Saturday, February 6, 2010

Avatar and the Unabomber

I had said I would do a book review each weekend. However, I'm going to violate the pattern from the very beginning by starting with a movie review instead. But all is not lost: in explaining what I think about Avatar, I'm also going to have to work in discussion of half a dozen books that were formative in developing my worldview, and which are currently sitting in a pile on my desk, pulled off the shelf for the purpose.  However, this essay ended up going so long that I'm splitting it into a series which will probably run from now to sometime around Oscar night (March 7th).

Avatar, if you've been living under a rock, is the blockbuster movie written, directed, and produced by James Cameron (Titanic, Terminator, Aliens...) and released last month, which is now the highest grossing movie of all time (taking in $2.1 billion as of this writing - admittedly these comparisons are not adjusted for inflation, which is tricky to do right because of the 3-D).  It's becoming one of those must see events in which people are compelled to go a second and third time to take their friends, and just to see the movie again.

Here I'm going to assume the reader has seen the movie and I will try to analyze the strength of the feelings most of us have had to it - love it or hate it.  If you haven't seen it yet, just go do it, ok?  It's an amazing experience, and you're not going to be altogether culturally literate in future if you haven't seen it.

To some viewers, the success of the movie is deeply mysterious.  The movie does have a number of obvious flaws, ably dissected for example by conservative commentator John Podhoretz in a review at the Weekly Standard.  He hated the movie:
Avatar, we are told, does things with cameras and computers and actors that have never been done before. Its painstaking combination of real-life action and animation has, we are told, taken cinema to a new level. It cost anywhere from $328 million to $500 million, we are told, and took four years to make. It is a breakthrough, we are told, the boldest step into the future of filmmaking, an unparalleled achievement.

What they didn't tell us is that Avatar is blitheringly stupid; indeed, it's among the dumbest movies I've ever seen. Avatar is an undigested mass of clich├ęs nearly three hours in length taken directly from the revisionist westerns of the 1960s-the ones in which the Indians became the good guys and the Americans the bad guys. Only here the West is a planet called Pandora, the time is the 22nd century rather than the 19th, and the Indians have blue skin and tails, and are 10 feet tall.
Many people have argued the movie is derivative and unoriginal. Here's David Brooks in the New York Times who also clearly disliked it, though with Podhoretz's passionate indignation toned down to a world-weary cynicism:
Every age produces its own sort of fables, and our age seems to have produced The White Messiah fable.

This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.

Avid moviegoers will remember “A Man Called Horse,” which began to establish the pattern, and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” More people will have seen “Dances With Wolves” or “The Last Samurai.”

Kids have been given their own pure versions of the fable, like “Pocahontas” and “FernGully.”

It’s a pretty serviceable formula. Once a director selects the White Messiah fable, he or she doesn’t have to waste time explaining the plot because everybody knows roughly what’s going to happen.
I loved the movie overall, but I don't think either of these critiques is altogether wrong on the facts.  In addition, most of the movie's characters struck me as fairly one dimensional caricatures.  Sigourney Weaver was not very convincing to me as Dr. Grace Augustine, a senior scientist - I've known a lot of scientists and I've never met one who would have been as outrageously rude to Jake Sullivan as she is on meeting him.  I imagine if I was a Marine Colonel, I might feel the same way about Stephen Lang's performance as Colonel Quaritch (though there was something about the sheer exuberance of the latter that still haunts me). A lot of the dialogue I found to be clunky and hackneyed.  It's noticeable that while the movie has a lot of Oscar nominations, none of them are for the actors.

