Monday, December 21, 2009
‘Avatar’ and the War of Genres
(The following is a guest post by my friend Gerry Canavan, who had the insane notion that a literary scholar might want to tackle a cultural artifact on literary terms instead of, say, overtly political ones.)
I saw Avatar last night and I thought at first I didn’t have all that much to say about it. I was prepared to shamelessly steal a friend’s thesis that this is really all about video games, but I see Kotaku already did that. In the face of column after column centered around a nominally leftist reading of the film as Dances with Wolves… in Space!, SEK has already provided a more nuanced consideration of the films racial—and racist—dimensions. Posts about the backlash of the backlash and the backlash of the backlash of the backlash have already been taken care of.
I’m not all that interested in the special effects, which, perhaps due to some projection issues in our theater, didn’t seem to be quite as spellbinding as advertised. The language stuff interests me more, but seems ultimately somewhat empty. “And congratulations to Cameron for taking us from a figuratively to a literally inhuman standard of slenderness for women" seems to cover it with regards to feminist critique of the Barbie-doll-shaped Na’vi.
The religious element, while not especially original, is, from a materialist standpoint, pretty deeply problematic, and badly damages the film’s ecological politics, which frankly are not all that well thought-out in the first place.
But in the theater and as I sat down to write this post I mostly found myself preoccupied with the genre question. I don’t want to recapitulate the genre post I wrote for Infinite Summer, but in brief this is how Darko Suvin approaches SF:
SF is, then, a literary genre or verbal construct whose necessary and sufficent conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the authorÕs empirical environment. (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction 7-8)
Carl Freedman in Critical Theory and Science Fiction reframes this idea slightly as what he calls the “cognition effect”:
The crucial issue for generic discrimination is not any epistemological judgment external to the text itself or the rationality or irrationality of the latter’s imaginings, but rather ... the attitude of the text itself to the kind of estrangements being performed. (18)
This is to say, more or less, that whether or not the science in science fiction is plausible from the standpoint of contemporary science it adopts a rhetoric of scientific plausibility to motivate the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
In the beginning Avatar seems to situate itself firmly within this generic mode, with a group of scientists and mercenaries from Earth who have arrived on Pandora in spaceships to study the natives and drill for valuable minerals (not necessarily in that order). But by the end, while Avatar certainly remains an alternative to our empirical environment, it no longer operates as any kind of framework. Neither the biological/ecological systems present on the planet Pandora, nor the ability of our biological structures and technological apparatuses to interface with them, are remotely plausible from the perspective of either evolutionary biology or cognitive science without inventing some sort of massive hidden backstory for the Na’vi that involves incredible prehistoric genetic engineering on the planetary scale—and really not even then. (And of course Fridge Logic just makes it worse.)
In Suvinian/Freedmanian terms, then, Avatar isn’t really science fiction at all, because the type of imagination involved in its reception isn’t cognition. And by the end of the film any pretense of scientific plausibility or internal logical coherence has been abandoned altogether: telepathy and transmigration of souls are real, MechWarriors pull Bowie knives from their belts, and not even gravity seems to work anymore.
But this, I suggest, goes quite a bit further. Far from merely nerdy nitpicking of the sort I am famous for, the abandonment of scientific plausibility is actually the film’s central thematic conceit. The narrative turning point of the film hinges, after all, on the moment we hop generic tracks from science fiction to fantasy, and perhaps even (as Sigourney Weaver’s character suggests in dialogue) to fairy tale. Other people have framed this moment as the anthropologist characters’ “going native,” but within the film’s terms this is just another way of saying the same thing—these characters drop a scientific perspective in favor of a religious one and, in so doing, gain access to a wide portfolio of impossible superpowers.
That Pandora features staggeringly improbable lifeforms and impossible physical structures isn’t, therefore, any sort of narrative failure; rather, the complete abandonment of science fictional “explanation” in favor of unabashed fantasy is part and parcel of the war of genres that structures the film.
The climactic battle turns out, accordingly, to be this generic tension between science fiction and fantasy made hyperbolically literal: it’s a war in which blue-skinned, dragon-riding elves armed with bows and arrows attack spaceships owned by a version of the Company from Aliens—and the elves win precisely because within the genre of fantasy [spoiler] magic exists. [/spoiler]
And these are exactly the two alternatives offered by the tagline in the poster above: “Avatar: Believe it, or not.” (And please note that it’s the science fictional frame that is “believable”; the fantastic/religious frame becomes dominant at the precise moment in which we can no longer “believe” what we are seeing.) That generic divide, SF vs. fantasy, is the film’s narrative and thematic fuel.
So, yes, the film is fun, the spectacle is large, and the good guys manage to pull off the Battle of Endor a second time. But as a unreconstructed Asimovian and a good Suvinian I worry about the consequences of an ideology in which science and military aggression are bound up tightly together through a science fictional aesthetic of extrapolative realism against which any form of resistance, alas, is just pure fantasy. If this is our binary—science fiction and disaster vs. fantasy and hope—outside the narrative’s terms it’s science fiction and disaster that emerges victorious. After all, as we leave the theater, recycle our 3-D glasses, and rub our eyes to adjust to the light outside the theater, it’s Colonel Quaritch’s world, not Neytiri’s, into which we must make our exit and this, after the fact, is his extratextual triumph.
(And his other extratextual triumph, of course, is that the humans will be back for more unobtainium in Avatars, and back in force—and that this time they may even remember the sacred truth Cameron himself once taught us: that space marines don’t need to invade, they can nuke a site from orbit, just to be sure.)
Can we put some pressure on the whole “suspension of disbelief” thing, at least until we get some real data on how brains work while reading fantasy/sci-fi/etc vs. realism?
