Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘James Cameron

Žižek v. ‘Avatar’

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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.

This is why it is interesting to imagine a sequel to Avatar in which, after a couple of years (or, rather, months) of bliss, the hero starts to feel a weird discontent and to miss the corrupted human universe. The source of this discontent is not only that every reality, no matter how perfect it is, sooner or later disappoints us. Such a perfect fantasy disappoints us precisely because of its perfection: what this perfection signals is that it holds no place for us, the subjects who imagine it.

Slavoj Žižek begins with something not entirely unlike my “war of genres” analysis of Avatar and goes someplace pretty interesting with it:

At the same time as Avatar is making money all around the world (it generated $1bn after less than three weeks of release), something that strangely resembles its plot is taking place. The southern hills of the Indian state of Orissa, inhabited by the Dongria Kondh people, were sold to mining companies that plan to exploit their immense reserves of bauxite (the deposits are considered to be worth at least $4trn). In reaction to this project, a Maoist (Naxalite) armed rebellion exploded.

Arundhati Roy, in Outlook India magazine, writes that the Maoist guerrilla army:

is made up almost entirely of desperately poor tribal people living in conditions of such chronic hunger that it verges on famine of the kind we only associate with sub-Saharan Africa. They are people who, even after 60 years of India’s so-called independence, have not had access to education, health care or legal redress. They are people who have been mercilessly exploited for decades, consistently cheated by small businessmen and moneylenders, the women raped as a matter of right by police and forest department personnel. Their journey back to a semblance of dignity is due in large part to the Maoist cadres who have lived and worked and fought by their sides for decades. If the tribals have taken up arms, they have done so because a government which has given them nothing but violence and neglect now wants to snatch away the last thing they have – their land . . . They believe that if they do not fight for their land, they will be annihilated . . . their ragged, malnutritioned army, the bulk of whose soldiers have never seen a train or a bus or even a small town, are fighting only for survival.

The Indian prime minister characterised this rebellion as the “single largest internal security threat”; the big media, which present it as extremist resistance to progress, are full of stories about “red terrorism”, replacing stories about “Islamist terrorism”. No wonder the Indian state is responding with a big military operation against “Maoist strongholds” in the jungles of central India. And it is true that both sides are resorting to great violence in this brutal war, that the “people’s justice” of the Maoists is harsh. However, no matter how unpalatable this violence is to our liberal taste, we have no right to condemn it. Why? Because their situation is precisely that of Hegel’s rabble: the Naxalite rebels in India are starving tribal people, to whom the minimum of a dignified life is denied.

So where is Cameron’s film here? Nowhere: in Orissa, there are no noble princesses waiting for white heroes to seduce them and help their people, just the Maoists organising the starving farmers. The film enables us to practise a typical ideological division: sympathising with the idealised aborigines while rejecting their actual struggle. The same people who enjoy the film and admire its aboriginal rebels would in all probability turn away in horror from the Naxalites, dismissing them as murderous terrorists. The true avatar is thus Avatar itself – the film substituting for reality.

Along the way he gives a lovely one-sentence analysis of Titanic as well:

At this moment the ship hits the iceberg, in order to prevent what would undoubtedly have been the true catastrophe, namely the couple’s life in New York.

Written by gerrycanavan

March 5, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Thursday Night Links

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* Avatar sequel hints. Everything that was cut from Avatar. Vatican says Avatar is no masterpiece.

* James Cameron’s Spider-Man.

* io9 teases me with the possibility that Wes Anderson could direct the Spider-Man reboot but says it will actually be (500) Days of Summer‘s Marc Webb. /Film says this rumor is already outdated and today’s favorite is the even-less-well known Nimrod Antal.

* Christopher Nolan talks Inception.

* Obama has officially bought the world an extra minute.

* Details emerging about the new David Simon show, Treme.

* Denmark, the awesomest economy.

* ‘System Failure’: Obama’s first year.

* Here comes the bank tax.

* Here comes the climate bill.

* Haven’t blogged about health care in a while, but the Democrats apparently struck a deal with labor today over the excise tax. The White House is also pushing a new exchanges agreement as a nose-in-the-tent that might partially compensate for the loss of the public option and the Medicare buy-in: “Over time, the exchanges will open to more and more people.”

