Fragment #28: Bruno Latour on Avatar

[In his 2010 essay ‘A Compositionist Manifesto’, theorist of science Bruno Latour outlines his proposal for a new epistemology of the relationship between nature, science and humanity. As an alternative to ‘critique’, the analytical approach that “ran out of steam because it was predicated on the discovery of a true world of realities lying behind a veil of appearances”, he proposes a compositionist approach that requires its exponents to build, slowly and cautiously, forward-looking modes of thought and action to deal with looming ecological catastrophe which existing systems of knowledge have not prepared us to prevent. Perhaps surprisingly, he introduces the manifesto with a prologue about James Cameron’s Avatar, situating the film’s hero, Jake Sully, as a hopeful representative of a new way of being, where continuing existence might require a complete overhaul of how we perceive our place in the universe. The finished essay was published in New Literary History 41.3 (Summer 2010): 471-490, but you can read a draft version at Latour’s website; see also Lucas Verburgt’s excellent analysis of Latour’s argument, and Levi R. Bryant’s discussion of it at Larval Subjects. You can find my own posts on Avatar here and here. The illustration at the start of this post is from a concept design for Pandora’s Hometree by artist Seth Engstrom.]

“If I had an agent, I am sure he would advise me to sue James Cameron over his latest blockbuster since Avatar should really be called Pandora’s Hope! Yes, Pandora is the name of the mythical humanoid figure whose box holds all the ills of humanity, but it is also the name of the heavenly body that humans from planet Earth (all members of the typically American military-industrial complex) are exploiting to death without any worry for the fate of its local inhabitants, the Navis, and their ecosystem, a superorganism and goddess called Eywa. I am under the impression that this film is the first popular description of what happens when modernist humans meet Gaia. And it’s not pretty.

The Revenge of Gaia, to draw on the title of a book by James Lovelock, results in a terrifying replay of Dunkirk 1940 or Saigon 1973: a retreat and a defeat. This time, the Cowboys lose to the Indians: they have to flee from their frontier and withdraw back home abandoning all their riches behind them. In trying to pry open the mysterious planet Pandora in search of a mineral—known as unobtanium, no less!—the Earthlings, just as in the classical myth, let loose all the ills of human- ity: not only do they ravage the planet, destroy the great tree of life, and kill the quasi-Amazonian Indians who had lived in edenic harmony with it, but they also become infected with their own macho ideology. Outward destruction breeds inward destruction. And again, as in the classical myth, hope is left at the bottom of Pandora’s box—I mean planet—because it lies deep in the forest, thoroughly hidden in the complex web of connections that the Navis nurture with their own Gaia, a biological and cultural network which only a small team of natural- ists and anthropologists are beginning to explore. It is left to Jake, an outcast, a marine with neither legs nor academic credentials, to finally “get it,” yet at a price: the betrayal of his fellow mercenaries, a rather conventional love affair with a native, and a magnificent transmigration of his original crippled body into his avatar, thereby inverting the relationship between the original and the copy and giving a whole new dimension to what it means to “go native.”

I take this film to be the first Hollywood script about the modernist clash with nature that doesn’t take ultimate catastrophe and destruction for granted—as so many have before—but opts for a much more inter- esting outcome: a new search for hope on condition that what it means to have a body, a mind, and a world is completely redefined. The lesson of the film, in my reading of it, is that modernized and modernizing humans are not physically, psychologically, scientifically, and emotionally equipped to survive on their planet. As in Michel Tournier’s inverted story of Robinson Crusoe, Friday, or, The Other Island, they have to relearn from beginning to end what it is to live on their island—and just like Tournier’s fable, Crusoe ultimately decides to stay in the now civilized and civilizing jungle instead of going back home to what for him has become just another wilderness. But what fifty years ago in Tournier’s romance was a fully individual experience has become today in Cameron’s film a collective adventure: there is no sustainable life for Earth-bound species on their planet island.”

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