Sunday, January 10, 2010

Avatar and philosophy

So I got a CFP for Avatar and philosophy a few days ago, but I hadn't seen the movie yet.  So I didn't read through the proposal, since I was afraid of having the movie spoiled for me.  But I saw the movie today, and it was great!

I just cranked out a proposal for an Avatar chapter on the Na'vi's relationship with animals in the movie, and what we can learn about our own relationship to animals.  I'm hoping it'll get accepted, but I'm not holding my breath.

For those of you who are not in the know, and want to submit a proposal here's the CFP:

Call for Abstracts

Avatar and Philosophy

Edited by George A. Dunn

The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series

Please circulate and post widely.

Apologies for Cross-posting.

To propose ideas for future volumes in the Blackwell series please contact the Series Editor, William Irwin, at

Abstracts and subsequent essays should be philosophically substantial but accessible, written to engage the intelligent lay reader. Contributors of accepted essays will receive an honorarium.

Possible themes and topics might include, but are not limited to, the following:

Eywa and the Gaia Hypothesis; Avatar and the Heideggerian Critique of Technology; Descartes versus Pandora: the Modern Project to Master Nature; Locke on Nature, Labor, and Property: Who Owns Pandora?; The Na’vi Way of Life: Hobbes Versus Rousseau on the State of Nature; Na’vi Spirituality and the Philosophy of Spinoza; Avatar and Aristotle on the Souls of Plants and Animals; Avatar and Our Responsibilities to Nonhuman Species; “More Neural Connections Than The Human Brain”: Can a Planet or a Forest Be Intelligent?; Avatar and Hinduism: What Exactly is an Avatar?; Chinese Philosophy: Is Qi the Same as Avatar’s “Energy that Flows Through All Things”?; American Indian Philosophy and Na’vi Shamanism; Avatar’s Environmentalism and Deep Ecology; Colonialism, the Na’vi, and the Rights of Indigenous People; The Problem of Evil: Why Is Goodness So Fragile on Pandora?; “Eywa Doesn’t Take Sides”: Good and Evil in Nature; Questioning Avatar: Does Natural Always Mean Better?; Going Native: The Responsibilities of Anthropologists and Social Scientists to Their Subjects; Wittgenstein and Trying to Understand an Alien Form of Life; “I See You”: Levinas, the Face, and Responsibility to the Other; Business Ethics and the RDA Corporation; "Our Only Security is in a Preemptive Strike": Avatar and Just War Theory; Is Jake a Traitor?: Avatar and Royce’s Philosophy of Loyalty; Grace and the Colonel: Are Scientists Responsible for the Uses Others Make of Their Discoveries?; Jake and the Colonel: The Ethics of Following and Disobeying Orders; Avatar and the Virtues of the Warrior; Neytiri, Grace, Mo’at, and the Feminine Care Ethic; Learning of the Ways of the Na’vi: Avatar and John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education; Neytiri and Jake: The Philosophy of Love; What’s In a Name?: Grace Augustine and the Path of Moral Transformation; Avatar and the Philosophy of Religion: Theism, Pantheism, and Panentheism; Avatar and the Possibility of Finding Scientific Explanations of Religious Phenomena; Avatar, Dualism, and the Philosophy of Mind; Personal Identity: Is Jake Still Jake When in His Avatar?; Merleau-Ponty, Avatars, and the Phenomenology of the Body; Avatar and Issues Related to Disability; Ignorance, Pride, and Greed: What Can Avatar Teach Us About Why People Do Bad Things?; Avatar Aesthetics: Engaging the Imagination Through 3D and CGI; Avatar and the Philosophy of (Creating a New) Language; Identity and Community: What’s It Like to Be Sometimes Human, Sometimes Na’vi?; Communitarianism versus Individualism in Avatar; Happiness and the Good Life: Have the Na’vi Achieved It?

