I’m flattered, but not surprised, that Conor’s carefully considered broadside against we critics of Avatar, below, counts me among the characteristically persuasive but touches none of my specific lines of argument. I feel some chagrin, however, in imagining that readers of the Scene will think I really believe Avatar to be “a simplistic denunciation of capitalism and humankind generally,” especially because I’m ‘secure in my worldview’ — which, in other, far-flung precincts of the internet, can only be translated as “he’s a shallow, self-satisfied ass, incapable of personal or even concept-based reflection.”
My critique had a lot less to do with capitalism than with science and poetry, so let me double down on that angle to secure its legacy in blog meme history. In fact, let me go so far as to suggest that the word ‘capitalism’ did not appear in my analysis of Avatar because it plays no essential role in the mythopoetry of the film. As I suggested, as I see it, the central conflict is between science enslaved to will — incarnate in militarized violence, and science enslaved to whim — incarnate in love. Please, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that any technologically advanced civilization with a rapacious interest in natural resources and a willingness to kill to acquire them is, therefore, capitalist. Conor is right that the corporation in the film isn’t “meant to stand in for all corporations,” especially insofar as it doesn’t even need to be a corporation for the meaning behind the plot to roll out in identical fashion. To chalk Cameron up to a mere anticapitalist is to bark up the same wrong tree as those who imagine conflicts over oil would end with the end of oil companies. No, Messers and Madams Green: capitalism is just a red herring.
Just so, I don’t think it’s even well advised to go chasing after Cameron’s ‘negative’ portrayal of humans. We all already know well enough how bad humans can be, and Avatar is hardly the most selectively negative showcase of human being to hit the big screen. (Casino, a film that actually is a bitter indictment of capitalism, is worse.) Cameron isn’t trying to debunk a particular false idol — money — but show us the one true path to our salvation. And to understand that, we need to change the conversation from what he denigrates to what he holds up for awe and worship.
That would appear to be the Na’vi. Conor writes:
In Avatar, we’re shown a foreign world where creatures and nature are similar enough to our world that we understand them, different enough that they can help us reflect on ourselves and our planet as never before, and rendered so spectacularly that as much as any movie I’ve ever seen, we’re able to conduct this mental exercise by really feeling that the creatures and habitat we’re viewing are authentically there and different.
How tremendously coincidental that the Na’vi are just exotic enough to be erotically and intellectually attractive (though not TOO much, as that sex scene attests), yet just humanoid enough to be — yes, erotically and intellectually attractive, etc. It’s the ultimate diversity training wet dream. Call it xenotopia — the fantasy realm in which the alien Other is, by some divine stroke of luck, discovered to thrive at the perfectly optimized nexus of difference and identity with the Self. Cameron ex machina. The deck is quite deliberately — and, I’d say, ridiculously — stacked to produce the rational-and-emotional response Cameron desires: a profound attraction to the Na’vi, accompanied by profound admiration, which is actually a means to the end of redeeming our attraction to, and admiration of, our human selves! (I owe much of this insight to one Lauren Bans, courtesy of PEG and Tyler Cowen.)
Yes, it’s humanity that Cameron holds up even higher than the Na’vi for our awe and our worship — idealized, yes, but not in any way deeper or more powerful than any poetry can manage. The Na’vi, remember, aren’t real — they’re a poetic creation, like any of the wondrous and captivating beings that Homer devised to sing of Odysseus, his representative man. Cameron goes far beyond Homer, however, by pouring the old wine of poetry into the new bottles of the latest science:
“The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own.”
When poetry reaches the inherent limit of its ability to inspire us, along comes science to convert poetry into something that looks so much like reality that we stand transfixed — slack-jawed, open-eyed, and wide-open receptive to that humble poetic magic. Avatar is the world’s most expensive cheap trick. Cheap, but effective! Yes, as Conor claims, “Avatar is a film whose purpose is allowing humanity to reflect on its circumstances and fallen nature in a novel way.” But it’s precisely the newfangledness of the means that makes possible our subservient complicity in the oldfangled end.
That end isn’t simply enjoying poetry. The stakes are much higher than entertainment. And no, it isn’t simply ‘allowing ourselves to be inspired.’ In an age so casually nihilist as ours, it only makes sense to worship entertainment as the one thing, just maybe, that can turn us back into credulous children with big hearts and soggy hankies. But the only way that can really work on a soul-deep level is for the entertainment to accomplish something more than what we mean so superficially by inspiration. I don’t mean some kind of spiritual conversion or cathartic experience. I mean something that might be just as pedestrian or fleeting as inspiration, but of a different, and higher, order: not poetic at all, but philosophical.
And that’s the real trick of Avatar, I suppose. The poetry itself is a means to an end — and the end is a philosophy, the central claim of which is that our humanity, as shown by the supposed inevitability of open-ended scientific and technological progress, can only be redeemed by freeing our rational minds from our irrational wills and enslaving them to the whims of love. Now, some people far down in the weeds of political theory might have a lot to say about whether this message is actually what poetry is in its nature and philosophy, in its nature, is not, but I don’t think I’m prepared to assent to that, no matter how secure my worldview. Pantheism, no matter how poetic, at long last is not poetry.