But at the same time, the movie's massive sales and extended box office performance suggest it's striking a chord:
Since the film's release and unusually strong box office performance, it has been debated as the one film capable of surpassing Titanic's worldwide gross, and its seemingly surreal strength has perplexed box office analysts.  "Most films are considered to be healthy if they manage anything less than a 50% drop from their first weekend to their second. Dipping just 11% from the first to the third is unheard of," relayed Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office analysis for "This is just unprecedented," he said. "I had to do a double take. I thought it was a miscalculation."  Though other films in recent years have been cited as contenders for surpassing Titanic, most recently The Dark Knight, Avatar is considered the first film with a genuine chance at doing so, and its numbers being aided by higher ticket prices for 3D screenings has failed to explain its thorough success to box office analysts. "What's also impressive is that Avatar made it through the holiday season in first place three consecutive weekends with a number of other highly competitive titles standing in its way," stated Dergarabedian. "Everyone stayed out of the way for Dark Knight. But nobody got out of the way for Avatar."
Furthermore, many people are having profound emotional reactions to the movie.  One response has been christened by CNN as the "Avatar Blues":
James Cameron's completely immersive spectacle "Avatar" may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.

On the fan forum site "Avatar Forums," a topic thread entitled "Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible," has received more than 1,000 posts from people experiencing depression and fans trying to help them cope. The topic became so popular last month that forum administrator Philippe Baghdassarian had to create a second thread so people could continue to post their confused feelings about the movie.

"I wasn't depressed myself. In fact the movie made me happy ," Baghdassarian said. "But I can understand why it made people depressed. The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don't have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world and that caused them to be depressed."

A post by a user called Elequin expresses an almost obsessive relationship with the film.
"That's all I have been doing as of late, searching the Internet for more info about 'Avatar.' I guess that helps. It's so hard I can't force myself to think that it's just a movie, and to get over it, that living like the Na'vi will never happen. I think I need a rebound movie," Elequin posted.
Around where I live (Marin County, admittedly a major center of warm fuzzy New-Agism), it's at the point where if you are in a cafe talking about the movie, the waitress might well overhear you and join in with her thoughts on the merits of seeing it a third time versus stopping at two.

So what's going on with this movie - why does it provoke such a massive reaction?

Let me warn the reader up front: if you hated the movie, you're not going to like my analysis of it any better.  Also, I'm going to go very long in this series.  The reason is this: in my view, the movie is operating mainly on the mythological level, and is tapping into powerful psychological archetypes and themes that for most people are largely unconscious.  So folks have no idea what just hit them when they walk out the theater, whether whooping jubilantly, crying hysterically, or angrily seething.  I think Cameron is doing this, at least in part, deliberately, though he may not have realized the full power of what he was playing with - I very much doubt, for example, that he intended for some of his viewers to end up depressed and with suicidal ideations.

Given this, it's impossible for me to explain or talk about the movie without breaking out my inner Jungian, which I haven't done in public before.  I don't see how to talk with any depth about this movie without using Jung's concept of the shadow (the concept is really Freud's in outline but the term is Jung's and it is Jung's formulation of it that will be most relevant here).  That, in turn, requires that I justify myself, since Jung is not very scientifically respectable these days, and as a card-carrying member of the PhD-graph-wielding-rationocracy, I feel the need to justify my views at length to some of my likely suspicious readers.

But let's try to work into this in easy stages.  Let's start with the political viewpoint of the movie.  When I watched it the first time, I was amazed that I was watching a major Hollywood movie with such a radical message, expressed so overtly.  The movie doesn't go in for a lot of moral ambiguity: it's really clear that Sully, Trudy, Grace and the Na'vi are the good guys, who we are expected to view as moral and heroic.  Meanwhile, Quaritch and Parker Selfridge are the bad guys, who we are expected to see as in the wrong.  Let's break down a bit what the moral rules are behind the behavior of the characters.  I took away the following points:
  • It's wrong to desecrate natural beauty in order to get natural resources (the bulldozers destroying the Tree of Voices are clearly in the wrong in the movie's moral universe).
  • It's wrong to displace native people in order to get natural resources (even Parker is shown shaken and uncertain of himself at what is required to get the Na'vi away from their Home Tree).
  • Native people are more spiritually advanced and morally better than civilized people (the main arc of Jake's spiritual growth in the movie is to become one of them).
  • If civilized people do, nonetheless, come to desecrate the natural environment and take the resources, native people are justified in violently resisting that effort (this is what the Na'vi do, and we are encouraged to root for them).
  • If you, as a member of the civilized society, find yourself in the position of being part of such a resource extraction effort, the morally correct thing to do is turn traitor to your own society and help the native people in their violent resistance (the moment when Trudy says "I didn't sign up for this shit" and turns her guns on her own side).
  • Civilization is destroying all other life on the Earth (the movie reports that Earth is no longer a green planet by 2154).
(I should stress before I go on that I'm not saying Cameron believes these things in everyday life, but those are the moral rules he sets up in the universe of Pandora for storytelling purposes).

