Avatar: Latour’s NEW favourite film

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…

Is ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Latour’s favourite film?

In reading Bruno Latour’s work over the years, one of the overt messages that comes through, and one of his lasting legacies, is the importance he gives to non-humans in society. The actant-networks that constitute the body politic are spun by the constant processes and actions of nonhumans, just as much as they are by nonhumans. Latour’s classic example (it’s when the penny dropped for me anyway) is of Bill Gates and his Microsoft empire. Latour argues that;

“Since Bill Gates is not physically larger than all his Microsoft employees, Microsoft itself, as a corporate body cannot be a large building were individuals reside. Instead there is a certain type of movement going through all of them, a few of which begin and end in Mr Gates’ office. It’s because an organisation is even less a society than the body politic that it’s made only of movements, which are woven by the constant circulation of documents, stories, accounts, goods and passions”.

(Latour, 2005: 179)

The ‘constant circulation’ of nonhuman actants have therefore as much agency in the formulation of perpetual structure as humans do. This sparks one of the major criticism of ANT as it seen as little more than technological determinism and that humans ultimately have dominance over their tools. This rather Kaczynskian view however misses the point. As Latour suggests that power is heterogenously disseminated through a rhizomatic actor-network, to say that one is dominant over the other is erroneous as it implies a linear power-relationship that is pre-existent. Agency, if defined as the ability to ‘thingify’, is just as much inherent in, say a laptop as it is in a human being. Ever since Man picked up a bone fragment to beat his prey to death, tools and nonhuman actants have been intertwined through the networks we generate.

Which leads nicely onto Kubrick’s seminal 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rest of this post will contain ‘spoilers’ for the film although if you have not seen the film or do not know what happens then I can only assume you are more akin to those in the opening scenes of the film rather than the latter ones. The monolith’s presence at the ‘Dawn of Man’ is symbolic of our use of tools, as Kubrick heavily infers with the ape smashing up the skeleton of his prey with a large femur bone. And the monolith on the moon is a representation of man’s next technological leap, that of space travel. The other monoliths (near Jupiter and in ‘the room’) are Kubrick’s attempt at suggesting that man needs further evolutionary leaps. Debates around the meaning of the monoliths are varied and some more rigorous than others (see this compelling argument – part 1 and part 2), however, if taking an ANT point of view, it would seem that they are indicators of man’s evolutionary ability in their use of tools.

The use of tools and their interdigitisation with humanity effects us all, so much so that the human/nonhuman divide is becoming increasingly indistinguishable. Future inventions blur the dichotomy even further (see this enlightening talk by Dr Kaku at the RSA). Therefore, in 2001, the beautiful and esoteric implications of the way human and nonhuman entities’ futures are intertwined to produce the ‘star child‘ can be, I would argue, an indirect inference to the nature and ethos of ANT. However, 2001 also tells us (or at least, one interpretation of it) that to achieve this state, man has to destroy his dependence on technology (the destruction of HAL) and embrace the frailty of the ‘container’ body. Hence, Kubrick brings the nonhuman aspect to a further ‘dimension’ by implying that the human body itself is nonhuman (to be dispensed with) and what is left can be reborn as the ‘star child’. This is perhaps an uncomfortable ethos for ANT, as it brings an inherently philosophical (and even spiritual) idiom to what is essentially an empirical rhetoric.

Therefore, in answer the question of the post’s title, I would say probably not. What could be however, is Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi. The film’s basic tenant is man’s increasing tendency to live life ‘out of balance’ with technology. The term Koyaanisqatsi is a word in the Hopi language meaning ‘crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living’. Again, this is perhaps a dystopic view of man’s continuing evolutionary journey with technology, but the film itself is quite haunting and it’s depiction of nonhuman’s agency is meritoriously accurate.

Nonhumans are integral to the way in which society is held together and so, ANT would argue, cannot be ignored when analysing how reality constructs itself. Any visualisations that can help to achieve this are welcome, and 2001 and Koyaanisqatsi are fine examples of this. Whether or not Latour himself agrees would be interesting, and there may be other examples which you could offer. However, if anyone suggests Antz, then your are neither big, nor clever…

Video lectures worth taking the time to watch….

Trawling the internet for videos worth watching is definitely a time-consuming exercise, yet I’ve found that over the course a year or so, I’ve manged to accumulate a host of bookmarked pages of videos that I felt I would want to watch again (for differing reasons I hasten to add). So if you have some spare time (which of course in these modern, complex and chaotic days we all have loads of), then take some of it to watch these.

Bruno Latour at the Tate Modern. ‘Nature, Space, Society‘. Recorded on the 19th April, 2005. Length: 2h33m.

Steven Pinker at the RSA. ‘The Stuff of Thought: Language as a window into human nature‘. Recorded June, 2008. Length: 1h10m – (inspired my previous blog post about ‘The futility of Words’)

Richard Florida at University of Califronia. ‘The Rise of the Creative Class‘. Recorded 2003 (sometime). Length 59m

David Harvey at Lund University. ‘The Rights to the City’ Part 1. Part 2. Recorded May 28th 2008. Length 1h01m

Hans Rosling. ‘Debunking Third World Myths‘. Recorded February 2006. Length 20m. (This one is worth watching for the statistical usage)

And finally…

Clay Shirky at the RSA ‘Here Comes Everybody: the power of organising without organistions‘. Recorded Feburary 2008. Length (22m – although you’ve probably all seen this one already).

If you have any that you want to share then please do, although no more from Florida please, he tends to repeat himself alot….