Issue 10.3 | Summer 2012 / Guest edited by Jonathan Beller

The Subject of the Phantasm: Affect, Immersion, and Difference in Avatar

Avatar film still

Film still from Avatar, directed by James Cameron, 2009.

There was once a painter who one day painted a landscape. It was a beautiful valley with wonderful trees and with a winding path leading away toward the mountains. The artist was so delighted with his picture that he felt an irresistible urge to walk along the path winding away towards the distant mountains. He entered the picture and followed the path towards the mountains and was never seen again by any man.
—Béla Balázs, Theory of Film[1]

Phantasms must be allowed to function at the limit of bodies; against bodies, because they stick to bodies and protrude from them, but also because they touch them, cut them, break them into sections, regionalize them, and multiply their surfaces; and equally, outside of bodies, because they function between bodies according to laws of proximity, torsion, and variable distance-laws of which they remain ignorant. Phantasms do not extend organisms into the imaginary; they topologize the materiality of the body. They should consequently be freed from the restrictions we impose upon them, freed from the dilemmas of truth and falsehood and of being and nonbeing (the essential difference between simulacrum and copy carried to its logical conclusion); they must be allowed to conduct their dance, to act out their mime, as “extrabeings.”
—Michel Foucault, “Theatrum Philosophicum”[2]


Digital-cinematic blockbusters from The Matrix to Inception have obsessively thematized their own conditions of production and reception, presenting multiple or nested worlds and then challenging their protagonists—and their spectators—to come to terms with these differently structured environments. James Cameron’s 2009 super-blockbuster, Avatar, is yet another entry in this growing catalog, but where in The Matrix, as in other early examples, an epistemological quest for the real is paramount, in Avatar, as in a number of other more contemporary films, the relative reality of the films’ worlds don’t matter: It is all a matter of learning to navigate them, of orienting oneself to an alien environment. Despite Avatar’s narrative claims that the protagonist is navigating between two worlds on the same plane of reality—one earthly and human, one extra-terrestrial—it is very clear that Avatar’s wonder world, Pandora, depicts and presents a hybrid of cinema, video game, and virtual reality. As James Tobias describes it in a brilliant reading of the film, Avatar thus maps a narrative of “going native” onto a narrative of going “digital native,” and a narrative of “conversion” onto one of “convergence.”[3] And Avatar’s 3-D and IMAX 3-D versions pump up the volume of this sensory convergence-conversion, demanding that the spectator undergo a kind of training in new forms of depth perception and stereoscopy that also parallel the training of its protagonist. Avatar, as the name already suggests, is a training film for navigating virtual environments, and one which, as I will investigate below, deploys a posthuman, interplanetary fantasy and the visceral thrills and chills of immersive audio-visuality in a particular kind of racing and gendering of media-affect. In the space of Cameron’s particular version of networked fantasy, raced and gendered bodies become abstract, commodified schemata available for consumption as digital affective experience, and in a very specific way—one that emerges from the affordances of immersive spectatorship and motion-capture performance.

In the broadest sense, what I’m interested in trying to understand and illuminate here is how new forms of digital media and culture are producing new kinds of experience, particularly affective forms of experience that are resistant to traditional modes of analysis and critique; and, further, how these new affect-formations intersect with race and gender. There are a number of sites to which we might turn for such an analysis. Here, however, I will focus on Avatar as an example of blockbuster action cinema as a media genre whose dependence on embodied experience and truly global (rather than merely transnational) popularity make it a potent site for such an investigation. And, of course, it is a genre in which the racing, classing, and gendering of experience has always played a central role in its narratives. Like horror films in their way and gross-out comedies and porn in theirs, the main attraction of these films are the sensations they are able to produce. They are thus the global avatars of the ascendance of an affect-driven culture that sells effects, sensation, experience, and states of feeling. In an essay that appeared in 1997, Simon During called this genre a “cinema of action-attractions.”[4] In this piece he analyzed the globally popular phenomena of the eighties and early nineties, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the most popular global star and when a combination of trained, muscular male bodies and special effects was the recipe for the success of this type of film. In During’s analysis, the trained male body as the last-instance, when-all-else-fails resource resonated with (male) subjects worldwide who, whatever they may have—or more likely, not have—could (at least imaginatively) participate in bodily training and its associated modes of specularity and spectacle. Thus, the global popularity explicitly hinged on a kind of “universal” hyper-masculinity combined with magical special effects. Today, while films in this older model continue to be produced, the genre as a whole has shifted. Digital technologies are used to produce novel forms of immersion and proprioceptive-kinesthetic experience, and fantasy franchises—Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean—dominate more conventional action flicks at the global box office, as what I call an “animatic mode of production” takes over the scene.

