Avatar and Academics

3-dimensional timespace

A Golden Globe for best drama? Ouch. Most of my friends and colleagues will be disgusted. There is barely even a story in Avatar, because the re-presentation of the colonizing logic that elevates white men as heroic figures is left completely unproblematized.

I am not supposed to like Avatar. There are so many problems with it.  Really. And I did not enjoy watching much of it.  I winced, squirmed in my seat, felt bored, and was not even enthralled by the visual effects.  The three-dimensionality is pleasing at an aesthetic level, yes, and may deserve awards, but to consider Avatar drama is to cheapen the real human lives of actual indigenous peoples, women, environmental activists, and anyone else who applies their conscience to the experience of watching this film. Drama involves, by definition, “serious subject matter…usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue.” As a buddy keeps reiterating, there was not a single surprise, no unexpected twist, no nod or wink of any kind from the director, actors, script-writers, camera-operators or graphic artists of Avatar to a socially-intelligent audience.

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. As social and cultural critics, many academics in the social sciences/humanities believe it is our job to pounce upon popular culture to try and dismantle what we see as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the public sphere. It does not matter if the object of analysis is classified as ‘high’ or ‘low’ art, was intended for our explicit consumption, or purports to promote or hide overt political intentions. The debate over Avatar, however, is dramatic because it complements the very dynamics critical analysis intends to combat.

I cannot – nor do I want to – dispute the specific criticisms made of the racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism, out-of-control capitalism, and militarism in the film. I agree with these analyses. The question I’ve been mulling is whether this mythic representation of a glorified white male savior has an equivalent meaning in today’s world as it did in the historical world that postcolonialist, social justice, cultural studies, and critical communication scholars and teachers rightly deplore? I think not. I suspect that by assuming these images and representations “mean the same” as they did in the past, i.e., that they will lead to the same kinds of attitudes and behaviors, uneven relationships and hierarchical oppressions as has enabled white domination in recent centuries, then we contribute to “making” them mean what they used to: we collaborate, discursively, in co-constructing the social continuation of stereotypical hierarchies and inhibit processes of identity development and social change.

We. Perhaps I should resist writing in the plural, but what I mean to admit and expose is that I am also part and parcel of these discursive dynamics. Does my whiteness make me more susceptible to the folkloric elements in this classic story? Am I more willing to forgive egregious excess because I overvalue the seeds of incremental change? Perhaps. What might have improved the story of Avatar would have been for Jake Sully to support and affirm Tsu’Tey (Laz Alonzo) as the heir to Aytucan (Wes Studi) instead of competing to replace him. Or he could have given the idea of riding the monster raptor, Toruk, to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and supported the matriarchs in leading completely and openly.

Calibrating to another timespace

The running debate I’ve been having with friends involves things like how so many of us got suckered by the hype, and whether or not there is any redemptive value in the film, and if so, what the heck could it possibly be? My attention was originally captured by a fan review posted by a friend on Facebook, which was followed in quick succession by a blistering anti-racist critique and a thoughtful examination of prosthetic relations and doubled consciousness. I continued reading and listening somewhat incredulously as the debate rose in pitch, arriving even to the edge of tension with friends. I keep wondering to myself, how can so much be at stake? And what do these arguments “do” as communicative work in the world? SEMP suggests the furor is evidence of addiction, an intriguing hypothesis that reminds me of how I interpreted the panic of the monied class in the early days of the financial crisis.

Here’s what I perceive. It is (on the one hand) the same ol’ same ol’ white supremacist myth but with a twist (on the other hand) that matters. The audiences who are most responsive to the positive message of ‘going native’ are among some of the ones who most need to get it: young people (mostly men and some women) who have had enough privilege and/or culturally-constructed desire to experiment with the alternative realities invoked by videogaming.  Many have grown up in such insulated conditions that patriotism (to nation, to the profit imperative, to so-called legitimate uses of violence – to name the most obvious) is so embedded as to be unquestionable.  Yet these same young people are a bit freaked out (if they’re paying attention whatsover) to the inevitability of climate change, the sensationalism of terrorism, and subsequent threats to the security and comfort that is all they’ve ever (really) known.

