11 Oct 2013

Avatar: A transformed cinema; a transformation of self, (and then) a transformation of world.

By Rupert Read

Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)

Avatar is the most successful film of all time, judging by the box office. Its sequels, now scheduled to start appearing in 2016, will no doubt be the most eagerly-awaited sequels of all time. How thrilling, that a contemporary film with such a radical ‘message’ (see my paper, The Call of Avatar, for this), should be so fantastically successful. This alone would be enough to make the titular topic of the present piece important.

For this is an essay about Avatar, cinema and ecology. Let us start – fittingly, given our ecologistic topic -- with the world of Avatar, and then proceed to its connection what might be termed the ecology of the film itself. That is: its medium and its conditions of possibility for being the extraordinary success it has already been.


Pandora: a dreamed-up world of miraculous beauty and wonder. Avatar: so well-suited for being the first great 3-D film, because one needs to enter into this world as deeply as possible. The point about the film being 3D, is that it is as if you are really there. This is crucial for the success of the film’s meaning and ‘message’. One has, I shall claim, to feel this world just as if it is real.[i] Because it kind-of is. It is our world, through 3D glasses darkly. Or again: it is our world, through a glass (through a screen) brightly. This film plays with one’s sense of reality. You have to come to feel it as real. Not, as I shall discuss below, as like a video-game. But as opening to us the reality of our world. As opening us to our love for it, and for us. As enabling us to see it, and one another, face-to-face...

There were numerous reports of people being depressed after seeing Avatar, because reality isn’t as beautiful as the world they had been (are) inhabiting. But what is causing most of those people to be depressed? Is it the contrast between reality per se and Pandora (which would suggest mere depressive escapism), or is it the contrast between Earth as we are living it and Pandora (which would be my suggestion)? In other words, whether they know it or not, I submit that in all likelihood what is depressing these people is that we have despoiled our Earth, and this despoliation we show no real sign as yet of abating. The world we inhabit is often ugly, because we have made it so. In other words: these people are being depressed by the very thing which Avatar wants to render focal, and to change. Depression is one possible – and natural - reaction to what we have done to our world, and to ourselves; but a healthier reaction is to turn that depression into anger and into the will to change things. This can be achieved by the transformation of depression into an ecological consciousness (cf. the ecopsychological work of Mary-Jayne Rust et al).

Compare for instance this account, due to a colleague of Rust’s, Chris Johnstone: “Anna, a young woman who cried for an hour after watching [Avatar], told me about her experience: “The feeling I had was one of mourning: mourning our loss, as a species, of our connection to the basic sustenance of life… Avatar has contributed to a growing ecological consideration within me; I am finding it increasingly difficult to assume the position of a lack of personal responsibility by the ‘burying-my-head-in-the-sand’ method.”” [ii] This is the kind of life-affirming response to Avatar that especially appeals to me.

'Beneath the Trees of Voices' in Avatar, dir James Cameron (2009)

Speaking of “our connection to the basic sustenance of life”… what of the planet that is Eywa’s body, the Na’vi’s mother? Why is it called ‘Pandora’? Because Avatar offers us hope. In the original myth of Pandora, its opening just seems initially to release poison and awfulness;[iii] but there is this gorgeous, vital silver-lining that then comes to light. Pandora’s discovery brings with it a real hope. Pandora features a host of ‘natural evils’ as part of its nature; and moreover it unleashes the worst in humanity in terms of grabbing at its ‘natural resources’;[iv] and (as I will discuss further below) on the level of military realism, crucially, Avatar promises defeat in one’s efforts to stop the machine, the juggernaut of industrial-growthist destruction; but hope too comes out, from the roots of the planet. The hope is vested, ultimately, in the viewer. The hope is that, with the wisdom of what we have learnt from this film, we can find a route to stopping the juggernaut before it is too late, before this planet is wrecked. We can prevent the opening plot-device of Avatar – that the home of human civilisation is a deeply unjust place, that Earth is dying, that its ecosystems have been terminally wrecked – from becoming true. Avatar aims in this sense to be a self-defeating prophecy. It is a warning, we might say, from the future. From a possible future that we must work to ensure does not become actual.

The hope unleashed by the opening of Pandora’s box is vested in you. This is true of the original Greek tale, too, of course – hope is personified, at the bottom of the box; but hope is only actually real if it is individually and socially real. The hope offered by Pandora, by Avatar, is that you can be part of fighting, struggling, intelligently and non-violently, and successfully, to save us from the future gestured at in Avatar. This hope is slim. It rests on faith, faith beyond any realistic hope. Faith in ourselves and each other and our place, hope in this good Earth, hope even when – in fact, especially when [v] – all reasons for such hope have run out. The kind of faith that Nicolai Hartmann had in mind when, writing on love of the future ones, of our descendants and of posterity, he wrote: “The venture is great. Only a deep and mighty faith, permeating a person’s whole being, is equal to it. It is a faith of a unique kind, different from trust between man (sic.) and man, a faith which reaches out to the whole of things and can do no other than stake all it has.”  (P.308 of “Love of the remote”, in Partridge (ed.) Responsibilities to future generations.) (I return to this point in connection with the great philosophers of faith and hope, in the concluding sections of this paper, below.)

