Sunday, 17 January 2010

Conrad, Achebe and Cameron: A Critical Response to Will Heaven's Critique of Avatar

[Spoiler Warning! The final paragraph in this post does contain a slight spoiler for Avatar. If you have not yet seen the film and intend to, you may want to postpone reading this post (or at the very least its final paragraph)]

As my last blog post expressed my thoughts on and appreciation for James Cameron's Avatar, I would like to take the opportunity to offer a critical response to a rather severe critique of the film, written by Will Heaven in his Telegraph blog post "James Cameron's Avatar Is a Stylish Film Marred by Its Racist Subtext". Heaven writes:
Pandora is to Cameron what Africa was to Joseph Conrad – it's another, fictional 'Heart of Darkness', a place where a cruel imperial power subjects what is (perhaps unwittingly) depicted as a lesser race. Chinua Achebe, Conrad's fiercest critic, wrote that "Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as 'the other world,' the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality." Almost the exact same could be said of Avatar.
While I would agree that Cameron's film makes use of a romanticised literary or narrative stereotype of the "native" or the "savage" (which in itself can be discussed and problematised), I think Heaven makes way too much out of his Conrad reference and ends up doing Achebe no justice at all. Achebe's infamous article "An Image in Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" indeed criticises Conrad's text heavily for using Africa as a backdrop to his criticism of civilisation and white men's greed. Most of all because Conrad never inverts or in any way plays with the binary relationships between good and evil, light and dark, white and black, but rather suggests that civilisation and white men can be just as evil, dark and black as Africa and the Africans. Achebe argues that Africa in Conrad's text is reduced to being a literary backdrop for an extremely white story, that of Kurtz's fall into darkness, as it were. And there's the rub.

Heaven argues that "Almost the exact same could be said of Avatar" and I find that disingenuous. In what sense, does Cameron's film project the image of Africa as "the other world"? In fact, if anything, Cameron's film projects another world. After all, Pandora unlike Conrad's Africa (or Dark Continent) is another world, and as such is freer to be projected as a backdrop or even an antithesis of civilisation. Clearly there are intertextual touch points between Cameron's film and Conrad's text, but Cameron escapes the burden of representing an actual Africa in a manner that Conrad could not. Whereas Conrad is criticised by Achebe for using Africa as a backdrop, Cameron, strictly speaking, simply isn't. As stated, the film does indeed draw upon a romanticised literary or narrative stereotype of the"native" or the "savage" (which agreeably, and as also stated, is far from unproblematic), but as this image of a "native" or "savage" is disjointed from an actual place — is in fact invented as a new people, a new species even, rooted in an other place — it is the critic himself who infers it to be anything akin to an actual representation of "Africa".

Heaven further argues that:
As Left-wing conceits go, this one surely tops all the others: the ethnic Na'vi, the film suggests, need the white man to save them because, as a less developed race, they lack the intelligence and fortitude to overcome their adversaries by themselves. The poor helpless natives, in other words, must rely on the principled white man to lead them out of danger.
All of which seems to miss a lot of what is actually going on in the film. If anything, the Na'vi is presented (albeit in a very romanticised fashion) as morally and ecologically superior to "us". As such, they are clearly an idealisation which (despite being positive rather than negative) may not be a proper representation of indigenous people anywhere on Earth, but that, I would argue, is fine in the sense that they are not such a representation. They are an idealised version of a stereotypical and generalised idea of what constitutes a "native" or a "savage"; of something very much along the line of the Romantics' yearning for man to be closer to nature. But this closeness to nature is, in the case of the Na'vi (and as stressed by Sigourney Weaver's scientist character in the film), conceptualised as a biological fact. The Romantic ideal is thus presented as a biological reality, a measurable reality.

Furthermore, the notion that the Na'vi lack intelligence seems somewhat ludicrous. They are clearly more apt at learning English than Sam Worthington's character Jake Sully is at learning Na'vi (though it is of some importance to note that Sully also works on learning the Na'vi language). Thus, if it is the superior technology at the hands of the corporation (which indeed proves to be something of an uneven match for the Na'vi) that is the problem for Heaven here, I would counter with the argument that this actually offers a truthful account matching that of our history books, where the colonial enterprise of (in particular) white men has repeatedly devastated cultures less technologically advanced. The more prominent question to my mind, would be why Heaven is so ready to accept technological advances as the only signs of an advanced culture? From my point of view, the film rather suggests that the technological advancement (and the way it is used) reveals a lack of sophistication. The fact that the cruel application of this technology (by the corporation and its armed forces) is beyond anything that the both morally and ecologically speaking more highly evolved Na'vi could themselves really imagine is hardly a damning statement about them, is it?

Besides, I find it to be a somewhat dubious a claim to argue that it is Sully's actions that save the day in the end. It is true enough that his actions do contribute and that the Na'vi do need that contribution. Particularly in the sense that it allows a culture foreign to it, a peek into the destructive mindset of our own culture as well a better understanding of their adversary's modus operandi. All that being said, at the end of the day it is actually Eywa (i.e. what one could arguably describe, more or less, as Pandora's planetary consciousness), and not Sully, which saves the day.

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