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Avatar: A Deceptive Saga Of Reaction

By Joe.M.S.

26 February, 2010

The film poses to be providing a satiety for the revolutionary angst of the oppressed, through the apparently progressive metaphoric element, in the narrative structure of the movie. Thus, the story of an imperialist onslaught on a virgin land of humanoids(Na’vi) , and the attempt to plunder their valuable mineral resources by, the ever evil humans, using devious strategies, evokes very recent historic memories. One can draw an immediate parallel in the plot to the recent attack on Iraq by the imperialist forces. Thus , James Cameroon’s magnum opus gives the impression, through the deceptive message encapsulated in the metaphoric element in the plot , that it is on the side of the oppressed. The portrayal of Yankee’s militaristic imperialism, epitomized in the abominable character of the head of Sec-ops, Colonel Miles Quatrich(Stephen Lang), a la Bush, persuades the audiences to accept the ‘progressive’ intentions of the filmmaker . Many other revolutionary insignias and codes, appropriated from progressive discourses currently in vogue, are weaved in to the plot to create this effect. The spectator is broiled with righteous wrath against the malicious workings of capitalism .So far so good.

But if one delves a bit deep beyond the predominant strand of the narrative, one could see the glaring disconnect it has with the real content of the film. The subterranean text of the movie presents an entirely contrasting picture. Then, we can rightfully start doubting whether it is a progressive oeuvre, as it is claimed to be. The real problem of the movie is with the whole edifice of philosophical apparatus on which the apparently progressive narrative is premised. In fact, the grand old polemics of form versus content can be invoked as a problem here. The form and content dialectically influences each other, existing as they are in a continuum. Thus the visual treat and the thriller format amounts to an escapist fare which defeats the projected objective.

When the creator mantles the role of a progressive, by directly invoking concrete references to the workings and lethal contradictions of the present system, and poses to provide solid solution , the whole ideological apparatus of the basis of such interventions and its efficacy needs to be enquired into, as it is misleading and therefore counterproductive. It is particularly true in the present ‘apolitical’ times, when cultural productions of mass appeal, can inflence people ideologically.

A critique on the reactionary philosophical basis of Avatar

The film upholds eco -romanticism to the extent of its radical mythicization. Take the scene in which an attempt is made to invoke the supernatural soul, and the conviction and sympathy of the script towards such process, to reincarnate the fatally wounded Grace - the head of the Avtar programme to grow the sapient Na’vi-human hybrid bodies. Her body is placed in front of Omaticaya’s Tree of Souls and a graphic and indulgent portrayal of the ritual to invoke the soul is followed, which hints at the idealistic perspective of the movie. The indigenous humanoids of Pandora( the moon of planet Polymous) pleading with Mo’at to heal her and the scene in which the clan performs the ritual that transform the protagonist Jake‘s human body permanently to his Na’vi Avtar too bears testimony to it. Here the process of reincarnation-which can be read as material consciousness too if one takes the seemingly opposing leads in the plot, created by the works of modern ‘deprecated’ ‘instrumental’ rationality- to the accoutrements of well choreographed visual expletives of sophistry, is itself contradictory in its execution and intention. Thus the resultant successful transmigration of the ‘soul’ is logically absurd, even when one allow for poetic justice. The spectacular choreography of the said scenes are aimed at creating the urge for an idyllic world and its romanticised cultural practice as a panacea for the contemporaneous realties. (One can leave the ulterior motive in replicating the primordial culture of human tribes on humanoids and its inherent anthropomorphism, which indirectly results in a sort of appropriation of the right to cast judgment on the ‘other‘ in another time and space, a la burden of civilising !).

The prominence given to the said scene were worship of the holy tree is shown is directly inspired by the recent craze among the middle classes of third world for protection of sacred groves- a kind of holy forest- and associative practice of alleged environmental protection ingrained in the whole feudal cultural milieu, with in which it works. Here the take is that a search is on for progressive practice of protection of environment, necessitated in turn by the instrumental application of modern rationality, which has been questioned, and as a panacea, the search culminates on the assumed virtues of such ‘other’ cultural practices. The underlying rationality in such moves to ahistoricise the socio cultural complex on which that particular and momentous strand of culture thrive. It’s posing as libertarian, lacks from a dialectic understanding of history. How it works in third world as full-fledged ideology of liberation is questionable as well.

The director has indulged in exorbitant use of visuals abounding in commodification of the ‘exotica’ which caters to the voyeurism of the Western mind, thereby even stretching the potential coffers of worldly capitalism, to the nether world! .The attribution of a symbiotic structure of the cultural practices and belief system of the humanoids to the ancient tribal cultural practice of the planet earth is a deliberate attempt aimed at this effect.

Even if one allow for the prospects of an imaginary, escapist fancy for the mythical world, situated in the realm of an anthropomorphic imaginary species, the delineation of the discourse, is reactionary. The fancied and there by attractive part of the romanticisation of primordiality arises from the seeming ‘un-knowable’ nature attributed to its belief system and therefore the resultant potential for its mystifications, rooted in idealist interpretations. Again the propensity to think so, is a reflection of the alienation of self, resulting from social contradictions in real life.

