- Category: Culture
- Created on Sunday, 14 March 2010 07:00
- Written by J. Ramsey
"...[T]here seems to be what we might call a certain determinism of form at work in Zizek’s readings here ... As if the family, sexual, and/or racial narrative structures of these films totally trump any sort of resistant content. As if WHAT the film is saying is totally trumped by HOW it is saying it. As if there is only one type of viewer’s gaze engaging these works … As if the social reception of a film is not a highly over-determined and contradictory affair…"
Thoughts on Zizek on Avatar: Form determines content?
By J. Ramsey
On one level, Zizek seems to revel in reading texts against the grain; in showing that the true significance of cultural works is just the opposite of what one would have assumed.
Is this sheer perversity, or is there a method to this mode of reading?
Generally speaking, Zizek tends to be critical of cultural works that—whatever their ostensibly radical or progressive contents—he perceives as domesticating the (traumatic) Real of social contradiction. He is especially wary of those works that appear to him to smooth over or package political conflict with the trappings of Oedipal or romantic love plots.
So then he is critical of Avatar for the way that its avatar-fantasy, imaginary-escapist (two worlds) structure allows for an oh-so-seamless insertion of a white settler colonist soldier into the ranks of the eco-friendly blue native Na’vi, a process of course facilitated by the predictable love story, between Jake Sully and the warrior Princess.
Indeed, he does seem to make this process seem more seamless than I recall it being in the actual film...
For instance, Zizek writes: “If we really want to change or escape our social reality, the first thing to do is change our fantasies that make us fit this reality. Because the hero of Avatar doesn’t do this, his subjective position is what Jacques Lacan, with regard to de Sade, called le dupe de son fantasme.”
But is it the case that Jake Sully does NOT change his fantasy? Does his basic subjective orientation remain simply escapist? Do the Na'vi remain objects within this fantasy rather than subjects offering him (and us) new (communal, ecologically sound) fantasies, ones in more contradictory relation to the postmodern imperialist hyper-capitalism of 2010?
Yes, as Zizek points out, the film, in the end gives Jake Sully his legs back, letting him fully assume the form of a Na’vi. (Certainly, it would have been really interesting had the film NOT gone this way, and had left us with a reminder of the gap between Sully and the Na’vi.)
But really Jake does not know that such a transformation is possible or likely earlier in the film. Indeed, it is the Colonel on the military base that promises him his legs back, in exchange for his loyal service as an avatar-spy. Thus we might say that Sully’s siding with the Na’vi is in some sense not only that of a “race/empire traitor” but of a “revolutionary suicide” (and rebirth)…He gives up hope of getting his own legs back and ironically thus finds new and better, living legs.
Perhaps, what Zizek is saying is that even though Sully cannot know it literally, we—the viewing public—DO intuit the possibility of his being restored to his full and healthy self through his encounter with (and appropriation of) Na’vi culture. As proper subjects of Hollywood ideology, we have been trained to see the happy ending coming. In this view, the film’s romantic sexual ideology may make this neat union a foregone conclusion.
But is it really so neat? The Na’vi do challenge Jake Sully, in various ways, and they do fight back, killing their enemies. They do not simply agree to peaceful coexistence. Nor are they offered up as feel good martyrs or noble savages, redeemed only in their inevitable passing away. They defend themselves, and their world... by any means necessary.
Furthermore, Sully’s passing point that “there is no more green” left on earth reflects back on our own present, prompting us to wonder what the world may look in the future if mining companies (like the ones Zizek tracks in Orissa) have their way. (This point about the preciousness and vulnerability of our world is one that has been echoed by many of the people involved in the making of Avatar, in interviews and awards-ceremony speeches.)
Certainly there is something very interesting and ironic about a film that uses hundreds of millions of dollars worth of state of the art digital space-age technology and virtual reality computer programs to offer us all a collective fantasy of “going native” and going “back to nature.”…Zizek is on to something, sure.
Nonetheless, there seems to be what we might call a certain determinism of form at work in Zizek’s readings here (and elsewhere, for instance in his treatment of REDS). As if the family, sexual, and/or racial narrative structures of these films totally trump any sort of resistant content. As if WHAT the film is saying is totally trumped by HOW it is saying it. As if there is only one type of viewer’s gaze engaging these works…As if the social reception of a film is not a highly over-determined and contradictory affair…
What, I wonder, does Zizek make for instance of those Chinese workers and Palestinian protesters who have been dressing in blue like the Na’vi so as to draw global media attention to their real world struggles?
Certainly Zizek does draw out an important point when he emphasizes how actually existing revolutionary resistance—he references the Naxalite Maoists who are currently under state assault in India (an encouraging sign of Zizek’s own political trajectory)—will tend to appear, at least from within the frames of dominant reactionary media, as horrifying, frightening, etc…as “terrorism,” not some easily accessible "princess love story.” No doubt it would have been provocative and productive for viewers of the film if Avatar had shown us slick public relations representatives of the Empire labeling Na’vi resistance “terrorism,” or if the military Colonel had not been rendered so cartoonishly evil. The film might have even shown us elements within the Na’vi who wanted to actually engage in “terrorism” or “suicide attacks” as a way of driving out the invaders.
As has been discussed on Kasama already, there are many ways that one could imagine Avatar going further to expose the traumatic nature of such actually existing social conflicts and oppressed people’s struggles.
But, in the end, does the aesthetic/formal mode of getting viewers to identify with and root for the Na’vi in their struggle against the Empire utterly negate the basic political coordinates of that anti-imperial sympathy? Zizek seems to think so.
Is there something to be said for a film that gets hundreds of millions of people, in this country and across the world, to cheer for the destruction of forces that, by Zizek's own admission, can easily be seen as representatives of the (US) “military-industrial complex”? Zizek seems to think not.
I would tend to disagree with him on both counts.
To illuminate the point, consider an imaginary scenario:
If I were a Hollywood-loving US or Israeli or Indian soldier asked to move upon or even fire upon poor people protesting my presence, and I saw those people dressed as Na’vi, isn’t there at least a chance that I would have a subversive thought or two before I obeyed the order to fire at will?
Cultural texts are often more contradictory than Zizek allows. Furthermore, these contradictions can be not just disabling but productive, as they enter a world that is itself, yes, full of social contradictions. In a contradictory world, sometimes a romance plot may facilitate, rather than disable, rebel thinking, and—it stands to reason—action.
Not only radical is the rebel whose total rejection of imperialism appears—through the lens of dominant ideology—as “terrorism”, but also the rebel, labeled as a “red terrorist,” who paints himself in Na'vi blue to elicit sympathy from those who have been trained to hate and fear him.
My point is not to suggest that AVATAR bars people from reading it in variously domesticated ways that obscure its anti-imperial message. (Can any film really prevent such limited reading in advance?...Even the most shocking and formally provocative film is potentially, even inevitably, subjected to reified and even reactionary appropriations in this society.) My point is simply that, moreso than Zizek would lead us to believe, these symbols and narrative figures remain a terrain of struggle, open to appropriation in various ways…including radical ones.
Finally, this recognition of the irreducibly social, historical, and dialectical nature of both cultural objects and the social subjects that read them, in fact places a greater responsibility on radical critics, than does Zizek’s provocative—and often illuminating—formally determinist approach. For our task is not simply to give a particular text the theoretical “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” by establishing its formal limits, but to supplely and all-sidedly engage with such contradictory cultural materials, in concrete historical contexts. With real people. In the real world.
As Zizek ought to know, such work requires not simply rising above popular fantasies, but working through them.