Avatar Activism: Limits and Possibilities

This post was contributed by Thomas Travers, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. He tweets at @TWLTravers

Avatar ActivismCrystal Bartolovich (University of Syracuse) opened her lecture last Wednesday (June 15th) at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities with a screening of the narratively condensed trailer for James Cameron’s Avatar. This abridged version of the film, in turn, formed the key reference point around which her presentation on the limits and possibilities of ‘Avatar Activism’ revolved.

Coined by American media theorist Henry Jenkins, ‘Avatar Activism’ describes a strategy whereby social justice movements appropriate images from popular culture and put them into service for struggles in the real world. Jenkins first proposed the term in response to a filmed re-enactment of Cameron’s blockbuster movie in the occupied village of Bil’in. Appearing in the likeness of the embattled Na’vi, Palestinian and Israeli activists stunningly rewrote Avatar as an allegory for the ongoing dispossession experienced by Palestinians in the occupied territories. Opposed to an august Frankfurt School style dismissal of Avatar as industrial spectacle, Jenkins detects within its globally distributed imagery of green anti-imperialism the raw material for a democratic ‘participatory culture’. Participation here refers to the dramatic re-contextualisation, or well-nigh hacking or glitching of the Hollywood cultural form, a tactic that enables oppressed people to re-narrate their struggles through the libidinal apparatus of the culture industry, shocking audiences into a heightened awareness of injustice. Affective and emotional investment in the symbolic realm inexorably leads, in Jenkin’s argument, to progress in the material world.

Yet is it precisely the efficacy of this seamless transition from symbolic gratification to social intervention that Bartolovich wanted to complicate in her bracing account of contemporary climate politics. Situating Avatar within debates surrounding the Anthropocene, Bartolovich highlighted a damaging rift between a symbolic recognition of the imperative to drastically cut carbon emissions and the minimal purchase this recognition has had in actuality. In order to arrest the unsustainable levels of energy consumption in the gated communities of the global North, Bartolovich forecasted the necessary implementation of unpopular, top down, draconian measures. And it is on questions of cost, of consent, of sacrifice that she finds ‘Avatar Activism’ desperately inadequate.

Dialectic of Utopia and Ideology

Where others might have chastised Jenkin’s work as the ‘intellectualisation of amusement’, Bartolovich provided an immanent critique of his thesis and a salutary reminder as to how easily the utopian qualities of cultural texts can reverse into ideological reconciliation with the present. Avatar’s ecological consciousness is typically considered to reside in the successful opposition of the Na’vi to the technological degradation and exploitation of Nature. This antagonism, however, may not be as stark as it at first seems. Nature on Pandora is, in a sense, always already technology: for each weapon or communicational network the colonisers have, the Na’vi have an analogous one. The message, as Bartolovich points out, is clear; not only do the Na’vi want nothing, but that their harmonious relationship with an intensified nature amounts to a purer, superior form of life. As T.J. Clark has recently argued in a series of lectures presented at Birkbeck, the land of Cockaigne is the fantasy of a world already cooked, where the need for sweat, labour, and toil has been thoroughly abolished. What should alarm us about the inscription of such codes in Avatar is that they perpetuate a delusion that the North can shrink its carbon footprint without any serious alteration to its current levels of consumption. Utopian resistance cartwheels into ideological containment as the necessary sacrifices of any viable climate politics are massaged into something more palatable entirely. Avatar offers, in other words, a reassuring image of an improved nature that is already dormant in the present, repressing the inevitable deprivations and constraints that would accompany a concerted effort to avert the worst permutations of the Anthropocene.      

Disavowing Defeat 

Another challenge to the endorsement of Avatar develops out of the observation that the military hardware of the sky people is surprisingly outdated. Where one might expect the fully automated arsenal of drone, chemical, and biological weapons, Cameron mobilises tanks, infantry, and helicopters. Coupled with the astounding ability of the Na’vis’ arrows to penetrate armoured vehicles, Avatar recodes the indigenous encounter with empire—a history of decimation, massacre, and genocide—with triumphant resistance. This aesthetic sleight of hand simultaneously disavows the asymmetry of such conflicts and, in doing so, implies that the vanquished were defeated on account of their own failings. The Bil’in video concludes with the Na’vi protesters doubled up, choking on tear gas; a potent reminder of the lethal economy that the armed state apparatus deals in. Bartolovich pointedly adds that the pristine Eden of Pandora is itself a phantasmagoric revision of the slums and toxic landscapes that the precarious communities of late capitalism are likely to inhabit. There is, then, a significant discontinuity between the types of imaginary identification entertained by the symbolic text of Avatar and the impoverished and defeated reality of the global surplus population.

