XXXIX

•May 9, 2014 • Leave a Comment

In (neo-)ultra-leftism, socialism-in-one-country becomes socialism-in-one-individual.

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•April 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment

What unites the many different forms of Socialism-from-Above is the conception that socialism … must be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, by a ruling elite which is not subject to their control in fact. The heart of Socialism-from-Below is its view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of activized masses in motion […] , mobilized “from below” in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny […] on the stage of history.” – Hal Draper (“Two Souls of Socialism”)

Nationalism, Postmodernity and Avatar

•January 20, 2010 • Leave a Comment

James Cameron was asked in an Avatar interview, “What do you want people to take away from this film, other the 3D is awesome, and action is cool?” His answer addressed the goals of his film and in the order of what he considered to be important:

Number one – I had a great time at a movie theater. That’s the thing they should take a way. I got my 15 bucks worth. That kicked ass. My mind is blown. That’s goal number one. Goal number two is that my emotions are still working. I cried because I felt something. And goal number three is ‘why was I crying again?’ oh yeah, because that tree fell.. A slight shift in perception. If that’s possible.

 So between entertaining and enlightening, Cameron has certainly achieved the former. One would hope so, keeping in mind that the movie employed 2,000 people in a span of three years putting the budget for Avatar around $300 million, making it one of the most expensive films ever made. There’s no doubt that the movie’s visual universe is quite stunning and the storyline, while simple, is engaging enough. All this considered, the film’s occasional stale dialogue effectively helped make this “ultimate James Cameron production” the “most expensive and accomplished Saturday matinee movie ever made.”

Besides being enjoyable to watch, the film succeeds in very few places. Ideologically, it is a mess. The original script had the introduction to the movie on earth, where one could have seen the decrepit condition the planet was in. This would have been a more honest way of framing the ideological tint of the movie, rather the crass critique of the “system” explicitly offered. When viewed at a literal-historical level, the film can be highly cynical and critical references alluding to our messy political situation end up working against it. Jake Sully informs us that earth is a war-torn wasteland devoid of plants or natural resources. The collapse of the earth, the need to colonize other planets, and the creation of the purest form of imperialist military-industrial complex (companies that hire ex-soldiers as mercenaries for colonizing efforts) all seem to say that not only has the current system of capitalism brought ecological catastrophe upon the earth but that it stayed around and developed into a more clear, brutal and exploitative manner. Clearly humanity hasn’t learned its lesson. So on a literal level, the film’s critique of capitalism’s brutal nature ends up working against itself: by projecting this critique into the future, it seems to predict the earth’s eventual downfall, as well as humanity being stuck in within the same exploitative system. The movie leaves the viewer comfortable in thinking that all other options besides the current one are like the world of Pandora, unrealistic and utopian. The film’s message follows Fredric Jameson’s assertion that: “It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.” It’s a depoliticizing message that essentially says “why bother?” Summarizing Jameson’s thoughts on utopia, Perry Anderson remarked:

“[Utopias] occupy a peculiar political space, flourishing not in times of revolutionary upheaval as such…but in the calm before the storm, when institutional arrangements appear unchangeable, but minds have been set free by some still unseen tectonic shifts to reinvent the world. Born at moments of the suspension of politics—if suspended in the sense of the legendary sword—utopias so conceived retain, for all their potential luxuriance of detail, at root a stubborn negativity, an emblem of what, despite everything, we cannot grasp or imagine.”

Many critics have noted the film’s explicit references to the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but the most important are the evocations of the latter two. The national spirit of the U.S. used to suffer from post-Vietnam syndrome, but is now afflicted by the tremors of Post-(9-11/Iraq War) living. If one follows along with the nationalist subplot, we first have

the destruction of Hometree, the Na’vi’s ancestral home and the root of their connection to Pandora. Its support structures blown apart by missile fire, the massive tree, hundreds of feet tall, collapses in a shower of flame and debris, its incandescent embers wafting through the air as the bereaved Na’vi wail their grief. The resonance with the familiar images of lower Manhattan is inescapable.

Then, after the Na’vi have collectively mourned, they are seemingly unanimous in their support to fight the “foreign intruder,” being spurned on by the old leaders and, of course, end up defeating the enemy with help from Eywa. Isn’t it possible then, to read this as an attempt at covering up post-(9-11/Iraq War) traumas, i.e. crafting a palatable narrative for soothing our historical tensions? The limits of imagination within Avatar result from the deadlock of the late-capitalist, post-(9-11/Iraq War) world (still “stuck” with the “best-worst system”), and this results in an enjoyable film for both liberals and nationalists/conservatives. Avatar allows the viewer, like Jake Sully, to move from a disabled body (or our decaying society) into a new, strong and agile body. A sense of anxiety is created when Jake, in his avatar body for the first time, starts to move around defying doctor’s orders, smiling the whole time. We don’t know whether he is just being defiant, if the lab has created a monster that will break free and eventually destroy them (which actually ended up happening in a way). It ends up being the latter, as Jake heads outside and starts running for the first time since his accident. All this is supposed to let the viewer have access to Jake’s transgression, and allow us to identify with his character.

