Who would have thought that it would take the block buster film Avatar to get David Brooks, condescending spokesman for the establishment, and Slavoy Zizek, the hyper caffeinated Marxist, to agree on something. First, here is David Brooks apparently offended by the cliche of simple primitives unable to make their own destiny:
"It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration."
No to be out done, Monsieur Zizek sees the film, despite its sympathies with the aboriginy Na'vi, as the clear expression of neoimperialist racism:
"Avatar's fidelity to the old formula of creating a couple, its full trust in fantasy, and its story of a white man marrying the aboriginal princess and becoming king, make it ideologically a rather conservative, old-fashioned film. Its technical brilliance serves to cover up this basic conservatism. It is easy to discover, beneath the politically correct themes (an honest white guy siding with ecologically sound aborigines against the "military-industrial complex" of the imperialist invaders), an array of brutal racist motifs: a paraplegic outcast from earth is good enough to get the hand of abeautiful local princess, and to help the natives win the decisive battle. The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them. In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man's fantasy."
No doubt Zizek would be amused by this dialectical unity of opposites. Both the defender of the status quo and the radical critic agree that the portrayal is racist and simplistic. But that is as far as I think they can agree - for example Brooks has to slip in the fact that "The plotline gives global audiences a chance to see American troops get killed." When I saw the film the first thing I thought of this was "Blackwater vs. Indians" but I suppose that isn't much of a difference.
As usual Zizek uses the film as an opportunity to make his larger ideological critique. Just in case we forget, there are always real life wars of resistance whose the plot lines are not as easy for us to digest; he refers to Arundhati Roy's recent account of the Dongria Kondh people's uprising that is currently taking place in India. The Hills that they inhabit in the state of Orissa "were sold to mining companies that plan to exploit their immense reserves of bauxite (the deposits are considered to be worth at least $4trn). In reaction to this project, a Maoist (Naxalite) armed rebellion exploded:"
"The Indian prime minister characterised this rebellion as the "single largest internal security threat"; the big media, which present it as extremist resistance to progress, are full of stories about "red terrorism", replacing stories about "Islamist terrorism". No wonder the Indian state is responding with a big military operation against "Maoist strongholds" in the jungles of central India. And it is true that both sides are resorting to great violence in this brutal war, that the "people's justice" of the Maoists is harsh. However, no matter how unpalatable this violence is to our liberal taste, we have no right to condemn it. Why? Because their situation is precisely that of Hegel's rabble: the Naxalite rebels in India are starving tribal people, to whom the minimum of a dignified life is denied.
So where is Cameron's film here? Nowhere: in Orissa, there are no noble princesses waiting for white heroes to seduce them and help their people, just the Maoists organising the starving farmers. The film enables us to practise a typical ideological division: sympathising with the idealised aborigines while rejecting their actual struggle. The same people who enjoy the film and admire its aboriginal rebels would in all probability turn away in horror from the Naxalites, dismissing them as murderous terrorists. The true avatar is thus Avatar itself - the film substituting for reality."
While I appreciate the larger point Zizek is making, I have to say I really enjoyed the film. Besides it being visually stunning, I also liked the mercenaries getting their asses kicked. I suppose that means I am merely reinscribing the current neoliberal ideological coordinates - but it's still just a movie, right?