Submission Guidelines:

1. Submission deadline for abstracts (100-500 words) and CV’s: March 2, 2010

2. Submission deadline for accepted papers: August 3, 2010

Kindly submit abstract (with or without Word attachment) and CV by email to: George Dunn at


  1. Yes, Jake is a traitor to the human race... but the interesting thing is, intelligence in this case is not a human-only quality. So, because he had a change of heart (i.e. his conscience compelled him to a different moral choice), while inhabiting a different species' body, I'm inclined to say his human intellect/consciousness was no longer merely human, but Na'vi as well. Similar to a case of dual citizenship in a time of war, in which one must make a choice between one or the other country, Jake chose Na'vi. Yes, he is a traitor to his origins, but I think that the point of the film is to make the moral choice, even if it means betrayl. That being said, I enjoyed the films scenery, but found the conflict contrived and simplistic. Not once did Jake mention that the humans are simply after the "unobtainium" (really?). It didn't appear that the Na'vi were using the element. Perhaps Jake could have convinced the Na'vi and humans to work together in mining it (if there was a way short of slash, burn and strip mine). Because of this lack of communication, Jake failed in his mission as a liaison. Overall I am disappointed with the story. Cameron has done much better with this theme (The Abyss), and actually, films like Dances With Wolves have already covered the basic tenets. Interesting concepts, but I'm hoping for a directors cut with extended storyline and development, like that of Aliens and The Abyss.

  2. I don't agree with your analysis of the betrayal here.... Just because Jake inhabits a body with Na'vi DNA doesn't make him Na'vi, anymore than if I were to get a pig liver implanted in me, I'd be a pig. The real question is what does it mean to betray the human race? Is merely working against the goals of many humans betrayal of the human race? Lets say that all the humans needed unobtainium (which is pretty silly sounding, but its used in thought experiments all the time, with different names like dilithium crystals or adamantium) to survive. Isn't Jake living up to the ideals of humanity much more so than the rest of the humans in the movie? Am I betraying my nation when I burn the flag, or a patriot for exercising fully my rights? False dilemma... I know.

  3. Heh, an Avatar Wiki....

  4. What makes Jake Na'vi is inhabiting the body of a Na'vi and being incorporated into their society. Eventually, he's going to even think like a Na'vi, perhaps forgetting Engligh entirely. To use another example, consider Costner's role in Dances with Wolves. He was a soldier for the U.S. He got stuck in an assignment in the wild. He met the Natives. At first he was reluctant to join them, but eventually they welcomed him and he learned their customs. Effectively, though not genetically a Native American, he became one through immersion into their tribe/family unit, as did his eventual wife (raised since childhood). Is this a betrayal of the U.S. Army? Yes. Is this a betrayal of his humanity? No. What Cameron has done with Avatar is take this to an extreme (and simplified it) by adding the concept of there being a different species and the consciousness that inhabits each body is the same. A whole new level of mind - body-dualism. Perhaps then it is a metaphysical question of who are you? Are you your mind or your body? Or are you both? Is the Jake in Na'vi form the same person as Jake in Human form? The same consciousness yes, but certainly not the same body.
    As for the case of burning the flag, it depends on what your intent for burning it is. If you're crying death to America, then I would say, Yes, you're betraying America. If your intent is demonstrating freedom, or perhaps that America is not currently what it should be, that is to say, you love America and THIS is not it! Then I would say no, you're not betraying America, though you may be breaking a law. Jake's intent in fighting the humans is (perhaps) to drive them away and protect the way of life of the Na'vi, at the humans expense. The outcome is that the humans are driven from the planet (what's its name again? Unobtaniumland?) and Jake chooses to become Na'vi for good, shedding his human self. This IS a betrayal of humanity. Can he serve both Na'vi and humans? Yes. Can he serve them each more effectively through being a Na'vi fully capable of using his legs and perhaps negotiating peace and understanding? I think so. But, that train of thought isn't specified or even alluded to in the film. He simply expels humans... who are likely heading up to nuke the site from orbit, afterall, it's the only way to be sure.