I call an “animatic mode of production” any scenario in which the objective is not the reproduction of a preexisting real world. The animatic is thus not necessarily linked to new media or the digital: ancient fairy tales and eighteenth-century puppet shows may be animatic. While I discuss the animatic mode of production elsewhere as the dominant cultural mode today, one whose social consequences are at least as potent as its aesthetic ones, here I am invoking the concept primarily to highlight where digital cinema takes up the metamorphic, fantastic, and inhuman potentials of animation. In animatic digital cinema, hybrid modes of production—including live-action capture, motion-capture performance, work with models, and digital animation—are often sutured into an apparently seamless world. While the worlds thus produced may be fantastic—peopled, for example, with races of dwarves, elves, and hobbits, as well as “men”—they are very often, as Stephen Prince has explained, perceptually real.[5] That is, even if we know that what we are seeing could not really have happened, it feels like it could have; the cues it provides in reference to time, space, motion, and gravity correspond closely enough to those of everyday experience for us to relate to the world as perceptually possible. While attention to individual works will lead us each time to different concepts and conclusions, I want to emphasize here, in a general description of this genre, the centrality of sensation and affect and the use of digital techniques to achieve novel forms of embodied experience, particularly as forms of immersion; the use of motion capture and digital animation to produce nonhuman or superhuman bodies (including “ordinary” human bodies with extraordinary powers); hybrid production techniques sutured into a seamless world; and the maintenance of perceptual realism even when scenarios are fantastic. Understanding the special features of these films will help us to work through, in much more specific terms, the kinds of challenges that the new forms of affect-driven digital forms present to analysis. My investigations will take me to two sites in particular: I will examine the operations of what I call the corporeal phantasm—that is, the psychic schemas of our bodies that orient us in space, that map the boundaries of the body optically, tactilely, and kinesthetically. I will also look at what I describe as digital phantasms, in this case focusing on the way that characters in digital cinema are built through motion capture and digital animation—the kinds of hybrid combinations of diagrammatic and iconic features that create the fantastic bodies of digital cinema. We can see, through the interplay between these two “phantasms,” how new forms of affective experience are articulated with images and senses of social difference.

Affect-Capitalism, Digital Cinema, and Social Difference

A decade ago, Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova articulated what has come to be a relatively common characterization of digital-image cultures, and particularly digital cinema: that “the cybernetic rewiring of vision in digital culture presents an intensification of the material qualities of the image.”[6] They ascribe a particular kind of action to digital images—and a particular desire: “In their different genres and modalities, digital images seem to have a common denominator: their desire is to take over the real, to involve and overwhelm us to the point where we will no longer be able to discriminate between referent and sign.”[7] Finally, they insist that “an engagement with the materiality of the image … should be part of a cybernetic feminism that is able to face up to the challenges of contemporary visual cultures.”[8]

Parisi and Terranova’s piece was one of a number of counterresponses around the turn of the millennium to a digital theory which had hitherto often conceived the digital in terms of flatness and disembodiment, as well as in relation to Jameson’s notion of a postmodern “waning of affect.”[9] In the subsequent decade, as affect theory has exploded across media and cultural studies, so has the sense that far from waning, affect has intensified, and that thus, far from being flat and disembodied, digital images are, as Parisi and Terranova assert, producing new forms of embodiment determined by corporeal immersion and overwhelming sensation.

