Avatar revisited

Gesturing at decolonization of the great epistemological divides

Image: Ross LewAllen ©

by Fani Cettl

James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar (2009), to which four sequels have been announced, was generally praised for its cutting-edge special effects yet criticized for the simplistic narrative by both film reviewers and scholars. Sukhdev Sandhu, reviewer for The Telegraph, puts it effectively when he writes, “It’s an achievement to make 3D look as good as it does here, but that counts for little if the characters are all in 1D. The film is a triumph of effects over affect” (Dec 2009). It is a rather formulaic take on the histories of western colonialism and environmental destruction. The alien Na’vi on planet Pandora are meant to mimic the pre-industrial Native Americans, who worship the Goddess Eywa and live in harmony with their environment until the mechanized human colonizers arrive to extract “unobtanium” and obliterate everything in their way. The main protagonist Jake Sully joins the Na’vi and forms a romantic bond with the native princess Neytiri, and ultimately discards his paraplegic, ex-Marine, white body to become a non-white, feminine-coded, abled, environmentally attuned Na’vi body. The scenario rehearses two of the most powerful American frontier myths: the Pocahontas and Mohican stories, adapting them to the 21st century where they no longer function only “as an exercise in romantic regret, but to expiate guilt over the genocidal nation building” (Howe 2016, 125). The seeming postcolonialism and ecofeminism of Avatar can be read as a symptom of white guilt: one that reinforces the ultimate stereotype of a heroic white warrior leading through the justified violence the oppressed to freedom, which remains very problematic in terms of race, gender, ability, and the idealized version of nature.

The film remains a worthwhile cultural phenomenon to examine for its particular staging of post/modernity that underlies environmentalist politics.

Considering these controversial assumptions of the narrative, the massive box office success and the widespread fascination with the film’s CGI effects, as well as the announced four sequels in the upcoming years, is it worth revisiting Avatar and with what aim? I wish to suggest yes; the film remains a worthwhile cultural phenomenon to examine for its particular staging of post/modernity that underlies environmentalist politics. This has so far generated an interesting scholarly discussion to which I would like to contribute in this essay. Bruno Latour, well known for his view that the European modernity in the 17th century installed what he calls the Great Divide(s)–between nature and culture, self and other, human and nonhuman–surprisingly reads the film in a rather positive way (Latour 2010), although we could argue that Avatar continues to enact precisely these divides. More recently, ecocritical scholar Timothy Morton has argued that the film gestures towards non-binary postmodernity, but it is unable to actually take us there (Morton 2014). That is, the environmentalist message that celebrates the pure, organic, pre-technological Nature on Pandora is undermined at the level of the film medium, which glaringly speaks to us through the luminescent screen images its reliance on the highly advanced digital technology. In this paper I wish to build further on these scholarly readings of Avatar and, following Morton, argue that the film does not seem to take its own propositions seriously enough. It not only unconsciously undermines its ideology through the level of the medium, but also on the level on the narrative itself. Through a close reading of a dialogue from the film I will show that, if taken seriously from a postcolonial anthropological lens, the dialogue signals a decolonization of the hierarchical divide between western sciences and Indigenous knowledges, which the film overall remains unable to articulate.

For Latour, Avatar “is the first popular description of what happens when modernist humans meet Gaia. And it’s not pretty” (Latour 2010, 471). As he argues, since the 17th century nature has been understood as no longer spirited and actively interfering with human affairs, but in terms of passive objects to be demystified through scientific knowledge. All those living on the wrong side of the epistemological divide were considered irrational because they believed in a world animated by all sorts of entities rather than reducing materiality to the cause and effect relations. A model of mechanism was posited as a paradigmatic model, within which the Christian God was reinterpreted as a clock maker who had created the world and then left it to unfold by itself according to mechanical laws. (Carolyn Merchant in The Death Of Nature (1980) explicated this scientific model in detail, and showed has it was entangled with the histories of patriarchal colonialism and capitalism.) For Latour, this model can no longer be upheld (if it ever was) as it becomes ever more visible in the current age of climate change that nonhuman materiality has agency and that effects exceed their causes. Both humans and nonhumans are actants, and their agencies are much more evenly distributed, which means that we need to consider “the tricky question of animism anew” without the usual scorn that has been poured onto the concept: “Consider Lovelock, for instance, with his ‘absurd idea’ of the Earth as a quasi organism – or the Na’vis with their ‘prescientific’ connections to Eywa” (Latour, 2010, 481). Latour aligns James Lovelock’s Gaia theory of the Earth as a living super-organism, which in the past was criticized for being unscientific by the scientific community, and the animist beliefs of non-western Indigenous peoples as they are staged in Avatar. He suggests that both should be taken much more seriously by us “moderns”. In fact, in recent decades Lovelock’s theory has been revalued considerably in the environmentalist movement, while the indigenous models of sustainability have been increasingly explored in anthropological scholarship. Instead of constantly policing the epistemological border of what proper science and what pseudo or non-science is, it is necessary to look carefully into how well a certain model is assembled, how efficient of a “handle” to stage nature it is (Latour 2010, 483).

