In our angry populist discourse, it’s no surprise that conservative talk shows and right wing blogs dismiss James Cameron’s holiday blockbuster Avatar as merely liberal propaganda. While on the Today Show, Cameron himself, the sole screenwriter concedes that the film presents messages that challenge an American audience who typically have a difficult time with explicit political messages. Cameron claims that he wrote the film to show how “greed and imperialism tends to destroy the environment…” and how the human characters in the film “are doing the same thing on another pristine planet that we’ve done on earth.” While it is a truism that Americans would prefer their entertainment devoid of any social commentary, to just tune out and bask in the latest special effects and technology of Hollywood, the intentional political messages of Avatar merit deeper analysis to uncover the ideological supplements that sustain our actual political discourse.
The most frequent liberal criticism of Avatar is that its basic plot line reinforces the typical white supremacist narrative, where the archetypal white guy swoops in to save the primitive indigenous. In the process, the protagonist realizes his true self and the moral wrongs of his society and he restores justice to the people who train him in their ways – oh and of course he marries the chief’s daughter – Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas all over again. this trope is a Hollywood formula as common as the re-integration of the nuclear family. Take films such as Schindler’s List, Munich, Jurassic Park, or The Day After Tomorrow – what are these plot lines really but the happy reintegration of the family unit? Tom Cruise in The Day After Tomorrow, despite fighting off aliens and the end of the world, is really fighting to restore his parental authority. To dismiss Avatar as simply a racist white supremacist narrative is indeed true, but it is also a bit reductionist and misses some of the more nuanced and ambiguous political undertones that reveal much about our current ideological predicament.
The white supremacist themes are nuanced because the writers of these narratives are conscious of the decline and irrelevance of white supremacist narratives as such. This sort of conscious reflexivity with the decline of white power ends up shaping the identities of the larger white culture writ large. As Linda Martin Alcoff, a leading critical race philosopher points out in The Whiteness Question: the disintegration of white narratives is actually a result of the success of political liberation movements from the 1960’s and 70’s. And in the general decline and plausibility of white supremacist narratives that serve as rational support for white power, white identity becomes inhabited by “psychic degradation,” whereby positive white identities are derailed (Alcoff, 221). In the absence of positive white supremacist identities, a shifting occurs, whereby new, abject categories and collective identities are formed (Alcoff 206, 221). More than a straightforward white supremacist narrative, Avatar seeks the annihilation of white supremacist culture itself, or what philosophers refer to as the category of man. I will argue this tendency is supported by a New Age digital Gnostic view of spirituality. But before examining the spiritual undercurrents of the film, I wish to look at the flaws of Cameron’s version of imperial logic.
The Imperial Logic of Avatar
The imperialism theme in Avatar reveals a future controlled not by the state, nor any nationalist agenda, but via ruthless business exploitation, embodied by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribissi), the power holder and final decision maker aboard the human’s vessel. As in Aliens, Cameron portrays actually existing social antagonisms through individual characters that serve as archetypes for whole blocs of classes in society. There was little, if any, social background into what had brought the vessel to Pandora other than a general crisis of energy reserves – somehow this didn’t seem fitting, nor did the sheer greed-based logic of imperialism. Imperialism never operates out of greed alone. A religious or nationalist narrative always tends to sustains imperialism, and both of these crucial ingredients were missing in Avatar. This lack of any nuanced social background made it difficult to understand the reason for the need to extract the “vital resource” from Pandora in the first place.
While it might be easy to see the worship of the dollar as the organizing principle to rationalize violence and pillaging, but when has it ever been this way before? This simple plot line may be easier to deliver to a popular audience that suffered through the 2009 economic downturn and the general American disenchantment with Wall Street and corporate power in general. The lack of any religious/nationalist narratives to serve as justification for the imperialist slaughter is either poor writing on behalf of Cameron (a very real possibility) or an ideological fetishist disavowal – “I know very well that this is what happens, but still…” The imperialist hegemony operates purely out of nihilistic greed and duty to a corporate power machine that has annihilated any sense of positive group cohesion other than general fear of otherness is a very far reality from what the actual ideological structure of ‘actually existing’ imperialism.
