3D Anthro 101 Experience: Avatar

    3D Anthro 101 Experience: Avatar

    post #1 of 6
    Thread Starter 
    I may be one of the last people to see this film in a theater in the United States. I wasn't going to see it, but I kept hearing people whose tastes I share saying good things about it, so I finally decided to go.

    OK: Blockbuster, huge CG budget, mondo impressive visuals, tons of violence, stuff blowing up everywhere, achieving peace through fighting and killing: Those are the negatives.


    There were significant positives, however. First off, I find sci-fi fascinating if it deals with anthropological themes. I loved
    Star Trek TNG, for example. For me, Avatar is substantially about the joys and pitfalls of first contact, and only secondarily about the consequences. The different worlds and different world-views of the two cultures are a rich field of exploration of what it means to be human (or human-like). In any case, this could be about two different cultures here on earth, except for the need to extend the metaphor of contact with nature beyond the usual human experience to make a point about integration with one's environment. On the moon Pandora, the whole globe is a neural net of flora and fauna, with a collective unconscious, and the Na'vi inhabitants can tap into that directly by exchanging direct experience with their biosphere through neural fibers a metaphor for a culture that hasn't distanced itself from nature and objectified it. Rather, they live in harmony and intimacy with it on a both a conscious and instinctive level.

    The film oversimplifies, plays with heroics, is strangely schizophrenic about both love of technology and science and hatred for them. I think that mirrors an emerging view of technology among us today. In the film, Earth's science exploits and oppresses the Na'vi on the one hand, but it makes possible the cultural anthropological project of contact on the other. But as we see where we enter the story, that oppression has made the cultural contact unwelcome.

    The moon Pandora is strangely like and unlike Earth. The tropical rain forests are reminiscent of our own, but the trees are vast, and the flora and fauna seem to resemble those that existed on earth millions of years ago, vaguely evoking the age of the saurians.


    And the culture is portrayed quite beautifully (visually) in its natural context, and in its sensitivity (in plot development) to respect for nature and the community.


    My feelings about Avatar are still quite mixed, but somehow I feel that this fantasy experience of the Na'vi culture has a potential for changing me. I very probably couldn't live in such a world as theirs, but I can see the beauty (idealized, granted) of their lives.


    Does all this recall Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the myth of the Noble Savage? It didn't start with him; he only raised it to the consciousness of post-Enlightenment Europe. There is an article on the idea of the Noble Savage and its history
    on wikipedia, and it's worth reading. It is evident that this idea of human innocence in nature may be a European escapist fantasy. Certainly, contact with the cultures of the New World in the Age of Discovery fostered it. Alexander Pope, in his poetic Essay on Man (1734) takes the American indigenous peoples as his model when he writes:
    Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind
    Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
    His soul proud Science never taught to stray
    Far as the solar walk or milky way;
    Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv'n,
    Behind the cloud-topp'd hill, a humbler heav'n;
    Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd,
    Some happier island in the wat'ry waste,
    Where slaves once more their native land behold,
    No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!
    To be, contents his natural desire;
    He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire:
    But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
    His faithful dog shall bear him company.
    Yet this attitude was not invented by the Enlightenment. The ancient Roman historian Tacitus, in writing of the Germanic tribes hedging in Rome's Empire along its northern borders, sees their lot as sometimes better than that of his soft, civilized fellow-citizens. Among the ancients, the idea of "hard primitivism" of rugged survival was contrasted with the "soft primitivism" of the myth of the Golden Age, in which man's first experience of the world was as a welcoming paradise.

    Avatar straddles these two views in its treatment of the Na'vi. They are both in paradise and in a daily struggle for survival. Yet the world they inhabit has an immediacy in its experience of nature that the technology-mediated world of the humans lacks and the humans' world lacks that immediacy precisely because they/we have bound nature and bent it to human will. Nature is now part of our universe rather than we a part of its universe. Who has it backwards? And who can enslave nature without mortally wounding it?

    Food for thought... where has our cultural, scientific, economic... (what? progress, sophistication, hubris?)... taken us? Avatar makes me hunger for a taste of that other world of direct contact with natural experience we sorely lack today. We can get away to the woods for a weekend, but we cannot shed our cultural baggage once we get there. What would it be like to live in a state of simultaneous wonder and fear in nature every day?

