Co-opting Capitalism: Avatar and the Thing Itself

AK Thompson

“Our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analyzing the
mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself… It will then become
evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has
only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality… It is not a question of
drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realizing the
thoughts of the past.”

 

– Karl Marx1

 

I

 

The mainstream is polluted. It’s clogged with the rot of a society that never stops cannibalizing itself. Nothing can live here anymore. Even protest anthems have become advertising jingles. And activists are no longer shocked to see our enemies appropriate the things we once found resonant. For many radicals who grew up – as I did – at the end of history, the decisive moment came when Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ became the score to a 1996 Bank of Montreal ad campaign.

 

We alternated between outrage and bewilderment when we noticed that the decisive line “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command” had been redacted from the version used by the bank. On first blush, the gesture was straight up censorship, an attempt to deny the defiance that Dylan had intended to foment. But when I looked closer, something else came into view. The redaction also suggested that the song could not be swallowed whole. For those that still remembered what it used to sound like, the bank’s remix filled the song with meaning. Somehow, by trying to defang it, capitalism made the worn-out tune precious again. In 2007, I had a similar experience when, against my better judgment, I sat through Juno until the very end. Watching the credits roll, I snapped to attention as I heard Kimya Dawson’s Loose Lips performed with the line “fuck Bush and fuck this war” relegated to oblivion.

 

II

 

What is the relationship between capitalism and forms of cultural radicalism? For many, the answer is simple: the mainstream takes without giving. Our only hope is to save ourselves by going underground. But when we follow our desires – when we cultivate alternatives to drowning in pabulum – we discover that our efforts are easily co-opted. Macabre and vampiric, capitalism gains vitality by devouring all that exceeds it. Every beating heart is thus fair game. Pulled into the market, our imaginative élan hits us like a boomerang. The process, as we experience it, is by now familiar. First, we carve out spaces where we might really live despite the deadening weight of cultural entropy. Then, as though it had been waiting for us to make our move, the market catches on and turns the music of rebellion into Top 40 bubblegum. Godard’s courageous cinematic experiments become the playbook for advertisers struggling to stay one step ahead of the dull commodities they peddle.

 

Is it any wonder that we’re so protective of our scenes? Suspicious of tourists, we set up tribunals to scrutinize the brave or curious few who wander in off the street. Only slowly do we warm to them. This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that, officially, we’re a proselytizing bunch committed to broadening our reach. But gathered on this beach of the tumid mainstream, we can’t help but adopt the closed postures of the frightened and outcast. On guard against those that would cheapen what we hold most dear, we cling tightly to all that defines us so that it doesn’t get plucked from our hands.

 

If radical politics was just about giving voice to the most complete version of ourselves we could muster, these postures – although ultimately self-defeating – might at least make sense. But this has never been all that we espouse. And, by standing on guard against the loathsome mainstream, we end up cutting ourselves off from many of the very people with whom our movements must connect. It’s a pressing contradiction, and one that has yet to be resolved. Hardly surprising, then, that a film like The Matrix, which deals with this problem directly, should continue to resonate more than ten years after the fact.

 

The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around. What do you see? Business
people, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy.

 

Intellectually, we understand the need to connect with people beyond our scenes. Nevertheless, we find it difficult to start from the standpoint of the world as we find it. This is because we perceive the content of this world to be indistinguishable from its master, our enemy. Hating capitalism, we subsequently find those who seem at home amidst its wonders to be suspect. Seduced by Manichean simplicity or emboldened by the relative size and stability of our scenes, we lose sight of the fact that capitalism itself is contradictory. And more: people’s current allegiances to mainstream cultural forms may very well arise from capitalism’s constant appeal to that which lies beyond it. If this is the case, then it’s necessary to come to terms with the deep ambivalence underlying people’s identification with the status quo. This ambivalence is both a terrain of struggle and an invitation to engage. But seduced by our scenes and contemptuous of the mainstream, we often miss it.