The fact that Selfridge’s corporate power went unchecked by any moral or even reason/science based authority is an indication that the society on earth had turned completely Fascist, but Fascist without any religious or nationalist narrative to sustain its progress and violence. By Fascist I refer to the consolidation of corporate business and privatized power in “corporatism”, similar to what Mussolini implemented in Italy during the early to mid twentieth century. The corporatism theme adds a dystopian edge to the film but that theme is ultimately ironic because the characters are normalized – i.e. they don’t represent any normative break with the status quo. Selfridge is only evil in so far as we sympathize with the natives – again, a romanticized view of otherness at its best – at the other end of the spectrum Dr. Augustine claims (in the recently published internet manual Biological and Social History of Pandora) that, “there are many dangers on Pandora, but one of the subtlest is that you may come to love it too much.” On the opposite side of the spectrum, the “tree huggers” – embodied by Dr. Augustine and her cronies are romantically infatuated withe alterity of the Na’vi.
The chief individual archetypes were science and reason (Dr. Augustine), corporate power and greed (Selfridge), and unhinged military logic (Colonel Quartich). The only real moral voice in the film comes from Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who represents both science and reason mixed with morality – an odd admixture and arguably an unrealistic admixture considering that many anthropologists have begun to cooperate with the state department in providing vital cultural insight into exploited third world populations. What Dr. Augustine represents is the discourse of science merged with morality, but what seems unbelievable about this union of science with morality is that the two forces are united in a shared goal and the mediating force is rarely science itself, but rather, it is the union of science with imperialism that proliferates environmental destruction and imperialism.
There was hardly any moral cohesion within the Marine’s, or were they privatized military? Or are the two synonymous in the future? The Marine’s will to fight is provided by Colonel Quartich, (who Cameron no doubt based off of Apocalypse Now’s General Corman) the embodiment of the military machine, of infinite death and destruction – a sort of Freudian death drive taken to the extreme. Quartich, like many of the other characters reveals the “return of the repressed” a traumatized Oedipal personality hell bent on externalizing his trauma. As Freud says of trauma as the founding act of subjectivity from Moses and Monotheism: “what one is not able to remember, one is condemned to repeat: a trauma is by definition something one is not able to remember, i.e. to recollect by way of making it part of one’s symbolic narrative; as such, it repeats itself indefinitely, returning to haunt the subject – more precisely, what repeats itself is the very failure, impossibility even, to repeat/recollect the trauma properly.”
New Age Spirituality in Avatar
Avatar brings out a rich discourse on popular spirituality that speaks to actual tensions in our current discourse on spirituality and popular religious worldviews. I argue that it is how these various spiritual worldviews define ‘man’ as a category that we see the real wedge between New Age on one hand (represented by a sort of Gaia spirituality and digital Gnosticicism) and the traditional western Abrahamic religious worldview that sees man in his finitude – but importantly it is this place of finitude that is the source of man’s liberation and spirituality. It is not accurate to simply locate the spiritual themes as a sort of generalized Native American spirituality as this in itself is always inflected with a present admixture of what Native American spirituality is through the lens of a western New Age spiritual view. In Avatar, the digital Gnostics (embodied by the natives, or Na’vi) are presented in contradistinction to the traditional western, or “man in passage” spiritual view as exemplified by Nietzsche, Marx, and Heidegger, represented by the humans, or the Sky People. I claim that these themes are implicit, not intentionally developed, and I am reading into the narrative and extracting spiritual themes, and I recognize that at some level the film remains simply a story that is presenting a mix of archetypes – for instance, the protagonist Jake could represent a Muhammad figure uniting all of the tribes as one, as much as he could be a Jesus-like messianic figure, or a Moses shepherding his people to a new world.
