Avatar: Imagination & Culture

I finally went to see the movie Avatar.  It took me a while to convince my friend to go with me. He doesn’t usually like SciFi, but I think he enjoyed it.  I can understand why this movie has made so much money.  I’m glad I saw it and I’d be happy to watch it again.

I want to say something about the larger meaning and impact of this movie, but first I’ll point out my immediate response to it as entertainment.  Even though it was mostly what I expected, I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of its production.  It was a truly immersive experience.  It did, however, take me a while to get into. 

First, I don’t often watch 3D movies and it was initially odd trying to get forget the rectangular screen framing the 3D effects.  In a normal movie, it’s easier to forget the shape of the screen itself.  That wasn’t really an annoyance per se… just something I was aware of.

The second thing was that the indigenous people of Pandora were essentially just very large blue Native Americans.  Their language and facial features all had elements of the Native American people (along with bows and arrows and weird large horse-like creatures).    I eventually just had to accept that large blue Native Americans could actually exist on other planets and just go with the story.

I’ve noticed that other reviewers have pointed out that the story isn’t all that original.  That is true to an extent.  White soldier goes native and helps the natives fight the evil invading military.  There are many other movies with a more original vision of an alternative world, but the central conceit of the movie (the avatar bodies) was an original twist.  I don’t care if a story is all that original as long as it is told well.  Most stories aren’t original.  Even the story of Jesus isn’t an original story and that has never lessened its popularity.

So, was the story of Avatar told well?  I think so.  I was immersed in the world.  The character development was limited, but I genuinely cared for the fate of the characters and I was saddened when the large tree was destroyed.  The movie probably would’ve been better if done as a trilogy.   But, even as is, I was more than satisfied.

The real reason I wanted to write a review is because of thoughts I had of its larger cultural context.  I have heard that conservatives really don’t like this movie.  Even the Vatican made an official statement of criticism.  I’m not surprised.  I don’t think it’s an overestimation to say that this movie will have some impact on the collective attitude of our society.  It is a movie that is full of messages and conveyed in a very entertaining and compelling way.

As an adult, this movie is impressive even if only for the special effects… but, to a child or young adult, this movie is the type of experience that could help shape the mindset of an entire generation.  The youth today are already very liberal in most ways because of various demographic shifts.  Conservatives dominated most of the twentieth century with their formulation of the cultural war.  Conservatives have been very good at controlling the cultural narrative and the group that controls the narrative controls all social and political dialogue. 

Liberals have been challenged in recent decades.  The conservatives managed to reframe progressivism as socialism and communism, as big government, as intellectual elitism.  But liberalism was never entirely limited to progressivism or not any simple notion of progressivism.  The liberal vision was never solely or centrally about creating a new society.  Rather, the liberal vision was about basic human rights, about empowering the common person.

Avatar has deep resonance with struggles that have been going on throughout US history and world history.  I’m just about finished with my second reading of The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen.  If you want to understand why this movie matters, read some of Jensen’s writings.  Avatar is, in some ways, a simple story but it is also a story that is communicating some basic truths about our culture.  The evil military guy may seem like an exaggerated stereotype.  However, I would argue that he is a fairly realistic portrayal of a certain kind of person.  Jensen goes into great detail about US history and there have been plenty of military (and non-military) people who have had the same basic attitude and who have said very similar things.  Sadly, this character isn’t an exaggeration.  There really have been (and still are) people like him and they really did try to get rid of any culture that got in the way of their ideology or profits.  For certain, the US government’s treatment of Native Americans wasn’t an isolated event(s). 

In the early 20th century, the workers union movement was connected with the beginnings of the civil rights movement.  These progressive movements were led by working class people.  For example, the Wobblies fought against unfair pay and immoral working conditions.  What was interesting about the Wobblies is that they didn’t refuse blacks and women from joining.  It was a truly egalitarian progressive movement that happened decades prior to Martin Luther King, jr.  And, yes, the Wobblies were violently put down by the government.