If you want to place this viewpoint on the contemporary political spectrum, I think you have to go out past liberal democratic environmentalists, past the Green Party, past Earth First, and out to the Earth Liberation Front. In fact, I think one of the clearer expositions of the moral viewpoint of the characters in Avatar was this:
183. But an ideology, in order to gain enthusiastic support, must have
a positive ideals well as a negative one; it must be FOR something as
well as AGAINST something. The positive ideal that we propose is
Nature. That is , WILD nature; those aspects of the functioning of the
Earth and its living things that are independent of human management
and free of human interference and control. And with wild nature we
include human nature, by which we mean those aspects of the
functioning of the human individual that are not subject to regulation
by organized society but are products of chance, or free will, or God
(depending on your religious or philosophical opinions).

184. Nature makes a perfect counter-ideal to technology for several
reasons. Nature (that which is outside the power of the system) is the
opposite of technology (which seeks to expand indefinitely the power
of the system). Most people will agree that nature is beautiful;
certainly it has tremendous popular appeal. The radical
environmentalists ALREADY hold an ideology that exalts nature and
opposes technology. [30] It is not necessary for the sake of nature to
set up some chimerical utopia or any new kind of social order. Nature
takes care of itself: It was a spontaneous creation that existed long
before any human society, and for countless centuries many different
kinds of human societies coexisted with nature without doing it an
excessive amount of damage. Only with the Industrial Revolution did
the effect of human society on nature become really devastating. To
relieve the pressure on nature it is not necessary to create a special
kind of social system, it is only necessary to get rid of industrial
society. Granted, this will not solve all problems. Industrial society
has already done tremendous damage to nature and it will take a very
long time for the scars to heal. Besides, even pre-industrial
societies can do significant damage to nature. Nevertheless, getting
rid of industrial society will accomplish a great deal. It will
relieve the worst of the pressure on nature so that the scars can
begin to heal. It will remove the capacity of organized society to
keep increasing its control over nature (including human nature).
Whatever kind of society may exist after the demise of the industrial
system, it is certain that most people will live close to nature,
because in the absence of advanced technology there is not other way
that people CAN live. To feed themselves they must be peasants or
herdsmen or fishermen or hunter, etc., And, generally speaking, local
autonomy should tend to increase, because lack of advanced technology
and rapid communications will limit the capacity of governments or
other large organizations to control local communities.
That's from the Unabomber's manifesto. We put him in jail because he started killing technologists, stating as his reason that he hated industrial society and wanted to return to a more natural and free state of humanity. He was less successful in the execution than Jake/Trudy/Grace and the Na'vi - who actually succeed in ejecting Parker and Co. from Pandora - but it seems to me that the moral logic is exactly the same.  Nature good, technology bad, violent opposition justified.

So, you might want to stop a minute and ask yourself: how exactly does Cameron get mainstream American audiences to root for the Unabomber side in this conflict?

That's quite a trick, isn't it?

No, STOP before you skim over this point.   I really want you think about it: do you approve of the Unabomber's actions?  If not, but you liked the movie, do you know how Cameron got you to root for that side?