 

III

 

Considered together, the ambivalence underlying people’s identification with the status quo and capitalism’s unending co-optation of radical content suggests that “the mainstream” may actually harbour a secret desire to connect with us. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the profit motive has led advertisers to focus less on their product’s restricted use value and more on the promise it was said to fulfill. The success of this approach became incontestable when, in 1929, Edward Bernays staged a publicity stunt designed to get women to become smokers. Enlisting a group of young women to defy taboo by lighting up cigarettes while marching in New York City’s Easter Day parade, and prompting the press to describe their act as a declaration of freedom, Bernays effectively bound the commodity to the promise. Immediately afterward, the number of women smokers increased dramatically.

 

Sublime though it may be, smoking would never yield the freedom it promised. Nevertheless, as a kind of compensatory proxy for women’s seemingly unattainable desires, the cigarette provided a cathartic deferral or partial resolution. And though people may have come to the realization – as they have with many commodities – that the idea of smoking is more pleasurable than smoking itself, the absence of plausible alternatives for realizing the promise is often enough to keep people hooked. In this way, a psychic addiction underwrites a chemical one.2 However, people’s acceptance of capitalism’s limited horizon should not be confused with the idea that they find the world bound by that horizon to be sufficient. If anything, feelings of lack seem to grow apace with disposable income. Nevertheless, allegiance to capitalism arises primarily from the fact that – at present – capitalism alone offers tangible answers to the question: how will my desires be realized, even if only partially?

 

This is not “false consciousness.” Rather, it is practical consciousness for those with little reason to believe that the word “reality” could pertain to anything other than the irrefutable – capitalist – world they encounter with their senses. The trick for radicals, then, is not to denounce mainstream consumption or the desires that stimulate it but rather to reveal the consumed object’s inadequacy when measured against the desire it promises to fulfill. As with the 19th-century movement of industrial workers, which needed to move from Luddite iconoclasm to factory council appropriation before it could consummate its struggle, contemporary radicals need to overcome our ascetic repudiation of the commodity so that we might engage its generative contradictions directly.

 

IV

 

We’re still a long way off. Advertisers continue to be far better than us at recognizing that it’s the secret desire for an actual revolution that leads consumers to identify with a “revolutionary” new product (a product denoting a freedom it will always fail to yield).3 Still, it can’t go on forever, and the contradictions underlying capitalism’s strategy of stimulating desire show signs of nearing their threshold. With the commodity’s inability to fulfill the promises it whispers becoming increasingly apparent, advertisers have upped the ante by supplementing their declarations with visual citations drawn directly from the archive of revolutionary movements. This dynamic reached what may have been its acme when, in 1999, Britain’s Churches Advertising Network issued a poster that forged a connection between Jesus Christ and Che Guevara. Aimed at generating interest in Easter mass, the poster draws on Alberto Korda’s iconic Guerrillero Heróico (1960) to stimulate the viewer’s identification with Christ as a revolutionary figure.

 

The result is stunning. It made no difference that, if followed to its logical conclusion, the posited identity between Christ and Che should have compelled parishioners to turn against the very church being promoted in the ad. Storming the altar, they should have found it nearly impossible to suppress the urge to cry out (as Christ did when he cast the moneychangers out of the temple), “my house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves!” None of this happened. As a compensatory proxy mobilized in response to a world defined by restricted horizons, “Che Jesus” effectively positioned the church itself as the actualization of Christ’s revolutionary commitment. By the Churches Advertising Network’s own admission, the campaign was very successful.4

 

On the surface, it may seem that the ad’s resonance owed more to its recapitulation of postmodernism’s addiction to irony than to its citation of content drawn from the revolutionary archive. However, such a characterization ignores the fact that, today, “irony” itself operates as a strategy for the organization and management of desire. In other words, irony makes it possible to reiterate stories infused with longing without acknowledging their implications.5 By forging a path that leads imperceptibly from enunciation to disavowal, irony saves us from having to come to terms with the demands placed upon us by the stories we continue to love in spite of ourselves. In the case of “Che Jesus,” Christ becomes harmless through his ironic association with Che. This allows viewers to embrace the image without having to own up to the demands it places upon them. Meanwhile, the fact that Alberto Korda’s original photo has continued to resonate precisely on account of its own overt Christological citation disappears entirely.