Landscape of 'Pandora' in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)

This film aims to overcome hopelessness, the kind of giving-up on humanity found in so many of the criticisms that critics have made of the film. So the film needs and (so) aims, first, to understand such hopelessness (i.e. to understand why hopelessness and cynicism are so attractive). It is not surprising then if a major reaction to the film is incomprehension of and more-or-less politically-motivated (which, I have suggested, is also psychologically-motivated, as a defence mechanism) resistance to it. Films such as this one invite you to dare to hope, and explore just why the invitation is so hard to accept – which can be particularly intolerable to someone who is tacitly determined to resist the invitation, out of a depressive certitude that they will not be able to cope with the likelihood of failure, if they dare to hope.

For the film’s is a very challenging invitation to accept, especially when there is so little hope. But it is precisely then that we need such daring invitations, in order to start to make possible what to the cool rational mind seems absurd to even contemplate. Avatar invites one to take the risk of hoping, of not giving up all faith in us and in life. Such that most of the resistance to it is in my view simply disguised hopelessness… Those scorning this film are those exactly most in need of its ‘therapy’. The resistance to Avatar is exactly what Avatar is about… If the film hadn’t provoked the kind of negative reactions that it has, in fact, one could be pretty confident that it wasn’t as great and as needful a film as it is…

This is exactly the kind of thing that Freud was thinking of when he spoke of the resistance to psychoanalysis as an inevitable feature of the rise of psychoanalysis, and exactly what Wittgenstein meant when he said that philosophical problems are ultimately problems of the will, not of the intellect. What we as a species need is not to become even cleverer; what we need is to want enough to get well, to sort ourselves out. We need to want enough – we need to will – the saving of our common future. We need to treat our own inclinations to resist a film like this not as intuitions to build on but as inclinations that themselves require philosophical/therapeutic treatment.

In what follows, I shall seek to fill out and justify these claims.

Avatar as self-reflexive cinema, its ideal viewer as self-reflexive, too
Avatar: The very title of the film is a metaphor for experiential identification. It can be usefully heard as alluding to playing video-games / computer-games, etc.[vi], as well as to the Hindu/Sanskrit sense of “avatar” as “god on Earth” or “God’ representative on Earth” (Think of Eywa’s ‘choosing’ Jake, soon after Neytiri meets him). The key point in Avatar (and again this is how the film being 3-D is important) is of course that the Na’vi people are REAL, are people [vii]… One’s avatar is engaged in a real-life life-or-death struggle, with the ‘hostile’ planet of Pandora – and, ultimately, with the American colonisers, etc. . And engaged in a struggle for recognition, in the sense of recognising (really seeing) and being recognised.[viii]

Neytirir and Jake, Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)

Here is how my thinkingfilm colleague Vincent Gaine puts the matter:[ix]
“While the avatar body is a form of augmentation, Avatar itself is riddled with these [with prosthetics], particularly visual augmentation, as Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisii) and Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) primarily view Pandora on screens and through visual filters and barriers. The film places Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), in his avatar body, directly within the forest of Pandora rather than in command of it. Many shots present Jake as dwarfed by the jungle that both he and viewer can marvel at rather than control.[x] Visual augmentation is also unreliable: when a remote controlled viewer has its camera destroyed, its pilot proclaims in complete helplessness: “I’m blind”. The instruments of the military personnel will not work in the Floating Mountains, and Jake comments that the soldiers must “fire line of sight” – use their eyes rather than devices.”

Of course, nestled within this quote is the paradox that it is only Jake’s ‘dropping’ into a body that makes all of this possible. The crucial opposition in the film, in the end, is between ‘dropping’ into something, whether a mechanical prosthetic or an avatar, and changing one’s lived consciousness. It is in the end only the latter that can actually yield enlightenment. 

Jake inhabiting his 'new body' in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (209)

As Joshua Clover sees, in calling the argument of the film “that what we might call “vertical jacking” (as Jake into his vat-grown avatar and, by extension, a terminal operator into a Predator drone in Afghanistan, or you into Second Life) is bad, as it takes the fundamental form of domination: one extending its will into another. Conversely, “horizontal jacking” (with its at least purported sharing of wills) is just fine, indeed, it’s “natural”, even if conducted via technological means. And it is in fact a necessity in the face of unnatural domination, providing an alter-globalization.” [xi]

Jake and his 'vat-grown avatar' in Avatar, dir James Cameron (2009)

This is why the story has to end with Jake’s enlightenment being completed not by remaining a drop-in, a dreamwalker, but fully one of ‘them’ – and with his eyes looking out at us inviting us to take a similar transformative journey.

