Yesterday I saw a remarkable film.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar_(2009_film)

On a trivial, if entertaining, level, it is a state-of-the-art mostly CGI Sci Fi motion picture with lots of special effects designed to show off its 3-D format. But it touches on things which concern us as Anthropologists.

The setting is a planet with an indigenous population and a highly integrated eco-system that is threatened by human invastion for exploitation of its mineral resources. The link to us is that the humans wield military force, led by a caricature of a hard-bitten retired officer who sees violence as the best answer, and they use 'anthropologists' to find out about the natives so that they can understand and thus manage them (ie, move them on to make room for the excavations). The 'Avatar' of the title refers to the construction of creatures that can blend in with the local population (who are humanoid-ish but not human) and can be occupied by humans through a technical link - a sort of sci-fi version of the embedded amthropologist doing fieldwork.

The emotional level of the drama rests on the ethics vs practicalities (from the human point of view) of embracing local culture with the purpose of exploiting it. As anthropologists in touch (we hope) with popular culture, we need to understand the issues that this raises and, I suggest, be prepared to discuss them with non-anthropologists.

This could be a very good opportunity for us to talk anthropology to anyone and not just to the inner circle of professionals. We can use this to put anthropology where I personally believe it should be - into the World where it belongs and not chained up by specialist language in the Academy.

All the best - Happy New Year,

Charles

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I find it fascinating that so many anthropologists have stretched their imaginations and metaphors to see something in the movie dealing with our own political economy, that I haven't heard much reference to more obvious anthropological questions and theory.

For example, how is it that on a planet far far away there are upright, bipedal, stereoscopic vision, symmetrical hominoids walking around?

Second, the narrative falls into the classic folktalk narrative uncovered by Vladimir Propp in the 1930's. No one has played the game of how this movie follows that narrative: hero enters, hero goes on journey, etc.... (think Starwars).
If we deconstruct it using that outline, then racist themes disappear, because it is Jake Sully that is given a gift by the Navi, and that leads me to the next point...

Third, how has no one brought up the obvious rights of passage that are present in the movie. Preliminal, liminal, post-liminal.

He literally becomes something else. How can be save a people as the "White guy" if he's a Navi? Also, in the movie he is carrying out a kind of destiny, because it is stated that he's the 4rth, I think, Navi to save the race from disaster. He rejects humanity, and in the process becomes more human? From that aspect, if we want to get symbolistic, then the movie shows different aspects of the human psyche and rejects the darker aspects of greed, and dualistic thinking.
A fellow by the name of William Drinkard wrote a SciFi novel titled Elom. It's really a flawed concept overall, as it involves the selective breeding of humans on a distant planet in order to create a small cadre of super-humans who will then travel to Earth and solve all of our problems...all without actually ever being embedded in Earth politics. Hmmm...

One good point in it is that alien species will have developed along vastly different, even inimical, biologies. Also, see works by Alistair Reynolds, of which I am definitely a fan.

Rick Holden said:
I find it fascinating that so many anthropologists have stretched their imaginations and metaphors to see something in the movie dealing with our own political economy, that I haven't heard much reference to more obvious anthropological questions and theory.

For example, how is it that on a planet far far away there are upright, bipedal, stereoscopic vision, symmetrical hominoids walking around?

Second, the narrative falls into the classic folktalk narrative uncovered by Vladimir Propp in the 1930's. No one has played the game of how this movie follows that narrative: hero enters, hero goes on journey, etc.... (think Starwars).
If we deconstruct it using that outline, then racist themes disappear, because it is Jake Sully that is given a gift by the Navi, and that leads me to the next point...

Third, how has no one brought up the obvious rights of passage that are present in the movie. Preliminal, liminal, post-liminal.

He literally becomes something else. How can be save a people as the "White guy" if he's a Navi? Also, in the movie he is carrying out a kind of destiny, because it is stated that he's the 4rth, I think, Navi to save the race from disaster. He rejects humanity, and in the process becomes more human? From that aspect, if we want to get symbolistic, then the movie shows different aspects of the human psyche and rejects the darker aspects of greed, and dualistic thinking.
A few additional thoughts about reading science fiction (in the sense of mining movies for content).

