There has been a lot of debate about James Cameron’s movie Avatar. This film describes a private mercenary force like Blackwater colonizing a forest planet named Pandora sometime during the 22nd century. The indigenous people of this planet, the Navi’i, rise up and drive them out; in the process some of the colonizers switch sides and join the rebellion. Some see this story as a “noble savage” myth that perpetuates racist stereotypes of indigenous people. Others see it as a criticism of ecological destruction and a warning of what will happen if we don’t learn how to live in harmony with the natural world. Some see it as a white guilt fantasy and an example of liberal racism because it involves a white man leading a revolt of oppressed people. Others see it as an inspiring story of anti-colonial armed struggle; (an Anti-War activist friend of mine said that Cameron was able to do what the anti-war movement has not been able to do: to encourage millions of Americans to root for the defeat of the US military.) In any case, this movie has been seen by millions of people and has broken records as a holiday blockbuster, so it is clearly striking a chord with everyday people in this time of economic crisis, ecological fear, and colonization efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and elsewhere. For that reason, it is important for activists to carry on these debates because if we misunderstand the appeal of this movie we could be misunderstanding where our coworkers, friends, and neighbors are at right now.
Noble Savage Myth?
Those who argue that Avatar perpetuates the “noble savage” myth have a point. The Navi’i fight with bows and arrows, speak with “Hollywood African” accents, and at times speak in over-the top mystical dialogue that is both stereotypical and cheesy. I would argue that these are bad choices on Cameron’s part that detract from the deeper themes of his movie.
A few folks in the comments section over at the Kasama blog have taken this critique even farther, saying that Cameron makes the Navi’i look stupid and superstitious because they believe in Eywa, a deity who is suffused throughout the natural world, and concentrated in the Tree of Souls. The movie contrasts this Navi’i spirituality with the profit-driven “insanity” of the colonists who see the planet Pandora as simply a natural resource to be accumulated at all costs. Is this falling into the “ecological Indian” myth that claims that indigenous people live in harmony with nature and all ecological problems are simply the result of colonization? The problem with this myth is it treats indigenous people as if they are part of the landscape, like lions of buffalo, not human beings who transform their environment through labor and technology. In reality, indigenous people have transformed their environments and have long histories of changing technologies and social relations, some of which are very ecologically sustainable and some which are ecologically destructive. Deep Ecologists, some “primitivist” Anarchists, and some liberal environmentalists appropriate indigenous culture to articulate their politics without taking seriously the histories of indigenous peoples and without siding with existing indigenous communities today in their ongoing struggles against colonization. This is a major problem which needs to be critiqued ruthlessly.
I agree with those who criticize the ecological Indian myth, but I think it is dogmatic to apply this critique to Avatar. Avatar is science fiction, it is not a documentary about the colonization of North America and it is not a primitivist movie. If it were either then I would say yes, it is both inaccurate and racist. But the Navi’i are not supposed to be Native Americans, they are another culture in their own right that Cameron dreamed up in the context of a fictional story (it would have been better if he had avoided the stereotypical bows and arrows to make this clearer). And, as I argue below, they are not “primitive”. We can critique how Cameron dreamed up the Navi’i, and we can critique the allusions and references to indigenous history that he makes, but we need to start by looking at the specific story that Avatar tells in all of its details and begin our critique there; we can’t simply import our (entirely justified) ideological beef with the noble savage myth into the movie. Art is not simply something that narrowly projects and expresses the class, race, and gender politics of today – while it is clearly informed and limited by these and needs to be critiqued in terms of them, it also has an imaginative aspect to it that needs to be taken into account if we want to avoid dogmatic interpretations of popular culture.
….Or a Revolutionary Future Utopia?