From here, one is free to choose their fantasy according to ideological preference. The movie’s outward liberal stance makes the idea of an American nationalist enjoying watching the U.S. army be defeated by a group of stereotypically depicted native people, while at the same time sitting through tons of environmental diatribe, sound ridiculous. To the contrary, thinking about the movie as expressing both liberal and nationalist ideologies shows a more informed reading.

The movie is not, as Kenneth Turan put it, “enlivened by all the seeming contradictions it brazenly puts together.” In fact, the movie’s ideological edifice falls apart under the weight of a multiplicity of irreconcilable stances it tries to represent. Therefore, Avatar’s storyline demands a fantastical rendering like its choice of a lush digital-panacea chic. The amount of ideological baggage that the film carries makes a society like the Na’vi impossible to represent in human terms. The Na’vi, in fact, seem to be a postmodern leftist’s greatest utopian dream: they are a people (1) that are supposed to be one with nature (so much so that their environment is part of a large spirit, which they can “plug into”), a stance intended to please environmentalists, (2) that are pre-modern (if we understand modernism to be the process of industrial capitalism), which offers a nod to supporters of   a return back to nature, such as Evo Morales (who has publicly supported the movie) to those advocating de-industrialization all the way to adherents of anarcho-primivistism, (3) that are placed, paradoxically, within the frame of our postmodern digital fantasy today, on the one hand embracing the idea of the multitude and the hope that we will be able to upload our souls onto some sort network (they are able to plug in and channel the flow of the multitude (Hardt and Negri), showing that the “capitalist” multitude masks the fact that the “one” is growing stronger (through larger, more monopolistic corporate control over life and in the movie where the Na’vi still have centralized authority)), and (4) that are supposed to be in touch with their “spiritual” side, something that will likely appeal to mystical new-agers and the like. It’s also interesting to note that the Na’vi’s spiritually isn’t “bullshit,” as Parker Selfridge thinks, but its rather something that’s scientifically quantifiable, according to the long speech by Dr. Grace Augustine. This can’t help but remind one of the constant attempts (fantasies of) to make religion into a matter of normative facts today by fundamentalists, like the constant attempts to fuse science and religion. Other problems include the “developed-world” leftist fetishism of supporting revolution happening somewhere else, typically far away and in the third world, while, at the same time, not seriously trying to bring about revolution in ones own country, where the centers of world imperialism lie. The film’s pseudo-environmental ethos stresses the unity of nature but ends up sending a paralyzing message when nature (Eywa) comes to the rescue to help defeat the imperialists after the Na’vi can’t fight any longer. Rather than the fixing the environment be a problem that is solved by human action, we get the impression that, in the end, things will fix themselves. It seems that the Avatar’s “environmentalism” parallels the general attitude of influential industrialized countries in dealing with climate change, on display for all to see recently in Copenhagen. They acknowledge that there’s a problem (surely they understand that we’re exterminating life, including ours eventually), but they don’t seem to be “affected” enough by it to really do something. Other utopian moments include the Na’vi not as mere mortals, but as part-human and part-god:

In the unconscious of the movie… all the Na’vi are avatars. That is, they are all digital representations of humans, lying elsewhere in coffin pods. And they are all vampires…This, I think, is the strange lure of the movie: Wouldn’t you like to be the vampire of yourself? Wouldn’t you like to live in an alternate reality, at the cost of consuming yourself?

 Doesn’t this correspond to current techno-fantasies of the body as unimportant, compared to an eventual immortal database of “souls”?

Where this movie is most ideologically misleading is in the way that the Na’vi are portrayed, as a harmonious society without conflict. It leaves out the reality that, in the real world, a society resisting imperial power is itself usually wracked by domination and oppression. The ideological message given is the worn out theme of a state previous harmony and balance that we must return to, before it was disrupted by a foreign agent; to restore societal harmony, one has try to return to old ways and fight out the rogue subjects. Rather than embracing modernity as a step forward, the film falls victim to the lures of far away “ancient” worlds, and like many others today, seemingly forgets that those societies were far from being perfect states. Therefore it’s interesting to note that the “postmodern, high-tech aesthetic” which “stands in stark contrast to the decidedly modernist, industrial design of the humans’ arms and armaments…[recalling] the gritty and clunky aesthetic of Battlestar Galactica.” It looks a lot like the Na’vi inhabit the postmodern fantasy of a world unencumbered by the consequences of technology; [the Na’vi] are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls.”

