Avatar in Anthropology
| Avatar in Anthropology
"the film is like a giant anthropological piñata and after two days of sitting on my hands I can’t hold off any more. "
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by Kerim on December 24th, 2009
I recently had a chance to see the movie Avatar in glorious IMAX 3D, which is the only way I would recommend anyone see the film. It is certainly not a film one sees for the writing, or the characters, or the story telling. It is a spectacular display of visual pyrotechnics, and I should probably leave it at that. However, the film is like a giant anthropological pi?ata and after two days of sitting on my hands I can’t hold off any more.
[I don’t think I mention anything in this post which you couldn’t gleen from the trailer, but I’ve posted everything after the jump to help those particularly worried about accidentally encountering spoilers.]
First of all is the issue of race. I certainly am not in the mood to discuss whether the film is racist, yet I do think it is worth noting the way the film depicts the long-standing fantasy about ceasing to be white. I think the real problem with depictions of the other used in the film is that they are so clichéd that the Na’vi are boring and predictable. You are not really interested in learning more about them because you almost immediately feel as if you’ve met them a hundred times before, in other Hollywood films.
The second issue of interest is that of the Na’vi language. The SLA blog has a post about the work which went into creating this langauge. It is also worth repeating the observation that humans in American science fiction films almost always seem to be English speaking white-folk. At least in Firefly they cursed in Chinese.
The third issue of interest to anthropologists is that of virtual worlds. The film’s title comes from the fact that the humans interact with the Na’vi via virtual bodies, which seems primarily to be a plot device to allow most of the action to be computer generated without entering the uncanny valley. (When virtual humans mimic real humans too closely the small deviations from reality become more noticeable.) I can’t help but feel that they really missed an opportunity here. As I wrote about in my review of Tom Boellstorff’s book Coming of Age in Second Life, one of the most interesting things about virtual worlds is how complex the interaction between humans and their avatars can be. People can have multiple avatars, or “alts.” Different people can control the same avatar. And there are numerous problems raised when people are away from their keyboard but the avatar is still there. Of these, only the last one is even possible the film, due to the premise that each avatar has a unique genetic bond with a parular human. A little more complexity here could have made the film’s story line less predictable. [UPDATE: For more on how Avatar got Virtual Reality and networking wrong see Liz Losh’s post, Avatarded.]
Finally, the film is interesting for being a cinematic representation of anthropology. Sigourney Weaver’s character, Dr. Grace Augustine, is officially referred to as a “xenobotanist” but the work she does with the Na’vi and the book she wrote about them seem very anthropological. (I couldn’t find an image of her book cover, shown briefly in the film, but it looks like an anthropology textbook.) It is not Grace, but the main character, Jake Sully who is offered a chance to learn the ways of the Na’vi and who goes “native.” The use of avatars to do ethnographic research is interesting enough, but what really makes this notable is the fact that he’s doing it for the military. In fact, his triple loyalties: to his military/corporate bosses, to the scientists, and to the Na’vi themselves, are a central source of tension in the film. As Bill Guinee noted on Twitter, it is hard not to see this as a commentary on HTS. [UPDATE: Just after I posted this, I came across the latest David Price Counterpunch article…on Avtar and HTS.]
But, like I said, the film’s script is so vapid, that it isn’t really much of a commentary on anything except the state of 3D visual effects, which are pretty damn impressive if you ask me. Especially when seen in IMAX…
From Culture Notes, Film, media studies
45 Comments →
Adam Henne permalink
Just contributes to my nefarious scheme to someday teach an anthropology class using only sci-fi flicks.
You beat me to this post Kerim. I loved the movie however. At first I thought “wow: first contact and a resource frontier—they made a movie of my dissertation” and then I was like “wow: its acaptivity narrative, there’s one we haven’t seen in a while”. Then about half way through the film I was like “oh yeah, the guy from The Village Voice is right, its Dances With Wolves in blue”.
Although the movie become more and more identifiably a mix of cliches as it goes on, it is so well-executed (and visually compelling and deeply imagined) that I didn’t really mind. There are lots of ‘issues’ here—America’s willingness to embrace themes of ecology and empire (the problem is not war, the problem is the bad guys) being a key one for me, and much larger than the anthropology blogosphere’s obsession with HTS. There was also the representation of women—Zoe Saldana’s character fits several definition of ‘dusky maiden’ in this movie, but none of them are Uhura.
