Recovered Writing: SFRA 2010 Paper, “James Cameron’s Avatar and the Machine in the Garden: Reading Movie Narratives and Practices of Production,” June 26, 2010

This is the thirty-fifth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This example of Recovered Writing is an essay that I wrote for the 2010 Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) Conference in Arizona. I delivered the paper on June 26, 2010 on a panel moderated by my dissertation advisor Donald “Mack” Hassler and with my wife Yufang Lin (who presented a paper evaluating Avatar in terms of postcolonial theory). I wrote about our experience at the Arizona conference here.

This paper is one that I had hoped to return to and publish on, but I can’t figure when I could do it at this point. So, I offer it to you to read and think about.

James Cameron’s Avatar and the Machine in the Garden: Reading Movie Narratives and Practices of Production

Jason W. Ellis

In an earlier essay, I argued that Cold War autonomous technologies and fictional robots replace humanity in the so-called American garden, the idyllic pastoral imaginative space that continues to carry a hold over the American imagination according to the respective work of Leo Marx and Sharona Ben-Tov. At that time, I could not find a work or example counter to the paradox presented by Marx and Ben-Tov, which is that in choosing to embrace technology and industrialization over agrarianism at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we, meaning Americans, have continued to move further away from that ideal while retaining a trace of affection for it. Furthermore, Ben-Tov demonstrates that we continually try to return to the garden through technological means, which paradoxically keeps us away from the garden. For Marx and Ben-Tov the emphasis is placed on the narrative itself–the stories about the intrusion of the machine into the garden. I, on the other hand, believe that it is equally important, to consider the confluence of story and the production of that story, and the way those two things relate to the emblematic machine in the garden. I argue that Avatar, on the level of narrative, re-inscribes and challenges the concept of the machine in the garden. The humans and their machines invade Pandora’s idyllic garden as part of an imperialistic expansion of capitalistic rapaciousness. The tranquility of the pastoral scene is disturbed and broken by the technological ends of industrialization. Concurrent with this narrative, Cameron presents an alternative in which Pandora complicates what Marx calls the “pastoral ideal,” which he locates “in a middle ground somewhere ‘between,’ yet in a transcendent relation to, the opposing forces of civilization and nature” (23). Pandora is those things, an in-between space, but it is also, as I will show, a fusion of the pastoral and the technological into a third way, a techno-ecological possibility for hope in a sustainable world–something we are far from achieving on Earth. Despite these possibilities, I will conclude by arguing that the practices of making this film, the techno-scientific methods and practices of contemporary science fiction filmmaking undermines, in part, Cameron’s best intentions to run counter to internalized narrative constraints.

To begin, Leo Marx writes that “The pastoral ideal has been used to define the meaning of America ever since the age of discovery, and its has not yet lost its hold upon the native imagination” (3). This is true still today and it is re-established in Avatar. Cameron himself says in an interview that the film has “a garden theme with teeth and claws” (“Avatar: Making a Scene”). Jake Sully, a warrior from the human “Jarhead clan” or Marines, guides the audience through the film’s fictional world with the aid of his sense of wonder fueled by his bodily escape from the confines of a wheelchaired existence. Through Jake’s exploration in his remotely controlled, Na’vi-human spliced avatar, his remote controlled organic embodiment, we discover that Pandora is a lush environment, and its flora and fauna share many similarities to life on planet Earth while having significant “cognitively estranging” differences such as extra appendages, exotic colors, bioluminescence, etc. Furthermore, the life on Pandora is unified through its rhizomic network of plant and animal life that either connects into what the Na’vi call their goddess, Eywa (call this an established or emergent deity as you will), a world totalizing essence that enables what I call a dynamic homeostasis. Pandora, prior to humanity’s arrival, seems to be idyllic and senrene, life going about doing what it does, the Na’vi living and dying, creating stories and myths, living their lives through their own social reality as they saw best while acknowledging the significance of the greater world: the planet itself, of which they are each contributors, collaborators, and codependents. They live off the land, and the land sustains itself on the practices shared by the Na’vi and apparently all life on Pandora.