Possibilities?

Bartolovich convincingly demonstrated the inadequacy of Jenkin’s proposed ‘Avatar Activism’, highlighting its inability to overcome the gap between symbolic attitude and material action. Cameron’s movie offers a green politics shorn of sacrifice, the fantasy of a world already made that the consumer can occupy without detriment to their present lifestyle. Confronted with the dilemmas of climate catastrophe, Avatar conjures away the negative, presenting an altogether agreeable impression of a greener, less alienated form of consumption. What of the possibilities? Against the ‘naïve’ interpretation of the plight of the Bil’in protesters as commensurable with the Na’vi, Bartolovich contends that the video détourns Hollywood spectacle. Wrenched out of its universalising context, the activists expose the particularity of Cameron’s movie, render visible the human damage, loss, and defeat the film silences, making perceptible the material costs the film seeks to vanish. The Bil’in video captures the uncooked raw material of a world in which radical social change can only be achieved through the sacrifices of collective action.

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Time Out: Sexual Politics and the Question of Progress

This post was contributed by Dr Tara Atluri, visit research fellow in the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH) and the Department of Geography, Environment, and Development Studies.

Here Dr Atluri gives an insight into her approaching BIH and Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality (BiGS) workshop on sexual politics (February 18,  1.30pm-3.30pm, room 402, Malet Street Main Building)

Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Wei Wei states that, “The internet is a wild land with its own games, languages, and gestures through which we are starting to share common feelings.”

And yet, how can one access cyber-utopias of meritocratic dreams on street corners and back alleys, in the traffic of cities, with no place from which to revel in blissful platitudes?

The “It gets better” campaign is predominantly a viral media campaign that began as a response to the suicides of queer youth in North America. The campaign involves online videos staging inspirational narratives of those who have overcome adversity. It is undoubtedly a tool of support for those who experience oppression.

However, one can consider how this viral media campaign exists in cyberspace, apart from the politics and economics of material space. ‘Betterment’ can describe individual embodiment. And yet, “betterment” can also describe “development” in ways that assume that economic wealth and the gentrification of cities are improvements. (Watch Guardian video: Anthony Gormley: “London is bought, developed and abandoned”)

We are told that cities “get better” with more expensive coffee bars where one can access Wi-Fi, and yet rising prices in rent and the disillusion of the commons can spell suicide for sexual politics in the streets.

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner state, “There is nothing more public than privacy”(547) They further discuss `sex publics’ stating that,

Some of these publics have an obvious relation to sex: pornographic cinema, phone sex, “adult” markets for print, lap dancing. Others are organized around sex, but not necessarily sex acts in the usual sense: queer zones and other worlds estranged from heterosexual culture, but also more tacit scenes of sexuality like official national culture, which depends on a notion of privacy to cloak its sexualization of national membership. (547) (Read more here)

The authors discuss zoning laws that came into place in New York which lead to the closure of many gay bars on St. Christopher Street, once a well-known queer area. They state,

Now, gay men who want sexual materials or who want to meet other men for sex will have two choices: they can cathect the privatized virtual public of phone sex and the internet; or they can travel to small, inaccessible, little-trafficked, badly lit areas, re- mote from public transportation and from any residences, mostly on the waterfront, where heterosexual porn users will also be relocated and where the risk of violence will consequently be higher. (551)

Similarly, one can consider recent closures of many queer spaces in London such as the bar, The Joiners Arms in East London. While “betterment” within neoliberal discourse involves images of financially successful queers working overtime, the doors of the after hours that once housed alternative sex publics are slammed shut.

