AVATAR discussion: Technology and Ecominstrelcy


ON JAN 4, 2010, 9:48 AM
reaton@eoni.com wrote:

Rarely if ever has there been an exceptional opportunity to capitalize
on a cultural event of immense
magnitude as now exists. The film AVATAR is sucessfully awakening
millions of people worldwide
to the absolute importance of reconnecting with nature and the value
of indigenous wisdom.
It speaks to everyday parents about their longing to be part of
genuine community/society, and
it is awakening young people to their need for rites of passage.
Brilliantly, it contrasts what western
civilization has become with what it gave up and needs to recover. It
is about cultural mentoring,
honoring the creatures, nature and the divine.
I encourage you to seize a unique opportunity for promoting nature
connection and sustainability on the coat-tails of AVATAR.  Perhaps
ultimate message is a recommendation to recognize that what you have
to offer the world is now ready to accept. Move your thought and your
words to the mainstream.
AVATAR invites you out of provinciality onto the stage of a world
hungry for your vision.
P.S. The film also honors the sacred hunt and hunting as rite of passage.


ON JANUARY 4th, 1:10pm

I’m fascinated enough with this e-mail to respond to it critically —
and since it was mailed to me with all the CC’s intact,  I’ll gather
my gall and send this out to everyone,  hoping this doesn’t land
us all on some government no-fly list,  or whatever.   (And I
see enough addresses from my local community to assume
some tolerance for this level of mailing.)

I saw AVATAR Saturday,  small screen, no goggles and accept
that there are moments of great beauty in the film,  as well as it
being a work of art that I will not soon forget,  as I do most movies.

That it speaks to the ravages of high-tech industrial life,  the
rapaciousness of the military,  the beauty of wilderness,  and
the wisdom of indigenous people integrated with that wilderness
—  none of this would I deny.   (It speaks also to the Boomer’s
desire to be tall and slim,  to the feminist’s desire for equality
in agency (equal warriors,  in this case),  to the courage required
to domesticate wild creatures, to what I believe is an innate longing
for community,  and for rites-of-passage into a community — and
who wouldn’t want a tail that could plug into the circuitry of plants
and animals —  I mean,  more direct circuitry than we already have
—  none of this would I deny.

But both assumptions of the letter writer give me pause:  (1) that
this movie softens up the world for environmental messages;  and
(2) that such “softening”  —  if indeed it does occur —  should be
exploited by those of us “in the know”.

The movie carries an image of the most beautiful tree I have ever
seen depicted in art —  a magical monster of a tree,  transcending
anything that could be experienced,  except perhaps the giant
sequoia,  on acid,  in California.   A tree,  romanticized beyond
the natural world —  like a statue of jesus in a cathedral.  As a
once-botanist,  I could only enjoy the depictions of plants,  floating
and otherwise,  spirit-invested and otherwise,  but again,  realize
I was enjoying fantasy.

The question is,  is it romantic fantasy that will bring our species
to its senses?   I think not — no more likely than to terrifying
people into giving up their addictions —  yours and mine —  that
maintain our complicity in the ongoing destruction of the planet.

The movie,  on the surface,  extols the supple indigenous folk
who fly around on large birds and sail off cliffs.   But it is a movie
extoling —  archetypally —  warfare between good and evil —
with the indigenous being good,  and the representatives of
civilization being evil.    It extols the native vs. the civilized —
though it is the civilized person,  the “wounded-warrior” marine,
who,  through the use of fantastically complex technology is
morphed into a form that can more or less integrate with the
natives,  learn their language,  eventually save them —  and,
voila!  become their Avatar.   The white man (a la Dances With
Wolves) crosses over and,  rather than bring the civilizations
into some kind of harmony,  helps the natives beat back the
bad guys,  using high-tech stuff (radios?  explosives?)  to do
so.   This seems more a battle between the beautiful and the
ugly,  couched in terms of romanticized natives over wildly
over-stated evils of a technologized military.

I can get into all that —  and so does my grandson,  who found
the movie very reminiscent of his violent videogames.

There’s a dozen other archetypes of the Collective Unconscious
floating around the movie —  as well as attempts to best all the
movies Cameron’s ego wants to best (not the least of which are
the Star Wars Movies).   And there are moments of great beauty,
and the music,  for once,  doesn’t destroy the movie.   But were
my emotions engaged?  Is there enough realism in this movie
to make any pollitical point?   I don’t think so.


It is technology that allows White Man (and dear Signorey) to
get to Pandora. it is technology that allows a few of them to
morph into the form of the natives and thus, more or less,
enter into their culture. And it is technology that
ultimately allows them to fend-off the Sky Invaders.