The movie studiously avoids moral complexity or meditations on the dirty hands that come from any involvement in politics. But I think anthropologists who use Avatar as grist for their ‘locate, denounce, move on’ mode of analysis will not be doing the movie justice.
Daniel Taghioff permalink
Kerim, we debated this already in FB. Nice post.
So just a quick question: To what extent is talking in Cliches a necessary feature of reaching a mass audience?
Dustin (Oneman) permalink
“Dances with Wolves in blue”—that pretty much sums up my initial response. It didn’t help that I happened to be reading about the Comanches when I saw “Avatar”, notably about Cynthia Ann Parker, a white girl captured in a raid who grew up to marry and have children as a Comanche women; one of her sons was Quanah Parker, who led the last great waves of resistance against the US. Of course, over the years, I’ve come to love and hate “Dances with Wolves”, with its beautiful setting and loving portrayal of the Lakota (something new on the screen in the ‘80s) and “white savior” narrative, all of which are present in “Avatar” as well. Kerim sees in it a fantasy of the dissolution of whiteness; as one astute critic noted, though, it’s a abandonment of whiteness while retaining white privilege, as opposed to, say, the very much NOT romantic loss of whiteness in “District 9”.
But there’s one more trope I want to add to the table, one that is touched on by Price and not really mentioned anywhere else, and that’s the radicalization of the observer in the field. As a handmaiden of colonialism, anthropology has been a pretty singular disappointment. Like the social scientists in “Avatar”, we’ve largely failed to be of much use on our own. (Others have, of course, been able to glean tactical information from our work—although even that’s pretty rare. Sully should have felt honored that his field reports were being watched; the more standard experience for anthropologists is that they get filed away and ignored, unless they predict problems in which case the anthropologists responsible are usually disciplined for undermining the mission…) One reason, which I’ve harped on ad nauseum here, is the uneasy relationship between anthropologists and their employers, portrayed fairly accurately (if a bit histrionically) in “Avatar”, but another reason is that for all their colonial intentions, anthropologists can’t do their work without opening themselves up to the interests and desires of the people they study, which has led quite a few to return home as activists, radicals, and “reds”. (I’m thinking of, for example, Meyer Fortes and the Manchester school folks.)
Of course, none of this saves “Avatar” from being, ultimately, a New Age-y movie about natives who are so in tune with their environment they communicate directly and organically with the “world mind” or Eywa (sounds like “Gaia”) just like the imaginary Indians of yore. The Internets are abuzz with chatter about the movie’s “important message” (which is something like “we need to be more llike the Nav’i before we destroy our own world” or maybe “littering makes the Nav’i cry”) which leads to another common SF trope—the aliens will save us! Deus ex machina-style.
Bill Guinee permalink
I too found the characters to be flat and stereotypical and the plot to be simplistic and entirely predictable. The film actually reminded me more of “The Emerald Forest” than “Dances with Wolves.” Nonetheless, I had a great time watching this film; all of the aforementioned critical lacks were made up for me by the sheer visual experience of the film. It was great fun. I actually would consider using this film in an introductory anthropology class. It raises a lot of interesting issues (imperialism, fieldwork, HTS, shamanism, development, relations between ecology and the indigenous) at a level that could be easily expanded on and problematized. The film could also be used as an easy vehicle to introduce discussion of how all of these things are portrayed in the media and in public consciousness. The only reason that I will not be using the film in that way is its length: 2 hrs and 40 minutes.
Just watched the movie… Regardless of the mumbo jumbo considerations of this and that, this movie has just rocked my world!!! Move over, Matrix, Star Wars, Lord of the rings!! AVATAR has captured my imagination. Most movies in the past have depicted aliens as inhuman and inhumane in their actions. But it’s us that are so.
After reading books such as ‘Secret history of the American Empire’ and understanding the facts of our global society, the subtleties depicted in this movie are a perfect example of how Americans plunder and destroy all that is precious to some.