    Maybe some of us Basenoters indulge the desire for direct experience of nature in part through the sensuality of smell. After the film, I found myself wondering (briefly) what the Na'vi used for perfume; recalling the visual images of their life in the film, I began to understand that they lived in a constant and ever-changing unselfconscious but deeply inhaled cloud of it every day.

    I, too, would love life and embrace it that way, as much as I could. As much as I can.
    post #2 of 6
    all i heard about was the accidental racism in it.
    similar to the unintentional racism in star trek.
    every person of color i know who saw it was struck by this.
    i opted not to see it and saw alice in wonderland.
    i was not disappointed.
    post #3 of 6
    Thread Starter 

    @ jayjupes

    @ jayjupes

    There is nothing in our culture that is not touched by racism. I have heard that the film has been called racist because it is the oppressor (in the person of Jake) who becomes the agent of salvation for the Na'vi, and that this implies their inferiority in not being able to save themselves. There is a point, I think, in calling this racist. And I think there is a point in all stories where metaphors break down. Here the tension is between Jake's ability to lead because of his bridging the two cultures, and because he uses his knowledge of the alien (Earth) perspective in favor of the Na'vi culture. He comes to understand the weakness of his own culture's dependence on technology to oppress others, and he also learns to see the strength of the Na'vis' world neural net. That the act of bravery depends on bridging the cultures is another way of seeing it.

    But, yes, it is a racist theme. In the dynamic of racism, there is no debating that the oppression continues so long as the dominant culture has the upper hand. This is true also of other cases of oppression that do not involve race, such as in the oppression of LGBT minorities. Often, the reality is that the power structure in the dominant class needs to have its mind changed by having its consciousness raised to its own culture-blindness. Having allies among the "enemy" (winning some of the others over to one's side) is often key to bringing about this kind of change. The reality is hard, because breaking out of one's own cultural framework is hard to do. Culture pretends to be reality: it gives people a way of simplifying and handling reality; it is a reflection of the human mind's desire to impose meaning where there isn't necessarily any meaning. So, it is meant to be confused with reality. And ugly as this may be, there is no culture that does not use deviance labeling, whether racist, religious, sexist, xenophobic, or whatever, to divide the "ins" from the "outs."

    So, to my mind, to break out of cultural constraints is some kind of victory.

    I will end where I began: There is nothing in our dominant American culture that is not affected by racism, or homophobia, or class conflict, or any of a number of other types of deviance labeling. One needs to go into all psychological cultural phenomena with one's eyes open to this. That is the first step in overcoming it. All that remains is to live life as if these things must not exist, and to fight against the ways in which they destroy lives. That may mean accepting that even the oppressor can have a role (perhaps in many cases, even must have a role) in changing oppression to liberation.

    At the end of Avatar, it was not any one people's action that finally defeated the Earth invaders. It was the planet itself that rose up, using its whole biosphere to eject the alien presence, and only a few, the allies, were allowed to remain.

    Anyway, my feeling is that people of every kind need to unite to defeat any form of oppression. People of color need white allies; GLBT people need str8 allies; women need male allies. I also recognize that out of respect for the suffering of the oppressed, the leadership in that fight belongs to the oppressed themselves.

    BTW, Alice in Wonderland was super! But even here, Alice, the outsider, has a role in defeating the Red Queen.
    post #4 of 6
    Hi Jaime-
    It is refreshing to read your review and take on the film. Most of the people I have talked with rave about the movie but when I ask why they liked it so much, all emphasis seems to be on the special effects. It is interesting to read a more insightful review. Thank you-
    post #5 of 6
    Thread Starter 

    Oh, and one more thing: Exolinguistics

    I forgot to mention one of the most important aspects of my enjoyment of the film: The Na'vi language. It seemed to me, on casual hearing, to be something concocted by Earth-bound linguists, but its structure and phonology seemed admirably planned. I hope someone publishes a grammar and lexicon, so that those of us who work with language professionally can evaluate this aspect of the film.

    In some of the recurring words, there seemed to be noun declensions, that is different forms of a noun when used in different ways, e. g., as a subject of a verb, or as a locative (indicating place), or as an instrumental (indicating the use of an object). It seems like someone put some thought into this. I'd like to look into it more deeply to see if they had language consultants working on the film.