The visible indignation on all modern props of enlightenment,(may be a genuine one due to the misuse of science by the capitalism and the distrust it generated, but obviously wrongly posed) is juxtaposed to the sole virtues of a historically unreal culture .On a close reading, one can deduce that the ideological roots of the process can be traced back to orientalist discourse itself.(Its contemporary reproduction is post -modern philosophy, both genetically linked to philosophic idealism). In search of awe, resulted from alienation generated by commodification of life, the western mind, bewildered at all ‘other’ cultural practices as unfathomable and unknowable, develops ‘protective’ urges towards ‘other’ realities, in the process ‘absolving‘ them from the realm of materiality, as one not to be tampered with.

In the perspective of post-modern philosophy they doubt all human engagement as unwanted and cultivate a deep animosity to all human achievements, by the reductionist argument of branding the very human endeavour as such as positivist and bordering on linear progressivism, thereby denying human agency, the very literal potency to act in nature. The ideology espoused in the movie, inspired by romantic environment movements, subscribe to such a position. They conceive that mankind cannot know the workings of the nature empirically and his efforts to do the same are destined to be fallible. All human interventions are antagonistically pitted against the omnipotent nature, without realising the inherent humanising of nature involved in such an attempt. The very concept of ‘progresses and ‘development’ are problematised non-dialectically. In this move they uphold a position, in reality an imperialist ploy, mistaking it as subversive and counter hegemonic. All genuine human actions to come to term with the vagaries of nature are termed violent and human existence is conceived as a freezed, lacking contradiction: amongst themselves arising from class disparities, or with nature. Such an ideology had provided fuel to many third world semi-fascistic movements based on the admixture of feudal ideological formations and technocracy. Ultimately, as an emergent conclusion, mankind’s whole history is ridiculed and deep distrust is sowed towards mankind as a race itself, incapable of ‘salvation‘. The huge influence such an idea may generate among the masses through a popular cultural product may make them pessimistic and disempower ideologically.

The total denial of human agency is very dangerous on another count too. They do it because, due to the clarity for actions of mankind, it is possible to fix responsibility for his pitfalls as a race. The restriction of the possibility to comprehend material reality to its complete negation is the problematic of such an epistemology.

There assumption behind the unsubstantiated belief exemplified in the lore of a personified mother nature and harmonious co-existence between species conceptually presupposes the denial of the destructive/accidental side of the of natural contradictions resulting from the natural ‘developments’ of nature and this ‘positivist’ conviction entrusted in their folklorist belief system, deny the possibility to conceive dialectical developments in nature as such. James Cameroon, willingly or unwillingly falls prey in to this conundrum. The dichotomous detachment of the narrative at bipolar level, one as a progressive political praxis conceived as an immanently subversive one, and the other one cancelling out its natural ideological progression, is reflective of the logic of post -modernity itself. Their attempted liberation suffers from a retrograde ideology. In the deliberate aestheticisation of primordial life style as progressive they don’t understand that the whole process is in fact informed within the ambit of modernity.

Despite the overt political praxis transposed in the narrative to hoodwink the people , there were genuine criticism raised and aired by people of concern, on the racism involved in casting. For instance, they cited, the usual cliché in an American hero liberating the indigenous humanoids of Pandora. But this was only the tip of iceberg. The paradox is within the structure of the narrative itself, which is regressive.

Let me further point out the instances shown by Cameron as ‘progressive’ traits in the presumed superiority of the species, Navi. Such a ‘superior culture revels in the parochial annihilation of another race on the flimsiest of grounds. The issue referred to crops up in the scene where the heroine Neytiri (Zoë Saldana) aims an arrow at Jake on her first encounter with him, who later changes her mind according to the portents of Eywa. The lack of the basics of rational scientific temper, and the resultant ignorance and idiosyncrasies, which handicaps them as a race is eulogised and solemnised as solution for the real life problems.

The nobility of intention, in developing harmony between man, beast and nature attempted in the movie, would have been portrayed in a different format, without forays in to the forbidden, that is, without developments like the human soul transfixed on the humanoid ’Navi’-a different species and in a way a beast- indulging in escapades of physicality with one of that race,(obviously not a platonic one!). The commodified sexual exploits even cutting across special segregation in the name of universal love(can love be only physical ? Then it is dangerous), despite posing to be progressive, and the voyeurism instituted at the subconscious of the movie, is obnoxious. The psychedilic and perverted impulses deducible here is representative of a capitalistic runoff the mill Hollywood streak .

The reactionary element of the whole oeuvre is visible even in the title of the movie, Avatar. It smacks of idealism of dangerous proportions for its genesis in the Brahmanic( read fascistic) lore, which was institutionalised in the thought process and body politic of a country to subjugate the subaltern for thousands of years. The organic link of the western ideological escapism to philosophical orientalism, refurbished and re-articulated in ideological apparatus of eco-metaphysics, proves as a reactionary instrument of oppression against the liberation of the natives, even now.


The apparent progressive elements of imagination in the movie fades away, with the realization that the sanguine, harmonious and ‘unalloyed’ (stagnated?) culture of Pandora pitted against the morose, instrumental culture of plunder abound in earth; the leads are that all human agency and empirical endeavours to comprehend material reality, in accordance with the vagaries of nature, are illegal and that the agency is mooted only in the omnipotent and intelligent nature. The inherent fallacy in such a conception lies in being the idealistic other of empirical epistemology, as opposed to the materialistic mutual inevitability, existing as a continuum, inherent in dialectical conception. This is the real message despite the anti-capitalist sloganeering imposed in the movie to mislead people. The movie indulges also in a sort of neo-vitalism to dispense with human agency and provides falsified ideas for the ongoing liberation movements in the world.