Delusion, distractions, dialectic
Mike Belbin reviews James Cameron's new blockbuster 'Avatar'
James Cameron first came to prominence as a superior special effects and action writer-director with Terminator, Aliens and Terminator 2. He went on to acquire even more fame with Titanic, combining the highest movie budget of all time with a frosting of social concern and romance, a love transcending anti-Irish snobbery on the notorious ocean liner. His latest film, Avatar, has been promoted as employing the very boldest use of 3D imagery, while providing a profound allegory of mineral imperialism and colonial violence. In other words, it is more than an X-Box game, though even Cameron probably would not deny the influence.
The story is set in 2954 on the distant planet of Pandora. Into its orbit arrives a space ship of the mining company, Resources Development Administration. From Earth, they are in pursuit of a rare mineral called Unobtainium. As well as RDA staff, the ship contains a group of scientific researchers and an army of mercenaries: it is the East India Company in space.
The planet’s only inhabitants are taller and slimmer than the visitors. They are the Na’vi - agile, blue-skinned and saucer-eyed; a cross between native Americans, with the occasional African plait, and Giacometti sculptures. Earthlings, or ‘sky dwellers’, cannot breathe in Pandora’s atmosphere, the planet’s fauna and flora being especially luxuriant: humans must wear oxygen masks. Therefore, a small team of scientists and soldiers sent to the surface must go as avatars: that is, Na’vi bodies created for them by mixing human and Pandoran DNA. These are then operated by their minds while their human bodies lie prone back at base.
Members of the team include paraplegic ex-US marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and head researcher Dr Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver, bringing with her reminders of Ripley from the first three Alien films. In the event, Sully is the first to make contact with the Na’vi. The tribe are not fooled about his provenance, for he does not seem to know that much about their culture. Along with the spectator, he is slowly educated into their approach to the world, mainly by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), whose parents are the Na’vi’s chieftain and high priest.
Sully’s job though is to report back to the RDA mother ship, in particular to the hawkish colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and the impatient RDA bureaucrat Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). When Sully concludes that the Na’vi are not going to give up their mineral-rich land, especially the bit under their huge magic tree, an invasion of Pandora begins. The scene is set for Sully to side with the Na’vi and halt the invasion, either by an appeal to negotiation or by battle in nature-shaking 3D.
Anyone who is reminded already of various westerns, or indeed the war in Iraq, should not feel they are reading too much into the story: the allusions are hard to miss, from blue ‘redskins’ to a war for precious minerals. Beyond the CGI/computer game action then, how far does the story go politically?
This is neither an irrelevant nor impertinent question, as the movie does make grand philosophical claims along the way. The Na’vi are not just another hollering Apache clone: their relationship with nature has been thoroughly thought out and is presented for our admiration. Though like many things presented for our admiration in these centrist times, from equal opportunity programmes to Barack Obama, it stops short of coming to grips with the problem.
This is not to say that no-one will get anything from it. As an article in The Times suggested, children may take a firm commitment to a sustainable Earth away from the battles between mining company and indigenous people. Some of the battles are not bad either, especially the all too symbolic one between colonel Quaritch in a big robot suit and the fleet-footed Sully and Neytiri, using bows and arrows.
3D may now be another brush to add to the cinematic paint box of colour, sound and wide screen. For this viewer, the new gadget is not only impressive when showing vast, animated vistas or swooping bird-dragons. There is really no replacement for human actors, prettiness apart. In fact, there were times when the CGI figures of the rake-like Na’vi began to pall and I would have preferred to see a bit more chunky human substance.
The story, however, falls down on plot detail, especially character development and context. Sully’s journey from undercover agent to Na’vi guerrilla is vaguely sketched. His initial motivation seems to be an aim to achieve surgery on his legs when he returns. Though this is a goal that someone else offers him (the colonel) not a desire he voices for himself. Stepping out on Pandora in his avatar form, Sully seems only loosely engaged with the mission. Getting lost in the forest, he bumps into the Na’vi and then jocularly imbibes their ways.
