The Avatar Essay Behind the Inception of Turaida Forest Garden (In a Cultural Anthropology Course)
Updated: Mar 30, 2019
This essay is an example of my writing experience at York University. Some additional points have been included for clarity. I attended a flurry of University and College courses during my thirties. It was written for a course offered by Dr. Leslie Jermyn in Cultural Anthopology, on Understanding Our World (ANTH 2100, in the Fall of 2012). Thank you for helping this idea come to life as a themed, historically influenced forest garden project. Please see more details and notes connecting the essay with the history of Turaida castle and other points that help to explain the context in the AFTERWORD following the essay.
Cameron's Avatar: Pandora's Trap
The success of James Cameron's Avatar (2009) is partly based on its inclusion of many popular Western narratives into an allegorical collage of contested symbols and meanings. These cultural narratives operate as popularized versions of encounters with a plurality of indigenous, alien, religious and mythical Others (Veracini 2011:357-358); a complex arrangement of story lines collectively spawned its mass appeal and global audience. This paper will argue that the success of Cameron's Avatar (2009) is based on its use of romantic depictions and stereotypes of indigeneity, self made heroism against the Western military industrial complex, and tales of colonial settlement (Veracini 2012: 355-363). The narratives play off duality and hybridity, purposefully producing tension and conflict between new cultural identities and established pre-conquest loyalties, connecting the viewer to their existing political and sociocultural realities (Stymeist 2009:395-396). In a struggle over contested symbolic identities, meanings and representations, Cameron's Avatar (2009) is itself trapped in a 21st century version of Samuel Huntington's (1994) culture wars.
Traditionally, stereotypes reinforce existing class, race and gender roles. The roles are traditional characterizations of popular, anachronistic fables, myths and legends that are reconstructed. They have relevance over shared lifetimes in the real world. In particular, indigenous stereotypes are critiqued as historically serving the interests of their conquerors, where tactics are used to conveniently situate and identify distinct postcolonial communities by non-indigenous peoples (Dove 2006:195).
Pocahontas is an important narrative in Cameron's Avatar (2009). Neytiri and Jake pair off early in the film, echoing the colonialist tale of Pocahontas and Adam Smith (Dundes 2001: 354). While Neytiri serves the imposed role of an informal ambassador to Jake, they later become intimate. The portrayal is as naively romantic as it is politically and racially offensive; the idealized encounter between colonizers and natives is an effort to conceal a manipulative and exploitative one sided relationship (Dundes 2001: 354). Neytiri appears committed to her responsibilities of the tribe and to Eywa, making the leap between reifying the seeds of Eywa and the sexual consequences of fertilization by the new Messiah.
The naturalized indigenous stereotypes continue to present themselves throughout the movie. The idealized Pandorans are knowledgeable of the forests, creatures, and spiritual world, in keeping with their pantheistic view of existence (Harrison 2004:59-62). The peaceable and modest Na'vi mirror the image of the noble savage (Veracini 2006: 359), where according to the indigenous worldview, their existence is stable, idyllic and comfortable. They live at one with nature in a giant tree house, with little desire for private property and the corrupting benefits on civilization, echoing the descriptions made by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1992:44) in 1754. The exotic and fiercely tribal nature of the Na'vi can be seen on their painted war faces, mimicking the blue and white depictions in Gibson's Braveheart (1995). They possess living skills that enable them to connect and interact with a dynamic and unbuilt environment. Even the hammock like leaves they sleep in are touch sensitive and comfortable. Essentially, the character development portrays exotic locals that are miraculously brave and environmentally responsible, common to indigenous stereotypes (Dove 2006:193-201).
The Pandoran waterfalls, wild jungles and ferocious beasts serve as neo-primitivist representations, attempting to offer a critique the scientific and rational progress of the Western arrivals (Li 2006: 14-15). This attempt, however, appears to be insufficient when the consequences of this critique are borne out. Somehow, the sovereignty of the military overlords erodes all hope of agency on Pandora. The indigenous characterization resembles a straw man argument, where a preconceived, biased representation of indigenous other is intentionally inferior. The dichotomy produced is shallow; if the Na'vi are portrayed as naive simpletons, the settlers are portrayed as corrupt looters. Likewise, Neytiri is as submissive to the wishes of her parents authority and the Rule of Eywa, as much as Jake is feckless and foolish towards the scientific efforts of Dr. Grace's Avatar program.
