In a world of avatars

After watching Avatar the film, one of my daughters remarked how she wished she could live in Pandora, the earth-sized planet inhabited by slender humanoids known as the Na’vi, who lived in harmony with Nature.  We all chimed in agreement.  In such manner do many of us project our disaffection with our own world (and often with our own selves), and the sense of guilt we feel over its current state.  James Cameron’s script is, in many ways, the story of Western colonialism’s plunder and destruction of indigenous societies.  It is also a parable on human greed and technological violence. But this is only the most obvious level at which the movie may be understood.

Far richer in meaning and more suggestive, to me, is the concept of the avatar.  This Sanskrit word originally referred to any of the incarnations or appearances of the Hindu deity Vishnu.  In this usage, we may think of Jesus as the Christian God’s avatar, sent to our world to teach us how to live like worthy children of God.

The same word, however, has reached today’s generation laden with a whole new set of meanings.  In the vocabulary of the virtual world, it designates any computer-generated graphic image by which a user represents herself.  With the aid of a computer program, anyone can construct an avatar from a menu of available parts.  Avatars figure prominently in computer games. The more detailed the image, or, better, the more powers an avatar acquires and deploys, the more attention it draws.  In the world of avatars, identity is a disposable value.  No one speaks of essence here, or of intrinsic nature. Everything is exchange value.

Social scientists are keen to know what new forms of relationships become possible in a world where humans make their presence felt and interact with others — not as they “really” are, but as avatars. Unencumbered by any past, they can be what they aspire to be. There is no way of checking their “true” identity, nor does the need arise — because truth itself has been dissolved.  Nothing remains of the existential foundations against which appearances used to be validated.  This is the nihilism of the postmodern world.

Earlier than anyone else, it was Nietzsche who announced the advent of such a world by his declaration of the “death of God.”  He meant the passing of an era that grounded all belief, knowledge, and human values on metaphysical notions about the nature of Being.   Without any stable point on which it could turn, the world as we know it, Nietzsche said, becomes a fable – pure narrative.

Modern philosophy, like Marxism and Existentialism, reacted to the threat of nihilism through various projects aimed at recovering the authentic, the rational, the unalienated, and the subjective. Marx sought the establishment by revolutionary practice of a society in which emancipated human reason actively guides the hand of history. Sartre, on the other hand, saw the project of freedom as the overcoming of “bad faith,” a goal that every individual must strive to realize in the context of his own personal circumstances.  Bad faith, Sartre argued, is the refusal to recognize that, even under the most constraining conditions, we are free to choose.

Cameron’s Avatar seemed to me at first like a wondrous fusion of these two philosophical strands.  The world of Pandora restores emotion, will, and desire to their central place in human existence; it is a world where people can still choose and be chosen in turn.  It is a world of conscious and autonomous subjects rather than of inert objects driven by their functionality to behave in particular ways.

But, interestingly, the world of Pandora is also where, amid uncertainty, love triumphs and faith produces miracles.  This is no longer Marx or Sartre.  Indeed the film goes beyond the mere “reappropriation” of the authentic.  Underneath the predictable romanticism of the script, there is a hint of the postmodern response to nihilism. Perhaps I’m over-reading.  This happens in the film when the human Jake Sully falls in love with Neytiri, the Na’vi princess, and turns against his own predatory species. Faced with the enemy’s superior arms, he desperately prays to Eywa, the mother goddess, to help them repel the human beings that have come to destroy the Na’vi.  Neytiri tells Jake that Eywa does not take sides, that she’s only there to keep the balance.  Yet his prayer appears to have been answered. When everything seemed lost, Nature’s own wildlife joins the Na’vi in their fight to protect their homeland.

In a nihilistic world where no belief can be founded on something solid or stable or unchanging, we need not think that therefore anything goes, or that we can do without values.  Indeed, we are presented with an opportunity to create our own values.  Gianni Vattimo, a contemporary Italian philosopher – who is Heideggerian, communist, openly gay, and an avowed Catholic – knows this quite well.  “Credere di credere,” (I believe that I believe) Vattimo says in his apology for nihilism. By choosing to believe – not out of compulsion or duty but as a “leap” into the “abyss” — he thereby suspends everything “that claims to be real, necessary, peremptory, and true.”

Such a believer finds no need to provide any foundation for his faith. It is enough that it opens new horizons for him.  This, to me, is what the image of the child Jesus might represent to an age that has devalued the highest values – an avatar of innocence and new beginnings.

Merry Christmas to all!