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The colonialism of Avatar
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| Words: 3250 | Submitted: 06-Jun-2010
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DescriptionThe colonialism of Avatar
Those who argue that Avatar brings about the “savage” myth have a point. The Na’vi fight with bows and arrows and speak with African accents that seem to stereotypical.
The Na’vi are superstitious because they believe in Eywa, a deity who is immersed throughout the natural world, and concentrated in the Tree of Souls. The movie contrasts this Na’vi spirituality with the profit-driven “insanity” of the colonists who see the planet Pandora simply as a natural resource to be accumulated at all costs. Is this falling into the “ecological Indian” myth which claims that indigenous people live in harmony with nature and all ecological problems are simply the result of colonization?
The problem with this myth is it treats indigenous people as if they are part of the landscape, not human beings who transform their environment through labor and technology. In reality, indigenous people have transformed their environments and have long histories of changing technologies and social relations, some of which are very ecologically sustainable and some which are ecologically destructive. Ecologists try to “correct” indigenous culture to express their politics without taking seriously the histories of indigenous peoples and without siding with existing indigenous communities today in their ongoing struggles against colonization.
Avatar is science fiction, it is not a documentary about the colonization of North America and it is not a primitive movie. If it were either then I would say yes, it is both inaccurate and racist. But the Na’vi are not “supposed” to be Native Americans, they are another culture in their own right that are in the context of a fictional story. We can analysis the Na’vi, and the allusions and references to indigenous history that are made, but we need to start by looking at the specific story that Avatar tells in all of its details and begin our analysis there. We can’t simply import our ideological complaint with the “savage” myth into the movie. Art is not simply something that narrowly projects and expresses the class, race, and gender politics of today. While it is clearly informed and limited by these and needs to be analyzed in terms of them, it also has an imaginative characteristic to it that needs to be taken into account if we want to avoid strict interpretations of popular culture.
Beyond the bows and arrows, I don’t think that the Na’vi are primitive at all. In fact, the Na’vi are highly sophisticated, and in some respects have more developed technology than the humans in the movie. For example, they have the ability to transfer and merge their consciousness with other beings, including the horse like animals or bird-like animals they ride. This allows them to do fighter-jet style maneuvers in the air which are faster and more precise then the colonizers helicopters. They merge their consciousness with other beings through a unique, biologically based technology they and other creatures on the planet have with “link” interfaces where the stems of their bodies merge with each other. Instead of artificial technology based on chemicals and energy sources that require mining, the Na’vi technology seems to be based on the biological and ecological networks around them. But this doesn’t make it any less advanced in fact; it is more advanced because it enhances the difficulty and beauty of the planet rather than destroying it. This is demonstrated when Jake Sully communicates with the Tree of Souls near the end of the movie and he warns the planetary network of consciousness that the colonizers are going to destroy it because they will do the same thing they did to earth: turn it into a barren, lifeless, artificial environment.
The Na’vi consciousness-linking technology is exactly what the humans are trying to develop in their colonial science labs with the Avatar program, which networks the consciousness of individual humans with the bodies of individual Na’vi. The movie suggests that the Avatar program is possible because the Na’vi had developed their bodies to be able to do this kind of linking. Grace Augustine, the main human scientist who developed it, may have gotten the idea by observing the Na’vi technology herself: we see her taking samples in the forest roots near the beginning of the movie and we know she runs a school for Na’vi which probably has as much to do with exploiting them for their knowledge as it does teaching them.
However, the humans are not able to fully develop this technology because their science is forced by the politics of imperialism. For the humans, there is a contradiction between their technology and their social relations. The Na’vi link technology implies the possibility of communication between beings. But instead the colonists’ Avatar program involves a “mind-body” split where consciousness “comes down” from above to control the Na’vi body. The largely white colonial scientists then take over Na’vi bodies and use them to support a liberal imperialist project of negotiation, and efforts like building the school to teach English. If there is a conflict between the colonial scientists and the colonial mining corporation in the movie, it simply represents two competing forms of capitalist growth: resource extraction vs. biotechnology.
The Avatar program is related to individualism where one individual consciousness enters one body. The Na’vi, in contrast, seem to be able to transfer their consciousness into the entire world around them, not just an individual body, and their use of this technology is not based on mind over matter, it is based on a mutual relationship where the birds they merge with have to choose them as much as they choose the animals. This ultimately makes the Na’vi technology more powerful than the human technology, which ends up helping them win the war in the end because they are able to convince Eywa to come to their aid in the form of an attack of animals that attack the human predator drones.
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