Then, the humans arrive on Pandora and the story re-establishes the American myth of remembering the idyllic garden while encroaching on that garden with the technological artifacts of industrialization. Delivered by interplanetary starships, the humans set to work strip mining Pandora of what ultimately becomes the unobtainable precious element, named with slight tongue in cheek, Unobtainium. The humans demarcate their space from the surrounding idyllic garden of Pandora, only going out to take the minerals so desperately sought to assuage the troubled economy back on Earth while occasionally attempting to negotiate with the native Na’vi inhabitants for the so-called “rights” to mine the Unobtainium beneath Hometree, the megalithic old-growth tree that is home to the Omaticaya clan. The corporate-led humans and their military goons go out in heavy machinery that literally rips, burns, and blows-up the Pandoran jungle and sacred sites on their way to Hometree. These machines rupture the natural world orchestrated by the goddess Eywa. This is not to say that the natural environment is not valued in some way. The corporation is concerned about its image back on Earth. The corporate fear is that by killing human-like lifeforms will make the company look bad, which will, in turn, effect the bottom line and the stock price. Corporate conscience is thus dependent on perception back home rather than any moral or ethical compass. The Unobtainium must be obtained at almost any cost.

Jake Sully, to be sure, is an interesting hybrid character in the film. He is our guide to this eruption of human machines in the Pandoran garden. He learns the circuits of the human conquest while discovering the circuits of life on Pandora. Jake’s hybrid or cyborg existence bridges the human and Na’vi divide. However, he is, with his avatar, another technological machine entering the garden. As a Harawayan cyborg, he does represent the possibility of emancipation of historical modes of domination through technology, but it is also the case that his avatar is as much a symptom as a cure to the machine intrusion into the garden.

Regardless of Jake’s problematic status as imperialist and appropriator of the Na’vi’s myths, he also represents the audience’s admission to an alternative possibility, not in opposition, but in resolution of the nature-technological divide. I contend that Jake and Pandora itself are hybrids that achieve this resolution. His avatar brings him closer to the nature of Pandora, but it is initially only through the apparatus of the avatar remote control technology that he can step away from humanity into the interconnected real and social worlds of the Na’vi. Human technology allows him to see the possibility of love and connection on the other side of the divide, but it is the Pandoran technology-like organicism, that allows Jake to transcend his human body and its technological assemblages to cross the divide in the final scene to become fully Jake of the Omaticaya people. The queue, which the Na’vi and seemingly all other animal life on Pandora appear to have, is a braid of neural tissue that facilitates a link between minds, to the goddess, and to the planet. It is an organic version of the jack from The Matrix. Besides living as one with the planet, the queue and the rhizomic network of plant life on Pandora, enables a kind of sharing–of emotions, memories, and relationships–that leads to cooperation, not domination

Cameron’s Pandoran fusion of the natural world and the network into an organic vision of sustainability and cooperation between life and planet challenges the pastoral ideal described by Marx. It taps into the artificial division of objects and subjects in modernity described by Latour. It is a different way of thinking about hybrids and cyborgs. Everything about Pandora concerns the proliferating hybrids of Latour. Under the surface of the first human-centric narrative, which divides the world artificially into objects and subjects, the Pandora narrative reveals how these things are blurred. The organic network brings together the Na’vi with the rest of the life on their planet. The social intermixes with the natural, and vice versa. And, all of this is accomplished through the network, or what the Na’vi consider Eywa.  Eywa is a planetwide cyborg and a system of social relationships in which the social extends beyond the Na’vi. Haraway insists “that social relationships include nonhumans as well as humans as socially . . . active partners. All that is unhuman is not un-kind, outside kinship, outside the orders of signification, excluded from trading in signs and wonders” (8). Eywa and the life of Pandora are inextricably intertwined in an unimaginably complex social relationship, and they “trade in signs and wonder” on a daily basis, but most visually evident in the rearguard response by Pandora at the film’s conclusion. It is, from the human perspective, the hybrid and socially interconnected features of Pandora that represent a third way, a different and revitalizing possibility for life beyond industrialized exploitation of the land and people.

