Further Musings on Avatar: The Na’vi Aren’t As Primitive As We May Think

Neytiri of the People. Image copyright 20th Century Fox.

Today, our good friend Masaya took Yufang and I out to lunch at Pufferbelly’s in downtown Kent. It was the first time that Yufang and I had been there, and it was certainly a wonderful treat.

While we were all talking about the Oscars and Avatar’s loss for Best Picture, Masaya mentioned a conversation about Avatar that had taken place in Kevin Floyd’s Marxism class. Another student in the class had talked about 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 me to thinking about something that I had overlooked before.

Leo Marx, in his book The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, argues that America, following the engagement of the Enlightenment idea of progress, desires a return to the idyllic garden, an Edenic existence, the pastoral. However, our progress, precipitated by technological subjugation and domination of Nature, paradoxically moves us further away from our desired goal of a pastoral existence. And the more that we use technology, the more incapable we will be of reaching the idyllic pastoral.

The Na’vi in Avatar live a pastoral existence, at one with nature. As Swaralipi mentioned in her comment to my earlier post on Avatar, she “will never forgive Cameron for depicting the Na’vis so simplistically in their pristine pre-colonial state.” This pre-colonial state, apparently untouched in a visible way by the human imperialistic incursion, is one form of the pastoral existence described by Marx. The Na’vi are interconnected with their world and environment, and as a result, live with that system as one within a plurality of lifeforms without regret and without malice. Seemingly, they have done this without the need of technology. In fact, they appear to be primitive–the post-Darwinian notion that social groups pass through a series of stages on their forward march to modernity.

However, this outdated notion of social evolution is exactly what I want to argue against. The thing that I noticed during our talk today, which had been staring me in the face, was that the Na’vi are not primitive despite our attribution of primitiveness and backwardness on them. Instead, the Na’vi are much further advanced than we humans are with our starships, mechs, guns, and remotely controlled avatar technology. Perhaps the Na’vi developed a sense of modernity like we experience in our future human selves in the film (i.e., reflecting on the post-Darwinian social evolutionary scale they would be very old), or, more likely, the Na’vi developed in a much different way than humanity did on Pandora. Perhaps it was a co-evolution of lifeforms to integrate into the planetwide network governed by the goddess Eywa. Furthermore, the Na’vi are more connected to ‘technology,’ at least in the human sense, through the networking capability of the life on Pandora. They fuse with the planet, and they fuse with one another. Through their connection they are able to see, not just literally see the physicality of one another, into one another. It isn’t the brain-tunneling sequence when Jake enters his avatar body that is really exciting, it is instead the interfaces made throughout the film by the Na’vi–something that Jake learns to do in time on his path to appropriating the Na’vi myths in order to effect a anti-colonial revolution, as Swaralipi discussed in the previous post’s comments.

So, my early idea is that the Na’vi are the technological gurus that we wish we could be. They have attained what is unattainable for the Americans described in Marx’s book. The Na’vi have the best of both worlds–through the ability to connect to Eywa, they have an amazing ability to communicate, remember, and coexist–something that Cameron expertly provides a sort of rational explanation for through Grace’s scientific investigations. Paradoxically, most of the humans just can’t make the leap to understand what the Na’vi have, and what Ewya/Pandora (if we can say the two are the same or pointing to the same signification) represents. The Na’vi are where we, and the other Americans in the film (something I would call, perhaps, wishful thinking on the part of Cameron), would like to be, but we cannot apparently figure out that Unobtainium and the rapacious exploitation of Pandora are not where we want to be. The capitalist drive has run the Enlightenment train of progress off the tracks, and the hybrid Jake Sully (human/avatar) is able to bridge the divide and show a way to what the Na’vi and their world have already accomplished, whether it be from some earlier design in the distant history of the Na’vi or a natural evolution that has taken place in that particular environment. Whatever the case may be, it is sufficient to say that the Na’vi represent the return to the garden with a kind of technology, at least what we think of as a kind of technology–networked communication–plugging in, that supports their natural and cooperative existence. Instead of the Na’vi’s connecting ability moving them further away from the garden, it enables their integration into the garden.

