This afternoon, I saw Avatar, directed by James Cameron. I saw it at a gigantic multiplex in Greenwood Indiana, in 3D in an IMAX format. I had an excellent seat – sixth row centre. The 3D glasses were large and comfortable.
My point is not to describe my experience of the film, although it is an important part of Avatar, and will play into some of my discussion of the film. I am not a film reviewer, nor am I much of a film theorist, but I feel this film requires my attention and focus for a variety of reasons that will come clear.
First off, people will ask “So what did you think of Avatar?” and “Did you like it?” These two things are not necessarily linked, and what Avatar is and does is very complex, and points directly at a number of critical issues in contemporary civilisation. What struck me on viewing the film, in terms of images, what I saw was a large number of references to films I very much like – and these references were seductive and interesting.
In the Home Tree, I saw the Camphor Tree in My Neighbour Totoro. This is where Mei discovers the nest of King Totoro. Totoro is a wood spirit and lives in the Camphor Tree – the Na’vi live in the Home Tree. The Tree is an ancient symbol of biblical proportions and esoteric meaning.
The general reference to Dances With Wolves is also obvious – a soldier who leaves European ways behind and goes to live with Native Americans. However, I see that actually as relatively uninteresting due to its obviousness, although that theme is something I will come back to.
The planet has floating mountains, which remind me of album covers for the Yes group by Roger Dean – covers like Close to the Edge
Close to the Edge: floating worlds...
and other images by Roger Dean from that period, such as flying dragons – looks a lot like a Banshee, no?:
Jungles floating in the air:
Floating pastoral worlds:
And floating trees and rocks:
I could go on, but now, look at this preliminary concept art from Avatar:
and this still from the film:
and it is pretty clear that Dean’s playful organic fantasy artwork must have had some influence, which is fine by me. Dean is no Da Vinci, but his artwork reminds me of happy times in my adolescence, spent listening to music by Yes with my friends and arguing over the lyrics with precision I can best describe as Jesuitical. It was what teenage fans of ProgRock would often do in the mid 70s… When I was young, the floating jungles and weird landscapes of Dean were a fantasy space I would sometimes imagine myself inhabiting, especially the floating world of Close To The Edge. Seeing this realised in Avatar struck a comforting cord in me.
Another fond memory Avatar brought back with the Floating Mountains was that of Castles in the Sky, by Miyazaki. I have always enjoyed Miyazaki’s work – beautiful, lyrical, gentle and unalterably peculiar.
In these ways, the imaging was something I was immediately comfortable with and inclined to have “good feelings” about; they formed a seductive landscape.
The design of the extended starship in Avatar reminded me of the ships in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running.
Silent Running is a story that occurs before Avatar – In Silent Running, the “wild” world has been sent offworld into ships for its own protection. Of course, as soon as it became economically burdensome, the wild world bottled up in these ships is disposed of like so much useless baggage. Avatar talks about how the world the humans come from isn’t green – how it is dead and grey. That would be the world after Silent Running, and like Silent Running, whose name reminds me of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, both films are warnings about the predations of industrial civilisation. Silent Running shows the imprisonment of the wild world, and its execution at the hands of capital. Avatar shows the pillaging of nature to feed the industrial war machine, as symbolised by the RDA corp. and the military goons it has brought along. In this way, I think Avatar is much more direct and accurate – Silent Running is a despairing work with a poignant ending of doom: a small robot must take care of the last remaining forest. In Avatar, direct action on the part of the Pandorans changes things and even defeats the industrial war machine (IWM).
In Avatar, the industrial war machine is only defeated when two things occur: the Na’Vi collectively band together and take up violent resistance to the IWM, and when knowledge of the Other is communicated and integrated into the world data system of the living Pandora planet. This idea of Pandora as a living planet reminded me of the film Solaris, first by Tarkovsky and then by Soderburg as produced by Cameron – only without the tedious psychology of the films or the book. Communication is a critical point in this film, and it is also important in my view of this film as an object in society.