Stated quite so baldly, and stripped of the dressing of stunning CGI and exciting action sequences, I think it's clear that the movie's moral position is a rather extreme and absolutist position.  Extracting resources from the natural environment and turning them into tangible wealth or capital - houses and their furnishings, wagons/cars, workshops/factories/offices is what civilizations do.  It's not an accidental or optional feature of civilization that could easily be dispensed with if we were only a little more reasonable.  Instead, it's absolutely basic to the nature of the beast.  Ever since the Natufians started building houses and farming wild grasses, through the Sumerians irrigating the Mesopotamian plains, and the Romans deforesting the Italian countryside and mining Britain, to our modern extraction of all manner of metals and fossil fuels from the earth, cutting of forests for timber, and farming of most of the best soils on the planet, civilizations have extracted resources and done so in ever increasing quantities.

The process generally isn't pretty:

Now, it can be done with more or less concern for the side-effects and the environmental impact.  It can be done faster or slower.  We can choose to leave some portions of the natural environment alone.  We can choose to fix up the sites of our natural resource extraction afterward.  We can (and should!) control our emissions.  But if billions of us want to live in warm houses, still less drive cars, carry computers and iPhones, or read books and watch movies, then it's a given that somewhere there must be huge machines digging up the ground and big saws cutting down trees:

...and all the rest of the ugly panoply.  Houses and cars cannot be summoned out of thin air.  There's about three thousand board-feet of lumber in a 1000 square foot American house, and 130 million housing units in this country.  There's no way that could possibly have been done without cutting down a hell of a lot of trees.  The details are different in other developed countries, but the general idea is the same.  You, the reader, sitting right now in your more-or-less comfortable surroundings, reading these words on the metal-and-plastic computer, own a part share in the moral responsibility for all of this, as do I.

And given that there were hunter-gatherer tribes in pretty much every remotely usable habitat on planet Earth before the invention of agriculture and civilization, it's also a given that almost all expansion of civilization comes at the expense of these people, who are either displaced or co-opted in some fashion.  Neolithic farmers displaced the neolithic hunter gatherers in Europe, European settlers did very unpleasant things to the native Americans dressed up in rationalizations about Manifest Destiny, and the exact same processes are alive and well today from the jungles of the Amazon to Indonesia.

Civilizations pretty much all have some idea of property rights and the view that taking things by force without some kind of legal process is not generally right and proper, and yet they could not exist had they not originally taken the jungles/swamps/plains/forests/mountains/rivers/beaches from some native tribe that was already there before.  And, this almost always has to be done by some combination of force and trickery.  It's a kind of original sin at the very beating heart of civilization.

I use the loaded phrase original sin advisedly: I suggest it's perhaps not an accident that in the Old Testament, the original sin is to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, become aware of one's nakedness, and then be cast out of the garden of Eden.  This can be seen as a metaphor for the transition from hunter-gathering to that of civilization, with all its complex rules for maintaining the social order, and it's less-than-Edenic effects on the natural environment.

So when Avatar poses the situation of what happens when an industrial civilization runs into a tribe of hunter gatherers and wants resources from under their land, it's not a fringe irrelevant concern.  It's basic to the nature of civilization that this kind of thing happens, and what are we going to do?  When is it justified?

So I suggest that's what it means to take the movie's politics literally.  In the rest of the series, I'll argue that the movie shouldn't be taken that literally, and should be thought about mainly on the mythological level, which I'll try to explain as best I can determine it.


JackRussell said...

It is funny - this must be a West Coast phenomenon or something. My wife and I added this movie to the "must miss list" - we have no interest in seeing it even once. I suppose I can't blame it on anything quite so simple as east-vs-west coast as the film is popular all over the place.

My problem in general with Hollywood movies is that forumulaic and predictable plots along with one-dimensional characters are command and that we have been conditioned to accept this as a normal state of affairs. They try and make up for these shortcomings with computer effects of one sort or another.

Datamunger said...

Sheesh, if you've written it, why not post it all! :-)

FWIW, I agree Jung is relevant.

Looking forward to the rest of the series. It's hard to comment with only the tip of the iceberg showing...(oops wrong movie).

...but it seems to me that the moral logic is exactly the same. Nature good, technology bad, violent opposition justified.

Not convinced of this. For instance, is the film really anti-tech? Tech enables Jake's avatar experience (and ours)? But I've only seen the film once ....and liked it.

