Redemption lies in us (not Avatar)

Newitz confuses whiteness with skin color and Itskoff goes right along. Whiteness is an ideology that imbues an attitude of privilege in most people with white skin, but the assertions, aims, and theories of whiteness can be found in people of any ethnicity in any part of the world. Perhaps not often in some places, but commonly enough in many. In general, whiteness is associated with “white people” but not exclusively: to assume an automatic equation between ‘being white’ and ‘whiteness’ would be stereotyping.

4-dimensional timespace

I got excited by the January 20th NYTimes movie blogentry, “You saw What in ‘Avatar’? Pass those glasses!” because I scooped Dave Itskoff by two days. Really!  He wrote:

That so many groups have projected their issues onto “Avatar” suggests that it has burrowed into the cultural consciousness in a way that even its immodest director could not have anticipated…

“Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron’s intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about,” said Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”

I wrote:

A Window upon Us?

The drama of Avatar is less about the movie itself than how it serves as a blank screen for viewers to project a firestorm of passionate support and cynical disdain. There is a principle of feedback usually applied to interpersonal communication: whatever someone tells us about ourselves is more informative about the feedback giver, a window upon their perception – such as what they value and what assumptions they use to interpret behavior – than it is about ourselves as the target of feedback.

Itzkoff did more homework than me: he provides three categories of protest and lists about a dozen specific critiques offered by particular groups or individuals representing diverse perspectives.  I have one bone to pick regarding the quote he uses from Annalee Newitz in which she seems to back off from the strength of her critique, “When will white people stop making films like ‘Avatar’?

“Just the idea of whiteness is a local phenomenon,” she said. “It’s certainly not in parts of the world where white people are not dominant.”

Newitz confuses whiteness with skin color and Itzkoff goes right along. Whiteness is an ideology that imbues an attitude of privilege in most people with white skin, but the assertions, aims, and theories of whiteness can be found in people of any ethnicity in any part of the world. Perhaps not often in some places, but commonly enough in many. In general, whiteness is associated with “white people” but not exclusively: to assume an automatic equation between ‘being white’ and ‘whiteness’ would be stereotyping.

Avatar as a different kind of opportunity? Really?

“I read your blogpost,” a friend confided recently. “I can see that academics would be pissed.”  Another friend continues to critique what he calls my ‘rescuing’ of the film, explaining that all cultural products provide that same kind of blank screen/projection effect, so this fact hardly makes Avatar special. But so many people are engaged with it, that’s my point!  Bah, he shrugs it off. “That’s just because of the hype.”  (shhhhh…I suspect some academics are pissed because they fell for the hype; we’re supposed to know better. Dammit.) At any rate, Itzkoff’s interview with Gaetano Vallini confirms the hype factor. Vallini writes for the Vatican, and also seems to backpedal a bit from the assertions in his critique of Avatar:

[Vallini’s] assignment to write about “Avatar” was not an attempt to advance a particular agenda, he said, but rather “a compulsory choice” given the anticipation surrounding the film.

The western tendency to valorize “understanding”

I don’t assume that friends in fields other than Communication would be aware of this, but I’m surprised how many of my colleagues seem to be operating under the assumption that we can only talk with each other if we already share a known, recognized basis of understanding. Chang’s Deconstructing Communication makes a compelling case that misunderstanding is also a legitimate starting point for communication. And who could forget Professor Cronen’s story of the couple who consistently misunderstood each other and because of that were able to maintain their relationship?!

My thesis is that the challenge presented by Avatar is not how well or poorly so many groups come to use, misuse, or abuse it, but what we do – specifically how we talk with each other – about the fact of such diversity. If the assumption is that no conversation is possible without a priori or telepathic understanding, well that’s the end of it, eh? But if some curiosity could be cultivated, perhaps some new connections could be forged. Not theoretical linkages (although these may be there, too) but bonds of human relations arising out of the material use of a common reference point – egregious though it may be.

Meanwhile, back in school…

A friend shares:

“I haven’t seen Avatar yet. Speaking of imperialism, capitalism, private property and China, I heard and found it disgusting that in China it would cost 200 RMB, more than US$30, for one to see this movie. That is about a seventh of the monthly pension of my father, who had worked more than 30 years in Socialist China and who thus fares far better than the worst cases.”

