I cringed for plenty of reasons, at times it was like anthropology porn, and therefore it had all the elements that Ethnic Studies scholars are supposed to hate, meaning it was just like Dances with Wolves, where a white man is needed to save a helpless primitive, brown people. From the gaze of any “modern” subject, it is just too tempting not to engage in this fantasy, it is the most fun liberal form of viewing the rest of the world. There is something for everyone. If you believe that non-modern people are fundamentally inferior you can watch Avatar in such a way that your thesis is proven, since the character of Jake Sully is the kind of thinking and conscious catalyst that only exists in the differentiated minds of modern people. But if you don’t see indigenous or non-modern people as being dependent upon the modern world for such first steps to consciousness, but instead see them as fundamentally other, existing in their own alterity, Avatar has something to support that fantasy as well. The Na'vi people of Pandora seem to be at last a pure, essential people, who can prove scientifically that they are one with nature, and guess what? They need a modern man to save them. Not only does it gives us a snapshot of that culture, but it also ends with a promise that those untainted or uncorrupted by the modern world can still somehow survive in their purity. This interpretation has problems of its own, but I’ll return to that in a moment.
But at the same time, something should be said about any movie which attempts to congeal together references to the Native Americans fighting off the settlers, cowboys and US government with references to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. And I frankly cheered when that battle went against the flow of history and the Na’vi of Pandora won. It was one of those moments which Hollywood can easily script, but frankly rarely do. The force of History, the way it lumbers forward, always seems to make commonsensical that a people like the Na’vi be eventually trampled over and ground into dust for display in museums. Even though the little, the oriental, the indigenous, the colonized, the native, can defeat the overpowering, the colonizer, the oppressor, the settler, Hollywood writers, directors and producers rarely make real those sorts of radically underdog scripts. Bows and arrows, pulus and acho' atupat just cannot defeat guns, germs and steel, even if you may really really want them to, it just doesn’t happen.
But as I watched the film and the standard ethnic studies critique of “white man saving brown (or blue) people” passed through my head, I deflected the resistance that the critique was supposed to foment within me, and instead decided to actually look at the basic dynamics of Jake Sully’s adoption into the Na’vi people. When I did, I didn't find much wrong with them. The type of dramatic shift of consciousness that the people of Pandora underwent in helping push them to unite and fight against the settler colonizers of Pandora is something that only happens through the sort of exceptionality or radical difference that Jake Sully represented. The first who instigates or who gives another lens to the situation does not have to be wholly different, meaning of a different race or from a different place, but they had to be clearly other in some way, and be someone who doesn’t fit in and therefore is not simply rank and file, not simply like everyone else, not normal or average in the way most people are, but someone who is different. Someone who isn’t just like everyone else and therefore can be seen to carry the weight of the critique or the alternative vision that they are articulating. The only people who can change the world are those who in some way stick out of the world and don’t seem to fully fit into the existing world. This doesn’t mean outsiders only, but only that those who change things always come in some way from the outside, outside of the normal, outside of the way things are done.
The film’s story provides a common legend through which we can see how this works. The rider of the last shadow (uttimo na anineng) or the largest of the dragons of Pandora is the one who has the power to unite the people and lead all of them. Every hunter in Pandora can ride the dragons, but only the one who isn’t just like everyone else, and can ride the Last Shadow has the true authority to lead the people. Joe Sixpack, Jofis from Yo’na, Joe the Plumber or any other symbol of the common man, they are not leaders, they don’t signify any ability to do any more than be what they are. They can be invoked by others as the symbols of who they are fighting for or changing things on behalf of, but they cannot be taken seriously in that role.
To make one final point, even though Avatar indulges in the idea of an essential, pure native, you don’t need to stop the analysis or viewing at that point. One of the parts of Avatar I found most intriguing was the scene where Sigourney Weaver’s character is trying to argue that the people of Pandora should not be ethnically cleansed because of the research potential they possess. In the background of the entire movie, a minute narrative strain has been nurtured about the incredible scientific discovers that Pandora represents in the symbiotic and numerically calculable relationship that it has with its native people. In this moment we see worlds come crashing together, worlds which are supposed to be disparate and necessarily detached from each other, divided and unintelligible, potentially unified. The beliefs, the religion and the faith of the people of Pandora collide with the scientific reasoning of humans and the result is a plea that the culture and the spirit of these simple people be recognized.
On the one hand, we can critique this as being scientific imperialism, which continues up until today, where the bodies, DNA, seeds, traditions of indigenous people become the laboratories for the first world, and represent things to unlock and pirate to benefit the first world.
On the other hand it also represents one of the those radical/critical acts that Dipesh Chakrabarty speaks of in his text Provincializing Europe. In the book, Chakrabarty (amongst other things) contends with the fact that non-modern people, when placed in history, have to lose their battles or their power because of the way they are duped into believing things or being animated by things which do not exist. Because of this, the basis for their actions is always false. They are acting based on beliefs which have not triumphed in the course of history, but things proven to be in the words of Maga’låhi Hurao “fables and fictions.” They are gods, spirits, ghosts, deities.
They emerge in history at a clear disadvantage, as things hampered from the start, stuck in illusions, which regardless of whether they win or lose against colonizers or imperial powers, ultimately have to be set aside for them to become a mover in history, rather than something which is shaken by outsiders. History is a process of riding non-European people of that alterity and delegitimizing their beliefs. Taking away from them any idea that they do have anything substantial to offer the world, marginalizing them until they are nothing but colorful footnotes in the story of human progress. This telling of history always benefits those who are its most clear and present victors, and it does so most fundamentally by the hiding of its own angels. After all, as the history of non-modern people are tragic tales of yet another after another false god being toppled, the gods of Western or modern people are always absent, or always go unpersonified, but instead resignified as forces of the nature, or forces of the universe.
What makes the form that this takes in the film so problematic is that it is first presented as an issue of recognition, that when Weaver introduces this to the audience and to the characters, it requires that we recognize it, and that we use it, that we take this new discovery and use it to unlock some universal secret or use it to make some great gain in understanding the universe. Later however in the climactic end battle, that native belief in their connection to the land is released from being some superstition that needs to be recognized, studied or debunked by the scientists and becomes an ally, a force which literally aids the people of Pandora in their fight. That is the source of sovereignty for colonized or indigenous people within the harsh flow of history. They are meant to be stones which are smoothed or shorn down to almost nothing within that current and so when there are moments when they can redirect that flow, change its course, force it to move around them or move in a new direction, those are the points where the future itself is left open.