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'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?"

True. I'm just wondering if things are much different now when compared to other times in human history, or if it simply a change allowed by various new technologies. It's not something I've looked into, just one of those intuitive 'I wonder' kind of things. From studying social network analysis (which assumes that individuals and their behavior cannot be understood outside of networks of relationships and situations), to my time spent in the Army as a "psychological operator" in special operations (which assumes that all individuals act out of imperfect and consciously directed information flows), the concept of agency has become very suspect for me.

A good way to understand what I'm talking about gets made very clear in these video clips:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJNVgCHLR-k

or,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uiUhoA9NTs8&feature=related

Is bottom-driven consumer mass culture, as you say, really any different than what has always been, or is it simply a matter of cultural difference and ability to spread quickly? Perhaps we are blind to this throughout history, because all of the things that bugged people in the past are now things that are "natural and normal" today. People hate suburban tract housing, and strip malls, but people have been hating on the latest developments in architectural design since Rome.

Rick
Rick:

I'll have to go look at network theory, and the psychological operator stuff resonates with things that I've been thinking for a long time (though I've used terms like palimpsest).

At any rate, the question you pose, paraphrased as, "is it really all that different?" is a good one, I think. To my mind, social organization and social stratification have always existed hand in hand. The less division of labor there is within a society, the less stratification there seems to be. (Oh, boy. I'm generalizing like a Durkheimian groupie.)

However, I like to use my own cheesy metaphor to answer this question, so I'll foist it on you!

When I read Geertz' Nagara, I was struck by the Hindu-Buddhist cosmology that he described. In it, there are three layers to the world: the heavenly realm that exists above, and which is occupied by the forces of light, growth and life; the hellish realm, which exists below and is occupied by the forces of darkness, decay and death; and the middle level, which is our world, and in which the forces of heaven and hell intermix. The point is that there will always be destructive, brutal forces at play in the world, till its very end and un-being. While the forces of light cannot hope to fully prevail, there will be light, growth and life in its measure...until the unmaking of the world.

So, maybe we can't fully stamp out oppression, exploitation, neglect, what have you...but, we can fight back to create what good we can.

Just a thought!

M.:

You know, it's interesting how people seem to start out their movie-going experience with their attention laterally (talking to the people next to them). Then, as the movie starts, their attention shifts forward. We do seem to take on movies as an act of personal voyeurism, even in public!

I'd like to point back to my idea of cultural salience, though. Have you ever watched a movie made from another cultural vantage point that didn't seem to be too good? I was excited when the Russian movie Daywatch came out. When I watched it, the movie seemed to drag unbearably, and I'm wondering if I just wasn't privy to the right kinds of cultural knowledge to make the subtextual conflicts more interesting.

I remember hanging out with a group of Arab students, who had gotten together for meal. They were watching Arab tv, and there was a comedy show on. I didn’t get most of it (leaving my inability to understand Arabic aside), and I never did manage to laugh at the same time as everybody else. I lived with a woman from France for a while who told me that she couldn’t see the humor in American comedy.

I do agree that most people seem happier when they can be passive spectators, and that they don't generally like movies that confront them with real enigmas (at least that what I see here in the US).

By the way, is what we're doing here a kind of textual intellectual porn? Hmmm...
Izabel,

Great points. I didn't see it until you talked about the movie in a class with the top grossing films, and the escapism of it. I have to admit that I avoided watching the film at first, because I thought it was going to be more of an 'in your face' moralistic tale. I really don't want to spend the little time I have, to go to see a movie that's going to make me feel bad, or preach at me without also being just fun.

J.M.