And another sends a link to Avatar: The Abridged Script: “Sure it’s easy to poke fun at Avatar.  But it’s so entertaining!” The abridgement does dual oxymoronic labor: transforming “lazy screenwriting” into pop cultural commentary while laying bare a host of scientific contradictions and technological implausibilities. It is fun! But – – a dead end if a few good laughs is all it gives.

Finally, on the first day of classes this semester, in an engineering course on manufacturing processes:

“Don’t pick unobtanium as a material if its only available in North Korea.

We don’t get along very well.”

9 thoughts on “Redemption lies in us (not Avatar)”

  1. Stephanie, you are raising a number of interesting points about Avatar, and there are two things you said that made me want to know more about your thinking in this context:

    1. When you speak about what you consider the confusion between “whiteness” and ideology, I was wondering what term you can consider being more applicable, especially for those ideological areas where being “white” is not the context.

    I think I will save #2 for a separate comment, to make responses more targeted.

  2. Stephanie, my second comment concerns how you understand the central element of the film (and how you are somewhat alone in not liking it; I do not advocate following the crowd, but the fact that you have written so much about that which you do not like is interesting).

    You said “My thesis is that the challenge presented by Avatar is not how well or poorly so many groups come to use, misuse, or abuse it, but what we do – specifically how we talk with each other – about the fact of such diversity.”

    How do you think this talk should occur, especially since diversity and oppression have been so often discussed that we (here is my generalization) are numb to the discussion until something major happens?

    Very thoughtful posting, Stephanie. Glad to be a reader!

    Jeffrey

  3. Steph,

    I just saw Avatar for the first time last night, and I was amazed – both by what I found (personally) to be an engaging cinematic experience, and also (and this is partly why I found it engaging) the incredibly layer of both competing and parallel discourses being played out. Being a grad student of cultural theory and media, and having done most of my research on feminist film theory, there was SOOOOOO much going on in that film. What I find interesting is the obvious parallel of both positive and negative discourses being increasingly identified by critics such as yourself, and I agree with your “thesis” that it is MOST important that we understand how to talk about the diversity of different receptions.

    I’m planning a gen ed course to teach this summer on Film and Environment, and I think I’m going to focus heavily on Avatar. After watching it, I doubt I’ll be able to stop thinking about it, or the issues in the film with which I did or didn’t agree, and how to address them to students. Thank you for these two posts you’ve written, and the links you shared. I’m very motivated by them and hope to read more!

    Paul

  4. Hi Paul,

    Yes, “competing and parallel discourses” is a great way to describe the range of readings evoked by Avatar. If you haven’t come across Tom Atlee’s post, Avatar is stimulating some very juicy conversation…,” I encourage you to check it out. He has compiled an extensive list of views in support of creating a basis for “an integral response.” Is it possible, for instance, to use Avatar to explore (in Atlee’s words), “how a white person could bring his or her knowledge of white culture, systems, and technologies into truly creative interaction with indigenous culture, technologies and wisdom to transform exploitative culture-clash situations into a synergistic, transformational dynamic, i.e., an evolutionary opportunity”?

    One of the sharpest comments I’ve heard against Avatar came from a friend who’s been debating the film with me for a while. The ‘wrong message’ that she is concerned people may take away from Avatar is that Pandora is worth saving “because it is soooo beautiful!” I think she is on to something important here. She illustrated her point by bringing the application home (to Earth):

    “Afghanistan,” she said, “is not beautiful.” (And then we debated the details, e.g., the land is extraordinary but it has been abused for generations so now the people embody the wear and tear of repeated, perpetual violence.) My friend’s point is: will our institutions (continue to) be unwilling to stop the war and save the people and land there because “Afghanistan” doesn’t overwhelm us with beauty as Pandora does?

    That’s a pretty harsh view yet one that is closer to the realities of Earth today. This is one of the things Jeffrey is getting at (I think), when he asks how can talking happen in such a way to engage people whose numbness factor is pretty high? This is a main reason why I am talking and writing so much about Avatar even though my reactions remain ambiguous. This is a conversation that I can join, for various reasons of biography, demographics, politics, and pleasure in the genre (usually).

