Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Case Against 'Avatar'

I found Reihan Salam's piece amusing and interesting. He argues against the premise of James Cameron's sublime and epochal 3D movie (it has to be watched in 3D to be fully appreciated) Avatar.

Avatar's premise is pro-naturalism and, it does highlight the perils of modern-day business paradigms that are obsessed with profits. This seems to have found dissonance with Mr Salam and, prompted him to write an interesting piece...at the risk of receiving a Na'vi arrow where it hurts:

http://media.silive.com/entertainment_impact_tvfilm/photo/12-17avatarjpg-8785ff894e35e1b6_large.jpgpix from here.

For the last 200 years, humans have grown taller, stronger and healthier. This progress has been fastest in the countries that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution, yet it has spread throughout the world, sparking a transformation that economists Robert Fogel and Dora Costa call techno-physio evolution, "a synergism between technological and physiological improvements that is biological, but not genetic, rapid, culturally transmitted, and not necessarily stable."

After thousands of years of ignorance and stagnation, a kind of miracle happened that radically transformed humanity's relationship to the wider world. This explosion of wealth has been periodically interrupted by war and famine, yet it has never been fully undone. And though it has involved serious downsides, the prospect of returning to a primeval state strikes most of us as insane. Modern life can be exhausting and even demeaning. It is, however, preferable to spending most of one's waking moments foraging and hunting in a desperate struggle for survival.

Or is it? That is the question James Cameron asks in his brilliant science-fiction epic Avatar. The villains of Avatar are, well, you and me. Rapacious humans from an environmentally devastated Earth have arrived on an alien moon called Pandora in search of a precious resource called "unobtainium." The only hiccup is that the richest source of unobtainium lies beneath the habitat of the Na'vi, a race of long-limbed humanoids who live in blissful harmony with their environment. So naturally the humans, being ruthless and acquisitive by nature, decide that corporate profits matter more than the lives of the Na'vi, and they launch a brutal military assault that, as you can no doubt guess, ends in tragedy. Throughout the film, the Na'vi are portrayed as superior to the humans. The irony of Avatar is that Cameron has made a dazzling, gorgeous indictment of the kind of society that produces James Camerons.

Though the Na'vi are at least as intelligent as the humans, they have not built a technologically advanced civilization. Rather, they rely on the forest in which they live to provide them with sustenance and mental stimulation. Vicious predators constantly engage the senses, so there is little time to, say, write novels or play videogames. All flora and fauna are linked together in a shared consciousness that tribal leaders can access through concentration and chant. The only Na'vi we ever meet are part of this ruling caste, and so we have no sense of what keeps the Na'vi masses occupied. One has to assume that they live in a constant state of trembling awe at the beautiful world that surrounds them.

At the risk of sounding needlessly negative, I'm pretty sure that I'd prefer baking bricks in the hot sun, guzzling motor oil, or jumping rope with barbed wire to spending an afternoon living among the Na'vi, perhaps the most sanctimonious and frankly boring humanoids ever portrayed on film. But the Na'vi are actually worse than just boring. Because the struggle for survival is the only source of meaning in their lives, the Na'vi celebrate physical courage and martial valor above all else, with the possible exception of mastering the admittedly cool ability of talking to trees.

In a sense, capitalism is the villain of Avatar. Yet what Cameron fails to understand is that capitalism represents a far more noble and heroic way of life than that led by the Na'vi. As Abraham Lincoln noted in 1858, the unique thing about the industrial revolution wasn't that humans invented steam-power and other ingenious inventions. In fact, a steam engine was manufactured in ancient Alexandria without ever being used. But that society didn't value the invention and spread of labor-saving devices. Instead, it valued physical courage and martial valor. The truly revolutionary thing about the industrial revolution was the rise of entrepreneurship. An entrepreneurial society doesn't value the ability to murder mammoths or members of the neighboring tribe above all else. It values the ability to develop useful ideas and devices and practices that had never been seen before.


walla said...

How sad.

If Cameron had extended the Na'vi's to include the Yautja's which have been whispered in hushed tones by the spaniards as "El Diablo que hace trofeos de los hombres", then things would probably have taken a more interesting turn than the remarkable revelation of the loss of jet fighter engines or of the Kinabatangan MP having secretly tied the knots again, as we end this, another, annus horribilis.

Dripping with sarcasm, it's all about progress.

But Salam does have a point. However, he should perhaps have given his defense of material progress a lighter touch, seeing how the bad vibes presently emanating from Copenhagen are already deflecting all from that city's other distractions.

In this heat which is also melting the polar icecaps while piling snow across the northern hemisphere, material progress is seen to come at a price whose settlement can no longer be made because credit cards have already been crimped, outcome of the fifty ringgit tax.

On the balance, everything has a price. The Navi's and Yautja's are beholden to the Lotka-Volterra predator-prey equations which are all about mortality rates.

Similarly, material progress which supposedly prolongs life nevertheless entombs most in some level of persistent discomfort, arguably from mental and spiritual inquests, while taking a toll on Mother Nature who is now filing highly visible complaints.

So, if everything has a price, the strategy has to be about balancing. Material progress has to be balanced with ecological sensitivity.

Presumably that's how ecotourism came about. What with things surrounding, things inside us too. Perhaps in the future, old cultures left as relics of lost pasts may rekindle enough curiosity for people to revisit old customs with view to gaining new insights about values made grey by the march of material progress.

If one can for instance pay three eighty five for a cuppa that had cost sixty sen in the ramshackle coffee shop of old, there could in fact be some commercial value in the eclectics of reminiscences.

The world pool is only so big. By malthusian law, the population increases with material progress but in a marginally growing resource pool, for that matter the diminishing capacity of the earth to self-heal against the damages wrought by material progress.

The rate of consumption exceeds the rate of production, a situation critically worsened by elites consuming more than what they need which could otherwise have been rechannelled to those who need them more.

Unless all see the wisdom of 'enoughness', material progress thus paradoxically embeds in itself a malthusian self-destruct mechanism. Which thus draws out the admirable appeal of Avatar and other such media of inner conscience.

As we read this, how many of us remember exactly what we were doing last year this moment? None, one suspects.

That's life. Evanescent, transient, passing images from train windows.

This one, for etheorist.

de minimis said...


Your closing tears me up :)