February 03, 2010

Avatar: Window to the Soul

by Chris Browne

There’s nothing sadder than seeing humanity’s deepest yearning imprisoned in fiction. Even James Cameron’s colossal Avatar, in all its three-dimensional glory, cannot transcend the film reel and shake us out of our paralysis. What we have in that narrative, aside from gratuitous stock villainy and flashy CGI, is the embodiment of everything humanity craves: a society based on an almost spiritual affinity between every constituent member and its environment. The quasi-biological explanation in the film reinforces this link, and blurs the qualitative distinction between the people and the forest in which they live. Indeed, the individual is subsumed into the richer collective identity. Conversation, almost literally, is held between the present and the past, adding another layer of interaction, this time a temporal one. The tribal society is easily paralleled with African and Native American culture, though arguably the link is merely made to anchor it into our frame of reference, and through the baggage of our post-colonial guilt, aid the allegory’s effectiveness.

The desire and need for something deeper, that extra bit of meaning and connection in life is in evidence in our conjuring of ‘God’. This feeling is age old, and has found voluminous expression in the number of adherents to religions around the world. People’s baffling propensity to believe in séances and mediums is merely the ludicrous conclusion to a spectrum of dissatisfaction that affects us all.

So why mention Avatar? The film is far from unique, but it provides something of a window into our unhappiness, in its unadulterated escapism. Film, music and literature have always done this. Now, however, in a world where the only alternative to the capitalist value of individualistic consumerism has been corrupted beyond recognition in the form of Soviet ‘socialism’, the poignancy of a communalistic, pragmatic, and generally content society becomes unbearable. That is not to say that no alternative principles or ideologies to those of capitalism now exist –the persistence of Dissident Warwick disproves that in a heartbeat- but rather that the mass popular consciousness required to conceive of a radical alternative, and to actually challenge the prevailing systems of exploitation is rare. Not since July 1936 in Spain, or perhaps May 1968 in France, has such an atmosphere of predominant radicalism been felt in the West.

Our subconscious yearning –and it is by and large never articulated in coherent analysis and clear methods of resistance; if it were then presumably by now we would be living in a post-capitalist world- finds comfort in the native society of Avatar. However, it does somewhat prove the point that we are devoid of revolutionary ideals: whilst we desire something more wholesome than the vacuous and unsustainable consumer culture that exacerbates both planetary destruction and proliferates depression, we fail to see precisely what it is that we find so unsatisfying about our own lives, and, in turn, what it is we truly desire. Avatar shows us a glimpse into a vaguely recognisable human past –the tribalism, spirituality, and rudimentary technology are all akin to our conceptions of African culture. Yet even if the kinds of structures we associate with African or Indigenous American societies are entirely invented through our own arrogant misunderstanding and sloppy process of ‘othering’, they still hark back to a romanticised, pre-capitalist era. It is atavistic, and also unattainable.

The ethos then, rather than the tribal society itself, is what we truly crave. It is just that we no longer have the collective linguistic and semiotic tools, here in the West in the twenty-first century to articulate our desire for a future without capitalism. That political and social conceptualisation doesn’t have the same degree of embeddedness within us as the ‘tribal’ culture does -no matter how mythological and far removed from our own culture it may be.

Rather than arguing that an indigenous, tribal society is depicted in the film because a technologically advanced anarchist collective would be incongruous in the jungle, and would therefore do some serious damage to the plot (both true), we should instead address ourselves to the need to instil the ethos of connectedness and solidarity that our own society seems to lack. Prefigurative action to this end seems both desirable and efficacious. Of course, we should stress the importance of individual freedom as the means and ends to any (desirable) societal structure. Criticisms of close-knit tribal communities as being conservative and often inimical to the free expression of the individual are clearly warranted. For the sake of our analysis then, it is important to reiterate how Avatarshows us only a rough approximation of what we truly desire. The tribe as conceptual vehicle must necessarily fall short of the normative standards that we espouse as anarchists.

The bitter irony is of course that dissatisfaction with the commoditisation of every aspect of life has in turn been absorbed by that very same system, commoditised in the form of Avatar, and sold back to us for £6.99 and the price of a bag of popcorn. The ongoing struggle for social justice and a better society is by definition no easy feat, but the latent desire is seemingly shared, even among apolitical elements of society –it is simply that such desire has not yet found expression outside the realms of fiction.

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