The disappointment begins when we are informed by Parker on the ship's helm that Machiavellian politics (Curry 1995:147) has survived to see Pandora. The restructuring plans are foreshadowed by the playful swing and miss of Parker's mini golf putt. Ultimately, the entire plot is compromised by a crisis of political constraints, shifting the emerging environmental crisis towards a grim looking future for all living species on Pandora. The brutal tyranny of colonial targets of RDA bureaucratization sow the seeds of an impending conflict and destruction from which the crisis of the plot begins. Parker is set to initiate an institutional dismantling by displacing the Na'vi, alienating themselves from their ancient way of life. On a play of US political divisions and character names, the democrat, Dr. Grace Augustine (Christ-like) is outraged as much as the republican, Parker Selfridge (self-absorbed) is insistent (Cameron 2009). A presumably entrenched republican-democrat intractability erupts at the brink of pre-emptive war, mirroring the model of economic reductionism theorized by James C. Scott (Robbins 2002:184) to account for the gross failure development projects.
Echoing the history of imperial warfare on Earth, the Na'vi are conquered through a strategic manipulation of external differences imposed upon them by the arrival of Jake Sully. Jake wins their trust and respect, eventually revealing himself to be a Trojan horse behind the pre-emptive invasion.
From a postcolonial view, the Na'vi are subject to the powerful influence, terms and conditions mandated by externalized, Westernized transnational (and interplanetary) trade organizations.
The other primary narrative is what author David Brooks (Elsaesser 2011:249) has termed the White Messiah Complex, described as a cinematic structure; the fable is central of a populist ideology. Importantly, the film did not need to detail its construction, as it is assumed knowledge of the viewer (Elsaesser 2011:248). His resurrection is foreshadowed repeatedly throughout the film, as when Jake reflects on first arrives at Pandora, claiming “...one life ends, another begins.”(Cameron 2009). The narrative rewards him by transforming him to the status of a demi-God of a newly discovered people.
Importantly, the film is about Jake reclaiming human salvation, or more accurately, transhuman will from the ideologically and economically bankrupt West. For Jake, Progress appears from a reformed conscience, treading the chosen path of the Ewya from sacrifice to salvation. Avatar's release in mid December 2009 likely boosted its religious appeal to a predominantly North American Christian audience (Elsaesser 2011:247). Brooks (2010) describes in the article White Messiah Complex, how as Christ was crucified and later resurrected, Jake Sully sacrifices his human body to be reincarnated by the collective Holy Spirit of Eywa and the Na'vi.
The Na'vi are presented as characteristically indigenous in dress, speech, lifestyle, and belief systems. The narrative juxtaposes binaries (Stymeist 1996: 396), contrasting the Na'vi with the corporate administration, who are stereotyped as hawks (pre-emptive war mongerers) and suits (corporate reps shrewd enough to weigh the value of unobtainium to be greater than the life and culture of Pandora). In contrast with the greed, conflict and hostility between these humans, the Na'vi require few machines, bureaucrats or professionals on Pandora.
Conflict erupts when Neytiri brings Jake to meet the Na'vi; the newcomer is a mystery when the seeds of Ewya (Cameron 2009) land on his Christ like figure, symbolizing the coming of the Messiah for the Na'vi. There is a symbolic use of bow and coloured feather arrows, Na'vi riders play on figures of horse-back plains Indians with spears, connected to Crosby's Columbian Exchange (2003). The long dark hair, physically agility, use of war paint, and tribal dress creates the indigenous portrayal of the Na'vi that offended critics like David Brooks (Elsaesser 2011:253-254). Meanwhile, the cultural Marxist Slavoj Zizek interpreted the film as having “brutally racist overtones”(Elsaesser 2011:254).
As a war veteran, Jake is ill equipped to handle the jungle of Pandora, requiring that he depend on Neytiri for his safety. In acts of benevolence, she saves his life twice; he is saved in the forest as avatar, and later in the portable as a suffocating unconscious human. The Na'vi show their respect for nature by killing only when necessary, and show remorse for the preventable death, as when Neytiri prays for the dead thanators; the name is a play on Thanatos, the Greek God of Death (Day and Grimassi 2011:237).
The indigenous Na'vi experience the assault on their local resources, their identity and their way of life by external power structures. This mirrors the romantic story of Adam Smith and Pocahontas at Jamestown, as an updated version of Pocahontas (Edgerton et al, 1996: 92-94). Without question, the human end of the encounter is intentional as much as it is unexpected by the Na'vi; humans are determined to displace the Na'vi from their delicate balance of an electrochemically integrated network (Veracini 2011:357). In defence of Disney versions of Pocahontas, film critics note the positive role of the upsurge of indigenous interests that serve as a defence of these portrayals, emphasizing the film's benefits in producing renewed interests in its historical Jamestown, much to the enthusiasms of historic sites and museums (Edgerton et al. 1996: 97). The military commando Colonel Miles Quaritch proposes that Jake established trust of their leaders in order to subvert them; here, the age old tactic of 'bait and switch' unfolds on itself. Originally, Quaritch appeals to Jake with an offer to buy his legs in return for his loyalty during the hostile take over of Pandora, in a Faustian bargain (Lapham 2009) that adds yet another narrative.
