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James Cameron does not lack success, recognition or money. We could speculate, furthermore, that his dreams and fascinations with the mysteries of the ocean have already been satisfied. We deduce that his intention to continue the Avatar franchise with Avatar: The Way of Water, if it does not obey an immaculate artistic motivation, then it must be a political one. It seems that the director wants to teach us something.
In a taxonomy of his work, from Alien (1986), through his Terminator, to his most recent Avatar, we unveil the pattern of a critique of technological progress without ethics, of overindustrialization, even a denunciation of the clumsiness of the military castes. It is very clear when he warns us of the singularity with Skynet, as a terrifying aspect of artificial intelligence. On the other hand, he is generous in his sympathies for conservationism, for a non-anthropocentric understanding of nature and for strong, heroic women.
In his pandorian duo we will observe that the Na’vi are not afraid to use machine guns and explosives, in a clear guerrilla parallelism with the Vietnam conflict -in fact, in the second installment there is a child interpreter, of questionable morality, which makes it possible to criticize the role played by anthropology during that war. Nor do they have too much of a problem accepting hybrid individuals into their society. They assimilate and use cloning and in-vitro fertilization. They learn to communicate by radio. Quite a pragmatic people, really.
The acceptance or rejection of technologies is always preceded by a local socio-political dimension. First, we need pharaohs to build the Necropolis of Giza; just as a strict samurai ethic would oppose, as indeed it did, the use of firearms, however efficient and feasible they might be. Through technique, we can diagnose societies. So, what does the technique in the Na’vi tell us about their society? More significantly, what is Cameron if not the true demiurge of that universe, hiding behind the fourth wall, outside of time, promoting to us?
It may come as a surprise that the idyllic Na’vi are very similar to contemporary minority ethnic groups, without orthodox roots and already immersed in the post-industrial exchange of the globalized world. Anthropologist Ann Jordan explains that “discovered” peoples take from those who “discover” them only what they need and re-signify it. Coca-Cola is used in Russia to reduce wrinkles, while in Haiti it is used to revive the dead and in Barbados to convert copper into silver. There is no total loss of identity in this process, but rather exploitation and resignification of foreign culture.
The less present the foundational myths are, the less transcendent the sense of identity, the less rooted one’s own identity becomes, and the less resignification is applied to foreign artifacts. This is precisely what happens with the armed and partisan Na’vi, of whom, perhaps, an argument in favor of them is that it will always be valid to use the same weapons of techno-capitalism or of the “system” to destroy it from within. Including democracy, of course, which is another technique. By the way, this has long been the argument of communists with iPhones.
This behavior of the Na’vi, capable of integrating horizontally with everything without questioning it too much, so different from what was recorded in Antiquity and Medieval times, resembles however our contemporary way of assimilating technologies. Our devices are simply black boxes that we just use and operate. Our body, on the other hand, also constitutes a similar physicality to our environment (physical and digital) and can therefore be modular and interchangeable.
The potential of Neuralink and its equivalence between DNA and bits appear in the film when some characters are reincarnated in new bodies and with the support of their pre-recorded life memories. This Cartesian separation between soul and body is the seed, among other things, of current dilemmas about the performativity of gender.
Contrary to what might be thought, Cameron’s natives are not pantheists, even if they sublimate with Eywa. In the first installment of Avatar, it is made explicit that the entire biome is hyperconnected, like a high-speed Internet, as a consequence of a refined and ancient evolutionary process. All phenomena on the planet are material and are only contrasted in terms of quantity, both in terms of connections and speed, with the evolutionary state of the earthlings and their machines. Machines are becoming more and more organic, and allow us to deduce and project the missing links between them and the ecosystem. This is where our supposed primitivism as a species would become evident.
In the Na’vi society, there is no vertical and external principle that rules over the manifestations of life and its daily routine. Rather, the “we are stardust” reigns, which is the secular version of the Beyond.
But this apparent spirituality is better understood if we analyze the sensibility of the director, formerly an agnostic and now an atheist. As identified by Angel Faretta, art critic and theorist, behind the apparent simplicity of Cameron’s scripts lies an operation with traditional symbols that are common to several religions. But, complementing the acute observation of the master, this would be a truncated, if not inverted, operation. An authentic crucifixion of Peter.
In Terminator (1984), it is the son who sends the father into the world to save him. In Titanic (1997), Jack dines on bread and wine together with twelve superb and gentrified diners. Rose is saved by a timber and not together with her beloved, as a couple and potential humanity -Jack had to die for the (inverted) symbol to work. For his part, it is true that Jake Sully falls from the sky, is incarnated in the Pandorian world, suffers it, and decides to sacrifice himself for it in order to save it. However, he comes from a fallen world, which is Earth. Sully comes from above but not from the heights.
In 2007, Cameron documented the discovery of Talpiot’s tomb, assuring that he possessed a small fragment of the bones of Christ. Let us remember that the Resurrection, in Christianity, is a historical and attested fact, and not simply a theological revelation. With this work, Cameron intended to demolish the pillar of the creed.
For this series of reasons, we could say that unprovided lessons are better than incomplete ones. We must be careful with the ninth gate.
Perhaps that’s why in Avatar we don’t see any signs of artificial intelligence -at least not explicitly. It is odd that in this diegesis, with such technologically advanced earthlings and taking into account the director’s previous works, there are no androids. There are no terminators to subdue the rebels, a matter that would definitely not be a moral conflict for the ambitious humans in the plot.
Artificial intelligence necessarily confronts us with the dialectic between creator and creation. The more we understand machines, the more we are confronted with a theology of technology. And Cameron seems to consciously avoid it. He has removed the vertical beam from his inverted cross.
Hopefully, Cameron will delve a little deeper into the “way of water,” so that he can realize that the desert is the symmetrical space of the ocean and that their mysteries are in solidarity with each other. With a little luck, in a meeting between millionaire sheiks and technologists, he might realize that something else is missing in his projects.
Salvador Suniaga es ingeniero y etnógrafo del sector industrial hispanoamericano. Ganador del SolidWorks Elite Application Engineer (Nashville, 2020). Trabaja en la intersección entre tecnología, antropología aplicada y negocios. Actualmente es Director Técnico en SolidIndustry // Salvador Suniaga is an engineer and ethnographer of the Spanish-American industrial sector. SolidWorks Elite Application Engineer Winner (Nashville, 2020). He works at the intersection between technology, applied anthropology and business. He is currently Technical Director at SolidIndustry.