Avatar – When Technology Displaces Culture
“We Irish think otherwise” Bishop Berkeley
* I am indebted to Karen at Oddity Journal for this wonderful image of the tesseract.
When printed manuscripts were first introduced, they appeared as incunabula and were made to look like medieval hand-illuminated vellum rather than printed paper. When new Victorian hand guns were introduced, they were covered with vines and made to look more like a plant than an aggressive weapon. When the new technologies were all displayed in the Great Exhibition of 1851, the building in which they were displayed, the Crystal Palace, looked like the greenhouse of a great country estate.
The nineteen-thirties Broadway musical song, “My Funny Valentine” by Rogers and Hart became a signature piece for Jazz musicians in the fifties. Over 1300 different versions of it have been performed, the most famous of those being the versions by Miles Davis and Chet Baker, and, for the next generation, Keith Jarrett. The thirties popular song became to avant garde fifties Jazz musicians what the traditional folk song had been for Dvořak and Ralph Vaughn Williams.
When television was introduced in the early fifties, it became filled with old black and white Westerns of Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy.
So it is often the case that the content serves as camouflage for a novel structure. This is a perfectly natural process in evolution, which can take an ancient gene or organ and rework it into a new function or ability. “Eyes are largely built from building blocks designed for other things. The lenses of vertebrates use proteins that bacteria developed to deal with stress; the flexible guanine mirrors that make a cat’s eyes glow in the dark provide gas-proofing for the swim bladders of fish.” (See Simon Ings, “An Eye for the Eye,” Nature, Vol . 456, Nov. 20, 2008, 304-309).
The idea that there is form on the one hand and content on the other comes from a mentality we owe to literature. But technology is now our culture, and so McLuhan was right: the medium is the message. Our gadgets of TV, netbook computers, cell phones, BlackBerries, and iPods are not instruments to express a culture; they are a culture; they are the culture.
McLuhan also pointed out that each new technological extension is an amputation. If we have cars, we do not walk to the corner store. Artificial intelligence, therefore, is part of our oft-noted American dumbing-down process and has served to make humans less intelligent. I am old enough to remember a better educated high school culture and recall a time when Americans weren’t so dumb as to make Sarah Palin the most successful non-fiction writer in publishing history.
So it was natural on James Cameron’s part to take a collection of movie clichés from Dances with Wolves and Star Wars as well as other memes spliced in from the Hollywood gene pool that John David Ebert pointed out in his Blog Cinema Discourse and use them as the basis for his technological tour de force, Avatar, which has become the greatest earning movie in history.
Avatar’s success like Sarah Palin’s, is owed to its superficiality. Even the addition of 3D could not hide the movie’s lack of depth. With clichéd plot and stock characters, Cameron was not making a film version of a novel, but another Western as a moral allegory of the military industrial complex versus the Gaian tree-huggers of the New Age.
But like ivy vines on the iron legs of Victorian sewing machines, the moral allegory itself is yet another level of camouflage. The Great Spirit and the natives are the products of a computerized entertainment technology. Disney may have pioneered this territory in which the cute animatron figures of Disneyworld are controlled by an invisible technological complex, but the film Avatar, like Fantasia before it, is one of those works of popular culture that mark a transformation of the polity. Fantasia marked the end of the authority of high culture and used classical music and the poetry of Goethe as camouflage for the structure of pop culture’s takeover. How many Americans now have ever heard of Goethe or realize that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is one of his poems?
In Avatar, Cameron has presciently given us a description of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party. Although we naïve liberal progressives thought we were voting for a change from the military industrial complex of Bush and Cheney, Obama has proved himself to be its loyal avatar sent among us to win our trust and trick us out of our votes. Now as President, he has not only “reached across the aisle,” but shifted sides as he first rescued the banks through Geithner and Summers, then rescued the medical insurances companies, and is now ignoring our mass unemployment, suffering, and economic stagnation to ask for Giga billions to shore up the military and keep the imperial war machine going against the Islamist natives fighting the Great Satan of Uncle Sam.
In taking entertainment technology to a new level, Cameron has also presciently described the end of the university as the cultural authority. Once to be a scholar you had to be part of the Church; later scholars could escape to an academe that had become its own high church. Since World War Two, the university has been a place for intellectuals to escape from the business world. But now Business has taken over academe, and even the Creative Writing Departments must conform to the corporate interests of the publishing and media industries—a complex in which a Rupert Murdoch owns them all.