In a field beset by multiple and often conflicted definitions of its central term, I should clarify the particular conception of affect that I am working with here. It is one which was initially developed by Gilles Deleuze, most centrally through his work on Spinoza, and which has subsequently been extended by Brian Massumi, Steven Shaviro, and Patricia Clough, among others.[10] What is at stake in this concept of affect is the subrepresentational, presubjective or asubjective dimensions of perception and feeling. Shaviro provides a concise definition of affect and its relationship to emotion:

affect is primary, non-conscious, asubjective or presubjective, asignifying, unqualified and intensive; while emotion is derivative, conscious, qualified and meaningful, a ‘content’ that can be attributed to an already-constituted subject. Emotion is affect captured by a subject, or tamed and reduced to the extent that it becomes commensurate with that subject. Subjects are overwhelmed and traversed by affect, but they have or possess their own emotions.[11]

Emotion is produced as a subject gathers and figures a set of perceptions and affects, naming them joy, pleasure, fear, irritation, etc., and thus inscribing them in subjectivity’s unfolding narrative. What is most important about affect for our purposes here is that it is always just beyond the control threshold of the subject—the subject is “traversed by,” but doesn’t “possess” affect. In fact, when we are speaking about affect, there are no subjects; there are only ongoing processes of subjectivization.

It is for this reason that Parisi and Terranova, while citing feminist film theory as an area in which the “relationship between bodies, images and reality” has been centrally engaged, also strongly critique it, in fact, assert that its methods “have now come to preclude a more productive engagement with digital aesthetics.”[12] They argue that its focus on representation and reality, identity and identification—that is, its concern with how images produce and/or mediate subjectivity and identities—assumes a subject or self that is precisely what is cast into question by the desubjective or asubjective processes of affect. An affective space is “post-linguistic” and “post-semiotic,” a field of forces, speeds, and slownesses in which we do not know what a body is—or what a body can do—in advance. It is precisely the field in which new bodies and new forces to affect and be affected are always in production.

It is important to locate the affective coordinates of digital images within a larger field of forces: At a moment “where capitalism is more about scouting and capturing or producing and multiplying potentials for doing and being than it is about selling things,” our vitality and affective capacities become the very substance of capital. Brian Massumi describes this as the “subsumption of life” under capitalism, arguing that, “it’s to the point that our life potentials are indistinguishable from capitalist forces of production.”[13] Thus, the affective qualities of digital images do not run counter to the mode of contemporary capitalism and consumer culture, but rather represent a special case within it, one which—in the move toward multiple sites of media convergence—is often found in combination with other forms, including video games, television, and experiments with virtual realities.

In the conclusion to their piece, Parisi and Terranova pose a series of questions, including: “What is a woman in an affective space as compared to an emotional space?” “How can the relative autonomy of digital images from regimes of representation and identification help us to understand the position of women within cybernetic control?”[14] While I want to echo here their call for a feminist theory that can help us engage the new coordinates of the spectacular regimes of affect capital, the form that these question take can only cause our common project to flounder. In my view at least, there are no affective spaces separate from emotional ones, and there are no “women” outside of “regimes of representation and identification.” Affects subtend and potentialize identities and realities—they in-form and exceed them—but they don’t exist in a wholly separate domain. It is the capture and codification of affect that produces emotion, and that both de- and re-forms subjectivities. If we want to understand what a man or woman is, or how each is in-formed, de-formed, and re-formed, we need to attend to the interplay between perception, sensation, affect, identification, and subjectivity. We are clearly not living in a postgender or postracial age. What is the case is that molar identities—of all kinds—are increasingly subject to molecular interventions, both quite literally and more figuratively speaking, and we are only now creating the concepts that can help us to address the molecular, affective modes of our contemporary culture.

What I will do here is examine a set of figures that can help us to think the space in between the presubjective, asubjective, or extrasubjective forces of affect and the developed representational concepts of the “subject:” of “man,” “woman,” “black,” and “white,” etc. I call these intermediate sites phantasms. My use of this term is neither coincident with its psychoanalytic referent, nor with its supernatural one (though it shares with ghosts, specters, and unconscious phantasy the status of mediating between spheres). I have, rather, adapted it from Deleuze’s discussion of the logic of sense and phantasmatic simulacra (as Deleuze in turn developed it from the corpus of the Scholastics, including Duns Scotus and Henry of Ghent). What I intend it to refer to here is any figure of mediation that operates between the domains of sensation and affect on one side and representation and understanding on the other.