Great movie and I recomment everyone to watch it. NOW!!!
I see you…
Apologies for intruding on this discussion but its not often that one finds fellow anthropologist discussing such a fun topic. On that note, I’d like to suggest turning away from readily available and conventional “anthropologist” type of readings of the film. I’d even suggest that we need to not “read” the film but view it as kind of perceptive experience intended to inspire thought. I don’t think the film is about “natives” or colonialism or going back to nature or any kind of yearning for native anything. The natives are a metaphor and that’s it, if even that. Think about how they moved and how exhilarating that was compared to the heavy and earth bound, even handicapped, humans. Anyhow, I think the film is about connecting, about various levels of connection or interface. (humans connect to avatars and avatars connect to animals and other avatars etc.) The so-called “natives” are just one other way of thinking about how we might inhabit or exploit connectivity in a way that is not about buying and selling, exploiting resources or being efficient. Ultimately, the film lets us imagine a kind of connectivity that would let us soar above the world and above connectivity as another form of labor. We could even say that its away of imagining the “Multitude” in the Hardt and Negri sense but without all the heavy handedness. It is way for technology to help us think our connection with nature and thus not anti-technology or nostalgia for native worlds at all. After all, how could a movie that is 3d and has scene after scene in which we are soaring through the air either in airplanes or fantastic CG birds be anti-technology? BTW, just as a way of introduction, I’m an anthropologist working on questions of technology through contemporary Japan. Currently doing a postdoc and trying to write my book.
The ‘ecologically noble savage’ theme could have been a lot worse. The whole point of having a richly imagined culture and biology in sci-fi/fantasy settings is to realize metaphors and play around with worlds in which they are real—everything literally was connected on Pandora. The animals had plugs fer chrissakes. Sure: it could have traded in the fight scenes for ethnobotany, and I’d give anything for a film where indigenes didin’t bond with their dragons for life and greeted the death of charismatic mega-fauna with a hearty “let’s eat!”. But given its status as a broadly popular film, I think it did a pretty good job. If most people come away with the message ‘taking shit over is not ok’ when we’ve come a long way from 2003.
I don’t think clichés are necessary by any means, and I think there is a good case to be made that the film would be a better film if the Na’vi were more creatively imagined. However, I think it is worth noting some of the pressures big-budget blockbusters face which require them to keep things as simple as possible. The film has to make money not just in the US, but internationally. The more clichéd and action-based the story, the more likely audiences will understand it without too much explanation, even in translation. And the action needs to move fast. The more complex the characters and fictitious world are, the more time is needed to explain and develop them. Finally, while some of us go to films because we like to think about what we are seeing, it seems pretty clear to me that this isn’t why most people go to see films. For this reason, a film which made you think too much is seen as inherently bad for market share.
I also think that added complexity doesn’t just affect the film in a linear fashion, but exponentially. Lets say, for instance, that the Na’vi were themselves divided between forest dwellers and an urban industrial society. That is much more than twice as many characters, special effect designs, and plot points – it creates a three way dynamic with the humans which would fundamentally alter the entire film.
This is also why female characters so often start off interesting, like in this film and the Matrix, but then move to the background once they have fulfilled their role in the storyline, helping the main character become a man.
So genre and cliché exist for a reason, but it seems to me that when you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a film, one could also spend a little bit on thinking up ways to creatively re-imagine the genre and the cliché. Is it too much to ask that movies advance more than just the special effects? Yes, the Na’vi are more richly imagined and less offensive than the Ewoks, but need we set our standards so low? When a project costs more than the GDP of a small island nation, can we not expect a little more?
But I think anthropologists who use Avatar as grist for their ‘locate, denounce, move on’ mode of analysis will not be doing the movie justice.
I’m afraid I’m going to have to steal that one from you. I will rationalize by assuming you stole from someone, too.
Zoe Saldana’s character fits several definition of ‘dusky maiden’ in this movie, but none of them are Uhura.
I’m all for a thread about whether Zoe Saldana plays a character in the movie or just provides the voice for an animated character. (“And if so, why?”)
As Bill Guinee noted on Twitter, it is hard not to see this as a commentary on HTS.
