March 31, 2010

Avatar: A 21st century aspirational cosmology

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Infinition tagged , , , , at 3:01 pm by Jeremy

In most of the world, seeing Avatar in 3D is a recent phenomenon.  But in India, Avatar’s already been around in 3D for about three thousand years.  What I’m referring to, of course, is the original word “avatar”, which meant the manifestation of God in a material form that humans could see and hear.  In a famous scene from the Bhagavad Gita, prince Arjuna is leading his army, lined up and ready for battle, when he suddenly loses his nerve and asks his charioteer, Krishna, what to do.  But Krishna is no ordinary charioteer.  He is actually an avatar of Vishnu, come to earth to teach Arjuna the nature of the Supreme Being.

Mohini, female avatar of Vishnu... Note the resemblance to the Na’vi?

At first sight, this might seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with James Cameron’s megahit movie.  After all, we all know that an avatar in today’s parlance is just your online persona, how you choose to be seen in the virtual world.  But Cameron takes the technology notion and twists and bends it as far as it will go without breaking, pulling it into a metaphysical world which is strikingly similar to the cosmology of the Jains and Hindus of India.

Even that might not seem particularly noteworthy, until you consider the massive popularity that Avatar has commanded.  I suggest that, in addition to the beautiful 3D effects and the uplifting Pocahontas-style storyline, one of the subliminally powerful attractions of Avatar is that it appeals to an unresolved desire of our generation for the kind of mystical cosmology that’s been on offer in India for millennia.   Only in Avatar’s cosmology, the path to eternal salvation doesn’t require meditation or renunciation, just a plugging into the high tech, organic network of the planet Pandora.  It’s an aspirational cosmology of the 21st century.

Critic Daniel Mendelsohn has written an insightful article in The New York Review of Books where he sees the techno-organic abilities of the Na’vi – the native people of Pandora with “their organic connector cables, their ability to upload and download consciousness itself” – as the “ultimate expression” of James Cameron’s “career-long striving to make flesh mechanical.”  Mendelsohn sees in all this “something deeply unself-aware and disturbingly unresolved within Cameron himself.”  Now personally, I don’t care too much about James Cameron’s psyche.  But what I want to explore is whether Avatar’s phenomenal success is partially driven by something “disturbingly unresolved” in the psyche of our modern world.  Something that harkens back to the original meaning of that word avatar, to the roots of an ancient cosmology that lives on to this very day in the longings of our modern soul.

An increasing number of Americans are having mystical experiences.

How could this be?  We typically think of the United States as an overwhelmingly Christian nation.  But a recent Pew survey shows that, in addition to their traditional Christian faith, “significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs.”  For example, 24% of the public, and 22% of professed Christians, say they believe in reincarnation.  And three out of ten Americans have “felt in touch with someone who has already died.”   Half of those surveyed (49%) say they have had a religious or mystical experience, and about a quarter (26% of public, 23% of Christians) believe that spiritual energy exists in natural objects such as trees.

It’s this yearning for something beyond either pure science or traditional Christianity that I believe Avatar has tapped into.  It’s a cosmology ancient in its origins but updated by Cameron to the 21st century.  The key to understanding this phenomenon lies in the central metaphor of the world of Pandora, the flower pistil-like appendage sported by the native Na’vi that critic Caleb Crain has dubbed a “ponytail-USB port.” At the end of the movie, the flesh-and-blood human hero, Jake, permanently crippled in an accident back on the “home planet,” is plugged in to the all-pervading animist spirit of the planet, named Eywa, and his consciousness transferred to what was previously just his avatar.  Through the mystical powers of Pandora’s world-spirit, Jake has transcended his earthly incarnation.  As Crain amusingly described it:

on Cameron’s Pandora … the afterlife is more or less equivalent to cloud computing. Once you upload yourself, you don’t really have to worry about crashing your hard drive. Your soul is safe in Google Docs. In a climactic scene, rings of natives chant and sway, ecstatically connected, while the protagonists in the center plug into the glowing tree, and I muttered silently to myself, “The church of Facebook. You too can be reborn there.”

Crain is mocking the same cosmological commingling of themes that leads Mendelsohn to see something “disturbingly unresolved” in Cameron.  But in their critiques, I think they’re glossing over some fascinating cosmological implications of this central metaphor that achieves a fusion of technological motifs (Internet, electricity grid, data transfer) ecological themes (interconnectedness of nature) and spiritual aspiration (immortality).

