why don’t we side with the humans in avatar?

15 04 2010

by Sam Parsa

Recently director James Cameron returned after 12 years of absence since his Titanic (1997) to make Avatar. Costing somewhere between $200 to 300 million to make and returning a profit of over $1 billion, Avatar is a sci-fi film about a hired crew of humans who take over a planet called Pandora in 2154 in order to exploit its resources – mainly a substance called unobtanium.

Predictably, the large company of soldiers (and ex-Marines) are equipped with huge battleships and robot-soldiers. These end up being very hostile to the Na’vi, the native humanoid species, who are very traditional with their own strong cultural and religious traditions. As expected and as commentated by many, the storyline resembles the invasion of Iraq. However apart from the predictable romance between the native girl and the heroic white man, the story has a little twist: some of the scientists decide to defect to the Na’vi side, organise them, fight back with the humans and even win the battle.

Žižek, the popular Marxist philosopher, has already written a necessary critique of Cameron’s superficial “Hollywood Marxism” and the predictable idealist, and patronisingly racist elements of this film, published in the New Statesman of 4th March.

However another interesting dimension of this film arises during the latter parts, during the fight against the human crew. Curiously, during this part the audience find themselves on the side with the Na’vis, almost intuitively, after being moved by the courage of the defectors instead of the humans who are all either killed or captured.

Some baffling questions that arise are (a) Why is it that we find ourselves on the side with the Na’vis? And (b) doesn’t this just mean that it is human to be just?

It is not a surprise that our individual social identity and behaviour are somewhat flexible and dependent on a particular group or social situation.

However, as we find for example in the case of animal rights activism, we may also rank the idea of justice and ethics, themselves both concepts we have made up, above our identity as humans. So does this challenge the idea that being just and fair is very human? This is not so clear, as it also leaves the question: why is it also true that it is always humans who exploit others, independent of whether the others are human or not?

In appreciating these points, we can refer to the two major leading ideas in the modern approach to human nature: philosophical and scientific (respectively, psychological and mathematical).

In this regard Marx wrote about human nature as a species-essence dominated by social relations and incarnated instinctively in each individual. In Marx’s view, while humans are essentially like any other animal, they have potentials which the individual can be alienated from, under capitalism:

“Man [sic] is directly a natural being. As a natural being and as a living natural being he is on the one hand endowed with natural powers, vital powers – he is an active natural being. These forces exist in him as tendencies and abilities – as instincts. On the other hand, as a natural, corporeal, sensuous objective being he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature, like animals and plants. That is to say, the objects of his instincts exist outside him, as objects independent of him; yet these objects are objects that he needs – essential objects, indispensable to the manifestation and confirmation of his essential powers” (1844, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts).

In more contemporary philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre based his existential approach on a simple but important concept: existence precedes essence. This shifts the emphasis from the natural essence of a person, to their conscious, decision-making being. Thus, whatever essence we may have individually as persons or collectively as a species, it must follow our conscious, decision making existence. It is this ‘condemnation’ to the ‘freedom to choose’ which the existentialist tradition is based on.

We may then ask: how unique are we in our decision making? Leading evolutionary psychologists such as Steve Pinker have recently argued strongly for the idea of human nature. This conclusion relies on the idea that in psychological research in the last century we can find trends in human behaviour, and this implies some universal boundaries in the complex and contradictory human mind and behaviour. Although at first this may seem to oppose the Sartrian hypothesis, one may argue that they can also complement each other.

With advancement of all science towards a mathematical approach we are likely to find the most scientific understanding of human nature in applied mathematics, chaos theory and the new field of complex systems.

In the prominent complex theory of sync, which can find in the writings of such scholars as Steven Strogatz, the only way we can begin to understand the essentially contradictory nature of human behaviour, is through appreciating the complexity of the systems which can give birth to it.

It is certainly true that our human brain, as a product of evolution and natural selection, has become better at identifying the repeating patterns emerging through the chaos of the millions of variables affecting each situation that requires conscious or unconscious decision making.

So to return to our question, one thing to note from watching Avatar is that no particular notion, whether it is justice or even a sense of human identity, necessarily has a ‘natural’ dominance over our decision making.

So while superficial “Hollywood Marxism” may create a fantasy world where rebellion is justified and the audience are moved by a seemingly justifiable violent struggle, even against humans, this simply raises question marks over how real struggles today are portrayed in liberal-democratic society.

Our feelings and decisions at any particular time rely on many factors and we cannot rely on people to make decisions in any particular way out of ideology. Rather, we must seek to challenge the currently-existing cultural hegemony as to create the environment for less alienated social relations.

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One response

25 05 2011
Kaze no Kae

What it says to me is that the capacity for justice – which I would argue is inherent to sentience, ie self-awareness and the accompanying capacity to make judgements not predetermined by biological reflex, rather than humanity – transcends all identities, including the human identity. Although depending on your stance on the animal rights debate this may or may not actually have any implications for the present day, artificial sentience and/or other observably sentient life has yet to be part of the equation.




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