Tabdump #1

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* The New York Times has a short piece on The Wire and its popularity among academics on the very day I sent in a proposal for an MLA 2011 special session to be moderated by Lisa and myself:

After The Wire. The cultural and intellectual legacy of The Wire, particularly its critique of neoliberal institutions and its place in the social realist tradition. 250-300 word abstracts due by 15 March 2010 to afterthewire@gmail.com.

* “Transracial Writing for the Sincere.” By Nisi Shawl, visiting Duke later this month.

* Avatar is a billion-dollar film after just 17 days.

* Star Wars status updates.

* 50 things we know now that we didn’t know this time last year.

* Barbara Ehrenreich on the “gift” of breast cancer and the trap of positive thinkinng.

* Last fall, the American Law Institute, which created the intellectual framework for the modern capital justice system almost 50 years ago, pronounced its project a failure and walked away from it. This welcome news comes by way of Srinivas.

‘Avatar’ and the War of Genres

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(now crossposted at The Valve)

We saw Avatar last night and I thought at first I didn’t have all that much to say about it. I was prepared to shamelessly steal Vu’s thesis that this is really all about video games, but I see Kotaku already did that. In the face of column after column centered around a nominally leftist reading of the film as Dances with Wolves… in Space!, SEK has already provided a more nuanced consideration of the films racial—and racist—dimensions. Posts about the backlash of the backlash and the backlash of the backlash of the backlash have already been taken care of.

I’m not all that interested in the special effects, which, perhaps due to some projection issues in our theater, didn’t seem to be quite as spellbinding as advertised. The language stuff interests me more, but seems ultimately somewhat empty. “And congratulations to Cameron for taking us from a figuratively to a literally inhuman standard of slenderness for women” seems to cover it with regards to feminist critique of the Barbie-doll-shaped Na’vi.

The religious element, while not especially original, is, from a materialist standpoint, pretty deeply problematic, and badly damages the film’s ecological politics, which frankly are not all that well thought-out in the first place.

But in the theater and as I sat down to write this post I mostly found myself preoccupied with the genre question. I don’t want to recapitulate the genre post I wrote for Infinite Summer, but in brief this is how Darko Suvin approaches SF:

SF is, then, a literary genre or verbal construct whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment. (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction 7-8)

Carl Freedman in Critical Theory and Science Fiction reframes this idea slightly as what he calls the “cognition effect”:

The crucial issue for generic discrimination is not any epistemological judgment external to the text itself or the rationality or irrationality of the latter’s imaginings, but rather … the attitude of the text itself to the kind of estrangements being performed. (18)

This is to say, more or less, that whether or not the science in science fiction is plausible from the standpoint of contemporary science it adopts a rhetoric of scientific plausibility to motivate the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

In the beginning Avatar seems to situate itself firmly within this generic mode, with a group of scientists and mercenaries from Earth who have arrived on Pandora in spaceships to study the natives and drill for valuable minerals (not necessarily in that order). But by the end, while Avatar certainly remains an alternative to our empirical environment, it no longer operates as any kind of framework. Neither the biological/ecological systems present on the planet Pandora, nor the ability of our biological structures and technological apparatuses to interface with them, are remotely plausible from the perspective of either evolutionary biology or cognitive science without inventing some sort of massive hidden backstory for the Na’vi that involves incredible prehistoric genetic engineering on the planetary scale—and really not even then. (And of course Fridge Logic just makes it worse.)

In Suvinian/Freedmanian terms, then, Avatar isn’t really science fiction at all, because the type of imagination involved in its reception isn’t cognition. And by the end of the film any pretense of scientific plausibility or internal logical coherence has been abandoned altogether: telepathy and transmigration of souls are real, MechWarriors pull Bowie knives from their belts, and not even gravity seems to work anymore.