The film’s gesturing towards postmodernity crucially entails a gesturing towards decolonizing epistemology.

It seems that Latour casts Avatar in a rather positive light despite its clichéd narrative and very controversial take on colonialism. Bruce Clarke notes that the film resonates for Latour with his agenda of deconstructing the nature-culture divides and redistributing the worldly agencies in a “nonmodernist fashion” (Clarke 2014, 160), yet for Clarke, “At every level, Avatar is self-contradictory and wrapped up in its own paradoxes” (Ibid, 177). This really captures well the film’s modus operandi, which is, I suggest, that of failing to take seriously its own propositions. It is this ambiguity that enables us to interpret certain moments in the film as possibly questioning the Great Divides between western sciences and indigenous knowledges, while understanding the film on the whole as enforcing these divides by privileging the spiritual belief over the scientific-technological outlook.  While the biology and neurology of the Pandoran/Gaian living system are shown to resonate well with the animist forest spirits, yet at the same time, the nature on Pandora is strangely purified from the contamination by capitalist technology. Morton approaches the ambiguity of Avatar by arguing that the narrative of the purification of Nature from modern technology fails at the level of film medium, which heavily relies on the advanced digital technology. For him, “What Avatar gestures toward, then, is a genuine ‘postmodernity,’ a historical moment after modernity,” where no extrication of the organic from the technological is possible, “without ever being able to tell us to go there, or even wanting with all its heart to push us there” (Morton 2014, 222). I wish to push Morton’s idea further and argue that the film’s gesturing towards postmodernity crucially entails a gesturing towards decolonizing epistemology: questioning the hierarchical divide between western sciences and indigenous knowledges, which unfolds at the level of the narrative. An intriguing dialogue along these lines develops between the Na’vi-friendly scientist Grace, played by the sci-fi heroine Sigourney Weaver, and the merciless corporate manager named Parker, played by Giovanni Ribisi:

Grace: Those trees were sacred to the Omaticaya in a way you can’t imagine.

Parker: You know what? You throw a stick in the air around here it falls on some sacred fern, for Christ’s sake!

Grace: I’m not talking about pagan voodoo here – I’m talking about something real and measurable in the biology of the forest.

Parker: Which is what exactly?

Grace: What we think we know is that there’s some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees. Like the synapses between neurons. Each tree has ten to the fourth connections to the trees around it, and there are ten to the twelfth trees on Pandora.

Parker: That’s a lot, I’m guessing.

Grace: That’s more connections than the human brain. You get it? It’s a network – a global network. And the Na’vi can access it – they can upload and download data – memories – at sites like the one you just destroyed.

What is at stake is not to rebrand non-western knowledges as scientific, but rather to make us think how and what discourses and practices, and not others, get to be authorized and legitimized as scientific in the first place.

The animist Na’vi view that trees are imbued with the spirit of Eywa is presented crucially as compatible with, and not opposed to, the biological and neurological constructions of synapses and neurons in living organisms. One way to understand Eywa is in terms of Gaia, or as Clarke suggests, in the neocybernetic terms of “a self-referential cognitive system producing self-maintaining regulatory dynamics without having to assume the agency or anima of a conscious system” (Clarke 2014, 162). This does not mean, however, that Grace’s aim is to simply translate the spiritual belief into the scientific idiom in order to legitimize it. Importantly, she respects both the animist and neurological worldviews, unlike Parker for whom the translation between the two is needed. Grace’s perspective encourages us to think how both models, each on its own terms, successfully stage materiality, and though for Clarke this “conveys the perennial Western muddle between science and spirituality, physics and metaphysics, energy and anima” (Ibid, 170), I suggest that it also gestures towards a decolonisation of knowledge. In the above quote the borders that police the temporality–primitive vs. modern–as well as seriousness–superstition vs. truth–of the two ways of knowing are put in question. Why would we not think of shamanic practices as scientific, or of the concept of the neuron as animist? What is at stake is not to rebrand non-western knowledges as scientific, but rather to make us think how and what discourses and practices, and not others, get to be authorized and legitimized as scientific in the first place. “Muddling” this border would mean to inhabit epistemologically the space which Gloria Anzaldúa terms “borderlands”, an undetermined and vague state created through the deconstruction of a historically enforced border (Anzaldua 1987, 3).

