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Avatar: Pro-Science; Anti-Intellectual. Discuss?

January 7, 2010

Is anyone not on Facebook? Well, just in case, I thought I’d re-post a discussion I and some friends have been having about our impressions of the roles of science and technology in the movie Avatar. I feel a little silly adding to all the attention that this movie is getting. In many ways it is kind of a crappy movie. Yet at the same time it is causing a lot of interesting discussion (for another example, see this very interesting discussion of the Noble (Sparkly) Savage). And of course, it was spectacular to watch.

This discussion began with me raising the question in the title: Avatar: Pro-Science; Anti-Intellectual? Here are some of the responses. (Warning: there are some gratuitously nerdy references here. Some people just can’t restrain themselves! Feel free to ignore.)

Zach: I like calling it “pro-science.” Avatar doesn’t care about nature because it’s important in and of itself; it cares about nature because lifeforms on Pandora have established a complex neural network that can host entire lived identities, exudes a power that allows mountains to fly, and that has a tangible social function through the ‘built-in USB connections that exist in every Na’Vi and every animal. This hippie lovefest is based on tangible scientific (in the story) phenomena.

i’m not sure i see the anti-intellectual point as clearly, although you could argue that based upon Sully’s uneducated character. If you think that the defense of nature is predicated on proscience grounds, then arguably the outcome of the movie is a defense of the planet’s metaconciousness, which might be more advanced than human conciousness. This would imply that the movie isnt anti-intellectual, it just defends a higher intellect than our own.
Taylor:  I didn’t pick-up an anti-intellectual vibe, or for that matter a pro-science one. Can you elaborate on that idea a bit?

However, perception — specifically, how different knowledge systems materially and psychologically shape and construct people’s perceptions — seemed to be one of the loci of conflict between the humans and the Navii. Throughout the movie the Navi’i people kept telling Jake to open his eyes to the forest, and that his people were “blind.” The female leader of the Navi’i said that scientists’ “cups” are already filled (with ideas/theories), and they lack the ability to see things as they really are. It was acknowledged that Jake was perfect for his task because he wasn’t indoctrinated into some rigid scientific paradigm, which ultimately gave him a kind of intellectual freedom no one expected at first. Grace kept telling Jake to “see the forest as they do.” All of this refers to how the scientists’ theories, techniques, and tools prevented them from understanding the forest in the same way as the Navii. The idea of “taking samples” became a joke of sorts, especially at the end when Grace said it as she was dying at the tree of souls (or whatever); it illustrated the obvious difference between how she perceives things and how the Navi’i do, and how she wasn’t able to separate herself from her methods and theories.

Attestive visual culture is central to modern Western science, but modern science tends to distrust the reliability of the unmediated gaze. From Shapin and Schaffer: “Scientific instruments therefore imposed both a correction and a discipline upon the senses. In this respect, the discipline enforced by devices such as the microscope or the air-pump was analogous to the discipline imposed upon the senses by reason. The senses alone were inadequate to constitute proper knowledge, but the senses disciplined were far more fit to the task.”

I think there’s a strong Latourian sentiment in the film’s treatment of reality: your perception of reality depends on both the material tools and the ideas you use to construct that representation of reality. The difference between the Navi’i and the humans was not just one of values (pro-environment vs. pro-science/industry), but that each culture had a strikingly different approach to understanding reality.

PS: after reading Zach’s comment, I think I can understand the “anti-intellectual” bit insofar as the film is advocating for intellectual humility: the notion that knowledge systems necessarily produce an incomplete picture of the world, and that we need to be sensitive of important things that may lie in the gaps (the metaconsciousness of the forest). This is very James Scott-esque.

Me: My thinking was, inevitably, far more simplistic. I saw two themes that, if not strictly contradictory, are at least a bit counter intuitive.

The anti-intellectual bit stems from the fact that, like zach pointed out, the movie feeds a general disdain for eggheads who think they know all the answers. Instead it gives us a hero who feels his way through to victory. I felt like this element of the story would really appeal to Sarah Palin.

But at the same time, Avatar perpetuates the myth of the inherently virtuous scientist. And this is the part that Bruce Alberts would really like. Sure, the boss guy points out that he pays sigourney weaver’s bills, and perhaps we are meant to reflect on the moral implications of that situation. But I felt more like we were supposed to accept that the means (corporate/military/whatever funding) justify the ends (virtuous science).

So, when Weaver’s character is being carried, mostly dead, to the Tree of the USB Hub, she mumbles about needing to get some samples, and we chuckle inwardly. Those crazy scientist-nerds… they’re so dedicated!

Emily: I think the egghead disdain was actually fear of and disdain for outsiders, particularly because the eggheads are a subset of the violent, resource-hungry invaders. More anti-Bush, anti-preemptive strike, anti-imperialism than anti-intellectual. Remember that Sigourney Weaver was at least tenuously accepted by the natives before Giovanni Ribisi started moving in.

Eliza: But is it making fun of her character or making fun of scientists in general or just weird when, at the end, she is dying but still mutters, “I should take some samples.” ??

Maybe if there had been more jokes in the movie, it wouldn’t have stuck out so much! I guess if it’s going to cost 500million to make, it has to be a serious film.

Eliza: ALSO, it was very New American University in that the Humanities Grad Student (what was his name? Neil or something?) who has done tons of language study, cultural study, historical study and is totally “prepared” is not actually prepared at all….apparently, since he doesn’t become the Mock Tow or whatever.

Another tick in the anti-intellectual (or maybe just anti conventional higher education!) column.

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