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.

“But in this dark world where he now dwelt…”

I’m in the process of reading again The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen.  In a recent discussion with Quentin S. Crisp, I was mentioning how Derrick Jensen is more depressing than even Thomas Ligotti. 

The more I think about it, though, their two views do seem to resonate to a degree.  Jensen is an environmentalist and writes about environmentalism.  Ligotti, although not an environmentalist as far as I know, relies heavily on the Zappfe’s philosophy and Zappfe was an environmentalist who inspired the beginnings of deep ecology.

There is one other similarity between the two.  Both take suffering very seriously which I appreciate, but there is a limitation to this.  I don’t know how else to explain this limitation other than to use an example.  Here is a scene from A Scanner Darkly (the video is from the movie and the quote is from the novel):

“There had been a time, once, when he had not lived like this… In former days Bob Arctor had run his affairs differently; there had been a wife much like other wives, two small daughters, a stable household that got swept and cleaned and emptied out daily, the dead newspapers not even opened carried from the front walk to the garbage pail, or even, sometimes, read. But then one day, while lifting out an electric corn popper from under the sink, Arctor had hit his head on the corner of a kitchen cabinet directly above him. The pain, the cut in his scalp, so unexpected and undeserved, had for some reason cleared away the cobwebs. It flashed on him instantly that he didn’t hate the kitchen cabinet; he hated his wife, his two daughters, his whole house, the back yard with its power mower, the garbage, the radiant heating system, the front yard, the fence, the whole fucking place and everyone in it. He wanted a divorce; he wanted to split. And so he had, very soon. And entered, by degrees, a new and somber life, lacking all of that.

“Probably he should have regretted his decision. He had not. That life had been one without excitement, with no adventure. It had been too safe.  All the elements that made it up were right there before his eyes, and nothing new could ever be expected. It was like, he had once thought, a little plastic boat that would sail on forever, without incident, until it finally sank, which would be a secret relief to all.

But in this dark world where he now dwelt, ugly things and surprising things and once in a long while a tiny wondrous thing spilled out at him constantly; he could count on nothing.

 ~ Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly (the book)

The last sentence is particularly what I had in mind as being a contrast to that of Jensen and Ligotti.  I’ve written before comparing Ligotti with PKD(Burroughs, PKD, and Ligotti, PKD Trumps Harpur and Ligotti).  There are certain similarities: both are mainly fiction writers who also wrote extensively about philosophical ideas, both willing to look unflinchingly at the sources of human suffering.  But the difference is that PKD expresses an endless sense of curiosity, wonder, awe (see: PKD, ACIM, and Burroughs, PKD on God as Infinity).

I just love the way he describes this sense of reality: “ugly things and surprising things and once in a long while a tiny wondrous thing spilled out at him constantly…”  That is beautiful.  It’s this kind of verbal expression that inspires my desire to write.

I’ve had many experiences that have touched me deeply, and they’re always at the back of my mind.  Even though I’ve rarely written about them, I strongly desire to write about them.  There are several things that hold me back.  First, they’re experiences that are a bit on the uncommon side.  Second, I don’t feel capable of of fully describing them in words, of capturing that actual in-the-moment experience.

Let me just mention some of them briefly so that you’ll have an idea of what I speak of:

  • Dream – In general, dreams are perplexing to write about.  One particular dream was of a theatre where spirits would come and go, but when the spirits were present the theatre transformed into a vast desert landscape.  The experience of it was profound and mysterious.  More than any other, this dream has always stuck with me.
  • Psychedlic – I experimented with drugs in my 20s.  I only did mushrooms once, but they really blew me away.  I felt the whole world alive, breathing in unison, and the field was shimmering like that scene from Gladiator.  Concepts such as ‘animism’ or panentheism are just interesting philosophies until you experience them.
  • Spiritual – In some ways, the most haunting experiences I’ve had happened while fully awake and when no drugs were involved.  There was a period of my life where depression, spiritual practice, and a broken heart all came together.  At the bottom of this suffering, I came across a truly incomprehensible experience of life, almost a vision.  It was a unified sense of the world that was both absolutely full and utterly empty.  My response to it was at times a sense of loneliness but it was an intimate loneliness that transcended my individuality.  It was a presence that wasn’t my presence.  It just was whatever it was.

