Avatar and Anthropology

I must be one of the last people to see Avatar (in full 3D, which made me quite dizzy), so I have missed out on some interesting discussions about its portrayal of indigenous people and military politics.  The most interesting of these is David Price questioning the ethics of ’embedded’ anthropology.   http://www.counterpunch.org/price12232009.html

However, I have some other bones to pick about the film’s portrayal of ‘the others’  and – spoiler alert – I may have some issues with the ending!

1) Why are tribal societies always portrayed as ‘primitive’?  And why are we fascinated with precisely those aspects of their culture that make them seem more childish and irrational?

2)  Why is primitive perceived as being closer to nature and therefore inherently better?  Hunters/gatherers can be quite ruthless plunderers of the forests as well.

3) Why are the Na’vi studied and examined like exotic butterflies to be pinned down, even by the scientists who are supposedly so empathetic?

4) Why are the Na’vi not invited to the negotiation table and treated as equals?  Because they do not have a programme for building nuclear weapons?

5) Can you think of one happy ending when a tribal culture has been discovered by us Westerners?  As such, I agree with the film’s expert consultant, Dr. Nancy Lutkehaus, that it is an elegy to a lost world… http://uscnews.usc.edu/arts/a_world_all_their_own.html

but the operative words here are ‘lost’ and ‘irrecoverable’.

One issue the film does address and which deserves to be discussed more is the ambiguous fascination and danger of ‘going native’  (although they do reduce it to sexual attraction). It’s not just anthropologists, but also many expats who, once they become familiar with a different interpretation of the world, feel so changed by it that they can never go back to being their old selves.  I happen to think that this is a very valuable quality in a human (or even alien) being, that this ‘switching between worldviews’ leads to really in-depth communication, understanding and connection.  But in a world where the majority value clear-cut answers and black-and-white solutions, this is clearly tricky terrain.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Avatar and Anthropology

  1. Well, if you are one of the last people to see avatar, I am one of the firsts who might choose not to see J
    Hello, Sanda
    I’ve read here and there through your blog/like a good citizen of this world short-cut oriented – or ‘value clear-cut answers’ as you state.
    You are quite a grown-up, aren’t you?! J They are ALL nostalgic, you know!
    As a coach, may I ask when you were acting as a child?
    The child has always ALL his life within himself, he can’t be longing for another ‘self’, he can’t be noticing a distance to move back to another ‘self’.
    It’s a tough life the child’s life, that’s why we are living the adult’s one
    🙂
    numai bine,
    magda

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