Only if you live in the ethnographic present—Cameron started working on the project in 1994 so I’m sure this analogy rather than homology.
Finally, the film is interesting for being a cinematic representation of anthropology. Sigourney Weaver’s character, Dr. Grace Augustine, is officially referred to as a “xenobotanist” but the work she does with the Na’vi and the book she wrote about them seem very anthropological. (I couldn’t find an image of her book cover, shown briefly in the film, but it looks like an anthropology textbook.)
Well… I heard an interview with Cameron on NPR last week and I recall that he mentioned hiring experts in ethnobotany, astronomy, and linguistics. Someone who knows that there is such a thing as ethnobotany surely knows there is such a thing as anthropology. Maybe he just couldn’t take the politics, to quote my favorite line from John Sayles’ Lone Star.
Dustin (Oneman) permalink
It would be me who objects to the notion that it’s “just” a movie. NOTHING IS JUST!
That said, there seems to be some blurring of the lines here between anthropology critique and movie criticism. Anthropologists are not movie critics—it’s really not our job to decide whether the movie does what it sets out to do, what Cameron’s intentions as auteur were and how well realized they are, whether this is a classic or a also-ran, or any of that. “Avatar” is an incredibly popular movie, one that US audiences (that I know of—maybe elsewhere as well) are resonating with deeply, which means that it provides a “window” into widely held beliefs and attitudes in US culture(s). Foremost among those beliefs and attitudes is a profound anxiety about the nature of whiteness and the future of white racial privilege. This is a foundational issue in the American psyche; “Avatar” would make a wonderful new chapter in Philip Deloria’s “Playing Indian”, capping off some 240 years of whites donning Indian guise to situate themselves on/in their conquered lands.
There’s a lot more at work here, of course. Kerim is right about the “woman as helper” trope, and we can add the “magical negro” trope to that as well, the person of color who lends the white lead the wisdom and strength to realize himself as a hero.But these are common to almost all US moviemaking, as well as other US literary traditions (and wider Western traditions as well). The resolution of racial anxiety through occupation of the Other’s body is, as far as I know (and I’m certainly not familiar with the entirety of the world’s literary traditions), uniquely American and uniquely post-modern. It arises from the erosion of modernist certainties about the end of history and of human development, itself developed from colonial certainties about the role of the white man in expanding civilization.
Anyway, the point is that “Avatar”—like The Godfather, Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia, Gone with the Wind, or Casablanca—is a piece of material culture whose content is (already) widely shared and thus ripe for analysis. It’s not that Cameron is a racist, it’s that he’s an American. (Well, a Canadian, but he’s lived in the US since he was a teenager. And Canada certainly shares a lot of the same racial and colonial history.)
I’m not sure I want to keep the boundary between film criticism and anthropology so distinct – only viewing the film in terms of its representation of the American psyche. I believe we need to get into the deep structure of how filmic genres do their work as texts in order to make sense of them, and I’m not so sure we can extrapolate from these genre conventions back to psyche.
Dustin (Oneman) permalink
Kerim: Of course I mean “film criticism” in the “Rotten Tomatoes” sense, not in the “literary criticism” sense. Avatar is a rollicking adventure (though it bogs down a bit in the 3rd act) that works pretty well as a piece of popular entertainment. It’s pretty heavy handed—has there been a less subtle bad guy recently? But a good movie. As my 7-year-old nephew said, “Awesome!”
But I don’t think it’s our job to sit alongside Ebert and hand out thumbs ups or thumbs downs. Not as anthropologists, anyway. As far as drawing the line from narrative structure to psyche, I might refer you to David Carr, who explores the link between narrative and lived experience, and of course Propp and Bakhtin. Now, there are cookies to eat. Happy Giftmas!
