Avatar is a great starting point

January 15, 2010

IT IS only fitting that a debate on Avatar has emerged in SocialistWorker.org, as it has almost everywhere else. Everyone is watching and talking about it, so I say let the debate continue! In that spirit, I have to take issue with Shaun Joseph's critique ("A look at Avatar's Achilles' heel") on several points.

First, let me say that whether or not something "works as a total piece of art" is necessarily subjective. I enjoyed the film, but I can understand that my tastes differ from those of others. Therefore, I don't think it's worth time debating whether the concept of the avatars makes sense--movies frequently require us to suspend our disbelief. I never really made sense of the concept of the hybrid in Battlestar Gallactica, for instance, but it didn't take away from my enjoyment of the series.

The point of looking at art from a socialist standpoint, in my opinion, is more about reflecting on the social significance of a certain work of art at a particular time. The fact that a movie that cheers on the defeat of the U.S. military is being enthusiastically watched by millions of people around the world is, I think, socially significant.

It is also simply a fact that way more people will watch and engage with this movie than the self-selecting audience of Battle of Algiers (and with any luck we will encourage more people to watch that excellent film!). It is absolutely fair to compare it to films with a similar audience and conclude that most blockbuster action movies are unequivocally pro-military.

To get to the meat of the political disagreement Shaun raises, it is true that the Na'vi society is more akin to the indigenous pre-class societies than modern-day Iraqis, and in that sense, the movie is more a parable about the conquest of the Americas. One might ask why it is bad for a mainstream movie to remind us of the brutality upon which Western "civilization" was founded. As George Monbiot points out, this history has been buried and ignored to this day.

It is also worth saying that, whatever their level of development or actual moral character, imperial powers have always sought to define those they oppress as the "other"-- savage, violent, etc. The Na'vi were portrayed that way as well by the military commander at the outset of the film. To say that they turn out to be sympathetic is only because the film shows life from their side. Spend a week living with an Iraqi family, and you will find they are also sympathetic.

Certainly, choosing a more-or-less morally unimpeachable society is less challenging to viewers, but it nonetheless makes the point that our perceptions of the "other" change when we see things from their perspective. Not to mention the fact that when their home is under the threat of destruction, the Na'vi are completely willing to use all necessary force to destroy their enemies--which doesn't sound all that different from a modern-day resistance.

Lastly, Shaun agrees with Nagesh Rao ("Anti-imperialism in 3-D") that Annalee Newitz's critique of Avatar on the Web site io9.com renders the concept of solidarity meaningless. But his focus on how sympathetic the Na'vi are misses a crucial point about solidarity.

It is not just that Jake comes to sympathize with the Na'vi, but that he increasingly begins to see his own interests as aligned with theirs. The fact that he was paralyzed and then denied treatment by the military is no minor trope. It speaks to the genuine objective basis for solidarity between soldiers and occupied people, very much on display in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

I agree that Avatar is neither a perfect work of art nor a well-developed treatise on imperialism--but it is an excellent starting point for socialists to have a discussion about these issues with an even wider audience.
Leela Yellesetty, Seattle

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