Burk Braun said...

Thanks for a delightful post and fascinating topic. I'm also in Marin and write from time to time about Jung and related issues. The whole meta-religion/meta-mythology field gets far less official respect than it should, though this is sure to change as neuroscience gets deeper into the brain and inevitably meets up with these topics again, which are for the time being still a bit touchy-feely.

Thanks also for your "straight" reporting!

Stuart Staniford said...

DM - I haven't written it all! It was never going to get finished if I wrote it all at once.

Stuart Staniford said...

Burk - thanks - interesting blog!

Stuart Staniford said...

Jack - I don't think you're going to have much luck persuading anyone else of your view of the movie if you haven't seen it :-)

Stuart Staniford said...


"For instance, is the film really anti-tech?" Well, I would say it's definitely "anti-industrial-society". The mining company uses massive machines to crush the landscape and trees, the security division is strongly intended to suggest a near-future version of the US military (all kinds of visual cues, especially the helicopters), and RDA largely fights with or in machines - the (amazing looking) amp robots, etc. And there are endless metaphors of this. Eg the final struggle to the death between Quaritch, fighting in his amp (a metaphor for machine amplified industrial humanity), and Neytiri fighting via a natural connection to the Thanator she mounts.

And of course the main enabler of industrial society is technology. The Na'vi have no technology more advanced than bows and arrows.

Paul said...

I couldn't miss the irony of wondering what the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, now in jail for life, would think if he saw Avatar?

Avatar has made the most extensive use of computers and animation technology to tell a story which resonated to Kaczynski. In his string of bombings and murders, Kaczynski railed against computers and technology. And Cameron turned to computers and technology to tell his version of the noble savage, fighting against technology.

The irony just never ends...

Stuart Staniford said...

Paul - yeah, Cameron must be a fairly complicated guy.

KLR said...

I don't plan on spending money to see this either - might give it a try if it shows up on TV some night. Not much of a moviegoer. It's often remarked that cinematic science fiction generally operates on an intellectual level the literature was at in the 1930s, when the pulp publications were chockablock with galaxy spanning space opera, planets exploding, dogfights between starships, etc. All of which became fodder for George Lucas, of course.

The environment was a popular theme in the SF of the 70s. A bad example that your description of Avatar suggests to me is Ursula LeGuin's The Word for World Is Forest, which has a benign alien world existing in a state of beatific grace, until despoiled by the military, natch. Ursula usually wrote more sophisticated stuff, though.

A recent novelette that absolutely bowled me over was The People of Sand and Slag, which posits humanity as having evolved through the use of tech to a state where they are effectively indestructible, able to exist on raw material itself - and spending their time in neverending wars over an Earth that has been reduced to little more than rock and gravel, hence the title. You can read that online for free; it's also in an excellent anthology, Wastelands : Stories of the Apocalypse.

Sam Norton said...

Very glad you're broadening out the subject matter to include this sort of thing, and looking forward to seeing what else you have to say. In the meantime, can I strongly recommend watching this, if you haven't seen it already - ties in to your theme and it's very funny:

Datamunger said...


A person in an amp is a bad avatar. Grace & Jake became good avatars. Both enabled by tech. For Jake the avatar state was transitional & some native voodoo was required to turn him completely native.

On a different level, Cameron, I believe, intends us to be teased by the idea that immersion in the kick-ass high-tech 3-D experience of the movie, can help us in our own transformation. A very tall order I thought at the time when I saw the movie at Xmas, but now that you've brought us up to date on the buzz and how it has moved people, he may have a point.

The Unabomber, in this context, I think is bit of a red herring. The guy was hugely ideological, bedeviled by abstractions, and his campaign of violence was solitary. What concrete, flesh & blood community was he defending? However, it is likely he was attempting a personal transformation...

I would agree the movie is anti-heavy-industry-on-a-massive-destructive-scale.

Datamunger said...

Should add that I agree that the movie doesn't see advanced tech as a permanent part of the human way of life. In that sense, one could say it's anti-tech.