    Language is a vital aspect of culture, enshrining many aspects of a culture's world-view, as well as its distinctive style (a concept which is a little hard to define, I admit). Perhaps you could think about the sound of French, or Italian, or Spanish, or Portuguese. All of these are descended from a common ancestor, Latin; but each has a different quality that may indicate something about the culture's feeling tone.

    Anyway, there is a cool wikipedia article on Exolinguistics, the science of (up to now) hypothetical alien languages. It deals with what forms alien languages might take (perhaps in the absence of the ability to produce sound), or whether Earth humans would even recognize an extraterrestrial language when they encountered one. Information science has taught us that even a stream of ones and zeroes can encode meaning which computers can interpret and process. On some level, Chomskian linguistics suggests that our own way of generating language begins with very simple formulas which transform some deeply embedded linguistic event (roughly, the deep structure) through a set of rules that generates a well-formed terminal string, i. e., an understandable sentence. Coincidentally, computer programmers also refer to intelligible instructions in computer code as "well-formed strings." Our genome is also a data system, communicating what kind of person each of us will be in myriad details. When these strings are not well-formed, there are adverse consequences for human life. What kind of communication would extraterrestrials be capable of?

    In any case, the Na'vi in Avatar are incredibly human-like in many respects; even their home-world is a close replica of our own. Their language also bears close resemblance to Earth languages; first of all, in that they speak with speech sounds exactly like those used in human languages, and further, in that the structure of their language (from what I could tell with minimal exposure) resembles various morphological and syntactical features of languages we speak here on Earth.

    I'll try to find out more. Any other language people out there with me?
    post #6 of 6
    Thread Starter 

    Na'vi language update

    Guess what? There's a whole article "Na'vi Language" on wikipedia. Paul Frommer, a Linguistics Ph.D. from USC, created the language with about a thousand-word vocabulary and lots of interesting phonological, morphological, and syntactical features. Check it out by clicking on the blue underlined link above in the first line of this comment!
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    3/30/10 at 12:38am

    JaimeB said:



    I may be one of the last people to see this film in a theater in the United States. I wasn't going to see it, but I kept hearing people whose tastes I share saying good things about it, so I finally decided to go.

    OK: Blockbuster, huge CG budget, mondo impressive visuals, tons of violence, stuff blowing up everywhere, achieving peace through fighting and killing: Those are the negatives.


    There were significant positives, however. First off, I find sci-fi fascinating if it deals with anthropological themes. I loved
    Star Trek TNG, for example. For me, Avatar is substantially about the joys and pitfalls of first contact, and only secondarily about the consequences. The different worlds and different world-views of the two cultures are a rich field of exploration of what it means to be human (or human-like). In any case, this could be about two different cultures here on earth, except for the need to extend the metaphor of contact with nature beyond the usual human experience to make a point about integration with one's environment. On the moon Pandora, the whole globe is a neural net of flora and fauna, with a collective unconscious, and the Na'vi inhabitants can tap into that directly by exchanging direct experience with their biosphere through neural fibers a metaphor for a culture that hasn't distanced itself from nature and objectified it. Rather, they live in harmony and intimacy with it on a both a conscious and instinctive level.

    The film oversimplifies, plays with heroics, is strangely schizophrenic about both love of technology and science and hatred for them. I think that mirrors an emerging view of technology among us today. In the film, Earth's science exploits and oppresses the Na'vi on the one hand, but it makes possible the cultural anthropological project of contact on the other. But as we see where we enter the story, that oppression has made the cultural contact unwelcome.

    The moon Pandora is strangely like and unlike Earth. The tropical rain forests are reminiscent of our own, but the trees are vast, and the flora and fauna seem to resemble those that existed on earth millions of years ago, vaguely evoking the age of the saurians.


    And the culture is portrayed quite beautifully (visually) in its natural context, and in its sensitivity (in plot development) to respect for nature and the community.


    My feelings about Avatar are still quite mixed, but somehow I feel that this fantasy experience of the Na'vi culture has a potential for changing me. I very probably couldn't live in such a world as theirs, but I can see the beauty (idealized, granted) of their lives.