    I am disappointed when something strikes me as the same old formula dressed up in new clothes, but this is also information about a kind of ‘role’ that my (as with anyone’s) reaction serves at a larger, aggregated social level. If we could figure that part out – how “my” (individual) contribution is somehow representational of a certain set of themes (that may agree, in some respects, with what would one expect – or not! – for my age, gender, sexual orientation, race, etc; as well as connect me with other groups on the basis of intellectual or spiritual identification, such as being a pacifist committed to working through conflict – so (for instance) I will talk seriously with people in the military about their role in creating peace. I also believe climate change is a real threat to the planet, but somehow (realistically, yes?) we might have to find a way to design resiliency so that the wealthiest 1-10 % of the global population doesn’t feel like they are losing the whole cake.

    I like Arturo888’s description, in a comment called “Messiah? Maybe but I don’t think so,” of Avatar representing

    … something of a chess match between two collective entities, Eywa and the Corporation. Eywa prevails by capturing one of the Corporation’s pawns and converting him into her most powerful piece on the board. She recognizes that Jake’s knowlege, skills, and spirit are just what she needs in a champion and she intervenes TWICE to keep Neytiri from killing him; directly with her bow or indirectly by abandoning him to the jungle.

    To be able to hold that view means to believe in what dharmagalen (a commenter to Atlee’s post) describes as “the animistic soul.” This might be counterposed, hypothetically, to the cynical zeitgeist of today’s intelligentsia in a productive effort to engage fundamental, global-level problem-solving regarding (for instance) the inherent instabilities of capitalism as an economic system. A quality discourse analysis of what everyone is saying about Avatar would find the key terms and ideas in the various viewpoints of the film, treating these as puzzle pieces of a whole story. All perspectives, outliers as well, would cohere into groupings with shared characteristics and particular distinguishing features.

    Jeffrey, I’m developing an answer as I write this out to your question about how we could talk better, talk in a way that makes a difference, talk in new ways that lead away from numbness into practical connections full of feeling. There is nothing “in” Avatar to solve, but the powerful reactions to it, and the inspired criticism from all angles, suggests the movie is a potent mirror in which we can learn a lot about the interaction between individuals and systems. If the conversation is to turn productive, now that the first round of reactions, critique, and analysis is more-or-less done, it will require situating ourselves in discourses (as described above) and then exploring the bases of similarity and difference between ourselves and those in the same grouping. Yes, among ourselves first! We might be surprised by what we learn about the type of people we find is most “like” ourselves! If enough people were to stick with this labor-intensive process long enough, in every discourse-based grouping, we might be able to filter the mass of information down to the key points of imagined conflict (the fantasies invoked in-and-for us by the fantasy of the film), and – perhaps – link these imaginistic hopes and fears to their counterparts here on earth.

    If we got that far, wow. Then we would have a solid framework for engaging the similarities and differences with people in the other discursive groupings, which could foster some serious large-scale collaboration, creating the chance of a whole slew of us arriving at the highest level of social performance: collective action.

    More links:

    Full-Blooded Awakening & Embodiment: A Review Of Avatar by Robert Augustus Masters.
    The Racial Politics of Avatar in Psychology Today, by Mikhail Lyubanski (this is the first of two parts).
    Avatar is a White Savior Movie in The Progressive, by Ezili Danto.
    “No More Smoke Signals” and What’s Right and Wrong with “Avatar?” by Alan Levin.

  5. Jeffrey, your first question is harder to answer than the second, but I will give it a try, building on the answer to your second question that I provided in the previous response, that was mainly addressed to Paul (who I hope will come back!)

    You asked:

    “When you speak about what you consider the confusion between “whiteness” and ideology, I was wondering what term you can consider being more applicable, especially for those ideological areas where being “white” is not the context.”

    It is a useful question, Jeffrey, not so much for what it asks, but for what it does. As an action (imagining language as a force that acts upon the world), the thrust of the question is to focus attention on “things” instead of on “processes.” The “things” are “whiteness,” “ideology,” and “contexts.” If I were to respond at the level of “things,” I would be cooperating with you in a conversation that implies (not necessarily exclusively, but as one effect) that getting definitions right is very important. Eventually, we will come to an understanding of what each other means when using this or that term (or, we will assume that we “understand” what each other means, whether we actually share a common meaning or not). Or, we might come to “agree” (as in, cooperate with each other) to argue endlessly about a single fixed definition. Or stop communicating (for dozens of diverse reasons). One way we could talk better with each other is to resist the need to impose definitions in the early stages of a problem-solving dialogue.

