Avatar and American Imperialism

by zunguzungu

It’s useful to keep talking about Avatar, I think, but only obliquely; the debate between “I am outraged!” vs. “I am entertained!” is utterly counterproductive and sterile, and not only because it stages a false opposition between subjective impressions, or that the real outrage is precisely that we are entertained. That kind of problem-space produces more heat than light because the formulation seals off the film’s borders, limiting us to a formalistic analysis of a movie whose form has been already been crafted in anticipation of exactly that kind of critique. Cameron saw the charge of “racism” coming a mile away, and invites it because he’s stacked the deck in his favor. “My representations of natives are racist?” he asks “But observe how awesome and noble and heroic they are!” And, of course, he is completely right, at least by reference to the very limited terms through which we Americans are willing to understand racism to be an actual thing that exists.

When we allow the terms of our analysis to be set by the auteur, in other words, we more or less limit our readings to the set of possible interpretations that have been made available for us. And the more important point is that it is not a coincidence, for example, that no real critique of presently obtaining American militarism is possible in a movie with no real American military presence; as SEK nicely pointed out, the evil military bastard cliché in Avatar is not a representative of an imperialist state’s military apparatus but of its privatized (and externalized) mercenary wing, its Blackwater. And a pro-military critique of Blackwater is fully possible, especially for someone like Cameron, whose obsession has long been the betrayal of the good soldier by corporatism. Yet what are we to say about the good American soldier who, with the best of intentions, participates in a vicious war of imperial oppression, that just happens to make the world safe for American corporations? The American soldier who pilots drones in any of the five countries we are conducting military operations is not necessarily a bad and racist person when he or she kills innocent people for bad and racist reasons; that is, in fact, precisely the point: how is it that people who are not essentially evil end up doing evil things? Getting angry at Blackwater is fine, but it allows the much larger and more pernicious activities of state-sanctioned militarism disappear into the margins. Which is how you defend the indefensible: acknowledge the critique but change the subject on which it is directed by ushering a much more racist and bastard cliché onto center stage.

Another way to think about the bad guys in Avatar, after all, would be the security apparatus of the British East India company, or, more generally, the corporate presence that has so often preceded and made inevitable a state-authored sequel. After all, what do you think is going to happen next? The movie ends right at the moment when the native uprising against United Fruit has apparently succeeded, but right before the Yankee paratroopers bomb the living fuck out of the Na’vi in defense of national interests. When natives kill white people, for whatever reason, white governments always seem to find ways to make them pay for the offense, a fact that Avatar works hard to forget. But the surge is coming.    

Which is why Sepoy’s reading, for example, is a much smarter approach to the film, because he refuses to allow Cameron to set the terms for the critique. For one thing, this is exactly right:

Avatar mirrors the techno-capital apogee of this American empire as well the grave ambivalence at the heart of it. Avatar is our Crystal Palace and our Delhi Durbar of 1911 as well our Hastings/Burke moment…Where previous Empires (without going into whether America is or isn’t one) created magnificent physical edifices of their power and glory, we build monuments of light and shadows (3D) that provoke much of the same reactions: awe, glory, camaraderie. We are united in our appreciation of the technological wonder that created this spectacle and united in our consumption of it.”

But where he rally gets to the heart of the film is his observation that

“The war in Avatar is not between the haves and the have-nots (one with tech, the other without; one with mineral resources, the other without) but between different ideas of having and not-having. At some level, however appropriated, Avatar grants some equivalence to the notion that these two civilizations can indeed differ in their reading of what constitutes as essential for survival. But the debate over the Iraq War is not, and will not be for a while, about granting equivalence – either hypothetical or literal – to our civilizational mission (democracy and freedom) and their claim to self-rule and self-governance. In that frame, there may be a mild nod towards Iraq, but there is no critique of war in Avatar. It is pro-war all the way. Eco-tech vs. mech-tech.”

American “adventurism,” after all, has usually conceded the point that being culturally or phenotypically different is not necessarily a sufficient casus belli, but it’s rarely stopped us from finding others. See, for example, the sinking of the Maine, any steps towards nationalization of private industry or socialist rhetoric, 9-11, weapons of mass destruction, etc. Some of these things happened and some of them didn’t, but that’s not the point; the point is that when imperialist hawks want to go to war in a place like Iraq or Cuba or Grenada or Vietnam, they eventually find a reason not directly to do with cultural difference. Which is why Avatar’s defense of cultural difference and its fantasy of native harmony with nature not only don’t contradict an American-style imperialism but also allow its narrative to point unerringly toward that escalation: to the extent this movie is in any sense about the real world, it is the fact that the natives succeed in fighting off the evil corporate imperialists that will make statist military escalation inevitable. Killing white mercenaries means the regular army will be close behind to avenge and legitimize their deaths; when brown people with spears kill white people with helicopters, it usually only ends one way.

I’m also interested by the point Jonathan raised in a comment to Sepoy‘s post, that since the film is a story Cameron started writing in the nineties, it forms an interesting kind of critique of both Iraq wars, to which I would add the observation that it also illustrates how easily a Clinton-era narrative can not only incorporate but positively channel a Bush-era ethos. We like to pretend that the two are fundamentally opposed, yet the counterfactual in which President Gore invades Iraq and Afghanistan (on the advice of SecDef Powell) is not only utterly plausible, it’s even likely. We don’t even have to point out how hawkish every democratic vice-presidential nominees always seem to be (and Gore was quite the hawk on Iraq, we like to forget); the scenario in which President Obama escalates in Afghanistan (on the advice of Bush SecDef Gates) is a factual. And we tend to forget Clinton-era adventurism in the face of the much more obvious example of Bush, but it’s precisely that contrast that gives positive cover to the former, as it is doing for Obama’s escalation right now. In the same sense, the Avatar narrative implies a surge in the future, but avoids having to address it by only implying it, by creating a false narrative closure after the big battle climax. But real life goes one, which is the real perniciousness of the movie, and its true vacuousness; the only answers it has are stupid ones: the natives should fight back! Gloriously! And then, magically, they will win!