The lack of any sophistication at all in Avatar’s storyline (a major bone of contention from erudite friends) allows the alternative message to shine: endless consumption has to be reckoned with, and there must be other options than fighting-to-death over natural resources. As caricatures exaggerating some of what is ‘good’ (albeit in a culturally-biased and fragmentary way) and ‘bad’ about the types of people cultivated by the present global political-economic system, it seems clear that the primary intended audience of director James Cameron’s “story” is not graduate students or intellectuals – by assuming that we are Cameron’s target we miss the potential use of a culture’s particular and situated mythology to generate change from the inside.

Interrupting kneejerk belief in the bad

I was intrigued to learn that the cast was contractually forbidden to discuss the storyline. I am definitely prone to finding silver linings, and I’ve always been drawn to the underdog – just as I’m glad the Na’vi survive, I am unsettled by the intensity of academic attack, not on the film per se, but on the viewers of the film who are inspired by its story of betrayal to the military-corporate ethos. Because, ultimately, the critiques say nothing “to” the inanimate film or its characters. Whether or not they are rendered in two- or three visual dimensions they are merely symbols. What matters are the uses to which these symbols are put, and I am concerned that the main thing being accomplished is the reinforcement of cynicism and general hopelessness in the face of perceived inevitabilities.

Avatar is not science fiction; it is fantasy. Fantasy asks for the willing suspension of disbelief. Fantasy evokes a temporary reality, a vision of possibility premised on a vein of reality – emphasize the hope or dwell on dread, its your choice. I prefer to support the chance that plunder and profiteering can be made methods of the human past, rather than surrender to the empty promise of a futile future.


Barbara, Speculum de L’Autre Femme, Why critics of Avatar are missing the point
Rob Beschizza, boingboing, What storytelling risks could Avatar have taken?
Mary Bustillos, The Awl, I Hated ‘Avatar’ with the Fire of a Thousand Suns
Mary HK Choi, The Awl, Flicked Off: Avatar
Adam Cohen, New York Times, Next-Generation 3-D of ‘Avatar’ underscores its message
Joshua Davis, (esp. language details – inventing Na’vi) in Wired, James Cameron’s New 3-D Epic Could Change Film Forever
Erkan, Erkan’s Field Diary, Avatar, the movie
Stephanie Jo Kent, Reflexivity, “believe the data”
Annalee Newitz, i09.com, When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”?
Lisa, Sociological Images, On Avatar, The Movie
Sr. Rose Pacatte, National Catholic Reporter: Riffing with Myth
Christina Radish, AvatarMovieZone, Laz Alonzo talks James Cameron’s Avatar
Selva, The Scientific Indian, review
The Snake Brotherhood, NationStates, The whole Avatar debate
Emmanual Reagan, merinews, Avatar a Spiritual Fantasy

7 thoughts on “Avatar and Academics”

  1. Most analysis I’ve read of this movie fails to distinguish between capitalism and imperialism, a distinction which is, interestingly, not lost on some Chinese, who see Avatar as a story of forceful violation of the foundation of capitalism, property rights.

  2. Hi Steph,

    I agree with you on some things. I do believe as you say, that James Cameron made his ‘message’ a message with mass-appeal. His audience is certainly not the erudite intellectual or grad student. And there is certainly some worthwhile, even if grossly simplified, message in the movie.

    And yes, one is, of course, welcome to get what s/he pleases out of the movie, to choose to be hopeful or to be cynical. My own cynicism arises from my history, something I do not expect everyone else to share, but do expect some to understand. The movie has a simple and therefore, appealing message, and even a necessary one at some level, but unfortunately I cannot help but feel that such ‘simplification’ comes (and has come) at the cost of silencing some voices, the weaker voices. Movies like Avatar (but by no means is Avatar the only one in the gamut) simply continue this.

    Well, anyway, thanks or writing this. Hope to see you around sometime.


