Lagging the Popgeist: Avatar

Avatar is well-suited for ideology criticism, and though I’ve not read many reviews of it (with the notable exception of Zizek’s, who apparently did not see the film before publishing an article in New Statesman) James Cameron’s blockbuster solicits us to flex our critical skills in order to excavate its “hidden content.”

The PG-13 rating, of course, was unavoidable, and largely an economic decision, though one that reflects a general tendency in American cinema to appeal to the pubescent in all of us. CGI-heavy films are expensive, and thus require large audiences to realize a hefty enough profit. This is why you’ll never see a Cameron-style spectacle rated NC-17, except, perhaps, as a director’s cut. To date, Avatar has grossed $2,772,605,563 world-wide, or over 10 times its $237 million budget.

One of the unintentionally comical outcomes of the PG-13 aesthetic arises with the character of Neytiri, who, like the other Na’vi, wears a minimal amount of clothing, including a neck-piece which partially obscures her bust. For the entire length of the film she appears to have no nipples, with the exception of the sequence when she and Jake Sully get together. This aesthetic choice, to airbrush from sight this part of her body (or, more accurately, because the film is largely animated, to leave this part of the body un-drawn) possesses an ideological function, and speaks to a larger cultural logic in which nipples always signify sexuality and their presence must accordingly be obscured in the ordinary realm of everyday life, appearing only when the story transitions into an explicitly erotic-romantic scene. The effect of this tactic resembles the outcome of “puritanism” in general: by concealing certain aspects of the body, by pretending they are not there, we effectively emphasize their significance and thereby fetishize them. The dark secret of the puritan is that he or she is more obsessed with sexuality than anyone else; under the guise of modesty, specific zones of the body become the object of a repressed and therefore all the more prurient fascination.

There are other key ideological assumptions present in the film, undercutting its claims to operate as a sharp criticism of a (contemporary) era of rapacious ecological exploitation and increasingly privatized militarism. Many defenders of Avatar point to its condemnation of the War on Terror: Norm Spellman, the geek of the Avatar team, uses the phrase “shock and awe” to describe Col. Quaritch’s plans to bomb the Tree of Souls, to which Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez) responds, “daisy cutters.” Here the language of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is explicitly invoked, and given our sympathy for the Na’vi it’s tempting to read these references as a straightforward critique. Yet when we consider who the actual villains in this story are, that criticism seems to lose power. If Avatar does represent a judgement against Terror War and militarism, the plans to mine “unobtanium” at the behest of a massive corporation using the violence of mercenaries effectively lets all of us off the hook. Responsibility for the planned ethnic-cleansing of the Na’vi is assigned to mercenary aggression in the service of corporate greed– in other words, outside of the realm of effective politics. The attacks on the Na’vi are “private,” they are not the subject of political contestation but the pathological expression of a few individuals operating according to the demands of capital accumulation.

Another of Avatar’s ideological investments takes the form of its romanticization of indigenous life. The Na’vi are closely linked to the biosphere of Pandora (a name that unavoidably evokes the Pandora of Greek myth, though it isn’t clear exactly why) in a manner that suggests a New Age relationship to the cosmos, one stressing the inseparability of all life. The Na’vi spiritual connection to Nature is represented quite literally in the film as each of them can essentially plug in to animals and roots with a long, cable-like braid of hair. This form of connectivity is explained by Dr. Augustine (in yet another moment of fairly clunky exposition) using the internet as a model, and indeed it’s tempting to equate Pandora with the Web– a completely interwoven environment, yet strangely inaccessible for humans unless they enter using the “false bodies” of their avatars. The fantasy that Avatar offers, then, is one where virtuality is reconciled with reality, though as Zizek notes

it is interesting to imagine a sequel to Avatar in which, after a couple of years (or, rather, months) of bliss, the hero starts to feel a weird discontent and to miss the corrupted human universe. The source of this discontent is not only that every reality, no matter how perfect it is, sooner or later disappoints us. Such a perfect fantasy disappoints us precisely because of its perfection: what this perfection signals is that it holds no place for us, the subjects who imagine it.

If disappointment is inevitably Jake Sully’s lot, it could have something to do with the fact that the Na’vi are not a literate people. We see no written language nor even any symbols in our pseudo-ethnographic encounter with Na’vi culture. It’s also notable– returning for a moment to the sexual ideology discussed above– that the Na’vi are a fundamentally conservative culture — i.e., traditionalist, heteronormative– with regard to sex and gender. When two Na’vi “choose” one another, they do so “for life”– a stark contrast to the compulsory polyamorousness or serial monogamy of contemporary US culture where it is expected that each of us will have multiple partners or encounters prior to marriage. What Na’vi culture offers, then, is not only an enchanted space of marvelous creatures and phosphorescent flora, but the kind of changeless social stability characterized by the absence of choice. For instance, there is a limited repertoire of social roles among the Na’vi due to the absence of any real division of labor. True, a tribal-political hierarchy exists, in which Eytuan and Moat lead others– the former as a kind of chief, the latter as a priest-figure– but the rest of the Na’vi polity are essentially warrior-hunters. This absence of choice may in fact represent the final horizon of Avatar’s fantasy-landscape: that our true desire is to live other than we do, free from the demands of literacy (signification) and liberated from the need to choose.