copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
Avatar and the enjoyment of nature
by Todd McGowan
The focus of the typical Hollywood film is seldom the figure of the mother. With his concern for constituting a paternal presence, Steven Spielberg is the exemplary Hollywood director. In the Spielberg film, as in so many contemporary films, the father functions as a stabilizing force that concludes the narrative movement by mastering the disruptive emergence of desire. From Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) in Jaws (1975) to Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) in Schindler’s List (1993) to Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) in War of the Worlds (2005), the father provides stability and an assurance that no threat can triumph over this stability. Beyond the example of Spielberg, this function of the father is widely visible in popular films such as Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988), The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003), and 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009). In innumerable instances of Hollywood filmmaking, the father or paternal figure anchors the filmic narrative in the way that the master signifier anchors every symbolic structure. The paternal figure ensures the survival of guarantees.
In this world, James Cameron stands out. Cameron certainly does not inhabit the margins of Hollywood filmmaking, as David Lynch or even Michael Mann might be said to do. He has made the two highest grossing films of all time, which establishes him squarely within the Hollywood firmament even if he waits over ten years between films. Despite Cameron’s proclivity for making wildly popular films, his films scrupulously avoid granting the paternal figure his typical role. That is to say, James Cameron is not Steven Spielberg. In Cameron’s films, the paternal figure can’t play his typical role because the maternal figure doesn’t play hers. Cameron is famous for his preoccupation with powerful female characters, but he does much more than show women with guns or bulging biceps. He also reveals the mother as a divided subject, as sexed, or as someone who enjoys. [open endnotes in new window] In this way, the Cameron film, inclusive of Avatar (2009), challenges the gender dimension of ideology that has the most significant traction today.
Ideology has two fundamental operations correlated with paternity and maternity. The paternal dimension of ideology promises that the social order has a meaningful foundation. This form of ideology proclaims that the master signifier—the ground of all signification—is not just a contingent and meaningless starting point. Instead, it lets subjects know, for instance, that God or fate has a place for them and for their society. On this basis, social activities appear full of significance and everyday interactions gain an illusory rootedness. The maternal function of ideology provides, on the other hand, an image of wholeness. The maternal image of wholeness provides the ideological assurance that underlying the apparent openness of the social order, the signifying system is actually closed. Beneath the antagonisms that manifest themselves throughout society, this form of ideology discovers connections that trump every division. Significance not only has an anchoring point at its beginning, but it has a moment of conclusion as well.
Modernity as an epoch calls into question the ground of the social order and thus the paternal side of ideology. When Shakespeare depicts Hamlet seeking to authentic his father’s word or when Descartes imagines a malicious demon responsible for all his perceptions, paternal authority loses its foundational status, and the conception of society undergoes a dramatic shift. Even if Hamlet finally accepts his father’s account of things or Descartes ends up referring all perceptions to the authority of God, the damage is done. Once put into question, paternal authority cannot but lose its former status. The linguistic turn in philosophy completes this revolution as it locates meaning and truth in language, unmoored from any ultimate ground. Though contemporary fundamentalism tries to reinstall paternal authority as the basis for the social order, mainstream society seems to operate just fine without it. The father figure is not an ideological exigency.
The image of the mother’s wholeness, however, has become a necessary condition of any successful ideology. This image takes many forms: new age spirituality, deep ecology, or the idea of the soulmate. In each case, the subject’s alienation disappears in a connection that allows the subject to experience a sense of belonging to a transcendent network of significance. Wholeness today serves as a compensation for the absence of ground. Though there may be no paternal figure to ground the significance of the subject’s world, there is a maternal presence to make that world whole. Though other forms more explicitly emphasize the image of completeness, the predominant form of the maternal side of ideology is the consumerism that identifies the commodity with absolute plenitude. Every advertisement that we see tells us that the commodity, like new age spirituality or the soulmate, will complete us and render us wholly satisfied. This wholeness exists against the background of maternity and the image of the non-lacking mother. Eviscerating this image is the primary challenge confronting the contemporary critique of ideology.