There are echoes and iterations other popular tales and legends, ranging from a version of Gibson's Braveheart (1995) chivalry, while strangely incorporating dragon mythology and the problems of economic recession at the time of release into the plot line. The film also included numerous symbolic references to classic sci-fi films with original cast, such as Sigourney Weaver from Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). Later, its plot fused the alien story with another alien thriller in the release of Paul Anderson's Alien vs. Predator (2004).
New Ageist themes echo Cretu of Enigma's (1994) Return to Innocence in the portrayal of the Na'vi; the hero learns moderation, humility, tolerance and cooperation by not giving into desire for the consequentialist returns of the valuable unobtainium (Cameron 2009). The obsession of this rare non-Earth metal appears to be another of Cameron's exchanges that is filled with paradox; the unworldly acquisition of unobtainium (a possible pun on infinite material greed) against the new, Pandoran discovery that mimics Jeremy Rifkin's book on The Empathic Civilization (2005).
The hard science and cost benefits of technology required to make the ideal, mythical Avatar suggest a trans-humanist trap in both the plot, as well as in the production of the film itself. In the final analysis, Avatar is an allegory of the tragic Greek myth of Pandora's Box. We are trapped by the possibility described by Barack Obama in his Audacity of Hope (2008), of being something beyond what we are: humans. The pre-emptive nature of the invasion on Pandora is an allegorical critique of the imperialist aspirations behind the Iraq war and possibly the war on terror; an exploitative mining expedition 'unearths' something more valuable than unobtainium: salvation. Zizek (2010) sees how the Na'vi are forced between two choices by their hybrid saviour; they can either be victims of a new imperial project, or serve their lives as cogs in a white man's fantasy (Elseasser 2011: 250).
The film ending leads the audience towards anthropological questions that relate to the value of difference (especially human difference). The Na'vi appear as helpless, co-opted subjects of Pandora's trap; it is set for the Na'vi by humans, for the benefit of humans (Zizek 2010). As empathizers of the Na'vi, the audience appears caught in what Elsaesser (2011: 250, 260-261) suggests is a conceptual double bind of sorts. This is comparable to what Herbert McCabe suggested about Christian doctrine, where “if you don't love you're dead, and if you do, they'll kill you” (Eagleton 2006: 32-34). In both cases, a trap is set as a form of economic, or ideological determinism that masquerades as liberation (Elsaesser 2011: 261).
By selling incredible versions of popular mythologies to what William Hazlitt (Lapham 2009) termed the “dream buying public”, the Western sci-fi production of Cameron's Avatar (2009) is a spectacle that misappropriates the real and true agency of its paying viewers. The film is a dystopian legend that has largely ignored earlier social critiques, such as Debord's (1994) society as spectacle and Baudrillard's (1994) simulacra. In reality, viewers are also what Michel Foucault described (1995:135) as docile bodies, desiring the metaphorical white dove of Ridley Scott's (1982) Blade Runner. Simultaneously, the producers risk alienating the impoverished global indigenous from their own distinct cultures (Dove 2006:193).
In this afterword (now writing almost seven years since the completion of this essay) we explore the meanings and significance of this work as it relates to the inception of Turaida Forest Garden.
The jungles and waterfalls of Pandora were based on Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in Hunan, China (according to wikipedia and many online sources). While there are fewer commonalities in Niagara because of the flat land, there is the beauty of Niagara Falls. The splendour of the region, proximity to markets, heat units, microclimate effects of the lakes were enough of an incentive to develop sustainably on a small scale in Niagara.
Jake Sully-the hero and martyr of Cameron's Avatar (2009) has some interesting commonalities with Caupo of Turaida (see Crusader Castles of the Teutonic Knights, by Stephen Turnbull p 24). Caupo was an indigenous (then pagan) Livonian leader that occupied the hillfort on the site of Turaida before the castle was built. The Gauja River at the time was called the River Aa (p24).
