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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David Harvey and Andy Merrifield in conversation

This post was contributed by Rowan Lubbock, a student on Birkbeck’s MPhil/PhD programme (Politics) whose research focuses on the relationship between the peasant movement La Via Campesina and the regional institution of ALBA.

In a packed lecture hall last Thursday night at Birkbeck College, I was lucky enough to see two heavyweights of urban studies and Marxist theory in conversation, largely around the topics of their latest books. Andy Merrifield’s The New Urban Question, and David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism set the tone of the conversation, which sought to unravel ‘the urban’ as it exists today.

Merrifield kicked off the evening with an explication of what the ‘new’ urban question entailed. Fundamentally, the neoliberalisation of cities had created a type of ‘neo-Haussmannisation’, a process that transforms public infrastructures into sources of profit for private actors. The term seeks to compare and contrast today’s urban form with the great renovation project of Paris in 1854 by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, which saw a reorganisation of the urban fabric on a gargantuan scale. Like Haussmann’s Paris, today’s urban condition is characterised by a process of gentrification, turning urban centres into spaces of consumption, speculation and leisure. But unlike Haussmann’s project, today’s neoliberal city does not create new ‘values’ (i.e., creation of infrastructure that absorbs surplus capital, expands employment or facilitates new spaces of accumulation); it ‘parasitically’ extracts value from existing public goods. Merrifield asks how it is possible that capitalism is able to reproduce itself in the absence of what it fundamentally requires for its survival – the creation and re-creation of public infrastructures.

The effect this has on the public at large led Merrifield to enquire into the nature of social resistance to these types of privations. Here, a number of concepts were offered: “double agents”, as those who live a type of double life split between the exploitative nature of their workplace and the more egalitarian values they may hold; or “great escapers”, who seek to exit the system altogether (The Coming Insurrection, being one example). These disparate terms reflect the general disorganised form taken by today’s potential ‘sans-culottes’, yet Merrifield cited the potential for ‘rage’, ‘imagination’ or ‘creativity’ for bringing these social forces together.

Harvey’s response was offered in his typical register, which revolves largely around Marx’s three volumes of Capital. This did, however, bring Merrifield’s winding and speculative exploration into a more grounded understanding of how capital circulates within and beyond ‘the city’. Yet at this point of the conversation, the formalism of ‘critical disagreement’ (which Harvey himself noted was an unavoidable necessity) tended to occlude the substantial overlap between each position.

For example, if Merrifield’s ‘neo-Haussmannisation’ is something that is happening in virtually every city, Harvey helped to stitch this picture together by referring to the ways in which cities form a type of global hierarchy through which the differential flow of value is transmitted; from low-wage, low profit margin-based production in China to high profit margin-based realisation of sales in North America, which has become a key feature of today’s global economy. From his observation of the power shift from productive capital (e.g., General Motors) to commercial capital (Wal-Mart), Harvey questioned to what extent today’s neoliberal cities can be considered ‘parasitic’, given that consumption itself is central to the realisation of value and its production. He went on to say that, “if value cannot be realised through urbanisation then capital is in a lot of difficulty” – thus, the city and the “manner of its orchestration” as a market-place delineates the parameters of this potential difficulty. But surely the manner in which neo-Haussmannisation unfolds, as described by Merrifield, points towards a precarious foundation upon which capital attempts to expand without the requisite spatial infrastructures that are needed in order to move beyond an urbanisation process based on property speculation and conspicuous consumption by the world’s richest people.

Nevertheless, the value of Harvey’s political-economic take on the ‘new’ urban question lay in his claim that the structures of accumulation largely produce their own specific forms of resistance, the corollary of which is that we must understand what capitalism is doing if we want to go beyond it. This is indeed a useful approach that helps us to fill in the gaps created by terms like ‘multitude’ and their ‘screams’ against the power of capital. It would have been interesting to hear some alternative suggestions, which Harvey stopped short of, but this was perhaps unavoidable given that his own provisional answer to the problem of anti-systemic organisation boils down to no less than seventeen necessary elements.

What was certainly made clear that night is the scale of the problems we all face as human beings who are subjected to the most in-human forms of social predation. The need to address the contradictions of capitalism and the questions they pose is more vital now than ever.

A video of the event is now available.

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