Though James Cameron’s films disseminate ideology in all sorts of ways, they do also confront head-on the image of maternal wholeness and work to undo it. This is perhaps most pronounced in Aliens (1986), which shows the battle-hardened Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the alien monster itself as the only two images of maternity. But even in Titanic (1997), we see the identification of the grandmother Rose (Gloria Stuart) with the young sexualized Rose (Kate Winslet) through a graphic match that occurs in the dissolve from the close-up of the latter to that of the former. Through the style of his films, Cameron depicts the Hegelian speculative identity of opposites, enabling us to see the protective mother as the devouring monster or the kind grandmother as the sexually charged woman. In Avatar, this line of critique advances even further, up to the ultimate image of maternity—mother nature.
The first impression that Avatar gives, however, is one of an unabashed investment in the image of maternal wholeness. Unlike the soldiers from Earth who come to Pandora to exploit the moon, the native inhabitants or Na’vi evince a bond with the natural world. Their long braided hair enables them to plug into various aspects of the natural world and experience their oneness with it. The Na’vi speak, but the signifier does not appear to have alienated them from their world because they take the proper attitude toward it: they are part of nature rather than its masters.
The attitude of the Na’vi toward their world contrasts with that of the Earth invaders, who have come to Pandora for the purpose of mining the moon and exploiting its riches. Though Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and the Earth scientists assume the identity of the Na’vi through the use of avatars, the overall attitude of the Earth contingent reflects a vastly different conception of the natural world than that of the Na’vi. For them, nature exists to be used and profited from, as evinced by their mining operation, which is their only interest in Pandora. The first shot of Pandora’s surface in the film depicts large machines stripmining, indicating the essence of the human attitude. The humans see themselves as the masters of the natural world, and the film shows Jake’s gradual conversion from this position to that of the Na’vi, which reveals itself most explicitly in the god that the Na’vi worship.
The Na’vi god does not exist as a separate entity that acts on the created world like the God of monotheism. Instead, it sustains the connection and balance of all living things. This god is not a paternal or creative god but a maternal one, a god of completion and wholeness known as the great mother. Toward the end of the film, Jake goes to the sacred Tree of Souls to ask Eywa, the great mother, for assistance in the struggle against the invading army. He tells her, “If you’re there, I need to give you a heads-up,” in order to coax her into interceding. His lover Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), however, quickly chastens him concerning this request. Even though the Na’vi appear doomed, the nature of Eywa precludes the possibility of an intervention. A political intervention, Neytiri reasons, would violate the god’s maternal role of sustaining the wholeness of their world. She informs Jake, “Our great mother Eywa does not take sides.” Instead, according to Neytiri, she “protects the balance of life.” Everything in the film up to this point suggests that Neytiri is correct, and this image of a natural balance appears to affirm the film’s investment in the maternal dimension of ideology rather than in its critique.
But the film does not end with Neytiri’s claim or with evidence supporting it. The pivotal moment in the film occurs when we see that Eywa can takes sides in a political struggle. When this happens, Avatar undermines the ideology of completion that dominates up to this point, and nature itself becomes politicized. Eywa answers Jake’s call to join the battle against the Earth invaders. As a result, what seemed to be a naturalization of politics becomes a policization of nature. In order to be able to intervene as she does, even the great mother Eywa must be an alienated being. Whereas Cameron’s earlier films show division within the figure of the mother, Avatar depicts division within nature, the ultimate maternal figure.
When the Earth army mounts its final attack against the Tree of Souls, they overrun the forces of the Na’vi people and are moments from destroying the tree. Just as their victory seems assured, the beasts of Pandora, recruited by Eywa, counterattack and repel the soldiers. On the one hand, this is an event that echoes many such occurrences in classical Hollywood cinema. Just as when the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) or when the U.S. cavalry comes to save the passengers in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), here the arrival of the beasts provides a fantasmatic respite from helplessness in the face of defeat and death. On the other hand, the counterattack reveals that the great mother does not merely protect “the balance of life,” as Neytiri asserts. If nature can intervene in a political struggle, then at the same time it attests to its own incompleteness. The capacity to intervene is the product of an alienating loss to which the Na’vi deity seemed hitherto immune. The moment of the Na’vi victory is in this sense the moment where profound loss becomes evident.
One of the most common complaints about Avatar focuses on the hackneyed plot that accompanies the impressive technological wizardry. Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris and others have renamed the film “Dances with Blue People” in order to acknowledge its obvious indebtedness to Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1985) and numerous other films in which an alienated hero embraces a culture that appears more in touch with the natural world than his own. This theme, as Morris rightly notes despite his overall affection for the film, is “politically deranged.” But the politicization of nature or the great mother at the end of Avatar distances it from Costner’s epic, which affirms rather than contests the wholeness of the natural world. The problem with Avatar is not so much its plot but the very technological brilliance that Morris celebrates. Despite the division that the film depicts in the Na’vi deity, the visual splendor of the film appears to belie any acknowledgment of this loss on the part of the spectator.