Really seeing, and really being seen, as a dance of mutual acknowledgement and true vision. Arriving at the possibility of sharing, collectivising of will. That is the challenge of the avatar – the challenge is to recognise these ‘others’ as real, to come truly to acknowledge them, as different and as the same.[xii] But it is of course your task too, as the viewer. For what is the process of ‘becoming’ one’s avatar like? Is it like playing an intense prolonged character-based computer-game? Possibly; but isn’t it even more like watching a film? E.g. a film such as Avatar (or Bladerunner)? In a cinema, especially a 3-D cinema, one’s active involvement requires a kind of bodily passivity reminiscent of what is involved in going into one of those virtual-reality ‘coffins’ that the humans with avatars have, in Avatar. Not so much the kind of frenetic physical activity involved in a Wii or a computer-game. This is of course why our marine protagonist can have an avatar, even though he is paraplegic. While he ‘is’ in is avatar body, his own body is as immobile as ours is while we watch this film.

One might then suggest, I think, that Avatar is itself a metaphor for watching films, and especially for watching films like Avatar… Unless you are involved, and that means being a participant in the social practice of acknowledging or otherwise, then you are radically missing the point. But you also need to acknowledge the limits on what you can do ‘from the other side of the screen’. The ultimate implication of this film (and of films like it) then surely is that your actual life must be affected. Seeing is not enough. It is only a prequel to doing different. 

This film asks us to think about our own prone position in the cinema. It invites us to become unprone. To complete the film, and negate its hypothetical dystopian future in which the people of Earth have “killed their mother”, by leaving a prone position decisively behind, and becoming enlightened eco-warriors. With (y)our eyes truly open. 

·                The trees are a global network, sustaining life and consciousness 
·                We can link our consciousness with other language-using creatures and with other non-language-using animals (with or without the internet!)
·                Eywa is Gaia
·                The atmosphere is potentially lethal for us
·                The real wealth of the world is not in its shiny minerals, but in its life. (Recall Ruskin’s great words: “There is no wealth but life”.)
·                The nature of the world, in sum, is stunningly beautiful, and we can attune ourselves to it.

You have to change your life.

And: What does our jarhead hero do, what is one crucial activity that he engages in as he makes his personal transformation, his gradual staccato conversion to being on the side of the righteous, his going native? He makes a film… his video diary. From a fairly early stage in the film that we see, Avatar, the narrative is mostly (from) the film that he is himself making. One might think of this as a metonym for the (experience of making, or of really seeing the) film, Avatar… A film that records his (one’s) reluctant and surprising transformation into an eco-warrior… A film like Avatar… This is what James Cameron has done. So now: what are you going to do? This film about (making, and really seeing) films is a call for you to do something of a similar order. To take the kinds of actions that really seeing our world, really thinking and feeling and visualising our children to the seventh generation, will require.

The film’s protagonist, the one ‘chosen’ by Eywa, has to be an American, one of us, because unless we change (the world), then the future will be grim. For we, and not the world’s indigenous peoples
, are the ones who need to change our ways, to learn to see… (I am assuming that most TF readers are the members of Western ‘liberal capitalist’ societies, those of us with an ‘inner American’.)

Avatar’s invitation to you: to go beyond violence

Avatar powerfully motivates a (temporary) hatred of those American soldiers who continue to obey orders that are ecocidal and genocidal.[xiii] This will of course have been one of the things that got the goat of the right-wing American critics of the film. It is remarkable just how completely, in the massive final battle, one is just desperately willing the Na’vi to succeed in beating/killing/slaughtering their colonialist attackers: i.e. the ‘Western’ Earthlings: i.e. us. We are used to films in which we beat off alien attacks on Earth; that paradigm is inverted in Avatar, as the aliens try to beat off an attack from us; and Jake, one’s ‘avatar’ in the film, gradually, painfully comes full-heartedly to adopt their point of view rather than ‘ours’. Part of the therapeutic work of the film is to motivate and enable this striking and surprising (to most of the film’s intended audience) desire. And it connects with the point-of-view shot through which (in 3-D, recall), one sees the hatred on Neytiri’s face as she unlooses upon one the arrow that kills one’s Quaritch-self.[xiv] But, this is only a moment in the experience of the film; one does not end here. For when one has seen the film, one knows that the violent rebellion of the Na’vi, just and dignified though it was, and without alternative, failed

Neytiri's arrow in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
The deus ex machina that secures success and a happy ending is a deus ex Eywa, or a deus ex gaia; in short, a deus ex deus… But we know that a God is not going to save us. We have to do it ourselves. We have to find a way that works. We are going to have to persuade a helluva lot of people of this way; for the enemy, in consumer society, is us. Again: We are the ones devastating this planet, devastating the future. The call is to all of us, and a lot of us are going to have to answer it and respond intelligently and organise accordingly and persuade others to go with us on the journey to sustainability, if it is to succeed.

