Or, How Modern Higher Education Destroys the Human Mind
In the course of searching for something on the Internet, I happened upon some comments on the movie Avatar on a website aimed at a strongly academic, “postmodern” audience. I will reproduce the comments below. The author called herself an American expatriate living in Europe.
Actually, I agree that her question is an important one. Why is an anti-Western, anti-American movie so popular in America? And, in a sense, her answers, despite the ponderous academic jargon, are as good as any. They are fumbling to understand the almost indescribably strange and unreal quality of our popular culture, which simultaneously condemns and degrades everything we are and have been, while “de-familiarizing” what they portray so that we feel we are outside of, or above, what is being condemned.
Sadly, the sophisticated “theories” she learned in college and graduate school, far from helping her to understand what is happening to her country, have made her egregiously, probably irredeemably, blind to that reality. I am afraid that this is the sort of American who will continue to feel white guilt even as her throat is being cut.
I just got back from seeing Avatar. Great movie! Sure, the Na’vi are portrayed in stereotyped, “Orientalist” terms, and the plot is just another version of the old story of someone who “goes native” – think Lawrence of Arabia or Dances With Wolves. But Cameron obviously intends these “natives” to serve as a symbol of the various indigenous peoples who have been victimized by America throughout its history, from Native Americans to the people of the Philippines, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
I’ve been living abroad for some time, so maybe I’ve lost touch with life in the American Empire. How can such an anti-imperialist film be so popular? Have the people become Marxist-Leninists? Or have they turned the other way, to Rush Limbaugh isolationism?
Could it be an example of “incorporation,” as the Marxists call it, where the dominant ideology takes a dissenting position and emasculates it and makes it safe for the masses? Or is this an example of the “carnival” Bakhtin theorized about, where a temporary inversion of the conventional moral values enables the catharsis of the tribe’s suppressed fears?
Maybe the general public is too bloody stupid to notice the extremely obvious political message behind the special effects. Even many of the more astute critics totally missed the point, interpreting it only in the hackneyed language of race.
I wonder if anything like this has happened before. Can you imagine Germans in the Nazi era watching films portraying Germans as the bad guys, and Jewish Communists as the heroes? What about in ancient Rome, Imperial Japan, the British Empire, the Umayyad Caliphate? Normally, collective self-punishment takes place after everything has collapsed. Does it ever happen before that, when things are still going pretty smoothly?