Much of Avatar’s popularity stems from the stunning 3D imagery of Pandora. In contrast to the drab everyday world outside the cinema, Cameron creates a world of plenitude in which, though there is death and suffering, one experiences the constant presence of stunning beauty. Though Avatar is not the first 3D film, it is the first film to take advantage of 3D technology in order to provide spectators with such overwhelming plenitude. Earlier manifestations of this technology used it rather to shock spectators with the illusion of objects rapidly coming toward them. Such gimmicks are entirely absent from Avatar. In terms of cinema history, it follows more in the tradition of Cinerama and Imax than that of 3D. Instead of momentarily shocking the audience, the film wants to immerse the audience in the fullness of an alternative world. This is why spectators have reported severe depression after leaving screenings of Avatar and why support groups for dealing with post-viewing melancholia have even cropped up. After one has had Pandora, everyday reality ceases to measure up.
In this way, the relationship that the film develops with the spectator mirrors the philosophy of the Na’vi. Avatar offers the spectator the possibility of completeness through the filmic experience itself, just as the Na’vi see this possibility manifested in the great mother Eywa. But Jake’s appeal to Eywa to intercede in the war for control of Pandora reveals the incompleteness of Pandora’s great mother: she does not guarantee the harmonious balance of all things but actively takes a side in struggle. Maternal nature, the film makes clear, is politicized. Similarly, Avatar does not simply offer the spectator a vision of plenitude without at the same time identifying that vision with absence. The plenitude that the spectator experiences when viewing the world of Pandora has a structuring absence as its condition of possibility. This becomes apparent through how we see Jake arrive at Pandora and through how the film depicts the entrance into this fantasmatic world of fullness.
The opening of Avatar shows Jake entombed in a cryogenic tube that allows him to travel from Earth to Pandora without aging. Access to Pandora, at least for Jake, depends on submitting to this entombment, which opens the film after an initial image of a dream that Jake has during the cryogenic process. Cameron does not choose to begin with the beauty of Pandora and then show Jake’s arrival, but with Jake’s arrival itself, a choice that emphasizes the cost for access to Pandora’s beauty. This entombment stands in for that of the spectator as well. Just like Jake, we must sit passively in the cinema and wear 3D glasses that further restrict us in order to see what Pandora offers. While watching the film, one does not just experience the boundless joy of plenitude but limitation and passivity as the necessary condition of possibility for this plenitude.
Jake’s experience of Pandora’s plenitude owes its possibility to loss in a more literal way as well, and Cameron presents this literal connection visually to the spectator early in the film. Jake becomes eligible for the avatar program when his twin brother, a participant in the program, dies. Whereas Jake is a lowly marine, his brother was a scientist chosen for the avatar program because of his intelligence and training. Other than his genetic match with his brother, Jake has no qualifications for becoming one of the Na’vi. His opportunity is inseparable from his brother’s death, and Cameron indicates this visually when we see a flashback of Jake’s brother’s body being incinerated in a cremation process, and the film cuts directly from the flames burning the casket to the exhaust coming from the rocket that flies Jake to the surface of Pandora. This cut identifies death with access to the enjoyment that Jake will experience on Pandora.
When Jake becomes a Na’vi as he enters his avatar for the first time, he experiences the same type of enjoyment that the spectator experiences watching the film. The seemingly intractable limitations of everyday life—for Jake, this includes the inability to use his legs after a combat injury—vanish amid the capabilities of the Na’vi form. The height and incredible athleticism of this body enable Jake not just to feel restored to his previous self but as if he has become a superior being. Once he occupies the avatar body, Jake refuses all restraint: he breaks free from his doctors and leaves the building despite efforts to hold him back. Jake’s exuberance in his first moments as a Na’vi indicate the plenitude of this existence, and he becomes the conduit through which the spectator accesses the same plenitude. Though spectators do not gain access to the sensations of life as a Na’vi in the way that Jake does, they are able to see what Jake sees, and the 3D technology enhances their vision beyond its usual limitations. This enhancement is parallel to the enhancement that Jake experiences. But it is also an enhancement that cannot be divorced from the loss that makes it possible.