It's also a defensible idea.

The movie attacks western civilization's myth of progress, (ever onwards, ever better), and instead invites conversion into something that resembles our past.

Stuart Staniford said...


I would defend my parallel to the Unabomber. It's quite true that he was acting alone, and that's certainly a difference. But he definitely saw himself as acting to save wild nature, and that was the genesis of his campaign (at least according to him). The Wiki entry on him points to this interview with Earth First Journal that he did from jail in 1999. Some relevant excerts:

Why, I asked, did he personally come to be against technology? His immediate response was, "Why do you think? It reduces people to gears in a machine, it takes away our autonomy and our freedom." But there was obviously more to it than that. Along with the rage he felt against the machine, his words revealed an obvious love for a very special place in the wilds of Montana. He became most animated, spoke most passionately, while relating stories about the mountain life he created there and then sought to defend against the encroachment of the system. "The honest truth is that I am not really politically oriented. I would have really rather just be living out in the woods. If nobody had started cutting roads through there and cutting the trees down and come buzzing around in helicopters and snowmobiles I would still just be living there and the rest of the world could just take care of itself. I got involved in political issues because I was driven to it, so to speak. I'm not really inclined in that direction."

Kaczynski moved in a cabin that he built himself near Lincoln, Montana in 1971. His first decade there he concentrated on acquiring the primitive skills that would allow him to live autonomously in the wild. He explained that the urge to do this had been a part of his psyche since childhood. "Unquestionably there is no doubt that the reason I dropped out of the technological system is because I had read about other ways of life, in particular that of primitive peoples. When I was about eleven I remember going to the little local library in Evergreen Park, Illinois. They had a series of books published by the Smithsonian Institute that addressed various areas of science. Among other things, I read about anthropology in a book on human prehistory. I found it fascinating. After reading a few more books on the subject of Neanderthal man and so forth, I had this itch
to read more. I started asking myself why and I came to the realization that what I really wanted was not to read another book, but that I just wanted to live that way."

Kaczynski says he began an intensive study of how to identify wild edible plants, track animals and replicate primitive technologies, approaching the task like the scholar he was. "Many years ago I used to read books like, for example, Ernest Thompson Seton's "Lives of Game Animals" to learn about animal behavior. But after a certain point, after living in the woods for a while, I developed an aversion to reading any scientific accounts. In some sense reading what the professional biologists said about wildlife ruined or contaminated it for me. What began to matter to me was the knowledge I acquired about wildlife through personal experience.

Stuart Staniford said...

Second excerpt from the same interview:

He readily admits he committed quite a few acts of monkeywrenching during the seventies, but there came a time when he decided to devote more energy into fighting against the system. He describes the catalyst:

"The best place, to me, was the largest remnant of this plateau that dates from the tertiary age. It's kind of rolling country, not flat, and when you get to the edge of it you find these ravines that cut very steeply in to cliff-like drop-offs and there was even a waterfall there. It was about a two days hike from my cabin. That was the best spot until the summer of 1983. That summer there were too many people around my cabin so I decided I needed some peace. I went back to the plateau and when I got there I found they had put a road right through the middle of it" His voice trails off; he pauses, then continues, "You just can't imagine how upset I was. It was from that point on I decided that, rather than trying to acquire
further wilderness skills, I would work on getting back at the system. Revenge. That wasn't the first time I ever did any monkeywrenching, but at that point, that sort of thing became a priority for me... I made a conscious effort to read things that were relevant to social issues, specifically the technological problem. For one thing, my concern was to understand how societies change, and for that purpose I read anthropology, history, a little bit of sociology and psychology, but mostly anthropology and history."

