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  • From Capital to Karma:James Cameron's Avatar
  • Ken Hillis (bio)

James Cameron's Avatar (2009) participates in an underacknowledged yet widespread contemporary resuscitation of Neoplatonism. In the Timaeus (c. 360 BCE), Plato introduces the concept of the demiurge: "Therefore, we may consequently state that: this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence . . . a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related" (29-30). Pandora, the distant, color-saturated moon on which most of Avatar's action takes place, is precisely such a world. The Egyptian-Roman philosopher Plotinus (c. 204-270 CE), influenced by Plato, identifies the demiurge as the nous, the divine mind--a universal One containing neither division nor distinction. Unlike the orthodox Christian belief expressed in the concept of ex nihilo, that a deliberative and thoughtful God created the universe out of nothing, Plotinus understands the cosmos as emanating ex deo (out of God), and, therefore, that the unfolding of the cosmos is a consequence of the existence of the One and a confirmation of its absolute transcendence. Plotinus's concept of World Soul synthesizes these beliefs. While Avatar does not reference Neoplatonism directly, for Pandora's humanoid inhabitants, the Na'vi, all Pandoran life, their own included, is organized through the power of Eywa. Eywa is, as the film's narrative makes explicit, the indivisible "mother" who emanates from and is the crystallization of Pandora itself. She safeguards that world's "balance of life."

We might expect critics on the right to denounce the film's "soft-headed environmentalism" and identify Avatar as a product of "Hollywood's long history of anti-military sloganeering", as well as scorning the film as pagan, emblematic of a "Godless Hollywood" that "ignores, laughs at or disrespects religion" (Goldstein). Vatican Radio pronounced the film "a wink towards the pseudo-doctrines which have made ecology the religion of the millennium" (Squires). Patrick Goldstein suggests that "moviegoers are far more comfortable with a fuzzy, inspirational form of pantheism like 'Avatar' than they are with an openly biblical message" (Goldstein). While moviegoers cannot be so conveniently lumped together, the ideas depicted in the film that contribute to its "fuzzy . . . pantheism" help explain Avatar's enormous appeal.

Now, to write within the academy about any contemporary influence of the Neoplatonic beliefs expressed in the concept of World Soul outside of philosophy or religious studies is not a common undertaking. The concept's explicit metaphysical orientation, its inherent forms of magical thinking, are traditionally seen as largely opposing the foundations of empiricism, rationalism, dualism and materiality that inform Western academic thought. To examine Avatar as indicative of a wider popular resurgence of such metaphysical beliefs, however, does not mean that one must hold such beliefs.1 Nevertheless, Avatar's core politics are animated by its depiction of an idealized future society predicated on a carbon-based, biological network of networks operationalized through the metaphysical logic of World Soul. Avatar's future world, where the precepts of World Soul appear to have materialized through a fusion of a religious calling with those of networked sentience, appeals to contemporary U.S. society, which is both increasingly networked and professes a high degree of religious faith. Moreover, the film operates within a culture whose political economy is in part based on the technology that feeds into building the networked world that, in a virtuous circle, we are told as users we ought to desire. The fetishization of new digital technologies, and of the new more generally, plays a role here, yet in complementary or accretive fashion, so too do the immersive 3D techniques that Cameron applies to Hollywood filmmaking. 3D allows audiences greater experientially-induced identification with the onscreen spectacle, and the film's coupling of technological affectivity with its genre hybridity of fantasy and science fiction works synergistically to propose to audiences that the fantastical "magical empiricism" on offer might actually come to pass. In short, the affect of the visual technology itself helps validate the potential that the Neoplatonic ideals on display can be actualized.

Writing for Salon, Scott Mendelson calls the film "a staggering achievement in visual effects and 3D technology...

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