Entering the Na’vi body depends on adopting a position of complete passivity, and Avatar stresses this passivity visually. On multiple occasions during the film, we witness the process of Jake entering into the coffin-like pod in order to become a Na’vi. This process always takes time, and the film depicts it repeatedly even though it is the same each time. In addition, Avatar shows Jake’s vulnerability when he is in the pod. After Jake fights against the Earth army and reveals himself to be a traitor, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) disconnects him from his avatar, and Jake is powerless to stop the colonel because he cannot use his legs. Later, as the Na’vi are being slaughtered, he cannot rejoin the struggle because he cannot reconnect with this avatar. Even though the connection brings plenitude, the connection itself is perilous because it depends on the passivity of the subject undergoing it. The plenitude of Pandora exists only through the profound limitation that offers access to it.
The visual link that Avatar forges between plenitude and death or lack echoes the connection that Jacques Lacan identifies in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors when Lacan introduces his concept of the gaze. The painting provides an exemplary case of the gaze because it depicts two wealthy world travelers with the many riches they have accumulated, but it juxtaposes them with a distorted skull in the foreground that only becomes intelligible when one looks from above and the side. This skull announces the hidden truth of the viewing subject as well as that of the travelers themselves. Lacan notes,
“Holbein makes visible for us here something that is simply the subject as annihilated.”
The Ambassadors offers the viewer a world of plentitude—fine clothes, exotic instruments, globes, maps, tapestry, and books—on which to look and speculate. Viewers can identify themselves with the world travelers depicted in the painting, or they can imagine themselves surrounded by the riches of these men. But despite efforts of identification or imagination, the subject does not exist in the picture except through the depiction of its evanescence in the gaze.
The gaze marks the point where the subject is in the picture, not objectively as a representation, but as the distortion of the picture created by the subject’s desire. Every picture—and every film—is organized around a desire, and the vanishing point of this organizing desire is the gaze. According to Lacan,
“as subjects, we are literally called into the picture, and represented here as caught.”
Most films go to great lengths to obscure the gaze and thus to hide the manifestation of spectator desire from spectators themselves. When one encounters one’s own desire in the form of the gaze, the objectivity and solidity of the world collapses. It becomes apparent that the visual world exists not as an independent entity but only through the distortion of the subject’s desire. In Hegel’s terms, the gaze shows that the world in itself is for the subject.
In The Ambassadors, Holbein shows the gaze through the double valence of the skull in the middle of the painting. It is at once an incoherent blot and a skull, depending on the position from which one looks at it. In Avatar Cameron accomplishes the same doubling through his use of the cut linking the passivity of Jake in his pod to the plenitude of Pandora. Just as one can look at The Ambassadors without acknowledging the skull, one can watch Avatar without paying attention to the images of Jake immobilized. But to do so means missing true import of the painting and the film. Such a viewing will remain dissatisfying because it entails a scrupulous avoidance of the gaze, and it is the gaze that holds the key to our interest in anything that we see.
The gaze does not manifest itself only when viewing paintings or when attending the cinema. We can encounter the gaze at any time, but the structure of our daily life has a tendency to obscure its visibility. The barrier that daily life erects relative to the gaze is the active role that the subject adopts. Activity blocks the appearance of the gaze because it allows the subject to orient itself away from trauma. In the cinema, one can close one’s eyes, but as long as they remain open, one remains at the whim of the film’s depiction. The subject follows the images rather than actively directing them. The film dictates one’s look, and this constraint makes possible the encounter with the gaze. When the subject takes conscious charge of its own look, it avoids the gaze.
One of the chief effects of 3D technology might be the narrowing of the gap between everyday experience and the experience of the cinema. With this technology, the cinema loses its characteristic flatness that keeps spectators at a distance; now it surrounds them with the illusion of a whole world. In this sense, 3D technology enhances the danger that Jean-Louis Baudry identifies with the cinema in his classic essay “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus.” As Baudry sees it, the conditions of cinematographic production and exhibition obscure the discontinuity of the world and the experience of it. While discussing the actual structure of the typical film, he notes that
“separate frames have between them differences that are indispensible for the creation of an illusion of continuity, of continuous passage (movement, time). But only on one condition can these differences create this illusion: they must be effaced as differences.”