This brings me to the essential contradiction of Avatar. The film is an extremely expensive, complicated, ultra-high technology story whose very existence is predicated on the industrial extraction and processing of resources that are, for all practical purposes, irreplaceable. The story it tells is how a society based on such principles is, by even a cursory analysis, inherently evil and self-destructive. Evil, in that it practices direct violence upon those who stand between the IWM and the resources it requires. Self-destructive, as discussed earlier: the planet Earth in the year setting of the film (2154) is a grey and dying place. Also, the system is logically self-destructive: such systems require continuous exponential growth; growth that is simply impossible on a finite planet in a materially finite universe.
So, here we are faced with a film, a commodity, that points directly at the industrial system that spawned it. It says that collective action can stop the unrelenting madness of the IWM, even as it is a product of the very same system. Just as the Na’Vi will never leave the Home Tree voluntarily, the IWM will no surrender peacefully. The IWM must simply be destroyed, which brings us to some rather interesting conclusions. The film takes place on Pandora. The story of Pandora is well known, so I will simply note that the result of Pandora’s foolishness was that while she unleashed all manner of madness upon the world, we still retain Hope.
Derrick Jensen’s essay in the book The Future of Nature (Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis. 2007.), titled “Beyond Hope”, he directly attacks the notion of hope in our present circumstances:
Hope, the story goes, was the only good the casket held among many evils, and it remains to this day mankind’s sole comfort in mis fortune. No mention here of action being a comfort in misfortune, or of actually doing something to alleviate or eliminate one’s misfortune.
The more I understand hope, the more I realize all along it deserved to be in the box with the plagues, sorrow and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power ssurely as a belief in some distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more thana secular way of keeping us in line.
Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane.
… hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.
His is one particular angle on hope, one vision of Pandora. He accurately critiques the common notion of hope, one I frequently hear from students when they say “give me some hope.” Counter to both my students and Jensen, I prefer the idea of hope as articulated by James Howard Kunstler:
“and a lot of time, college kids say ‘can’t you give me some hope?’ Can’t you give me some hope. Well, here’s the deal. I’m not a hope dispenser, OK? You have to generate the hope. It’s got to come from you. And the way you generate it is by proving to yourself that you’re competent people, that you can deal successfully with the circumstances and the changes that reality is sending to you. That you’re successfully negotiating your living arrangement and your reality. And that you’re paying attention to the tasks that need to be done in your society. And you’re not just relying on wishful thinking and waiting to win the lottery, or sitting around thinking you’re going to get something for nothing, or wishing upon a star. People who are generating hope are the people who understand the difference between wishing for stuff and making stuff happen.”
I agree with Kunstler more than Jansen, in that Kunstler is re-defining hope for the age we are in, and giving us a process for creating hope. And it is that sense of hope that is demonstrated in Avatar. The Na’Vi band together and DO SOMETHING. Their cause is hopeless – they cannot successfully fight the blitzkrieg of the IWM, and their casualties are huge. The Na’Vi are only saved when the “Cavalry Arrives” in an inversion of the Cowboys and Indians.
Here, the indigenous Na’Vi (the “Indians”) are fighting the Cowboys. Normally, in the Western Genre, the Cowboys are faced by a brutal and implacable enemy in the Indians, and are saved at the last minute by the U.S. Military – the Cavalry comes to save the day. In Avatar, the cavalry is the biosphere itself coming to the aid of the Indians, and the Cowboys, the IWM, are the implacable and brutal enemy. This inversion is underlined in the casting of Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine. She is a human – a member of the invasion force. An Alien. But she is an Alien who cares about those she has invaded, unlike Weaver’s foe in the film, Alien (dir. Ridley Scott. 1979.), which was an implacable and brutal enemy. In both films she is employed by an interstellar corporation. In both films she is an invader of an alien world. In Alien, we are asked to sympathise with her and her invading team sent there to mine ore. In Avatar, we are asked to sympathise with her as she attempts to help the Na’Vi, while despising her “team”, the RDA corporation who sent them to Pandora to mine ore.
