I recently watched Avatar again for the first time since the cinema. Perhaps it was the 3D extravaganza or maybe the nose-pinchingly obvious imperialist overtones, but I seemed to miss the first time round that one of the main proponents of the film is the intertwining of the human and non-human. This brings the ethos of my favourite mistake, actor-network theory in sharp focus; in particular, Bruno Latour’s critique of the human/non-human dichotomous narrative. One of the main contentions of actor-network theory is the agency afforded to non-humans in social formations and their inextricability from humans. In essence, Latour argues that the agentic force of humans in the formulation of networks is intertwined and shared with that of inanimate and non-human objects, and hence there can be no distinction between humans and non-humans in terms of their affect on network praxis.
It was in 1993 that Latour brought to the fore the human/nonhuman divide in his definition of a ‘purification process’, which is a process that leads to two entirely distinct ontological zones, referring to humans and non-humans. This formulated or forced dualism has been a sticking point for Latour, as the hybridity of humans and non-humans and splicing of their (inter)actions is a complex and historical issue. Latour describes how humans in the pre-civilisation era were like a Baboon society, in that we did not use any tools. Baboon society is socially constructed as their interaction is total; there is no delegation to nonhuman actants (i.e. tools). As humans have continually used tools or nonhuman actants, it becomes impossible to extricate human actors from nonhuman actants when it comes to the effects of agency.
This has been contested, quite common sensibly with the notion that the human actors ultimately have the initiative over the actants; after all, humans have the power of speech, rational thought, emotion and so on (Vandenberghe, 2002). Also, Kirsch and Mitchell (2004) find that the equivalence of humans and nonhumans cannot account for the social relations that drive network formation.
How does this relate to Avatar? The human/non-human divide I am referring to in this case is not the obvious one (i.e. humans and the Na’vi), but the more subtle metaphor of the Na’vi themselves and their interaction with nature. In Avatar, the positing of the Na’vi and their relationship with Eywa against the linear dogmatic mantra of the humans provides a fertile analogous arena for debate, and thoroughly ‘muddies’ dualistic thinking, to which many actor-network theorists (including Latour) would adhere. The film portrays the inherent complexity and non-linearity of social life, moreover, arguably defenestrates human agency from social construct altogether by making Eywa (defacto Earth-like sister, ‘Mother Nature’) victorious at the conclusion. The way in which the Na’vi interact with their society, their belief in a feedback system of energy and survival, and their connectivity with the non-Na’vi all portray an ANT-inspired existence.
ANT is widespread through the social sciences, but it is vital to comprehend that network formation involves both human and nonhuman actants to the same degree, whether they are social, cultural, economic and so on. The power inherent in an article or an internet text can be just as forceful or power-inherent as a lecture from a professor (which would not be possible without inhuman actants, namely the lecture room, slides or microphone). Every action that is carried out by a human actor therefore ‘ends up in the action of a nonhuman’, thereby the responsibility of that action lies with both human and nonhuman actants.
I once argued that 2001: A Space Odyssey was Latour’s favourite film. I think now though, it might well be Avatar…