  5. And another thing... you mention the "ideals of humanity" as though they were objectively understood. Ideals? What are they? Do all humans or humanity as a whole have the same ideals? When I spoke of Jake betraying humanity, I was talking about betraying not their ideals, but the species, physically. What hurts about a literal knife in the back is the cut into the flesh, moreso than the idea that I trusted this person.

  6. I like your assessment of the traitor question, its not one that resonates with me because I would approach the situation much as you described during war times, it is a question of morality as opposed to (though not versus) loyalty. But honestly, I don't even care. The way the movie was created I get the feeling that a young writer came to Cameron with a visually appealing film but probably a weak plot. Instead of just making the film as eye candy (as was done with The Cell), Cameron and his crew infused the story with a plot that is so contrived and inane that it has the potential, as it did with me, to alienate (haha) the audience. There were opportunities in the story to expand exponentially on concepts of soul inheritance in living things (which avails itself to extropian theory), cultural and emotional identity, PTSD in disabled soldiers and a myriad of other subjects none of which revolve around morality. Perhaps its just me but haven't we come to a place in our studies and philosophies as Americans that we are attempting to reach beyond morality to higher states of understanding whether it be of prejudice, murder or industrialization? And can we please just stop talking about the abuse of the Earth for an hour! I would love to read the original script/screenplay to get an idea of what the writer really intended the audience to experience and what he himself experienced through the process of writing the story.
    At this point I would say that the only value I've found in the film, other than it being visually exciting (though watching aliens viciously slaughtered for 5 minutes was literally overkill), is that people are asking questions, perhaps the film did not provide answers but it did, at least, provoke thought. Personally I found it to be ridiculous and offensive kind of like that question the checker at grocery stores always asks, "Did you find everything ok?" - No, I gave up, that's why I'm checking out! Seems Cameron gave up on making an interesting film and checked into cozy, safe moralsville, leaving those of us seeking a brief out of body journey, still searching for our Avatar.

  7. Gary- We don't all need to agree on particular ideals for us to say that they are ideals of humanity, nor do they have to be objective. But just because they're subjective doesn't mean we have to throw it all out to relativism either.

    Killing innocent people for what you want I think is pretty high up there for an ideal of humanity. What the corporation is doing on Pandora is pretty inhuman, just like the Nazi holocaust was inhuman, or the Native American diaspora.

    Sherri- It was a 3 hour movie already! I'm not sure Cameron could have or should have done more mulling over some of the ideas without depreciating the entertainment value. (Cameron wrote the script btw... so if you didn't like it you can put all the blame on Cameron.) As for the abuse of earth... I think Cameron showed a lot of restraint. The state of the earth was quite literally mentioned twice during the movie, and never really explained. Rather he's just giving us a different model of these aliens living on their planet and their relationship with the planet. Granted the allegories are still there about the environment, but I didn't think it was overtly Republican bashing like some people have claimed.

  8. There are still some factors missing in the story. Where is the government? Are they on Earth? Are they on big spaceships or stations? Why is there no communication to them? How is a Colonel in charge of the entire military operation on this planet? Where are they Generals? Giovanni Rabisi's character reminds me of the role that Paul Reiser played in Aliens (Carter Burke); he's slimy, self-intersted and weak. Burke was more effective in his role as government/company stooge; Rabisi's character is seen waffling between the decision to protect or usurp in a less than convincing way. Staying with the portrayal of human greed and psychoticism that Cameron painted in this film, the only ending to this film that follows logically would be humans flying up to their big ships and nuking the site from orbit. Visually amazing, some interesting concepts, but ultimately a simplistic view of the immorality of big business and colonial conquest.

  9. Gary- It takes 5 years for them to get to pandora from earth, So the military isn't exactly at full strength. They have to make do with what they have there. Nuking from orbit might destroy the unobtainium.... but I would imagine that the next group of humans coming might have more firepower.

    Communication with earth would be hampered by the sheer distance. Cameron builds a pretty realistic world here I think.

  10. Ave,
    From the book;
    The RDA is a private business. Unobtainium is a room-temp, super-conducting material for use in computing, communications and FTL/Warp travel. Their security is in-house trained and equiped.