RE: Bakhtin: It is precisely the multivocality of the collective psyche which makes me nervous about talking about it in a totalizing way… But if “collective psyche” is redefined as something more akin to a “chronotype” then I’m OK with that.
henry george permalink
i don’t see the film as being racist or xenophobe at all. i see it as saying all people no matter what their race or species can have good and bad apples. and that people who are different, living in completely different worlds, can see each other … through the power of the networks. i find the film takes the middle path. sure, it had cliche elements such as tree huggers vs. blackwater, and some white people, both scientists and jarhead, and a latino woman fight to stop the greedy white man because some white people actually do have a heart, understanding, and respect for different ways of life. and some stubbornness among the natives and quick awakenings and understanding there too. wouldn’t these cliches be necessary? it will make a good mmorpg.
henry george permalink
my only problem with the film was in the final battle scene. the latino woman should have lit up the shuttle while the hero was flying around talking on his cellphone rather than have the hero do everything. it also had a climate gate and 9/11 was an inside job element, that the greater central power can use scientists to achieve evil goals of stealing land from people… and the press is ineffective when it is owned by the same centralized powers trying to promote such theft. centralization should be organic, taking in consideration the life of everyone and everything, whether it is through trees, religion, or the internet.
Forget racism, processes of othering, the clichéd distillation of ‘white saviorism’...what about the sheer prejudice shown to short people in this film? Once again, it is the tall who reign pure and supreme. I just feel Danny DeVito and myself have taken a hit on this one.
Pat T permalink
Coming late, I want to return to Dustin’s observation of how the film treats “the radicalization of the observer in the field.” Like Dustin says this is a point David Price explores in his Counter Point article on HTS and Avatar, but he goes further and says that if HTS wasn’t the pile of crap that it is, if it hired real anthropologists who knew anything about the cultures they studied instead of what he calls disciplinary “misfits”, then some HTS anthropologists would go rogue and become insurgents. An interesting point, but I think Price forgets just how whorish most applied anthropologists really are in their daily lives, or do some applied anthropologist occasionally go rogue and turn on their employers? If so, who are these people.
/me lols at Jefft.
I think Price forgets just how whorish most applied anthropologists really are in their daily lives, or do some applied anthropologist occasionally go rogue and turn on their employers? If so, who are these people.
That seems pretty harsh. We’ve all got our price. And when was the last time an R1-based anthropologist went rogue and turned on their employers? Isn’t benevolent exploitation of a select age set a big part of the business of the university?
John McCreery permalink
Clearly the assumption that proper anthropologists do not indulge in gross stereotyping is invalid.
The thing about morally binary stories like this is that they do help decenter your expectations about which side of the dichotomy the positive side should be on—and in certain situations where people are strongly attached to one position or the other movies like Avatar does help shake up people’s perspectives a bit. Maybe there’s an evangelical 10 year old out there who now wants to learn about bioluminescence or something. But one of Kerim’s points, I thought, was that they don’t help people realize 1) hard cases require genuine moral deliberation and 2) most cases are hard.
At times I sort of wonder which of the present moments in our American zeitgeist will win out—the perception of ourselves as conquerors, decadent and soft and lacking in self-control, or victims of elite financiers and freedom-hating terrorists. I have to admit that these days I feel we could use a bit for Increase Mather and a little less Andrew Jackson in our national psyche. But that might just be me.
Ah yes, the George Bush’esque black-and-white “you’re either for us or against us” sadly proffered in the name of anthropology. One would like to be able to count on anthropologists to recognize there may be multiple routes to effecting change. Applying anthropology, as with all anthropology (thanks MTBradley!) can have its complicities, for certain. Seems to me one of the values of CEAUSSIC’s work, for instance, was to think in terms of specifics instead of gross generalizations. And didn’t Sarah do enough to remind us that ‘going rogue’ is sometimes nothing more than a reactive end man’s game? Sometimes the game is to be at the table to help reframe the way ‘the problem’ and course of direction are being conceptualized to start with.
John McCreery permalink
Going off-thread a bit (perhaps Rex can start a new one), the comment that morally binary stories do help decenter your expectations about which side of the dichotomy the positive side should be on set me to wondering about the influence of comics, manga and anime in which the black and white depictions that I grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s has given way to more morally conflicted and ambiguous characters, e.g., Spiderman or Batman in The Black Knight.
That thought prompted a memory that the protagonists in premodern myths and fairy tales often display a similar moral ambiguity.