This leads me to think — as an article in the latest Orion
suggests — that technology (starting with bows and arrows,
dipped in poison) is no more, or no less sacred than the
giant tree. It’s how it meshes, or doesn’t, with our value
system. To romantisize “nature” and denigrate all human
artifacts is simply to perpetuate the dualism that leads
us to think we humans (or “minds” or “culture”) are some-
how separate from the natural world.  Evolution has
spawned us,  our technologies are extensions of that, no
more,  no less.

And no society mucking along at a low level of moral
development will be able to mass together the energies
to recover from the already immense human-caused
destruction of the planet,  and to turn away to the degree
necessary in avoiding further destruction.  We’re far
into the soup.

I don’t think a movie,  based on romantic views of nature
and indigenous people,  and depicting regressive attitudes
towards the human capacity for  invention,  will bring to
the fore the moral evolution so critically needed.

it is a personal transformation needed,  not making a few
points on a momentarily softened-up populace about a
romanticized vew of “us” and “them”.

Next time you fly in one of those metal tubes that shoot
through the air at 400+mph,  spewing massive amounts
of carbon in its wake,  ask yourself why you’re not riding
on the back of a large bird.

Robert Greenway
Corona Farm
Port Townsend,

ON JANUARY 5th, 11:50pm
JOHN WOOD wrote:


I received all those cc’s, too.

Robert Greenway is right to criticize the self-righteous “in the know” assumptions of the earlier letter and its “us v. them” approach which too easily lets “us” off the hook.  He’s right that the fundamental need is a personal transformation to counter our low level of moral development.  I agree with 90% or what Robert wrote.

However, the remaining 10%, and an aspect Robert omitted, makes his letter misleading and inaccurate.  While on one level the warfare may be between “good and evil” (both of which human judgments, often based on “us v. them”) it is also a conflict between those who are conscious of the soul in all things, everything as animated, and those who see no life in anything beyond themselves.

The character “Jake Sully” is physically wounded–and he fails, in the beginning, to see the soul in all things.  Like all the invaders, he has no reverence for other life.  Throughout the movie, he comes to see life or spirit everywhere–whenever he steps on a rock, or moss, or touches a plant or tree.  In the end, his spirit is strong and allows him to transform into a Na’vi.

He does not, as Greenway says, “become their Avatar”.  He becomes a Na’vi using the Avatar body.  He also had to help beat back the Sky People because they were invading–and to suggest, as Greenway does, that he should “bring the civilizations into some kind of harmony” would not be the advice of Winston Churchill when faced with the Nazi threat–but it does echo the choice of the scorned French Vichy government during World War II.

The invaders were murdering Na’Vi–and both Freud and Jung (the latter whom Robert cites) supported the death penalty for murderers.  That’s a moral position.  You can find Jung’s words about this in the “Zarathrustra Seminars.”  Freud, when asked about the death penalty for murderers, approvingly quoted what happened in the French Assembly when it was considering its abolition.  During the debate, a voice shouted from the gallery:  “Let the murderers make the first move.”  Here, let the invaders make the first move–by not invading.

No one should accept invasion–and Greenway’s suggestion that Jake Sully ought to bring harmony between the invaders and the invaded is repulsive.  I can’t imagine Jung or Freud or any of the world’s invaded peoples supporting such a position.

Greenway also says: “This leads me to think … technology (starting with  bows and arrows) is no more or less sacred than the giant tree. To romanticize “nature” and denigrate all human artifacts is simply to perpetuate the dualism that leads us to think we humans (or minds or culture”) are somehow separate from the natural world.  Evolution has spawned us, our technologies are extensions of that, no more, no less.”

Greenway’s argument makes no sense, at least as far as the movie goes.  The Na’vi do not at all denigrate “all human artifacts”–and to suggest they do is not accurate.  They have technology and use it.

Greenway’s statement that technologies are extensions of evolution “no more no less” is a matter of serious debate and ought to be considered at the heart of his argument that we need moral development.

This is especially true in regard to quantum mechanics (invented by Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli) which was the necessary foundation for the development of nuclear weapons.  It’s been strongly argued that Heisenberg refused to participate in the development of German nuclear weaponry (which is why the Nazis never developed the atomic bomb).  Pauli, who taught in Zürich and worked with Jung beginning in 1932, and played an important part in Jung’s creative development, came to the US in 1940, taught at Princeton and was the only nuclear physicist in the US who refused to work on the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear warheads.  Pauli felt that it was not the business of science to engineer mass destruction.  After the two bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, Pauli fell into a deep depression and said he felt he was “living in a criminal atmosphere”.  He left the US and returned to Switzerland “realizing that the quantum mechanics he helped create was responsible at least partly for mass murder.”  For the next 15 years, he “inquired how his unconscious would react to the beginning of the nuclear age when the demonic power drive unleashed by science had become espoused to ethnic and national hatreds.”  (all quotes are from “At the Heart of the Matter:  Synchronicity and Jung’s Spiritual Testament” by Gary Sparks)

What Pauli did, over 15 years, with the help of both Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, was to look “at all those places where spirit and matter, subject and object, guidance and world were considered one; these can be the origins of a new outlook on life.”

