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We Are Leviathan

leviathan1In the Old Testament, the sea monster Leviathan offers an image of the staggering power of nature. Job proclaims that “any hope of subduing him is false; the mere sight of him is overpowering.” Leviathan “makes the depths churn like a boiling cauldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.”

Fittingly, the experimental documentary Leviathan begins with these references to our ancestors’ awed stance before the force of nature. The irony though is that Leviathan is no longer a sea monster who threatens humanity with his awesome power. Instead, we humans are become the monsters who threaten to extinguish all life in the briny depths.

Leviathan is set on a fishing trawler working off the coast of Massachusetts. The film challenges existing conventions of documentary by refusing conventional “voice of God” orienting narration, and instead plunging us into the tactile experience of life – and death – aboard the trawler with a visceral immediacy that is nearly overwhelming.

Leviathan is produced by Lucien Castaign-Taylor and colleagues at Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. The filmmakers used GoPro cameras favored by extreme sport enthusiasts in order to capture the savage toll on both the sea and fishermen exacted by contemporary commercial fishing. The film extends Walter Benjamin’s pioneering arguments about film as a surgical opening up of the guts of reality, allowing viewers to travel through sight and sound through the many horrifically violent aspects of life aboard the fishing trawler.

This is one of the most radical films I have seen, and surely offers a massive challenge to existing documentary conventions. Indeed, the film asks all those who seek to represent the world to rethink the ways in which they do so. How, the film intimates, can we capture lived experience with the immediacy which is its due. Given the increasing accessibility of multimedia means of reproduction and distribution, I think all creative workers seeking to document particular aspects of the world today should be asking what new forms of fidelity are possible. leviathan2

In this aim, Leviathan is a huge inspiration. It offers a potent vindication for Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose goal is to provide “an academic and institutional context for the development of creative work and research that is itself constitutively visual or acoustic — conducted through audiovisual media rather than purely verbal sign systems — and which may thus complement the human sciences’ and humanities’ traditionally exclusive reliance on the written word.”

I think that the written word still has an important role to play, however. It’s very useful, for example, to juxtapose Leviathan‘s brutal corporeal account of the obliteration of life in the Atlantic with recent reports on the parlous state of the oceans. According to the International Programme on the State of the Oceans, the world’s oceans are facing a multifaceted degradation that threatens a mass extinction unlike anything we have ever seen. Multiple stress factors – including pollution, warming, acidification, overfishing and hypoxia – are driving a degeneration of the oceans that is occurring far faster than experts anticipated. If not curbed through serious changes in our collective behavior, the oceans will undergo an extinction event on the order of the greatest mass extinctions in the planet’s history.

When Leviathan rises up, the Bible tells us, the mighty are terrified, and retreat before his thrashing. If the sea monster was once a symbol of Nature’s awesome power, we live in times when we have appropriated the awesome power of nature. Yet if we extinguish live in the seas, we will ultimately kill ourselves. It is our current unsustainable capitalist system, which seeks infinite growth on a finite planet, that should truly be defined as the new leviathan. We should be filled with fear and trembling in the face of this monstrous power which we have created, and which now threatens to undo us.

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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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