Published 15 March 202315 May 2023 · Film Avatar, the Chthulucene and the problem of kinship Daniel Ray 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. 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