Beyond the bows and arrows, I don’t think that Cameron presents the Navi’i as “primitive” at all. (I hate this term in the first place – no real life indigenous groups were ever “primitive” outside the minds of white supremacists”). In fact, the Navi’i are highly sophisticated, and in some respects have more developed technology than the humans in the movie. For example, they have the ability to transfer and merge their consciousness with other beings, including the horse like animals or bird-like animals they ride. This allows them to do fighter-jet style maneuvers in the air which are faster and more precise then the colonizers’ helicopters. Cameron has them merge their consciousness with other beings not through some appropriation of what colonial anthropologists call shamanism, but rather through a unique, biologically based technology: they, and other creatures on the planet have “link” interfaces where the tendrils of their bodies merge with each other. Instead of a synthetic technology based on chemicals and energy sources that require mining, the Navi technology seems to be based on the biological and ecological networks around them. But this doesn’t make it any less advanced; in fact, Cameron suggests it is more advanced because it enhances the complexity and beauty of the planet rather than destroying it. When Jake Sully communicates with the Tree of Souls near the end of the movie he warns the planetary network of consciousness centered there that the colonizers are going to destroy it because they will do the same thing they did to earth: turn it into a barren, lifeless, synthetic environment.
In fact, the Navi’i consciousness-linking technology is exactly what the humans are trying to develop in their colonial science labs with the Avatar program, which meshes the consciousness of individual humans with the bodies of individual Navi’is. The movie suggests that the Avatar program is possible because the Navi’i had developed their bodies to be able to do this kind of linking. Grace Augustine, the main human scientist who developed it, may have gotten the idea by observing the Navi’i technology herself: we see her taking samples of the neural networks in the forest roots near the beginning of the movie and we know she runs a school for Navi’is which probably has as much to do with exploiting them for their knowledge as it does teaching them.
However, Cameron ultimately argues that the humans are not able to fully develop this technology because their science is constrained by the politics of imperialism. For the humans, there is a contradiction between their technology and their social relations. The Navi’i’s link technology implies the possibility of deep forms of communication between beings. But instead the colonists’ Avatar program involves a “mind-body” split where consciousness “comes down” from above like an Avatar to dominate and control the Navi body. The largely white colonial scientists then take over Navi bodies and use them to support a liberal imperialist project of gunboat diplomacy, and “white man’s burden” efforts like building the school to teach English. If there is a conflict between the colonial scientists and the colonial mining corporation in the movie, it simply represents two competing forms of capitalist accumulation: resource extraction vs. biotechnology, a conflict playing out right now in Chiapas, Mexico between oil companies that want to destroy the jungle and biotech companies that want to plunder its genome.
The Avatar program is still trapped in the logical of modern Western individualism: ONE individual consciousness enters one body. The Navi’i, in contrast, seem to be able to transfer their consciousness into the entire world around them, not just an individual body, and their use of this technology is not based on the domination of mind over matter, it is based on a mutual, dialectical relationship where the birds they merge with have to “choose” them as much as they “choose” the animals. This ultimately makes the Navi technology more powerful than the human technology, which ends up helping them win the war in the end because they are able to convince Eywa to come to their aid in the form of an onslaught of animals who attack the human predator drones. Some commentators over on the Kasama blog asked if nature is going to save them anyway what’s the point of fighting back? This misses the point: the Navi’i shape and change nature as much as nature shapes and changes them; they have an unalienated relationship with the natural world but they are far from being controlled by mysterious forces and they don’t simply bow before some unchanging essence. On the contrary, their society is like what Murray Bookchin hoped a future social ecology on earth could be: nature rendered self-conscious.
Grace Augustine realizes all of this too late because she is too trapped in her liberal white man’s burden logic and the fact that she is a client of imperialism whose science is funded by the colonial mining effort. In an argument with the corporate CEO of the colony who wants to destroy the Navi’i Home Tree, Augustine says correctly that the Navi’i belief in Eywa is not “paganism”. She says that Eywa is a material presence, which (she thinks) can be quantified, because it involves a kind of planet-wide computer system, a neural network in the roots of trees that processes information rapidly. What she doesn’t understand is that Eywa cannot be understood or studied by breaking her into discrete pieces and putting her under the microscope. When Eywa is trying to save her life all Augustine can think of is “I should take samples of this” and the movie suggests this attitude, this “wound” is ultimately the wound Eywa is unable to heal.
At the same time, Augustine is right, the Navi’i do not practice a “primitive” mysticism. Eywa is not a disembodied Spirit. The Navi are not idealists, in fact they fully integrate spirit and matter, idealism and materialism, in a way that only the most utopian libertarian Marxists and anarchists have dreamed up. They do not worship a God who stands outside of and dominates the natural world, nor do they merge into a pantheistic Oneness, a “night in which all cows are Black” as Hegel put it. Their worship involves merging their consciousness with the world around them through creative praxis: though a mix of contemplation and action. It is almost like all of them become Jesus figures: fully God and fully human(oid), they are in touch with universal truth in and through the concrete, particular, embodied reality they live in. This allows them to co-develop/ co-evolve with the natural world and that’s why they are able to develop such a sophisticated system of biologically-based technology. To extend the theological echoes here, I wonder if the choice of Grace Augustine’s name was intentional. For her, like for St. Augustine, grace and spirit come down from above to control disobedient bodies; for the Navi’i who defy her liberal racist science, there is no separation between spirit and matter.