A palimpsest is one way to think of part of it, in the sense that we are all a single species, so there will be variations on a theme of what manipulates and motivates us. I mean there's no culture that doesn't develop ways to feed people.
I think what Psyop taught me was that there were people out there who actively think about way to manipulate others through biasing and targeting people with information. You saw it with the health care debate. At this point I see it like I breath, and think, "oh, that's a 'glittering generalization appeal," or, "that's a 'bandwagon' appeal." When you find out that exist flow charts on how to put in social-cultural info on one end to produce predictable behaviors on the other, and that everyone has this knowledge, then concepts like hegemony begin to get fuzzy. Like I can trace out the way Soviet propagandist basically invented most of the arguments made by people in the US far left, and then called those people "useful idiots." So, when you can see these biased information flows and you can't do anything about it, your heart sinks. It's not one sided of course. The themes and narratives on the far right are pretty much manufactured as well.

Every time some far left anthropologist uses a pro argument for Islamic fundamentalists, people that would love to kill that person, I don't see an anthropologist. I see a puppet parroting words and language that were created in a room full of computers by Islamists. I've seen the rooms, and they have better equipment than we do.

So, when people say that we can fight back, I think to myself, 'you mean fight back against information'? The discourse of "fight back" and exactly how to do it are pretty much ready made templates developed by others. And, then when you look at those people, you realize that they are simply carrying out a particular social role and culturally derived set of agendas. Everywhere that I look to find a border for structure or agency, it eludes me.

For example, the movie was essentialized. Humans literally had nothing the Navi wanted, but that's not true in our world. In our world, people want the stuff that others have. Pre-literate people wanted steel knives, and no one had to talk them into wanting them, or told them exactly how to subvert traditional roles or traditions to get the knives. We can couch an argument in universal rights, or brotherhood, or whatever, but very few of us actually mean it. In the 1960's there might have been a handful of people that really felt their hearts hurt with the suffering of others, but most people just liked the sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, and the rebellion. That shit's fun.

I see the protesters in Arizona, but at the end of the day it's just a small group of people arguing for their interests over the interests of others, and manipulating people to join in with them by using symbolic language that stirs the emotions. Nobody's protesting the killing of a UN human rights person in Mexico recently, or the horrible inequality there, etc... Very few people actually gives a shit if they don't have a personal stake in it, or are having fun fighting an essentialized, externalized evil with different names (racism, capitalism, socialism, etc...). I've spent a lot of time in Mexico and know that most Mexicans don't self-identify as "Latinos" or "Hispanics," or any of the other classes of people invented in the US. They think of themselves as Mexicans, or Maya, or Chilangos. They don't give a shit about the plight of Guatemalans in the US, unless they can subvert narratives, symbols, and discourses to manipulate others to serve their own political economic interests.

So, when you say "we" can fight, I look around and don't see a lot of "we." I see a lot of people that are easily manipulated and reactionary.
Rick,

What you have asserted seems as freighted with your own ideological slant as mine. Perhaps your experience in the military has predisposed you to a certain set of circumstances that involved a real threat of violence and/or confrontation. Do most people in the world operate under such militarized conditions?

Also, it might well be that the discourses that I am producing are “ready made” by others; but it hardly seems like a revelation to me. After all, a person has to be understood within the social contexts in which he or she is embedded. The same could be said for your point of view, just as for mine. Also, just as you are, I cannot help to take those...tropes?...and process them through my own positionality, producing something that should be situated between “original” and “ready made.”

It’s not that I doubt the veracity of what you’ve said: I’m sure the level of technology among certain groups in the Gulf is very high. However, you seem to dismiss anthropologists who do ethnographic fieldwork in the Middle East. Some of those anthropologists have been direct mentors of mine. They have direct, unmediated cross-cultural contact.

Neither I nor they are “useful idiots.” In my view, the socialist empires that we have seen have been undeniably terrible. Look at North Korea. However, I also think that they have really had little to do with the principles of Marxism, which should be evident if you go back and read Marx’ works. I’m of a mind that they probably would have hated Marx, and tried to kill him strait off, if he was alive today. Also, they resemble very little the “primitive communism” that most anthropologists would recognize as being way less stratified than...oh, I don’t know; let’s say, China.

Also, I’ve had the privilege of friendships with Arabs from all over the Arab diaspora, from Morocco to Lebanon to Oman, and elsewhere. They’re no more violent than I am. I think that the anthropologists on the left, who specialize in the Arab Middle East, are referring to the people who would live peaceable lives rather than engage in jihad that involves violence.

