Understading Avatar: A Movie Made for the Masses -- NeMLA Convention -- 7-10 April 2011 -- New Brunswick, New Jersey [UPDATE]

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Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA)
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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?
Please submit 250-500 word by abstracts to pchafe@ryerson.ca by September 30, 2010

Paul Chafe
Department of English
Ryerson University
350 Victoria Street
Toronto, ON
M5B 2K3

Please indicate A/V requirements (if any; $10 handling fee with registration)

The 42nd Annual Convention will feature approximately 360 sessions, as well as pre-conference workshops, dynamic speakers and cultural events. Details and the complete Call for Papers for the 2011 Convention will be posted in June: www.nemla.org.

Interested participants may submit abstracts to more than one NeMLA session; however panelists can only present one paper (panel or seminar). Convention participants may present a paper at a panel and also present at a creative session or participate in a roundtable. Please do not accept a slot if you may cancel to present on another session.

42nd Annual Convention, Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA)
April 7-10, 2011
New Brunswick, NJ – Hyatt New Brunswick
Host Institution: Rutgers University