In summary, I don’t think Cameron presents the Navi as primitive. In fact, I think they represent what humanity could look like if we didn’t invent capitalism, patriarchy, and the state. Imagine if indigenous peoples on earth were never conquered by patriarchal and capitalist empires but still continued to develop and grow through history (if we reject the noble savage myth, this means indigenous cultures have history and do change and grow without the intervention of imperialism). Could one possible future have been something like the Nav’i? I would like to think so. Maybe for many of us the appeal of Avatar is that it expresses repressed dreams for a less alienated way of life.
For example, Navi’i society has less of a gender binary; both men and women fight and hunt, and they even look relatively similar (notably, Cameron manages to make these relatively genderqueer creatures have sex appeal which pushes the limits of Holywood’s heterosexism, even though unfortunately the Navi’i appear to have only heterosexual mating patterns because Jake Sully is asked to choose a woman for a mate). Most importantly, it is a woman leader who is most adept at interpreting Eywa to make political decisions. While they seem to have some form of leadership hierarchy, it doesn’t appear to be based on coercion or permanent class divisions. And it seems most of their technology is used towards the goal of making life easier and relatively affluent – they have plenty of food and shelter and seem to have a lot of fun because their work and their play overlap. This means that their military technology is relatively underdeveloped (hence the bows and arrows), leaving them at first unable to match the human colonists who pour most of their resources and science into developing tools to exploit and conquer others instead of developing their social relationships.
So ultimately this is a story not about an indigenous past vs. a colonial present; it is a story of a utopian revolutionary indigenous future vs. a dystopian capitalist future. It is the kind of society many of us dream about building on earth vs. the society we have nightmares about: Blackwater mercenaries conquering and destroying everything in their path, justifying it all as a preemptive war on terror, dispensing even with basic concepts of citizenship and rights, leaving life bare and broken.
While I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Cameron of primitivism I do think that there are problems with how exaggerated he makes this contrast. The Navi’i are too utopian to the point where they seem fantastic or unbelievable. The human colonists are complex – there are class and ideological divisions among their ranks which lead to mutiny and treason. Why does the same process not happen among the Navi’i? None of them, except for the main character Jake Sully, betray their people and he only does it because he literally has a white man in his head telling him what to do. Why are there no opportunistic layers in Navi society willing to give up their way of life for “blue jeans and light beer”? The fact that they are completely immune to the temptations of capitalism seems too flat. For example, why are none of them willing to become a comprador ruling class, middle men power brokers between the people and the colonists like so many misleaders and house slaves have been willing to do on Earth? If Cameron had explored these kinds of dynamics the film would have been much more compelling and much harder to dismiss.
Ultimately, Cameron does explore these questions, but not in terms of social or class relations: he explores them primarily through a developing conflict within the inner consciousness of the individual Avatar, Jake Sully, as I will argue at the end of this essay. The Avatar is a composite of two characters: Jake Sully the disabled marine, who is a white man, and Jake Sully the Navi’i whose blue body is bred by the colony and controlled by the white man.
Race Treason and Anti-Imperialism?
Most commentators focus on Jake Sully the white man and present him as the main character. In this reading, the movie Avatar is a story about race treason. Sully becomes a reference to white people like the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown who switched sides, who broke with white supremacy, who refused to act white, and who joined people of color in revolt against white supremacy. Sully fully identifies with the Navi’i struggle to the point where he becomes Navi’i and fights his former people. The white commander of the mercenary forces directly calls Sully a race traitor and tries to kill him for it.