While traditional filmic projection effaces the gap between images, 3D technology threatens to efface the gap between the subject and the screen that the physical distance between the spectator and the flat screen sustains. Even if identification breaks down this distance, it always has the ability to make itself in the traditional projection situation in a way that the sense of wholeness created by 3D projection renders less possible.
But the improvement in 3D photography that enables Cameron to make Avatar actually serves to undermine the wholeness of the 3D world. Cameron himself helped to develop advanced stereoscopic cameras that would permit him to film effective close-ups in 3D, which was not possible with earlier 3D technology. Until this technology was viable, Cameron refused to begin making the film. The exigency of the close-up in the 3D film derives from the association between the close-up and the gaze. When a film cuts from a long shot to a close-up, it punctures a hole in the filmic world and identifies this hole with the spectator’s desire.
The great theorist of the close-up, Béla Balázs, points out that the close-up does not simply isolate an object within the world in which it exists. Instead, it actually creates the illusion that the object no longer exists in the world at all. As he puts it in his Theory of Film (1952),
“The close-up not only isolates objects in space, but seems to lift them out of space entirely and transfer them into a conceptual space in which different laws obtain.”
The close-up testifies to the incompletion of the filmic world, to a hole within the whole. By lifting an object out of its world, the close-up indicates the irreducibility of an object to the visual world. As the phenomenon of the close-up implicitly communicates, the object that animates our desire cannot be mapped onto the space of its world. It is part of this world without belonging to it. By uniting the close-up with 3D photography, Cameron highlights the dividedness of the world he depicts, despite its apparent fullness.
Earlier 3D technology that did not make use of stereoscopic cameras did not create the fullness of the filmic world that appears in Avatar. This fullness breaks down the barrier between the cinema and life, which impacts negatively the capacity of film to present the gaze. But at the same time, the earlier technology limited the ability of filmmakers to shoot close-ups, and the close-up separates the cinema from life insofar as it separates the object from its world and thereby serves as a vehicle for the gaze. Just as technology seems to eliminate the gaze as a cinematic possibility, that same technology gives birth to new forms of its emergence.
The key to the potential radicality of the cinema lies not in the flatness of the screen but in the passivity of the spectator. At first glance, the spectator’s passivity presents an obvious danger. If one is passive, one allows events to happen to oneself and even submits to injury without struggle. This is why no one uses the adjective “passive” as a term of approbation. In contrast, we esteem activity and the ability to assert oneself, even if at times it goes too far. But the passivity that inheres in cinematic spectatorship is, as many film theorists have pointed out, akin to the passivity of the dreamer. In each case, passivity allows for an encounter that would otherwise be impossible. The passivity of the spectator and the dreamer functions as a barrier to our usual avoidance of an encounter with trauma, an avoidance that proliferates in everyday waking life. Being an active subject is a way of not knowing the trauma that undergirds our subjectivity and that manifests itself in the form of the gaze, and it is only when we give in to certain forms of passivity—as in the dream and in the cinema—that we acquaint ourselves with this trauma.
In this sense, there is a vast difference between a film and a video game. The video game permits an active participation that the cinema completely precludes. Janet Murray, an early theorist of video games and virtual reality, notices the fundamental difference between video games and all forms of storytelling, inclusive of cinema. She points out,
“Stories do not require us to do anything except to pay attention as they are told. Games always involve some kind of activity and are often focused on the mastery of skills, whether the skill involves chess strategy or joystick twitching.”
Murray prefers the video game to the straightforward narrative of the cinema because it enables some degree of mastery, even if it is only the mastery of manipulating one’s thumbs. The conflict between the video game and the cinema actually manifests itself within Avatar at the film’s conclusion.
For those who dismiss Avatar as a film that marries dazzling special effects with a hackneyed story, the concluding fight between Quaritch and Jake appears to provide the ultimate confirmation of their thesis concerning the film. The final struggle between Jake and Quaritch has all the trappings of Hollywood’s ideological denouement, in which the socioeconomic dimension of the antagonism falls out and a physical struggle ensues where the psychology of the villain takes center stage. Up to this point in the film, Quaritch has been pursuing the interests of the corporation looking to mine the planet, but when he fights Jake, he abandons any concern beyond the fight itself. His individual homicidal psychosis trumps the villainy of the structural evil and allows the spectator to personalize evil. When he fights with Jake, the imperial dimension of the soldiers’ presence on Pandora disappears. Socioeconomic exploitation transforms into a question of physical strength and fighting ability, and the film even shows the very capable Neytiri trapped and able only to watch the fight. The male hero’s physical defeat of the villain promises to solve the problem of imperial exploitation and to restore a complementary sexual relation. With the concluding fight, Cameron appears to present a political account only to turn away from it.