But this, I suggest, goes quite a bit further. Far from merely nerdy nitpicking of the sort I am famous for, the abandonment of scientific plausibility is actually the film’s central thematic conceit. The narrative turning point of the film hinges, after all, on the moment we hop generic tracks from science fiction to fantasy, and perhaps even (as Sigourney Weaver’s character suggests in dialogue) to fairy tale. Other people have framed this moment as the anthropologist characters’ “going native,” but within the film’s terms this is just another way of saying the same thing—these characters drop a scientific perspective in favor of a religious one and, in so doing, gain access to a wide portfolio of impossible superpowers.

That Pandora features staggeringly improbable lifeforms and impossible physical structures isn’t, therefore, any sort of narrative failure; rather, the complete abandonment of science fictional “explanation” in favor of unabashed fantasy is part and parcel of the war of genres that structures the film.

The climactic battle turns out, accordingly, to be this generic tension between science fiction and fantasy made hyperbolically literal: it’s a war in which blue-skinned, dragon-riding elves armed with bows and arrows attack spaceships owned by a version of the Company from Aliens—and the elves win precisely because within the genre of fantasy [spoiler]magic exists. [/spoiler]

And these are exactly the two alternatives offered by the tagline in the poster above: “Avatar: Believe it, or not.” (And please note that it’s the science fictional frame that is “believable”; the fantastic/religious frame becomes dominant at the precise moment in which we can no longer “believe” what we are seeing.) That generic divide, SF vs. fantasy, is the film’s narrative and thematic fuel.

So, yes, the film is fun, the spectacle is large, and the good guys manage to pull off the Battle of Endor a second time. But as a unreconstructed Asimovian and a good Suvinian I worry about the consequences of an ideology in which science and military aggression are bound up tightly together through a science fictional aesthetic of extrapolative realism—against which any form of resistance, alas, is just pure fantasy. If this is our binary—science fiction and disaster vs. fantasy and hope—outside the narrative’s terms it’s science fiction and disaster that emerges victorious. After all, as we leave the theater, recycle our 3-D glasses, and rub our eyes to adjust to the light outside the theater, it’s Colonel Quaritch’s world, not Neytiri’s, into which we must make our exit—and this, after the fact, is his extratextual triumph.

Written by gerrycanavan

December 21, 2009 at 1:50 pm

As I Head Out of Town, Some Links

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* Rate Your Students has a long piece with “real advice” for grad students headed out to job interviews. Good luck out there.

* Sony strenuously denies that the Vulture/”Vulturess” pair sucks bad enough to stop production on Spider-Man 4.

* Attention: Avatards: The House Next Door has two reviews, and there’s one each at /Film and Overthinking It.

* Climate Progress says the Guardian bungled the Copenhagen story I posted last night: the 3°C rise in temperatures describes promised cuts made pre-Copenhagen. David Roberts at Grist adds that things in Copenhagen are actually looking pretty good.

* The first things a new nation needs are a football team and an army. The last thing it needs is for either to disappear overnight and it’s an embarrassment to Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993, that all 12 members of the national squad should have dumped their strip in the wheelie-bins at the back of their hotel during a CECAFA tournament in Kenya and vanished without further ado. ‘Cazzo,’ I hear the Eritrean leadership whispering to itself. ‘But at least we’ve still got the army.’

* You are in a game show with nineteen other players. You don’t know the other players, you can’t see them, and you can’t communicate with them. The game you are in is called ‘Greed!’, and is straightforward to explain. You are asked to write down a whole dollar amount in the range $1 – $1,000,000 on a piece of paper. You will be paid the amount you asked for if it is deemed to be ‘non-greedy’. Whether your request is indeed ‘non-greedy’ will be decided once all twenty request have been received by the host of the show. Your requested amount will be labeled ‘non-greedy’ if no other player has asked for less, and at least one player has asked for more. Let’s all make a pact now that if we wind up on this show we write “$1,000,000.” (via)

* Ladies and gentlemen, the known universe.

* And science proves peer pressure is a good thing. Via Eric Barker.

Thursday Night Links

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* James Randi responds to the criticism he received yesterday for his stated climate change “skepticism.”

* The emissions cuts offered so far at the Copenhagen climate change summit would still lead to global temperatures rising by an average of 3°C, according to a confidential UN analysis obtained by the Guardian.