 

V

 

With minor variations, this process can be detected underlying all mainstream citations of radical culture. These citations stimulate a longing to consume by fostering identification with promises that can, in fact, never be realized through consumption. However, while this process underwrites capitalism’s uncanny ability to endlessly reproduce itself through substitution and deferral, it also constitutes a gamble. By speaking in the name of that which lies beyond it, capitalism whets an appetite that it cannot satisfy. The trick, then, is to intensify dissatisfaction with partial resolutions without giving up on desire. This does not mean searching for more appropriate substitute objects. On the contrary, it means recognizing – as Max Horkheimer did – that “the critical acceptance of the categories which rule social life contains simultaneously their condemnation.”6

 

To be sure, by making consumption the only means by which promises can be effectively realized, capitalism continues to maintain the upper hand. And, so long as it’s able to “resolve” the inevitable disappointment it generates by substituting new commodities for ones that have lost their lustre, it will continue to do so. But despite this apparent stability, we should not lose sight of the fact that the whole system is built on a fault line. One of our most pressing challenges, then, is to determine how to decouple the desire that stimulates consumption from the consumable object in which it gets trapped. This process, which Walter Benjamin considered analogous to splitting the atom,7 is crucial since it simultaneously meets two central objectives of the class struggle. First, it helps to release the tremendous human energy trapped in the ruins of our society (a society that, despite constant cinematic anticipation, has yet to collapse) so that it might be channelled into the process of revolutionary change. Second, by releasing and redirecting this energy, it deprives capitalism of the blood upon which it feeds.

 

How do we split the atom? To begin, we must first develop a new attentiveness to all the implicit and explicit citations of radical content in mainstream culture. This means recognizing those radical themes that sometimes find latent expression in cultural artifacts whose manifest content appears to be apolitical. It also means not rejecting those more overt citations that sometimes crop up in “political” artifacts that nevertheless strike us as lamentable. Of these two tasks, contemporary radicals have found it far easier to engage in the former. The recent fascination with zombie movies (which, as a genre, oscillate between extreme left and extreme right perspectives)8 can be understood at least in part as an expression of our newly intensified desire and capacity to find traces of the political within the cultural. Nevertheless, and in stark contrast to this intellectual generosity, it remains difficult for radicals to relate to mainstream social artifacts that express “political” content directly but in a fashion considered to be inadequate.

 

VI

 

When Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 came out in 2004, radical commentators did all they could to outflank it on the left. Activist blogs and online news sources quickly filled up with scathing indictments. Among the film’s most vocal detractors, journalist Robert Jensen condemned both Moore and the many leftists who spoke highly of his film. That they could do so, Jensen intoned, “should tell us something about the impoverished nature of the left in this country.”9 This was because, in his estimation, Fahrenheit 9/11 was “a bad movie.” The substance of Jensen’s critique had to do with the film’s recourse to what he called “subtle racism” and to its unselfconscious reiteration of dangerous American myths.

 

With respect to the film’s subtle racism, Jensen highlighted
how – in an effort to make visible the de facto
unilateralism of Bush’s war – Moore’s depiction of the “coalition of the willing” drew heavily on images emphasizing the technologically backward character of the endorsing nations. Of greater significance, Jensen also pointed out that the “victims” of the domestic war on terror featured in the film were overwhelmingly white. According to Jensen, this decision effectively erased the experiences of those countless many – primarily people of colour – that were interrogated and detained in the months following 9/11.

 

These aspects of the film are indeed troubling. But what bothered Jensen most was that, in the film’s concluding scene, Moore seemed to reiterate the myth that the American military was a global force for good. Speaking of those who are forced by limited prospects to join the military, Moore recounts how “they offer to give up their lives so that we can be free … and all they ask in return is that we not send them in harm’s way unless it’s necessary.” In light of the debacle in Iraq, he asks, “will they ever trust us again?” According to Jensen, “it is no doubt true that many who join the military believe they will be fighting for freedom.” Nevertheless,

 

we must distinguish between the mythology that many internalize and may truly believe, and the reality of the role of the U.S. military. The film includes some comments by soldiers questioning that very claim, but Moore’s narration implies that somehow a glorious tradition of U.S. military endeavors to protect freedom has now been sullied by the Iraq War.

