Nay to the Naysayers: Avatar, Credit, and Intertextuality

Even now, months after its premier and its loss for Best Picture at the Oscars, there are still folks online who won’t stop nitpicking Avatar’s ‘sources.’ This in and of itself isn’t that big of a deal. It is important work to uncover the intertextual sources of works of art, including Avatar. It is a necessary and significant contribution to map out the network within which Avatar and other works are situated as well as consider the influences exerted by and on the work within the ever shifting lines of connection. However, what I take issue with is that so many folk frame Cameron’s work in terms of stealing and plagiarism. I have read it on listservs and Facebook, and Google helpfully suggested “Avatar steals plot.” Cameron has a gift, like many other gifted science fiction authors, to synthesize and pull together disparate ideas from culture and merge them into a cohesive work that has a wide audience appeal. Avatar is his latest foray into the science fiction field, and it is by far his most successful attempt at doing so.

Avatar includes themes of cultural imperialism, white man’s burden, and economic exploitation. It brings in ideas from other science fiction including waldo bodies, or remotely controlled organic bodies. He attempts to rationalize the Gaia hypothesis. The alien protagonists have accents, they seem stereotypically Native American-like (they wear feathers with an unknown origin–there was one point in the film I believe I saw a flock of birds escaping from a tree, but I do not know if they had what appear to be feathers), and they have a world consciousness/awareness. And yes, they are blue, as are many other fictional depictions of extraterrestrial life.

Simply put, Cameron knows how to dip into what Damien Broderick calls the mega-text of science fiction. The mega-text, an idea Broderick himself borrows from Christine Brooke-Rose, is a corpus of ideas, terms, and usages that authors within a particular genre evoke, use, repurpose, and disseminate through their works. The cool thing about the mega-text is that for those people who read widely within a given genre, they will eventually learn the mega-text and better understand its employment in a given text without the necessity of too much further explanation. Samuel R. Delany has also written on this subject. For example, my earlier use of the word waldo would, for many, tell them that this is some kind of remotely controlled technology that mirrors the body or its functions in some way. The word, originally used in this context by Heinlein, was appropriated by others to convey the same idea, because readers of science fiction already knew what the word meant from Heinlein’s usage. Furthermore, the popularity of Heinlein’s work and the linguistic concision of the word probably also played a part in its adoption into the shared science fiction mega-text.

Cameron’s Avatar shared in and gives back to this mega-text. Harlan Ellison aside, many authors and readers accept this circulation of ideas within science fiction. The mega-text could be said to be an ancillary or reductive idea from the bigger idea of intertextuality. This is the connections between works and history that has a long history, but has reached a high level of discussion in discussions of postmodernism.

As Linda Hutcheon points out in her book The Poetics of Postmodernism, intertextuality is something that has always been with us. I believe it is something tied to language and writing alike, because communication necessitates a common understanding, and one aspect of that understanding is the conveyance, repetition, and memory of stories and concepts that go beyond the singular signified/signifier relationship. Language is intertextual, and our stories carry forth this intertextuality, too. But what makes postmodern intertextuality different from earlier forms of intertextuality? Postmodern intertextuality is the ironic twist, the challenging of the earlier citation, the questioning of the carried-over idea.

Avatar is, I believe, a postmodern science fiction film in that it appropriates ideas and stories from other texts and situates them with an ironic turn. First, there is the irony of the needed element for space travel–Unobtainium. Interestingly, this is something that falls on deaf ears for many non-science fiction reading or watching friends of mine. However, I believe it is the subtle way in which Cameron introduces this to the audience that it works for the audience as a believable macguffin despite the name. So, the Unobtainium creates the framing irony for the entire film–the thing humanity wants, but ultimately cannot have.

A second irony is Jake’s Na’vi avatar body. As a paraplegic, he cannot use his legs, and the only way he can once again enjoy the sensation of walking is by the amazing technological intervention of the avatar technology. Despite the high cost of getting his legs working again in what he describes as a dire economy, he is lucky in a sense to get to take his twin brother’s place on the avatar project.

And a third irony, which I will conclude this post with, considers Poul Anderson’s formulation of avatar technology in “Call Me Joe.” The first hit in Google for “Avatar steals plot” is a reference to this story, which is about a crabby disabled man who explores the surface of Jupiter with an organically created and remotely controlled body. Over time, the human man’s brain atrophies while his ‘mind’ transfers into his body that is capable of living in the unfriendly for human environment of Jove. This does bear striking similarities with Jake Sully in Avatar, but there are ironic twists to this ‘going native’ story. The first is motivation. Anderson’s waldo driving character is fed-up with humanity and his disability. Jake Sully in Avatar has no ties to others, but he isn’t escapist like Anderson’s character. Instead, he, from the very beginning on Pandora, demonstrates an awareness and wonder at the things he sees and the sensations that he feels both in his human body and while inhabiting his Na’vi body. Jake seeks personal and spiritual fulfillment, something that Pandora and the Na’vi offer him and he fights to retain from his human masters. Jake doesn’t wish to escape his bounds, instead he seeks a meaning to his life through responsibility to a people undeserving of humanity’s exploitation of their planet. The irony for the audience is that Jake, of Clan Jarhead, is more than the stereotypical grunt (something explored in Cameron’s Aliens). Jake’s enjoyment of the process of becoming one of the people and his attraction to Neytiri causes him to loose sight of his original mission and the impending danger to the Na’vi and his life among them. He becomes part not only of an alien being in an alien environment (as Anderson’s character does), but also of a social network, a family, a people, an interconnected system of life that spans Pandora. This is the challenge that Cameron brings to what may be an inspirational story by Anderson–the difference between the lone warrior from the pulps into a contemporary growing awareness (or re-awareness) of the interconnectedness of all life and our social structures.

Cameron didn’t rip off Anderson or anyone else in developing his script for Avatar. There were important transformations to his mega-text derived ideas, and he challenged some of their earlier uses. He took good ideas that have been in circulation for awhile and turned them in significant ways and he did it in such a way that a lot of people were able to connect to his story in ways that people didn’t connect or even know about Anderson’s mid-century story.

So please, let’s move along to more important matters such as the cultural implications of Avatar. What does Avatar add to the mega-text, and what are its cultural implications? What are people walking away from the theaters with? Is it changing their attitudes to imperialism and exploitation, or is it instilling in them a desire to leave Earth for Pandora via Poul Anderson’s escapism?

Read more about Avatar on the official website here, wikipedia article on the film here, and the post-zero about Anderson’s possible influence on the film here.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.