Avatar is in the end not a pro-violence film. It is not calling for violent ecological civil war. If you take the military on ‘head on’, you will likely lose. You need to use your head. You need in this sense to proceed head-first. Not only to rely on your heart. This point undercuts the criticism of the film sometimes made alleging that it is overly emotional or sentimental.

The therapeutic transformation that Avatar midwifes

Avatar begins with a closed set of eyes, those of our avatar in the film. It suggests that our eyes are closed. It ends with those same eyes, transformed into the eyes of a being who can now appreciate their embeddedness in the world and among others, the eyes of eco-sight, opening. It suggests that our eyes are now open. If we have really seen Avatar (“I see you”), it opens our eyes. It has opened our eyes.[xv] The film is one gigantic movement of a pair of eyes opening, and seeing as if for the first time. Your eyes.

Through the eyes of our hero being gradually opened, we come to experience this. But one must emphasise the word “gradually”. Just as in another important recent work of ‘therapeutic’, ‘transformative’ film-making, District 9, the process of therapeutic healing, the curing of our hero’s insanity - his failure to acknowledge, to understand - comes painfully slowly, reluctantly, surprisingly. So slowly that it almost comes altogether too late. It certainly comes too late to save Home Tree. And indeed the movie that our jarhead makes comes to be used against the person he is gradually becoming, as evidence.

This gradualness is important. It gives one as a viewer time. Time to make the journey oneself, and to wish that he were making it quicker, to manage sometimes to get ahead of him. As Wittgenstein held: in philosophy, a slow cure is all-important. Therapeutic works of film need to proceed in the same way. To really take your audience with you, they have to become more than your aud-ience. They mustn’t merely hear what you say: they have to really see. For themselves. They (we) too have to say, as Jake does half-way through his slow transformation: “I don’t know who I am any more”. They (we) have to go through, to work through, the therapeutic transition that the film invites them (us) into. This great work (on oneself) [xvi] cannot be rushed. (And thus the long running-time of Avatar can I think be justified. In film, in life, in philosophy, as Wittgenstein would have it: a slow cure is sometimes all important…)

I suggested above why our hero is a kind of everyman, exactly the kind of person who needs to take an avatarian journey, if our world is to be healed, saved. Now to give some further specifics: he is a middle-American. He has been betrayed by his country, by large corporations, deprived of decent medical care. He is healed by (as Nietzsche would put it: “Become who you are”) becoming himself, in love and care, in nature. Through coming to live as his avatar does; ultimately, through coming to be his avatar. Catching up with the being that walked ahead of him. 

This vision of becoming is set against the closest counterparts to the avatars in the film, their ‘other’: the giant robotic warrior suits that are used by humans without avatars to range out onto the surface of Pandora in. In the final confrontation between Colonel Quarritch on the one hand and Jake and Neytiri (and the animal on which she is riding) on the other, avatar (and Na’vi) are ranged against one of these industrial fighters. The contrast couldn’t be more striking. The avatar brings one into closer-than-close contact with the planet, with nature. One lives it. Whereas these suits seal oneself off from it and set one over against it. This is the opposition: the possibility for transformation and a possible finding of a harmony with an (unsentimentalised, red in tooth and claw[xvii]) nature, on the one hand, and military-industrial othering from nature, on the other. Avatars/people/animals - versus machines.

This othering, this distance from nature and from reality, contrasts strikingly with the achievements of Grace’s (Sigourney Weaver’s) anthropologists. (This connects also with the very clear echoes of Apocalypse Now in this film: Most notably, the way in which the military’s fleet of helicopters resemble flying insects but also resemble the Wagnerian helicopters of that film, and in the way in which the incendiaries remind one of what befell Vietnam, as famously depicted by Coppola.[xviii] Avatar encourages us, rightly, to want the American side to lose the war in Vietnam. That’s not ‘anti-American’; it’s anti-imperialist, and pro-human.)  Particularly striking about the robot-warrior-suits is that they don’t have any heads. The head, the intelligence, needs to be supplied by a human. Sadly, such intelligence is mostly lacking, in the colonisers that we meet on Pandora.

When the villain of the piece, the Marine Colonel Quaritch, is finally killed, it is by our hero’s lover, Neytiri. She transfixes him with two arrows. As the second hits him, we see it, in 3-D, in a point-of-view shot from his point of view. In other words: we experience his dying with him. The kind of American that he represents and that exists in most or all of us has to die. You have to die and be reborn. The film’s ‘message’ at moments like this, the therapeutic (healing) journey that it takes one on, is profound and deeply-challenging: You have to die, and be born again.