Avatar Bodies

The film is set in the future, and its protagonist hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former marine, is on his way to the planet Pandora where he will take the place of his dead twin brother in a special project. The RDA company is on Pandora to mine a highly valuable mineral, unobtanium, and Jake is to join Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her team of scientists, who have been hired by RDA to find a way to get a tribe of Na’vi—a 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned, cat-like, humanoid species who live in harmony with the natural environment—to relocate from an area the company wants to mine. The Pandoran environment is poisonous to humans, and in order to learn about the Na’vi—and persuade them to move—the scientists assume avatars, bodies created with half-human and half-Na’vi DNA, which they pilot remotely through a mental link. Jake has neither the scientific training nor the sophisticated education in Na’vi language and culture that the other avatar drivers do, but to Grace’s dismay, he has been chosen for the project because his DNA matches the avatar that had been created for his dead twin. While Grace is unimpressed by Jake’s credentials, RDA’s corporate administrator on Pandora, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi)—who has also hired a mercenary military force in case Grace’s diplomatic solution should fail—is impressed.

It’s difficult not to see the film’s central technique as an allegory for the cinematic experience engendered by the film itself. In contrast to many other forms of contemporary convergent media culture, which are touted for their participatory features and their production of new categories of prosumers and produsers, this kind of immersive digital spectacle—no matter how exhilarating—depends on the classic physical immobility and passivity of the cinematic spectator. For Jake, as for the spectator, access to the sensational, visceral, corporeal experience of Pandora is dependent on acceding to a physical passivity. In order to drive their avatars, Jake and the others climb into coffin-like tubes where they must lie, completely immobilized, to make the mental link. So while the initial notion of the avatar may at first seem to conjure video games or online virtual environments like Second Life, in this case the human body does not actively manipulate its Na’vi counterpart, but rather must assume a position of absolute passivity in order to go on this interplanetary adventure. And insofar as Jake is a stand-in for the spectator here, the typical coordinates are intensified, even hyperbolized. In his real life, Jake’s body is broken, deprived of even normal capacities for mobility and movement, while as an avatar—and a Na’vi—he is taller, stronger, faster, and more able and agile than any human could be. Much of the film’s narrative focuses on Jake’s training as a Na’vi, which involves a combination of feats of leaping, flying, falling, and gliding—a kind of advanced, total-body course in hand-eye coordination. This physical training is accompanied by a tutorial in—or so we are supposed to believe—seeing the world through the eyes of the other, in this case the large, yellow, kitten-like eyes of an extra-terrestrial species. (The questions raised by this only apparently heteropathic identification, or other-identification, will become central to our analysis below.) The film thus entails a series of trials of physical mastery often involving extreme verticals and wild movements—leaping across branches of a forest canopy, or falling through them to reach the ground, riding a kind of extraterrestrial horse, and flying on the back of a prehistoric type of Pandoran bird while hunting other fantastic beasts—accompanied by lessons in the Na’vi’s pan-psychic nature-religion.

Jake’s training is paralleled by the spectator’s—the most obvious form this takes comes, of course, via the film’s stunning update of 3-D technologies. We wear 3-D glasses and negotiate novel forms of stereoscopy and depth perception. Where older 3-D films tended to achieve their most striking affects in projectiles—objects moving toward the spectators—Avatar uses its 3-D to create the experience of moving into and navigating through an ornately rendered deep-space cinema. The spectator enters the film through Jake’s point of view—a shot of flying through trees is accompanied by his voiceover talking about dreams of flying—and we are rarely separated from him throughout the 162 minutes of the film’s original theatrical run time, though the film tends most often to prefer the conventional over-the-shoulder shot to direct POV. The camera is also in some kind of movement much of the time. In a scene where Jake and Neytri embrace, the camera seems to float and pan around their kiss, even though it actually moves very little. There are sometimes broad, sometimes subtle mirroring links between the characters’ movements and the (virtual) camera’s. In the scenes where radical vertical spaces are traversed, the camera’s gaze emphasizes the vertiginous look down and the rollercoaster sensation of the ascent.

