Avatar and the posthuman future

Avatar is the best and most elaborate advertisement ever created for posthumanism.

The posthuman message of Avatar is easy to miss because Cameron invents a new form of posthuman — the Na’vi, apparently primitive children of Eywa (the “world spirit”). None the less, the conclusion is unavoidable. Compared to the Na’vi, humans are small, weak, ugly, inept and morally deficient. Avatar’s protagonist is crippled as a human, but athletic as a Na’vi. The whole narrative drive of the film is to transcend the human body, the human condition and human society, to transition to a more perfect world — but a world that is very much material, embodied, and shaped and maintained by its inhabitants. And humans make the transition to the posthuman by “uploading” their minds into Na’vis — a bog standard posthuman trope.

Admittedly, the Na’vi as tribal posthumans don’t fit into typical narratives of posthumanism. Both posthuman critical theory (e.g. Donna Haraway) and typical posthuman science fiction emphasize hard-edged scenarios such as cyborgs (the origin of the Star Trek borg, pretty much the opposite of the Na’vi), uploading our minds into computers and robots, etc. Furthermore, the “noble savage” aspect of the Na’vi seems to be the weakest, most cliched aspect of the movie.

But arguably if we believe the Na’vi are “noble savages” we are underestimating Cameron, or at least underestimating the potential of the world he has created.

Taking the Na’vi and Pandora at face value implies accepting a lot of incoherence. Many features of Pandora make no sense if we assume the ecosystem “just grew”. There’s no evolutionary reason for “horses” and “dragons” to plug into the nervous systems of “people”. There’s no evolutionary reason for all the trees to wire themselves together into a giant brain. And so forth.

But we can make sense of Pandora if we grant that Na’vi biotech is extremely advanced. Suppose the entire Pandoran ecosystem evolved normally, until the (precursors of the) Na’vi got to the point where they had to (or wanted to) manage their entire planet (the very point we on earth are reaching now). They took the path of adapting themselves and their ecosystem to become fully self-managing, and then could “relax” into a more or less tribal culture.

If the Na’vi engineered a self-managing planet, such techniques as networking the trees into a planetary brain, and providing ways to plug their minds into the nervous systems of plants and animals are sensible engineering solutions. The Na’vi transcend death by having their memories absorbed by the trees. This fits the goal of a sustainable system much better than making each individual biologically immortal (though potentially a society could do both).

The giant Na’vi “mind meld” with the trees to form a powerful system capable of identity transfer between bodies, also makes sense within this account. No mystical trappings are required.

The Na’vi have no need for a process of identity transfer between bodies, much less between human and Na’vi bodies. They must have created the process to deal with the situation, which implies that the Na’vi didn’t simply regress to a tribal culture. They retain the necessary knowledge — presumably stored in the trees — and the ability to integrate with the tree network to a level where they can rework nature, bodies etc. when needed. Again, that’s a good engineering solution to living in a simpler culture and still having high technology available when needed.

Unfortunately there’s one fact about Pandora that still doesn’t fit our account: the Na’vi have bodies that are exactly analogous to humans, except for their tails, while all other animals on Pandora have six legs and breathe through holes in their necks. Obviously the Na’vi similarity to humans is required to engage the audience and to use motion capture, so we could just ignore it. But let’s treat it as a meaningful discrepancy and see where that leads.

The surprising analogy between Na’vi and human suggests a plausible extension of our backstory. Perhaps the Na’vi were reshaped based on genetic samples and observations of the first human explorers, to serve as a “honey pot” that attracts human attention and interaction. In that case the Na’vi similarity to humans is another excellent design choice.

If that is the “real” story, the honeypot strategy has obviously worked well (in both the system security and seductive senses). The corporations and military commanders are totally sucked in to the honeypot and are paying no attention to the real nature of their opponent. Only a few no-account scientists have even noticed that the trees are important.

On the other hand, perhaps we should not think of the Na’vi as the dominant species on Pandora. The trees may in fact run the show (after all they are more or less worshiped by the Na’vi). Perhaps the trees have already snuck stealth versions to Earth, and are now in the process of slowly taking over our planet as well (see James Schmitz’ “The Porkchop Tree”). If the trees are in charge, perhaps we don’t have such a happy ending, but otherwise nothing fundamental changes. This account is more similar to posthuman scenarios in which intelligent machines are in charge but host humans or posthumans for inscrutable reasons. Such stories are often dystopian, but they can be quite positive (as in Ian Banks Culture novels).

All of these accounts involve a very high level of bio-technology and a sophisticated approach to managing the whole planet. In any coherent account the “noble savage” schtick is just a cover story. Cameron’s vision implies a pervasively posthuman world.

I don’t, of course, know if Cameron would endorse any of these accounts. But his vision of Pandora is more feasible and consistent than it at first appears, and adds an important dimension to imagining posthuman futures.

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