No one can agree on what Avatar really means, but what if its message is more dangerous than it appears on the surface.
In a matter of hours, barring a miracle on Oscar night, laurels will come raining down upon the very large head of James Cameron-a testament to the very large middle of American politics. For how could a film that equally incensed the Right (for its hammy indictment of imperialism, corporate greed and environmental exploitation) and the Left (for its alleged rascism, rehabilitation of the noble savage and overall macho posture) be so widely adored? Well, how about because the film is historic and groundbreaking technically, because the malleability of its ideology means there is something for everybody and because it is utterly enthralling-so much so that many people have reported feelings of suicidal depression
after seeing it because when they wake up the next day they realize that reality just doesn't measure up to Pandora.It is sort of ridiculous to see pundits tripping over themselves to come up with novel accusations of a movie that clearly at its core is not really all that committed to any particular political narrative-an "all-purpose allegory" as one critic called it
. In case you doubted Cameron's cynicism check out his Playboy interview
. Addressing the hotness of the Na'vi, he says: "Right from the beginning I said, ‘She's got to have tits,' even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na'vi, aren't placental mammals."And yet, perhaps there is something to take away from this "ideological Rorschach blot
."Remember this? About midway through the movie, the Na'vi come together in a mass ceremony. All sitting crossed-legged, facing an elevated platform on which stands their leader, the Na'vi join hands and sway back and forth, chanting. The camera pulls back and elevates, revealing a sea of the blue people locked in their collective, ecstatic ritual, summoning the spirits of the Natural World, one Na'vi indistinguishable from the next. "It's Green Facism," I said to my wife.A month later this joking revelation was still jangling around my head. So I did some "research"- meaning I trolled around on the Internet for a while. It was a productive session. Before long I came across Armound White's passing reference
to the "latent fascism in [Cameron's] style." White makes this reference in connection with that scene of "sexualized conquest" when Jake Sully first learns how to dominate an animal in the Na'vi way, feeling its breath and "pulsing loins" then "docking his wriggling tail" into the animal. Yet, White simply lets this intriguing but startling accusation pass without further comment. What the hell is he talking about?Luckily, a stray blogger named John Shade led me to a piece of writing that really brought the comparison home: Susan Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism."
The Sontag article, which I passionately recommend reading in its entirety, is a classic review of the celebrated Nazi propagandist Leni Reifensthal's late career photo essay, The Last of the Nuba
. Sontag's point is that the fascist sympathies and racial preoccupations that guide Reifensthal's work for the Nazis also can be seen in her photographic work on the Nuba people in Africa. You can uncannily substitute Cameron's name whenever Sontag mentions Reifensthal and substitute the Na'vi whenever Sontag mentions the Nuba. The entire Sontag article could just as well have been a review of Avatar
. A reduction of her argument:
"…The Last of the Nuba [Avatar] is about a primitivist ideal: a portrait of a people subsisting untouched by "civilization," in a pure harmony with their environment…"…What is distinctive about the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage is its contempt for all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic. In Riefenstahl's [Cameron's] casebook of primitive virtue, it is hardly the intricacy and subtlety of primitive myth, social organization, or thinking that are being extolled. She [he] is especially enthusiastic about the ways the Nuba [Na'vi] are exalted and unified by the physical ordeals of their wrestling matches, in which the "heaving and straining" Nuba [Na'vi] men, ‘huge muscles bulging,' throw one another to the ground-fighting not for material prizes but ‘for the renewal of sacred vitality of the tribe'…
So what? And what is fascism anyway? Good luck finding a concise or clear definition. We are kind of foggy on that. Presently, the word is most commonly used to cast aspersions on a particular political stance or belief. The implication is that if you are fascist you seek to impose a vision of the world on a group of people and that vision generally contains some notion of moral superiority. If you are fascist you seek conformity and indoctrination. You exclude. The great fear is that if such a tendency becomes impassioned and state-sponsored, genocide and misery follow. For Sontag the fascist impulse is rooted in, or at least finds support in, romantic ideals about what is Natural and Beautiful and Primitive because these ideals provide a justification for presumed superiority, the notion of a chosen people and the submission of the individual will to the group.Here it is in the words of a Nazi, from Ernst Lehmann's Biologischer Wille. Wege und Ziele biologischer Arbeit im neuen Reich
"We recognize that separating humanity from nature, from the whole of life, leads to humankind's own destruction and to the death of nations… [The] striving toward connectedness with the totality of life, with nature itself, a nature into which we are born, this is the deepest meaning and the true essence of National Socialist thought."
Or, say, of Na'vi thought. Consider a few things about the blue people: 1) they don't allow anybody into their presence that looks or speaks differently (Jake Sully must not only adopt their highly uniform appearance but also their customs, language and ultimately their God); 2) their existence is primarily athletic and highly sexualized; 3) they are ruled by a charismatic leader whose will they seem to follow without debate or question; 4) they alone are plugged into Nature, with which they ostensibly live in harmony.And consider Avatar
's core narrative: a man who is crippled, finds the "rebirth of body" and triumph of his will by returning to this absolutist primitive ideal (the scientist, his guide, cannot follow him). Avatar
is, as Sontag writes about Riefenstahl, a story about "achieved community, in which triumph over everyday reality is achieved by ecstatic self-control and submission." This is undoubtedly one of the reasons the movie is so popular: because everyone feels powerless and disenfranchised in some way and everyone enjoys the feelings of liberation the movie inspires. This is also why depression the next day can be so brutal for some people. They are slammed back into their burdened, crippled reality.Yet all this is not to say that I think Cameron is fascist or even that the movie is fascist, per se. Again, I think the movie is totally committed to entertainment and only employs whatever ideology Cameron thinks will get us even more amped. What requires a short pause for reflection is the very desires that the "latent fascism" of the movie calls up in us the viewers.It is worth reflecting on this particularly in light of some people's tendency to view the movie as some sort of eco-epic. But the understanding of the risks of climate change have come through the application of the good old post-Enlightenment work ethic and even through the dreaded technology. We are onto appreciating Nature as Network, the landscape as history and the environment as contingent. It's no good to resort to Nature spiritualism and fetishization of Native nobility. In my view, the idea of Nature put forward in Avatar
is out-of-date, lazy, pornographic, and potentially dangerous for its very orthodoxy. We may think we are invulnerable to fascism and exclusionary violence. But we are not. Judging from the ecstatic response of the Navi-idealizing among us, a worst case climate scenario could very well bring on the rise of green fascism. Eyes open.Now let's get to oogling the stars on the red carpet.Guest blogger Ed Morris is the co-founder and director of the Canary Project.