  3. AR and Smita, thank you both for expanding the scope of thinking for me.

    AR, your observation of a blurring of distinction between capitalism and imperialism (I comment on the Chinese view further down) reminds me of the challenge of differentiating oppression from discrimination, and of the isms from prejudice. By definition, the latter (prejudice, discrimination) are generic human attitudes and behaviors that can happen to anyone no matter who they are, but in the former (racism, sexism, etc., and oppression) the generic attitudes (of prejudice) and behavior (discrimination) are practically guaranteed to happen to individuals because of who they are (or who they are presumed to be). When the generic prejudice and discrimination are equated with institutionalized isms and oppression, what gets obscured is the concept and awareness of privilege.

    This might be the crux of contention, Smita, between the different places or stances with which we view the movie. I’m going further out on a limb here, but what caught my attention in your comment is a combination of the logic of histories, weaker voices, and the silencing of some voices with the palpable, emotional sense of not being able to help/avoid feeling a certain way. In other words, I think you are saying that you felt a visceral affinity with the representation of the Na’vi and/or with particular figures among the Na’vi, and that the association was painful. (Duh, huh?)

    Am I right? Or at least, close, since language probably fails to do justice to the felt experience? If I’m totally wrong, this next bit will provide a classic case of exposing more about ‘the feedback-giver’ (me, in responding this way) than you! If I’m in the ballpark though, this helps me make sense of the strength of feeling driving much of the debate. It may come down to the difference between empathy and sympathy, in which empathy requires identification, whereas sympathy operates at a distance. So, I feel empathy (to a certain extent only!) with Sully because of a heightened desire to do something that makes life better for lots of people – a motivation instilled in me since forever, for whatever mix of historical, emotive, ethical and/or redemptive reasons.

    But while, I am filled with admiration/envy for the Na’vi – I don’t ‘get’ them – their cultural milieu is not mine, our struggles are not so parallel, so I cannot identify at the same gut level of empathy as I can with Sully – and this despite the fact that my ideology aligns much better with the interconnections represented in Na’vi lifestyle and beliefs. Mo’At inspires me, but my exposure to matriarchs is too limited to recognize how I might ever be able to become ‘someone like her.’ (Not that I imagine I’ll ever become ‘someone like Sully’ either, its just that his characterization is more accessible to dreaming than that of Mo’At the awesome matriarch because of a lifetime of cultural conditioning.)

    I know – that’s the point of critique, how Avatar continues that conditioning, which it does. But here’s the thing that was less apparent to me until reading your comment, the mirror-side of conditioning: to have/be/experience oneself as the voice that’s silenced or weaker. And this is where that easily-overlooked privilege comes in: when wrapped up in the dominant perspective it is so easy to forget the range of other identifications implicated in the story – because the dominant view is one-way, not doubled/multiple. I have to say I haven’t read this anywhere yet. It takes guts to acknowledge that pain of association, possibly even of identification, because this grounds critique and keeps connection – even across this gulf – possible.

    Another friend asked why there have to be natives in these types of stories, which is a nuanced question. My first reaction was, because there are indigenous people still surviving, fighting vigorously for their traditional ways of life! But the deeper issue might be along the lines of, why do symbols from the Hindu religion have to be drawn in alongside alien characters acted by people of color? Why, in other words, do the representations have to be so close to home, such blatant evidence of residual colonization? Why can’t “mass appeal” reach aggregated masses across historical divisions?

    I think Cameron could have done it. He could have populated the Na’vi with white actors and actresses and diversified the humans considerably more. He could have chosen symbols from another peaceable world religion. Would that have changed your experience of the story? Or would the story, too, still need to be different?

    Playing around the edges of my mind is means vs ends. I want to live in a world where the crap of history doesn’t haunt my every word. I want that “end” to be here, now. But that ain’t gonna happen: there’s a long hard road looming ahead and it is burdened all along the way. Which leaves means, and figuring out how to balance the pain of triggers (from whatever source, they mess us all up plenty often) with the capacity of people to change. I’m stretching as fast as I can!

    All of which brings me back to AR, and the point about property rights. The link to “The Avatar Effect” in the Wall Street Journal, provides a pithy counterpoint:

    “Private property is one of the most sensitive issues in the country [of China] today, and “Avatar” has given the resisters a shot in the arm. Even in Hong Kong, the “Avatar” banner has been taken up by antigovernment activists trying to defeat a plan to demolish a village to make way for a new high-speed railway line.”