The first World War undermined this movement even further because patriotism has a way of redirecting public outrage to convenient foreign enemies.  In place of these progressive movements, arose the renewed KKK.  The KKK was different in that its membership was mostly middle and upper class.  The KKK was a gentlemen’s club and not an organization defending the common man… although it did play off the dissatisfaction and anger of the common man.  This was the beginning of the conservative movement as we now know it.  The beliefs of the KKK are essentially the same as the beliefs of present rightwingers (patriotic nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiments, traditional family, white culture/supremacy, and Christian fundamentalism; it was the KKK that was behind the early attempt in getting Creationism taught in public science classes).  The story of the conservative movement has been that of true Americans fighting for the American Way, the American Dream.  This “America”, of course, was a bit exclusionary toward a large portion of the population, but it appealed to all the people who mattered (i.e., those with power). 

Even the moving speeches of MLK had a hard time of challenging the conservative narrative.  Because MLK couldn’t change the popular narrative, the popularity of the civil rights movement mostly died with him.  Ever since, liberals have been trying to communicate their message.  Obama has been somewhat successful in awakening the progressive sense of hope, but he too hasn’t been able to find the narrative to empower this hope beyond speechmaking.  Conservatives are just better at creating and controlling the political attitudes of the general public.

Still, not all is lost.  Liberals seem more successful in using entertainment as a mode of communication.  This is where conservatives have failed.   The conservative ideology doesn’t fully appreciate the power (and the potential merits) of imagination, and the conservative movement did successfully limit creative freedom during the 20th century (Hollywood blacklists, Comic Book Code, etc).  The conservative response to imagination is simply to fear it.  Both conservatives and liberals understand the liberating potential of the arts and of popular entertainment. 

In the late 20th century, the conservative oppression of the Cold War started to lessen.  There was a tremendous explosion of cultural creativity that was combined with technological innovation.  The liberals found the media for their message in movies, and special effects allowed them to communicate their message in ever more compelling ways.  Star Wars was the first great use of movies to express the liberal vision.  Following that, Blade Runner and the Matrix began to remind Americans of the true power of the liberal vision.  The Boomers set the stage for all of this, but it took the GenXers to instill this liberal ethos into the very structures of our culture (e.g., the internet).

That brings us to the last decade when a new generation was coming of age.  This new generation is the largest generation in US history and probably the most liberal generation in US history.  The Millennials have grown up with liberal vision.  Harry Potter has become central to their identity, and the message of Harry Potter is very liberal.  Fantasy/SciFi in general is very liberal.  Our culture has been slowly shifting towards liberalism, but I think Avatar might be a tipping point of sorts. 

The improvement of special effects has unleashed the collective sense of imagination.  Movies may seem like mindless entertainment, but the power of imagination shouldn’t be underestimated.

All of this reminds me of an incident from a several years ago.  I went to hear a lady speak at the University of Iowa.  It wasn’t exactly what I expected.  The lady turned out to be a conservative Christian.  She discussed popular culture and the entertainment industry from the view of conservative Christianity.  She thought conservatives needed to use popular culture to communicate their ideology.  There isn’t anything necessarily wrong about this attitude, but my sense was that this lady’s view (and the conservative view in general) had an extremely superficial comprehension of the value of imagination and creativity.  Conservatives want to control entertainment for their purposes.  The best example is how the Mormons like to spend money making movies with good Christian values, but these movies of course are never very popular.

Liberals don’t need to use imagination and creativity to express their ideology… or at least not in the way that conservatives try to do this.  For liberals, imagination and creativity isn’t just a medium for their message.  It is their message.  The very act of imagining is inherent to the liberal attitude, the liberal view of reality.  This can be understood in terms of Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types.  Liberalism corresponds to the thin boundary type.  Thin boundary means that a person’s experience demonstrates less distinction between dreaming and waking, between subjectivity and objectivity, between imagination and perception.  Liberals don’t use imagination.  Liberals live in imagination.

After listening to the conservative Christian lady speak, I went into the University library where there was a showing of William Blake’s art and writing.  There couldn’t have been a better contrast between the conservative and liberal understanding of imagination.  In Blake’s vision, imagination was something with the power to liberate.  I don’t know if Blake was a visionary, but he was most definitely touching upon the visionary potential of imagination.  It was imagination as self-expression, as celebration, as defiance of all oppressive forces.

