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Author Topic: Avatar: Anti-humanism, Anti-civilization and Empty-headed Holywood Religion?  (Read 8147 times)

RPGPundit

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From the NY Times:

Quote
It’s fitting that James Cameron’s “Avatar” arrived in theaters at Christmastime. Like the holiday season itself, the science fiction epic is a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message. It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James.

But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.

In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing.

If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now. It’s the truth that Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves. It’s the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas.” And it’s the dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”

Hollywood keeps returning to these themes because millions of Americans respond favorably to them. From Deepak Chopra to Eckhart Tolle, the “religion and inspiration” section in your local bookstore is crowded with titles pushing a pantheistic message. A recent Pew Forum report on how Americans mix and match theology found that many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the “spiritual energy” of trees and mountains that would fit right in among the indigo-tinted Na’Vi.

As usual, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming. The American belief in the essential unity of all mankind, Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, leads us to collapse distinctions at every level of creation. “Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator,” he suggested, democratic man “seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.”

Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.

At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.

Indeed, it represents a form of religion that even atheists can support. Richard Dawkins has called pantheism “a sexed-up atheism.” (He means that as a compliment.) Sam Harris concluded his polemic “The End of Faith” by rhapsodizing about the mystical experiences available from immersion in “the roiling mystery of the world.” Citing Albert Einstein’s expression of religious awe at the “beauty and sublimity” of the universe, Dawkins allows, “In this sense I too am religious.”

The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.

Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.

Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.

But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.

So is that it? is this movie more of the "Western Civilization and Science are bad, take us Back To the Cave" movement? Matched with a shallow new-agey religion of obliviousness?

Its really amusing to me how this particular kind of nature-worshipping pantheism is a religion that could only come to exist in an utterly pampered privileged society that is very glorious and mercifully separated from Nature. Because any slightly less-privileged, less-advanced or less-pampered society would be able to tell you that Nature is a fucking bitch.

(note also that, however much the Relativist Liberal Hollywood New-Agers want to make you think its so, this philosophy is extremely different from Buddhism, Hinduism or Taoism, none of which have any of the illusions American-Leftist-Pantheism have about the the gentleness of mother nature or the virtue of being reduced to an animal)

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JongWK

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Avatar: Anti-humanism, Anti-civilization and Empty-headed Holywood Religion?
« Reply #1 on: December 26, 2009, 01:06:25 PM »
Quote from: RPGPundit;351471
So is that it? is this movie more of the "Western Civilization and Science are bad, take us Back To the Cave" movement? Matched with a shallow new-agey religion of obliviousness?

Ross Douthat is a fine writer, but that article shows how much of a modern-day US conservative he is.

The movie is strongly against colonialism and corporate exploitation. Period. It is not against science or progress, for reasons that I cannot tell without spoiling the movie. I'll just say that Cameron borrowed a few pages from a couple of highly revered sci-fi authors.
« Last Edit: December 26, 2009, 01:10:13 PM by JongWK »
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Avatar: Anti-humanism, Anti-civilization and Empty-headed Holywood Religion?
« Reply #2 on: December 26, 2009, 01:19:35 PM »
"I give the gift of endless imagination."
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Avatar: Anti-humanism, Anti-civilization and Empty-headed Holywood Religion?
« Reply #3 on: December 26, 2009, 01:48:48 PM »
Its not just him I've heard it from: the comparison with Dances With Wolves, the whole element of Humanity as the Bad Guys (except for those few who betray their own species to defend the Noble Savages against the evil White Man who's come to Ruin Them), this is something I've heard over and over again in reviews.

Meanwhile, its also not just the Right Wing who take issue with this movie. One prominent left-wing reviewer (unfortunately i don't have the link) that I read made a point of how this is only the latest in the "White Guilt" movies; which involve the White Man assuaging his guilt by "going native"; and are ironically inevitably racist themselves as we watch the White Man become the BEST Native Ever, much better than the actual "darkies", and inevitably he's the only one who can defeat the other Bad White Men and their stooges in order to save the day, because there's no way any of the Savages themselves could. In many of these movies, the other Noble Savages even end up making the Guilty White Man Gone Native their new chief.

Also, I'm not sure which spoiler you're referring to, but if its to do with either the Gaia consciousness being a real thing, or the human dude getting to become a Real Boy at the end, those both just make it worse. The former because it removes any question of moral doubt from the story (The Noble Savages are absolutely objectively RIGHT, which means that the humans are absolutely wrong), and the latter because its just another cheap White Guilt gimmick. If Tom Cruise got to really become Japanese at the end of the Last Samurai, or Kevin Costner got to really be an Indian at the end of Dances With Wolves, wouldn't that just make those movies even more atrocious?

I don't know; I think I'm going to see Sherlock Holmes instead...

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« Reply #4 on: December 26, 2009, 02:29:13 PM »
Quote from: RPGPundit;351491
Its not just him I've heard it from: the comparison with Dances With Wolves,


It shares elements with DWW, yes, but not the entire plot.


Quote

the whole element of Humanity as the Bad Guys (except for those few who betray their own species to defend the Noble Savages against the evil White Man who's come to Ruin Them),


You know what? Ignore the race card. It's fucking stupid and the kind of no-win trap used to derail actual debate about the real issues: colonialism and corporate exploitation. Seriously, stop thinking that political bloggers make good movie critics, or that "White Guilt" is a good argument to criticize a movie, because 99.9% of the time, they don't.


