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.”
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.”