A* Anxieties in Avatar: A Tropological Analysis (Part 1)

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  1. Josh Overbeek

    Josh Overbeek EdChat™ Nomad

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    James Cameron’s Avatar is a film about the attempted colonialism of an unadulterated moon-nation by a human capitalist enterprise, gone awry. The attempt to colonize is ultimately foiled by Jake Sulley, a crippled ex-marine and serendipitous hero who renounces his allegiance to the militarized imperium and places his loyalty with the Na’vi, the race of attractive humanoid aliens who inhabit the moon Pandora. After overcoming his crisis of identity, Jake is able to lead the Na’vi to victory against their oppressor, wielding the pure weapon of nature to overcome the polluted and inadequate weaponry of the militarized organization. This paper will attempt to set any analysis of heavy-handed, left-wing political overtones aside, and focus instead on how Avatar touches on, and attempts to pacify, settler culture anxieties regarding the indigenous populations they coexist alongside with. More specifically, the text will be read tropically to tease out the unconscious internalization of these anxieties. Using Alan Lawson’s theories, I will be arguing that Avatar, despite trying to resist and even invert the tropes of anxious proximity, reinforces ideologically determined boundaries between settler cultures and the indigenous cultures preceding them. It does this in a number of ways, each of which will be explored further in this paper.
    First, Jake embodies that secondary and “supplementary” (Lawson 1216) space between “the First World of cultural origin” (Lawson 1216), Earth, and the “geo-legal-temporal First World of aboriginal peoples” (1216), Pandora. Jake becomes the viewer’s “avatar” into the contested negotiations between authorities of imperium and indigene, thus producing a crisis of identity in Jake (Veracini 357) and circulating a story that, through one of the tropes of anxious proximity, can be read as “anxiety about a difficult (perhaps impossible), unequal, and incomplete relationality” (Lawson 1216).
    Second, Jake is ultimately “incorporated” into Pandora, what Lawson describes as “going native gone badly” (1220). It is this trope where a deliberate inversion has been attempted. Miscegenation is taken to a new level when Jake literally becomes one of the indigenes, remotely “driving” a genetically engineered Na’vi body via Wi-Fi (Veracini 358) and eventually occupying that body permanently, all the while not expressing any paranoia of contamination typical of this trope. It is crucial to note that Jake cannot lead the Na’vi, let alone be accepted by them, as human. He must shed all evidence of his race. The asymptotical relationship here has been crossed, but in such a complete way that this trope of anxious proximity appears to be vilified, only occupied by the colonizing corporate entity who see Jake as “unclean” and in betrayal of his species.
    Third, the Other is represented as utopian in order to signify a boundary. The romanticized depiction of the Na’vi is a form of boundary-making, since boundary-making happens in the realm of representation (Lawson and Tiffin, De-Scribing Empire 234). The failure of the two cultures, both settler and indigene, to integrate together reactivates anxieties of proximity, because it serves as an alibi to the mythologies that position settler culture and indigenous culture as being in stark contrast to one another, and therefore, irreconcilable and repelling forces. These tropes of anxious proximity circulated in stories such as Avatar become problematic when they are internalized by societies with responsibilities toward indigenous populations, such as Canada, who then reactivate or sustain hegemonic boundaries, preventing progress toward reconciliation and equality. Many argue that aboriginal peoples in Canada continue to live shackled in colonialism, due in part to the progressive domination of corporations in all spheres of Canadian life (Slowy). It is these questions of responsibility that make the decoding and analysis of tropes found in modern cultural products so imperative.
    Decoding can begin in just the first few lines of the film, where the viewer is given reason to believe that Jake harbours a deep, seething distrust for his race. Through what is later revealed to be a series of confessional videologs, Jake’s narration begins the film by speaking of his prior service to the military, as well as the bitter disappointment in sustaining a spinal injury, with the country he served refusing to pay for the operation that would allow him to walk again (Avatar). Social unrest is alluded to when Jake tells of how his brother was slain by a mugger for a small amount of money(Avatar). In many places in the movie, environmental negligence and greed are assigned to the home planet, which is scorched beyond recognition (Veracini 356). Immediately, we are met with a protagonist who is disillusioned with his species.
    This is significant in that, apart from a handful of human characters who become Jake’s allies, the majority of the militarized corporate presence is depicted as indifferent to the faults of their home planet, and unwavering in their loyalty to that home planet and its colonialist mission.
    It is here that I argue that all of the mediations that take place between imperium and native are concentrated in Jake’s bodies (both of them). Lawson speaks of the “the Second World” — that place occupied by the settler subject who is between two first worlds (Lawson 1216). In this text, the “First World of cultural origin” (Lawson 1216) is Earth, while the “First World of aboriginal peoples” (Lawson 1216) is Pandora. Jake is a peculiar case because the other settlers occupying Pandora do not carry the disorienting burden of being doubly inscribed with authority and authenticity. They are not interested in civilizing, exploiting or enslaving the inhabitants of Pandora. Their only concern is land, as well as the evacuation of the Na’vi from that land (Veracini 357). They are in that “Second World” of settler culture, yet the negotiations between the “two kinds of authority and [always] two kinds of authenticity” (Lawson 1216) take place in Jake. It is Jake who operates with the authority of Earth and mimics the authenticity of Earth. An example of this takes place when Jake meets the spiritual leader along with the chief of the tribe in his avatar body, and enthusiastically reaches to shake their hand, at which point Na’vi weapons are drawn in anticipation of a perceived threat (Avatar). Another example comes later when, despite the value system of leadership among the Na’vi being one of divine right chosen by the goddess Eywa, Jake asserts a democratic value system of leadership in trying to have his voice heard: “I am Omaticaya. I am one of you, and I have a right to speak” (Avatar). In these examples, Jake is performing and mimicking the authenticity of the First World culture of origin (encoded to mean Earth, but one might surmise that it is more precisely America). He is also internalizing the authority of his homeland, silently carrying out his mission to diplomatically persuade the Na’vi to move from Hometree so that the corporate enterprise sponsoring him can mine the raw resource beneath it (Avatar). This is all happening simultaneously with the contesting “desire for the indigene and the land [translating] into a desire for native authenticity” (Lawson 1215). By learning the language, culture, and values of the Na’vi, Jake as settler subject deals with his “subordinacy, incompleteness, that sign of something less” (Lawson 1215), appropriating the authority of the Na’vi, and thus effacing their authority (Lawson 1215). We see the effacement of Na’vi authority as Jake assumes leadership and authority over them, to which they submit willingly:

    “The Sky People have sent us a message... that they can take whatever they want. That no one can stop them. Well, we will send them a message. You ride out as fast as the wind can carry you. You tell the other clans to come. Tell them Toruk Macto calls to them! You fly now, with me! My brothers! Sisters! And we will show the Sky People... that they cannot take whatever they want! And that this... this is our land!” (Avatar).

    Jake’s ethical dilemma, or identity crisis, happens in this matrix of contesting authorities and authenticities. Lawson argues that when read through one of the tropes of anxious proximity, this disequilibrium of “endless secondariness to two primaries” (1216) expresses anxiety about a difficult, perhaps impossible relationship with the Other. Jake expresses the settler colonial need to “indigenize” his settler subjectivities (Veracini 361)


    Works Cited

    Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana. 20th Century Fox, 2009. DVD.

    King, Thomas. “Interview by Hartman Lutz.” Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native Authors. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1991. 107-116. Print.

    Lawson, Alan. “The Anxious Proximities of Settler (Post)colonial relations.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michelle Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 1210-1223. Print.

    Slowy, Gabrielle. "Globalization and self-government: impacts and implications for First Nations in Canada." The American Review of Canadian Studies 31 (2001): 265-281. Proquest. Web. 12 Feb. 2012.

    Tiffin, Chris, and Alan Lawson. De-Scribing Empire Post-Colonialism and Textuality. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

    Veracini, Lorenzo. "District 9 and Avatar: Science Fiction and Settler Colonialism." Journal of Intercultural Studies 32.4 (2011): 335-367. Scholars Portal Journals. Web. 13 Feb. 2012.
     

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