    Does all this recall Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the myth of the Noble Savage? It didn't start with him; he only raised it to the consciousness of post-Enlightenment Europe. There is an article on the idea of the Noble Savage and its history
    on wikipedia, and it's worth reading. It is evident that this idea of human innocence in nature may be a European escapist fantasy. Certainly, contact with the cultures of the New World in the Age of Discovery fostered it. Alexander Pope, in his poetic Essay on Man (1734) takes the American indigenous peoples as his model when he writes:
    Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind
    Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
    His soul proud Science never taught to stray
    Far as the solar walk or milky way;
    Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv'n,
    Behind the cloud-topp'd hill, a humbler heav'n;
    Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd,
    Some happier island in the wat'ry waste,
    Where slaves once more their native land behold,
    No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!
    To be, contents his natural desire;
    He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire:
    But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
    His faithful dog shall bear him company.
    Yet this attitude was not invented by the Enlightenment. The ancient Roman historian Tacitus, in writing of the Germanic tribes hedging in Rome's Empire along its northern borders, sees their lot as sometimes better than that of his soft, civilized fellow-citizens. Among the ancients, the idea of "hard primitivism" of rugged survival was contrasted with the "soft primitivism" of the myth of the Golden Age, in which man's first experience of the world was as a welcoming paradise.

    Avatar straddles these two views in its treatment of the Na'vi. They are both in paradise and in a daily struggle for survival. Yet the world they inhabit has an immediacy in its experience of nature that the technology-mediated world of the humans lacks and the humans' world lacks that immediacy precisely because they/we have bound nature and bent it to human will. Nature is now part of our universe rather than we a part of its universe. Who has it backwards? And who can enslave nature without mortally wounding it?

    Food for thought... where has our cultural, scientific, economic... (what? progress, sophistication, hubris?)... taken us? Avatar makes me hunger for a taste of that other world of direct contact with natural experience we sorely lack today. We can get away to the woods for a weekend, but we cannot shed our cultural baggage once we get there. What would it be like to live in a state of simultaneous wonder and fear in nature every day?

    Maybe some of us Basenoters indulge the desire for direct experience of nature in part through the sensuality of smell. After the film, I found myself wondering (briefly) what the Na'vi used for perfume; recalling the visual images of their life in the film, I began to understand that they lived in a constant and ever-changing unselfconscious but deeply inhaled cloud of it every day.

    I, too, would love life and embrace it that way, as much as I could. As much as I can.

    3/30/10 at 5:58am

    jayjupes said:



    all i heard about was the accidental racism in it.
    similar to the unintentional racism in star trek.
    every person of color i know who saw it was struck by this.
    i opted not to see it and saw alice in wonderland.
    i was not disappointed.

    3/30/10 at 8:14am

    JaimeB said:



    @ jayjupes

    @ jayjupes

    There is nothing in our culture that is not touched by racism. I have heard that the film has been called racist because it is the oppressor (in the person of Jake) who becomes the agent of salvation for the Na'vi, and that this implies their inferiority in not being able to save themselves. There is a point, I think, in calling this racist. And I think there is a point in all stories where metaphors break down. Here the tension is between Jake's ability to lead because of his bridging the two cultures, and because he uses his knowledge of the alien (Earth) perspective in favor of the Na'vi culture. He comes to understand the weakness of his own culture's dependence on technology to oppress others, and he also learns to see the strength of the Na'vis' world neural net. That the act of bravery depends on bridging the cultures is another way of seeing it.

    But, yes, it is a racist theme. In the dynamic of racism, there is no debating that the oppression continues so long as the dominant culture has the upper hand. This is true also of other cases of oppression that do not involve race, such as in the oppression of LGBT minorities. Often, the reality is that the power structure in the dominant class needs to have its mind changed by having its consciousness raised to its own culture-blindness. Having allies among the "enemy" (winning some of the others over to one's side) is often key to bringing about this kind of change. The reality is hard, because breaking out of one's own cultural framework is hard to do. Culture pretends to be reality: it gives people a way of simplifying and handling reality; it is a reflection of the human mind's desire to impose meaning where there isn't necessarily any meaning. So, it is meant to be confused with reality. And ugly as this may be, there is no culture that does not use deviance labeling, whether racist, religious, sexist, xenophobic, or whatever, to divide the "ins" from the "outs."

