Avatar is stimulating some very juicy conversation…

The response to my Avatar essay has intrigued me and encouraged me to look wider and deeper at the conversation swirling around this remarkable film.

Several people wrote me about the White Savior myth popular in Western cultures — notably embodied by the movie Dances with Wolves. I particularly want to call your attention to Alan Levin’s comment on my 1/26 blog entry on Avatar and his article on the Fellowship of Reconciliation blog. In many stories and films we see white men dropping out of their society into more nature-based cultures, becoming leaders there, and then saving them from attacks by other whites. From the white perspective, this is true heroism. But from indigenous perspectives, it is often seen as one more form of degrading, patronizing colonialism (“We’ll take care of these folks since they can’t take care of themselves.”). The White Savior perspective on Avatar is well articulated in Ezili Danto’s article “Avatar is a White Savior Movie” in The Progressive
http://www.progressive.org/node/138817. Given this critique of the White Savior narrative, progressive whites may back away or, alternatively, decide they have to “learn Indian ways.” While both these responses can be part of a larger resolution, I think they both miss important possibilities that I’ll here call “integral responses”. An integral response would be one which acknowledges gifts and limitations in every “side” of an issue and seeks a more powerful synergy or integration of them all. It would include efforts by both sides to transcend their limitations and bring the gifts of the Other into their own culture.

Which brings us back to Avatar. I find myself particularly interested in nuanced discussions (and film presentations) about how a white person could bring his or her knowledge of white culture, systems, and technologies into truly creative interaction with indigenous culture, technologies and wisdom to transform exploitative culture-clash situations into a synergistic, transformational dynamic, i.e., an evolutionary opportunity. How do we reach beyond colonialism, exploitation, patronizing white heroism, and “noble savage” stereotypes to embrace
a. respectful co-existence
b. learningful, productive interactions and
c. evolutionary breakthroughs to greater understanding and possibility than existed before the encounter?

For example, I think of permaculture as an integration of Western science (universal laws that support prediction and control) and indigenous science (place-based knowledge that supports right relationship to the life of a place). Permaculture offers guiding design principles of interrelationship among living things and environmental conditions. Permaculture practitioners hold these ecological guidelines lightly as they work in and with a given site or situation, learning from what the place can teach them as they go. (This last sentence is “integral” insofar as it describes both Western and indigenous approaches to science, while transcending the limits of both as separate practices.)

In the Avatar movie — or rather, in its sequels — I wonder if (a) the Earthlings’ knowledge of civilization’s technologies and conditions and (b) the Na’vis’ deep connection to natural dynamics and spirit could combine into new forms of nonviolent resistance and transformational engagement that would not only lead to security for Na’vi culture and Pandoran nature, but also a shift in Earth’s interstellar culture from corporate/militarist adventurism to (perhaps) universal cross-cultural learning and galactic integral wisdom. This would serve to preserve cultures and nature on other living planets, while creating a larger shared culture that benefits everyone.

This is not just an idea for a movie. It is an idea for this earth today. In real life, the Pachamama Alliance
http://pachamama.org between modern activists and indigenous Amazonian people is one effort to do that kind of thing right here in our world in 2010.  Their latest initiative is exemplary: FourYears.Go
http://signup.fouryearsgo.org
endeavors to provide a visionary timeframe of four years in which all people and organizations working for a more just and sustainable world go all out to make headway on their most ambitious projects in those four years — connecting with each other as they do — because the next four years will be so profoundly important for the future of humanity and life on our planet. I expect to write more about this fascinating initiative in the near future.

Studying the Pachamama Alliance’s work, you’d almost think that the Na’vi have already started their intervention on our distant Earth. And in a very real way, they have. Now James Cameron just has to catch up to these real-life folks and add his incredible skills to the transformation of our world in the next four years…

Coheartedly,
Tom

PS #1: Right after writing this, I stumbled on the most insightful and useful appreciative, critical review of Avatar I’ve so far seen — The Racial Politics of Avatar, Part I and Part II. These two essays from Psychology Today contain the kind of complexity and nuance I was hoping for in other reviews — and in Avatar, itself. That instructive complexity multiplies when you read the excellent reader comments following Part II. (Not all the comments are remarkable, but most are. There are good comments following Part I, also, but not as many nor as mind-blowing. See PS #3…)

PS #2: And then right before I posted this, another intriguing essay about this movie arrived in my in-box
http://bit.ly/bnXH3h … The fact that this movie is generating so much creative conversation about critical social issues is one of the most intriguing phenomena in popular culture I have seen in years.

PS #3: Just to give an example of the interesting twists of perspective that showed up in the responses to The Racial Politics of Avatar, Part II, check out these two quotes:

“I believe that the movie can also be viewed as something of a chess match between two collective entities, Eywa [the Pandoran nature spirit] and the Corporation [which runs the mining operation and has all the mercenaries working for it]. Eywa prevails by capturing one of the Corporation’s pawns [Jake, the star of the movie] and converting him into her most powerful piece on the board. She recognizes that Jake’s knowlege, skills, and spirit are just what she needs in a champion and she intervenes TWICE to keep Neytiri [the Na’vi warrior princess that Jake falls in love with] from killing him; directly with her bow or indirectly by abandoning him to the jungle.”

“This is not a white messiah descending. This is the native ecosystem taking over and getting the job done.”

And this similar perspective from Rabbi Arthur Waskow, in the top article when I Googled “white savior
http://bit.ly/AvatarWaskow :

“The story echoes the biblical story of Exodus, in which Moses may be a spokesperson but it is the locusts, the rivers, the frogs, the hailstorms – what we call the Ten Plagues, the earth itself rising up as an expression of God’s Will to topple Pharaoh — that triumphs. It is YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh’s very breath, becoming the Holy Wind that splits the Red Sea, that drowns Pharaoh’s army.”

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