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An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”

From: New Literary History
Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 2010
pp. 471-490 | 10.1353/nlh.2010.0022

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

For D.H.

A prologue in the form of an avatar

If i had an agent, i am sure he would advise me to sue James Cameron over his latest blockbuster since Avatar should really be called Pandora’s Hope!1 Yes, Pandora is the name of the mythical humanoid figure whose box holds all the ills of humanity, but it is also the name of the heavenly body that humans from planet Earth (all members of the typically American military-industrial complex) are exploiting to death without any worry for the fate of its local inhabitants, the Navis, and their ecosystem, a superorganism and goddess called Eywa. I am under the impression that this film is the first popular description of what happens when modernist humans meet Gaia. And it’s not pretty.

The Revenge of Gaia, to draw on the title of a book by James Lovelock, results in a terrifying replay of Dunkirk 1940 or Saigon 1973: a retreat and a defeat.2 This time, the Cowboys lose to the Indians: they have to flee from their frontier and withdraw back home abandoning all their riches behind them. In trying to pry open the mysterious planet Pandora in search of a mineral—known as unobtanium, no less!—the Earthlings, just as in the classical myth, let loose all the ills of humanity: not only do they ravage the planet, destroy the great tree of life, and kill the quasi-Amazonian Indians who had lived in edenic harmony with it, but they also become infected with their own macho ideology. Outward destruction breeds inward destruction. And again, as in the classical myth, hope is left at the bottom of Pandora’s box—I mean planet—because it lies deep in the forest, thoroughly hidden in the complex web of connections that the Navis nurture with their own Gaia, a biological and cultural network which only a small team of naturalists and anthropologists are beginning to explore.3 It is left to Jake, an outcast, a marine with neither legs nor academic credentials, to finally “get it,” yet at a price: the betrayal of his fellow mercenaries, a rather conventional love affair with a native, and a magnificent transmigration of his original crippled body into his avatar, thereby inverting the relationship between the original and the copy and giving a whole new dimension to what it means to “go native.”

I take this film to be the first Hollywood script about the modernist clash with nature that doesn’t take ultimate catastrophe and destruction for granted—as so many have before—but opts for a much more interesting outcome: a new search for hope on condition that what it means to have a body, a mind, and a world is completely redefined. The lesson of the film, in my reading of it, is that modernized and modernizing humans are not physically, psychologically, scientifically, and emotionally equipped to survive on their planet. As in Michel Tournier’s inverted story of Robinson Crusoe, Friday, or, The Other Island, they have to relearn from beginning to end what it is to live on their island—and just like Tournier’s fable, Crusoe ultimately decides to stay in the now civilized and civilizing jungle instead of going back home to what for him has become just another wilderness.4 But what fifty years ago in Tournier’s romance was a fully individual experience has become today in Cameron’s film a collective adventure: there is no sustainable life for Earth-bound species on their planet island.

Why write a manifesto?

It is in the dramatic atmosphere induced by Cameron’s opera that I want to write a draft of my manifesto. I know full well that, just like the time of avant-gardes or that of the Great Frontier, the time of manifestos has long passed. Actually, it is the time of time that has passed: this strange idea of a vast army moving forward, preceded by the most daring innovators and thinkers, followed by a mass of slower and heavier crowds, while the rearguard of the most archaic, the most primitive, the most reactionary people trails behind—just like the Navis, trying...



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