Far from being endemic to the West, questions of space, sex, and “betterment” cross borders. As Mayur Suresh writes,`

One of the first documented protests against police harassment of queer men in India was held in response to police raids targeting gay cruising in Central Park, Connaught Place in New Delhi. (Suresh, opendemocracy)

In the traffic of Mumbai, in the traffic of Delhi, flamboyant sari clad dancers strut between rows of cars asking tourists en route to airports, businessmen en route to offices, and middle class families in SUVs for change. Hijras, often referred to in secular English language discourse as male to female transgender persons are often found in contemporary neoliberal India, begging in the traffic of cities. The genealogy of the Hijra is connected to mythologies pre-dating colonial rule. Hijras originary religious role lay in blessing children.

In the space of neoliberal urban India, the Hijra body has not necessarily gotten “better” with Victorian colonial moralities and laws policing sex, or with capitalist models of “development.”

Suresh discusses a 2004 case of a Hijra who was gang raped and subject to police harassment,

Kokila told the police about the gang rape, but instead of registering a case and sending her for a medical examination, they harassed her with offensive language and took her along with the two men to the Byappanahalli Police Station. (Suresh, opendemocracy)

Beyond the tempo of Google there are bodies in the streets, beaten and harassed, living and loving in the streets. Solipsistic urban publics stare into cell phones, ignoring those whom they encounter in shared space. Privacy exists for the privileged few. Fear is fuelled by gated communities and an infinite array of private passwords. In the meantime, cities of wealth turn citizenship into a question of capital, dividing insiders from outsiders, with the colonizing spirit of settlers extending to the gentrification of dark corners of cities.

If we are to envision inspirational sexual politics today, we should perhaps avert our eyes momentarily from the glare of mall lighting and MacBooks. Before it can ever get better, perhaps it should get critical.

Tara Atluri will be giving a BIH and Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality (BiGS) workshop (titled “Time Out: Sexual Politics and the Temporal Maps of International Development”) on 18 February (13.30 -15.30), Room 402, Malet Street Main Building. Book your place here.

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The Same-Sex Couple and the State

This post was contributed by Naomi Smith, Birkbeck graduate and current intern in External Relations. Naomi recently attended a Birkbeck public lecture hosted by Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, featuring Professor Robert Aldrich of the University of Sydney

Image copyright torbakhopper (Flickr)

Image copyright torbakhopper (Flickr)

Using French history as a case study, Professor Robert Aldrich’s lecture explored the relatively recent global shift from sodomy laws to the embrace of same-sex marriage.

As the title of the lecture suggests, Professor Aldrich chose to look at sodomy laws from a historical and transnational perspective. Having trained as a historian of France, he is now a Professor of European History at the University of Sydney, although his work spans a much more global remit than this suggests.

Aldrich began by observing that ‘the movement for marriage equality has gone global’.

Next, he suggested that whilst the State often acts as an agent of oppression, it is also, at least in potential, an agent of emancipation. He noted that this is particularly obvious when the State manages to free itself of ‘certain notions of nature and sexuality that have much to do with traditional religious beliefs’; this generally involves a challenge to the state by sexual, legal and constitutional activists.

The cause of reform in attitudes

Aldrich proposed that two major changes or contexts could be identified as the cause of reform in attitudes, both social and legal, to marriage equality. Firstly, the belief in the State as the guarantor of rights, rather than the agent that denies rights. And secondly, the concept of governance that distances the State from the dictates of traditional or orthodox religious beliefs, whatever they may be.

We are only now beginning to combat what Monique Wittig called the ‘homosexual contract’, paraphrasing Rousseau’s notion of the ‘social contract’. She meant the profoundly embedded supposition that normality is relationships between a man and a woman with the intention of procreation.

Movement towards marriage equality has historically made us think about what marriage is, a notion that varies greatly from place to place, from culture to culture, from religion to religion. This includes notions of consent, ages of consent and the legality of divorce – Aldrich talked about campaigns throughout history to combat these notions and instigate legal change.

Homophobia

He feels that what is in opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage is not ‘marriage defence’ but homophobia. One of the ways that homophobia is most deeply entrenched in society is through law, although one of the key ways to fight homophobia is also through the law.