 

The capacity to read what’s implied is a good skill. However, in this case, Jensen’s desire to condemn seems to have prevented him from recognizing that Moore’s conclusion may very well encourage viewers to conclude that the soldiers won’t trust “us” again. In its very structure, the film’s conclusion sets up a conflict between the myth (and the promise it extends) and the brutal reality that will always tarnish it. In light of this contradiction, the question thus becomes: if we desire the promise of the myth that all might live with freedom, and if US militarism is not the means by which this promise will be realized, then what must we do to assure that it becomes a reality? Although it’s impossible to tell whether or not this was Moore’s intention,10 the conflict between myth and reality can easily be extracted from the material provided.

 

However, rather than seeking to “complete” the film by recognizing (as Horkheimer did) that the critical acceptance of the categories which rule social life contains simultaneously their condemnation, activist critiques like Jensen’s aimed instead at rendering it politically inadmissible. Mainstream audiences didn’t get the memo; from the 20-minute standing ovation it received when it premiered at Cannes to the staggering number of copies sold when released on DVD a year later, Fahrenheit 9/11 resonated strongly with millions of viewers. It remains the top-grossing documentary of all time.

 

Radicals often responded by asserting that we were to the left of Michael Moore. We revelled in our scathing indictments, which proved – once and for all – that our vision was purer than Moore’s (as though this was a challenge; as though this was the challenge). Meanwhile, most viewers, deeply affected by the film, neither knew nor cared what we thought. We were talking to ourselves. Again. But what form of critical engagement could have pushed viewers to “complete” the film? By what means might people learn to decouple their desire for freedom from the myth in which it’s currently ensnared?

 

There’s no easy answer to this question. And any resolution will require more than merely intellectual interventions. Nevertheless, the uncertainty we confront whenever we’re forced to consider what must be done should not prevent us from lamenting the fact that, in this case, we didn’t do much at all. Enamoured by our social marginality, many of us retreated to our blogs. If it occurred to us to leaflet people after the show, we rarely got our act together to do so.

 

VII

 

The radical scene’s tendency to celebrate its own marginality has made it difficult for us to relate to significant mass cultural phenomena. When, by chance, millions of people end up liking what we like, we take it as a sign that we’ve done something wrong. How, we ask, could people so invested in the comfort of their own ransacked lives identify with cultural offerings tuned to the pitch of a wheezing tear gas canister? True, we have acknowledged a few crossover successes: Bruce Springsteen remained cool even after Ronald Reagan declared that he liked him, and Rage Against the Machine was welcomed to the stage of the Los Angeles anti-DNC protest in 2000 even though they’d undoubtedly been the soundtrack to countless frat house conflagrations. But despite these occasional signs of generosity, we have yet to figure out how to co-opt capitalism.

 

If this problem was clear before, the release of Avatar during the final weeks of 2009 made it crystallographic. True to form, many radicals have condemned the film. And this is a shame, since condemnation will not bring us closer to understanding why Avatar has stimulated more audience interest than any other Hollywood blockbuster in history. Whether measured in terms of box office receipts or the tremendous amount of online discussion it has inspired, it’s useless to deny the film’s mass cultural resonance. Indeed, both the intensity and sheer volume of popular discussions suggest that it has successfully overcome the restricted bounds of “entertainment.” Less than a month after its release, we reached a moment of decisive inversion. The film itself became the stable referent. People began to interpret their life through Avatar’s lens.

 

Following a story that appeared on CNN in January, The Huffington Post reported that Avatar-related online discussion boards had become ad hoc peer counselling hubs. On these boards, filmgoers struggled with the unforgiving greyness of the world they confronted upon leaving the theatre. These feelings of dread were compounded by the dysphoria that arose from their identification with the Na’vi as ego ideal (the image of themselves as they ought to be). And, because the film presents the Na’vi as natural and harmonious extensions of the world they inhabit, people’s struggle for the realization of their ego ideal has put them into direct conflict with their own wasted lives. According to The Huffington Post, one viewer described how they had been depressed ever since they saw the film. “Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them,” they lamented. 11

 

A response such as this one may seem idiosyncratic – testament more to the personal troubles of a science fiction shut-in than to any real social issue. Nevertheless, it’s important to consider how, whether or not this was its intention, Avatar helped to set up a conflict between many people’s persistent but unrealized desire for happiness and the imperfect world in which they live. To be sure, the overwhelming response to conflicts of this kind has been therapeutic or managerial. Nevertheless, the fact that it’s experienced as “conflict” at all should alert us to its importance as a site of struggle. In order to orient to this site, it’s useful to consider Walter Benjamin’s analysis of what, following Freud, he identified as wish images. Describing how people’s utopian longing can help to jumpstart the process of social transformation, Benjamin recounted how “corresponding in the collective consciousness to the forms of the new means of production … are images in which the new is intermingled with the old.”

