Peter’s review of Avatar is a must-read:

Avatar isn’t much a movie: Instead, Cameron’s cooked up a derivative, overlong pastiche of anti-corporate clichés and quasi-mystical eco-nonsense. It’s not that the film’s politics make it bad, it’s that even if you agree, the nearly three-hour onslaught of simplistic moralizing leaves no room for interesting twists or ambiguity in the story or characters: corporations are bad, scientists are good, natives are pure, harmony with nature is the ultimate ideal — the only suspense comes from wondering what movie Cameron will rip off next.

Last week, Jeffrey Wells  called Avatar “the most flamboyant, costliest, grandest left-liberal super-movie anyone’s ever seen,” and that’s true as far as it goes — but he forgot a word. It’s also one of the  stupidest major movies in recently memory, blithely peddling a message that its entire production process actually undermines. That  Avatar ‘s melodramatic attacks on corporate interests and its defense of simple, natural living come packaged as one of the most expensive, and probably the most technically advanced, corporate films in history would seem to indicate that only quality bigger than the movie’s stupidity is its head-in-the-clouds hypocrisy.


Yet the tension here is only to be expected, once you stipulate the philosophical premises. Though liberals criticize and mock conservatives for their unwillingness to embrace scientism and emotivism both, they act as if giving in to that embrace is without deep and abiding problems. Ironically, the characteristic liberal view of marriage between spouses is a fairly disenchanted one; but when it comes to the marriage of big brains and big hearts, liberals, like Cameron, succumb to the sappiest romanticism. It’s a romanticism in which even incommensurable differences, fundamental incompatibilities, and thoroughgoing contradictions are transcended — if not conquered — in a flourish of bad poetry.

Liberals like Amartya Sen have long been on record asserting bravely that multiple identities, however radically different, are noncontradictory. (In a world in which we believe we are all composed of a smithereens of protean, Pelagian subselves, this had better be true — at least if you like your noncontradiction served nonviolently.) The triumph of left postmodernity — its identity, if you will — was to render unanswerable the question of what our identities are. Natural? Nurtural? Supernatural? There is only interpretation; and the politics of interpretation, the only kind of politics available in bad postmodernity, are the politics of destroying liberalism’s venerable public/private distinction in favor of a new one between official and unofficial interpretations. So no one can say for sure whether anyone else’s plural identities are given by themselves or by other or things. In the place of certainty — of a truth about the matter — there can only be official interpretations of what various identities are.

Where official interpretation does not hold sway, unofficial interpretation takes on the character of poetry. But whatever resources poetic interpreters discover and use take on the character of nature. The natural is simply whatever is on the receiving end of interpretation — this is bad postmodernity’s ‘effective truth’. If interpretation that’s unofficial is poetry, interpretation that’s official is — ah, but here’s where it gets interesting.

There are two competing kinds of official interpretation: political and scientific, or will-based and knowledge-based. Right now we can see the struggle for interpretive officialdom playing out in Copenhagen. Is the environment a question of knowledge, which allows us to act decisively and uncritically in whatever manner the scientists tell us is appropriate? Or is the environment actually a symptom of a deeper question of will, which requires us to recognize climate change as a consequence of deep-seated, systemic, and exploitative imbalances of power? (Another way of putting this is that the environment is not a question of science but of justice; Marx, the obvious touchstone here, is very conflicted about where justice ends and where power begins, because he lacks an adequate theory of authority.)

Liberals hate the idea that science is destined to be nothing more than a slave to the will. And lest we think that poetic interpretation is an exercise of the will, we should be clear that in liberal theory such creativity — no matter how unique, personal, or ‘individualistic’ — only makes sense as an exercise of whim. The distinction between will and whim, fine-grained though it may be under certain circumstances (think liberalism’s great nightmare, ‘oriental despotism’), is essential to the liberal embrace of artistic democracy. In Avatar , the official political interpretation of the Edenic moon Pandora is unobtainium repository , unobtanium being “a great whatsit” of a natural resource “that is an emblem of humanity’s greed and folly.” But Pandora itself, in its flourishing ecological balance, does not come with natural meaning built in. Paradoxically — and if Cameron is a Lockean, he is a most paradoxical Lockean — Pandora, which is to say nature, has no inherent meaning. It is simply a resource; the valuation which is to be mixed into it through the labor of interpretation must come from outside it.

Science is caught, then, between the possibility of slavery to will (in the person of stereotypically gruff kill-it-or-pillage-it space Marines types) and the hope of serving some other prime mover in its own mastery of nature. For make no mistake: nature is there to be interpreted. The great liberal hope, dramatized potently by Cameron, is that science will freely enslave itself to whim without will, which is love. Love — transcendent love, species-hopping love, galaxy-crossing love, love between beings who fully inhabit their own bodies and beings who pilot their semi-inhabited avatars from a ship somewhere not very nearby in orbit. Love is the magic word, the only key that can rescue science from will and so achieve the inescapable, otherwise impossible task of interpreting the inescapable, otherwise meaningless natural world. No hypocrisy needed.

But oh what a strain on the credulity of the audience. And, if the producer of such poetry himself is knowledgeable enough — as was Rousseau — oh what a strain on him. Of course, adding an adequate theory of authority into the mix — that is, a theology — audiences and authors alike wind up in a rather different situation. But that is a story for another day, and you will have to go see Avatar yourself in order to fully contemplate what kind of God lurks at the Rousseauvian heart of the inventor of the Terminator.

Articles by James Poulos

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