” [The obscure subject] systematically resorts to the invocation of a transcendent Body, full and pure, an ahistorical or anti-evental body (City, God, Race . . .) whence it derives that the trace will be denied (here, the labour of the reactive subject is useful to the obscure subject) and, by way of consequence, the real body, the divided body, will also be suppressed.”
– A. Badiou, The Logics of Worlds, p. 69
Naturally, conservatives of all colors are extremely ardent to assert that there is no “deeper message” to “Avatar”, that the only depth of Cameron et al.’s magnum opus are the three-dimensional animations. The latest, and as habitually most belatedly pathetic, example of this reactionary backlash is the Vatican who, separated from Pandora as many light-years as from our present world, dryly declares that there is “nothing much behind the images”. Really? The very people who themselves enforce such a careful image-micro-management with the dobermanish head of the conservative Christian world now claim that there is “only surface” [as an accusation] when what they manipulate like nobody’s business in their own dealings is exactly that, the visual membrane with their insecure, worldly, sinful flock. Then again, hypocrisy is THE currency of the priestly trade.
Tragically enough, what these forces of catholic reaction fear is not Avatar’s brand of NTTs but instead the pantheism [animism is probably the expression they are looking for] it allegedly advocates… wrong again. The Na’vi do not “worship” the nature around them but consider themselves an integral part of it so that their rituals take the explicit form of a communion, either as individuals establishing a Tsaheylu with the “Tree of voices” or as a collective, holding onto each other in a large, interconnected, chanting circle. They communicate with their world horizontally, as opposed to Vatican-type Christendom which supplicates the high “Heaven” vertically.
The chanting circle of crossed legs and grasped siblings’ shoulders carries us to the next topic: the “noble savage”. To me, the N.S has always been, quite simply, a trope of the empire’s bad conscience “We are slaughtering them anyway, so let’s at least stylize them as lovely people on the dead pages of books and travel reports”. I believe the point about the N.S is that, when it comes down to it, s/he is still a “Savage” first and a “Noble” a far second. Moreover, if the noble savages were not considered all together bad and primitive, that meant they would then still be amenable for missionary projects… perfect!
Along come the Na’vi and some people become instantly uncomfortable to just let them be Na’vi [dancing, hunting, chanting, etc.], uncomfortable to just call them Na’vi. And what term do these people find to express their unease? Yep, sad thing, they say that the blue people are meant to signify “Noble Savages”, which is really only documenting their own inability to deal with the pointy-eared, blue-skinned, sharp-toothed alterity. At least it makes this sub-genera of skxáwng critics sound slightly more sophisticated than if they had used the first term that popped into their minds: primitives, savages. But honestly, even if this is a slightly polemical supposition, they had better followed Wittgenstein advice: what we cannot talk about, we must pass over in silence.
Which, again, boosts my agitated mind to the next point of contention: predictability. The only thing about Avatar that has truly been predictable are the sad-sack, mentally lethargic reviews that have dirtied its enthusiastically, frothy wake through public space.
It is interesting to see how every other movie buff praised the motion picture as a “totally immersive experience”, the celluloid paragon of “tempus fugit” then turned around and called it “utterly predictable”. It would be interesting to question these folks at what point in time they took a deep breather, ignored the “stunning 3-D jaunt through a visionary Psychotopia” and told themselves instead “Ok, buckle up, because Dr. Grace Augustine is not coming back, contrary to all the cinematic cues” or “My-oh-my, again one of those bland connect-to-the-tree-containing-your-ancestors’-memories scenes” or “If I see one more scene of airborne, spiritual jellyfish massively alighting on a protagonist to single him out for integration with the others, I will challenge a Thanator to a foot-race” or, even more conventional, “Oh, this is one of those Noble Savages movies where they defeat the Conquistadores or Frontiersmen in the end and send them packing back to England/Spain. How many times do we have to see this?” They destroyed the flipping home-tree, remember? Speaking of which… the movie was about as predictable as 9/11.
And how was the climactic battle organized? Cooperatively, horizontally. After JakeSully landed on his Toruk, the first thing he did was to tell Tsu’tey that he accepted his chieftainship in these times of conflict. Even the speech, which was, I will acknowledge, one of the most uncomfortably familiar scenes of the movie, was diluted by the co-presence of Tsu’tey translating it and the Princess of the Omaticaya, otherwise known as Neytiri. However, after this it are the Na’vis themselves that can be seen to disperse to the four winds. This is to do with something mentioned by the French Anthropologist Pierre Clastres, that chiefs in horizontal societies, for the most part, have a coordinative role in conflict situations rather than an absolute position of power.