First, suspension of disbelief is a valuable tool. I once came across a collection of definitions of science fiction by authors such as Philip K. Dick and the likes. What struck me was that many of them said that the basic kernel of the genre was the one hypothetical element of the story in question. According to this idea, there's one fantastical element that allows for the story to move forward. From this definition, science fiction becomes a sort of thought experiment.

I used to watch the old Star Trek series (still the best) when I was in high school (alas, they don't show it on tv any more...don't have a tv anyway). It struck me that the series was really a platform for political commentary. Setting those commentaries in a fantastical setting allowed the authors to set up hypothetical situations in order to make their points. In some way, then, science fiction is allegory.

So, a phys-anth friend once ripped the movie The Island (cool jetbikes) because the science behind the fiction was implausible. I don't think she appreciated that there were subtexts that reflected cultural salience in the movie. The science is fantastical, and the bioethics issues are a little exaggerated, but they are resonating in some way with a popular public.

My other thought is to clarify my original statement to this discussion thread. When I point out the irony of the consumption that is driven by the movie (both by the producers and consumers of it), I usually end up getting dismissed as a lib.

However, from an anthropological standpoint, maybe we should be talking about a significant amount of culture lag, in which oftentimes eco-friendly overtures in our culture end up utilizing means that are themselves embedded in capitalist industrial economic systems and cultures of consumption. The best example of this is the proliferation of products that are marketed as green. The irony is that being eco-friendly has been relegated to a consumption choice. Those washer-dryer units, light bulbs, cars and computers might be more energy efficient than previous models, but they are still manufactured items.

Rick Holden said:
I find it fascinating that so many anthropologists have stretched their imaginations and metaphors to see something in the movie dealing with our own political economy, that I haven't heard much reference to more obvious anthropological questions and theory.

For example, how is it that on a planet far far away there are upright, bipedal, stereoscopic vision, symmetrical hominoids walking around?

Second, the narrative falls into the classic folktalk narrative uncovered by Vladimir Propp in the 1930's. No one has played the game of how this movie follows that narrative: hero enters, hero goes on journey, etc.... (think Starwars).
If we deconstruct it using that outline, then racist themes disappear, because it is Jake Sully that is given a gift by the Navi, and that leads me to the next point...

Third, how has no one brought up the obvious rights of passage that are present in the movie. Preliminal, liminal, post-liminal.

He literally becomes something else. How can be save a people as the "White guy" if he's a Navi? Also, in the movie he is carrying out a kind of destiny, because it is stated that he's the 4rth, I think, Navi to save the race from disaster. He rejects humanity, and in the process becomes more human? From that aspect, if we want to get symbolistic, then the movie shows different aspects of the human psyche and rejects the darker aspects of greed, and dualistic thinking.
I was holding off rejoining this thread since I haven't seen the movie Avatar and just bought the DVD, but still haven't seen it. But these general reflections lead me to make a comment on science fiction. I was addicted to Star Trek and one time around 1970, when I was living in a Norfolk village, my old set blew up in the middle of an episode and I went charging up and down the main street knocking on doors to see if anyone was watching (someone was). This trivial anecdote is to soften you up for a pompous generalization. The two great values of modern civilization are democracy and science, the first because people should be able to govern themselves and the second because such a project requires us to know how the world really works. So science fiction is always political because he directs our imagination to this relationship.

I have a novel on the back burner, Who killed Don Quick? whose subtitle is A science fiction murder mystery.The protagonist is named from Cervantes and the novel is a pastiche like his. I have always been fascinated by crime fiction, ever since I read Crime and Punishment as a teenager. I identified with Raskolnikov (which means "dissenter" in Russian), but the most thrilling part of the story for me was his duel with the detective, Porfiry, who was the model for Columbo. The narrator of my novel is a time-travelling Indian historian from the 24th century (the period of Star Trek). But I digress. I promise to come back to this thread when I have seen the movie in question.
I warched the DVD this weekend with my 7 year-old daughter, She didn't find it frightening and joined in the Cowboys and Indians half of the film with gusto, especially when the bad guy got his. But watching it with her brought out the gaming aspect of the movie, as signified by its title, which dominates the first half and frames its end. I don't know if I should be surprised that no-one in this thread has focused on this aspect of Avatar, but it certainly posed plenty of questions for my daughter.