Avatar isn’t on the same level as Blake.  Even so, Avatar expresses the same liberal impulse.  There is ideology in Avatar, but it’s ideology as a vision of reality.   With liberals, ideology is expanded through imagination.  With conservatives, imagination is constrained by ideology.  Both may start with ideology, but go in different directions.  The liberal impulse wants to escape or transform ideology into something greater.  It’s not that conservatives don’t have a sense of something greater.  It’s just that to conservatives ideology itself is an expression of that sense of something greater.  Maybe it’s a difference between ideology as means vs ends.

Imagination has so much influence because it’s so easily dismissed.  Entertainment beguiles our conscious mind and sneaks past our rational and ideological defenses.  The most powerful stories are those that alter our very perception of reality.  We don’t see imagination.  We see through imagination.  And it’s liberals who understand this best. 

As such, Avatar is a vision of what imagination means in the world.  Imagination is potential.  We live in and embody imagination.  The world is alive with the imaginal.  To see this planet or any planet as an inanimate chunk of rock is a failure of imagination.  Killing life for profit can only be accomplished if imagination is first killed.  But imagination is an ever-present potential that can be reborn in any person.  That would seem to be the message of Avatar.

12 thoughts on “Avatar: Imagination & Culture

  1. Thanks. I thought this was excellent. I especially liked these bits:

    This can be understood in terms of Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types. Liberalism corresponds to the thin boundary type. Thin boundary means that a person’s experience demonstrates less distinction between dreaming and waking, between subjectivity and objectivity, between imagination and perception. Liberals don’t use imagination. Liberals live in imagination.

    And:

    To see this planet or any planet as an inanimate chunk of rock is a failure of imagination.

    I do think, however, that when a situation is expressed in terms of political opposites, those opposites have the tendency to turn into one another.

    Also, I wondered where you would place the quite considerable number of writers such as Lovecraft, Mishima and so on in the whole liberal versus conservative struggle. Is Lovecraft, for instance, by using the imagination, a liberal despite himself? I can certainly imagine that many conservatives at the time he wrote and even today would find his work decadent, but imagination does seem to work in a conservative vein, too, providing conservative myths.

    I’m not disagreeing with what you say, actually, because I agree that the imagination tends to rebel or be a threat to the limitations and rigidity of conservatism, but I wonder myself where such imaginatives as those above fit in, especially as I have sympathy with certain aspects of their outlook.

    • Hello Crisp

      “I do think, however, that when a situation is expressed in terms of political opposites, those opposites have the tendency to turn into one another.”

      I do not dissagree. The extremes of any ideology can be quite similar in nature.

      “Is Lovecraft, for instance, by using the imagination, a liberal despite himself? I can certainly imagine that many conservatives at the time he wrote and even today would find his work decadent, but imagination does seem to work in a conservative vein, too, providing conservative myths.”

      I have thought about this before. Of the genre’s, horror has seemed attractive to some conservatives (including conservative Christians). In horror, the relation to imagination is uncertainty and fear. I do think that a conservative can use imagination in an authentic manner, but it might be difficult for a conservative to view imagination without an element of fear.

      Lovecraft’s characters often seem ‘liberal’ in not being content with the status quo. They seek out that which is beyond the known, beyond the norms of society. But, when they find that which is beyond, the ending isn’t happy (similarly, curiosity doesn’t tend to lead to happy endings in Ligotti’s stories as well). Lovecraft’s tales are morality tales of sorts. They show what happens to those who stray from the straight and narrow.

      I must admit it’s been a long time since I read any of Lovecraft’s stories. Do any of them end happily ever after?

      Anyways, I’m using the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in a more loose sense. I’m mostly emphasizing the psychological meaning rather than the ideological meaning. For certain, when I use these terms I don’t mean Democrats and Republicans in US politics.

      Liberal as a psychological trait is mostly something you’re born with or develops very early on. It isn’t likely to change throughout your life. According to research that I recall, the genetics related to it are inherited to an extent.