The film’s narrative follows Jake’s conversion experience. At first, although he works directly for Grace, he secretly reports to Col. Quartich, the head of RDA’s corporate army who has appealed both to his pride as a marine and to his aspirations: Jake has told us that while surgery to restore his spine and thus his normal mobility is possible, he can’t afford it on veteran benefits. Quartich promises him the surgery in trade for intel about the Na’vi. However, as Jake learns more and more about the Na’vi, their world, and their harmonious bond with nature, and as he forms a bond with his trainer and love interest, Neytiri, he switches sides. He leads the Na’vi in a fight against the white corporate exploiters and colonizers, and wins. Finally, he undergoes a native ceremony in which his human soul is transferred to his Na’vi body and he prepares to live on Pandora—as the Na’vi’s hero and leader—forever. At the end of the film, Jake gladly surrenders his broken, human body for his life as a tribal leader with a beautiful aboriginal princess by his side.

Like Dances With Wolves in one way and Pocahontas in another, the story of the white man who falls in love with a native princess and comes to lead her people to victory against a white oppressor is, unfortunately, a familiar one, but Avatar offers us the added feature of the avatar itself. That is, this narrative unfolds via a kind of vicarious immediacy, a living-through, which thematizes and enacts a particular kind of articulation of spectator, protagonist, spectacle, and world that blends cinema, video game, and virtual environment into a kind of idealized fantasy cosmos. We might compare this version of the avatar-spectator to the one presented in a Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor film from the same year, Gamer. If Avatar is a disturbing orchestration of affect in the guise of an environmentally correct liberalism, Gamer, as Steven Shaviro has demonstrated, is almost a kind of opposite, an exploitation flick that contains—in its very hyperbole—a powerful social critique.[15] A comparison of the two films shows Avatar’s seamless interface in juxtaposition to Gamer’s glitches and interference, and Avatar’s liberating vision of living through an avatar body to Gamer’s view of the same phenomenon as exploitative and cannibalizing. While there is one reference to potential glitches in the Avatar interface, we never actually encounter any. The avatar-bodies are specially designed to be used in this way, and they offer no resistance. Gamer emphasizes both the technical glitches in the avatar relationship, and the avatar-body’s resistance to being “played.” In Gamer, the avatars are real, live, flesh-and-blood people; some people are players and others are played, and class operates as one might imagine in such a scenario, with the haves as players, the convicts and the poor as avatars, and the rest as sex- and violence-thirsty spectators. Access to the networked spectacle is here explicitly thematized as moving through the affective labor of variously marginalized others, with life-and-death stakes.

What is particularly important for our analysis of Avatar here is the way that: (1) The film’s narrative involves the fusion of cinematic immersion, networked datasphere, and animistic world soul. In learning to navigate Pandora, one thus gets it all—a spiritual, neo-tribal belonging that entails an incorporation into a holistic energy network with the capacity for seamless links between human(oids), animals, and environment, and the uploading and downloading of data. (This particular blend of networked data, seamless interlinkings, and animistic world soul has, of course, been around at least since McLuhan.) (2) The spectator is aligned with the protagonist in an unusually direct fashion, as I will describe. Jake is our avatar, just as Jakesully is Jake’s. The film is thus as much about the spectator’s training regimen as it is about Jake’s. (3) In the space of Cameron’s particular version of this networked fantasy, raced and gendered bodies become abstract, commodified schemata available for consumption as digital affective experiences, in a very particular way—one that emerges from the new arrangements of immersive cinema and motion-capture performance.

The Corporeal Phantasm

Thinking about how affect functions at the spectator-screen nexus presents us with serious challenges. As I suggested above, in order to understand what happens between the domain of affect and the production and maintenance of social differences, we need to turn to intermediary figures that can help us develop an analytic for the subject [sic] at the interface. On the side of spectator, this intermediary figure is what I call the corporeal phantasm. I want to work through a set of issues Kaja Silverman develops in The Threshold of the Visible World in order to understand the nature of this phantasm—and how it is related to the development and maintenance of social differences. While Silverman does, at times, revert to older, more rigid notions of representation and identification, much of the work that she does here helps us to open the questions of classical feminist film theory to the concerns articulated around digital media’s affective powers. Silverman’s main interest in Threshold is in what might—or might not—allow us to identify with a variety of cultural positions of gender, race, and class. She argues that:

[W]hile most of us are, in fact, quite peripatetic when it comes to narrative and structural positionalities, we are considerably less tractable when confronted with the possibility of bodily reconfiguration, especially when it would involve an identificatory alignment with what is socially disprized. Generally, we either cling to our own corporeal coordinates, or aspire to assume ones which are more socially valorized.[16]

This is an interesting and important postulate in which we are thinking about relationships between affective experience and the production of social differences. According to Silverman, in the domain of narrative we are more flexible in our identifications, and in the domain of bodily experience we are less flexible. If identification means imagining myself in another position, it is easy for me to do; if it demands that I imagine myself as inhabiting another body, or directly as another body, it becomes more difficult.

Silverman explains that she came to this realization to a great extent through personal experience. She relates that she often walks through an area crowded with homeless people on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and this walk can throw her into a kind of state of panic. At first she interpreted her response in economic terms: She didn’t know how to calculate to whom, among so many needy people, she should give money. She then realized, however, that the panic stemmed from an entirely different cause. It was not terribly threatening to narratively imagine herself in the position of the homeless people, but when it came to projecting herself into an embodied reality—of calloused feet, filth, stench, where she would exactly not be herself but someone other—it engendered her panicked reaction.

What this anecdote draws our attention to—in terms of thinking about affect—is that social positions often related to gender, race, and class are associated with modes of embodiment, states of feeling, some of which are culturally valued, even idealized, and others disparaged and disprized. In other words, each of us relates certain states of feeling to a variety of related cultural imagos, and so, when we assume particular affects—let’s say, when we buy and engage certain affects as media and consumer experiences—they exist in an interplay with notions of social differences. Way below the level of conscious perception and emotion—affects and postures, as Marcel Mauss and Michel Foucault have taught us—are already gendered, raced, and classed. And various forms of marketing and digital filmmaking are increasingly focused on this microanalytics of sensation. These associations are arguably becoming more, rather than less programmed as our vitality and affective capacities become the very substance of capital. What is at stake in so many cultural products from clothing lines to Hollywood blockbusters is the exploitation and/or production of various kinds of links between micro-sensation and desirable subject positions. Affect always subtends and exceeds the subject—at the same time as it de- and re-forms it.

Silverman advances her analysis of embodiment, identification, and social difference through a comparison of Jacques Lacan’s famous version of the “mirror stage” to Henri Wallon’s somewhat different account of the same developmental stage. She writes:

In Lacan’s narrative, the mirror image is sufficient to induce an apprehension of “self” in the child. In Wallon’s, two components must be brought together in order for that to happen: the mirror image or “exteroceptive” ego, and the “proprioceptive” ego.[17]

In Lacan’s account, the child’s look in the mirror produces a kind of jubilant (mis)recognition, and this moment is sufficient to create a sense of self. The child’s bodily incoherence, his lack of control of his limbs and bodily boundaries at that point, is easily subsumed in the (mis)recognition of the coherent, unified image in the mirror. In Wallon’s account, however, the process is somewhat more complex. The child struggles to reconcile the image in the mirror with its proprioceptive sense of self by performing a variety of actions. Wallon’s young subject literally regards his mirror image in a number of different ways, experimenting with his perceptions over a period of time before he comes to accept it as his image. He reaches out to it with his hand; he licks it; he turns to it when his own name is called. The sense of unification thus does not happen all at once, and takes some adjustment on the side of sensation and proprioception. And, for Wallon, proprioception “is as central to the formation of the corporeal ego as is the visual imago.”[18]

Proprioception is powerfully linked both to the conception of our bodies as belonging to us, and to orientation. It is thus a figure that in itself is a kind of switch point between the asubjective, presubjective, or extrasubjective dimensions of affect and its at least partial capture in and as forms of subjective experience. The term, Silverman explains:

derives etymologically from proprius, which includes among its central meanings “personal,” “individual,” “characteristic,” and “belonging to”; and capere, which means “to grasp,” “to conceive,” and “to catch.” It thus signifies something like “the apprehension on the part of the subject of his or her ‘ownness.'” This notion must be distinguished from identity, which, at least in the case of the visually unimpaired subject, depends upon the image. Proprioceptivity can best be understood as that egoic component to which concepts like “here,” “there,” and “my” are keyed. It encompasses the muscular system “in its totality,” including those muscles which effect the “shifting of the body and its members in space.”[19]

