The Philosopher's Eye

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Personal identity and race in Avatar

James Cameron’s Avatar is a cousin of some famous thought experiments from the philosophy of personal identity. For example, here’s a product of Daniel Dennett’s imagination circa 1978:

Several years ago I was approached by Pentagon officials who asked me to volunteer for a highly dangerous and secret mission. [They] had succeeded in lodging a warhead about a mile deep under Tulsa, Oklahoma, and they wanted me to retrieve it for them. … The difficulty that brought the Pentagon to my door was that the device I’d been asked to recover was fiercely radioactive, in a new way. According to monitoring instruments, something about the nature of the device and its complex interactions with pockets of material deep in the earth had produced radiation that could cause severe abnormalities in certain tissues of the brain. No way had been found to shield the brain from these deadly rays, which were apparently harmless to other tissues and organs of the body. So it had been decided that the person sent to recover the device should leave his brain behind. It would be kept in a safe place as there it could execute its normal control functions by elaborate radio links. Would I submit to a surgical procedure that would completely remove my brain, which would then be placed in a life-support system at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston? Each input and output pathway, as it was severed, would be restored by a pair of microminiaturized radio transceivers, one attached precisely to the brain, the other to the nerve stumps in the empty cranium. No information would be lost, all the connectivity would be preserved.

Sounds pretty Avatar-like to me! Even the plot devices are similar: In Avatar, one reason why the hero needs to remotely control an alien body is that the alien planet’s atmosphere is toxic to humans but not aliens; in Dennett’s thought experiment, the hero needs to remotely control his own body in order to avoid exposure to toxic radiation. (Of course, there are some differences. Dennett’s essay has a cooler ending whereas Avatar has more dragons.)

Anyway, it looks like Avatar’s implications about race have gotten a little more attention than anything it might have to say about personal identity. I was especially interested by this widely-linked io9 piece by Annalee Newitz accusing Cameron of being motivated by “white guilt,” as if that’s a bad thing. I’ll put a few spoiler-ridden thoughts on this below the fold.

Newitz’s complaint goes like this. In Avatar, (mostly?) white space marines oppress the Na’vi, “blue, catlike versions of native people.” Thus Avatar “revisits the crime scene of white America’s foundational act of genocide,” in which whole civilizations were wiped out by European immigrants. Jake, the hero of Avatar, infiltrates the native Na’vi society, realizes that he’s on the wrong side, and leads the Na’vi in a successful rebellion against the human invaders. This is bad because:

This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

I don’t think Newitz aims to offer a general criticism of fantasies about leaving modern civilization to join a Hollywood-style, nostalgically-reinvented “savage” society. Such stories are not inherently racist and they don’t exclusively appeal to white people. They are appealing to 21st-century people, of any skin color and any ancestry, who feel constrained by their own highly artificial environments. Of course, your typical modern man-turned-savage story is ordinarily misleading; you’d better not watch Dances With Wolves in preparation for your anthropology midterm. But these kinds of stories aren’t supposed to educate you; they’re supposed to help you dream of escape from a world that sometimes feels drab and unnatural.

But it seems Newitz does dislike the particular way these fantasies ordinarily turn out. Newitz’s problem, again, is that the invader retains his ability to control the natives, only from the outside rather than the inside. And I don’t think this worry is completely misguided.  Perhaps it would have made for a better story if Jake would have become just another Na’vi, relinquishing all power over them and simply following their leaders into battle.

But I have difficulty seeing how this makes Avatar a fantasy about a “white” person leading “people of color.” Jake’s whiteness isn’t his defining characteristic. Jake’s most obvious feature is that, among his own people, he is a low-level grunt in a vast, impersonal organization. Whether you’re white or “of color,” you can probably identify with that situation. By contrast, the Na’vi are quite unlike anyone — white, black, or other — who might buy a ticket to see Avatar. Given this, and given that Avatar appears to be an escapist fantasy about leaving everything behind, it’s not too surprising, and perhaps forgivable, that as Jake changes from human to Na’vi, he also stops being a nobody and becomes a great leader — the ultimate somebody.

Relatedly: Newitz links Avatar with District 9, and there are some pretty interesting connections between the two movies. But she writes:

Jake never really knows what it’s like to be a Na’vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode. Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He’s becoming alien and he can’t go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he’s hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a “cure” for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

But at the end of Avatar Jake becomes permanently Na’vi and seems pretty happy with that outcome. He’s got good reason to be happy.  For Jake, the allure of being Na’vi has nothing to do with its impermanence and a whole lot to do with the fact that life as a Na’vi is awesome. Riding around on dragons is just where the fun starts, if you’re a Na’vi. On the other hand, being a prawn of District 9 is hellish: prawns are ugly, stupid and selfish; they live miserable lives.

Still, Newitz isn’t wrong to think there’s an important racial theme in movies like Avatar and District 9. These movies depict fictional worlds in which racism is true. Racism, I take it, holds that certain aspects of people’s outward appearance can tell you how they’re put together on the inside. As it happens, we don’t live in a world like that. No matter how much you know about my skin color or my facial dimensions, you still can’t guess my IQ or my moral character. But there’s a long tradition of sci-fi/fantasy stories that involve worlds in which people’s insides line up very neatly with their outsides. Tolkien’s orcs are a famous example of this, and I think Avatar and District 9 are also fairly clear examples of this genre.  (The difference between District 9 and Avatar: in Avatar, a person’s blue skin tells you that they’re good on the inside, whereas in District 9, a person’s lobster-like appearance tells you they’re probably not very nice on the inside.)  Given that racism is false and destructive, can we excuse people like Tolkien and Cameron, who ask us to imagine a world in which it is true?

£1.99 - small Race, Colorblindness, and Continental Philosophy
By Michael Monahan, Marquette University
(Vol. 1, September 2006) Philosophy Compass

£1.99 - small Anthony Collins on the Emergence of Consciousness and Personal Identity
By William Uzgalis, Oregon State University (March 2009) Philosophy Compass

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This entry was posted on December 26, 2009 by in Viewpoint and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

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