See the following for examples of works that don’t seem to support terrorism, but seem to advocate a positive, or at least more nuanced, view of Middle Eastern cultures:

Ghosh, Amitav. In An Antique Land
LaVie, Smadar. The Poetics of Military Occupation
Danielson, Virginia. The Voice of Egypt
Menelley, Anne. Tournaments of Value
Said, Edward Orientalism

This list is off the top of my head, and is obviously a short list. I suspect that you’ll take exception to this last work, but I’ll put it in nonetheless.

Are there unreasoned, flattening ideologies in the Arab Middle East that class America and Americans as enemies that should be killed? Sure. I wouldn’t support them, by any means. I don’t advocate violence, and it doesn’t make sense to say I would advocate deadly violence against me, my family or my friends.

Also, we shouldn’t flatten the whole of the Arab world down simply to those that are a problem to us. That’s hardly enlightening. However, that’s all we ever seem to do when it comes to the Middle East and Arabs. Our media and government, who most everybody listens to without thinking critically, only give us images of Arabs when there is violence or trouble afoot.

Heck, Cheb Mami is edited out of Sting’s version of “Desert Rose” when it’s played on the radio. The Arabs I’ve known positively loved the fuller version of the song. Why is the intro, where Cheb Mami is singing about desire and love, taken out?

In short, you seem to only see the antagonism, and don’t see the humanizing messages that anthropologists of the Middle East and Arab cultures are communicating.

It’s also not a surprise to hear that the assemblages of ethnogenesis have resulted in different social divisions within Mexican culture as opposed to the US.

It also makes sense to me that people have a tendency to only be involved in political fights when they are directly impacted. Also, I’ve been exposed to quite a number of hippies, both young and old, and what you say about them caring more about the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll seems pretty darn accurate, for the most part. When I speak to most of them, they seem to have taken on a stridently rebellious, political point of view; yet almost to a person, they tend to get irritated when I pull out what you and I might recognize as any type of social theory. It’s just not fun anymore, as it involves effort beyond espousing a certain image.

The metaphor of the three worlds from Geertz’ work is not meant to be taken as a hard, fast argument. However, maybe it’s not a matter of “us good guys” vs. “them bad guys,” at least not in my thinking. Ignorance has a way of leading to fear, and fear has a way of leading to aggression. So peoples in other cultures have a lot to learn about us, just as we have a lot to learn about them. Perhaps the point isn’t to fight back against information, but rather to fight back against ignorance and fear with information. That seems to be the whole point behind anthropology, right?

For my own values, understanding, mutuality, friendship and peace trumps xenophobia, suspicion, fear and pre-emptive protection any day of the year. That basic criticism (if you’ll take it as such) applies as much to the cultural Other that bears me ill will as it does to the xenophobes of my own culture.

In any event, I hope your days are filled more with peace and understanding, rather than with strife and suspicion.

Rick Holden said:
Izabel,

Great points. I didn't see it until you talked about the movie in a class with the top grossing films, and the escapism of it. I have to admit that I avoided watching the film at first, because I thought it was going to be more of an 'in your face' moralistic tale. I really don't want to spend the little time I have, to go to see a movie that's going to make me feel bad, or preach at me without also being just fun.

J.M.

A palimpsest is one way to think of part of it, in the sense that we are all a single species, so there will be variations on a theme of what manipulates and motivates us. I mean there's no culture that doesn't develop ways to feed people.
I think what Psyop taught me was that there were people out there who actively think about way to manipulate others through biasing and targeting people with information. You saw it with the health care debate. At this point I see it like I breath, and think, "oh, that's a 'glittering generalization appeal," or, "that's a 'bandwagon' appeal." When you find out that exist flow charts on how to put in social-cultural info on one end to produce predictable behaviors on the other, and that everyone has this knowledge, then concepts like hegemony begin to get fuzzy. Like I can trace out the way Soviet propagandist basically invented most of the arguments made by people in the US far left, and then called those people "useful idiots." So, when you can see these biased information flows and you can't do anything about it, your heart sinks. It's not one sided of course. The themes and narratives on the far right are pretty much manufactured as well.