    I don’t know which characters in Avatar are being most identified with by the Chinese, and I don’t know if property rights is to capitalism or imperialism what privilege is to racism and oppression, but I do think its interesting that there are complicated people in complex circumstances who are being inspired by Avatar’s simple message.

  4. I don’t think that capitalism and imperialism are to each other what discrimination and oppression are. Oppression requires discrimination, but imperialism long predates capitalism.

    However, for capitalism and imperialism to exist in conjunction does require discrimination, because the foundation of capitalism, which is again a respect for private property and individual freedom, would preclude imperialism if it were applied universally. For a capitalist civilization to be imperialist to others, it must first deny them the rights that make its own citizens capitalists in the first place.

    As for the Chinese, it seems to me that the property owners in question are being straightforwardly identified with the Navi, since both are victims of attempted displacement by force of arms.

  5. Thanks for responding again, AR. I see what you mean about the difference between imperialism and capitalism, although it is ironic – yes? – that the Chinese perceive the capitalistic motive of property rights in the Na’vi defense of HomeTree (specifically) and Pandora (generally). Using capitalism as a weapon against imperialism is one thing, but there is a strange kind of conflation/appropriation at work when images/representations stemming from peoples who do not believe in ownership (at least not in terms of the land) are used as inspiration for justifying land/property ownership.

    The third perspective you bring automatically complicates the typical dichotomy of an ‘oppressor/agent’ and an ‘oppressed/target.’ This pluralization of discourses is necessary for the production of new knowledge. This is the main reason that I blog – hoping for complex conversations that could lead (through the mix of “a heterogeneity of elements”) to new formulations in regard to, for instance, race/racism.

    The discourses that go along with target/agent roles in oppressive systems are pretty well embedded – the outline is apparent in the interaction between Smita and me although I think both of us make moves along the edges rather than in the central stream. To oversimplify, ‘first reactions’ initiate trajectories that are difficult to disrupt. It only takes a few repetitions (of the same ‘first’ reaction in a few different situations) for neural pathways to be built linking certain emotional states with particular cognitive processes (and vice-versa); hence (in my shorthand), the colonization of consciousness by discourse. If we want our resistance to be effective, those initial responses (all of them: intellectual, emotional, rote, ironic, etc) must be questioned and perhaps adapted.

    Once a conversation is pluralized, it becomes possible to engage at a level of discursive work that can intervene in ascending fashion from the local to the structural per Foucault: “…starting, that is, from its infinitesimal mechanisms, which each have their own history, their own trajectory, their own techniques and tactics…” (as quoted in David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 45). Harvey elaborates, summarizing Foucault: “The only way open to ‘eliminate the fascism in our heads’ is to explore and build upon the open qualities of human discourse, and thereby intervene in the way knowledge is produced and constituted at the particular sites where a localized power-discourse prevails” (p. 45-46).

    We (each of the three of us, so far) are enacting “infinitesimal mechanisms” in this conversation which are representative of power discourses. We may argue as to the relative power of each discourse in society, but it is the subjectivity of our own participation that is most at stake. If we stay within the constraints of what is circumscribed, then the larger dynamics prevail. If we can manage to tweak those limits, then we are in a zone where resistance has a chance to prevail over the status quo and generate something new.

    Back again to the potential imperialism of capitalism, I noticed that you said “capitalist civilizations” and “citizens.” Now, I hope I am not picking at straws, but to me only countries grant citizenship, not civilizations. If we stay within your configuration, capitalism is imperialist ipso facto, because citizenship is highly regulated. If this is so, then how does the distinction between imperialism and capitalism help? Or, more precisely, what function is accomplished by distinguishing between them?

  6. Tricky, how to respond? I know they are difficult questions. 🙂

    Anyone should feel free to contribute at any time. Although it doesn’t seem too common to continue blog conversations in much depth or over time, this possibility seems underutilized yet worth pursuing.

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