[DigCult] Cameron’s Avatar and Gibson’s prison

by Thom Kiraly

Our course Digital Cultures and Practices is coming to an end, but before we get there we briefly touch on the subject of avatars and avatarism. As part of this we were assigned to watch the movie Avatar, read Reading with the Body: Interpreting Three Dimensional Media as Narrative by Jim Barrett and respond to the movie using some concepts from this essay. For this purpose, I want to focus on one specific aspect of Avatar.

Embodied readings
In Avatar, the world of Pandora is utterly hostile, other and alien to humans. The environment (or Nature, capital N) is hazardous, the jungle is full of beasts ready to rip you apart and even the basic act of breathing requires a human to wear an oxygen mask. Thus, the only way to gain access to and make sense of this space is through extensions or embodiments of the self. In the film, the most obvious embodiments are the avatars of Jake and the others in the “research” team. A particularly interesting point here is the way in which Jake’s position is changed from that of the disabled ex-marine to that of the chosen one among the Na’vi (picking up a common sci-fi trope also found in, among other stories, Dune). The message of the movie is as clear as the part of the first chapter of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, wherein the attitude toward the body is described:

“Strapped to a bed in a Memphis hotel, his talent burning out micron by micron, he hallucinated for thirty hours. The damage was minute, subtle, and utterly effective. For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.” (Gibson)

The human body (and especially the disabled human body) is here an utterly flawed version of the ideal avatar body. This is, in a sense, a conflict that is, unfortunately, very easily resolved at the end of Avatar when Jake’s consciousness is somehow (through the mystical biotech powers of “Eywa” i.e. Nature, capital N) transferred from his disabled human to the near perfect body of his avatar.
This technomysticism and the idealistic view on Nature are some of the things I struggle with when watching Avatar, but that’s a topic for a different blog post.