For these reasons, Avatar is a science fiction film that challenges the theories of Marx and Ben-Tov. The narrative of the Na’vi and their planet Pandora demonstrates a hybrid possibility for nature and the social. However we may want to conjecture how Pandora came to be the way it is, the bottom line is that it exhibits the characteristics of the things that have in the past been purified as object or subject. Furthermore, Ben-Tov, building her own theory of the artificial paradise, says, “Unlike the texts that Marx surveys . . . science fiction does not try to temper hopefulness with history” (9). Avatar does revert to the sense of hopefulness that Marx describes in relation to the desire for the mythical idyllic garden and American pastoralism. But, as I said above, the film provides an alternative to Marx’s machine in the garden narrative. Yes, it is tempered with hope, but it is hope in new way that fuses the pastoral with technology and the social with nature. Avatar, as a result of its hybrid embedded narrative, is a counter example to what Ben-Tov characterizes as science fiction’s attempt “to create immunity from history,” which “reveals a curious dynamic: the greater our yearning for a return to the garden, the more we invest in technology as the purveyor of the unconstrained existence that we associate with the garden. Science fiction’s national mode of thinking boils down to a paradox: the American imagination seeks to replace nature with a technological, man-made world in order to return to the garden of American nature” (9). The Na’vi/Pandora-centric narrative challenges this mode of thinking. Pandora represents a natural world that also enjoys and makes use of abilities that we would otherwise characterize as technological in nature. Homeostasis, networks, and dynamic load balancing are all technical concepts on Earth, but they are developed and put to use in the natural world of the imaginative Pandora. Avatar draws back from what Ben-Tov sees as the replacement of nature with technology. Instead, it is the hybridization of these two artificially separate things. Or, is it?

The curious thing about Avatar is how immersive the experience can be. I saw it three times: once on IMAX 3D and twice on RealD digital projection. Each time that I watched the film, I found myself falling into the experience and its world, but I could not avoid thinking about how Avatar’s seemingly natural environment was made. Cameron took green screen and computer generated imagery (CGI) to all new levels. He effectively schooled George Lucas about how to populate an entirely artificial environment with believable, human-like alien characters. Cameron himself said in an interview, “it was exciting when we rounded that corner and we knew we had true human emotion captured and performed by nonhuman characters” (“Avatar: Making a Scene”). The keyword here is captured, and he goes on to use the word preserve. Using state-of-the-art computer and film technology, much of which he and his subsidiary companies produced, Cameron captures, preserves, and transforms a performance into something radically new. He takes the behaviors, actions, facial expressions, and voices of real people, acting in what is called a “spatial volume,” or a space demarcated as corresponding with some place on Pandora but existing in our world, and stores, manipulates, and creates new imagery and actions that look real but not of this world. A specific example would be the development of the banshee flight scenes. Within the spatial volume, he moves toy-sized banshees through their flight paths, the actors perform on gimbals their flights synced to the flight paths, cameras record the movements and facial expressions of the actors for computer translation, and then finally, Cameron walks through the spatial volume alone with a virtual camera, an Apple iPad sized device that acts as a window into the virtual Pandora environment all around him, to record the scenes he wants for the film. These methods, all reliant on technology, re-inscribe the machine in the garden, or film tech into virtual Pandora. If the Pandora-centric narrative is the garden, despite its elegant resolution of the nature/social and pastoral/machine dialectics, then the way in which Pandora is developed within the memory banks of computers and rendering farms is the re-introduction of the machine into the idyllic pastoral environment. Ben-Tov may not be entirely correct about the way in which science fiction narratives, the subject of her work, represent our inability to restore the pastoral through technology, but she is definitely correct when we step back and consider the way in which an inventive pastoral science fiction narrative is constructed with technology for mass consumption. What this means is that we also need to consider the means of production of science fiction in various media, along with their stories, because the practices and methods of creating science fiction are themselves becoming more science fictional. The meta-narrative of making science fiction is a largely neglected aspect of meaning making that I believe will attract more critical attention as virtuality becomes more established in film production. It may one day be all that we have left when actors perform, in effect, under erasure, and the filmic simulations proliferate.

 

Works Cited

Avatar: Making a Scene.” Fox Movie Channel. Hulu. Web. 21 April 2010. Online Video.

Ben-Tov, Sharona. The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.

Cameron, James, writer and dir. Avatar. 20th Century Fox, 2009. Film.

Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.
FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience
. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden; Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1964. Print.

 

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 Conference, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction, SFRA
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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