Every time some far left anthropologist uses a pro argument for Islamic fundamentalists, people that would love to kill that person, I don't see an anthropologist. I see a puppet parroting words and language that were created in a room full of computers by Islamists. I've seen the rooms, and they have better equipment than we do.

So, when people say that we can fight back, I think to myself, 'you mean fight back against information'? The discourse of "fight back" and exactly how to do it are pretty much ready made templates developed by others. And, then when you look at those people, you realize that they are simply carrying out a particular social role and culturally derived set of agendas. Everywhere that I look to find a border for structure or agency, it eludes me.

For example, the movie was essentialized. Humans literally had nothing the Navi wanted, but that's not true in our world. In our world, people want the stuff that others have. Pre-literate people wanted steel knives, and no one had to talk them into wanting them, or told them exactly how to subvert traditional roles or traditions to get the knives. We can couch an argument in universal rights, or brotherhood, or whatever, but very few of us actually mean it. In the 1960's there might have been a handful of people that really felt their hearts hurt with the suffering of others, but most people just liked the sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, and the rebellion. That shit's fun.

I see the protesters in Arizona, but at the end of the day it's just a small group of people arguing for their interests over the interests of others, and manipulating people to join in with them by using symbolic language that stirs the emotions. Nobody's protesting the killing of a UN human rights person in Mexico recently, or the horrible inequality there, etc... Very few people actually gives a shit if they don't have a personal stake in it, or are having fun fighting an essentialized, externalized evil with different names (racism, capitalism, socialism, etc...). I've spent a lot of time in Mexico and know that most Mexicans don't self-identify as "Latinos" or "Hispanics," or any of the other classes of people invented in the US. They think of themselves as Mexicans, or Maya, or Chilangos. They don't give a shit about the plight of Guatemalans in the US, unless they can subvert narratives, symbols, and discourses to manipulate others to serve their own political economic interests.

So, when you say "we" can fight, I look around and don't see a lot of "we." I see a lot of people that are easily manipulated and reactionary.
"Also, it might well be that the discourses that I am producing are “ready made” by others; but it hardly seems like a revelation to me. After all, a person has to be understood within the social contexts in which he or she is embedded. The same could be said for your point of view, just as for mine. Also, just as you are,"

Exactly. I apologize if it has sounded as though I'm in anyway personally including you in any of this critique. A lot is lost in this medium. As far as I can tell, I'm no different in this critique. It is all encompassing. While that is the case, there is the ability to understand this reality, and by understanding it, inoculating one's self. It's like this, if someone watched Avatar and connected that experience with a visceral feeling that motivated them to think or act in a particularly powerful way, and not ever consider the deep line of causality inherent in the process, then they are more or less easily manipulated.

We all come to each experience with the sum total of all past experiences, but when we forget that each experience is actually unique, and deserves it's own attention, then as the Buddhists say, "one has lost themselves." When one biases opinions upon experience in a patterned narrative, then I think the history and development of that narrative is important. How much of the far leftist opinion we've heard (not here) about Avatar is actually based on either the movie, or on real, unessentialized situations in 2010? They might be based on aspects of reality, but many of the simplistic narratives I've heard have come strait out of the Soviet propaganda machine. The fact that most people are unaware of this is a sign of how good the Soviets were. They spent billions every year (more than anyone else) that they existed on propaganda, and we are largely unaware of the effects.
Chomsky has done a great job on deconstructing the themes out of the Capitalist propaganda machine, but the other side of the coin is largely invisible. Many anthropologists still think of the world in terms developed by others during the Cold War. The narrative and discourse they developed no longer fits current reality, but it still colors the discipline greatly.

I think this TED video can sum up much of my point better than I can:

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stat...

