Friday, February 05, 2010

"Avatar," Race, and Epistemology


Angela Valenzuela

February 4, 2010

Listen to my analysis of "Avatar" with Maria Hinojosa on or by going directly to

In reviewing New York Times columnist's David Brooks' review of the epic film "Avatar" titled, "The Messiah Complex," I agree that this movie reinscribes the White messiah complex and I am glad that it is encouraging this very kind of discussion of white privilege and power. Hopefully, it is raising an awareness of this complex to begin with and offers a critical realization that this is what is so wrong and horrible about so many Hollywood movies—or for that matter, all movies that are born out of an imperialist, self-serving view of the world. So this is undoubtedly true.

I connect with the movie in quite another way that I think lays beneath the admittedly problematic Pocahontas frame as portrayed by Walt Disney.

"Avatar" is solidly about ways of knowing that we as social scientists have been talking about for decades.

That is, the question I have about the movie is not so much why this protagonist is a white male but rather why he was "chosen" to carry out this redeeming mission? (I complicate this notion of "being chosen" below). Why Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) and not someone else? Why wasn’t it the scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver)? After all, she was a teacher and Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldaña) was her student on planet Pandora. For reasons that are only hinted at but never made clear, consider that the tribe closed down the school. And they also closed down the hospital.

Dr. Grace Augustine was as sensitive as pretty much any one could get in that context but her problem was her epistemology, her lens, her way of knowing. As much as she felt that she knew about and cared for the native people, she could never stop seeing “them” or their planet as “samples,” as an object of study rather than as a group with whom to authentically embrace in a spirit of relation and a shared sense of destiny. She and her assistants understood their value system with their minds but not their hearts. They were quick to accumulate knowledge about the Na'vi but slow see their physiological, cultural, and spiritual distinctiveness in a respectful, affirming way.

Incidentally, the insufferable Colonel Miles Quaritch is the only character in the movie to actually mention "race" when he rebukes Jake Sully saying, "How does it feel to betray your own race?" The viewer is encouraged to see how the Western mindset constructs difference more like a threat than a promise—and rarely as a site where at least some answers to the mess we have created in our world may be found.

In the end, Grace's way of knowing was ultimately decided by the community as not being of the community. Not only did the education system lack soul, but it was also likely dismissive toward, if not entirely hostile to, the indigenous ways of knowing. To add yet another layer that probably explains why the American school was shut down, the cultural chauvinism of the curriculum was probably invisible to the well-meaning personnel that designed and operated the school.

This educational opportunity nevertheless created the possibility for Neytiri and others to be bilingual so that they could more easily negotiate the threat to which they were to be subjected. Seen this way, Neytiri and her clan are also chosen. Indeed, all of creation is enlisted in this battle against this private army to play an essential role in this larger drama of community restitution.

The community's role, however, is different from Jake's. Jake Sully's challenge—enabled by his less complicated angle of vision in comparison to all the other major characters in the film—was to actually "see" the Na'vi in a respectful way and to walk humbly and prayerfully in a world and universe where the "Great Heavenly Consulate" reduces no one to that of an "alien" (in this vein, hear ballad singer Ricardo Arjona's song, "El Mojado" ["The Wetback"]). It had to be real and he had to demonstrate this through an emotional, spiritual, and psychic commitment not to the Na'vi but to the Creator and to himself in his personal journey to enlightenment.

So the natives unquestionably exercise agency by correctly seeing Sully as having potential and by consciously deciding as a tribe to educate him in their ways and to not kill him when they discover that he is a double agent for the army. Brooks' "white-Messiah frame" denies the Navi people of their agency when they are far from being, or behaving like, helpless pawns in a war of aggression.

The hospital shared the same fate. The arrogant intruders wanted to coerce their way of knowing onto these people that defied their own culturally and experientially anchored ways of healing. So the hospital became yet another tool of imperial designs that sought to colonize a people whose ways of knowing and healing were not in need of rehabilitation—at least not in any way that was either obvious to them or that could be digested when coming from a self-possessed, presumptuous power. If anything, the opposite was true. The invaders, despite their superior military might, were so willfully ignorant of the knowledge and wisdom that resided not in any single person or thing but rather that existed in its totality in a living, breathing way.