Recent postcolonial anthropological research in the Amazon region can take us further into decolonial directions. Jeremy Narby publishes in popular rather than academic media, but some of his insights can precisely shed more light on the quote above. (In comparison, Eduardo Kohn’s research of the Amazon in How Forests Think (2013) is more rigoruosly academic, but his conclusion to understand the Amazon forest spirits as semiotic actors resonates strongly with Narby’s view.) Based on his research with both Ashaninca shamans and biologists, he argues for a striking compatibility between the shamans’ and the biologists’ understanding of life. Intriguingly, he suggests that what the Amazonian shamans see in their hallucinogenic visions induced by plant brews, which is the images of giant fluorescent serpents, corresponds to what biologists see as the double helix structure of DNA through their instruments. A he puts it: “My hypothesis suggests that what scientists call DNA corresponds to the animate essences that shamans say communicate with them and animate all life forms” (Narby 1999, 132). As in Avatar, the spirits in the Amazon forest correspond to the scientific model of reality; the hallucinogenic plants are an equally good method to approach nature as the scientific instruments; and the shamans use their vision-induced knowledge to heal people same as the medical doctors use the knowledge of molecular biology. In the film, both the scientific and spiritual forms of knowledge are imagined to not only theorize life, but also construct it successfully on a practical level. While the human scientists use advanced biotechnology to construct avatar bodies, which are then operated through a psionic link with the genetically matching human minds, the Na’vi at the end of the film transport the mind of a human completely into his avatar body by using shamanic techniques. Such staging makes it hard to delineate science from non-science, or indeed faith from science, in the way that Narby argues:  “…it is of utmost importance to respect the faith of others, no matter how strange, whether it is shamans who believe plants communicate or biologists who believe nature is inanimate” (Narby 1999, 145). Whether or not we subscribe to Narby’s conclusion that the visions of serpents and the DNA double helix correspond on the ontological level, what his approach foregrounds is that both shamans’ and biologists’ models of life are equally efficient handles to stage nature, and therefore should be equally respected.

Traditional ecological knowledge is based on collaboration rather than appropriation, spiritual interconnectedness rather than a taxonomic set of categories and facts.

Equal respect towards western and non-western epistemologies would mean to speak of what Grace Dillon terms “indigenous scientific literacies” (Dillon 2007), as the ways in which indigenous sustainable practices constitute indeed a Native science despite the lack of resemblance to taxonomic western knowledges. As she writes, traditional ecological knowledge is based on collaboration rather than appropriation, spiritual interconnectedness rather than a taxonomic set of categories and facts. In the contemporary context of climate change, indigenous scientific literacies seem to be finally “discovered” widely by the mainstream science, and Dillon sees precisely the mode of science fiction as a space in which this already has been, and can be productively engaged and developed further (Dillon 2016). Within this framework, Avatar both speaks and fails to speak of the indigenous scientific literacies. It gestures towards such understanding, yet overall it fails to engage this potential explicitly: it gestures towards postmodernity while not being able to extricate itself from the modernist divides. In Morton’s reading, the celebration of pre-technological Nature is unconsciously undermined at the level of the vibrant, computer-generated screen imagery: “The very attempt to force viewers to accept an ecological view of interconnectedness results in pushing humans to accept the proximity of a more-than-human-world of uncanny strangers” (Morton 2014, 221). Morton’s uncanny strangers are the glowing, weird creatures and the immersive environment on the screen, which cannot but not reveal the technology that made them possible. But if this is so, these luminescent uncanny strangers also unconsciously reveal to us and embody the hallucinatory method that shamans use to communicate with and gain knowledge from their plant teachers. As we, the film’s audience, immerse ourselves in the astonishing living world of the screen, are we not “hallucinating” about ecological knowledge? I suggest that the gesture towards postmodernity that Morton detects in the film crucially entails a gesture towards decolonising epistemologies, yet this move fails to be articulated explicitly. What the announced sequels make of decolonising the epistemological borders is to be seen, but so far the historical understanding of post/modernity in Avatar has generated an important scholarly discussion to which this essay contributes.


Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands: La Frontera, The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Book Company.

Avatar. 2009. Directed by James Cameron. Los Angeles: Lightstorm Entertainment.

Clarke, Bruce. 2014. Neocybernetics and Narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dillon, Grace L. 2007. “Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Nalo Hopkinson’s Ceremonial Worlds.”  Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 18, No. 1 (69): 23-41.

Dillon, Grace L. 2016. “Introduction: Indigenous Futurisms, Bimaashi Biidaas Mose, Flying and Walking towards You.” Extrapolation, Vol. 57, Issue 1-2: 1-6.

Howe, Andrew. 2016. “The Post-9/11 Mohican: Avatar and the Transformation of the ‘Manifest Apology’.” In The New Western: Critical Essays on the Genre since 9/11, edited by Scott F. Sttodart, 116-136. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Klassen, Chris. 2013. “Becoming the ‘Noble Savage’: Nature Religion and the ‘Other’ in Avatar.“ In Avatar and Nature Spirituality, edited by Bron Taylor, 143-160. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2010. “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’.”  New Literary History, Vol. 41, No. 3: 471-490.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. Politics of Nature: How To Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Merchant, Carolyn. 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Morton, Timothy. 2014. “Avatar, Ecology, Thought.” In Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson, 206-225. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Narby, Jeremy. 1999. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Narby, Jeremy. 2005. Intelligence in Nature: an Inquiry into Knowledge. New York: The Penguin Group.

Sandhu, Sukhdev. 2009. “Avatar, full review.” The Telegraph.

Fani Cettl holds a PhD in Gender Studies from the Central European University in Budapest. Her fields of interest are science fiction, Gothic fiction, science and literature, biopolitical theory and posthumanism.