Marine Colonel Quaritch's death in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
The film confirms this more than once. Take the story at the start. Jake’s twin brother – a doppelganger for our hero and protagonist himself – is senselessly killed, we learn, at the start, on an Earth that has literally lost its sense(s). A powerful point of view shot places us for a little while inside his coffin (The coffin stands proxy for the body-chambers that will later transform humans such as Jake temporarily into avatars). We hear Jake’s words: “One life ends. Another begins.” Indeed; to be born again, first you have to (be willing to) die. (As Jake says, as he does his final video-log, and goes off to become a Na’vi forever: “It’s my birthday, after all”… Echoing his earlier remark (that of course echoes traditional ‘rites of passage’ ideas and practices that unfortunately we have become somewhat remote from today) that “The Na’vi say that every person is born twice. The second time, is when you earn your place among the people forever.”)

Even Quarritch confirms it, by offering an enlightenment narrative – of progress and of waking up – that points in the opposite direction. He asks Jake, in a powerful question emphasising how it is not easy for the viewer to make the transformation that the film asks for, how it feels “to betray your own race”, and goes on: “You think you’re one of them: Time to wake up”; and then starts to smash up the building in which Jake’s human form is almost prone, from which he is ‘dream-walking’, thus underlying once more the perilousness of an incomplete transformation, the danger of having (merely) an avatar, and so of not being fully (t)here. (Jake will only become safe from such an assault when he becomes fully Na’vi, as he does at the film’s end.)

The end of the film is happy. Because this is your birthday. This is the chance, this is the moment for you to die (or to already have died) and to be born again. Jake becomes his avatar. We can’t make such a transition, ourselves, physically. But we can – mentally, spiritually, and in terms of what we choose to do. This is the epochal transformation that Avatar aims to midwife.

Avatar as a work of therapeutic art: beyond propaganda and ‘message’

In my view, when one really understands films like Avatar, they don’t have generalised messages as such.[xix] Films such as this are not disguised bits of propaganda. They essentially involve the viewer. They guide the viewer on a proposed ‘journey’ – but the journey is psychically individual, as well as partly collective (I think it is important that we see these films in cinemas). The specificities of each person’s journey will be different; and indeed, one may refuse altogether to take the journey (as many critics have done). Part of my account of such films is inevitably autobiographical. I am allegorising my reading/viewing of these films. The ‘message’ that I speak of is in this film thus the message for me; and everyone, each person, must in this way speak for themselves. There is a call to honesty here.

These films do not make arguments. They rather offer (what Wittgenstein calls) therapy. This is philosophy not as theory nor as quasi-factive impersonal claim, but as a process that one must work through for oneself. A process of thinking, and feeling (and then acting). It is different from the idea of philosophy to which we are accustomed; it sits ill with the idolatry of science which lies at the heart of our civilisation.[xx] So much the worse for that idolatry. It is idolatry of science and the taking of technology as a ‘neutral’ tool that has got us into the mess we are in. Avatar dramatises and extends the logic of this. Thus we should expect that a non-scientistic vein of philosophy, such as Wittgenstein offers, is what is appropriate to help us understand how to extricate ourselves from that mess. Our expectation is not disappointed. These films are works, like Wittgenstein’s writing, designed to heal. But healing, healing of one’s mind, one’s body-self, and of one’s world, is an art, not a science, and is through and through processual.

Thus films such as Avatar [xxi]are not (unlike video-games) escapist. They provide an illusion of escape. Actually, they return one to oneself and to the world. Ready to know it for the first time.

This is what I see in these films. These thinking-films. But I believe it is to a greater or lesser extent, consciously or unconsciously, what many millions of others see too. I believe that I am tapping here into the reasons for the vast popular success of these films. Avatar can easily be seen as a predictable and just very shiny exercise in cheese, or as a predictable ‘anti-American’ rant. Many critics have responded to Avatar either from ‘the Left’ (with cynicism and a knowing superiority to such alleged sentimentalism, romanticism and superficiality, or even with allegations that the film is itself tacitly racist against indigenous peoples, against the disabled, etc. as discussed above) or from ‘the Right’ (with anger against the attack within the film on cultural norms, on American militarism, etc.). It is the critics from ‘the Right’ who are if anything closer to the truth, I think, despite themselves. As I set out above, the film is shocking, in the extent to which, when one experiences it closely, – when one experiences for instance that arrow transfixing and killing one’s American / military / racist / speciesist self, so that the world can be saved, and so that in due course Jake can be fully reborn as a Na’vi – the journey it proposes and offers takes one far indeed from one’s comfort-zone.

Jake's transformation from human to Na'vi in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)

And all this is of course why Avatar is a film (or film-series) that might just save the world... The struggle to save human civilisation from decisively rupturing and destroying its life-support is a struggle to change the minds and the practices of millions - billions - of people. How can one reach such numbers? Well, for starters: how about through the most successful film(s) ever? Through a film(s) that issues a call, that midwifes a change in conscience and in consciousness? A film that requires an emotional, a thoughtful and a practical response, and that suggests that, outside of a fairy tale, there is a route that needs to be found and (with will) can be found to ensure that the future that it depicts for Earth does not come to be?

