Understading Avatar: A Movie Made for the Masses -- NeMLA Convention -- 7-10 April 2011 -- New Brunswick, New Jersey
Sven Birkerts identifies language erosion as one of the morbid symptoms of the electronic age: "Syntactical masonry is already a dying art; simple linguistic pre-fab is the norm. Ambiguity, paradox, irony, subtlety, and wit -- fast disappearing. In their place, the simple 'vision thing.'" The popularity of James Cameron's Avatar may prove the worldwide spread of this morbid symptom. While Slavoj Žižek argues that the technical brilliance of the film serves to hide old-fashioned storylines and simplistic metaphors (the unobtainable mineral sought in vain by the human invaders is named Unobtainium), it could be argued, in the spirit of Marshall McLuhan, that the film's medium is its message – the groundbreaking 3-D verisimilitude is a delivery system not for an environmental allegory but for the obtuse imagery itself. The film is not a return to nature, but a re-creation of nature using the simplest metaphors to suit the instant download needs of the blogging, Facebooking, Second Life-living millions who were always its intended audience. While the indigenous Na'vi of Avatar have become like McLuhan's tribal man, a simulacrum of a people living sensually and symbiotically with nature, they are not primitives: fibre optic cables writhe at the end of their braided hair and enable each of them to upload information from horses, trees, and one another. While Žižek is correct in identifying Avatar as the latest "white man's fantasy film," the metaphors that establish it as such are perhaps too obvious to merit serious academic study. What is most compelling about Avatar is that its popularity, despite its lack of subtlety and wit, may verify Birkerts' prognostication: the predominance of hypertext over actual text, and the pseudo-communication of "txting" may have eroded language to such a point that even fantasies must be delivered with as little imagination as possible.
Are the primitive yet "linked-in" Na'vi the manifestation of a form of nature now dreamed about by modern "users" dependant on the Internet for their understanding of the world?
Did Cameron select obvious metaphors and recycled themes to ensure Avatar would be understood by bloggers and "textrs" no longer capable of subtlety or wit?
Does the popularity of Avatar represent the "erosion of language" prophesized by Birkerts?
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