It accidentally provides an insight into the reality of the “harmonious society”:

The racial essentialism of the film creates a whopper of an unintended thematic irony.  The planet and everything on it…are hard-wired into a single neural network that makes the entire planet into a single entity and “the space people” less like a colonizing mercenary force than a disease.  The humans are to be resisted not because they are economic imperialists (though they are) and not because they glory in militaristic combat (though they do) but because they are different.  They do not belong to the planet and therefore there is no possibility for peaceful coexistence.  The only way humans can be accepted is for them to forsake their humanity and become Na’vi.  (Think literal assimilation.)

The movie hints at the truth of an organic, harmonious society, which ends up being a totalitarian/fundamentalist nightmare. It’s also interesting to conceive of the “the space people” as a “disease,” precisely because today there are many people claiming links between viruses and terrorist activity: their unrelenting nature, inability to be seen by the naked eye (giving rise to anxiety), etc.

Many reviewers have claimed that the movie was a “white messiah” fantasy, which is partially true. David Brooks comments that, “The peace-loving natives — compiled from a mélange of Native American, African, Vietnamese, Iraqi and other cultural fragments,” i.e. globalization of the Other, “— are like the peace-loving natives you’ve seen in a hundred other movies.” Jake,

notices that the peace-loving natives are much cooler than the greedy corporate tools and the bloodthirsty U.S. military types he came over with. He goes to live with the natives, and, in short order, he’s the most awesome member of their tribe. He has sex with their hottest babe. He learns to jump through the jungle and ride horses. It turns out that he’s even got more guts and athletic prowess than they do. He flies the big red bird that no one in generations has been able to master.

 With this kind of lifestyle, who can go back? The natives “have hot bodies and perfect ecological sensibilities, but they are natural creatures, not history-making ones.” So, much in line with imperial policy, countries are not allowed to pursue their own path, but rather, must be lead (making this a nice advertisement film for institutions like the IMF). Jake has to be there to help lead the tribe to victory over the imperialists so that the tribe can stand triumphant. Afterwards, “he achieves the ultimate prize: He is accepted by the natives and can spend the rest of his life in their excellent culture.” Ultimately, this premise of the movie “rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic.”

However, the key problem with the movie, missed by most reviewers, was that the story of the Na’vi’s struggle against imperialism is the ideological motif of anti-colonialist nationalism. The logic of this ideology in real life, that a foreign agent disrupted a formerly harmonious community, is counterrevolutionary and plays into the hands of elites. On the surface, it seems that the movie is espousing an anti-war/military message, but the underlying message is a quite different one. By invoking the ideology of nationalism, the movie unknowingly ends up supporting the same ideology it is trying to fight. A nationalist commented that the message of the film seemed to be:

“Once again: WE are the indigenous people being colonized by a multiracial elite for profits and can only achieve victory for our heritage and children’s children by uniting our various tribes as one people. There is no better way to interpret this film to our fellow whites. For what more effective way is there to combat our enemies’ propaganda than to turn it against itself for our advantage?”

The film also had another glaring ambiguity, hinted at by one reviewer who commented that

“A four-year-old could pick up on the ideological underpinnings of the film’s good guy/bad guy dichotomy: it’s a team of humanitarian scientists allied with the physically and spiritually (in short, naturally) brilliant natives VS. a greedy American corporation allied with the stupid but enormously and soullessly (in short, technologically) brilliant military.”

The problem is of course the film’s depiction of the scientists as something relatively separate from the corporate/military part of the enterprise. Imperial powers, including today, often give humanitarian aid as part of their domination (using missionaries, scientists, teachers, food, etc). It offers a means of subduing the native population with as little coercion as possible. Although the scientists eventually “come around,” one has to remember that from the beginning, part of their job was to understand and produce information about the Na’vi for further use by the corporation. There job boils down to what Quaritch told Jake: “I need you to learn about these savages, gain their trust.  Find out how I can force their cooperation, or hit ‘em hard if they don’t.”

Clearly, this is a confused film in many respects. The Socialist Worker, who had an overall positive view of Avatar, posed some important questions:

Unlike most recent sci-fi films, [Avatar] is filled with a utopianism that we haven’t seen in a while. Is this a nostalgic longing for lost innocence? By presenting the Na’vi and their way of life as akin to indigenous cultures destroyed by colonialism, does the film run the risk of grasping at an irrecoverable past?

The answer to both questions? Yes!