Kaczvnski soon came to the conclusion that reformist strategies that merely called for "fixing" the system were not enough, and he professed little confidence in the idea that a mass change in consciousness might someday be able to undermine the technological system. "I don't think it can be done. In part because of the human tendency, for most people, there are exceptions, to take the path of least resistance. They'll take the easy way out, and giving up your car, your television set, your
electricity, is not the path of least resistance for most people. As I see it, I don't think there is any controlled or planned way in which we can dismantle the industrial system. I think that the only way we will get rid of it is if it breaks down and collapses. That's why I think the consequences will be something like the Russian Revolution, or circumstances like we see in other places in the world today like the Balkans, Afghanistan, Rwanda. This does, I think, pose a dilemma for radicals who take a non-violent point of view. When things break down, there is going to be violence and this does raise a question, I don't know
if I exactly want to call it a moral question, but the point is that for those who realize the need to do away with the techno-industrial system, if you work for its collapse, in effect you are killing a lot of people. If it collapses, there is going to be social disorder, there is going to be starvation, there aren't going to be any more spare parts or fuel for farm equipment, there won't be any more pesticide or fertilizer on which modern agriculture is dependent. So there isn't going to be enough food to
go around, so then what happens? This is something that, as far as I've read, I haven't seen any radicals facing up to.

Stuart Staniford said...

So Kaczynski, at least according to his own account, was acting out of a passionate love of wild places, and then a desire to defend them once he saw them come under assault from civilization.

True, he wasn't part of an intact native culture. Instead he was somebody who dropped out of industrial society because he didn't fit it into it. But other than that, I think the parallel is pretty good.

Datamunger said...

Kaczynski says:

If nobody had started cutting roads through there and cutting the trees down and come buzzing around in helicopters and snowmobiles I would still just be living there and the rest of the world could just take care of itself.

But how were his actions realistically focused on defending his tract of wilderness and aimed toward him being left in peace to pursue a solitary life close to nature? Instead the grandiosity of his vision is breathtaking. It's easy to see why he could be considered mad.

In the movie, industrial civilization is a small enclave on a wild planet. The violence of the threatened communities is quite targeted and practical. Their success is celebrated, as is the conversion of a few individuals to a non-industrial way of life. Though there is resistance, there is no war against civilization as such in Avatar.

Yes, it's utopian and dreamy. But truth be told, though, real people do go native. There are entire communities that resist modernity with some success, even in our midst.

US history is dotted with intentional communities. Did the Unabomber even attempt to join any?

My suspicion is that the Unabomber was afflicted with a power-hunger that matched the hubris of the civilization he was opposing. That doesn't exist in the movie. Jake and the Na'vi aren't going to attack the industrial homeworld.

porsena said...

My suspicion is that the Unabomber was afflicted with a power-hunger that matched the hubris of the civilization he was opposing. That doesn't exist in the movie. Jake and the Na'vi aren't going to attack the industrial homeworld.

But they did retaliate and it's here where the Unabomber analogy might suffer. I remember their motivation for striking back as being to preserve space and resources they held sacred, ostensibly like Greenpeace and the Japanese whalers (though I think the motivation there is more complex than that). The Unabomber's anti-industrial actions would seem to have been motivated more by revenge. Was revenge an alien concept to the Na'vi? Cannot Nature extract revenge?

porsena said...

Cannot Nature extract revenge?
A moment's further thought says Nature's revenge is a series of dispassionate consequences, made unlike human revenge by the absence of passion.

gu said...

very interesting, Stuart

discussed the movie with my son quite extensively.

up to now we found six 'levels', or ways to interpret the plot.

Podhoretz, well, what can one say. Would be surprising if he understands anything the way I do.

One level is the gamer perspective, which is evident for the younger audience.
This is not to be understood superficially, but is the question WHERE the Persona of future generations including the next, will be.
I find this disturbing.

Another way to see the movie is, that Hollywood tries to escape the obvious trap of being an american propaganda machine by attacking the american way of globalization, and making a profit out of it!

Here the international reception is especially interesting.

The Chinese stopped it, except in the 3D movies.
Well, they saw a danger in it.
Up to now I did not hear of convincing explanations, what the danger exactly is to the Chinese Nomenclatura.

I also think, as You mentioned, that Cameron was not aware of the effects of his unique blending of archetypes.