Slavoj Zizek notices this pattern as one of the primary ways in which Hollywood uses violence ideologically. Pointing to the fight between Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) and Dr. Charles Nichols (Jerome Crabbé) at the end of The Fugitive (Andrew Davis, 1993), Zizek sees physical filmic violence as functioning in order to hide an awkward critique of capitalism. When Kimble confronts Nichols at a medical conference about the forged results of his medical research for a pharmaceutical company, Nichols physically attacks Kimble and transforms from a intellectual researcher into a cartoon-like villain. The fight between Kimble and Nichols has no antecedent and represents a radical narrative divergence. As Zizek points out,
“The scene is telltale in its openly ridiculous character, as if in order to get out of the ideological mess of playing with anti-capitalism, one has to make a move which renders directly palpable the cracks in the narrative. The bad guy is transformed into a vicious, sneering, pathological character, as if psychological depravity (which accompanies the dazzling spectacle of the fight) somehow replaces and displaces the anonymous, utterly non-psychological drive of capital.”
Though the climactic scene from The Fugitive is representative, it is far from the most egregious incidence of this thoroughly ideological phenomenon.
For most of its running time, Ironman (Jon Favreau, 2008) mounts a critique of the military industrial complex through the depiction of an U.S. company arming the enemy. The status of the film’s hero Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) as himself an arms manufacturer complicates this critique and threatens to include the spectator in the film’s indictment. But the absurd fight that breaks out at the end of Ironman enables the film to change its trajectory and exculpate Stark (and the spectator). The film concludes with a physical confrontation between Stark and his business partner Obidiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who ends up being solely responsible for the nefarious arms trading. Even more significantly than in The Fugitive, the concluding fight nullifies the film’s critical edge by removing any guilt from the hero. Though more like the case of The Fugitive than that of Ironman, the final violence in Avatar does seem to fit nicely into Zizek’s analysis. Here, the socioeconomic struggle devolves into a personal one, and through this devolution, physical violence eviscerates the political critique. But as with the misleading image of the great mother of Pandora that predominates throughout most of Avatar, the physical violence of this scene in Cameron’s film belies its initial indication.
The fight between Jake and Quaritch is not just a fight between two different individuals (one heroic and one villainous) but one between two different modes of subjectivity that correspond, respectively, to the video game player (or virtual reality participant) and the film spectator. While Jake is in his avatar (and thus passively lying in his tube), Quaritch enters into a large prosthetic machine that he operates through the movements of his arms and legs. Their fight is thus radically asymmetrical: Quartich actually moves his body, and Jake uses only his mind to move his avatar. Jake’s disability further highlights the asymmetry. This is a struggle between activity and passivity that identifies heroism with the former rather than the latter. Jake’s association with passivity not only refigures traditional heroism but also complicates the politics of the film.
In his response to the film, The Nation reviewer Stuart Klawans takes the film to task for its reduction of the spectator to passivity, which he links to the depictions of Jake in the tube. It is, of course, entirely appropriate that the reviewer for a leftist journal rejects the encomium to passivity announced in Avatar. For most leftists, the passivity of the populace—the willingness to allow figures of authority to dictate the terms on which social life will be conducted—represents the fundamental political problem not just of our time but of all time. The project of the Left entails not so much convincing people to adopt a critical analysis of society but to become active participants in society. Activity is akin to politicization.
Herein consists the chief danger of Avatar, as diagnosed by Klawans. Like Wesley Morris, Klawans generally approves of the film and even labels it a success. But he nonetheless contends,
“the content of Avatar is less participatory and more of a pure head trip than the form suggests. I suppose that’s why the repeated images of Sully in his metal box are so disturbing—not just because they’re so claustrophobic and full of pathos but because Sully, as a stand-in for the gamer, ought to be doing something, if only with his thumbs.”
Though Jake is active as a Na’vi, there is no physical movement on his part that prompts this activity. The causality is strictly mental. In this sense, he provides a direct parallel for the filmic spectator: both are immobile and identifying psychically rather than physically with the other world.
