Avatars of Apartheid

At first blush, James Cameron’s Avatar appears to be a Dances with Wolves for the digital age.  True, the digital effects are breathtaking, taking the encounter with otherness to a new level.  Avatar conjures up an incredibly lush imaginary world, rendered particularly engrossing by the film’s use of unobtrusive new 3D technology.  This use of powerful digital technology is rather ironic given the film’s dystopian take on the human use of technology.  The whole point of this immersive technology, however, is to transport viewers into an alternative reality in which the present can be imagined otherwise.

What is this alternative reality?  As in Dances with Wolves, the film’s critique of U.S. imperialism is stinging.  In Dances With Wolves, the Union cause during the Civil War is dealt with in an offhanded fashion, and the film quickly shifts its interest to the reborn nation’s frontier politics.  Here madness, in the form of the delusional alcoholic Major Fambrough, and grasping dishonesty reign.  In Avatar, this critique is updated for the era of the War on Terror: the unscrupulous corporation that is mining the world of Pandora employs an army of mercenaries who deploy “shock and awe” in order to subdue the native Na’Vi.  Tellingly, the pitbull-like leader of this corps, Colonel Miles Quaritch, eventually pushes the civilians out of the way as “preemptive strikes” are launched in order to dislodge the Na’Vi from their territory.  This nicely captures the U.S.’s slide towards a privatized neo-fascist militarism during the War on Terror.

In order for this critique to stick, of course, the protagonist (and, by extension, the audience) must become disillusioned with Empire.  How does Avatar engineer such disillusionment?  Again resembling Kevin Costner’s film of 1990, Avatar plays out the seduction of going native.  In Dances With Wolves, the protagonist John Dunbar is first physically isolated from imperial culture and then immersed in the indigenous culture of the Lakota.  Dunbar finds his way into the culture with the help of a responsive woman, played by an assimilated white woman named Stands With a Fist.  Once he goes native, Dunbar becomes a leader of the tribe and attempts to save them from the depredations of Empire.  This scenario is replayed in Avatar, with the crippled ex-Marine Jake Sully initiated into the culture of the Na’Vi in his avatar form, won over to their cause through his awe at their symbiotic relationship with Pandora’s natural world and through his attraction to the Pocahantas-like Neytiri.

The problem is that this myth of going native is itself an imperial fantasy.  Although Neytiri initially tells Sully that he’s like a child and subjects him to a long period of apprenticeship, he not only ultimately learns the ropes and becomes a member of her Na’Vi tribe, but, after the nefarious Colonel Quaritch destroys the tribe’s home, goes on to lead resistance efforts to the Empire.  So the white male self ultimately remains in control.  Where is the anti-imperialism in this?

Although Avatar appears to engage most directly with the U.S.’s particular genocidal history, the racialized imperial fantasy enacted in the film also shares DNA with anti-apartheid films set in South Africa during the late 1980s such as Dry White Season.  In these films, a clueless white protagonist suddenly has the scales drop from his eyes after a chance encounter leads him to see the venality of the apartheid system.  Typically, a gardener’s son is “disappeared” during protests in the townships; the protagonist, moved by his personal ties to his servants, becomes involved, believing that justice will quickly be done and things set aright.  Of course his efforts not only fail to produce justice, but in addition show him the venality of the apartheid system’s treatment of non-whites.  In the course of his odyssey, the protagonist is increasingly alienated from the complacent white people with whom he has heretofore lived; these people in turn ostracize him, closing ranks against a perceived race traitor.  The protagonist’s abjection is redeemed, however, by his newfound status as hero of the anti-apartheid movement.

Such anti-apartheid films go beyond a guilt syndrome in which fiction enacts a white desire to be absolved of racial injustice.  In these films, the black-led anti-apartheid movement becomes a vehicle for white aspirations, upending the dynamic on the ground and imposing white needs and subjectivity onto an otherwise alien landscape.  This apartheid-era narrative was slyly remade recently in District 9, which stages the mutation of an Afrikaner into an alien who, like Avatar‘s Jake Sully, goes native and resists Empire.  Given the history of South Africa after apartheid, with the ANC cleaving faithfully to the neo-liberal precepts of the international financial community, this colonization of the anti-apartheid struggle his ominous historical implications.

The remarkable resemblance between District 9 and Avatar suggests more than simply the striking trans-continental continuity of the white imperial imaginary; this similarity also underlines the enduring need to decolonize the anti-imperial imaginary.  Apartheid, it seems, has many avatars.

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