The proprioceptive self is thus a different kind of entity than the identified one. The question that proprioception would seem to address involves the determination of the me and not-me. It also maps the spatial positioning of this own-ness, cueing us as to the location and movements of our bodies in space. It concerns not so much our images or ideas of self, but a sense of self. It exists between the exteroceptive sense that delivers information about the outside world and the interoceptive sense that delivers information about the internal body, such as pain. It provides us with a sense of our own extension in space and with a basis for orienting ourselves.

Silverman also uses the work of Paul Schilder to develop her own concept of what I am calling the corporeal phantasm. It’s worth looking at Schilder’s fascinating work directly, at least to draw out the features that can help us understand the corporeal phantasm. In his 1935 work, The Image and Appearance of the Human Body, Schilder, drawing on the work of the neurologist Sir Henry Head, formulates a theory of what he calls the body schema. The body schema, which we can see as a version of Freud’s “corporeal ego” or Wallon’s “proprioceptive ego,” is in constant transformation. According to Schilder, “it is not a structure but a structuralization.”[20] It is also synesthetic. “In the scheme of the body, optical, tactile and kinesthetic impulses can only be separated by artificial means,”[21] he writes. Perception is also inherently active and connected to powerful forms of mobility. “There are no perceptions without actions.”[22] The body schema is not generated by the individual in isolation: “The touches of others, the interest others take in the different parts of our body, would be of enormous importance in the developments of the body schema.”[23] The body schema is always intersubjective and intercorporeal, according to Schilder. We take in parts of others’ body schemata and project parts of our own. It is social and historical, potently connected to cultural and familial forms as well as psychic fantasy. One of the important characteristics of Schilder’s body schema is the manner in which it reworks notions of the cultural image repertoire—like Lacan’s “gaze” and “screen”—as modes of habitual, tactile practice. The body schema is always prosthetic, incorporating things of various kinds. In order to use any tool, we need to incorporate its size, weight, and motion into our “body schema.” Schilder quotes Head: “Anything which participates in the conscious movement of our bodies is added to the model of ourselves and becomes a part of these schemata: a woman’s power of localization may extend to the feather in her hat.”[24]

There are two final features of Schilder’s formulation that I will describe here, as they will be particularly useful when we return to the digital cinematic interface. First, he relates his concept of the body schema to media theory, via dance and gymnastics, in a manner that is highly instructive in thinking about the operations—and the particular allure—of action cinema. He writes of our pleasure in watching a contortionist as “based upon our wish to break through the borderlines of our own body,”[25] and of our constant experimentation with these contours. Finally, while he insists that he has “little to add to the classic description of identification,” that is, the Freudian one, it turns out that he in fact does. He offers us the term “appersonization” “in cases in which the individual does not want to play the role of the other person, but wants only to adopt a part of the emotions, experiences, and actions of the other person.” The appersonization may also be “an appersonization by body-image,” in which just a part of the body-image is taken.[26] This concept will become very useful in our analysis of character production and spectatorial solicitation in Avatar.

Before we return to Avatar, however, I want to turn to Silverman’s discussion of Frantz Fanon, as her consideration of the corporeal phantasm in relation to racialization here may help to illuminate the interplay between appersonization, habit, and racialization in Avatar:

The account Fanon offers in Black Skin, White Masks of what it means to be black within a society which unquestioningly privileges whiteness attests once more to the necessities of including the categories of the gaze and the screen when attempting to understand the bodily ego. Fanon obliges us to conceptualize … the psychic dilemma faced by the subject when obliged to identify with an image which provides neither idealization nor pleasure, and which is inimical to the formation of a ‘coherent’ identity.[27]