The success of the Na’Vi is predicated on the arrival of the Cavalry – the giant and ferocious animals that are commanded to come to the aid of the Na’Vi by Eywa, the Mother Goddess of the Na’Vi. Eywa was informed of the peril of the situation by Jake Sully in his Avatar form. Dr Augustine’s character had died and her memories absorbed into a kind of spiritual database in the The Tree of Souls. Examining Augustine’s mind and her memories of the devastated Earth and the brutality of the IWM, allowed Eywa to understand how desperate the situation was. The war was won through information that allowed for the amassing of forces significant enough to repel the invasion.
So what message does this film have for us, today?
1. The destruction of the IWM can only be accomplished through direct action.
2. Key to this is the acquisition of substantial forces, which is accomplished through communication.
3. Hope (Pandora’s gift) is possible, however, it requires an enormous amount of work.
From Kunstler, we understand that it is precisely this work that creates the hope most needed in these desperate times, as civilisation faces the greatest transition and crisis it has ever faced in 10,000 years of indoor living, and humanity faces its greatest challenge to its very survival in 70,000 years.
This leads to the Necessary Contradiction of Avatar, and it is an instance of the Necessary Contradiction of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), as Avatar is simply an instance of ICT.
Per a Fox spokesman in an article by David Patten, Avatar was officially budgeted at $237 million and an estimated $150 million for marketing, for a total of $387 million. To illustrate the size of that sum, For FY 2009, the budget for the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts was only $155 million. To fund this film, directly out of pocket, every man woman and child in the USA would have to pay $1.27. Obviously, this endeavor is something that American society deems to be of some importance, as it is willing to invest such significant sums in its development. Its development is that of a media commodity, one with significant and rapid profitability potential.
Media commodities exist in a commodity culture – the devices and systems that the media commodity is made on and distributed through are also commodities. These commodities are only possible through industrial production means and methods,and the resources that go into these systems are subject to thermodynamic losses and material dispersion. These systems, as commodities, exist in a system predicated on continuous growth. Any continuous growth operates by exponential mathematics and can be called exponential growth. Exponential growth, as it requires continuous exponential resource acquisition, is simply unsustainable on a finite planet.
In Avatar, the Earth of 2154 was unable to acquire a critical resource, comically named “unobtainium“. It is the exploitation of unobtainium – valued at $20 million a kilo – that has brought RDA corporation to Pandora, and put RDA and the IWM it is part of in opposition to the interests of the Na’Vi.
Science Fiction is often not about any actual future – it is usually a commentary on the present, and Avatar is no exception. As much as it is a classic tale of imperialism, restating the theme of “Dances with Wolves”, given the contemporary crises of peak oil, the impending peak of phosphorus and other critical materials, and the continuing growth of the human population creating a perilous condition of overshoot, films that engage the issues of peak oil, the disaster that is suburbia, the unsustainability of civilisation, or, if the film asks, “If your homeland was invaded by aliens who cut down the forests, poisoned the water and air, and contaminated the food supply, would you resist?”
Then we need to look at them differently, as all entertainment (ICT) systems are intimately connected to some of the most rapacious and destructive resource acquisition systems on earth, as well as being directly a creature and critical path creator of contemporary globalist economic systems. It is important to connect entertainment and ICT. Since the digitalisation of culture all such devices require electronic components and computational facilities, and these components and facilities are made from materials all over the globe, and the co-ordination of the production of these materials, their processing, and final manufacture into ICT commodities require the movement of digital data via ICT, we can only see ICT as both creature / creation of the global industrial war machine and its critical path creator, as without ICT, the co-ordination and manufacture of these globalised ICT systems would simply be impossible. As these systems are identical in both nature and function (a computer is a computer is a computer) we can only see our contemporary entertainment networks as creations of the IWM. The linkages between the I and the WM are well detailed by other theorists (viz. Virilio, Hardt, Negri, DeLanda, Jensen, Zerzan, and many others) and I don’t think it necessary to detail that here.
