It is rather a shock that they managed to spend $400m on a film without anyone in Hollywood saying, “erm, guys, I think this is a bit racist.” In fact so much of a shock that since the release of Avatar in late December, blogging and reviewing communities have time and time again criticised the film for racism. I shan’t go over the plot of the film here as there are excellent synopses elsewhere on the internet , but the main controversial point seems to be that the Na’vi, a fictional race of animistic savages, cast completely with black actors, require a white American to come save their society when the American army try to destroy it in search of a rare mineral called unobtanium (yep, you guessed it, the storyline is pretty puerile.)
What I want to address here is that actually the film is racist on a much deeper level than suggested in many of the reviews, and that exposing this racism is only really possible by looking at critiques of early anthropology and ethnography. The key split amongst the colonising force is between “scientists” who want to understand the Na’vi and the army or technocrats who want to physically dominate them in order to fulfil a required end. The separation of “science” and “technology” suggests that only technology can be instrumental in domination. That science (in this case a combination of botany, ecology, and anthropology) is value free, and thus has no effect on power structures. The problem is that this is simply not the case, and that science is forever pregnant with ideology and power differentials despite its claim to objectivity.
Reading this into the film is complicated by the conflation of mimetic and diegetic viewpoints of the scientists and the audience. In order that the film may become critical of the domination of technocracy and colonial thinking it allows the audience the same view of the Na’vi as that of the scientists in order that they become sympathetic with one side of the science/technology dichotomy. And this, of course, means that when the Na’vi are still presented as savages (noble or otherwise), as simple, or as naïve, the film demands that the audience collude with this.
And what is probably most interesting about the version of signification of savages that is used is that it revolves around anthropology that was being written about 100 years ago. Whilst the way the scientists act towards the Na’vi has heavy echoes of Malinowski and the racism implied by his methods (in which savages simply do not fully comprehend the real bases for their structures) probably more interesting and relevant is folklorist James Frazer’s work in The Golden Bough. In this book he argues that human consciousness has gone through various stages from animism to religion to science. He looks back from his own world-view problematising the reality of these other forms of consciousness. Where this method is most present in Avatar is in its use of myth. The Na’vi are treated as some form of generic animistic/pagan society through the random borrowing and intermingling of known animistic/pagan traditions and signifiers ranging from ancient Greek dionysiac theatre to the World Ash tree of Norse mythology, to the use of traditional African jewellery. It is in this sense that they belong to no real tradition and are just a savage Other to Western enlightenment. There is no real interest in the quality of their society, they are simply portrayed by the scientists in the film and by the film itself as backward. How could any thought be more tied up with the colonial project?
What is worse than this is that the film portrays itself as left-wing, as anti-war, even as “on the side of the Na’vi” and environmentalist. It is not. At best the film says that the problems of technocracy can only be solved with a regression from capital, and a new fetishisation of the natural. The film is utterly incompatible with a demand for people’s control of resources. It views the problems of capitalism to be identical to the mode of production rather than the contradiction of the modes and relations of production. There is no thought that technology, forever stated as instrumental domination, could be transformed to serve the many rather than the few. Clearly James Cameron believes that the way forward is to tear down the factories, to tear down the cities, and give up on all mod cons. This is about as far from a left perspective one can have in environmental arguments.
So by all means go to see the film. It’s a bit long and a bit racist, but at least it will refresh your anger with Hollywood!