Rick
Hey Rick,

I'm unfamiliar with the Soviet propaganda to which you keep referring. Also, to which left-leaning comments on Avatar are you referring. Can you provide some explanation, along with citation if possible?

For what it's worth, I've lived about 10 years in the Boston Mountains, here in Arkansas. Plenty of hippies, young and old. Some are in it for the glory, if you will, but others are in it for the lifestyle. I know some people who would look at the movie, along with its messages, and still see it in a certain light: as an instance of mass-produced gimee culture.

Rick Holden said:
"Also, it might well be that the discourses that I am producing are “ready made” by others; but it hardly seems like a revelation to me. After all, a person has to be understood within the social contexts in which he or she is embedded. The same could be said for your point of view, just as for mine. Also, just as you are,"

Exactly. I apologize if it has sounded as though I'm in anyway personally including you in any of this critique. A lot is lost in this medium. As far as I can tell, I'm no different in this critique. It is all encompassing. While that is the case, there is the ability to understand this reality, and by understanding it, inoculating one's self. It's like this, if someone watched Avatar and connected that experience with a visceral feeling that motivated them to think or act in a particularly powerful way, and not ever consider the deep line of causality inherent in the process, then they are more or less easily manipulated.

We all come to each experience with the sum total of all past experiences, but when we forget that each experience is actually unique, and deserves it's own attention, then as the Buddhists say, "one has lost themselves." When one biases opinions upon experience in a patterned narrative, then I think the history and development of that narrative is important. How much of the far leftist opinion we've heard (not here) about Avatar is actually based on either the movie, or on real, unessentialized situations in 2010? They might be based on aspects of reality, but many of the simplistic narratives I've heard have come strait out of the Soviet propaganda machine. The fact that most people are unaware of this is a sign of how good the Soviets were. They spent billions every year (more than anyone else) that they existed on propaganda, and we are largely unaware of the effects.
Chomsky has done a great job on deconstructing the themes out of the Capitalist propaganda machine, but the other side of the coin is largely invisible. Many anthropologists still think of the world in terms developed by others during the Cold War. The narrative and discourse they developed no longer fits current reality, but it still colors the discipline greatly.

I think this TED video can sum up much of my point better than I can:

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stat...

Rick
Joel,

I'm not usually prone to citing Wikipedia, but their info on the subject is pretty good: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_propaganda

All the references cited can be used. A good and easy to read book on the subject that's not referenced is the book, "Dezinformatsia: active measures in Soviet strategy."

That's just one large part of state sponsored propaganda, but one that is directly tied to the narratives in the far left in the US. Noam Chomsky has done a pretty good job of outlining the origins of far right narratives and themes. Currently, there's a narrative which has been actively developed by Islamists who seek to create the image of the "West" being at war against Islam. 60 Minutes recently did a story about this: http://www.google.com/search?q=60+minutes+the+narrative&hl=en&a...

Before I was forever banned from ever posting anything on ZeroAnthropology, I noticed that many of the people there parroted these Islamist and Soviet themes.

It would be a mistake to think that there is some ontogeny to these themes and narratives, which is not what I'm saying. Many utilize a set of tried and true meta-themes which have been used throughout human history. The US army symbol for psychological operations is a horse head: http://www.psywarrior.com/

This is a chess piece, but it also references the Trojan Horse in Greek myth, which was an example of these methods used in the far past.

I think you can see the outcome of these narratives, discourses and themes when there are strong feelings expressed about something prior to any actual knowledge of it. The recent health care debates are a good example, and so is the strong negative reaction to the HTS in the first week of its announcement, before anything was actually known about it. The far right are the best examples of this effect as of late, but the left is not really much different. The recent automatic protests to a new ban on a subversive kind of ethnic studies program there shows the exact same signs of hyperbole and misinformation.

I think that people that found Avatar to be a racist diatribe, were reaching. It's more like a Rorschach test that reveals more about the mind of the person, than the content of the medium. If someone is conditioned to look for something everywhere then they are bound to find examples of it, whether or not anything is actually there.

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