I say this because—I feel like I’m at AA now—I have never suspended my disbelief. Not once. I don’t even quite understand what that phrase means.
The ghost in *Hamlet* is as realist as the fantasy squids in a VanDerMeer novel, which in turn is as realist as the crazy coincidences in *Les Miserables* or the Kyklops in *The Odyssey*. They all obey the essential Chekhovian dictum: if there’s a gun on the mantle at the beginning, it had better go off by the end. Now, Chekhov was talking about need to cut all but the most essential details from a story, but the reverse of his statement is also true here: if you need a gun at the end, you had better set it up at the beginning. No one likes a deus ex machina.
So if the wizard is going to shoot lightning bolts, we had better see that coming early. If the star cruiser is going to hit light speed, that also must be set up at the start.
I’m not sure if there’s any major cognitive difference, at this level, between realism, fantasy, and sci-fi. In each case, we’re not asking for the possible, and, contra Aristotle, I’m not even sure we’re asking for the probable. We’re asking for consistency. (To save Aristotle, we might say, we want what is probable given the way the text begins. All surprises must be foreshadowed. To borrow a Black Box Recorder song title: start as you mean to go on.)
Having faith that science might one day make a device that allows me to read minds is no different from having faith that a magic spell might allow me to read minds. It just makes some people feel better to put their faith in science.
(None of this, of course, goes against SEK’s ultimate point about the clash of civilizations trope, which often involves a holistic/instrumentalist binary. I’m just not sure about the genre part of it all.)
"Willing suspension of disbelief” is Coleridge’s term. Tolkien disliked it and proposed “Secondary Belief” in its place in his “On Fairy Stories.” Perhaps that term would fit better with Luther’s understanding of speculative fiction. The point about consistency as the basis of how sf works is interesting and compelling.
"So if the wizard is going to shoot lightning bolts, we had better see that coming early.”
Dragonslayer, for an exactly opposite structure. At least there is supposed to be a surprise, and a deconstruction of the hero development myth.
I am trying to avoid things like <i>The Matrix, where the development of the hero is the story, and remember stories ending with abrupt unexpected revelations of competence, that yet make sense. There have to be many.
The more I think about it, the more Dragonslayer interests me. Whether or not there is a deus ex machina is arguable.
But I can’t think of too many other stories with not a flawed hero, nor a sympathetic anti-hero, not picaresque, but someone in the hero’s role with a hero’’s virtues who is incompetent and ineffective. A failed hero, all the way, and not played for comic effect, but as a critique or the myth of the hero. Don Quixote seems more complicated. Stephen Donaldson?
Electra Glide in Blue, Night Moves, <i<Chinatown</i>, maybe The Conversation, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Cutter & Bone several of the anti-westerns, it seems like a 70s theme.
The recent Assassination of Jesse James? There have to be many more.
Bob, I wonder if certain magical realist novels and stories wouldn’t involve something like an “abrupt unexpected revelation of competence,” or at least an abrupt unexpected revelation of __________.
So Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” works precisely by breaking my rule of consistency: it’s a normal, gritty Latin American world suddenly shattered by one weird thing, a man with wings. However, even here, I think there’s a sort of consistency. The normal, gritty Latin Americans react exactly as we’d been set up to imagine they’d react.
This is why I think I get tired of all those post-Marquez novels that have one sudden “magical” event. It’s not simply my hatred of cliche; it’s my sense that the writer is selfish, that s/he wants the freedom suddenly to do anything s/he wants for no apparent reason other than that it is meaningful or lovely. It’s like a basketball player breaking every rule, fouling every other player, to make some ridiculously gorgeous shot.
Now I’m thinking about Kafka. *The Metamorphosis* takes perhaps the best approach to something like magical realism: it begins completely absurdly but then plays exactly by fairly common rules: what would “really” happen in such a case?
But that seems to break my consistency rule. Which would suggest that great artists can do whatever the hell they please, while bad artists can follow all the rules and still stink.
*disclaimer* this isnt a literary comment, cos i’ve been out of the scene for awhile, but i just wanted to say that i loved this article.
it wasnt that i felt the rest of the crits (e.g. comments about “going native”, the “white mans fantasy” etc) were bad. its just that i felt they were missing the point of the movie, but i didnt know exactly what.
thanks for putting it into worlds!
A slightly more interesting question might be whether Avatar’s source material is a better example of genre than Avatar itself: Anderson’s “Call Me Joe” sets up its conclusion in the “science” itself (though the planetary science, of course, sucks, because we know more now than we did fifty years ago) and has an emotional realism, as well, that Avatar clearly lacks.
The science in SF has been a perennial and important topic. My contribution to it, from the double vision standpoint of a scientist who’s also a writer: Science Fiction Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
I agree about the ubber skinniness of the aliens to that of Barbie.I’ve taken to calling Neyteri,ubber skinny amazonian blue Barbie.
Flawless \perfect beings, unlike the scarred up old Col.Quaritch who is portrayed as the badguy.Cameron just seems to be sending the old Hollywood\media standard of what it values or regards as beauty(the opposite of flawed, as real people are outside of “LaLa Land") .That if you’re one of the thin pretty people you are good and if you are less than that you’re bad.Too damn bad for Cameron he got hunky goodlooking albeit touch of gray 58 year old Stephen Lang to play Col.Quaritch, most of the audiance seemed to be rooting for him, probably due to this concept. Also humans tend to find alot in common with and root for their own kind.And the movie was told from the traitorous to his own race,the hypocritical human hater Jake Sully, trying to be so politically correct that he seems to come off incorrect valuing one race as superior to another instead of as equal.(no race is greater or less than any other)But this is just my politically correct point of view.