Of course, the motivation of figures in an electronic game does not matter that much: it is usually kill or be killed. On screen, however, the turn from secret agent to guerrilla fighter is too lightly done: Quaritch calls him a traitor, but he never seemed that involved anyway. But, having turned, he joins with the Na’vi and effectively becomes their leader, bonding with land, animals and people in a united consciousness - and for all that, a very American figure: the leader who appears from nowhere and becomes a saviour in war and peace; a tall, blue Washington, Lincoln or Obama.
What is more, though, it is easy to identify the west with the mining company and its mercenaries (not, you note, government soldiers). All the usual excuses are absent. This is not a mining mission to ‘save Earth’ from mineral famine, so it is not being done on behalf of the participants’ families: the Na’vi are not presented as a threat to all we hold dear - and where is the accusation that they have some kind of terrible WMD? Though in fact they do - an invisible force coming up from the land and the magic tree itself. The RDA are venial and brutish; just so, but if children and other spectators cheer the soulful locals with their comfortable spirituality, how does that prepare anyone when they hear our rulers condemning the greed of Iran or, for that matter, China?
Any face-saving plan to negotiate is not discussed: the bad guys are ready to thump the natives from the word go. Dr Augustine’s team and Sully seem to be going along with this, by being part of the mission, but are then shocked when it happens. Did they think it was all just a research project? This is vague; there is no definite conflict here between the mission’s principles and the participants who change their minds.
Age of delusion
This very fuzziness does not, I believe, result from sloppy film making - not with the meticulous Cameron. It is intrinsic to keeping the spectator away from awkward questions. Sully and the science team are detached as characters from the whole mineral grab. They do not identify themselves with the actual mission. Here is a model of detachment - we can stay within our private projects and ignore the general purposes of the state and capital - ‘we just work there’.
Of course, this disengagement is a delusion: unless we protest and conduct some kind of opposition struggle, these things are in fact done ‘in our name’. There is no going along just for the ride. Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht’s play of the same name is a character who thinks she can keep herself and her children safe from a war, out of which she in fact makes her living. The play exposes her deluded cunning, her self-destructive self-interest.
Sully, however, does not seem to make any decision for his first course of action at all: he is an ‘ordinary Joe’ who finds himself acting the spy. It is not even his profession, like James Bond. When he rejects his side, he is rejecting something he only vaguely accepted in the first place. He just starts fighting for the Good against the Bad.
A minor point? But this means he is not shown coming out of a delusion: he does not grow in consciousness, rejecting a deluded self-interest (‘my legs’, my life on Earth), realising that he has been used. We are given no example, even in simple terms, of a character’s development, of a ‘consciousness-raising’ process. Nor is the status of the mining mission an issue debated, even briefly: eg, ‘Unobtainium will save our families on Earth. We can’t allow these local people to stand in the way of progress and our survival.’ Rather the choice against the RDA operation is easy and simple.
This vagueness about involvement, about the kind of justifications imperialism can use, even if ineffectively, makes this work typical of our time. For the age of credit bubbles and the Big Heat Up is the age of delusion, of a detachment which is self-destroying. Capitalism in decline (see Mike Macnair, ‘World politics, long waves and the decline of capitalism’, January 7) actively promotes delusion, including self-delusion: for example, the delusion of aspirational careerists who create ‘crunches’ and risk a resentful backlash. Delusion also prospers through distraction by the turnover in gadgets, especially the internet with its wealth of social and political possibilities (which are, however, increasingly succumbing to the old relations of production, such as advertising, censorship and copyright).
This is an epoch too of sanctimonious and dangerous bullshit, the banning of ‘offensive speech’ and rhetorical ‘we can’ notions of individual mastery over the world. With the Copenhagen summit we had a recognition of the steep rise in global warming these last 50 frantic, free-market years, but the only result was an empty declaration and a few millions to ‘cap’ the effects on the poor world. In this epoch of warm rhetoric and global warming, capitalism is not only its own gravedigger, as Marx prophesised, but a grave-provider for the world, in the ultimate self-destruction: wasting your own planet.
To compensate for these destructive short-term profits, the exploited are bought off, with credit in the developed world and handouts to the developing. These, however, are panicked strategies, which may postpone, but not prevent, economic and ecological disaster for everybody. This is the ultimate self-delusion.
