Zizek on Avatar – Max Ajil
Žižek on Avatar with one comment: Here’s something Slavoj Žižek and I have in common. We’ve both seen Avatar. I was not totally bewitched by it, maybe because balancing a pair of 3-D spec ta cles on top of another set of glasses while sitting two meters from the screen, tilting my head at a 30-degree angle in order to see it, detracted a bit from the visual experience. But still, Avatar was excellent: a sledge hammer of an assault on American corporate imperialism, the exo-skeleton clad high-explosive-wielding security forces a straight for ward proxy for the American Army, engaged in a murderous resource grab. Dud dialog and slightly heavy-handed (the never-to-be-obtained mineral named Unobtanium)? Sure, fine. But the plot’s lack of subtlety wasn’t the point, not amidst its political content, presented alongside stunning visuals: hallucinogeni- cally colorful flora, chunks of mountains phantasmagorically floating in a thick fog, and blooms of shimmering jelly-fish-like spirit-seeds that alight on the protagonist, Jake Sully, blessing him, and eventually anointing him. Their presence prevents the Na’vi—Hebrew for prophet—princess from shooting him dead with a bow and arrow. The Na’vi are humanoid blue creatures living in a pre-lapsarian relationship with their planet, capable of connecting to the biosphere and its fauna through their hair. They link directly to Aywa, the earth-goddess, a direct analog for James Lovelock’s Gaia. “We have nothing they need,” says Jake, bemoaning the inability of the corporate mer can tilists to make an exchange to get the Na’vi out from the tree in which they make their home. Indeed: “You are so stupid!” the Na’vi princess lashes into Sully. Fair enough. They had already destroyed their planet—earth in 2154—and what could be dumber than to destroy your home and render it unlivable?
Can an ecological criticism of corporate imperialism be more powerful than to simultaneously highlight its genetic avaricious ness and its viral nature, destroying the world that birthed it? Žižek did not like Avatar, but perhaps we saw different films. (Perhaps also one of us saw it and the other did not). When he glancingly touches on the film’s theme, he gets it really wrong. He writes that Pandora is “populated by aborigines who live in an incestuous link with nature… (The latter should not be confused with the miserable reality of actual exploited peoples.)” What an “incestuous” link with nature could mean is unclear. Meanwhile “actual” exploited peoples, usually invisible in the Žižekian imaginary, do tend to have more sustain ble consumption and production patterns, if we take per-capita CO2 emissions as any metric. Meanwhile, Žižek’s approach to ecology is habitually poorly considered. Stuffed underneath the gestures to stereotypes about aborigines is a stunning lack of awareness about what kind of planning patterns might truly be sustainable. Small communities living in home- ostatic relation ships withnature? Small is Beautiful? That’s just treacle, and anyway, there’s some posturing to do.
Amidst a bewildering, figure-eight tour, selected stops on Titanic, The Matrix, Dances with Wolves, Reds, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Žižek writes, Cameron’s superficial Hollywood Marxism (his crude privileging of the lower classes and caricatural depiction of the cruel egotism of the rich) should not deceive us. Beneath this sympathy for the poor lies a reactionary myth, first fully deployed by Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous. It concerns a young rich person in crisis who gets his (or her) vitality restored through brief intimate contact with the full-blooded life of the poor. What lurks behind the compassion for the poor is their vampiric exploitation. I had not thought to see the day when a major leftist intellectual disparages the best-selling movie of all time for its director’s deployment of insufficiently nuanced Marxist politics. Nor is the movie’s Marxism as “crude” as Žižek would have it. It’s obvious that capitalism rests on a systemic egotistical logic, and radicals tend to think that the lower classes will be the ones to make the revolution — hence, “privileged,” whatever that means.
Avatar’s fidelity to the old formula of creating a couple, its full trust in fantasy, and its story of a white man marrying the aboriginal princess and becoming king, make it ideologically a rather conservative, old-fashioned film. Its technical brilliance serves to cover up this basic conser- vatism. It is easy to discover, beneath the politically correct themes (an honest white guy siding with ecologically sound aborigines against the “military-industrial complex” of the imperialist invaders), an array of brutal racist motifs: a paraplegic outcast from earth is good enough to get the hand of a beautiful local princess, and to help the natives win the decisive battle. The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigi-gines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them. In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man’s fantasy.
This is weird. There is nothing “con servative” about an audio-visually stunning attack on capitalist mi itarism. Why is the “military-industrial complex” rendered in scare quotes? Inveighing against the prevailing social system usually doesn’t fall under the umbrella of “political cor- rectness,” and the Aymara and Quechua in Bolivia would probably be surprised that their invocations of Pachamama are “political correct- ness.” The Ecuadorian CONAIE would be shocked to find that its denunciations of the Correa government’s policies towards the Yasuni-ITT are belittled as “ecologically sound” aboriginal tendencies.
Anyway, is it really true that “The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them…the victim of imperialist reality” or a “role in the white man’s fantasy”? The people of Bil’in, mas querad ing as Na’vi several weeks ago in a self-conscious and cunning ploy to play to the Western imaginary, aim to save them selves, with, yes, Western solidar- ity activists supporting their efforts. Same with the Dongria Kondh.
Avatar has its issues. It is, in part, a film playing to a colonial mindset—the white man as hero. But the hero in a sci-fi bang-up thriller that viciously attacks a vicious social system in a manner that no one can miss. Moreover, Avatar re-codes typical imperialist memes. It is the natives who have an advanced society, and they who civilize the invader, who can only fight with the invaded, for their land, after becoming one of them. This is not so much against the typical pattern as the creation of a totally new one. Žižek knows his Freud/Lacan et al., and knows too that theoretical pyrotechnics can enliven any argument. Or at least impress other smart people. But he must also know that sometimes a cigar is a cigar, and a main stream critique of corporate imperialism is just that. Give it a rest. 6 Votes Written by Max Ajl March 19, 2010 at 1:39 pm Posted in Activism, Art, Ecology Tagged with avatar, Ecology, theoretical nonsense, Zizek « Yassin