James Cameron’s Avatar tells the story of the Na’vi, a race of ten foot tall blue-skinned humanoids living on an Earth-like moon in a monolithically-tall “Hometree.” The Na’vi believe that Hometree is alive with the spirit of “Eywa,” described as a “network of energy.” Cameron represents this networked energy with bioluminescent, brightly colored seeds, trees, and animals. Given this romantic plot and luminous setting, it is not surprising that most reviews referenced the commonplace figure of the “ecological Indian” in Hollywood environmental movies that seek absolution for the sins of industrialization and evoke desires for the re-enchantment of nature.
What was surprising about some of the first responses to the film were the numerous thoughtful responses from indigenous groups, political figures, community leaders and scholars from around the world. For example, Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, praised Avatar for its imaginative portrayal of an indigenous group fighting for “Pachamama,” which he defined as “a living being in the universe that concentrates energy and life.” Latin American notions of “Pachamama” may help to explain Morales’ response to Avatar. As anthropologist Marisole de la Cadena explains,” “Pachamama” is understood not as a female-gendered planet but as “Source of Light.” Another reason for Morales’ response might be explained with reference to Rob Nixon’s work on “slow violence” which he defines as the inattention we have paid to the attritional lethality of “hard-charging capitalism.” In a world where transnational corporations based in the Global North promise to contribute to the progress of modern society, then carelessly spill chemicals or oil in the Global South, writes Nixon, there is nothing to call the media’s attention to slow violence. There is a deficit of the “recognizable special effects that fill movie seats and flat-screen TVs with the pyrotechnics of “Shock and Awe” (“Neoliberal” 444, 445).
In this essay, I argue that what is astonishing about the links that indigenous groups are making to Avatar is that the “things” that Avatar is helping to “make public,” to use the language of Bruno Latour, are not simply humans and animals, but mountains, rivers, and forests that, like the bioluminescent Hometree, are considered “sentient entities” whose material existence and that of the socionatural worlds to which they belong are being threatened by slow violence. I explore how contemporary indigenous authors are depicting an emerging “indigenous cosmopolitics” that recognizes multidimensional relationships between diverse human groups, species, and “earth-beings” that can be read as “cosmopolitan proposals,” as Elizabeth Stengers defines that term. This, in turn, allows me to explore further why indigenous groups in the Americas are linking their regionally-specific movements for environmental justice to a film that features a coalition of humans and bioluminescent non-human species fighting to shift the audience’s attention from the “shock and awe” of war to the ontology and agency of the material world.
This is an abstract of article forthcoming in a special issue of American Literary History on "Sustainability in America."