The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Avatar: a critical roundup

The left debates “Avatar”

by Louis Proyect

Jake Sully

John Brown

“Avatar” has triggered one of the more interesting debates on the left in quite some time. Some critics such as me and Prairie Miller, a comrade from the James Agee Critics Circle, hail it as pop culture assault on colonialism while others view it as a paternalistic treatment based on the White Savior paradigm found in “Dances With Wolves”.

For example, the very first comment under my review, by blogger Macon D. who I would generally consider a fan (dare I use that word?) of the unrepentant Marxist, demurred:

Sure, it’s a marvelous, technologically proficient spectacle, but in terms of how reaches into white hearts and minds in basically the same old racist way, I’d say it’s a very cheap thrill.

He also referred to an article by Annalee Newitz who edits the io9 website (“We come from the future” is their motto; it is owned by Gawker) that is titled appropriately enough as When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”? She reaches a level of vituperation that is generally associated with Marxist polemics, although her ideology appears much more in the post-Marxist vein based on the fact that she was co-founder of the Bad Subjects website, now defunct. As the author of Routledge Press’s “White Trash: Race and Class in America”, she seems to have the scholarly credentials necessary to speak on such matters. She writes:

Sure, Avatar goes a little bit beyond the basic colonizing story. We are told in no uncertain terms that it’s wrong to colonize the lands of native people. Our hero chooses to join the Na’vi rather than abide the racist culture of his own people. But it is nevertheless a story that revisits the same old tropes of colonization. Whites still get to be leaders of the natives – just in a kinder, gentler way than they would have in an old Flash Gordon flick or in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels.

She also makes the comparison with “Dances With Wolves”, which is fairly de rigueur if you are mounting a criticism of “Avatar”:

This is a classic scenario you’ve seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.

Ironically, this analysis does not fall exclusively within the radical subculture. Nobody can be more “establishment” than the NY Times op-ed columnist David Brooks and here is what he says in a January 7 column titled “The Messiah Complex”:

Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

When “Dances With Wolves” came out, there was a torrent of criticisms from indigenous peoples in the same vein as Newitz, who felt it necessary one supposes to take up the cause of the Na’vi, an imaginary people. As such, her closest relative speaking ideologically was Ward Churchill who trashed the movie in a 1998 Lip Magazine article:

The propaganda function served by the revisionist formula is to allow constituents of America’s dominant settler society to avoid confronting the institutional and cultural realities, which led unerringly to the historical genocide of American Indians. Moreover, in first being led to demonize men like Custer, and then helped to separate themselves from them via the signification of characters like Jack Crabbe, Christa Lee and Costner’s Lt. Dunbar, white audiences are made to feel simultaneously “enlightened” (for having been “big” or open enough to concede that something ugly had occurred) and “good about themselves” (for being so different from those they imagine the perpetrators to have been).

Thus reassured, mainstream moviegoers and TV viewers are psychologically positioned to join Sully, the “nice white guy” in Dr. Quinn, intoning in unison that, since they who are so different from Custer now comprise it and despite what “he” did to the Indians, “this is still the best country in the world” Translated, (after viewing a movie like Dances With Wolves) mainstream audiences feel-ever-so-much more entitled to participate in the American system, and to gorge themselves on the material benefits accruing from it, than they did before.

Ironically, we eventually learned that it was a distinct possibility that Ward Churchill was not that much different from Kevin Costner’s character in “Dances With Wolves”. When pressed to prove his Cherokee ethnicity in the U. of Colorado witch-hunt, he was not able to come up with anything much more than the fact that his grandmother used to tell him that the family had Cherokee blood or that he was an honorary member of a tribe in Oklahoma.

At the time, Jim Craven, a Blackfoot economics professor who was subbed to the Marxism mailing list, questioned whether Churchill’s blood lines mattered that much. Craven’s own mother used to tell him that blood mattered a lot less than what was in your heart. Full-blooded Blackfoot Indians at the reservations in Canada and Montana did a lot less than Jim, who was only 1/8th Indian himself.

Interestingly enough, Churchill was not only annoyed with people like Kevin Costner who meddled in indigenous politics. He also lashed out at Karl Marx whose white European ideology had no place in indigenous affairs. In an essay contained in Ward Churchill’s collection “Marxism and Native Americans”, Russell Means argues that there is little to distinguish Marxism from other European ideologies based on the worship of science and technology. One supposes that if you are consistently “indigenist”, you’d have to reject Karl Marx as just another missionary. That perspective, however, would have been rejected by José Carlos Mariátegui, the founder of Peruvian Marxism who sought to synthesize Marxism and the native Incan traditions of his own country.

Considering Mariátegui’s impact on the Latin American revolution today, especially in countries with a large indigenous population like Ecuador and Bolivia, it is worth considering what one leader makes of “Avatar”.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, January 12, 2010
Bolivia’s Morales Lauds Social Themes in ‘Avatar’
Filed at 2:40 p.m. ET

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Bolivia’s first indigenous president is praising ”Avatar” for what he calls its message of saving the environment from exploitation.

A self-proclaimed socialist, Evo Morales says he identifies with the film’s ”profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defense of nature.”

James Cameron’s ”Avatar” tells of the mystic, nature-loving Na’vi — tall blue creatures who inhabit the planet Pandora and must contend with humans intent on grabbing its resources.

It has earned more than $1.1 billion worldwide since its release last month.

Morales’ comments were reported Tuesday by the official news agency ABI.

ABI said he watched the film with his daughter Sunday in his third-ever trip to the movies.

Finally, a word or two should be said about one of the most noted “race traitors” in American history, a white man who not only placed himself at the head of a slave revolt, but used Messianic language in justifying his role:

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done–as I have always freely admitted I have done–in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments–I submit; so let it be done!

These are the words of John Brown Speech to the Court at his Trial in November 2, 1859. This is one American hero who not only deserves a movie that treats him as such but one who challenges the analysis of Annalee Newitz, no matter how well intended.

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