In our western monotheistic tradition, the absolute duality of body and soul doesn’t permit the kind of metaphorical fusion that Cameron accomplishes in Avatar.  Souls are immaterial and eternal.  God is infinite and separate from the changing world.  We humans are a schizophrenic creation with both bodies and souls.  “With my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin,” said St. Paul in a foundational statement of Western dualism.[1]

In contrast, the same Indian tradition that gave us the word “avatar” offers a different take on hard-core body/soul Western dualism.  Hindu and Jain cosmology posits a soul or jiva that’s more like the electricity that runs through the grid.  Here’s how the great classical Indian scholar, Heinrich Zimmer, describes it:

Jainism regards the life-monad (jiva) as pervading the whole organism; the body constitutes, as it were, its garb; the life-monad is the body’s animating principle.  And the subtle substance of this life-monad is mingled with particles of karma, like water with milk, or like fire with iron in a red-hot, glowing iron ball.[2]

Unlike the abstract Christian soul (inherited from Platonic dualism), the Jain/Hindu jiva (which comes from the same Indo-European root as the Latin word vivus “alive”) is what makes dead matter come alive.  What’s more, this life-principle jiva pervades the whole cosmos:

According to Jaina cosmology, the universe is a living organism, made animate throughout by life-monads which circulate through its limbs and spheres; and this organism will never die.  We ourselves, furthermore – i.e., the life-monads contained within and constituting the very substance of the imperishable great body – are imperishable too…[3]

Now is this beginning to sound more and more like the world of Pandora?  For the Jains, Indian scholar Arthur Basham tells us, “every plant is the home of a soul or a colony of souls and, moreover, there are souls in rocks, water, and air.”[4] As the avatar Krishna tells Arjuna on the battlefield, “I pervade the entire universe in my unmanifested form.  All creatures find their existence in me, but I am not limited by them.  Behold my divine mystery!”[5]

Now, in the traditional world that sourced these ideas, it wasn’t too easy for a regular guy to gain access to this transcendent world.  “Every being dwells on the very brink of the infinite ocean of the force of life,” Zimmer tells us, but diving off that brink required a lifetime of devotion to the intense spiritual practices of traditional yoga.  The Katha Upanishad gives a sense of how difficult this journey could be:

The Self is not to be sought through the senses… This self cannot be attained by instruction, nor by intellectual power, nor even through much hearing… Not by speech, not by mind, not by sight can it be apprehended.  There the eye goes not, nor the mind; we know not, we understand not how one can teach this…

When the five senses, together with the mind, cease from their normal activities and the intellect itself does not stir, that, they say, is the highest state… This they consider to be Yoga, the steady control of the senses….[6]

Well, that doesn’t sound like a very appealing journey to our 21st century mindset, does it?  After all, for us moderns, instant convenience is the gold standard of value.  And that’s where Cameron swoops in to perform his technological wizardry, substituting arduous Yogic austerity and self-discipline with the wonders of the pistil-like USB port.  Wouldn’t that be so great, if technology could do for transcendence and immortality what it’s already done for calculations, picture-taking and music?

The thing is, there are people out there who really believe this notion of immortality through technology.  Futurist Raymond Kurzweil longs for the “singularity,” when artificial intelligence becomes smarter than the human variety.[7] Danielle Egan reports from a convention of so-called “transhumanists,” who “plan to bypass death” through technology, “eventually merging people with machines to make us immortal.”[8] Respected biologist Lynn Margulis, a leader in proposing the theory of endosymbiosis – which tells us that every cell in our bodies evolved from a fusion of different single-celled entities – speculates about a future “superhuman” organism:

individual humans should not be surprised if the aggregate of planetary humanity shows unexpected, emergent, seemingly purposeful behaviors.  If brainless bacteria merged into fused protists, which cloned and changed themselves over evolutionary time into civilization, what spectacle will emerge from human beings in global aggregation?[9]

But wait a minute… Let’s get back to that “disturbingly unresolved” issue that Mendelsohn mentioned.  This is our world we’re talking about now, not the world of Pandora.  A world that’s digging deeper for the last of the oil, that’s turning rainforests into palm plantations, that’s emptying the oceans of fish, that’s on an unsustainable, accelerating collision course with environmental disaster.  How can that be resolved with the notion of technology as spiritual salvation?

Plastic rulers bend… but they can also sometimes snap.

Remember those flexible plastic rulers we used back at high school?  Some of them were bendy enough that you could take one end and bring it round to touch the other end.  But occasionally, one would be made of a more brittle plastic, and if you tried that maneuver, the ruler would snap into two parts.  In a sense, Avatar offers us a vision of a world where the two poles of technological progress and spiritual transcendence bend around and meet each other, closing the circle.  But is our world flexible enough that this could in fact be achieved?  Or will the center snap while we’re putting all our energy into bending the ends together?  Avatar may offer an aspirational cosmology for the 21st century, but whether our world will actually get there without the center snapping may turn out to be the biggest question facing humanity in this century and beyond.  No wonder Avatar beat all the box office records.

[1] Romans 7:25.

[2] Zimmer, H. (1951/1989). Philosophies of India, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 227-9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Basham, A. L. (1989). The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism, New York: Oxford University Press, 127.

[5] Easwaran, E. ed. (1985). The Bhagavad Gita, E. Easwaran, translator, Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 132.

[6] Cited in: McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press, 190-192.

[7] Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near, New York: Penguin Books.

[8] Egan, D. (2007).  “Death Special: The Plan for Eternal Life”, New Scientist, 13 October 2007.

[9] Margulis, L., and Sagan, D. (1995/2000). What Is Life?, Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 235.