Sunday, December 27, 2009

Machines vs. Biomachines

Last week I went with my father and brother to see James Cameron's Avatar—in 3D no less. I have to say it was a well made film. The visuals were amazing and the plot well drawn if cliché: highly entertaining. The characters weren't all that deep, but then one doesn't see an action film for deep characterization. Technically this is what a Hollywood action film should be. (No spoilers in this post, with the exception clearly labeled below of the single paragraph on the final scene.)

From a philosophical point of view however, the film was highly deficient. Conservative commentators will no doubt remark on the rather overt environmental, anti-capitalist, and even anti-human message of the film.1 (As one might expect from Hollywood, there are even a few allusions to U.S. tactics in current Middle East conflicts.) Frankly if the cruelty in the service of greed depicted in the film were typical of humans, it would be rather difficult to be pro-human.

But below the message about the relationship of rational (humanoid) creatures to their environment is a subtler message about their relationship to the world, in particular to their bodies. The human-wielded machines are clearly departures from nature, but Cameron's conception of "nature" is a far more insidious danger to the natural world.

The film sets out a conflict typical in science fiction: an advanced, technological civilization attacking a primitive, nature-loving society.2 The humans are exploring exoplanet Pandora first of all to exploit its mineral wealth, but secondly to scientifically investigate its flora and fauna, including the indigenous Na'vi people. The main protagonist, Jake Sully, is a veteran marine (now paraplegic) sent to take the place of his recently deceased twin brother, who was part of a scientific mission to Pandora. The planet is hostile to humans, including an unbreathable atmosphere, so the scientists explore through remote-control "avatar" bodies. The bodies need to be hybrids of indigenous Na'vi and the human operator/driver (the actual words used in the Pandorapedia) so that a mental link can be established for full immersion into the Na'vi body's world. (The genetic hybridization makes it plausible for each avatar body to physically resemble its driver, conveniently linking the bodies/characters in the audience's mind.)

So effectively, these bodies are puppets. Immersive puppetry has disturbing consequences brilliantly spelled out in Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich. Naturally what is true of immersive puppetry extends to the relationship between our own (human) bodies and souls: our bodies aren't really "ours" in the sense of being essentially connected (one body-one soul: anima forma corporis), but "ours" in the sense of possession, that is, demonic possession. Likewise, Avatar has a strong theme of mind-body dualism: thanks to modern science, bodies are somehow interchangeable and what defines a person is the untouchable, invisible and wholly transcendent mind or "personality." Cameron conceives of ourselves as having very little to do with our particular bodies: really our identities must have a broader corporeal basis than a few DNA similarities.

It would seem that the film is opposing nature and technology: humans use mechanistic technology, while Pandorans are close to nature. But look again. The "nature" of this world is likewise created in the image of the machine. For one the neuronal "linkages" between the Na'vi and the mounts (direhorses, mountain banshees) via the Na'vi rider's queue and the mounts' antennae is a simple reflection of the linkages that typify the internet age. The connection between the mount and the rider is different from that of the Amplified Mobility Platform (AMP) suit and its operator (cf. the power loader in Cameron's Aliens) only by being through neurons instead of mechanical sensors and electronics.

Pandoran bodies are likewise similar to machines. The mountain banshees have "air inlets, or spiracles, face forward at the front of the chest cavity, like the engine intakes of a jet fighter" with "unidirectional flow, venting aft through gill-like slits." The Na'vi are about twice the height of humans. It would be reasonable to attribute this fact to gravity half as large as Earth's, but the gravitational difference makes no noticeable visual difference to physical motion in the film. To overcome the scaling problem and make such oversized and extraordinary creatures structurally plausible, Cameron invokes "naturally occurring carbon fiber" to strengthen the bones of Pandoran animals.

Nature seems to take a back seat to politically correct doctrine as well. In Na'vi society, both women and men participate in the warrior culture. One has to wonder who takes care of the children (ironically, the ones whose lives the humans are supposedly so careless about late in the film). Of course it is possible that the grandparents or other relatives care for the children. But still, has it ever been known for a primitive society to disregard sex roles? If anything these differences tend to be more pronounced in more primitive societies: childbearing here is essential to community survival. It is only rich, "advanced" societies that can (apparently) afford to blur sex roles.

**SPOILER** Most morally troubling is the final scene, in which Jake, through the power of Eywa (the Na'vi diety) in the sacred tree, "uploads" his consciousness into his avatar body.3 Note that, unlike the earlier similar attempt with Dr. Augustine, Jake is not dying. Clearly then in this transfer, Jake (his body) is put to death so that his "mind" can "live on" in the Na'vi dummy. Notice that Jake's only physical problem is his paraplegia. Aside from the euthanasia in the simple sense of putting someone to death, there is a disturbing overtone that a handicapped person's life is less worthy of living.4

The final verdict is the movie's opposition of machine vs. nature is a false facade. The "nature" the film presents is a mechanical reconception of nature along mechanical, dualistic lines. The result is a technological view of the world as infinitely open to human manipulation and a consequentialist take on ethics.

Now, one might object that the film is surely to be understood as a work of fiction and not meant as a reflection of reality, especially with the world of the film clearly a fantastic, mechanical playground of the imagination. Whatever the intention, the photorealistic computer imagery, not to mention the 3D and souped-up audio undermine any audience detachment. Art, but particularly visual art, is very good at forming the imagination, especially of children, but very much of adults as well. Given the widespread currency of mind-body dualism, this film can only cement the dominance of this paradigm into our cultural mindset.


1. Similar to the "straining a gnat and swallowing a camel" of criticizing the lyrics of rock music while passing the music itself.

2. Here is an insightful (if politically correct) piece on how the film represents a privileged white male perspective. Speaking of PC, the MPAA rating says, "Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking." Yes, it's fine to saddle young people with a fallacious worldview that it will make it impossible for them to find happiness—just as long as they don't smoke!

3. From an Aristotelian perspective, it seems nearly inevitable that the driver would eventually "go native"—that the soul is the form of the body means it's not so much our souls that control our bodies (as if from far away), but our bodies and their senses, desires, and habits that dominate our souls, that in some sense constitute our souls. To be immersed in a world is to take that world as real.

4. Equally, Jake's paraplegia could also be a symbolic statement about the human condition, one that feeds into a gnostic view of the body as a prison. Such a view would explain Cameron's anti-Christianity, as evidenced by his 2007 film The Lost Tomb of Jesus.

James Cameron, Avatar (Twentieth Century Fox, 2009).

Update January 20, 2010: David Brooks has an insightful and superbly written piece on the film in the Times: "The Messiah Complex." Here's one particularly well written passage: "The peace-loving natives are at one with nature, and even have a fiber-optic cable sticking out of their bodies that they can plug into horses and trees, which is like Horse Whispering without the wireless technology. Because they are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls." The bottom line:

[The White Messiah fable the film embodies] rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

1 comment:

Lawrence Gage said...

Here's an inspired plot summary:

Worth a laugh!