The film's basic idea is a MMORPG like WoW transposed into a sci-fi space flick. But beyond that the existential issue posed is the relationship between a "real" person and his avatar, which would take in Second Life and many more online activities, but not the OAC where we discourage that sort of thing. The plot hinges on how to resolve the relationship between offline and online characters, especially when the avatar can be unplugged against the player/avatar's will. My guess is that the sole reason for our hero to be joined in the final fight by some of his offline buddies is so that the unplugging capacity can be removed from the bad guys. It is not coincidental that the realist figure is a cripple and the avatar a superb specimen who flies at subsonic speeds on dragons and practices kung fu in mid air. The conclusion of the movie, the synthesis of player and avatar ends rather well I think with the composite opening his eyes and blinking at the next stage of his life.

But to return to my daughter, as the plot cranked into gear and the switch was made in both directions, she said (not asking) "He's dreaming. It's a dream". Later, she said "You see, it's a nightmare". This take on the gaming metaphor couldn't be shaken by my lame attempts to explain what was going on in French (her main language, but not mine). She also knew that it was a fairy story, because the sets were beautiful and fantastic, princes rode horses, the alien marries the king's daughter, the king dies and so on. (Marshall Sahlins has been writing at length about stranger kings for some years now, but I doubt if he will add Avatar to the repertoire.) Fairy story, dream and Cowboys and Indians merged for her in a very satisfying way from halfway on.

I don't think she got the anti-colonial angle.
NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS said:
But is this a movie for kids or for adults ? Or maybe for aduls who want to feel as kids or even worse for adults who cannot but be kids. The clinical term for this desease or syndrom is PALEMPEDISM ( back to te childhood)

Why are you such an old grouch these days, Nikos or, if you prefer a Greek word, DYSPEPTIC? Watching movies has always been a ritual where the adult and child in all of us speak to each other. Because I have a young kid, I see a lot of movies aimed at them, but some, like Walle and Up, clearly appeal to adults too at another level, as do the best children's stories. I don't see why it should not be the other way round. Nor do we have to characterize the adults who enjoy movies like Avatar as victims of an infantilizing disease. Do you want us all to have an exclusive diet of Bergman films? Or to ban Hollywood? We are talking about the best-selling movie of all time, so what you have to say applies to a lot of people.
Nikos,

I don't know if I've mentioned this idea or not yet, but I've been playing around with the idea of cultural saliency.

What I mean by cultural saliency is that any story has to have elements that will resonate with concepts and issues that are a part of the experiences of those who listen to (or watch) them. From that standpoint, popular films, even the really lame ones, should be seen as rich cultural texts.

Stories help to fashion cultural tropes, but they also have to reflect them. Without reflecting what is culturally recognizable and important (that is, what is salient), then you'd have a non-story: something that won't connect at all with an audience.

So, in terms of saliency, these action-adventures may be rich fields for exploring popular sentiments. From an anthropological point of view, maybe we're not getting some great revelation here, but we are getting something that can approach ethnographic relevance.

Avatar actually runs into a long standing hypothesis of my own concerning the differences between American and Japanese science fiction. In a nutshell, I'd argue that American scifi tends to reflect an unease with ourselves and our own past (I’m American): a barely recognizable someone comes from across an unbridgeable expanse using technology that is not available to us; then, they begin in short order to wreak havoc as they commence mass extraction of resources. Think V, Independence Day, even The Day the Earth Stood Still echoes this sentiment to some extent. In Japanese science fiction, I've seen themes of society-wide devastation, and even nuclear holocaust, time and again. Think not only Godzilla, but Akira, for example. Again, it's about cultural saliency.

However, most of us are not critical intellectuals. Being able to connect even small bits of anthropology or critical thinking through a relatively unsophisticated medium such as an action adventure film is what it is: an opportunity.

NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS said:
I was not addressing especially to you Keith , since you have a strong motivation to look films with your daughter and I did the same looking the whole Disney production with my daughters some 20 years ago, but I addressed to the serious analysers who try to find hidden messages in adventure films as you very well put it.

