Avatar, the Chthulucene and the problem of kinship

It is perhaps no surprise that James Cameron’s Avatar films—respectively the first and third highest grossing film of all time—fail to offer an imagination which exceeds the banal territories of capitalism. But, through their lip-service and surface-level ‘critique’ of it, the films show us precisely the way contemporary capitalism operates.

The principal target of this critique is extractive capitalism and its exploitation of the environment and of Indigenous cultures. This is symbolised in the first film by ‘unobtanium,’ the MacGuffin substance for which the humans justify the colonisation and ecological destruction of Pandora, and in the second by the miraculous life-extending brain-juice of the Tulkun. At the same time, the films reproduce Western-centric structures of kinship which tie race, sex, gender and class to reproduction, categories which, as Donna Haraway explains in A Cyborg Manifesto, have resulted in a ‘border war’ between ‘organism and machine,’ the stakes of which have ‘been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination’—i.e., capitalism.

For example, reproduction combined with these categories produces racialism, with bodily features seen as endogamic, allowing race to continue to be physically and genealogically signifiable and exploitable by capitalistic processes. In Staying with the Trouble, Haraway argues it has been contemporary feminism’s task to unravel the myth of these ‘necessary ties’ between race, sex, gender and class. No longer, for example, should feminism call to holisms such as an essentialist women’s experience, Haraway argues, but collectivist socialist feminist imaginations of kinship. In this perspective, the environmentalism and anti-capitalistic ‘message’ of the Avatar films is undercut by the way they posit patriarchal genealogical relations as superior and endogamic to alternative kinships.

So, how can two of the most commercially successful films in history also be seen to overtly attack capitalism? Perhaps by limiting their critique to an earlier version of it, in the same way contemporary racialist society happily criticises earlier forms of racism and slavery while ignoring the continuing processes which produce racism and an entrenched underclass.

In discussing a highly prized commodity form, the Avatar films refer to the outmoded Fordist model of capitalism. As Brian Massumi writes in The Principle of Unrest, capitalism ‘no longer just assembles its products from raw materials and fabricated components … Contemporary capitalism is increasingly concerned with setting in place the conditions for its products to emerge … as a by-product of circulation itself.’ In this sense, capitalism no longer solely produces objects, but also subjects. No longer do most high-end advertisements tell us a product, its cost and use, and where to buy it; rather, they try to sell something more immaterial: sex appeal, nostalgia, identity, the potential to change.

That capitalism can so easily subsume/exploit its own critiques, however superficial, is telling of its capacity and need for movement. As Massumi notes, capitalism ‘is a self-driving machine, operating more and more abstractly, with no one in particular at the steering wheel.’ As long as it continues producing a surplus value, if not through physical production, at least through subjectification, capitalism does not care what it promises you or what you have to say about it. Indeed, if movement is required for capitalistic processes to operate, then some resistance is, in a way, necessary for capitalism to exist; it needs change to offer, capacities to (borrowing a term from Deleuze and Guattari) reterritorialise. The masculine name-giving act of reproduction is intrinsic to erecting and stabilising the imaginary categories between human and non-human, self and other (such as, sex, gender, race and class), which capitalism exploits to produce surplus value through abstract emergence. Capitalism breeds heterogeneity through the exploitation of difference; for example, we can see how the term ‘diversity’ has so quickly been subsumed by capitalistic processes. More than this, if, following Massumi, capitalism’s inhuman tendencies and vectors of movement can no longer be controlled or contained, then these categories are the ‘zones of relative stability’ which States can have some say in.

Several times in Avatar: The Way of Water the line ‘Sullies stick together’ recurs. That Jake’s family takes his human surname as theirs, as well as the way alternative kinships (such as the Omatikaya) are subordinated to the paternalistic familial, signifies the way Cameron’s films fail in imagining alien kinships which differ from Western-centric patriarchal processes. The most egregious example of this, is the way Jake has his male children—Neteyam and Lo’ak—call him ‘sir.’ While this is questioned eventually within the film—‘This is not a squad, this is a family,’ Neytiri says—this same process of androcentrism entangled with reproduction and kinship is prominent throughout both films.

At first, in the sequel, Spider’s character seems an attempt to destabilise the category of race: a human, he is socialised with the Na’vi. But soon he becomes solely a plot-device to aid the returned antagonist, Quaritch. To explain this, the writers make Spider Quaritch’s abandoned son, tacking on artificial conflict between him and Neytiri and Jake; at one point in the climax of the film, Neytiri threatens to kill Spider to save her children. While much could also be said about how this falls into tropes of the ‘savage’ and ‘hysterical mother,’ it also confirms that within the film, genealogical relations reign supreme: the adopted Spider is cast aside in favour of Neytiri’s biological children. Blood relations, the film says, trump socialisation. Kinship is born, not made.

In Staying with the Trouble, Haraway revises her earlier claim that we are all posthuman to we are all humus: compost, worm-ridden, tentacular. To go with this, she proposes that we live not in the era of the Capitalocene or the Anthropocene, but the Chthulucene. Referring to the chthonic, rather than to HP Lovecraft’s monster, Haraway calls here for rich multispecies entanglement and assemblages, whereby the (masculine) human is no longer privileged and past/present/future can blur into a radical now.

By contrast, the two Avatars’ fetishist relationship with reproduction runs counter to its surface-level act of ecocriticism and anti-capitalism. At first the Na’vi seem to be Cameron’s attempt to answer Haraway’s question in Staying with the Trouble:

What are the effects of bioculturally, biotechnically, biopolitically, historically situated people (not Man) relative to, and combined with, the effects of other species assemblages and other biotic/abiotic forces?

