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  • How the Other Is Not Allowed to Be: Elision and Condensation in Avatar
  • Steven Norton (bio)

Apparently innocent dreams turn out to be quite the reverse when we take the trouble to analyze them. They are, if I may say so, wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

While ‘Avatar’ Achieves a Postcolonial Statement in the most obvious imaginable brushstrokes, there persists in the film a latent narrative of the superiority and dominance of the Euro-American male; in Avatar the primitive exists within a master narrative of European psychology and mythology.1 Consequently, Avatar’s narrative of anti-imperial zeal is the manifest content which represses a latent narrative of mastery and possession of the (m)other. Specifically, the latent content of Avatar is the desire for the possession of an archaic feminine-primitive.2 As such, Avatar illustrates the totalizing schema of Freudian psychoanalysis. By using psychoanalysis to examine this narrative of mastery, we can invert that exegesis onto Freud to illuminate how he participates in the self-same schema.3 Because the film is the product of a cultural climate in which such a colonizing desire is socially and morally reprehensible, Avatar represses this latent narrative with a manifest content which fulfills an opposing and socially acceptable wish; indeed, it is the postcolonial critique of the repressed oedipal narrative. In other words, “in cases where the wish-fulfillment . . . has been disguised, there must have existed some inclination to put up a defense against the wish; and owing to this defense the wish was unable to express itself except in a distorted shape” (Freud, Interpretation 175). [End Page 131] This distortion manifests in the racial condensation of the colonizer and the repression of the colonial narrative in the film. Through the science fiction of the film’s plot, Jake Sully’s ego appropriates a native body, but this appropriation is consistently framed in the language of dreams, not in the language of science. The film, as a dream or creative fantasy, merges an Anglo-American identity with a primitive identity, fusing them into a single representative image. This condensation is characteristic not only of the repression of Jake’s whiteness but also of Avatar’s latent colonial narrative. The repressed narrative is that of an interaction between the colonizer and the colonized that reiterates a hierarchy in which the primitive other is not allowed to exist as an external, autonomous entity. The film thus engages in a dual elision: the elision of the primitive into the signifier of the Euro-American self, and the elision of the narrative of that very repression. It is this dynamic of dual repression that is the object of the present study; it is also the location of an epistemic violence that implicates Avatar in a tradition of colonial thought.4

As the agent of a neo-colonial power, Jake Sully is deployed to infiltrate and coerce the aboriginal Na’vi. His mission is to relocate these “blue monkeys” and thus allow the colonizers access to the mineral riches over which the natives reside. However, in the course of his infiltration, Jake falls in love with the native princess, adopts a primitive identity, and abandons his home culture for its idyllic, primitive replacement. The foremost incidence of the oedipal drama in Avatar is the conflict between Jake and his fatherly rival, the mercenary colonel fixated on the destruction of the primitives and the consummation of the colonial mission. Because Jake falls in love with the film’s primitive culture, Jake and the colonel engage in a struggle that is ferociously male; in the film’s finale, they battle to the death in a father-son swordfight. What makes their struggle so decidedly oedipal is the object of their mutual (and mutually exclusive) desire: the feminine-primitive. In the film’s opening, Jake, acting as the agent of the mercenary colonel, is charged with inhabiting the body of his avatar merely to procure for his sovereign the information which will allow his lord to control the feminine-primitive. The colonel refers to Jake as “son” in his requests for Jake’s service. As the plot unfolds, however, Jake becomes deeply...


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pp. 131-144
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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