Thoughts on James Cameron's Avatar and Neal Stephenson's "Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out"

Despite reading Greg Egan’s brilliant review of Avatar, I saw the movie. The strangest thing about Avatar is its anti-corporate, anti-technological argument. Let me elaborate: there are wonderful anti-corporate, anti-technological arguments to be made, but it seems contrived for them to be made in a movie that is, for the time being, apparently the most expensive ever made; virtually all mainstream movies are now approved solely on their profit-generating potential. So a vaguely anti-corporate movie is being made by… a profit-driven corporation.

The movie is among the most technically sophisticated ever made: it uses a crazy 2D and 3D camera, harnesses the most advanced computer animation techniques imaginable, and has advanced the cinematic state-of-the-art. But Avatar’s story is anti-technological: humans destroyed their home world through environmental disaster and use military might to annihilate the locals and steal their resources. Presumably, if Avatar’s creators genuinely believed that technology is bad, the movie itself would never have been made, leading to a paradox not dissimilar for those found in time travel movies.

Avatar also has a bunch of vaguely mythical elements, including some scenes that look like the world’s biggest yoga class. The Na’avi, an oppressed people modeled on American Indians, or at least American Indians as portrayed in 20th Century American movies, fight against an interstellar military using bows, arrows, horses, and flying lizards. They live in harmony with the world to an extent that most Westerners can probably barely conceive of, given that more people probably visit McDonald’s than national parks in a given year.

So why are we fascinated with the idea of returning to nature, as though we’re going to dance with wolves, when few of us actually do so? Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness may offer a clue: he cites Wilhelm Worringer’s essay, “Abstraction and Empathy,” which posits that art emphasizes, in de Botton’s words, “[…] those values which the society in question was lacking, for it would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply with in itself.” We live (presumably) happy lives coddled in buildings that have passed inspection, with takeout Chinese readily available, and therefore we fantasize about being mauled by wild beasts and being taken off the omnipresent grid, with its iPhones and wireless Internet access. We live in suburban anomie and therefore fantasize about group yoga. We make incredibly sophisticated movies about the pleasures of a world with no movies at all, where people still go through puberty rituals that don’t involve Bar Mitzvahs, and mate for life, like Mormons.

Neal Stephenson wrote a perceptive essay called “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” which examines the underlying cultural values in the older and newer Star Wars films. I would’ve linked to it earlier but frankly can’t imagine anyone returning here afterwards. Therefore I’ll quote an important piece of Stephenson:

Anakin wins that race by repairing his crippled racer in an ecstasy of switch-flipping that looks about as intuitive as starting up a nuclear submarine. Clearly the boy is destined to be adopted into the Jedi order, where he will develop his geek talents – not by studying calculus but by meditating a lot and learning to trust his feelings. I lap this stuff up along with millions, maybe billions, of others. Why? Because every single one of us is as dependent on science and technology – and, by extension, on the geeks who make it work – as a patient in intensive care. Yet we much prefer to think otherwise.

Scientists and technologists have the same uneasy status in our society as the Jedi in the Galactic Republic. They are scorned by the cultural left and the cultural right, and young people avoid science and math classes in hordes. The tedious particulars of keeping ourselves alive, comfortable and free are being taken offline to countries where people are happy to sweat the details, as long as we have some foreign exchange left to send their way. Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.

The tedious particulars of modern technological life are both embraced and avoided in Avatar too. The villain, rather than being political chaos, organized oppression, ignorance, entropy, or weak/ineffective institutions, to name a few of the real but abstract contemporary bad guys, is instead replaced by an army / mercenary commander who might be at home in Xe Services / Blackwater USA. The military villainy and disdain for superior firepower in Avatar is especially odd, given that the United States has held the technological advantage in major wars for at least a century; the people watching Avatar are probably also the ones who support our troops. The studio that made Avatar probably cares more about quarterly statements than about the environment. The movie villains, however, apparently aren’t being restrained by an intergalactic EPA.