Because most people interpret Sully the white man as the main character, debate about the movie ends up falling along pre-established ideological fault lines. The movie has reignited an important debate about the problems and possibilities of advocating that white people become race traitors. This debate sometimes references Race Traitor magazine, a publication that advocated that white people no longer identify as white. In my mind, both sides of this debate make good points and both have their flaws. Advocates of a race traitor strategy say it is necessary to help break up the white club, to create civil war among white people so that people of color can more successfully bring down white supremacy. Also, they argue that white supremacy also oppresses white workers, women, queer folks, and people with disabilities. Each of these groups has good reason to fight against the ruling class but instead they are told to ignore their own oppression, to say “at least I’m not Black”, and to side with the white rulers against people of color. Advocates of race treason claim that it should be the role of white individual to switch sides, not only for the sake of people of color but also for their own liberation.
Many of them would claim that Jake Sully in the movie does just this: his is a person with disabilities and is working class so he can’t afford the health care necessary to get his legs back. He is the profile of a poor working class white veteran who is fighting to colonize people of color but is getting screwed by the military in the process. Sully realizes this and switches sides, turning the guns around and fragging his officers. What does it mean that millions of military age white Americans are watching this movie? If they identify with Jake Sully’s transformation, does that mean the movie is nurturing seeds of rebellion, mutiny, or treason against U.S. Empire? White identity in the US is going through a process of transformation right now because many of the systems that supported white supremacy (for example the United Auto Workers which gave white workers access to higher paying skilled jobs in auto plants) are breaking down as the system can no longer afford to pay out the benefits to co-opt white workers and keep them in the white club. Maybe movies like Avatar are so popular because lots of white people are starting to look for something else to become. If so, isn’t this a good thing?
…Or Blue-Face Racist Fantasy?
I think it is to some extent, but it poses some serious problems. The problem with a race traitor strategy is even though it advocates smashing whiteness it ends up putting white people at the center of the story. It makes it seem like the agency to fight white supremacy and colonialism will come from heroic white individuals who switch sides rather than from millions of people of color – the world’s majority, who need to work out their own contradictions and build up their own organizations to revolt. Critics of Avatar rightfully claim that the film plays into this dynamic. Some of them claim that Jake Sully never fully gives up his white privilege. He can go back to being a colonizer at any time; he never fully experiences what it’s like to be an oppressed Navi’i. And, in the end, he ends up leading the Navi’i in their revolt; this makes it seem like the Navi’i are helpless and need to be saved by a white man. As my friend C.J. argued, yes it’s true the Navi’i have sophisticated technologies but in the end it is only the white man who knows how to use these technologies to defeat the colonists; he alone can ride the giant bird, and he alone can speak to Eywa at the end to convince her to fight with the Navi’i. More damningly, he is the ONLY ONE to suggest uniting the Navi’i clans to fight back which makes the rest of the Navi’i appear to be stupid and un-strategic. In fact, as Will from Gathering Forces pointed out, they were still busy trying to save a white woman’s life (Grace Augustine) when their entire people was about to face genocide! Isn’t this all just a liberal racist fantasy?
Unfortunately, I think this is the message many white folks will take away from the film, and Cameron doesn’t do anything in terms of his narrative to significantly jolt them out of it. At the same time, there are aspects of the story that challenge this reading and thus give us space to raise criticisms of the race traitor concept when we discuss the film with folks around us. For example, even when Sully calls the clans together to revolt he ultimately recognizes the leadership of the more militant Navi’is who trained him: the lead male warrior and Neytiri, the woman who trained him in Navi’i ways who becomes his partner. Sully uses his ability to ride the giant bird and his knowledge of the enemy’s technology to help unite the clans to fight but it doesn’t appear that he is the only one calling the shots. In fact, he even asks the more militant Navi’i whether he can speak at one of the rallies and they give him permission. Also, at the end, he seems to relinquish his prestige as the one who can ride the giant bird and goes back to being a rank and file Navi’i. Finally, and most importantly, the source of strength and the agency for winning the revolt does not come from his heroism alone, it comes from the fact that the Navi’i are able to come together and to draw from their strengths and knowledge of the land to wage guerrilla warfare.
Sully realizes this is the only way after he exhausts all the options available within the framework of liberal imperialism. He starts out by trying to “preserve” Navi’i culture thorough Grace Augustine’s colonial anthropology only to find out the corporate leaders are interested only in mining not in culture. They even use his field notes to justify their destruction of the Navi’i Home Tree. Then Sully tries to use his privilege to stop the bulldozer from cutting down the trees by desperately shouting at them to stop as if he actually mattered to them. When this fails, he sees that an individualistic revolt based on his own moral standing in the eyes of the colonizers is going nowhere and he returns to the Navi’i people, recognizing that the only agency for change lies with them. Notably, when he does this, his privilege does start to erode: the white colonel sets out on a vendetta to hunt him down and kill him.
