I’ve been reading some of the flak surrounding Avatar. Most of it is pretty unsurprising. That some left-leaning critics, like Annalee Newitz, would find the film ridden with familiar primitivist white liberal guilt tripping is expected (Dances with Wolves in Space sums up to the basic thrust of these criticisms). Given that Newitz is a pretty astute writer, I’ll refrain from wondering too long about whether asking (facetiously?) when “white people will stop making films like Avatar” is the best way to frame the question she’s trying to ask. (That is, should you level your accusations of racism within a racial frame? Doesn’t this absolve you of thinking through the ways in which the film’s ostensible racism reacts to, interacts with, is inextricable from its other more praiseworthy aspects?) Basically, most left-leaning responses to the film run the gamut from “totally racist” to “yes, racist, but racist in a particularly American kind of way.”
Which leads me to ask: can you have a “left” reading of Avatar that doesn’t find it to be racist? If you don’t think Avatar is racist, or if you aren’t willing to just come out and say it, is your reading of the film ipso facto not-leftist? After all, one could easily imagine a conservative (but maybe not “right-wing”) reading of the film that emphasized its racism, highlighting the inextricability of the film’s condescension to the “primitive” Na’vi from its environmentalist, anti-Blackwater/Xe, anti-imperialist politics, and therefore delegitimizing those latter positions as racist-by-association. Or something.
Maybe it wouldn’t be the best reading, but you could imagine it.
I’m not all that interested in following through on that logic. And in fact I’m just sort of wondering lackadaisically about the relationship between politics and reading, and more generally about the relationship between positionality and reading. Does your position define the political thrust of your reading, or does the governing logic of the reading govern your political position. That’s something like the difference between a film a film that says racist things and a racist film. If you think there’s no difference between the former and the latter (given that “says” means “means,” not “has some obviously stupid or evil character say”), then for you the film’s politics is the product of the logic that gave rise to the utterance in the film in the first place (e.g. “Avatar is a racist film because, no matter what it says it thinks, the attitude it takes towards its native characters infects every aspect of the film, governs the decisions every character makes, governs the decisions the writers and directors make”).
On the other hand, if you think that a film can say racist things but not be racist, then you’re doing a different sort of reading. That is, one might say, yes, the fantasy of the Western imperial soldier using his Western rationality to master a native people he has helped to oppress, only to use his superior fusion of Western rationality and primitive animism to lead the native to triumph over his Western oppressors is the product of the racist assumptions undergirding this particular white liberal fantasy. BUT such a position does not necessarily result in the rest of the film’s political positions, does not master and infect, for instance, the very explicit anti-imperialism, the very explicit environmentalism, etc., then what you’ve got is a more complicated, more messy analysis on your hands. I’m not quite sure about the implications of such a methodological assumption – it would require a longer, more complicated, messier analysis than I really feel like presenting here.
The other thing it would do, though, is free you up to talk about pleasure, which, to my mind, Avatar is simply full of. Normally I simply loathe flashy, over-CGI’d bullshit – it almost always looks terrible. We can marvel at how advanced the technology is, but in terms of an amazing-looking piece of stagecraft, it does nothing for me. But Avatar looks amazing. Maybe you have to shell out the cash to see it on an IMAX screen, as I did, but I don’t know how you can say, as some have, that it doesn’t look substantially better than any previous CGI 3-D flick. Not only is fully integrated (none of that cheesy “Whoa that axe looks like it’s coming right at me!”), but you actually forget it’s there. But it is there, just being awesome.