But the cinematic imagination of the films is unable (or, indeed, reticent) to apprehend alternative (truly alien) ways of life which might privilege the communal and the biotic/abiotic instead of a kinship supposedly intrinsic to reproduction which is critical for capitalism’s autopoiesis.

This is evident from the first film. As Rosi Braidotti notes in The Posthuman, the intergalactic nature of Avatar, along with its human/non-human relations does not save it from banal conservative gender-roles and family-values. There is a normative heterosexual requirement for Jake to copulate with Neytiri before he is completely accepted as Na’vi, and their subsequent ‘marriage’ is deemed ‘necessary’ for Jake to fully join the Na’vi’s side against the humans’ colonisation.

Further, within the films, the connection with fauna and flora is diminished to a masculinist white saviour trope, where the ‘outsiders’—in the first movie, Jake, and in the second, his son Lo’ak—bond with the biggest, scariest animal that no local can currently ‘tame’. The collectivist notion of an array (or assemblage) of natureculture is diminished again by a Western-centric notion of heroic individualism. If we are, in any way, to resist capitalism, we must problematise this image of the rational, autonomous, agential self/human which in many ways is synonymous with male-dominant capitalism.

It is no accident that the Avatar films, with their heteronormative and paternalistic family values, male hegemony, and white saviour tropes are so successful.  The Avatar films sell subjectivities. Jake’s transformation from disabled human into superpowered superhuman echoes the promises of transformation which capitalism offers. In one way, the Avatar films are selling an easy anti-racism, anti-capitalism and ecocriticism; they epitomise the contemporary, white, heterosexual man, who outwardly critiques such systems without being willing to undermine the very processes through which they operate. This hypocrisy and reductive tokenism is exactly what makes the Avatar films such an aggravating viewing experience

To resist capitalism, we must reject the name-giving hereditary act of reproduction in favour of non- and more-than-human entanglements and kinships. We do not have to love others merely because they are our children. Nor do we have to love nonhumans merely because they are useful to us. By ‘love’ I mean ethical entanglements and multiplicities. We must aim to be grounded and accountable bodies in relation to other bodies and collectives and communities. The slogan Haraway proposes for this is: ‘Make Kin Not Babies!’ For these radical connections and kinships to flourish, resisting the increasingly amorphous and abstract boundaries of capitalism, which the Avatar films do not—or, indeed, strategically refuse to—understand, we must displace both our names and our bodies.

Daniel Ray

Daniel is a student at the Australian National University. His work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Westerly, Island Online, Cordite and Cicerone Journal's 2020 anthology, These Strange Outcrops.

More by Daniel Ray ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. A brilliant and apt dissection of the problems with Cameron’s work which, characteristically of the us on the left, misses the point of his mission in favor of an academic nit-picking.

    Not to speak for the great man – the greatest administrator since Napoleon – but I’ve always thought Cameron’s mission in these movies is to essentially, and please excuse the pun, “blue-pill” his audiences. He take the simple, yes white savior, narrative presented in sublime and overwhelmingly affecting cinematography to force his viewers to empathise with the environment (mostly non-problematically) and first nations people (admittedly problematic). It is undoubtly a critique of extractive capitalism and one of the few such examples in blockbusters. This is a mass-media example of leftist propaganda which has to engage in problematic tropes to blue-pill the masses.

    I so wish we leftists would stop looking for esoterically academic reasons to diminish such examples of effective propaganda that we should in fact agree with! Write an article about the elevation of the military-industrial complex in Top Gun instead.

  2. Thanks, love some Avatar chat! I’d push back a bit on some of the criticism here, as I don’t think the film celebrates the paternalism, familialism etc of Jake Sully and the Na’vi leaders, nor the biological essentialism shared by the Na’vi leaders and the old army guy. It seems more like these are the main problems all these characters have to overcome in the plot. Avatar 1 critiques the white saviour, he stuffs up badly (and from memory, Sigourney’s “scientific” version is also critiqued a bit?). He does “use” the beasts pretty centrally, that’s fair, though I reckon overall the films try to emphasise they are ends in themselves/beings together etc. In Avatar 2, the kids chafe against tradition, gender etc as much as the protagonists of any Disney/Pixar movie – but instead of the usual plea to just let loose the deterritorialising flows of capital (follow your personal dream at the expense of family/society/utopia), the film is more nuanced. Certainly way more love for the collective, trans-individual, ecological etc. (And Spider does end up part of the family?)
    This all makes me wonder if, speaking of Deleuze, we could say the films somewhat follow the historical types of socius per D&G (eg Anti-Oedipus chapter 3): the ‘primitive territorial machine’ (earth, kinship) vs the ‘civilised capitalist machine’ (deterritorialising, re-coding)? I agree that it’d be cool to see a film with some post-capitalist society but by definition neither side of the war are that. It seems like the main story is about moving towards it, including through the Haraway stuff.
    Thanks again for the article.

  3. When the director yells “Lights, camera, action” she/he is following a long Hollywood tradition.
    ‘Lights’, in this case the latest CGI special effects, ‘camera’, bankable attractive heroes and villains, and ‘action’, lots of violence for audiences assaulted by it since the first propaganda movies spewed out of Hollywood.
    That’s all there is to it. The rest is window dressing.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. The familiar Western culture relations dated back to the authoritarian fifties. Despite the women being warriors in their own right it’s Jake, the male, once- human, who is the leader. The male/female binary of superior/inferior, action/nurturing was solidly in place.

    It really felt like the movie was smuggling in and reinforcing oppressive gender and racial norms, while taking us on a magical visual ride.

    I found the film insulting.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.