I saw the film tonight and was pleasantly surprised; the bad was less bad than I expected and the good more good. And I don’t think it’s fair to say the ethnology of the film is entirely bad. The cultural anthropologist as culture critiquer is probably going to be justifiably iffy about a lot of the goings-ons but the cultural anthropologist as cultural ecologist is probably going to be fairly impressed. (Though the film included just a bit of nuanced culture critique of its own. I quite liked that the line between military and mercenary stayed fuzzy.)
[Michelle Rodriguez’s character] should have lit up the shuttle while the hero was flying around talking on his cellphone rather than have the hero do everything.
Never mind that, why wasn’t she in the brig for cutting and running in the initial attack??? On the other hand, a female native did get to deliver the coup de grace.
Thanks for the thoughtful postings… I thought Avatar was pretty awesome, especially the dragon-riding scenes. That aside, I sympathize with Rex’s observation about the issue of empire ”(the problem is not war, the problem is the bad guys)” It would have been really interesting if there was a Gandhi Na’vi who defeated the marines nonviolently (how cool would that be? he could still ride a dragon!).
If one follows the metaphor of the Na’vi representing Amerindians/People of Color/colonized people the world over, how often have such oppressed populations successfully overthrown their colonizers with use of force? I can’t think of many times (Algeria? Haiti?). Put a pacifist Na’vi with no ginormous battles wouldn’t have sold as many tickets I guess…
Live long and prosper.
Wait a second. The plucky underdog Na’tives at one with nature beat The (Corporate Militaristic White) Man in the end, against impossible odds, helped (maybe too much but they’re still learning from their racial re-embodiment) by idealistic young white guys, anthropological savvy and coup-de-grace both delivered by women? It’s like a pop culture post-colonialist wet dream. How is this not everyone here’s favorite movie ever, I mean after “Little Big Man” and anything Swedish? Are y’all just worried about getting played? Sure, they missed a trick not transgendering the hero, but still. 8-p
Ouch Carl hits it on the head. We haven’t yet considered how this represents certain fantasies of activist anthropology.
I’m just sayin’.
Let’s give James Cameron some storytelling credit where it’s due insomuch as the conceit of being able to inhabit another body is well used in Avatar. There are elements of captivity narrative, Montgomery McFate, Nancy Scheper Hughes, Lawrence of Arabia, Rodrigo Mendoza (De Niro’s character in The Mission), John Locke, and Ro Loren in Avatar but there’s no one-to-one for any of the above. Sam Worthington’s character is a Marine who joins a group of researchers doing team ethnography and who can inhabit another body. Give critique and credit where each is due.
Sorry for the intrusion- I’m really not even an anthropologist, but this discussion is too fun to pass up. Feel free to ignore me, honestly. I don’t mind.
First the obligatory nerdy, not-deep-in-thought style reaction: Damn. It. All. that movie was incredible! Visually stunning. Unbelievable.
To be honest, I can see how Avatar could certainly be a metaphor for race and a remake of the ‘no one wants to be white’ story, but what I saw was ‘no one wants to be human.’ Or: no one wants to be a modern human. The Navi reminded us of the Native Americans of lore and they reminded us of the most fascinating of modern day tribes, sure, but they seemed to be a mix of so many different cultures (with a healthy dose of fantasy tying it all together) that we could just as easily say that they’re humanity as a whole before it got busy with machines and the assembly line and complex opinions of these things and heavy metal music. After watching the movie, it felt more to me as if the general story was that no one wants the kind of power that the humans in that movie lorded over what could have been their past. Really, people all want to sit back and fly on dragons and be peaceful and have pretty glowing faces. No one wants to really be all-powerful because that would turn them into the antagonist that we’ve all heard of since we were small- scar faced, backed up by a terrifying force, and certainly not the underdog.
(One other thing- someone mentioned the Avatar and the human connection was used as a cheap plot device. I actually think it was an incredible plot device that better showed the characters becoming more immersed in the culture and, fine, I’ll say it, failing at being the distant anthropologist.)
And one other thing- I don’t think it was racist. It definitely had a few awkward holes when you took away the wowing effect of the imagery, but it wasn’t racist. I mean, they’re blue. Sure, maybe they have something that reminds someone of some culture they studied once. Well, you can be sure there are tons of other things there that remind tons of other people about tons of other cultures. And they’re not human. However positive I am that there are alien rights activist groups all over the internet, I don’t think it’s anything to get hyped up about. Yet.