 

These images are wishful fantasies, and in them the collective seeks both to preserve and to transfigure the inchoateness of the social product and the deficiencies in the social system of production… These tendencies direct the visual imagination, which has been activated by the new, back to the primeval past. In the dream in which, before the eyes of each epoch, that which is to follow appears in images, the latter appears wedded to elements from prehistory, that is, of a classless society.12

 

When applied to Cameron’s film, Benjamin’s analysis suggests that, by operating in the fantastical register, Avatar proposes a resolution to contemporary earthly concerns by staging a return to the site of trauma. As noted by several commentators, this site is none other than the conquest of the Western hemisphere by European powers. Returning to this point with the assistance of allegory, the viewer is given the opportunity to imagine how (if they play their cards right) this time the outcome might be different.

 

Is Avatar, then, simply an over-financed rehearsal of Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, and The Last Samurai as many commentators have proposed? No. What distinguishes these three films from Avatar is that, as historical narratives obliged to adhere to the contexts that fill them with meaning, they all end in failure. Barring a revisionism so grand as to overwrite the advent of the modern world system, it could not be otherwise.13 And so, while Kevin Costner’s improbable but deeply affective bond with the Sioux may have redeemed him, it could not save the people of the plains from eradication. Only Avatar – precisely because of its status as speculative fiction – is able to envision redemption as a process with a definitive, resolved, end.14

 

As wish image, the Na’vi stimulate people’s longing for a better world by standing in as fulfillment of the unrealized promise of the (mythic) past.15 As in Benjamin’s account, this fulfillment takes the form of a fusion of the old and the new. In the film, this fusion is made explicit through the literal connectivity shared by the creatures of Pandora. The Na’vi transfer data through the organic equivalent of fibre-optic cables growing directly from their skulls. James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis thus finds imaginative concretion through one of the internet era’s central fantasies.

 

Amplifying their significance, these connective links are also explicitly eroticized. Not only is Sully, the film’s protagonist, told to avoid playing with its tendrils lest he go blind, the leaked script for the extended love scene (not shown in the cinematic release) has the depicted characters “linking up.” And so, while immersion in collaborative networks is normally understood – especially since the publication of Civilization and its Discontents in 1930 – as demanding the suspension of pleasure, on Pandora connectivity and pleasure magically coincide. In this way, Avatar rehearses an image of redemption that echoes Herbert Marcuse’s greatest hopes from 1955’s Eros and Civilization. It’s no wonder
that – whatever its distance from genuine erotic experience – some online commentators have begun speculating about the possibility of Na’vi porn.

 

The wish image’s social significance arises from its ability to give the desire for redemption a concrete referent. Nevertheless, in and of itself, the wish image does not suggest anything about the means by which redemption might be achieved. And so, while it stimulates desire and provides a compelling vision of what the future might hold, it’s far from inevitable that the energy drawn to the wish image will be directed toward making that vision a reality. It’s therefore entirely possible that Avatar – the commodity – will remain the posited “resolution” to the desires it provokes.

 

In this scenario, the film becomes a kind of repetition compulsion, an expression of capitalism’s never-ending process of substitution and deferral (good enough, until something better comes along). Indeed, the depression recounted by repeat viewers not able to gain access to “the real thing” through the film suggests that no other path seemed evident. And while – in and of itself – the film would never be enough, most viewers were left
with nothing but consumption-related choices: watch the film again despite its incapacity to deliver on its promise, subject the promise to forms of ironic disavowal, or find some other consumable thing that might really
do the trick.

 

VIII

 

As expressions of our longing for redemption, wish images have often been used to revitalize the commodity form. In order for this not to happen, it’s necessary for us to imagine how our longing for actualization might be decoupled from consumption and reestablished as a central category of production. As Marx noted in Capital, the definitive feature of the human labour process is that the image of the thing to be produced exists in the mind of the producer prior to its concretion. In that field of production known as “politics,” this means that the wish image ceases to be a seduction (as happens in the sphere of consumption) and becomes instead the basis for decisive action.