Kaupo (sometimes spelled Caupo) was a well known Livonian chieftain, who was befriended by Albert of Buxhoeveden (the Bishop who founded Riga in 1201). Caupo was considered Quasi Rex (like a King), and traveled an incredible journey at that time in the company of the Crusader allies, to Rome during the time of the Northern Crusades (see wikipedia link here for further details).
He traveled from Turaida to Rome to meet the Pope of his time with Bishop Albert who was impressed with him. He was given a bible, as he had already converted to Christianity, and eventually returned to sack his own wooden fortress (see the book The Northern Crusades, by Eric Christiansen). He was also considered an enemy by his own people. Clearly, this early Baptism of such an important figure was extremely valuable to the early Church at the beginning of the Crusade. This conversion played a pivotal role in the leader's life (as with the character of Jake Sully in his transformation as Avatar and defender of the Na'vi).
The hillfort site became the location of the Turaidas Pils of the bishophric (see Crusades Castles of the Teutonic Knights (2)). The other side of the valley eventually became the settlement for Segewald (a Livonian Order castles see map on page 59). Krimulda is another fortification on the North Bank, but further West of Turaida. See a detailed discussion of the relations between these two parties, as the Order and the Bishop did always not share the same property and economic interests as the history of the Crusade unfolded. This Chapter of history has many players and key figures that shaped the early development and exchange of cultures, customs, trade, beliefs, and warfare.
Without question, both leaders (the Bishop Albert Buxhoeveden and Caupo) played an essential role in the Northern Crusade (see a detailed explanation in the book The Northern Crusades, by Eric Christiansen) and the history of modern-day Latvia.
While Jake Sully (a leader of the rebellion in the film Avatar) was involved in the plot to attain unobtainium in Pandora, in the plot line he later prevents the destruction of Pandora and is a defender of the indigenous Na'vi.
We can see the paradox ensue between the choices these two men made. Importantly, while one actually existed and played a historical role at the time that the Northern Crusades, the other was a central character in the fiction Avatar. Perhaps it is best to respect their different choices. Both made critical sacrifices for what they believed in.
This strange difference between the plot lines shows how history and science fiction can be at odds with one another. Who was the hero? Was it Caupo - or Jake? Caupo appears as a traitor since he sacked his own castle and made war against his tribe. However, there are often two sides to the story as Socrates constantly reminds us. This is a confusing story.
It depends on what ending you prefer and one's perspective towards Christianity and colonization. Salvation depends on who's being saved, and from what. Perhaps the location of Caupo's monument should tell us something about how historians view his role as it's down the Gauja river on the South bank from Turaida, at Krimulda.
This is similar to the dilemna that Sir Isaiah Berlin points out about communism during the Cold war, he dismissed the ideology of positive liberty since he felt " since if you think you have the final solution, ...no sacrifice is too great,... then there is a potential to do terrible things..." (from his BBC series of talks on Conversations With History at Oxford). Freedom, like salvation, is an issue of freedom for something desirable, and differs from the idea of freedom from something unwanted (see Sir Isaiah Berlin's essay on Two Concepts of Liberty, 1958). He similarly found himself in a double bind, incapable of reconciling the two concepts (see transcripts from his 1962 conversation online from open culture-see references) that inevitably led him to write the essay.
Put another way, sacrifices will depend on the causes behind the sacrifices. This essay (and this afterword) was not written to defend either position. Rather, it is intended to encourage us to think about the meanings we attach to narratives and the kinds of conceptual double binds that narratives can create (see Elseasser, 2011). It is an attempt to reintroduce discussions about ends and means, which is also the title of a collection of essays (in a book) by Aldous Huxley.
This paradox again resembles the double bind that theologian Herbert McCabe made (see Terry Eagleton's discussion in The London Review of Books). As is commonly told, history is written by the victors. Likewise, Anthropology has been critiqued as being a handmaiden of colonialism (another essay I wrote for another course that semester), and many efforts are being made to encourage we avoid this perspective in post-colonial studies.
The conclusion of this AFTERWARD is that we can make an effort to avoid mistakes of the past-perhaps the most important lesson from studying history. However, as Machiavelli seemed to be aware of, compromise is politics, and mistakes are part of what it is to be human (see Introducing Machiavelli, A Graphic guide by Patrick Curry and Oscar Zarate).
Kaupo was a leader who also played an important role in the spread of Christianity in Latvia. We can see the connection clearly between the missionary work and the establishment of the Livonian Order (that later incorporated into the Teutonic Order- see The Northern Crusades, 2nd Edition). It appears as though sacrifices are important in achieving the outcomes we desire, as the means to the ends matters (see Aldous Huxley's collection of essays in the book on Ends and Means, from1937).
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