Avatar is really a Western about the perils of modernity, but it gets contemporary politics utterly wrong—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that contemporary politics are utterly absent. There is no intergalactic criminal court or committee for the protection of indigenous peoples, which seems like a probable development for a race nursed on Star Trek and post-colonialism and that is advanced enough to travel the stars. In the contemporary United States, a bewildering array of regulations govern activities that might have an environmental impact on communities; the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), for example, requires that federal agencies to monitor and report on their activities. Such regulations are growing, rather than shrinking. They’re a staple bogeyman of right-wing radio.

But in Avatar, decisions aren’t made at the future equivalent of the Copenhagen summit. Instead, they’re fought in battles reminiscent of World War I, or the Civil War, leavened with some personal combat. The battles are jarring but anachronistic, although maybe Iraq War II: The Sequel would’ve turned out better if George Bush and Saddam Hussein had dueled with swords, but that’s not how wars are fought any more. And when one side has machine guns and the other side doesn’t, you get something as nasty as World War I, where all the élan, spirit, and meditation in the world didn’t stop millions of people from dying.

My implicit argument isn’t perfect: Avatar does criticize our reliance on oil through the parable of the cleverly named “unobtainium,” but the thrust of the movie is unambiguous. We want to fantasize that solutions are as simple as putting a hole in the right guy, which will make things right again. That’s probably a comforting notion, and an easy one to fit into a two- to three- hour movie with a three-part arc, but it’s also a wrong one, and one that ignores or abstracts the world’s complexity. The people who tend to rule the world are the ones who pay attention to how the world really is, rather than how it was, or how they would like it to be. The real question is whether we are still people who see how the world is.

The year's best in reading, not in publishing

Like D.G. Myers, I don’t find much interest in “year’s best” lists and the like. Most of them are, as he says, boring; maybe that has something to do with the nature of the list and the arbitrary divisions that we use to mark milestones in our lives.

That being said, I read a lot, and I’d prefer to write about what’s new to me, rather than what happens to be published in a particular 12 month period. Last year I wrote about “pointless listmaking,” and I’m reminded of a comment from Rob, the narrator of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, when he’s at a party given by an ex-girlfriend:

The difference between these people and me is that they finished college and I didn’t… as a consequence, they have smart jobs and I have a scruffy job, they are rich and I am poor, they are self-confident and I am incontinent, they do not smoke and I do, they have opinions and I have lists.

(Emphasis added. The novel’s first sentence involves a list: “My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order: 1. Alison Ashworth…”)

Umberto Eco likes lists, or at least studies them. As previously mentioned, he said that “The list is the origin of culture.” Being the origin, however, is very different from being the destination, or the evolution, of culture, and so in that light the list might be a primitive device that is still nonetheless useful to consider. As such, after a great deal of meta commentary regarding the nature of the activity in which I’m about to engage, I’m going to give a non-numbered, non-ordered list of books I happened to read in the previous 12-month period that are books I now recommend to others, found moving, or otherwise think deserve special attention.

* Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game, which I keep meaning to write about and then not doing. If one were writing an ad for the novel, it could say, accurately, “Did you love The Shadow of the Wind? Then you’ll love The Angel’s Game!” The two novels are written in the same half-mocking Gothic style, are both set in Barcelona, and both deal with murder, love, and literature.

* Max Jamison, Wilifred Sheed’s improbably hilarious novel about an unhappy theater critic.

* The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s take on what magic school might seem like to those who are already aware of magic school and fantasy conventions. As with real school, nobility takes front seat to sex and power, which occupy the back. I also read (and haven’t written about) Donna Tart’s The Secret History, which features school and murder in a surprisingly pleasant literary package.

* Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness ought to be required reading for those who are alive.

* John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.

One nice part about reading is that books are effectively inexhaustible: given constraints on time, no one can read everything worthwhile (although Harold Bloom is apparently trying). Therefore we need developed opinions, yes, but we also need pointers to books that are worth having developed opinions about, and to my mind the handful of books above meet that criterion. Apologies to those of you who have read this far and just wanted a couple books to read, and to those of you who think the whole idea of lists so noxious and boring that, even with the aforementioned meta commentary, you don’t know how you managed to get this far into the post.

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