Finally, it is not only a white man who commits treason against colonialism in this film. I agree with some critics that it would have been much more powerful if Jake Sully were cast as a person of color. Imagine if he were a disabled Native American or Arab war vet and if Cameron had explored him going through a process of realizing that the same system that stole his people’s land is now stealing the Navi’is land? However, Cameron suggests this when he casts Jake Sully’s co-conspirators as South Asian and Latina. They are central to orchestrating the mutiny inside the colonial military and one of the movie’s climaxes is the Latina character Trudy Chacon trying to frag the white colonel shouting “you’re not the only one with a gun bitch.” Despite its serious problems, I find it hard to dismiss as racist a movie that successfully gets an American audience to root for people of color soldiers when they choose to frag their officers rather than kill other oppressed people.
Blue Skins White Masks?
But, more importantly, I think both sides of this race traitor debate are missing a key part of the story. They are focusing on Jake Sully the white man, even though it is Jake Sully the Navi’i, in his blue body, who actually gets the most screentime, and who is really central to the story. I don’t think this is only a story about a white man who commits race treason. I think it is also a story of an alienated Navi’i who begins as a traitor to his people and ends as an anti-colonial militant. The Navi’i don’t know that Sully the Navi’is mind is being controlled by a white man in the colonial base; Neytiri only figures it out at the end. They perceive Sully as a Navi’i brought to them from the Sky People (humans), as someone who has caught their “insanity.” They probably assume that Sully is part of the English language school that Grace Augustine runs through her own Avatar character. The film suggests that the Navi’i forced this school to shut down as an act of revolt against this kind of white man’s burden paternalism.
But, like has happened all too often in colonial history, it is not just white men running this liberal paternalism, it is people whose bodies are oppressed because they come from the colonized “race” but whose minds are whitewashed. In this sense, perhaps Jake Sully has what W.E.B. DuBois described as “double consciousness”: his mind and body are split and there is a war going on between the oppressor and the oppressed for the fate of his body. In this sense, Jake Sully starts out as the Navi’i equivalent of an Uncle Tom who is trained in the colonizer’s schools and goes back to use the master’s tools to dominate his people. He is a “blueberry”: blue on the outside, white on the inside. Over time, he needs to exorcise and transform the white part of his mind, which means switching sides and joining the revolt of his people against colonialism. In this sense, the movie could actually be read as a parable for the psychological transformation of colonized peoples. As Frantz Fanon described, colonialism demanded that people of color could be nothing else besides white and yet it never allowed them to be white. This contradiction and loss of identity can lead to an explosive anger and violence that can only result in self-destruction or revolution against the colonizers. In the film, Jake Sully’s tension is worked out through armed struggle. Through this struggle Sully is finally able to reject the white consciousness that is dominating his mind and he is finally able to find his place among the insurgent Navi’i people. Read this way, the movie does speak powerfully to the agency, complexity, and humanity of oppressed peoples. Ultimately Sully doesn’t save the Navi’i, the Navi’i save Sully. It is their collective power, manifested through the battle and culminating in the final ritual at the Tree of Souls, which allows him to make the final transition to become fully Navi’i.
Conclusion: Seeing Deeply
Ultimately the main point of Avatar is “I see you.” Navi’i culture is based on this deep recognition of interconnection and interbeing. This is a spirituality of liberation which stands in militant resistance against the logic of wars on terror, wars for resources, and scientific research sponsored by private military contractors. Despite all of the film’s serious flaws, I do think that the film gives us enough to work with to argue that “I See You” also stands in resistance to liberal imperialism and “friendly” racism. To fully SEE each other, we can’t be paternalistic, we need to recognize the self-activity of oppressed people and the central role oppressed folks must play in choosing the ecological, free, and less patriarchal future represented by the Navi’i over the nightmare future represented by the colonial mercenaries. Hopefully the film inspires people to fight today to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to stop the ongoing theft of indigenous land from British Columbia to Palestine, and to stop the capitalist destruction of Earth’s ecology before it is too late.