    Instead, I want to respond from a different basis that (I hope) invites continued engagement premised within a more dialogic framework for interaction. Talking (using language to express ourselves) is never static, but definitions seek to plant fixed, immovable ‘objects’ of meaning. Yet, meaning always evolves and changes with more or less dynamism depending on the willingness and skill of interlocutors at maintaining flexibility and taking in feedback. Let me share an example to try and illustrate what I mean.

    Imagine telling someone that you “understand” a situation, intending to convey acceptance. It is a fairly common English idiom. But what if the situation involves some tension? It could be historical or biographical, stemming from missed/mixed perceptions, or resulting from imagined hopes or fears. Those of us in academia (or maybe it is just me, ha) are often especially skilled (deluded?!) into thinking that our meanings are transparent – at least to ourselves! This is contrary, however, to research and philosophy and a fair amount of personal experience. (I want to believe that I am not particularly exceptional in feeling/being misunderstood and/or struggling to accurately understand others from their point-of-view!) Dr. Vilaynur S. Ramachandran says:

    “Our mental life is governed mainly by a cauldron of emotions, motives and desires which we are barely conscious of, and what we call our unconscious life is usually an elaborate post hoc rationalization of things we really do for other reasons.”[1]

    In other words, there is always a lot more going on that is not apparent, which may or may not be adequately represented by the language we use. For instance, the way we use the word “tension” in social theory has been on my mind the past few weeks. If a situation is “tense” – what are we saying? Who, or what, is “in tension” with who, or what else? And which kind of tension? Are both ends, so to speak, feeling mutually stretched or compressed? Is one end feeling squeezed while the other is kicked back, relaxed? And how much more complicated when the stress is not contained along a single, linear axis but stretches radially in multiple directions, even three-dimensionally!

    To answer your question directly would be to go back to what I had originally written, figure out when, where, how ‘the breakdown’ happened or otherwise identify the point of confusion and labor harder to clarify (insist?) on “what I meant.” I am not saying we should never do that, indeed, I do it plenty often! But I am less interested in what I meant then as I am in whatever meaningfulness we make (together) of a distinction between whiteness and ideology. Do we really need it? Maybe. Do we need it now? I doubt it! The only practical usefulness of establishing such definitions now (as far as I can tell) is as a basis for judgment: crudely, of who’s ‘with me’ and who’s ‘against me,’ and also in terms of establishing parameters for how we’re going to move ahead: into a co-constructive dialogue or into pitched camps, possibly along pre-determined lines?

    To return to my example, and why I brought in Ramachandran, have you ever said a word and realized it was the exact opposite of what you meant? I can imagine saying, “I understand,” in a situation when I explicitly do not comprehend but nonetheless am fine with whatever that situation is. They are not mutually exclusive: one can accept without understanding! But if one wants to understand (say, to resolve confusion), the cognitive desire “to know” can come into conflict with the emotional state of acceptance. If a conversation could only move ahead on the premise of defending the use of “understand” – or perhaps to argue that the object of understanding is this or that, rather than that or this – a kind of interaction is established which uses the past as its reference point instead of the future.

    I hope I am making sense! This is tricky, because asking such questions (i.e., what did you mean?) is a normal way for academics to make connections with each other. For instance, I did something similar in the conversation with AR. All we ‘had’ to start with were some terms and definitions. I started there, seeking to connect with AR’s overt contributions yet simultaneously counter the normativity of interacting only in this way. We may never receive confirmation whether AR dropped out of the conversation because of the form of my engagement or for some other reasons. Maybe there was strangeness in the shift I made that contributed to the non-response? You’ll see that I ended up asking AR basically the same thing as I am articulating now: “…how does the distinction between imperialism and capitalism help? Or, more precisely, what function is accomplished by distinguishing between them?”