This is the philosophy we need for the 21st century. The groundwork for it was created by Pascal and (better) by Kierkegaard and (best) by William James (and, as already intimated, by Wittgenstein). If we look to reason and to the facts to give us hope, then our hope will die. We need to reason and we need science and we need to stay in touch with the facts; but above and before and beyond all that we need to trust, to have faith, to believe even when reason says that there is no reasonable hope, no reasonable doubt about the fate that lies in store for us. In Pascal’s terms:[xxii] if we do not wager, if we do not try to act as if there is a chance that we can save ourselves, if we refuse to take the risk of holding out hope that we may be able to save ourselves, then certainly we will fail to save ourselves. In Kierkegaard’s terms (from Fear and Trembling): faith, when there is little or no hope, can work miracles. It can create what is otherwise humanly impossible. In James’s terms: we have the right (the ‘will’) to believe some things – such as to have confidence in our own goodness, in humanity having the capacity to achieve balance and ecological sanity - even without evidence;[xxiii] and, without the will so to believe, we will in such cases lose our only chance to achieve the fruits of such belief. In Wittgenstein’s terms: this philosophy is a therapy for our individual and cultural illness, dis-ease: rather than some new theory, we need to change our way of life, so that the problems which form this illness that we are trying here to treat no longer arise.

We need then, despite everything, to have faith, to hold out hope, to care, to cure.

If you find yourself resisting what I am saying in this paper, it may be because what I am saying is wrong, or silly, or whatever; or it may be because you are not quite ready to embrace these teachings and make them your own. Those cynics who look down on or dismiss Avatar, or indeed accuse it of being reactionary or racist (and in doing so, simply mirror those foolish and dogmatic critics who accuse it of being ‘anti-American’), are as I have said simply engaging in more of the same of what is present and overcome in Avatar: the attractions of the tendency to retreat. To give up hope. The very temptations analysed by Avatar provide the main reason why so many are unprepared to embrace them, and prefer instead to back away from them; to stand aloof from - ‘above’ - them.

Avatar ‘literalises’ – it shows - what is metaphorically true of our world:

Furthermore: The tree of souls is a metaphor for and visualises for us that imagination, dreaming, needn’t be privatised. It can be collective. This is why Avatar should if possible be watched in the cinema. This is why too it can be inspiring for instance to look at the huge trail of positivity that you can find on the #Avatar hashtag on Twitter. I think that something unusual is happening with Avatar. It has achieved already a level of inspiration that is most unusual for a movie. It is actually, it would seem, inspiring a more ecological consciousness among a large semi-collectivity of people.[xxiv]

The call of the film is a call to re-enchant and to replenish and to restore the ecosystems of our fragile world. The only world we’ve got. What we have to do first is to say (and mean it) “I see you” to others, and to the world. As Jay Michaelson puts it:
“In the Na’Vi cosmology, what’s really happening is the Eywa in me is connecting with the Eywa in you. This is echoed in their greeting, “I see you”, a direct translation of the Sanskrit Namaste, which means the same thing. (“Avatar” is also from the Sanskrit, though the film plays on the word’s two meanings, of an image used in a role-playing game, and a deity appearing on Earth). As the Na’Vi explain in the film, though, “I see you” doesn’t mean ordinary seeing – it, like Namaste, really means “the God in me sees the God in you.”” [xxv]

As Norm teaches Jake, of what the true meaning of “I see you” is: “I see you, I see into you, I see who you really are.” The story of the film is the story of Jake struggling with this,[xxvi] and eventually, after terrible setbacks, learning to realise it. The story of the film as a transformative therapeutic encounter is the story of you struggling with this, and learning to realise it.

How do we get to the point of being able to do this, to truly say “I see you” to everything and everyone? Well, first-off, as I’ve already implied: By really seeing this film. By as it were saying “I see you” to Avatar

As pointed out above, Gaia is not going to ride to the rescue. In our world, we have to do this ourselves. We have to succeed on behalf of Gaia. We are unlikely to do so by taking up arms. We need heroism, but even more we need the ordinary virtues of dignity, care, steadfastness. We need to gird ourselves for a long struggle. All of this is there, implicit, in AvatarAvatar tells us that if we attack the machine head on, we’ll lose. It wisely counsels a more intelligent, less direct approach – though just as radical. Its ‘message’ for us is implicitly one of non-violent revolution. It is a call to transformation of self and of world.