Any of those experiences are probably meaningless to anyone who hasn’t had similar experiences.  Of course, they are far from meaningless to me.  Each individual experience is meaningful to me in that they’ve all influenced me.  I can even now viscerally remember these experiences.  More importantly, these experiences together are meaningful because they remind me of my sense of wonder.  The world is a truly strange place.

The animistic visions I’ve had particularly give me a sense of wonder on a daily basis.  I can to some degree shift my perception into an animistic mode.  I can put my mind into that sense of anticipation where the whole world feels like it’s on the verge of becoming something entirely else. 

This animistic sensibility combines both PKD’s gnostic revelation and the shamanistic worldview.  Much of PKD’s writing conveys a sense of paranoia.  I think this modern sense of paranoia is essentially the same thing as the premodern shamanistic view of the natural world.  The suffering of life is more than mere biological horror, more than mere existential angst.  The darkness isn’t empty.  There are things out there unseen that aren’t human.  The world is alive with intelligences.  The seeming empty spaces have substance.  We aren’t separate from the world.  Our skin doesn’t protect us from invasion.  Most of that which exists is indifferent to humans, but some things may take interest.  When we look out at the world, the world looks back.

We modern humans bumble our way through the world oblivious to all that surrounds us.  The police protect us.  Various public and private institutions make sure our daily lives run smoothly.  We generally don’t think about any of it… until something goes wrong.  The indigenous person lived differently than this.  A tribal person depended on themselves and others in their tribe to take care of everything.  If you’re walking through the wilderness, you have to pay attention in order to remain alive.  The possibility of death is all around one.  Death is a much more common event for hunter-gatherers.  When someone is injured or becomes sick, there is no emergency room.

This seems rather scary to a modern person.  However, to the indigenous person, this is simply the way one lives.  If your life had always been that way, it would feel completely normal.  You simply know the world around you.  Being aware would be a completely natural state of mind.  All of the world can be read for the person who knows the signs.  Just by listening to the calls of birds you can know precisely where the tiger is, and you simply make sure you’re not in that same place.

The problem is that I’m not an indigenous person and I’m definitely no shaman.  I at times can see something beyond normal perception, but I don’t know how to read the signs.  If you go by polls, most people have experienced something weird in their lifetime.  The weird is all around us all of the time.  We just rarely think about it.  And when we do notice it, we usually try to forget about it as quickly as possible.

Yes, Jensen is correct about how humans victimize one another, is correct about how civilization is destroying all life on earth.  And, yes, Ligotti is correct about how humans are paralyzed by suffering, is correct that all of human culture arose as a distraction from this primal horror.  Yes, yes, yes.  Even so, there is something beyond all of that.

Quote of the Day: 1/14/10

“…our hyper-emphasis on competition in all aspects of our public life leads immediately and inevitably to insecurity and hatred.  If you believe that the fundamental organizing principle of the world is competition (or if the fundamental organizing principle of your society is competition) you will perceive the world as full of ruthless competitors, all of whom will victimize you if they get the chance.  The world as you perceive it will begin to devolve into consisting entirely or almost entirely of victims and perpetrators; those who do, and those who get done to; the fuckers, and the fucked.  Your society will devolve — not in perception but in all truth — into these roles you have projected onto the world at large.  You will begin to believe that everyone is out to get you.  And why not?  After all, you are certainly out to get them.

In 1790, John Philpot Curran wrote, “It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active.  The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance, which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt.”  We’re probably more familiar with abolitionist Wendell Phillips’s version of this sentiment, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” which has been used to sell everything from increased military spending (already standing at 51.3 percent of the U.S. federal discretionary budget), to increased surveillance capabilities for the CIA and FBI, to a neat little hand-painted porcelain eagle night light I just saw in an ad (“perfect for den or office”) that’s available for only $15.95, plus $4.35 shipping and handling.

Nifty as this porcelain eagle may be, I think Curran and Phillips are wrong.  In fact, eternal vigilance doesn’t sound much like freedom to me, but just another form of slavery.  It would be more accurate to say that the price of slaveholding is eternal vigilance: Not only must you always be on the lookout for more avenues of exploitation, but you must also be on guard against slave rebellions, and must be especially vigilant against all those others you presume to be as devoid of humanity as you are.  Real freedom, it seems to me, as opposed to a nominal freedom that masks its opposite, would surely lead to a sense of peace.”

 ~ The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen, pp. 323-24