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Caleb Crain says ‘Avatar’ is morally corrupt

January 10, 2010

In a rambling, free-associative post, Caleb Crain attempts to probe ‘Avatar’ ‘s “morally corrupt” “unconscious” (his words):

Some might protest: But what aboutAvatar’s anti-imperialism and anti-corporate attitudinizing? They’re red herrings, in my opinion, planted by Cameron with the cynical intention of distracting the viewer from the movie’s more serious ideological work: convincing you to love your simulation—convincing you to surrender your queasiness. The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own. The compromised, damaged world we live in—the one with wars, wounds, and price-benefit calculations—can and should be abandoned.

So the movie supposedly wants us all to stop worrying, plug in, and drop out.  Of course, this is all impossible to square with the movie’s ultra-romantic, pantheistic vision of nature as a benevolent, beautiful whole. The anti-imperial and anti-corporate stuff might be red herrings, but I take it the pro-nature stuff isn’t, even if it is a bit silly. Crain, though, is convinced that it’s just “rank mystification.” The Na’vi have to be advertisements for technology because 1) the movie was animated using technology and 2) they interface with nature through organic ports and cables, just like so many computer peripherals.  As for the first point, any use of technology in art arguably constitutes an implicit endorsement of that technology. But only in a pretty thin sense, one that leaves room for art to offer substantive criticism of its own technological medium: films can critique films, books can critique books, and so forth. That a critique of books appears in a book doesn’t make it “rank mystification.” As for the second point, it’s true that the nature-as-digital-network metaphor figures prominently in ‘Avatar.’ But I think Crain gets things backward. The movie isn’t trying to use our positive feelings about nature to advertise networks–it’s using our positive feelings abut networks to advertise nature. Like it or not, most people have already plugged in, and it turns out this is hardly the existential catastrophe that Crain fears.

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