Quote

Also, I'm not sure which spoiler you're referring to, but if its to do with either the Gaia consciousness being a real thing,


You're not thinking this one through.
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Avatar: Anti-humanism, Anti-civilization and Empty-headed Holywood Religion?
« Reply #5 on: December 26, 2009, 02:30:58 PM »
I have yet to see this movie, but from the trailer and the reviews I would tend to agree that the premisse is something we have already seen 1000 times before, even if it comes wrapped in the shinniest package ever.
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« Reply #6 on: December 26, 2009, 02:36:54 PM »
Quote from: Vargr;351501
I have yet to see this movie, but from the trailer and the reviews I would tend to agree that the premisse is something we have already seen 1000 times before, even if it comes wrapped in the shinniest package ever.


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« Reply #7 on: December 26, 2009, 02:42:36 PM »
haven't seen it yet. hope to see it soon. agree that it looks like it belongs to the long line of 'going native' movies (Lawrence of Arabia, Dances with Wolves, Shogun, etc). but just going on the previews and the handful of reviews I have read. i try not to take the politics of any movie too seriously, since it is a potent medium and easy to absorb the film makers point of view without thought. if the film is good, that is all that matters to me.

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« Reply #8 on: December 26, 2009, 03:01:48 PM »
The plot is bog-standard "going native", as has been said. Pundit has a point in that in the movie, the "Earth Mother" is an actual quantifiable THING with control over all life on the planet - or, if you prefer, it IS all life on the planet; a giant network.

**spoiler**





And yet Jake doesn't actually win the day for the Na'vi - they are actively getting their asses handed to them until the BIOSPHERE ITSELF turns on the humans. All Jake did was ask it for help before the battle (by actually "jacking in" to the network), and it responded in spades with tons of huge creatures that flung themselves at the human machines and won the day. As I said - it is "Deathworld" in beautiful CGI.

And its one hell of a ride - I'd recommend it to anyone, regardless of their opinions of the "message". I'd like to see it again, in fact. Make sure you catch in in 3-d though. Wow.
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Avatar: Anti-humanism, Anti-civilization and Empty-headed Holywood Religion?
« Reply #9 on: December 26, 2009, 03:03:33 PM »
There's nothing about James Cameron as a director that screams "subtlety" or "writing quality" to me. Big (relatively awesome) special effects, sure, I'll give him that.

But seriously, this is the guy that did Titanic...

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Avatar: Anti-humanism, Anti-civilization and Empty-headed Holywood Religion?
« Reply #10 on: December 26, 2009, 03:06:28 PM »
There was a hilarious poster on /co/ the other day, of the title and various cast member heads shopped over the poster for Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, a rubbish environmentalist cartoon film from the 90s.

The discussion went on towards exactly the vein the title hints at, joking that the moral of the film was apparently to betray your rank, and go live with a bunch of loincloth wearing blue folk, because all science and industry is badwronglies or some such nonsense.

Frankly, I find the quality of the animation and the bizarre look to the films main characters, to be sufficiently offputting that I have no interest in it as it is, learning from a number of sources that it's basically the White Wolf/Exalted rant all over again is hardly a selling point.
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« Reply #11 on: December 26, 2009, 06:09:57 PM »
I think the NYT opinion piece and the Pundit's subsequent posts on the subject is complete BS.

Cameron's view about humanity, technology, the military and the enviroment has always been complex (see, Aliens and The Abyss).

To accuse him of the first two in the thread title is dumb. The last one for this film at least may be apt. I'll weigh in when I actually see the film :D

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« Last Edit: December 26, 2009, 08:05:42 PM by David R »

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« Reply #12 on: December 26, 2009, 06:18:53 PM »
Quote from: RPGPundit;351508
There's nothing about James Cameron as a director that screams "subtlety" or "writing quality" to me. Big (relatively awesome) special effects, sure, I'll give him that.

But seriously, this is the guy that did Titanic...

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Pretty much - he ain't no Ridley Scott. Aliens, however, is groovy.

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Avatar: Anti-humanism, Anti-civilization and Empty-headed Holywood Religion?
« Reply #13 on: December 26, 2009, 11:07:39 PM »
Scrolling past much of this since I haven't yet seen the film. I don't really have high hopes for the plot, I'm open to being pleasantly surprised, but I'll mainly be there for the visuals. Mainly I hope that once SFX reach the ultimate pinnacle, audiences will become jaded and Hollywood will have to pay some decent writers if they want to earn a decent return.

I did read the OP and all I can say is that I share Pundit's disdain for fluffy New Ageism, combined with its kneejerk reversals of Western values. However I see nothing in pantheism or reverence for nature that is inconsistent with humanism...after all the Greeks and Romans developed some very refined philosophies without the benefit of orthodox monotheistic dogma--and was not the Copernican Revolution largely a matter of knocking both man and an anthropomorphized God out of their central role in the universe? Yet the result IMO was to make humanity more fully responsible for its own morality and destiny. However an awareness of Nature's...supremacy (?) is IMO also an important antidote to the sort of overweening belief in rationality or "hyperhumanism" that gave us such disasters as the French & Marxist Revolutions, as well as neocolonialism in the 1800's and neoconservatism in the 21st century.
« Last Edit: December 26, 2009, 11:11:19 PM by Arminius »

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Avatar: Anti-humanism, Anti-civilization and Empty-headed Holywood Religion?
« Reply #14 on: December 27, 2009, 10:48:29 AM »
Depends on what you mean by "pantheism" or "reverence for nature".  The Greeks and Romans weren't pantheists, they were polytheists (mostly); but that's not really relevant, you can certainly have a pantheist conception of the world and develop civilization; both the Chinese and India did it quite nicely.

The real issue is very simply whether you believe that its a "Bad" thing that humanity has become more than just an animal. The Hollywood Pantheists, as it were, clearly really do believe that, even if they won't upfront admit it to themselves and others. THAT is "anti-humanism", saying "It would be better if we were all monkeys/not around".

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