    So, to my mind, to break out of cultural constraints is some kind of victory.

    I will end where I began: There is nothing in our dominant American culture that is not affected by racism, or homophobia, or class conflict, or any of a number of other types of deviance labeling. One needs to go into all psychological cultural phenomena with one's eyes open to this. That is the first step in overcoming it. All that remains is to live life as if these things must not exist, and to fight against the ways in which they destroy lives. That may mean accepting that even the oppressor can have a role (perhaps in many cases, even must have a role) in changing oppression to liberation.

    At the end of Avatar, it was not any one people's action that finally defeated the Earth invaders. It was the planet itself that rose up, using its whole biosphere to eject the alien presence, and only a few, the allies, were allowed to remain.

    Anyway, my feeling is that people of every kind need to unite to defeat any form of oppression. People of color need white allies; GLBT people need str8 allies; women need male allies. I also recognize that out of respect for the suffering of the oppressed, the leadership in that fight belongs to the oppressed themselves.

    BTW, Alice in Wonderland was super! But even here, Alice, the outsider, has a role in defeating the Red Queen.

    3/30/10 at 2:43pm

    SirScent said:



    Hi Jaime-
    It is refreshing to read your review and take on the film. Most of the people I have talked with rave about the movie but when I ask why they liked it so much, all emphasis seems to be on the special effects. It is interesting to read a more insightful review. Thank you-

    3/30/10 at 3:56pm

    JaimeB said:



    Oh, and one more thing: Exolinguistics

    I forgot to mention one of the most important aspects of my enjoyment of the film: The Na'vi language. It seemed to me, on casual hearing, to be something concocted by Earth-bound linguists, but its structure and phonology seemed admirably planned. I hope someone publishes a grammar and lexicon, so that those of us who work with language professionally can evaluate this aspect of the film.

    In some of the recurring words, there seemed to be noun declensions, that is different forms of a noun when used in different ways, e. g., as a subject of a verb, or as a locative (indicating place), or as an instrumental (indicating the use of an object). It seems like someone put some thought into this. I'd like to look into it more deeply to see if they had language consultants working on the film.

    Language is a vital aspect of culture, enshrining many aspects of a culture's world-view, as well as its distinctive style (a concept which is a little hard to define, I admit). Perhaps you could think about the sound of French, or Italian, or Spanish, or Portuguese. All of these are descended from a common ancestor, Latin; but each has a different quality that may indicate something about the culture's feeling tone.

    Anyway, there is a cool wikipedia article on Exolinguistics, the science of (up to now) hypothetical alien languages. It deals with what forms alien languages might take (perhaps in the absence of the ability to produce sound), or whether Earth humans would even recognize an extraterrestrial language when they encountered one. Information science has taught us that even a stream of ones and zeroes can encode meaning which computers can interpret and process. On some level, Chomskian linguistics suggests that our own way of generating language begins with very simple formulas which transform some deeply embedded linguistic event (roughly, the deep structure) through a set of rules that generates a well-formed terminal string, i. e., an understandable sentence. Coincidentally, computer programmers also refer to intelligible instructions in computer code as "well-formed strings." Our genome is also a data system, communicating what kind of person each of us will be in myriad details. When these strings are not well-formed, there are adverse consequences for human life. What kind of communication would extraterrestrials be capable of?

    In any case, the Na'vi in Avatar are incredibly human-like in many respects; even their home-world is a close replica of our own. Their language also bears close resemblance to Earth languages; first of all, in that they speak with speech sounds exactly like those used in human languages, and further, in that the structure of their language (from what I could tell with minimal exposure) resembles various morphological and syntactical features of languages we speak here on Earth.

    I'll try to find out more. Any other language people out there with me?

    3/30/10 at 5:13pm

    JaimeB said:



    Na'vi language update

    Guess what? There's a whole article "Na'vi Language" on wikipedia. Paul Frommer, a Linguistics Ph.D. from USC, created the language with about a thousand-word vocabulary and lots of interesting phonological, morphological, and syntactical features. Check it out by clicking on the blue underlined link above in the first line of this comment!





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