    Looking at language – the use of language as a tool, and the way language use guides us down particular paths – is a particular way of learning about problems. A clear gaze can yield practical, grounded knowledge that can be used to figure out, almost in a predictive manner, how we are likely to go on together. Perhaps I am over-interpreting, but because the word “confusion” appears in your question, it opens up the possibility for me to suggest that the desire for appropriate applications of terminology is a way of coping with uncertainty. This would be an example of a function provided by language. Let me exaggerate: If I don’t know what’s going on, I will try to find an anchor in something familiar. Or, taken to an extreme: If I don’t know what’s going on at least I can try to show that you don’t either!

  6. Steph,
    I read through your reply, and am working through your other comment back to Jeff, but wanted to let you know (per your parenthetical note) that I was still hovering here – thank you for the myriad links. I’m hoping, as I think I said, to teach Avatar in a class this summer and present the possibility of all these different competing views. I agree when you say you don’t feel there’s a problem to solve “in” the movie, but taking a look at how all these different views interact, and what they tell us about ourselves especially, is certainly worth something.

  7. Hi Paul, I’m glad you’re still here! Thanks for the reassurance. I guess I’m bumming AR is gone. Anyhow, I definitely want to know how things go with your class this summer. Did you see the article, Palestinian Protesters Pose as Na’vi From ”Avatar”?

    Meanwhile, my response to Jeffery is incomplete! I meant to also loop back to the substance of his question, and bring in the emotional, post-conscious reflection as to why I even raised the critique of Newitz’s and Itzkoff’s conflation of whiteness and ideology. Mainly, it was to establish some credibility with postcolonialists and social justice educators who might otherwise be inclined to write me off as a whitie who doesn’t get it. I may not get ALL of it, but I do get SOME!

    No one is going to describe me as Alice Walker describes Howard Zinn: as someone who “did not feel white.” She goes on to describe what “white” felt like to her then: “heavy, oppressive, threatening, and almost inevitably insensitive to the feelings of a person of color.” (Hopefully she doesn’t encounter too many whites who still feel like that, half-a-century later…. perhaps still insensitive – numb, or immune, or desensitized, or simply unaware – but hopefully not inevitably overbearing.)

    However, I am aware that by recognizing white people also need to be inspired, and not being surprised – or maybe not finding it cause for instant dismissal – that white people find inspiration in familiar mythological tropes, it could seem like I’m relatively clueless. I am sure there is plenty that I still have to learn!

    Anyway, I’m just trying to make the point that intellectual arguments serve all kinds of purposes that may or may not have much to do with finding practical ways to move ahead together in our complicated world. The tricky part, in a substantive dialogue that really is attempting to identify a common problem and frame it in such a way that it can be solved, is to figure out when and how to tack back-and-forth between the intellectual content and the social process.

  8. Steph, it is wonderful to see you struggling with some of these responses; it is not an easy job to quickly answer something that can be perceived differently on many levels.

    In many ways, your writing reminds me of the magazine the New Yorker, where everything in it is detailed, expansive, and quite thought out (with an eye toward encouraging intereaction and discussion).

    Jeffrey

  9. The humans on the world use technology as a tool, typical to the way that we normally see technology used today – as a means to an end. So you could say that there is a teleological system in place – there is goal always associated with technology for the humans.

    The Na’vi use “technology” as “interface”, as far as I’m calling it at the moment. There is not a goal, per se, in this technology (heck, they didn’t even invent it, but that doesn’t really matter in the long run), but rather they approach the technology as a medium for which to communicate with, to link to others. One could argue that the goal is to connect, but it doesn’t have an end – the “goal” is the continuing of the interface, the strengthening of the bond. It is a goal that, in recognizing the “goal”, recognizes that the goal is unachievable, “impossible”. Not to say that it isn’t worth reaching for, but merely the opposite – insofar that it is impossible, the only thing to do is to strive for it, because it is always open. This is my current idea, in rough rough form. It is a messianic view of human-technology interface – the idea that we (all of us, really, because this is the world we are living in now, but you could characterize the “we” as those using social technologies such as wikipedia) continue to utilize technology to continually strengthen the common bond, due to the realization that it is impossible and, if we follow communication theory from those like Derrida and Briankle Chang, we know that we are essentially alone and communication remains impossible. Otherwise, we would “communicate”, and then just be done with it.

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