Pauli did what we should all do–he sought that personal transformation and asked the moral questions about science, technology and the enthronement of the Goddess of Reason.

Greenway wants us to seek the “moral evolution so critically needed” but he wants to exempt technology and presumably those who invent it.  He was a botanist–and botany is in the realm of technology.  He, too, is talking “us versus them”–but he’s not quite aware of it.

In Avatar, the character Jake Sully does ask questions, he does seek answers, and he certainly goes go through a transformation.  When his Na’vi eyes popped open at the end, I felt a thrill.  I commend director James Cameron for at least trying to do something bold. Many people applauded at the end of the movie.  It’s already the 4th largest gross of all time with over a billion dollars worth of tickets worldwide.  He’s touched a lot of people–and for the good.

John Wood
Port Townsend

One thought on “AVATAR discussion: Technology and Ecominstrelcy

  1. I have a good deal of conflicting feelings about the film AVATAR. I feel hesitantly proud that the most expensive film ever made promotes a pro-nature and pro-indigenous message, even if that message is imperfect. Overall it encourages me to believe that some change is indeed happening within mainstream consciousness. (ie.e. Fifty years ago, native peoples would never have been depicted as having any value in mainstream cinema. Roll over, John Wayne!)

    HOWEVER, there are many things that rubbed me the wrong way about this film. The presentation of indigenous people was romanticized to the point of minstrelcy, as were the big-bad evil military men. The idea of the “noble savage” always glosses over the real complexities involved in answering the question looming over modern people: “where do we go from here?” As Robert points out, the answer to that question does not involve simply ditching our technologies, and it surely does not involve yet another enormous battle where the stone age somehow vanquishes modern technoindustrial “show” through brute force.

    Other than the vindictive marching of the Skypeople out of Pandora at gunpoint, this film offers no guidance whatsoever in how to embody a culture of respect for the profound intelligence of the natural systems in which we are embedded. And though I agree with John that director James Cameron demonstrates quite a bit of courage in attempting to model what that respect might look like, the film was absolutely rife with ecominstrelcy in its stereotypical depictions of the indigenous Na’vi alternately as: wise guides for the questing white man; supple, lithe and perfectly athletic; totally in-tune with ‘nature’; unconsolably vengeful, hotheaded and warlike. We need to watch out for these tired and oversimplified representations wherever they occur.

    I also agree with Robert that the answer to the above question does not lie in simply in denouncing all forms of technology as intrinsically evil, but neither can I accept hard technologies that pollute our land and enslave countless people and creature as ‘natural, no more, no less.’ One of the main differences here is that technology does not necessarily begin, as Robert mentions, with “bow and poison-dipped arrow” and follow its logical extension to gravity-defying warships and ever-more complex bombs. The Na’vi braided tail which links them to other creatures and to Ai’Wa is not mere science fiction, and here, I commend Cameron for his imagination. The human body itself is made up of electrical, magnetic and chemical elements, just like our mechanical and digital technologies, and can indeed function as a receiver or transmitter of specific information. Additionally the arts, including the healing and ritual arts, are potent soft technologies that employ such a flesh-based technology. These “soft” technologies have evolved over the ages to keep humans connected with the web of intelligence that underlies everything. What if we were to spend the military budget on developing these soft technologies?’ Or, for that matter, spend the equivalent of Cameron’s film budget (the most expensive film ever made!)

    The title of the film is AVATAR, which brings issues about the BODY — real? godly? incarnate? virtual?– to the forefront. I believe one of the major implications of this film is that we need to seriously question our relationships to disembodied technologies that pollute our mental and physical environments, and draw us further and further away from our own bodies. How many of us, like John Sully, wolf down our breakfast to spend more time in virtual worlds? Is the habit of spending eight or more hours a day in front of a machine, hardly moving except eyes and fingertips while our virtual self hurtles through cyberspace much different from living our life through an avatar? It is this type of dissociation from the body that makes possible the horrific acts of Nazi mass murder, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the uprooting of the Na’vi’s great mystical tree of life—“all in a day’s work” says our Evil Colonel, as he calmly sips coffee while arrows bounce off his flying warship, or while he ravages the landscape with his robot body.

    That the film suggests respect for the intelligence of the body is an important contribution to mainstream consciousness, despite the irony of using megatechnologies to create the film, and despite the digital technologies we are using right now to post this discussion out there somewhere in cyberspace.

    –>>>Nala Walla , 6 Jan ’10.

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