Jenny Cool permalink
What a great discussion! Thanks for the keen post (Kerim) and these 35 enlightening comments that I find much more engaging and beautiful as cultural productions than the movie in question. As someone concerned with the teleology of disembodiment in imaginaries of the posthuman, I’ll admit I probably would have reacted with the ‘locate, denounce, move on’ mode of analysis Rex identifies, given that doing the movie justice wasn’t high on my priority list. But this thread has been a great reminder that doing our subjects and topics justice, however grand or mean they be, is key to deliberative, enlightened discourse.
Liz Losh at virtualpolitik.net has an incisive critique of Avatar that gets at many of my concerns, not so much about this particular cinematic text, as the webs of significance, practice, and power in which it is suspended.
A prosperous new year to SM and all your readers.
What Carl said. In spades.
@ MTBradley and John McCreery—thanks for defending some of the honor of the “whorish…applied anthropologists” adn our apparent lack of moral scruples [more of that below].
Musing on Avatar, I agree with the comments about thin plots, etc, but as a movie, I agree with Rex—having worked in a “first contact” and “resource” environment, I enjoyed the theme, even if thin and predictable. Indeed, for me the parallels go farther—having been an anthropologist on a “research” team supporting a bigger resource company and discovering the games played, the power structures, etc.
As for the anti-applied comment above…
I AM an applied anthropologist. Like most American-trained anthropologists, I had some disdain for applied work that seemed to be part of the curriculum. HOWEVER, having fallen into applied work after extensive moral deliberation, and I stayed in applied work even though I knew of the toll it would take on the viability of my academic career. I continued to work with an indigenous population—for a mining company—because the indigenous community themselves WANTED ME TO. My pay was significantly less than the rank and file mining worker and not too far off par with academia (of course, living overseas for much of the year had positive tax implications). As REX and KERIM point out above, difficul moral deliberations are part of the real world!
An incredible example of white liberal racism. I’m surprised anyone who calls herself an anthropologist would enjoy it.
I saw the movie a couple of nights ago and immediately went searching for an anthropological perspective on it, which is how I came upon this excellent discussion.
I must say I was impressed by the effects, more than I expected to be. I saw it in IMAX 3-D and am curious as to how it would be in normal, flat screen but I’‘m not sure I want sit through it again.
As for the story I was anticipating that it would be simplistic and possibl offensive so I purposely tried to ignore it as much as possible in order to fully enjoy the visual experience. But I have started reflecting on it more now.
Though the story is anything but irrelevant, it’s amazing to me the range of ‘takes’ on it that I have heard from the ‘general public.’ Most people seem so captivated by the effects that they don’t even comment on the story, as if it were simply a vehicle for the visuals. One friend told me that as she was leaving the theater, she overheard a young woman on her cell phone telling someone how totally bored she was by it! Hard to imagine, but just goes to show.
In any case, what I wanted to add to this discussion is a reference to a book:
CAUGHT IN PLAY: HOW ENTERTAINMENT WORKS ON YOU by Peter G. Stromberg, who is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tulsa. His main point being that entertainment does very actively reinforce, and possibly shapes, society’s values and priorities, all the more powerfully since it is often dismissed as having such impact.
I’ll be looking for his take on Avatar… and I may need to go see it again, just so I can do so from my now more informed perspective! Thanks for this great blog and discussion, Julia
And here is Professor Stromberg’s take on Avatar:
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Geostatistics and spatial analysis in biological anthropology
Anthropologist: Investors need to understand the tribal nature of banking culture
Take care of the different national traditions of anthropology
Welcome to Anthropology, your second career
Urban anthropologist: "Recognize that people want to come to the big cities"
Anthropology 2.0: Rethinking Why and How "Information is Power."
American Anthropological Association opposes collaboration with the military
Anthropology: the great divide
My turn: Anthropology during wartime
Glossary Cultural Anthropology
A Glossary of Manitoba Prehistoric Archaeology
what is Anthropology
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