 

It’s therefore not surprising that Indigenous people – people for whom the connection between politics and production often continues to be more explicit than it’s become for the cosmopolitan inhabitants of the global North – have begun to draw upon images from Avatar to sharpen the focus of their confrontations with constituted power. The website Survival recently reported on several of these generative citations.16

 

In one report, a Penan man from Sarawak recounted how “the Na’vi people in ‘Avatar’ cry because their forest is destroyed.” According to the interview subject, the situation for the Penan was the same, since “logging companies are chopping down our big trees and polluting our rivers, and the animals we hunt are dying.” Similarly, a Kalahari Bushman described how Avatar “shows the world about what it is to be a Bushman, and what our land is to us. Land and Bushmen are the same.” Other groups have gone still further by transposing the film from the register of generative analogy into that of resource for action.

 

Appealing to James Cameron for assistance through an ad placed in the film industry magazine Variety, the Dongria Kondh tribe in India highlighted the connection between Avatar and their own struggle against Vedanta Resources, a mining company determined to extract bauxite from their sacred mountain. Acting even more directly, a group of Palestinian protestors in Bil’in recently dressed up like Na’vi to highlight the connection between the struggle on Pandora and their own experience of dispossession.17 In an uncanny instance of art-imitating-life-imitating-art, IDF soldiers were captured on film firing tear gas at the demonstrators. In this way, the structural analogy between Israel and Avatar’s “sky people” became irrefutable.18

 

But despite these creative appeals to the film’s resonant images (appeals that have come from Indigenous people themselves), many radicals continue to be reluctant to acknowledge the film’s importance. To be sure, there have been some notable exceptions: Evo Morales welcomed Avatar as a “profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defense of nature.” Similarly, in an overwhelmingly positive report for socialistworker.org, Nagesh Rao concluded that it was significant that “millions of moviegoers around the world are flocking to a film that unflinchingly indicts imperialism and corporate greed, defends the right of the oppressed to fight back, and holds open the potential for solidarity between people on opposite sides of a conflict not of their choosing.”19 Nevertheless, within North American radical scenes, assessments such as these have remained rare.

 

IX

 

Why? In order to answer this question, it’s necessary to highlight the numerous ways in which the film’s representation of people in struggle differs sharply from radical ideals. Along with its suggestion that people with disabilities (should) want to be “cured” and its uncritical woman-as-prize plot device, Avatar infuriates us because the oppressed Na’vi are exoticized and incapable of saving themselves. Worse, the film relies upon the heroic intervention of a white outsider to bring resolution. Annalee Newitz did much to stimulate discussion about the latter frustration with her influential “When Will White People Stop Making Films Like ‘Avatar,’” an article first published on the website io9.com.20 In that piece, Newitz proposes that Avatar, like Dances With Wolves, is best understood as a fantasy about race told from the perspective of white people. According to Newitz, “these are movies about white guilt.”

 

Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed.

 

Newitz concludes that this is “the essence of the white guilt fantasy.” In her account, this fantasy involves more than the desire to be absolved of crimes or to join the side of the righteous; instead, “it’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.” In other words, according to Newitz, Dances With Wolves and Avatar encourage white people to imagine that it’s possible to simultaneously be absolved of their guilt while maintaining a version of the superiority and privilege associated with their current position.

 

These dynamics will no doubt sound familiar to many radicals (indeed, Newitz’s article circulated as broadly as it did precisely because it rang so true). And there’s no doubt that the fantasy of painless redemption described in the piece constitutes a real obstacle to meaningful solidarity. It’s therefore both surprising and unfortunate that, when measured against the issues she’s highlighted, Newitz’s proposed resolution falls as flat as it does. “I’d like to watch some movies about people of color (ahem, aliens), from the perspective of that group, without injecting a random white (erm, human) character to explain everything to me,” she reports.

 

Science fiction is exciting because it promises to show the world and the universe from perspectives radically unlike what we’ve seen before. But until white people stop making movies like Avatar, I fear that I’m doomed to see the same old story again and again.