The argument that I have made in this essay, I believe, requires some courage. It requires some courage for you to enter into it and accept it, and make it your own, and not to condescend or even express contempt, as many reviewers of Avatar have. Along the lines laid out above (from Kierkegaard and James and Wittgenstein), I’m taking a risk in saying this, and you are taking a risk if you believe it. It is ‘safer’ to remain on the barren heights of cleverness and intellectual superiority, to mock the pretensions of a massive and popular commercial enterprise such as the making of a film like this. It is particularly tempting to look down on a popular film, to ‘prove’ yourself superior to it – because then you are by implication ‘superior’ to the tens or hundreds of millions who love it…

But I think that the risk of opening yourself to Avatar and to hope is well worth taking. The sterility and (in the end) systematic unsafety of the alternative – of trusting to business as usual, hoping only for techno-fixes, staying in denial and distancing oneself from nature - is something that we know, in our hearts, in our souls, in our bones. We know it when we dare to feel the Earth beneath our feet (just as we experience Jake doing when his avatar runs for the first time). Avatar teaches and expresses a love of the physical, and of the biological. A willingness to embrace our animal nature, and to love life. And a determination to enable future people to do the same.

It is relatively easy for academics and critics to feel secure, at the moment, in the citadels of the mind. But it won’t stay easy. It is time to come down into the green fields and forests and jungles of physicality, of play, of imagination, of daring to dream. Of daring to hope.

Daring to hope that we may yet have the courage to save ourselves. To share a common will to prevent ecocide, and to achieve the glorious potential of life.

[Thanks to numerous colleagues and friends, especially Vincent Gaine and Ruth Makoff, for help with this piece.]