Perhaps at the heart of many of the ill-considered issues floating around Avatar like the Hallelujah mountains, distorting people’s mental radars, is the question of JakeSully. What struck me first about him and what I still find stunning when I really consider it, is that the guy is in a wheelchair. He is what is sometimes referred to as handicapped or perhaps even bipedally challenged. Which was the last “Hollywood blockbuster” [if this term makes you feel at ease] protagonist in a wheelchair? Exactly. This fact can absolutely not be passed over in silence. We are often happy to decry racism, sexism, ageism or even classism but the truly insidious aspect of hierarchic power structures is that it effortlessly discriminates against EVERYBODY who does not fit in with its HETERONORMATIVE standards, one of which is unhindered bipedalism. Thus, significantly, those who wish to work against it must do so on ALL fronts and not just with their CHOSEN minority. Michael Albert gave the illuminating example of women in the Vietnam War protest: eventually the pointed out that the anti-war movement itself had sexist structures and that they would no longer be willing to participate in it if this did not change, not just because they were being discriminated against but because it made no sense protesting against something as immoral when you yourself as a movement/organization/cause replicated those discriminatory structures…even if on a less intense scale.
This is to say that JakeSully, even as a human being, is a discriminated against minority or as the marine jarheads say “a meal on wheels”. Then when he arrives among the scientists he is again humiliated, at least in the beginning, as being “under-educated” and “lower class”, etc. this guy is constantly fighting the odds. Even among the Na’vi he is for a long time not regarded as belonging and considered with great suspicion. JakeSully is effectively a double- or even triple-marginal figure, a person who can cast a critical light on differing, especially conflicting societies because they are somewhat alienated from both. The best example for this is Jamake Highwater’s Nanautzin:
Call me Nanautzin. For I am the one who threw himself into the fire so the Sun would rise. And I am the last of my race which has fallen into a reckless night. Call me tlamatini, for I am one of the wise men, a broken mirror in which the world makes its fragile shadows. I alone have escaped to tell what has come down upon my people.
– J. Highwater, The Sun, He Dies, p.13
And if this post is about being adequate and mindful then I should state that JakeSully, in his double existence as narrative figure/blood&flesh actor, is indeed a quatruple marginal figure because Sam Worthington was sleeping in his beat-up Jalopie before James Cameron up&flung him into global stardom. Such is the power of cinematic celestial bodies. To claim then, in the face of all these arguments to the contrary, that JS is simply a great “White Man” is exactly to stick with the “dogma of surfaces” that this motion picture so successfully supersedes.
Finally then, and with an irony absent of tragic aspects, we can come full circle to unite the initial argument about newness, identity/belonging and para-systemic struggle. [By para-systemic struggle I mean that the fight against an unjust state of affairs is overlaid by a positive project of what the future could (not should) look like, e.g. after Capitalism there could be Participatory Economics]. And ironic because in the trope of Rebirth there are certain religious undertones.
JakeSully, ultimately, becomes a genuine Na’Vi, a Na’Vi in the flesh, blue as can be. On my reading this is not a species betrayal but instead a symbolic representation that there is always the possibility that a person, through transcendent struggle, can become somebody other, somebody new to the core of their being: he was freed of the strictures of his previous existence precisely because he was willing to sacrifice it for a cause he believes in.
However, in the reception of the movie, tragedy/blueness lingers. Because along comes a movie making almost every critical point the progressive people could ever wish it to make, a spaceship-load of non-trivializable truths and, from sheer cultural elitism, they miss all of this in a deluge of reactionary, conservative interpretations: exactly what they accuse their political adversaries of! This is not without consequence, as Avatar will most likely go on to become the best-selling, most-seen movie in the history of our planet, both much-beloved, ill-understood and much-discussed. It would thus be an ideal platform to discuss the pressing issues of our time IF we are willing to take the time to consider it carefully and then discuss it with an open mind.
EXCREPT from the original screenplay
EXT. RAINFOREST – DAY
MO’AT tends to the mortally wounded TSU’TEY as AVATAR JAKE
arrives with Neytiri. Mo’at has bound his wounds, but by her expression, it is clear he cannot be saved.
Jake kneels and Tsu’tey opens his eyes. Through a haze of pain, he recognizes Jake.
TSU’TEY (Na’vi) I See you, Jakesully.
JAKE I See you, Tsu’tey te Rongloa Ateyitan.
TSU’TEY Are the people safe?
JAKE They’re safe.
Tsu’tey weakly clutches his severed queue.
TSU’TEY I can never ride again, or bond with my
woman — or hear the voice of Eywa. I can
not lead the People. You will lead them,
JAKE No. I’m not officer material.
TSU’TEY It is decided. Now do the duty of Olo’eyctan. Set my spirit free.
JAKE I’m not killing you.
TSU’TEY I am already dead.
TSU’TEY It is the way. And it is good. I will be
Tsu’tey’s voice is weak, but thick with emotion.
TSU’TEY — I fought with Toruk Macto, we were brothers — and he was my last shadow.
TSU’TEY’S HAND clasps with Jake’s in a fierce grip. Jake draws his knife.
TSU’TEY’S POV — Jake leans forward, blocking the sun.
HIS SHADOW falls across Tsu’tey.
JAKE (Na’vi) Forgive me, my Brother. Go now to the Mother Spirit.
Thank you, Lovely Reader, for your consideration. I will be glad to hear back from you. Kìyeváme!