And now I will go to drink some liters of PEPSI COla not to be so much dys-peptic -:)
I don't know. The actual elements involved might be different, but I think Japanese sci-fi stories follow the same universal narrative that all traditional and culturally based fiction do. , which have become popular here among kids with dragonball z, and Power Rangers, or adults with anime.
Godzilla reflects the damage of nuclear war to the Japanese psyche, but there's nothing about it that we don't get or enjoy. The Japanese love our stuff and we love theirs. My wife is Japanese and she really loved Avatar, as did I.
Nikos,

I think you're definitely right to point that out. In today's day and age, we can't expect to come across discrete cultures, though. Maybe we should be less worried about outside influence on a culture and more interested in how those outside influences are refracted through the lenses of the culture in question. Besides, when ever have cultures been pure or really isolated, besides a few exeptions? It's just that the interpenetration of cultures is more pronounced today than ever before.

On a less theory-driven note, though, I sympathize with what you're saying. We seem to be sliding more and more into a kind of uni-culture driven by American mass(ive) media and consumer culture. I'm American, but I don't think this trend is good for humanity.

I'm not prone to use an evolutionary tactic in my anthropology, but this thought seems like a relevant idea to me: diversity is vital for any species or population. If cultural capacity is the primary adaptive strategy for human beings, then it seems that we are shooting ourselves in the foot (shitting in our own shoes, as a Czech friend once told me) in forcing all cultures into one consumer-driven, mass-media inflated mono-culture.

On a more aesthetic level, middle class American culture has a tendency to be banal and thoughtless for the most part. The typical and expected has a kind of currency in and of itself. The spread of that influence, though it makes sense from the logic of markets and the uneven geographies of wealth, seems to be a very poor turn of events. Not all American culture is as such, but the good stuff tends to be...well, marginalized by the mainstream.

Rick:

Good point. I'm not saying that these are overarching distinctions that define science fiction outright in the two cultures. I'm just saying that I've noticed it. With the recent release of The Book of Eli and The Road, there's lots of room to contravene what I've hypothesized here!

NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS said:
J.M.Right

I agree on yourr argumentation except a hiidden detail. That the american popular cultural model - whatever it is- is too much expanding and influencing millions of other populations not belonging to it and who however tend to reproduce, copy or imitate it in some important degree in the arts and in the real life. This is the real problem. In the case of Avatar, creating fans even ion Asia, I could call this phenomenon ''Avatarization of culture''. As about Godzila so much popular in US too, are u sure Rick that it's pure japanese and not a somehow imitation of american analogue catastrophe films dating back to the b/w primordial King Kong ?
Joel,

I will skip over your use of middle class here which seems to have replaced the masses as an American self-description. It is nothing new to say that American academics despise their own popular culture. This is reflected in their receptivity to the latest big idea from France. But I want to make a serious point.

It is true that globalization is driven by the US through their military monopoly and domination of finance, marketing, the largest corporations and so on, as was claimed, unusually for an anthropologist, by Kal Applbaum in The Marketing Era (2003). Many of the evils of the world are linked to this phenomenon and need to be opposed in the name of democracy (see my own little book, The Hit Man's Dilemma, 2005). But anthropologists' kneejerk support for cultural relativism, now called diversity, is not as straightforward as they think.

All the classical social theorists were in favour of markets as a way of extending society to a more inclusive level and undermining the insularity of traditional communities. Moreover, Marx and Durkheim each argued that society became stonger as a result, enhancing individuality in the process. It is not the case that world society is becoming a monoculture. Rather we are witness to an extraordinary diversity of cultural production everywhere, even if some marginal peoples lose their claim to being autonomous. How does the success of Bollywood and Nollywood (half in English, half in Yoruba) support the relentless march of American culture thesis, ditto the vitality of the state-supported French film industry? I am not sure that the independent US film-makers are in crisis either.

