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.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Review, Science Fiction
6 comments on “Nay to the Naysayers: Avatar, Credit, and Intertextuality
  1. Kolter says:

    Jason,

    thanks for sharing. As always, always pressed with your dedication to you scholarship. Question, however, what is your take on the representation of whiteman’s burden in the film?

  2. Jason Ellis says:

    Hey Kolter,

    Thanks for the reply. What I took to be a representation of ‘white man’s burden’ in Avatar was the educational and appeasement functions by the corporation to the Na’vi. The corporation could just obliterate the Na’vi and all life on the planet in order to obtain the Unobtainium, but they don’t, because as Parker explains, it wouldn’t look good to the shareholders. I can imagine the flipside of this in the past when it wasn’t so morally reprehensible to obliterate an indigenous people while trying to obtain some other kind of ‘unobtainium.’ So, the corporation wants to look good in their advertisements and shareholder prospectus, and they attempt, before the beginning of the film with Jake Sully’s arrival to Pandora, to found a school and offer the Na’vi human-made culture, technology, and goods. Unfortunately for the humans, the Na’vi are pretty happy with their way of life as part of something far more complex than the human social, and they reject the human-derived offerings after the aborted attempt to understand the skypeople through the school (and language). Before Jake’s immersion in their society/world, there appears to be no breakthrough or bridging the gap between the capitalistic/exploitative human-run corporation and the communal/sharing/conservation of life Na’vi. The corporation’s attempt at white man’s burden is a failed attempt at further taking advantage of the Na’vi–it is a veiled attempt to ‘help’ the Na’vi while taking far too much from their social and physical worlds.

    Jason

  3. Jason Ellis says:

    And one thing that I failed to point out earlier is that the institutional representatives in the film were all white–Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigorney Weaver), Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). This extends to the principle human character who crosses over: Corporal Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) is white and one of the few humans with Avatars–thinking back on it, are any of the avatar operators not white? Marginal others from Earth: Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) helps out, but dies. Dr. Max Patel (Dileep Rao) is friendly, looks at brains, and helps with the jail break. And the stark fact that the principle Na’vi were all non-white actors: Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, aka Star Trek’s Uhura), Mo’at (C.C.H. Pounder), Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso), and Eytucan (Wes Studi). Even though the Na’vi are technologized extrapolations from human bodies, the fact is that their otherness is deeply connected to their bodies, their voices, and the actors and actresses who provide the source or trace of their appearance. These are problematic issues that I suspect others talking about online, but I admittedly haven’t taken the time to really delve into the conversation so my responses here are pretty one sided, besides my conversations with Yufang.

  4. Swaralipi says:

    Great post Jason, brilliant observations indeed.
    However, u seemed to have overlooked another irony of the appropriation of the native myths. When Jake was a part of the human mission and needed to win the Na’vi trust, he was aided by fate: the white seeds from the holy tree settled on him and he own over Neyitri instantly, a reminder of the Aztec reverence of the Spaniards as “White Gods”. The irony lies in the fact that while this was coincidental and helped the colonizing process, Jake’s appropriation of the Toruk myth was intentional and helped the anti-colonial process!! However, I will never forgive Cameron for depicting the Na’vis so simplistically in their pristine pre-colonial state! The binaries are re-created and reasserted!
    There are so many things to discuss about the film, lets have a forum on this!

  5. Jason Ellis says:

    Hey Swaralipi,

    Thanks for the reply to my post about Avatar. You are definitely correct about the myths, and I had not considered that. I agree with you about the ironic appropriation of native myths, and it’s interesting about the paradox that these things create. However, I don’t believe that Cameron is trying to have it both ways, but instead, he is using postmodern paradox to develop his engagement of contemporary issues.Jake’s appropriation of myth and the promotion of the anti-colonial process, and the way the film presents the Na’vi in an Edenic pre-colonial state. This, according to Hutcheon, is the basis of postmodernism–that postmodern works present a paradox between critique and reinforcement. This is why the right and the left both find fault with postmodernism, but this is only the unresolvability of postmodern works. I believe this should be valued rather than attacked, because the lack of paradox only provides a one-sided, less critical argument.

    We should have an Avatar forum, but only after this semester is over! I believe that Yufang would be interested in this as well.

    Jason

  6. […] the economic imperialism presented in the film. I have already addressed this to some extent in my earlier post on Avatar, and it is certainly something that my friends and I have discussed ad infinitum. However, this got […]

Comments are closed.

Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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