That Cameron uses technology to question it, is evident, and JUST BECAUSE it is so evident, does not make it ridiculous, but IMMEDIATELY poses a question by itself.

Do we actually gain more than we loose by working in this possibly tautological circle of technological advancement?

Ofcourse California is the place where this lives out, where the Primitivists on the one hand and the Singularitarians on the other stand face to face, so to say.

BTW, the Singulartitan position is practically unknown in continental Europe.

So is this a dialectic, which plays out with especially emotional violence in California, mainly on an unconscious level?
California on the brink of bankruptcy, the mantra of endless progress challenged.

As a sidenote: Having been once in Disneyworld a long time ago, I was stunned by the reactions of Americans, who spoke with mechanical parrots as if this is the most natural thing to do in the world.

One hint -no explanation- I found in CHARACTER AND OPINION IN THE UNITED STATES by George Santayana.
(full text on the net)

So this is still mysterious for me.

Will comment on that later.

gu said...

just one addition:

Podhoretz as a well connected Neoconservative probably cannot accept 'defaetist' denounciations of American Grandeur by definition, or the axioms of his belief system.

So he obviously cannot do else than say
"What they didn't tell us is that Avatar is blitheringly stupid; indeed, it's among the dumbest movies I've ever seen. "

So what he could accept is presumably the interpretation of the Gamer Persona: a Drohne flying Avatar over Pakistan.

BUT NOT the move of Hollywood going global and attacking the American way of handling globalization.

But the profit-motive of Hollywood
commands making profits GLOBALLY, even against the interest of the 'motherland'.

European commentators wer quite curious to see wether the Hollywood bets on more and more expensive movies would play out.

Well quite well, as we see.
But for Hollywood as a -ahem- 'culture' this is not good news. They have to put more end more Dollars in one basket and bet on it.

So, on a metalevel, we see the same game, which I find quite ironic.

Another -quite different- current example of the same concept, but much cheaper:
„Up in the Air“ with George Clooney

Hollywood goes anticapitalist.
Well, at least: Poses as such.

(Michael Moore is no Hollywood figure, but the impulse is the same)

So the Washington gatekeepers get a broadside, so to say.

Phyll said...

Nature is not really a very nice place and that’s why we left it. We used coal and oil to fuel our escape into a technotopia where predators and hunger are kept at a distance. Unfortunately, technotopia isn’t all that great either as we have been divorced from the environment that formed us. We stay comfortably within the machine and some of us take weekend jaunts back to nature, fewer actually try to return full time. The machine will eventually destroy itself and take out a lot of the natural world. The Unabomber should have enjoyed his seclusion and enjoyed the implosion instead of being confined to a cell in the gulag of the machine.

kjmclark said...

My thoughts when watching the movie were, "Why don't they figure out a way to mine under their tree without disturbing the surface? Is this the only economic deposit of this element? How do they even use this element? How did it all get deposited on this one moon?" and "The Na'vi won this round, but how will they deal with the carpet bombing to come?"

Don't get me wrong, I thought it was a pretty good movie, but it's funny that people think humans would let such a valuable material go. We'd be more likely to just go back with a bigger force and bomb from orbit.

I think Datamunger is absolutely right about the Kaczynski comparison. There can't really be any doubt that the Na'vi were defending their legitimate territory. It would be like the Maori kicking the British out of New Zealand in the late 18th century. The rest of the world would have snickered at the British, and the British would likely have just returned with a larger force. But the rest of the world (and certainly the US) would have cheered for the little guys defending their lands and culture. If the Maori then secretly bombed British government offices that were only marginally related to invasion forces, the rest of the world would start labeling them as terrorists.

I looked at the movie more as the greedy corporate pigs were beaten and shown the door by the little guys. As much an allegory on the popular mood as a repeat of Dances with Wolves in outer space. You'll notice that the humans don't seem to have a nationality. They work for some corporation that is there to mine unobtanium. Selfridge isn't the "governor" or "ambassador", he's the "administrator" of the mining operation. I would go back and replace "civilized x" and "society" in your 'points' with "large corporation" and see how they read.