* The physics of space warfare.

* It turns out Joss Whedon significantly overbid for Terminator; James Cameron originally sold the franchise for a dollar.

* Avatar poised for a $200-million weekend.

* Point and counterpoint on Massachusetts as a model for health care reform.

Tuesday Miscellany

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* Howard Dean: Kill the Senate bill. Markos Moulitsas: Insurance companies win. Time to kill this monstrosity coming out of the Senate. It falls to poor Matt Yglesias to declare victory. As I suggested earlier, my pragmatist streak will probably push me to support reform no matter how much Lieberman extracts, and Ezra Klein (still under fire for his rude reminder that policy has consequences) and Steve Benen make that pragmatist case here and here. Still, this rankles. I wouldn’t want anyone who matters (quiet, Ezra) to commit the unpardonable sin of being honest, but I’ll personally send Harry Reid a hundred dollars for his reelection if he turns around and uses reconciliation to pass the public option anyway just as soon as the current insurance reforms are passed.

* Much-needed good news: The DC City Council has endorsed marriage equality.

* Bad Astronomer tackles transporter metaphysics.

* More than 65 million years ago, a cataclysmic event drove a majority of the Earth’s species into extinction, and tragically, wiped out the last of the dinosaurs long before bazookas could be invented and used on them. (Thanks Russ!)

* io9 has the series bible for Batman: The Animated Series.

* And dueling reviews of Avatar insist it does and does not suck. (Thanks to Dan for the “suck” version. “Avatar is the corniest movie ever made about the white man’s need to lose his identity and assuage racial, political, sexual and historical guilt.” This I have to see.)

‘Avatar’ Actually Not Bad?

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So says MetaFilter, Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic. Better still, here’s this from rightist site Hot Air:

The political import of Avatar — and there’s no waving this aspect away because it’s right in your face start to finish, and especially in the third act — is ardently left. It is pro-indigenous native, anti-corporate, anti-imperialist, anti-U.S. Iraq War effort, anti-U.S.-in-Afghanistan (and anti-troop-surge-in-that-country, or strongly against the thinking of President Barack Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal), anti-rightie, anti-Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld, etc.

You say “pro-indigenous native, anti-corporate, anti-imperialist, anti-U.S. Iraq War effort, anti-U.S.-in-Afghanistan” like it’s a bad thing…

UPDATE: Eli Glasner’s seen it, and he says:

I’ll hold off on my full review for now. But let me say this. It is an experience. It will do quite well. It will become (or already is) an event movie that you have to see to be part of the conversation. The difference between Avatar and James Cameron’s Titanic is that we didn’t see Titanic coming. The movie disappointed critics and was being compared to Waterworld.

Already I can feel the industry getting on side with this one. It’s going to change the business. How, is hard to say.

The Taste of Thursday

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* 5 Ways Obama Can Redeem His Nobel.

* Fight Climate Change, Not Wars.

* Hard to believe a tip like this turned out to be unreliable. Via Vu.

* Scientists have apparently uncovered syntax in monkey language. And yes, I learned this from The Colbert Report.

* Matt Taibi is—act surprised—unhappy about the health care compromise.

* Let me get this straight. You have a commission proposing a package of highly unpopular legislative changes. And, in addition to having to surmount the 60-vote barrier in the Senate, which is nearly insurmountable for major legislation and which was avoided for both of the last two major deficit-reducing bills, it’s also going to impose a new supermajority requirement in the House and a 78% threshold in the commission itself?

To say that this procedure “is designed to get results” shows a very odd understanding of American political institutions. (via Steve Benen)

* “A band of no-hopers”: The American team that beat England in 1950.

* Science: “The most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often.” (Thanks, Steve!)

* The Disappearing Snows of Everest.

* David Foster Wallace, “All That,” and religion. At Infinite Zombies, still chugging along.

* John Malkovich is apparently your next Spider-Man villain. But why would they scrap the Black Cat for a made-up character called “The Vulturess”? That sounds impossibly stupid.

* James Cameron, you had me at “sci-fi samurai epic.”

* And today’s chilling vision of things to come: ‘Is 4chan the Future of Human Consciousness?’