Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Avatar (Take 2)

In my last post, I placed Cameron’s Avatar in the interpretive framework of eco-political thought and practice. One could approach it in different ways, too, of course, one of which is to look at its interesting configuration of the relation between myth and science, which is also related to what I said before about the relation between art and technology.

Apart from the pejorative meaning of the word “myth” (namely, “false belief”) myths are generally known to be stories or narratives that explain the origins of things ranging from the cosmos to animals and human beings, as well as the way they behave. So, for example, the ancient Greek myth of the titan, Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to hand it over to humans, is a mythical explanation of the origin of human culture and society, where fire represents reason, inventive ingenuity as well as artefacts which differentiate between culture and nature. And one should not forget that “Pandora” is itself the (ancient Greek) mythical name of the woman who, bearing a box or jar filled with “evils”, was sent to earth by the gods to avenge Prometheus’s theft of fire, and opened it out of curiosity, in this way releasing its evil contents into the world — clearly, Cameron’s film hints at mythical connections in its use of this name.

In its most encompassing form, “myth” is a narrative (or a group of interrelated narratives) which comprises a framework within which people can find answers to their “existential” questions, including moral directives that serve as guardrails to keep one from falling when buffeted by life’s vicissitudes.

Against the backdrop of this understanding of myth, it seems to me pretty clear that the Na’vi of planet Pandora live a life guided by their belief in the mythical unity between themselves, their deceased ancestors and the rest of the creatures on the planet.

This myth-oriented way of life is apparent in several scenes. Think of the one where Neytiri, having killed one of the “wild dogs” in the process of rescuing Jake from them, pays homage to the wild animal before berating Jake about unnecessarily causing her to rob it of its life. The way she addresses the animal is an indication of an underlying (mythical) belief in a fundamental oneness between herself, her race and these animals. In other scenes one learns of the “tree of spirits”, whose “seeds”, descending on Jake like a halo adorning him, represent what Neytiri refers to as a “sign” of sorts (which grants Jake a temporary reprieve in the face of the Na’vi warriors’ hostility). Again, although little information is provided in the scene about the place of this tree in Na’vi culture, it is clear that it occupies a central position in the mythical structure of their cultural beliefs. When Jake successfully mounts the red flying “dragon” (for want of a better term) in an effort to win the Na’vi’s trust, he is tapping into a powerful mythical vein concerning the place of individuals who can master this animal in their history.

One may wonder why these indications of the myth-oriented cultural life of the fictional Na’vi is at all relevant. For one thing, it contrasts starkly with the broadly scientific and technological way of life of the human occupiers of Pandora — although it must be kept in mind that there is more than one sense of the word “science” as far as the humans are concerned.

In one sense, “modern” science manifested itself historically in the work of early scientists who approached nature armed with a mathematical grid for interpretation in the form of measurement. Galileo put it well when he remarked that, if one wanted to understand Mother Nature, one had to “understand her language, which is mathematics”.

It was this kind of science, namely mathematical physics, that enabled scientists to grasp natural phenomena by means of calculable relations, which, in their turn, comprised the basis for technological attempts at controlling natural processes. This kind of science, that paved the way for modern technology (which Heidegger saw as “ordering” or “assaulting” nature), was a mechanistic science in so far as its underlying model of nature was “nature as machine”.

More recently, though, a different conception of science has made its appearance — not only in relativity physics and quantum mechanics (both of which cast doubt on the ideal of “certainty” in classical modern physics), but also, significantly for the film (Avatar), in the life sciences. Both Marilyn French (in Beyond Power) and Fritjof Capra (in The Turning Point and The Web of Life), to mention only two writers who have reflected on the implications of developments in biology, have elaborated on the increasing realisation on the part of (biological and other) scientists, that nature is not like a machine, but rather like a gigantic network or web of interconnected organisms. (It should be mentioned, in passing, that Renaissance artist-scientist Leonardo da Vinci was the historical exception here — his conception of science was not mechanistic, and antedated the currently emerging complexity model of science, which acknowledges the interrelatedness of all things, by centuries.)

Such a vision of nature is essentially ecological, the implications of which are expressed as follows by Joel Kovel (in The Enemy of Nature): “ … we think of nature as the integral of all ecosystems, extending in every direction and beyond the limits of the planet. Talking of integrals means talking in terms of organisms, and of Wholes — in other words, the systematic introduction of an ecological vision commits us to positing reality as an interconnected web whose numberless nodes are integrated into holistic beings of ever-exfoliating wonder … ”

It is this conception of science, which is predicated on the interconnectedness of all things, that one encounters on the part of Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the biologist, in Avatar (and, of course, in mythical form on the part of the Na’vi). Side by side with this in the film, however, one still witnesses the kind of technology that Heidegger saw as being inimical to nature as physis — nature as growing, proliferating beings coming and going in an endless cycle of birth and death — and which is not compatible with the new paradigm of science represented by Grace. It is evident in the operations of both the mining equipment and the military apparatus used by the humans, neither of which leaves the soil and the living beings on Pandora in peace.

So — to return to what I said in the beginning about myth and science — how does one bring all of this together regarding Avatar? It is Friedrich Nietzsche’s conception of science and of myth that is helpful here. In a nutshell, in these terms it seems to me that Avatar, as an artwork, “communicates” to audiences the Nietzschean insight (or belief), that a society, or a culture, needs a sustaining mythical ground to survive as a society, and that, while a science that is purely positivistic (in the sense of being no more than an accumulation of facts) would be inimical to the formation of such an encompassing mythical foundation, a different kind of science is conceivable, which would foster the emergence of the latter.

Arguably, in Human, all too Human, Nietzsche’s conception of such a science acknowledges that science cannot be only or exclusively positivistic and analytical, but that it has to be more rigorous than art, and it should yield a “sum of inviolable truths”. In short, oxymoronic as it may seem, Nietzsche was looking for a new mythical foundation for culture in science. (Eventually he abandoned this oxymoronic “faith in science”, and tried to provide the world with a new myth himself, in his masterpiece, Thus spoke Zarathustra, but that is another matter.)

This is where Nietzsche’s thought and the conception of science encountered on the part of Grace (together with the Na’vi cultural myth) in Avatar converge. Just as Nietzsche, at one point in his career, tried to reconcile science and myth, the ecological science represented by Grace in Avatar represents such an attempt — in fact, it may just be reconcilable with the cultural function of myth, in so far as both have an integrative, life- and culture-promoting function.

The question is: can humans reach a point where the science and accompanying technology practised by them is reconcilable with the life-enhancing function of a sustaining myth, as Nietzsche saw it, or are we doomed to be caught in the deadly embrace of a technology which — if one considers the newly emerging paradigm of science — is nothing less than anachronistic?

Considering the important — indispensable, if we believe Einstein’s remark, that “imagination is more important than knowledge” — role of imagination in culture, a film like Avatar, together with recent developments in science, bears witness to the possibility that a new kind of technology, too, is possible — one that is compatible with living ecosystems, instead of being hostile to them. I would wager that there are already signs that such a new kind of technology is in the making.