Procedure of science
The opposite of self-delusion is conscious problem-solving: full consciousness in action. But if Marxists claim a correct method (dialectics), how come they do not always agree on things? Are we looking to be united by a philosopher-leader like Jake Sully?
The issue of how we acquire knowledge is not academic. Surely, if we had a science, doesn’t that mean there would be one single answer to questions, proved and demonstrable, with which we could command against delusion?
Of course, we can put such differences between Marxists down to a divergence of social viewpoints, of culture or national location. Yet perhaps there is something in the dialectical method itself that makes disagreement possible. The question then is, can we have this divergence while possessing some political unity? Does a Marxist intellectual style inevitably lead to splits and sectarianism, except on very basic issues where Marxists can even unite with liberals and social democrats?
It is in the Grundrisse: foundations of the critique of political economy that Marx outlines the dialectical method:
“It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete … thus to begin in economics, with, for example, the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production.
“However, on closer examination this proves false. The population proves an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest: eg, wage labour, capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc …
“Thus if I were to begin with the population, this would turn out to be a chaotic conception of the whole. I would then … move analytically toward ever simpler concepts, from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as a chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations” (K Marx Grundrisse New York 1973, pp100-01).
That which is presumed to be real and concrete then - the population, people working and living - turns out to be abstract, empty, chaotic. Applying a range of concepts from a particular tradition - the Marxist tradition - leads you to the essence of social existence - class relationships, self-destructive tendencies of expanding capital - the most basic determinations and relations. These are then applied back to chaotic appearances: the concrete. You start with the unexplained and end with the same phenomena as the effects of an essential, invisible process.
The main objection then is, how is this invisible essence, this abstraction, demonstrable? In his Marxism for and against (New York 1980), Robert L Heilbroner raises this question, going on to refer to some of Marx’s ‘pronouncements’. The examples he gives are the tendency of capital to agglomerate in large monopolies and the tendency of the population to be reduced to proletarian (that is, non-capital-operating) status. These tendencies, he states, have been vindicated by history. Dialectical understanding, then, begins with the empirical and ends there too.
Physical and biological science takes a similar journey - you cannot see or feel Einstein’s concept of space-time or natural selection or indeed geometry, only their effects. The ideas themselves are abstractions. Rather, we relate these concepts, as underlying structures and mechanisms, to effects in the concrete world.
Physical scientists disagree too. Albert Einstein himself resisted for a long time the ‘big bang’ theory of an expanding universe. In fact, he invented phenomena that contradicted the idea, using the notion of antigravity or ‘dark matter’ to explain the same phenomena. He later admitted this answer was a fudge after Hubble put forward the likelihood that it was space itself that was expanding, a hypothesis based on Einstein’s general relativity theory.
Of course, Thomas Kuhn has argued in the Logic of scientific revolutions that professional scientists do not just genuflect before equations. Some older scientists never accept a new paradigm and even path-breakers like Einstein can resist for a period.
As the media remind us, global warming itself is the subject of a debate. One perhaps stimulated by the oil industry and its promoters, like George W Bush, but putting forward arguments nevertheless to challenge the prediction that the ‘steep rise’ is human-originated. These challenges can be answered: that is, the proposals that there is data that shows there is no steep rise in warming or that activity on the sun is to blame. The rise in warming has been particularly steady in the last 50 years and, though once there did seem to be a correlation with sunspots, activity on the sun has calmed down since 1980, even as the rise in warming has continued. Something like 80% of those now working in the field accept the prognosis of a steep rise in the Earth’s temperature. Not all though: disagreement is part of the process and there is no unanimity, no certainty in the case - only a high degree of likelihood, making for a convincing consensus.
Conscious change and dialectical study require debate which has a procedure: an etiquette of research and consensus. If debate - as democratic centralism - is not part of our organisations, they have no claim to wisdom. In the age of delusion and distraction, we need more than supreme leaders and a united, holy people. We need a developing, self-conscious project, involving contributions from many in discovering practical, whole solutions.