Because the State has always been so deeply intertwined with religion, one of the long term ways to break the ‘heterosexual contract’ has been bringing into question the received ideas about the relationship between the State, sex and religion. Aldrich went on to discuss this through a case study of the history of same-sex marriage and accompanying legislation in France with occasional comparison with Britain.

Interesting points included:

  • In France, a marriage is only legal if it is performed by a civil official; it is not recognised by the State if it is only performed by a priest, imam, etc.
  • The French National Assembly, in 1791, passed legislation which decriminalised homosexual acts (176 years before England). Previously, homosexuals could have been arrested, convicted, even burned at the stake, for committing sodomy. The change in the law, however, did not reflect a social change; homophobia was still considered to be a vice or evil.
  • Sodomy was decriminalised only because it was deemed to be taking place in the private sphere without causing damage to others and because the State had decided that the church should not be involved in law-making; separation between church and State.
  • Gay men continued to be a target for legal discrimination and harassment; e.g. via age of consent laws, etc. There were no laws to protect homosexuals.
  • Paris, of course, had the reputation for sexual licence. Even in the face of legal interdiction, there was ‘naughtiness’, as Aldrich put it, everywhere. Interdiction did not stymy gay and lesbian life but instead gave it a different slant.

Before taking questions, Aldrich concluded by asking ‘how widely applicable, how universalistic are the principles that govern such relationships’? Laws given to Britain and France’s colonies concerning sodomy laws were different but considered equally universal by both those they were given to and those who did the giving.

To Aldrich, the question of sodomy and the State is really about the constitution of society, about the boundaries of public and private, about relations between the individual and the polity.

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School’s IN for summer: Reports from the London Critical Theory Summer School 2015

This post was contributed by Matthew McManus who is attending the London Critical Theory Summer School 2015, which is run by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

Summer-SchoolAcademics sometimes forget what motivates them to start the masochistic project that is a multi-year graduate degree. It can be all too easy to become wrapped up in one’s own research; huddling indoors insulated against distraction with a beaten copy of Discipline and Punish glaring at you accusingly from the table.

One of the pleasures of the Birkbeck summer school (aside from giving everyone the chance for some fresh air during a uniquely beautiful London summer) has been the feeling of reinvigoration and dynamism that permeates the whole atmosphere.

The surprisingly international cabal of students-many of whom converge for just this event every summer-bear the unmistakable marks of intelligent and creative critical theorists everywhere. One can’t walk through the room without hearing someone mentioning Hegel, Lacan, or, of course, Marx and Marxist political economy.

While such can occasionally be a breeding ground for pretension and competitiveness, the program seems mercifully free of that. Participants share war stories, ask questions of each other, and probe the nuances of each other’s projects with generosity.

Of course, this is because everyone draws inspiration from the greats, and the roster this year has been exceptional. Wendy Brown, Balibar, Harvey and Douzinas are all excellent lecturers, and bring sagacity and often dry wit to their subject matters.

Political theory

There is surprisingly little overlap in lecture themes-a blessing when you don’t think you can hear another word about the expropriation of surplus value after going through it for two hours-but there’s no doubt each lecture topic contributes to the other.

The general theme this week seems to be political economy. Specifically, each lecturer wishes to situate themselves in relation to Marx’s epochal critique of capitalism. Various Marxist categories are interrogated and applied to the contemporary neo-liberal situation our world faces. Sometimes it seems there is significant life in the movements of the dialectic yet; at other points the lecturers are candid in admitting the task may lie with us to look for new sources of inspiration.  Perhaps the lecturers on Lacan next week will provide some inspiration, or at least allow us to manifest the inner neurotic lurking beneath the skin of every graduate student.

Becoming friends

The night life around town has been quite enjoyable as well. Quite surprising given London is a quaint little place….After a few genial days of getting to know one another, everyone has become quick friends. Being in England, this naturally means the sarcasm and friendly jibes (not to mention the pints) have started to flow freely. Many of the best conversations had taken place on a patio over a beer, as the subject of the days’ talks are reflected over and criticized.  This is naturally when people’s real opinions start to show themselves, and one begins to filter the Derrideans from the Deleuzians.

With any luck these connections will bear interesting fruit down the line.  Speaking personally, I’ve already bitterly returned to my dissertation with a number of frustratingly accurate objections in hand. What more could you want?

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