The primary spiritual polarity is between what Zizek has called the ‘digital Gnostic’ view, that believes humanity is evolutionarily moving from hardware to software, and in the process man is merely shedding the material constraints of their body, and that upon death, the body (which is the root of all sin – i.e. human finitude is the source of oppression, not of liberation) is subsumed into an ‘Astral body’ hence the fascination with the Na’vi Avatar escape out of body experience. Notice how as the film progresses, the viewer is supposed to become less and less attached to Jake as human and more and more romantically attached to Jake as Na’vi.
What is the ‘digital Gnostic’ worldview? It must first be placed in the context of post-secular and New Age spirituality – and New Age is an amorphous popular religious worldview, not a religious tradition rooted in a community or set of rituals. The digital Gnostics believe the human Self is not created – what better view could Avatar’s virtual reality anti-materialism position adopt? The digital Gnostic posit a preexisting Soul thrown into a foreign inhospitable environment. The pain of our daily lives is not the result of our sin (of Adam’s Fall), but of the fundamental glitch in the structure of the material universe itself, which has created the demons inside man, this is evidenced by the protagonist Jake, “you don’t understand, the Sky People have already killed their mother…” hinting that there is no use in trying to negotiate with them as the death drive has taken utter hold. The digital Gnostic version of humanity is that we are entering a new era in which humanity will transform itself into a Global Mind, leaving behind petty individualism. In this reading, the digital Gnostic’s see humanity as still immature and barbarian, and not yet in full wisdom as the Na’vi. To the digital Gnostic’s, it is humanity’s allegiance to their material bodies that prevents their path to salvation. Consequently, the path of salvation does not reside in overcoming one’s sins, but in overcoming their ignorance, in transcending the world of material appearances by way of achieving the true Knowledge. The Na’vi, in a form of Hegelian alterity provide this from of digital Gnosticism that borders on Gaia spirituality.
The digital Gnostics (and New Age spirituality) share a completely different version of humanity than that of the continental philosophy of Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, a view I broadly label as “man in passage.” What Heidegger refers to as the “passage of man,” or the interstice of man’s potential to reach his essence that his spiritual truth can be realized. As Zizek points out in On Belief, “actually existing” humanity still dwells in what Marx designated as “pre-history,” and in this apocalyptic view, true human history will begin with the advent of the Communist society; or, in Nietzsche’s terms, that man is just a bridge, a passage between animal and over-man. However, an opposite reading also imposes itself – and this is the western view rooted in the Judeo-Christian and Muslim spiritual worldview that Avatar seems to reject. In essence, the western view of “man in passage” sees man as an intermediate status and flawed, but this is the source of greatness, since the human being is in its very essence a “passage,” the finite openness into an abyss. It is this tension that defines the battle of spiritual discourse that plays itself out in Avatar.
The spiritual themes also combine the popular “Gaia” earth wisdom movement that posits all spiritual truth is found in nature. Here is what their basic manifesto declares: “the Gaia Hypothesis proposes that our planet functions as a single organism that maintains conditions necessary for its survival. The truly startling component of the Gaia hypothesis is the idea that the Earth is a single living entity with the capacity of self regulation.” Like the Na’vi, the Gaia New Age belief that that mother earth provides the source for spiritual subsumption into ultimate harmony – of humanity’s salvation, hence the continual mother references in the film. The continual references to “Mother” are not only limited to nature, but this can also be understood through Oedipus complex.
The site of spiritual resistance remains not in the “man in passage” view as it does in the Matrix – where the forces of technological domination remain the locus of evil to be overcome and man in his finitude (underground in Babylon) is the site of actual spiritual and political liberation. Avatar is similar to the Matrix on many levels, but different in that Avatar was anti-materialist – in the Matrix “Babylon” was where man in his finite body form of sin was actually the site of romantic resistance and liberation. In Avatar, man in his finite existence is paralyzed (literally and metaphorically) and must be destroyed or rather, spiritually transcended for liberation to occur.