The desert of ideas
As we depart the oughts and move squarely into the teens of the 21st century our collective conscious seems to bookend the one that I entered college witnessing. After watching Avatar for the first time this week, several things became crystal clear about the current state of affairs. There is much chatter lately among the punditry regarding the ineffectual state of the Democratic party and liberals in general. The right-wing might be crazy conspiracy nuts but they sure to do stay on point and get things done. On the other hand the Obama administration seems frozen in conciliatory conversation and aggressive compromise. Well, the pundits, satirists and talking heads should watch Avatar. It is obvious to me that so-called liberals are trapped in an ecotopian dream-state that envisions a fantasy world where fairness rules and the davids slay the Goliath’s of the right. Cameron’s bleeding heart, indigenous loving fantasia mirrors in many ways the beliefs and actions of liberals throughout America. If only we could all get along.
I entered college with the shooting of John Lennon and the movie Blade Runner topping the box office. This during the powerful rise of the conservative Ronald Reagan. Before Ridley Scott started making vacuous movies about legends (the lousy remake of Spartacus called Gladiator and the soon to open Robin Hood) he made extraordinary, artful visions of a bleak future where we were imprisoned by technology and were forced to come to terms with the fierceness of nature. The acrid, orange air of LA is filled with billowing clouds of fire from oil refineries while hover cars push up above the constant rain and din in order to navigate the largely evacuated landscape. This is the vision of Blade Runner, a planet ravaged by centuries of industrialization and enterprise where the smart inhabitants leave the scarified surface for the “outerworlds.” This vision based on the paranoid genius of Philip K. Dick is the world of Blade Runner. Technology is viewed as a continuation of our current rapacious desires, where genetics runs wild and the wealthy simply abandon that which they’ve contributed to destroying. In my mind that is the reality we are headed for, not some ecotopian, blue-bodied re-imagined experience of ourselves.
I’ll do my best here to avoid commenting on the insipid dialogue and recycled plot lines of Avatar and focus on the visual aspects of the film. The CG & 3D is the dazzle that appears to be blinding everyone from thinking. As mythic-loving creatures we are prone to what’s called locked-in syndrome in software development. When technology was a stone tool or a copper sword, locked-in myths like Beowulf took hold, later replaced by the magic of Merlin and the visions of Hamlet. These are the stories that are the backbone of western society and they are the narratives that have been locked-in to our collective conscious (Joseph Campbell did an extraordinary job of revealing this in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.) This myth-making is now a dangerous achilles heel for us. Technology has raised the bar several orders of magnitude where myths now have the potential to be falsely lived through virtual environments, 3D movies, and HDTV. Even those forms would be benign enough on their own if they weren’t being expressed in warfare with pilotless drones, robotics and computer simulations. Video games have already been reinforcing something Avatar heralds — you can’t die. In a video game you re-spawn or are reborn to fight another day and try again to defeat the fill-in-the-blank. Avatar ends (and I’m sure I’m the last person on earth to have seen the movie so I’m not spoiling anything here) with the lead character being reborn into the body of his avatar Na’vi body.
The events of 9/11 were the early signals of a new paradigm shift. It provided a window to the roots of terror by the disenfranchised in a new century. Technology has equaled the playing field of conflict in unexpected ways because of our 21st century commitment to technicism. This is witnessed by the use of cell phones to trigger suicide bombers and roadside IED’s, the use of a plane as a missile and recently the hacking of our pilotless drone cameras. These are the strategies of the disenfranchised. They are actions built upon the anxiety that disproportionate access to wealth and a state of perpetual war have promoted. James Cameron gets it exactly wrong in his plot on how the Na’vi, led by a human insider would have responded to overwhelming force and the destruction of their sacred tree. The Na’vi would have assuredly used a kind of terrorism as response. This is absent in the movie for the very reason I stated earlier, Cameron is blinded by thinking the old paradigms of natural balance are still in place. The Cherokee despite early victories learned rapidly that a Na’vi-like strategy only results in your enemy (who holds considerably superior technology) will simply return in greater overwhelming force and greater technology. The absurdity that arrows, no matter how large are a match for modern day weaponry only adds to the delusion of Avatar. Violence begets more violence. Vengeance is a failed strategy.
There are of course exceptions to this rule. Vietnam serves as one of them. However, desire to maintain war is predicated on the value of the resources. Geopolitical positioning simply isn’t enough of a driving force to continue such a conflict. If Vietnam had contained the largest oil reserves on earth, we’d still be there. Of course in Avatar the entire point of the film is a corporations plundering of the natural resources of the Na’vi planet. What’s curious to me is, Cameron clearly is creating a political film underneath a visual spectacle but he’s not really interested in doing the heavy lifting that requires. Instead he thinks a dabble of commentary and a modicum of plot will be enough to enrich his political position. There are no journalist characters, as there are in so many good political films, nor is there any idea of the connection to earth. Several times throughout the movie the corporate demons and military commanders state their concern for the PR end of the genocide, but never is there any indication precisely how this information would get back to earth.
It is impossible to love technology and believe in an ecotopian future. This dualistic thinking is perpetuated throughout Avatar. On the one hand, Cameron is suggesting technology brought by the humans only serves their greed and avarice and on the other he believes the technology of the Na’vi is quaint and enlightening. Both societies are waring societies, they simply have different levels of technology. How long before the Na’vi take over some of the remnants of human technology? To me it is this language of hope that encourages complacency when it comes to understanding what stands in the way of us solving gigantic global problems that threaten our very existence. When Republicans in our government take on a unilateral attitude of “no” to everything, we as liberals, if we are true liberals must face it squarely and revolt. No amount of hope or reconciliation is going to suffice. Great things were not accomplished in history by committees but rather by the enduring and persistent efforts of individuals working toward a greater good. However, just as Cameron’s hero takes on mythic proportions in Avatar, we must be cautious not to blindly follow those individuals whose brilliance creates breakthroughs for us. As the British were wise to vote Churchill out of office once the war had ended, so must we be willing to vote those representatives out of office who do not pursue solutions but rather compromise. You can’t compromise with a corporation because its very charter is sociopathic in nature. We should pay attention to representatives who say they will reform corporations while they simultaneously accept money from them. Heed the words of Adam Smith, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public…” We especially need to be cautious of being dazzled by 3D renderings and the promise of utopian solutions as a means to solving our problems. Naiveté is equal to apathy and ignorance when it comes to politics. Avatar has the political naiveté of a 7 year old while tackling very adult concepts.
If we realize the true extent of the damage we have incurred to our nation and the damage we have inflicted to the globe, only then can we begin to repair it. If we persist in wishing upon a star for some popular uprising led by a mythical hero that somehow manages to overthrow the military-industrial complex in favor of a new ecotopian paradise (the essential plot of Avatar) then we are doomed to failure. This wishing only leads to complacency and as Thomas Jefferson said, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to = remain silent.” There is a deafening silence in the message of Avatar and worse it is being fed to 100 million viewers.
The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has much more thoroughly and eloquently described these ideas in his book “Welcome to the Desert of the Real”. Buy a copy and tell Mr. Cameron to buy it too.