The tree was both a real and symbolic representation of a society that was relatively in tact for the length of its existence. This allowed for an accumulation of knowledge, wisdom, and yes, technological know-how that was readily available (or “downloadable,” as the scientist had conveyed in her defense of the tribe) to all its members. Austin performer, Natalie Goodnow masterfully communicates through theater—specifically in "Muntu" (a Kikongo, Bantu language word that means both "tree" and "person")—this notion of a sense of solidarity with nature that extends one's sense of self and belonging in a way that transcends fences, walls, borders, discrimination, and time itself. This is a rootedness in identity that stands in stark contrast to the eviscerating character of an oppressive, domineering culture that abandons us to a reduced sense of self, agency, and identity.

By technology, I refer in small part to the avatars' arrows "dipped in a neurotoxin that can stop your heart in one minute," but primarily to their lemur-like tails that established a technologically advanced, telepathic link to nature. The U.S. military's culturally-derived, evaluative frame that constructed the Na'vi as a primitive race, however, blinded them to their abled adversaries' technological capacity that was at least as highly evolved, if not superior to their own. To be sure, any ecologist or biologist would love to have such faculties within their reach. To suggest that James Cameron or the Na'vi resort unimaginatively to a deus ex machina in order for them (Cameron and the Na'vi) to accomplish their desired end, namely, triumph over the military, is to negate any other construction of technology that exists outside of our known experience, our cultural lens.

For the Na'vi, nature was thus understood, appreciated, and respected in its complexity and its depth in contrast to the oppressive monoculture that a regime premised on the coveted ore under the earth presaged. So what war, conquest, and colonization do—among so many other horrific things—is tear down those structures and ways of knowing that allow the colonizer to subdue and extract profit from it.

Clearly, a brief history with this group unearthed their “uncolonizeability,” if you will, leaving the military-industrial complex with few options but to attempt to annihilate it.

One cannot help but draw a connection to the conquest, colonization, and genocidal experiences of native people in this hemisphere where minorities, by definition, are not seen as full members of society despite a genetic and cultural inheritance that pre-dates Columbus' "discovery" of America. Against this larger backdrop of history, it is hugely ironic that Mexican and Latino immigrants—particularly the more darkly hued—and their languages, get constructed as "foreign," "alien," and "illegal" as an artifact of the relatively recent historical construct of the nation state that brought boundaries and borders into existence.

Stated differently, today's minorities are the cultural hybrids of comparable, Pandora-like narratives of family trees and family forests that in far too many instances were reduced to kindling. With all the natural and human-made disasters that the poor and the dispossessed, in particular, experience, it is truly amazing that any of us has, or holds on to, a sense of cultural integrity and self worth.

So why was the white male “chosen?” I’ve already pretty much answered this. He was chosen because his vision was not occluded by the objectifying filters of his peers. He is actually, at most, an accidental messiah. More accurately, he's a grunt who stumbles into this situation with no real expectations and a different lens that was not given a chance to fully cultivate (indoctrinate). This openness allows him to acculturate toward indigenous ways, paralleling his growing disenchantment with the empire's ways. In time, he is able to see the natives not with the imperialist gaze, but rather as they see themselves, in their own terms. It is only when he sees that he was chosen that he fully grasps his obligation to confess his misdeeds and come clean, even at a risk to his own life.

Comparable to its usage among the Zulu of South Africa, the Na'vi tribe’s salutation reflects this very value system. Their word for “hello” means “I see you,” meaning that they value seeing each other as they really are—seeing past the superficial and straight to the heart. This way of seeing goes far beyond most contemporary treatments of multiculturalism that call for tolerance and the teaching of it. We must instead allow ourselves to get de-centered in order to apprehend the "other's" reality. At the end of her life, the scientist arrives at this understanding. That is, Grace finally “sees.” Everything she understood with her mind, she now understands and sees with her heart. At least in death was Grace ultimately redeemed.

For those of us who address these profound questions of epistemology and how it connects to power and identity, I think that Avatar is a useful, illustrative tool. But you have to get beyond the distractions of the messiah motif, the beautiful bodies, the love affair, and the romantic caricature of nature to see its deeper message. That is, we need to consider that our very way of knowing has equated and will continue to equate—if we continue to fail to truly see the "other"—to our own demise as people and a planet.

Submitted to the Texas Observer ©

1 comment:

  1. Check out this Kara Briggs piece MOVIES: Big and blue, ‘Avatar’ with Wes Studi comes to a cinema near you on Cherokee Indian actor, Wes Studi, who plays Eytukan in "Avatar." We really do need to re-cast the war/warrior perspective in terms of culture and power.

    Also, check out this really interesting interview with him: Movies: Native film star tells of his hero’s journey, on and offscreen