Avatar: Return of the natives

James Cameron’s Avatar tells the story of a disabled ex-marine, sent from earth to infiltrate a race of blue-skinned aboriginal people on a distant planet and persuade them to let his employer mine their homeland for natural resources. Through a complex biological manipulation, the hero’s mind gains control of his “avatar”, in the body of a young aborigine.

These aborigines are deeply spiritual and live in harmony with nature (they can plug a cable that sticks out of their body into horses and trees to communicate with them). Predictably, the marine falls in love with a beautiful aboriginal princess and joins the aborigines in battle, helping them to throw out the human invaders and saving their planet. At the film’s end, the hero transposes his soul from his damaged human body to his aboriginal avatar, thus becoming one of them.

Given the 3-D hyperreality of the film, with its combination of real actors and animated digital corrections, Avatar should be compared to films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) or The Matrix (1999). In each, the hero is caught between our ordinary reality and an imagined universe – of cartoons in Roger Rabbit, of digital reality inThe Matrix, or of the digitally enhanced everyday reality of the planet in Avatar. What one should thus bear in mind is that, althoughAvatar’s narrative is supposed to take place in one and the same “real” reality, we are dealing – at the level of the underlying symbolic economy – with two realities: the ordinary world of imperialist colonialism on the one hand, and a fantasy world, populated by aborigines who live in an incestuous link with nature, on the other. (The latter should not be confused with the miserable reality of actual exploited peoples.) The end of the film should be read as the hero fully migrating from reality into the fantasy world – as if, in The Matrix, Neo were to decide to immerse himself again fully in the matrix.

This does not mean, however, that we should reject Avatar on behalf of a more “authentic” acceptance of the real world. If we subtract fantasy from reality, then reality itself loses its consistency and disintegrates. To choose between “either accepting reality or choosing fantasy” is wrong: if we really want to change or escape our social reality, the first thing to do is change our fantasies that make us fit this reality. Because the hero of Avatar doesn’t do this, his subjective position is what Jacques Lacan, with regard to de Sade, called le dupe de son fantasme.

[Extract. Appeared in New Statesman, on March 4th, 2010. (full text).]

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