. The Jesuits and Franciscan weren’t stupid people, but there was the same kind of tension between their project and that of the Spanish colonial state as there was between the scientists and the corporation in Avatar. To bring this back to the point about Western colonialism made above, it bears mention that the scientific project is both the enabler of imperialism and its handmaiden; science helped make Western armies and navies invincible, while Western armies and navies opened broad vistas of study for anthropologists, biologists, zoologists, and so forth and what not. We shouldn’t forget, either, that the work of the scientists in Avatar is underwritten by the Corporation, just as the endowments of many major universities (not to mention the resources that went into the construction of more than a few Catholic cathedrals) were made possible by the wealth appropriated through imperialism.
Is it extraordinary?
Sure. Even more the Spielberg, Cameron is the master of the action-spectacle motion picture. While watching Avatar, it is impossible not to fantasize about the horrible set of punishments that ought to be inflicted upon Michael Bay (hopefully in 3D). I value the kind of spectacle that Cameron creates (I’m more than happy to apologize for Titanic), and believe that it requires an exceptional degree of talent. Avatar is visually remarkable, and its narrative (though deeply cliched) holds together enough for the spectacle to proceed. All of the Ford Pintos that appear in Act One explode by Act Four. The film’s biggest deficiency is its extended conclusion, which has several different emotional high points and is poorly paced. The dialogue is also terrible in spots.
Nevertheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable 2.5 hours.