Marx used to say that the social relations of production act as so many fetters on the development of the forces of production. In the case of the 20th century, which was mostly one big war and broke all records for mass slaughter, the dominant social relations took the form of national capitalism, the attempt of central bureaucracies to manage markets, money and accumulation in the interest of all citizens. This is where cultural relativism, indeed the ethnographic revolution, came from. The result is a world which desperately needs to find more coherent ways of managing planetary problems and an anthropology that has almost nothing to say about how we might go about trying to form a global society with that end in mind.

This is not to endorse current globalization processes uncritically. It would not be the first time in human history that a progressive development came loaded with social contradictions. Think of the invention of agriculture for example. We need to upgrade our act for the 21st century and pushing cultural relativism regardless will not get us very far, I think.

J. M. Wright said:
We seem to be sliding more and more into a kind of uni-culture driven by American mass(ive) media and consumer culture. I'm American, but I don't think this trend is good for humanity.
I'm not prone to use an evolutionary tactic in my anthropology, but this thought seems like a relevant idea to me: diversity is vital for any species or population. If cultural capacity is the primary adaptive strategy for human beings, then it seems that we are shooting ourselves in the foot (shitting in our own shoes, as a Czech friend once told me) in forcing all cultures into one consumer-driven, mass-media inflated mono-culture. On a more aesthetic level, middle class American culture has a tendency to be banal and thoughtless for the most part. The typical and expected has a kind of currency in and of itself. The spread of that influence, though it makes sense from the logic of markets and the uneven geographies of wealth, seems to be a very poor turn of events. Not all American culture is as such, but the good stuff tends to be...well, marginalized by the mainstream.
"As about Godzila so much popular in US too, are u sure Rick that it's pure japanese and not a somehow imitation of american analogue catastrophe films dating back to the b/w primordial King Kong ?"

I'm going to try to add to what Keith has just said on this subject in less Marxist terms. When I was younger I was attracted to the classical anarchist works, which kind of gave me a slight aversion to Marx.

I think that American anthropologists in most ways are rather blind to the nuances in their own cultures. We tend to think of our cultural mores as hegemonic, while all others are subservient, even when so many of us have poked so many holes in that idea that it should have died years back. American culture is really a confluence of various cultures. People get pissy that these various cultures have some how been subverted and renamed by some elite, white, dominant American class, but they are there nonetheless, so it really doesn't matter. A rose by any other name... There is no such thing as a "pure" culture. The fact that good, competent anthros can still even use such language in 2010 is a major example of academic domain dependence.

One can see all the subtle nuance in the literature and in things measured and studied, but these things seem to disappear outside of the academy, because many anthros think that the anthropological lens is not something that is always relevant. Personally, I never stop using the lens. As a non-academic, I have to use the lens in everyday American life, so it is no different to me than someone in a jungle somewhere with a non-literate clan.

Japan, not the actual land, but the ruling class, reinvented what you think of as Japan during the Meiji-shi or Reformation, in the late 19th century. They were playing baseball before WWI, and loving it. It wasn't taken there by us after WWII. Probably a 1/4 of Japanese is messed up English and other foreign languages that predate WWII. The government sent representatives around the world to learn engineering from the Germans, cooking from the French, sports from the Americans, etc... They took them and made things Japanese. There was no language one could consider Japanese until this time, either. What we call Japanese, is a creation by Japanese scholars in Tokyo who spliced together a dialect from the average upper middle class Tokyo male and instituted this largely invented dialect in universal education programs, so that everyone in Japan would speak the same language. Till this day there is till a Tokyo and Osaka dialect, which marks people from those two places. Now, this was all done without interference by anyone outside Japan. The US forced Japan to open up to the world, but their reaction was self made.
If we go back 250 years before Admiral Perry "force" opened Japan, we'd see a very open Japan. We'd see a Japan that made some of the world's finest firearms, yet 250 years later no guns. Why?

We can't seem to get away from thinking of these flows of agency, information and power in non-state ways. Do you think it mattered more to a Japanese peasant (the majority) more when they're life changed to once again being incorporated into the world market of finance and ideas, than when they were forced away from it in a mass slaughter by other Japanese?