      A psychologically ‘liberal’ person is more likely to vote politically liberal but not necessarily. Other research shows that environment (family, friends, communitiy, etc) have more influence on how people actually vote. My guess is that a psychologically liberal person raised in a conservative environment might be more attracted to liberal lite ideologies such as libertarianism or Ayn Rand’s objectivism.

      Also, according to the Nolan chart, there is greater complexity than merely left vs right. There is the society scale and the government scale. The psychological trait of liberalism probably has more to do with the society scale (i.e., social liberalism).

  2. PS. An example of how there are complications to this picture might be given in the fact that Moorcock accuses Star Wars of being reactionary propaganda (rather than liberal) because it reinforces the whole royalist fantasy of fairy tales. I don’t necessarily agree with him (I think his view is weirdly Marxist materialist), but I can at least see his point.

    • Yeah, there are many complications. The correlation between psychological traits and political ideologies isn’t simple and clear.

      I could see how some conservatives might appreciate Star Wars. There is a near absolute sense of Good and Evil. There is an organization of Knights who fight for the good and enforce order throughout the universe. There was a time when Good prevailed in the past and in those earlier times society was just and orderly.

      On the other hand, the Rebels are fighting an oppressive fascist government. The Rebels are acting out the liberal fantasy of revolution. The Empire has become the new status quo, and the Rebels wish to topple the hierarchical society in order to instate an egalitarian society.

      Both the Jedis and the Empire want to enforce their own vision of order, but there is a difference.

      The Jedis were more democratic in nature. They discussed their viewpoints and tried to come to a concensus. They trusted their intuitions rather than force an ideological order. They believed in sacrificing sefl-interest for the greater collective good. The Jedis weren’t militaristic, weren’t overly hierarchical. The respect of Jedis was more earned through training and mentoring than through simply being given a position of authority.

      Star Wars may be reactionary (propaganda or not), but reactionary isn’t necessarily equivalent to conservatism. I do think it’s true that it’s more of a conservative tendency to idealize the past. Idealizing the past implies feeling uncertain about the future that the present is becoming, implies fear of the unkown.

      However, the Rebels don’t seem merely reactionary. They have a pro-active vision of the world. The animistic Force in Star Wars is quite similar to the animistic Pandora in Avatar.

      Also, Luke Skywalker seems liberal in that he is full of hope. He wants to believe in the potential within himself and within others. He isn’t cynical or fatalistic. He doesn’t see human nature as fallen. He believes people aren’t limited to selfishness.

      Darth Vader, on the other hand, gave into the opposite view. The Empire seems like the ultimate extreme of conservatism in terms of a strict maintaining of power and order. Conservatives (excluding libertarians) mistrust the individual. Morality has to be enforced from without by social institutions (whether religious or political). Conservatives favor hierarchical structure and they have more respect for positions of authority. In terms of Hartmann’s research, thick boundary types are more likely to be represented by the top positions within hierarchical institutions.

    • There is another reason that I think of Star Wars as a liberal vision. George Lucas was influenced and inspired by Joseph Campbell. In the late 20th century, there were few people besides Campbell who captured the liberal vision of imagination and story. Campbell was already a popular figure, but Lucas’ Star Wars gave Campbell’s ideas a permanent place within popular culture.

  3. Last year, I wrote a post about C.S. Lewis and Tolkien in terms of myth and imagination.

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/c-s-lewis-and-myth/

    Lewis seems like a good example of a conservative trying to come to terms with imagination. Despite his Christian conversion, he respect pagan mythology. He had to find a way to rationalize the value of paganism all the while constraining it within his new found Christianity.

    His conclusion was that both paganism and Christianity were myth, but Christianity was true myth. This distinction was a bit arbitrary in that he was just looking for an excuse to believe in Jesus Christ. Basically, he was simply saying “My God is better than your god.”

    Tolkien might be an even more interesting example to consider. Unfortunately, my knowledge of him is rather meager. From what little I’ve read, Tolkien apparently was more conservative in the traditional Christian sense. But he is also the one who helped Lewis understand that there need be no conflict between pagan and Christian myth.

    Tolkien was critical of Lewis’ heavyhanded use of Christian elements in his stories. Tolkien’s answer seems to have been to utterly separate and compartmentalize Christian ideology and pagan imagination.

