Race, The ‘Other’ And Human Agency

Now that I have seen Avatar I stand by my original post on the film. But, let’s face facts, the narrative archetype of which I speak in my previous post is fraught with all kinds of difficulties because it is too easy to misinterpret, or misconstrue the timeless ideas behind it. We are so caught up with our triple obsessions of race, neo-colonialism and ‘gong native’ that the film becomes a rorschach test to each and everyone of us, ergo the film does smack of neo-colonialism, in a sense, it does smack of racism, in a certain sense, it does smack of going native.

The problem with all these criticisms is the ‘in a certain sense part.’ The rorschach nature of the film prevents us from investigating why this narrative trope is so powerful, so resonant on the human psyche–not just the Western one–critics take the easy way out and throw up their hands about racism, and neo-colonialism and, horror of horrors, ‘going native.’

But first, let’s dispense with all the easy criticism that can be made of the film: it is anti-corporate. In this day and age of populist rage a la Glenn Beck and the Teabaggers, or the populism of the progressive left, why not take a swipe at Goldman Sachs, Monsanto and Big Oil? Not only are they stripping America of its wealth, they are mining the planet of its wealth.

The film is also pro-green in a very unsatisfactory and unhistorical way–as the film views the noble savage living in peace with his and her native environment as a good unto itself, as the way it should be. This is a disservice to the ‘green movement’ as it follows the silly characterization right wingers have of the environmental movement as a bunch of luddites who would have us living in some kind of post-industrial revolutionary socialist state of nature. Of course, this is an old idea–at least 500 years old. It came out of the early Western experience–primarily the English and French one–in the New World. But, as Charles C. Mann amply documented in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the idea that man was living in an unaltered landscape by the time of the pilgrims is terribly false. His book documents and distills much of the most recent scholarly literature on the topic and proves the myth that the upright savages the pilgrims found here in the New World we’re living in a pristine state of balance with their natural environment is false. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do everything we can to preserve the precious balance of life on our planet–mind you–it is just to say that the human impact on the New World was far, far greater than most people realize.

But, it would have been an altogether different film if Cameron had tried to include that leitmotif. So, back to the criticisms:

The problem with racism and the racist critique is that it is an ill-defined, and ultimately a useless construct of the Western mind. It’s also intellectually lazy. There is no such thing, biologically speaking, as race. We are all homo sapiens, not homo sapiens asiaticus, or homo sapiens caucasiensis, or homo sapiens africanus or the like. Race is too often confused with culture. There are a multiplicity of cultures on our planet. Alas, the racial construct is still useful to many people on all sides of the political spectrum. Sadly, the racial construct is used most commonly when it comes to constructing the ‘other.’ And the ‘other’ is very problematic, but ultimately an innate part of human nature. There will be always—at least for the foreseeable future, in groups and out groups. There will always be alpha-males and subordinates. It’s in our primate nature.

Futhermore, the dialogue of the ‘other’ isn’t limited to the West. About the time the Greeks were beginning this dialogue in Herodotus vis-a-vis the Scythians, the Chinese were doing the same thing. There is a tale in the Records of the Grand Historian of a Chinese diplomat who ‘went native’ by joining the Xiongnu. This isn’t a dialogue unique to those evil dead white men. Now, if you want to critique this archetype from the point of view of the Eurasian steppe nomads versus the settled cultures of the littoral, I’m all ears.

This review is too clever by half. Some excellent points are being made by the reviewer, but ultimately the analysis falls flat:

This is not a vision of a racially harmonious social politic: it is an inversion of the logic of passing that seems acceptable only because it imagines the experience of becoming a person of color as necessarily ennobling. The film argues that once a white person truly and deeply understands the non-white experience, he becomes an unstoppable combination of non-white primitivism and white rationalism which is exactly what happens. In order for the audience to support the transformation of Jake Sully into Braveheart Smurf, it must accept the essentialist assumptions that make such a combination possible … and those assumptions are racist. In football terms, this is a variation of the black quarterback “problem.”

Let’s look at the character from another point of view, and not the ‘racial one.’ As I wrote before:

There is a reason movies like Avatar use this narrative archetype. . . The archetype is a common foundational myth, pops up in many national literatures and historical writing for a reason. It’s been used by the Turks, the Mongols, the Mayans and others. It’s not about colonialism, it’s about the fluidity of tribes, a much older human grouping and one that is much more primal.

Tribes have been, historically speaking, very open to newcomers, those not ethnically or racially or even linguistically pure, for lack of a better description. . . There is even a tale in 12th century Turkish collection of poems called the Dede Korkut that is almost identical in plot to Avatar.

In the end it is a story about who we choose to be, or in modernist terms, human agency, and the fluidity of personal identity. That is why it is such a powerful and oft used narrative archetype.

It’s just realy hard for me to take the racist critique of Avatar seriously when the story being told is about as old as humanity itself. To my mind, the shrewdest analysis so far, the one that comes closest to the real question the movie mines is this one:

What many people seem to forget is that Jake Sully, the main character, is established early on in the story as being both an ostracized and emasculated character. Thus, he does not fall into the classic white privilege archetype that you see in white guilt fantasy.

Jake Sully is emasculated in a literal sense because of a combination of physical injury, financial inadequacy and family tragedy. Not only is Jake Sully a Marine who cannot walk or fight, but more tragically he knows that there is a cure for his injury, but cannot afford it.

Again, there is a reason this narrative archetype is used. It’s about human agency, regaining or even gaining something we never had: the respect of others and proof of our value as individuals; and really, what if the lead had been played by Will Smith? Would the reviewer make the same criticism? I seriously doubt it. He’d be celebrating our post-racial inclusiveness.

It’s a fun film, the special effects, a surfeit, wrapped in a smorgasbord spilling out of a cornucopia, are worth shelling out the money. But high-brow art? No, it’s not. Pick up Homer, the Dede Korkut or the Chinese poets for that.

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