We can turn the lens of Afghanistan and criticism our own forces there. Is it somehow better or ok for other Afghans in the Taliban to force people there to live under brutal, 13th century Sharia law, then for Americans to force them to let girls go to school? There's this notion that Americans and Western Europeans invented subjugation, and empire, and if we just went away so would these things. As though the second our power diminishes, someone out in the world won't try to subjugate us. This is a short view of history.
Just as in the film Avatar, the Navi were a divided race. They had already had to unite previous time in their history to face some past evil. Were these evils always alien species? Or, were they instances when they had to defend themselves against other Navi. If they metaphorically represent Native Indians, then they are an essentialized version of them. A Navajo would probably live for a few hours max, or be enslaved, or raped and then killed, if they wondered into another tribe's land.

In the 1990's everyone was worried about the McDonaldation of the world, but we learned that these cultural forms are not forced on others wholesale, but accepted and incorporated in a locally acceptable way. There are kids in Japan that think McDonald's is Japanese. The Chinese completely changed the way McDonald's exists in the US. It is neither fully American or fully Chinese, it is something else, yet it is Chinese and American. Much of what we think of as "traditional" or "pure" Japanese comes from China, but we don't say these forms are anything but Japanese.

I think what we are getting is a naive reaction of anthros measuring something for the first time and thinking that it didn't exist until they measured it. As though bacteria were invented with the microscope.
Keith Hart:

It’s interesting to consider your viewpoint on the last century, that it was marked by the economics of nation building and warfare the likes of which humanity had not seen before. I can see that in the formation of the EU. It's also interesting to consider the ideological implications for the anthropology of the 20th century. I'll have to think on the role that anthropology stands to play in forging a better global community. Incidentally, that's not too far from my interests in the EU and European integration (and, for that matter, national/ethnic identity in Quebec).

I’m surprised to see that you have read cultural relativism into my statement above. I hadn’t really been thinking along the lines of cultural relativism, which I had always thought of as a kind of lens through which one focuses greater tolerance and acceptance for other ways. I can see the link to the concept of diversity, though. I’ll have to think on that for a while as well.

Rick Holden:

Thank you for your insight, especially into the historical formation of ethnic and national identity in Japan.

I'm not sure I'll share your assessment that my understandings of globalization are naïf, or that they constitute a “short view of history.”

I'm well aware that globalization, as it is currently, is not a simple matter of a unilateral top-down relationship between the North/West and the South/East. Taken at different scalars, we can see regional relationships that drive all sorts of inequalities. I remember an anecdotal story by a professor when I was an undergraduate (and had not really studied globalization yet at all). He was interested in the legal systems of the Dayaks of the interior of Borneo. One of the girls from the village where he lived was caught in an affair with a soldier from the Indonesian army. As punishment, her family sold her to a Chinese merchant.

Other examples are ample. I sat at a party one time with three Vietnamese women and a Japanese friend; during the conversation, the Vietnamese woman who was going home (it was her farewell party) mentioned how the Japanese took all the rice from Vietnam just prior to World War II, leading to mass starvation. I'm also thinking about the Japanese campaign in northern China, which resulted in horrid atrocities that even the Nazi envois cringed at.

I think Anna Tsing, in Friction, wrote about the presence of Japanese logging companies in Indonesia, and their negative impact on the ecosystems and indigenous peoples. Also, there are regional systems of contention within the European Union, between the poorer member countries and the richer; heck, even the richer nations don't really get along too well sometimes. I remember an archeo professor’s lecture on the violent contact between different native peoples meeting in the Ohio River Valley. Also, take a look at the Kohokia Mound burials on Mound 72...

So, you're right that the "blame" cannot be placed solely on the shoulders of American global hegemony.

I concede.

I'll still hold that the spread of bottom-line-driven, consumer mass culture isn't all that great, even if people in other cultures will take it on of their own volition. Why should the criticism change just because others have taken it on?

Regarding Afghanistan, however, I think some clarification would be helpful. Sharia law may have its origins in the 13th century (don’t know much about it actually), but the Sharia practice today is contemporary (I agree that it is brutal). By the way, I’m not sure where I began to criticize US involvement in Afghanistan. I’m certainly not saying that the women of the region should be kept in their oppressive state, no more than I agree with that Irani religious official who exhorted Ahmadinejad to, “for God’s sake, be a man,” and hang more political dissenters.

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