Academic administrators are now managers from the entertainment industry; they see which majors are popular money-makers and have begun to eliminate the losers of the humanities from the curriculum. Classics, philosophy, English: these are to be replaced by programs in Media and Communications—Sarah Palin’s major of choice. Retiring faculty are not replaced with young professors, but are replaced by inexpensive Temps who are paid for piece work without benefits and have to commute between several colleges to make enough to scrape out a meager living.
Soon the middle management of academia will eliminate faculty who have failed to turn themselves into celebrities by replacing them with Time Warner Cable Lecture Series and Kindle downloaded textbooks—for which they will probably earn a percentage or finder’s fee for delivering the contract.
Expensive sports complexes will continue to be built to inspire the business majors with corporate team spirit and love of their alma mater. After all, academic sports are the entertainment industry at its Saturday best, producing new athlete superstars for future Superbowls and its theatre for dazzling new corporate ads.
In the near future the ultimate entertainment of industry will not be to produce subversive avatars to infiltrate the native culture, but to offer a choice of temporary cultures for us to inhabit for the thrill of it. Reality TV will be passed up by the appropriation of reality—otherwise known as politics. Comfortable in our electronic couch, we can inhabit our clichés and call it America, the greatest show on Earth.
William Irwin Thompson (born July, 1938) is known primarily as a social philosopher and cultural critic, but he has also been writing and publishing poetry throughout his career and received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award in 1986. He has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. He describes his writing and speaking style as “mind-jazz on ancient texts”. He is an astute reader of science, social science, history, and literature. He is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association.
His book, Still Travels: Three Long Poems was published in 2009 by Wild River Books. Order a copy from Amazon.
Works by William Irwin Thompson
Memoir – Farewell Address at the Lindisfarne Fellows Conference
Memoir – Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne: 1972
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part I
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part 2: A Community in Fishcove, Long Island
Memoir – Building a Dream – Part One: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – My Dinner with Andre Gregory: Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan, 1977-1979
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Shadow Side Part Two: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Cathedral Part Three: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Conclusion: The Economic Relevance of Lindisfarne
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary: Reflections of a Homeschooling Parent
Memoir – Sex and the Commune
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary
Memoir – With Gregory Bateson’s Mind in Nature
After Heart Surgery: Hokusai’s Great Wave
A Lazy Sunday Afternoon
Nancy Grayson’s Bookstore
On Reading “The Penguin Book of English Verse”: on my iPad and Exercise Bike
Wild River Books/Poetry – Nightwatch and Dayshift: Cezanne
Anatolian Days and Nights and the Cultural Evolution of Spirituality
And the Votes are In: The American Elections of 2010
Avatar – When Technology Displaces Culture
Bedtime Story for a Civilization
The Big Picture: Reflections on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
The Big Picture, II
Child Abuse and the Catholic Church
The Digital Economy of W. Brian Arthur
From Shamanism to Religion, Part Two
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality, Part Three
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality: Conclusion
January 1, 2011: Reflections on the Philosophical Notions of Republicans
January 6, 2011 – Part Two: The Etherealization of Capitalism
Nature and Invisible Environments
Of Culture and the Nature of Extinction
On Nuclear Power
On Religion – Part One
On Religion and Nationalism: Ireland, Israel, and Palestine
On Transnational Military Interventions
A Pagan Ur-Text of the Lebor Gebála Érenn
Part 1 – The Shift from Industrial to a Planetary Civilization
Part 2 – The Shift from an Industrial to Planetary Civilization
Part 3 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The Recovery of a Cosmic Orientation
Part 4 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – The Global War for Drugs
Part 5 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The New Jerusalem
Part 6 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Catastrophes as the Spur to Institute Tricameral Legislature
Part 7 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Complex Dynamical Systems and Tricameral Legislatures
Part 8 – The Shift from a Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Israel and Palestine: Sic transit gloria mundi
Part 9 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – On Sarah Palin and the Technocratic Society
Part 10 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – On Conspiracy Narratives as Expressive of the Transition from the Nation: State to the Noetic Polity
Part 11 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Global Awareness and Personal Identity
Part 12 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Conclusion: The United Nations
Political Meditation for the Fourth of July, 2011: Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?
St. David’s Day, 2011, Technology and Social Change
Saint Patrick’s Day, 2010: Us and Them: Identity and the State
Some Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and an Outline for a New Civilization
Technical Hubris: and the Sinkhole of Obama’s Centrism
Television and Social Class
Thanksgiving Day, 2010: The Uses and Abuses of History
The Elections of 2010
Thoughts on My new Kindle App: on My Mac iPad