From this, ICT – as a critical path component of the IWM – brings this weight to any content it provides. So, a film, such as Avatar, that is critical of this relation, is then subjected to charges of hypocrisy. I do not agree with such charges. In fact, I stand opposed to such charges, and have put them into what I mentioned earlier: the Necessary Contradiction of ICT. It is not that ICT embodies this contradiction (which it does, but not my point) as much as that it is necessary that we maintain ICT, even as ICT is such a destructive system to the earth and is part and parcel of the IWM. So, even as we decry the ongoing ecocide, we use ICT to decry the ecocide at the same time ICT is central to the ongoing ecocide.
Now, this is nothing new – above are links to media critical of the IWM, and you are presently reading some.
This leads to other ideas I have about the future of ICT and its relationship to society, but that is beyond this particular writing. All societies communicate with the systems they have at hand. Our system is predicated on the IWM, therefore, our communications are complicit to the actions of the IWM, even if they are inimical to the interests of the IWM. Avatar brings an anti-industrial message in the most advanced industrial method possible: large scale 3D digital cinema. Avatar is a product of the IWM, even as it satirises the IWM. This contestation leads to complex results: Avatar could be seen as Hollywood greenwashing, or the first blockbuster film celebrating the end of Industrial Civilisation, or, and this is very likely true: it is both.
Stuart Hall discussed these negotiated relationships people have with media, but this was largely around issues of content. Now we are faced with a radicalised McLuhanism, where the medium IS the message, and the medium is part and parcel, creature and creator, of the problem itself. Organised Networks rely on the technology developed by the IWM for their existence. At the Internet as Playground And Factory Conference in November 09, Christian Fuchs talked about a communist ICT infastructure. While an admirable goal, I don’t think it is either possible (politically or materially) or likely (due to the exigencies of resource extraction). This is a longer discussion that looks into an inherent weakness in Leftist theory and praxis, but the important point is to get the conversations started.
Avatar, a piece of blockbuster entertainment that brandishes a theme of anti-industrialism, and prescribes violent and bloody opposition to the IWM is, at root, entertainment. A fun story. However, given the crises we face, and the gathering storms of catastrophe on the horizon, its ecological message needs to be amplified and brought into public awareness. We, as a society, must make plans for a very different sort of existence in the next few decades, and use this huge transition as an opportunity to create a better, more humane and caring society. The easy road is one we have seen before in Rome, Central America, and Easter Island, and that road is a very sad and lonely Road. Avatar is deeply flawed in many respects (the reliance on Joseph Campbell formulae, the music was awful, the acting was wooden, and the story was predictable) but it stands in opposition to many other great Science Fiction Films. In 1984, the people are victims. In Blade Runner, the people are victims, even or especially when they’re artificial people. In 2001, Bowman is basically on a big ride – he has little agency. In Alien, we empathise with a crew who went someplace they had no business being. In Slient Running agency proves futile, and the biosphere is left in the hands of a small robot. In the Andromeda Strain, people are just disease vectors and victims. In Stalker, the Room in the Zone is all powerful, and personal agency is used against the agent. In Avatar, the people,as symbolised by the Na’Vi, rise up and smash the invading Industrial War Machine.
That they only succeed through the intercession of a “goddess” brings it to an interesting point, as the “goddess” is actually a material fact – it’s an organic data base held by the biosphere itself. It is the biosphere, the moon of Pandora istelf tht destroys the IWM on Pandora, and it is the biosphere on earth that wil smash the IWM on Earth, as we hit the wall of Peak Everything, and civilisation transitions to its next phase. Luckily we have had the luxury of the Golden Age of petroleum, and we have seen glimpses of fairness and justice, and we need to preserve these ideas through the transition and build a better society on the other side. It may well prove to be a neolithic society, but the lives lived in it need not be nasty, brutish, and short.