 

How are we to understand these comments? First, Newitz positions herself as a connoisseur of radical difference. Next, she notes that the repetition compulsion that overtakes white people while working through their fantasy of overcoming guilt without losing status prevents her from realizing her own desire. In other words, the unacknowledged preoccupation with white guilt (a phenomenal experience with an incontestable material basis) gets in the way of realizing the desire to indulge in the pleasure of unmediated engagement with the Other. The logical – but politically untenable – resolution to the problem therefore must be: overcome guilt! Enjoy what the universe has to offer! What at first appeared to be a radical critique thus turns into a reiteration of pedestrian multiculturalism.21

 

X

 

Newitz hits the mark when she claims that Avatar provides a clear view of white people’s racial fantasies. However, her injunction to simply produce films that “show the world and the universe from perspectives radically unlike what we’ve seen before” leaves the problem unresolved. This is because white people’s compulsion to tell the same story over and over again corresponds directly to the unresolved nature of the material circumstances in which they find themselves. Or, more directly: because white people are guilty, it’s inevitable that knowledge of that guilt will return like a repressed phenomenon – even if only in symptomatic form. Consequently, until we find a means of resolving the history of injustice and oppression we’ve contributed to or benefited from, any “overcoming” will be nothing more than deferral. But why do white fantasies take people of colour as their object?

 

In order to answer this question, it’s useful to begin by noting, as David McNally does, that “bourgeois culture is constituted in and through a process in which bodiliness is ascribed to outcast others…”

 

Bodies appeared outside bourgeois society, therefore, as attributes of foreign or alien social types. These non-bourgeois others … were feminized, racialized, and animalized… All of these bodies underwent simultaneous processes of sexualization and degradation.22

 

Obverse to the racialization and animalization of people of colour, Europe’s white bourgeois subjects began to envision themselves in increasingly omniscient and disembodied ways. Modelled after the Christian mystery, which posits spirit as residing in but not being of the body, Richard Dyer notes that this conception of whiteness impelled those possessed by it toward unattainable transcendental omniscience (what McNally, later in his analysis, calls “idealist abstraction”).23 The fact that such transcendence
is – practically speaking – unattainable did not prevent white people from becoming disconnected from the ground of corporeality.
24

 

By imposing a constitutive tension in being, the spiritual conceits of whiteness have historically stimulated a tremendous capacity for limited forms of self-realization. However, they have also produced a systemic anxiety that cannot be resolved within the terms available to whiteness itself. In response, and in an effort to “resolve” the anxiety brought on by their premature and always-partial ascendance to the universal, white people have often developed a chronic desire for gross particularity.

 

Given their association with the body in the white imagination, it’s hardly surprising to find that people of colour have been enlisted as the imagined resolution to white lack. Whether in the moment of domination (where the deference of the dominated confirms the being of the dominator) or of romantic allure (where the posited corporeality of the person of colour is invested with the power to save those who have lost their way), people of colour – as categorical abstractions – have offered the same respite to white people that commodities have offered to capitalist consumers more generally. In the moment of their “consumption,” they are substitute objects, deferred actualizations.

 

Anti-racist theorists have been right to point out that white people’s racial fantasies are harmful to those they take as their object. However, these fantasies must also be understood as wish images. Although distorted by their immersion in the sphere of consumption, these images denote a legitimate desire to overcome capitalism’s expulsion of the body. In this way, they lay claim to the promise of a mythic past – a moment before the fall – when human experience was envisioned as whole. Marking the highpoint of the historical division between mental and manual labor, such reconciliation is impossible in the bourgeois world.

 

To the extent that it rehearsed these racial fantasies, and to the extent that these fantasies resonated with people, Avatar provided an opportunity for radicals to turn identification with the film into disaffection with the world. Even at its worst, the film’s contradictions invited us to pry it apart, to wrest the desire that animates consumption from the inevitable limits of the consumed object itself. Had we proceeded in this way, we could have begun to incite change through the illumination of what Marx described as “mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself.” From there, we could have highlighted the extent to which “the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality.” That “something” is a world free of exploitation, a world where, through activity, people themselves put an end to repetition and deferral.

 

For the most part, however, radicals left mystical consciousness to its own devices.25 We were not prepared to harness the massive public interest in Avatar