And a concluding thought: Perhaps the Na’vi are one possible solution to what we think of as the Singularity, or they could be an anti-Singularity, a controlled and conscious response to the unknowable promises and perils made possible by unconstrained technological expansion.

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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4 comments on “Further Musings on Avatar: The Na’vi Aren’t As Primitive As We May Think
  1. Swaralipi says:

    Well, well this is getting so interesting. Love your observations Jason!! I want to add a little bit to my earlier comment in this context of primitivity. By ‘pristine’ and ‘pre-colonial’ i certainly did not mean ‘primitive.’You have rightly observed, they are indeed much more technologically advanced, as the term ‘primitive’ ties more with technology than with any aspect of human character. My complaint against Cameron was not because he showed the Na’vis to be ‘primitive’—for to consider their lifestyle to be ‘primitive’is another form of colonial narcissism, and I guess Cameron tried to dismantle that very consciously. What I found lacking in the film is the lack of complexity of the Na’vi characters (expect to a small extent Neyitri) that reinforces the hierarchy between the humans and the Na’vis. It is the same problem that Jane Tomkins found in Hutchinson’s depiction of the Indian massacre in early American history, whereby the Indians are portrayed as innocent, pitiable creatures mercilessly slaughtered by the colonialists.The Na’vis in Cameron’s film are gullible and child-like, they lack complexies and thus are deprived of the great ‘human’ predicament of making ‘moral’ choices. As I mentioned earlier, the only character that stands out is Neyitri but then she is also the one who has transcended her Na’vi existence and has entered into the hybrid space of colonial ‘contact zone’, to quote Pratt, for how can we forget that she has been trained in English and is closest to the humans of all the Na’vi characters!

  2. Jason Ellis says:

    Hey Swaralipi,

    Thanks for your reply to my second Avatar post. I see what you’re saying about the distinction with primitivity. It was my own fault for creating an equivalency between pre-colonial and primitive. My post was a reaction to the things that I’ve heard others say about the Na’vi in what to Western eyes would be a ‘state of nature,’ but is in fact, so much more (and different) than that.

    I wonder about how Cameron might have done things differently regarding the presentation of the Na’vi. The humans and specifically Jake Sully is our guide to Pandora and the Na’vi–it is through him that we get to experience their way of life and personalities, despite their, as you say, lack of complexity. Most of the things that we learn about the Na’vi are physical–horsemanship, flying, hunting, death rituals for Na’vi and in hunting, a peppering of Eywa, and the Toruk Makto myth. The one point when Jake as Avatar first enters the circle of the people eating and presumably telling stories, we do not get to take part in that experience. What stories do the Na’vi tell? I would like to hear that, and perhaps Cameron may (or should) do something like this on the special features for the DVD/BD release. I guess we really only experience the Na’vi through the things that will prepare or enable them to challenge the human colonial power.

    And considering what you say about Neytiri, I’m thinking about the way in which sex and heteronormative pair bonding play into her entering the contact zone. I haven’t read Pratt (are you referring to her “Arts of the Contact Zone?). The Na’vi apparently have male warriors choose their female mate. It seems to me that forces beyond Neytiri push her towards what turns into a sexualized contact zone. Ewya stays her hand when she goes to kill Jake. Moat puts Neytiri in charge of Jake’s Na’vi warrior education. Jake says that his mate choice must also choose him, but I think that by that point there isn’t much choice on the part of Neytiri. I’m only beginning to think about this, but it seems that she is doubly bound by her relation to the human imperialists and by her sex. Cameron did leave out the messy bits between Jake and Neytiri–there is so much potential about how human sexual binarism could be turned on its head here (I’m thinking about Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness).

    Jason

  3. Pawel says:

    Jason, this is a very interesting reading!

  4. Jason Ellis says:

    Thanks, Pawel! I might turn some of this into an essay to send out–stay tuned. -Jason

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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