Here’s a blog entry I actually wrote a few months ago when I was in Bolivia, slightly modified for the purposes of this class; we’ll talk a bit about it tomorrow.
Watching Avatar in La Paz
Last night I finally watched Avatar– a pirated copy, dubbed in Spanish, obviously not 3D, which was perhaps not ideal but fitting because this is the way people watch movies here. The film itself was pretty much how I thought it would be: colonization-as-romance narratives we’ve seen before in Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, etc. mixed with a halfhearted rehashing of man v. machine thematics enacted more memorably in Terminator and The Matrix (the latter being far superior but nonetheless very influential), although was nice to see the U.S. army get its ass beat by the Na’vi with help from the entire fancifully-animated ecosystem.
I watched it with my housemate Luchi, who was was slightly more impressed than I was: as an artist she appreciated Cameron’s world-building skills, but she was concerned with the “caudillismo” of American soldier-turned-Na’vi-romancer/defender Jake’s call-to-arms. Actually, I tried to convince her, it’s far worse than caudillismo, because it’s (literally!) puppet caudillismo. Why on earth do they need a North American soldier in a borrowed body to tell them how to resist? Yeah, THAT has ever really happened in the history of anti-imperialist guerrilla warfare. If the history of the sixties has taught us one thing, I argued somewhat stridently, it’s that indigenous and otherwise oppressed people are perfectly capable of fighting for themselves; the idea that they need technology and ingenuity from “more developed” places is part of an ideology of progress that ultimately silences them. Even in the cases where the peasant/revolutionaries win, in this equation, they lose, since a developmentalist ideal of liberation is imposed on them in place of any collectively determined vision of the good life.
The ethos of Avatar, then, unself-consciously depicts the process by which revolutionaries internalize and absorb development discourse, making obvious the connection by having the same soldier who would save them through corporate/imperialist modernization save them through teaching them to fight against it. Even though the Na’vi pointedly refuse any and all development interventions, the tough-yet-tender American soldier (who in his previous career was surely helping children and freeing women, not kicking doors down at midnight to haul off and torture innocent people etc.) must teach them how to resist. Che’s fantasy of “the angel who has fallen into the zone” has always been just that, a fantasy. People know how to resist, they need support and solidarity.
Despite my predictable annoyance, I was interested in watching Avatar here because the comparisons between the Na’vi and Evo Morales have been ubiquitous: Evo has stood up to the U.S. government in significant ways, defending their connection to the natural world against, for example, the DEA’s “coca eradication” programs and other neoliberal imperialist projects; and MAS’ color is blue, following an interesting post-Cold War global color-reversal trend that perhaps signals the new new left’s (or, as Arturo Escobar posits here, the new post-leftist, post-development, and above all anti-imperialist politic which is most fully elaborated by Bolivian indigenista social movement politics ) focus on nature that Cameron also grasped, perhaps the reason the film has been embraced by colonized/oppressed people around the world, despite their lack of a an ex-G.I. savior to lead them (instead, in a depressingly yet predictable postmodern turn, they need an animated film to make the case of the urgency/reality of their struggle):
Evo himself went to see Avatar, in supposedly only the third movie-watching experience of his life, and commented that “the film contains a high degree of fantasy, but is at the same time a profound depiction of resistance against capitalism and the fight to defend the natural world.”
Leaving aside the already-remarked-upon postmodern ironies of a socialist/indigenist leader praising the “resistance against capitalism” and “fight to defend the natural world” in a (again, animated!) movie that cost over $300 million to make, Evo is right about the the film’s basic critique. If we can, as Evo did, ignore the heroic American or dismiss him as window-dressing, mobilizing narratives like Avatar might disrupt the continued insistence that places like Bolivia “modernize” no matter what the cost to its land and people. This continued insistence comes even from liberal U.S. voices: a recent New Yorker article by Lawrence Wright on the possibilities of extracting lithium in Bolivia condescendingly calls Evo “a creature of his biography” with “a mystical attachment to coca,” calls Evo’s attempts at a social welfare state “out of date,” and quotes an opponent (one of an overwhelming number quoted in the article) saying “Evo is Aymara, and the Aymara see the world as a fight between good and evil, like ‘Star Wars.’ For him, the forces of good are coca growers and the coca leaf. The evil is the D.E.A. and the U.S.” It’s worth noting that a) Bolivia is not the country that formulated either star wars or ANY of the manichean “you’re with us or against us” justifications for pre-emptive war that define the era of U.S. hegemony; but that b) Evo was nearly beaten to death by D.E.A.-affiliated Bolivian troops for his work in the coca-growers union, so the shoe kind of fits here. See this excellent article by Suzanna Reiss to learn about how the Obama administration is, if anything, exacerbating the entirely imperialist–i.e. concerned much more with governments’ attempts to hold onto and redistribute their resources than with stemming drug distribution and consumption–drug war.
Anyway, the New Yorker article: Wright refuses to budge an inch from the developmentalist paradigm, lamenting Bolivia’s failure to emerge from its “pre-industrial cocoon”; worries openly that now that Evo has expelled the DEA, that “the drug trade” will “corrupt Bolivian society”; and, in perhaps the most disgusting and libelous move of the article, characterizes the entire cycle of anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal uprisings of the early and mid 2000s as about silly age-old anti-Chilean hostilities. Nothing could be further from the truth: the vast majority of Bolivians are attempting to reject neoliberal capitalism on purpose, in order to (re)conceptualize ways of life not based on modernization, endless accumulation, and environmental destruction. At least James Cameron gets that.