    Lord of the Rings has, of course, been very popular both as a book and as a movie trilogy. Anyone can see in LOTR the Christian/Zoroastrian ideology of absolute Good and Evil. The conceptual framework of LOTR is Christian. Frodo even is a meek savior just like Jesus. Frodo confronts death and is resurrected. And I suppose the Elves are angels and the Orc are demons. There is even a central Satanic overlord.

    LOTR is pretty heavyhanded itself when it comes to Christian incluence, but maybe Tolkien was more talented at translating theology into mythological imagery.

    I still wonder about whether Tolkien’s LOTR is truly conservative propaganda. It also presents many liberal values. The Hobbits are the very ideal of paleo-conservative traditional values. However, Bilbo and Frodo are non-conformists and venture out to see the larger world beyond the conformist traditional values. Frodo trust himself and his friends more than he trusts any institutionalized belief system. Frodo wants to believe that there is inherent goodness in others. Also, the ideal of different cultures and ethnic groups working together for the greater collective good seems like something straight out of the liberal playbook.

    Maybe Tolkien wasn’t much of a conservative. If he was a conservative, he was very moderate in his views with leanings towards certain liberal values.

  4. There was two reasons I mentioned KKK in this post.

    The first reason was simply because the KKK was the first popular manifestation of conservatism as we now know it. The KKK put forth every single value that mainstream conservatives still value, although in less overtly offensive form. The KKK wasn’t an extremist group. It was very mainstream and its membership was very respectable (with some of its most prominent members being Christian ministers). At its height, the Klan had million of members. In The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensene writes (p. 494):

    “By 1923, at least seventy-five U.S. representatives owed their seats to the Klan, and the Klan had been able to sweep anti-Klan governors from at least two states, and cow the rest of them (except one) into silence. That same year in George the Klan counted as its members the governor, Supreme Court chief justice, attorney general, and so on. Indeed, the president of the United States, Warren G. Harding, was sworn in as a member of the Ku Klux Klan…”

    The KKK was a powerful group prior to the time when the FBI took it down.

    The second reason is related to the first. I was thinking about the KKK in terms of the imagination. I’m not sure I explained well the connection I was trying to make. The KKK captured the public imagination. They told a story about what America was and what it meant to be an American.

    The conservative Christian lady that I heard speak was essentially arguing that Christians should use entertainment as propaganda. She wasn’t being subtle about it. The KKK wasn’t subtle about it either.

    In 1915, the silent film The Birth of a Nation (premiered as The Clansmen) was a blockbuster. The source play for the film was written by a classmate of President Woodrow Wilson and there was a private showing in the White House. The movie led to nation-wide rioting and violence against blacks. So, in the early 1900s, conservatives apparently knew how to use story to convey their message and their message was popular.

    How did they manage to make their message so popular?

    Even though the Klan was growing after the war, it was nearly bankrupt. This is when the Klan became associated with “one of the progenitors of the nascent public relations industry, Edward Young Clarke, whose brother was managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution, ran the Southern Publicity association”.

    Edward Young Clarke turned the Klan into a profitable business by sending out Klansmen to sell membership door-to-door. They sold memberships by appealing to whatever was most feared in any given community. The Klan salesmen would emphasisze fear of blacks, immigrants, or unions depending on the situation. Fear turned out to be a great marketing campaign. Many new members were gained and much money was made.

    My point is that this strategy of using entertainment and public relations as propaganda techniques can be very successful, but it seems different than how liberals go about promoting their beliefs. Today, we still can see people like Glen Beck still selling fear and Fox News proves how profitable race-baiting can be. Glenn Beck is the one conservative who knows how to give conservatism a narrative. It’s probably because he comes from the entertainment industry.

    It’s hard to say exactly what the difference is. Conservatives do seem to rely on fear more than liberals. Also, I can’t imagine conservatives now being able to make a movie as successful as The Birth of a Nation was when it came out. I don’t know what has changed, but these days liberals seem to have a better understanding of how entertainment works. Fox News is ultra-conservative, but the entertainment side of the business is very liberal (e.g., The Simpsons).

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