Jake’s passivity is an objective correlative for the spectator’s bodily lack of awareness. According to Klawans,
“Let the exposure of Sully’s immobility and isolation point toward everything in you that Avatar leaves unengaged. Despite being the most miraculous of the holiday’s movies, Avatar does not plug into your physical self-awareness; your connections to the people around you; your potential to think and feel more deeply, and more independently, than Cameron asks you to.”
In the end, for Klawans, Avatar remains a film and fails to approximate a video game, and this is the index of its political failure. But if the film fails to create an active spectator, it succeeds in sustaining a passive one, and the passivity of the filmic spectator is central to the possibility of the cinema. It is the passivity of Jake and the spectator that allow the gaze to appear in Avatar, and the encounter with the gaze makes clear the division that besets all illusions of completeness. It is only through this encounter or its homologue that the subject can fight against the most intransigent illusion of contemporary ideology—that of maternal or natural plenitude.
For the challenge that it erects to maternal plenitude, the moment at which Cameron ends the film is pivotal. After showing Jake victorious over Quaritch thanks to the intercession of Neytiri’s arrows, the film depicts the humans heading back to Earth and then Jake undergoing a conversion process that will render him fully a Na’vi. He will become his avatar. The ritual that accompanies this process occurs at the Tree of Souls, and it concludes with a close-up of the face of Jake’s avatar. As the conversion ends, the avatar’s eyes open, and almost instantaneously the film ends with a cut to black. Here, Cameron refuses to show the spectator any image of completion.
Even when Jake becomes a Na’vi, the film reveals only his face in close-up, which emphasizes his separation from the world at the very moment of his deepest connection to it. If Cameron had extended the already considerable running time of the film in order to show Jake as a full-fledged Na’vi, he would have fallen back into the image of maternal wholeness that the film flirts with but finally undermines. The final shot of Jake’s eyes opening punctuates the division of the natural world and highlights the politicization of the great mother. Even when he becomes a Na’vi, Jake continues to confront incompletion at the moment of completion.
Like many contemporary filmmakers, Cameron shows the impotence of the figure of paternal authority. For all his gesticulations and epithets, Quaritch ends up perishing at the hands of Jake and Neytiri. His type authority holds no sway in the filmic future or in the contemporary world. The far greater danger is Eywa, the great mother, a maternal authority assuring us that our world is complete and balanced. There are few filmmakers working today who take on this figure of authority. But just as he does in his earlier films, Cameron explores the incompleteness of the mother in Avatar and thereby challenges the most intransigent pillar of current ideology.
In Cameron’s films, the mother is not an asexual site of comfort but a ravenous monster full of enjoyment. She is a horrific alien at the same time as she is a warm caregiver. Sustaining this divided image of the mother represents the key to the subject’s freedom. In another context, Freud identifies the recognition of the mother’s sexuality or her division with sexual freedom. He notes,
“It sounds not only disagreeable but also paradoxical, yet it must nevertheless be said that anyone who is to be free and happy in love must have surmounted his respect for women and have come to terms with the idea of incest with his mother or sister.”
In Avatar, Cameron takes Freud’s idea one step further, a step made necessary by the new ideological formulations of maternity that have cropped up in the contemporary world. Rather than simply coming to terms with the idea of incest with the mother, freedom now demands coming to terms with a sexualized nature.
1. There is, of course, one genre where Hollywood focuses on maternity, and that is the family melodrama. But there is a vast distance between the typical family melodrama and the Cameron film. Melodramas tend to conclude with the image of maternal wholeness, with scenes in which the mother figure shows that she is fully devoted to her role as mother and to the happiness of her children. Even Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937), which reveals Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) as a sexual being throughout the film (much to the embarrassment of her daughter), concludes with Stella excluding herself from her daughter’s wedding specifically to ensure this happiness. In the final reckoning, maternity trumps sexual being and eliminates it. [return to text]
2. When it comes to the paternal dimension of ideology, the critical gesture consists in revealing the stupidity of the master signifier. Rather than providing a meaningful basis for all social activity, the master signifier provides a foundation of contingency or non-sense. Though there is significance within a social order, no society has a meaningful foundation. Significance begins with a meaningless first signifier because meaning always requires a second signifier.
3. One of the parent figures of the linguistic turn is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who contends that philosophical questions and problems arise not from the nature of being itself but from specific language games and, most often, the failure to understand what language game we are playing. Another such figure is Ferdinand de Saussure, who emphasizes that language is a structure that creates significance through the interrelations of signifiers rather than through correspondence to actual things. By authoring a way of thinking about the primacy of language, these two thinkers damage the ability of paternal authority to function in its traditional manner.
4. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009), which defeated Avatar in both the Best Picture and Best Director categories at the Academy Awards, is one of many contemporary films that calls the position of the father into question and makes clear the father’s failure as an authority. But the film leaves the maternal dimension of ideology perfectly intact, which is what differentiates if from Avatar. Or to put it another way, the Iraq of The Hurt Locker, unlike the Pandora of Avatar, remains asexual.
5. In a fascinating passage from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty implicitly—and unknowingly—links the decline of paternal authority (and the linguistic turn in philosophy) to the holism of the maternal dimension of ideology. He sees a connection between the absence of any foundational anchoring of meaning and the wholeness of the social field. According to Rorty,
“justification is not a matter of a special relation between ideas (or words) and objects, but of conversation, of social practice. Conversational justification, so to speak, is naturally holistic, whereas the notion of justification embedded in the epistemological tradition is reductive and atomistic.”
Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 170.
6. Jacques Lacan’s insistence on the woman’s non-existence is his version of ideology critique. In Seminar XX, he notes,
“There’s no such thing as Woman, Woman with a capital W indicating the universal. There’s no such thing as Woman because, in her essence—I’ve already risked using that term, so why should I think twice about using it again?—she is not-whole.”
Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore 1972-1973, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 1998), 72-73.
7. Hegelian speculative identity includes within it both sameness and absolute opposition. To understand it correctly, one must read it simultaneously as identity and difference. If one fails to appreciate the difference and moves too quickly to affirm the identity, the speculative nature of the proposition is missed altogether, and the speculative proposition becomes an ordinary proposition. In her remarkable Hegel Contra Sociology, Gillian Rose explains,
“To read a proposition ‘speculatively’ means that the identity which is affirmed between the subject and predicate is seen equally to affirm a lack of identity between subject and predicate. This reading implies an identity different from the merely formal one of the ordinary proposition. This different kind of identity cannot be pre-judged, that is, it cannot be justified in a transcendental sense, and it cannot be stated in a proposition of the kind to be eschewed.”
Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1981), 48-49.
8. Wesley Morris, “There Were Many Special Moments That Many May Have Missed,” Boston Globe (27 December 2009):
9. To see the break that Avatar constitutes, it suffices to contrast it with the recent Journey to the Center of the Earth (Eric Brevig, 2008). Unlike Avatar, this film continues to rely on creating the illusion of objects careening toward the spectator in order to justify the 3D technology.
10. When a friend contacted me after I had seen the film a second time, she offered to call the next day in case I wanted “to remain on Pandora.”
11. When Jake prepares to enter the avatar for the first time, Grace emphasizes to him the importance of complete passivity. She says, “Just relax and let your mind go blank. It shouldn’t be hard for you.”
12. Though the concept of the gaze dominated cinema studies for many years, this concept has nothing to do with the gaze as Lacan understands it. Lacan’s gaze is an object encountered in the visual field, not the look as a mastering subject. For an account of the object gaze in the cinema, see Todd McGowan, The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007).
13. Jacques, Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), 88.
14. Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 92.
15. Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus,” trans. Alan Williams, Film Quarterly 28, no. 2 (1974-1975): 42.
16. Béla Balázs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art, trans. Edith Bone (New York: Dover, 1970), 147. In the first of his books on the cinema, Gilles Deleuze develops the idea that the close-up removes objects from space in order to present them in isolation. He notes,
“the close-up retains the same power to tear the image away from spatio-temporal coordinates in order to call forth the pure affect as expressed. Even the place, which is still present in the background, loses its co-ordinates and becomes ‘any place whatever.’”
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: Athlone Press, 1992), 96-97.
17. The close-up marks the object as what Alain Badiou calls an excess of inclusion over belonging. Badiou formulates this conception of structural excess through recourse to set theory. See Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (New York: Continuum, 2005), 85.
18. Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 140.
19. Slavoj Zizek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 207-208.
20. Stuart Klawans, “Imaginariums,” The Nation (January 25, 2010): 35.
21. Klawans, “Imaginariums,” 35.
22. Sigmund Freud, “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love (Contributions to the Psychology of Love II),” trans. Alan Tyson, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 11, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), 186.
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