[i] I mean the word “feel” emotionally/metaphorically, here. 3-D isn’t yet virtual reality. But in Avatar, seeing literally is believing, and you are asked to feel what you see and what you believe. So the metaphor is not an empty one. Seeing is believing within the film’s diegesis, and therefore the viewer’s vicarious position in relation to the characters is more pronounced than is usual even in ‘realistic’ films.
[ii] P.25 of “The Avatar effect”, in Permaculture Magazine 64 (2010), pp.25-6.        
[iii] Think once more of how the atmosphere is apparently poison to humans; and how Pandora brings the worst out of human nature at first – see below. (For the original myth, see e.g. Pandora’s box)
[iv] The use of scare-quotes is advised: the very concept of ‘natural resources’ is a piece of unspeak that aims to make the exploitation of the world easier. As Heidegger has pointed out, treating the world as a ‘standing-reserve’ for the use of humankind is a deadly error. A ‘saving power’ needs to arise to counter this. Which is why Jay Michaelson puts the pantheistic (or perhaps panentheistic) cosmology of the Na’vi forth, as an alternative to such a way of thinking: “The sky god tells us that we humans are masters of the Earth; thus, we, like the humans in Avatar treat Earth as a resource to be exploited.” (See his “The meaning of Avatar: everything is God”, in the Huffington Post, 22 Dec. 2009.)
[v]   As Kierkegaard makes very clear: Faith is necessary, and faith is most truly faith, when it is absurd. As in the Warsaw ghetto uprising; or in the last moments at Helm’s Deep. See also below.
[vi] Cameron has said that the choice of title predates the widespread use of the term ‘avatar’ in the computer games context. He has said that while the film was in the making so long, the title was decided early on in that process. So at that time he certainly was not aware of the computer-game use of the term. However, even if that's all true (which it presumably is), then the choice to KEEP the title over the decade the film has been in preparation, as this term 'avatar' has come into general circulation with this meaning that I refer to above, is suggestive. Cameron (and the distributors etc.) must have considered the question as to whether this title would attract people, put them off, be misleading, etc. . So I think it remains true to say that the film consciously messes with the computer-games use of the term ‘avatar’. The point is that the two uses look very similar, but that one is missing the whole point of the film, if one stops at that (superficial) similarity. Avatar has a meaning for the real world that one is required to work for and experience, in a way that is just not so in most computer/video-games, which tend to be essentially escapist (Though there is no inevitability that they must be so, and hopefully that will change, in the future.).
[vii]  In this way, Avatar is closely-connected with some of the other great philosophical films of the modern day, such as BladeRunnerFightClubMementoDistrict 9.(See on these my next piece for TF…)
[viii] Think of unmanned drones flying over Iraq, Afghanistan; how easy is it for the ‘pilots’ in Las Vegas or wherever to acknowledge the humanity of those that they are ‘zapping’? Isn’t this in fact one of the main points of modern warfare/genocides – to try to distance the perpetrators from the reality of their actions? …Avatar is interested in the cowardliness and alienating possibilities inherent in killing at a distance.
[ix] In an impressive forthcoming paper entitled “Look at the shiny shiny!: Narrative deficiencies and visual pleasures in Avatar”. Compare also my discussion below of the confrontation of machine vs. avatar/Na’vi.
[x]  Even the final visual of the entire film, as the credits roll, is a point of view shot of flying through the sky of Pandora, and descending into the canopy of the forest. This is in so many powerful ways a biophilic and deep-ecological film. It almost seems to suggest, with this final visual, that we have to become the rainforest, to identify with it.
[xi] P.6 of his “The struggle for space”, op.cit. .
[xii] In this connection, the task of the protagonist in Avatar is identical to Deckard’s, in BladeRunner – see Mulhall’s writing thereon.
[xiii] In this respect once more it rhymes with the similarly ‘boom-boom’ climax of a similarly deep transformative and therapeutic film, District 9. It is shocking to find how much one wants the protagonist in that film to kill the South African soldiers. But I think that the deus ex aiwa that alone gives success, in Avatar, takes Avatar a stage further than District 9 into realising that there is no military solution to problems such as these. We have, rather, truly to win ‘hearts and minds’. In part, through films such as these… Additionally, District 9 differs crucially from Avatar in that the former ends with our protagonist, Wikus, still desperately wanting to become human again, while the latter ends, contrariwise, with our protagonist completing the transformation away from being human. Both have opened to truly seeing the other: thus by the end of District 9 the ‘prawns’ have become persons to us. But the transition away from human-centrism is far more complete in Avatar.
[xiv] This movement is similar to the central, brilliant conceit of Justin Leiber’s novel, Beyond Rejection: that the way to start to feel truly at home in a body not one’s own is to learn to hate one’s current body and way of living and what it stood for.
[xv] I'm reminded of Wittgenstein's great remark about FALLING asleep being like doing philosophy. You can't FORCE it. Going into one of the 'coffins' in Avatar is (obviously) like falling asleep. So is watching the film (similarly to The Matrix) - you have to _live_ the dream... Actively, but without forcing the experience in a way that destroys it. (Compare also the delicate balance in lucid dreams between staying lucid and waking up.)
[xvi] Here I am thinking of Thomas Berry’s concept of ‘the great work’; and of Wittgenstein’s remark that work in philosophy, like work in architecture, is really work on oneself.
[xvii] There are no fluffy bunnies on Pandora, and no Aslans (for Aslan is little more than a human (to be precise: a Jesus) in lion’s clothing; whereas the animals in Avatar remain animals). As Quarritch sees it: “If there is a Hell, you might wanna go there for some R and R after a tour on Pandora. Out there beyond that fence, every living thing that crawls, flies or squats in the mud wants to kill you.” This is classic nature-hatred; what it gets right is that, without a ‘social model’ of how to live in and cope with a natural world, without a willingness to listen to it and adapt to it, as the Na’vi have, it cannot but seem hostile.
[xviii] There are also explicit tip-offs in the film, most notably the large helicopter being called Valkyrie1b.
[xix] This is one reason why organs like the Daily Mail, which unsurprisingly attacks and mocks Avatar, cannot understand it, and seeks to do so only though crude simplification.
[xx] Justification of this claim that we have an idolatry of science and technology, and that seeing technology as ‘neutral’ is dangerous, can be found in Heidegger’s The question concerning technology, and in my own work on the philosophy of science. This is of course not to rail pointlessly against all technology: there remains a vast role for science and technology in making our lives better, in preventing disaster (think of climate science), and indeed in making films like Avatar…  But a healthy, non-scientistic relationship with science and technology, giving up the fantasy of inevitable ‘progress’, is some way from where we currently are. (For clues towards it, one valuable text is Joel Kovel’s The enemy of nature.)
[xxi] Another film(s) I would mention in this connection is the Lord of the Rings trilogy – see my account thereof in my Philosophy for life (Continuum, 2007).
[xxii] Especially as riffed on by Chomsky: see e.g. p.355 of an interview, collected in D. Barsamian (ed.) Chronicles of Dissent, Stirling, Scotland: AK Press (1992).
[xxiii] This is not to say that there is no such evidence (historical, neurological, evolutionary, etc.) of fundamental human goodness – there is a huge amount of it! Rather, it is to say that such evidence is always ‘imponderable’, never decisive, often countered or undercut. Something more is needed, to undergird our collective action and self-confidence. It is also to say that, even if there were no such evidence, then such faith would still remain our only hope of salvation, our only way not to ensure self-destruction through fatalism, inaction, pessimism, and consequent self-destructive behaviour. Finally, it is to reiterate that we can make things possible that seem impossible, that we can create our own future. That the results of the miracles and ‘fairy-tales’ that Avatar depicts can be made real, given enough human willpower, determination, love, and faith.
[xxiv] In this connection, I look forward to the results of the Avatar Audience Research project.
[xxvi] Compare for instance his early remark, “I sure hope this tree-hugging stuff isn’t on the final.”


  1. You might find this interesting. The Top 10 Eco Films of All Time


  2. Si je comprend bien, l’auteur de l’article sugere que Thierry Guetta pourrai en fait etre la veritable identité de Banksy ? Même si je trouve l’idée tres séduisante et « romantique » malheuresement elle n’est que peu plausible.