Lacan’s “gaze” and “screen” refer to the set of cultural imagos and the gaze of the other as these complicate and triangulate the mirror stage. For the (mis)recognition to function, even momentarily, it must be culturally ratified. It never operates on its own, apart from “that cluster of images through which he or she is culturally apprehended.”[28] As Silverman relates, when Fanon moved from Martinique, where he primarily identified as French, to Paris, where the white gaze forced him to identify as a Negro, with all of the negative terms that accompanied that identification in that time and place, he was in a kind of combat with his own bodily image, and felt himself to be in pieces: “It was no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person but in a triple person.” “What else could it be for me but an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage that spattered my whole body with black blood?”[29] If affective cues and cultural-image repertoires come together in proprioception and in the sensing of self in the corporeal phantasm, it is clear from Fanon’s account how disruptions at any place in this circuit can block coherent self-formation.

If the jubilation of the (mis)recognition that both Lacan and Wallon posit depends on an idealized gaze only available to the white, male subject, the disruptions work both ways. That is, as Fanon describes, the cultural images of the black man’s “hyperbolic virility” threaten to disturb the circuit of idealized recognition of the white, male subject. Fanon writes, “the Negro, because of his body, impedes the closing of the postural schema of the white man.”[30] As Silverman also contends, the image of woman’s castration or lack—she invokes these classic psychoanalytic terms—may likewise create a disturbance in the circuit of idealized white, male identification.

The IMAX Experience, Spectral Kinesis, and Ethnoracial Gestures

Wallon and Schilder’s formulations throw into relief how visually and intellectually biased Lacan’s mirror stage—and its various film-theoretical permutations—have in fact been. Of course, a number of film theorists, including Steven Shaviro and Vivian Sobchack, have long stressed the corporeal, visceral, and tactile dimensions of cinematic experience.[31] But with Avatar and the new digital blockbusters, as I began to describe above, we are dealing with new types and intensities of visceral experience—and with new permutations and mediatic adaptations of older ones. In her analysis of immersive spectatorship, Allison Griffiths explores the manner in which IMAX has repurposed and remediated rhetorics and dispositions of immersive audiovisuality that stretch from the Medieval cathedral to the nineteenth-century panorama.[32] And for Avatar, it is as if Cameron had catalogued the features of IMAX films—a kind of visceral armchair travel to exotic locales with an emphasis on climbing, flying, and conquering, which links IMAX visuality to a kind of imperial and colonial gaze, a deployment of gigantism and the spectacular Romantic sublime of extreme landscapes, an invocation of a kind of wonder, or of a reverent gaze—to use Griffiths’ term—and created a narrative designed to incorporate all of them. “IMAX,” says their corporate website, “takes you to never imagined frontiers of entertainment. We unlock new dimensions of wonder that awaken the senses, leaving you spellbound.”[33] But in case, perhaps put off by the film’s hackneyed script and plot, we are not pulled into its visceral ride, we are consistently instructed in how to “make the bond.” This “bond” is one of the central features of Na’vi life. The Na’vi have long ponytails which end in neural tentacles that can be plugged in to various animals and trees (and other Na’vi, as we learn in the eight minutes of extra footage added to the re-release). And, as if to underline the bond as a model for or our own prescribed spectatorship, when the bond is made, it registers in the creature’s eye, which we get, at just that moment and again and again, in close up. One of the biggest news stories generated by the film—after generally favorable reviews and reports of its stunning box-office success—involve PADS, or “post-Avatar depression syndrome”: After seeing the film and experiencing the visually glorious and sensationally ravishing ecological paradise of Pandora, with its marvelously imagined flora and fauna, spectators reported discontent with the drab, real world of limited human bodies and ecological degradation—with the former, I would suggest, providing the real site of discontent, and the latter providing it with a patina of liberal goodness and ecological correctness. In some cases, as Jo Piazza reports in “Audiences Experience Avatar Blues,” and as expressed by contributors to an online form for sufferers of PADS, it has even led to full-fledged depression with suicidal ideation.[34]

The fact that Avatar is about the pleasures of spectacular immersion and not the degradation of the environment is spectacularly clear. While Avatar has been grossing billions worldwide, a very similar conflict to the one depicted is in fact taking place in the state of Orissa in India: The sacred mountains of the Dongria Kondh people were sold to mining companies and these very poor, disenfranchised tribal people began an armed rebellion. According to Slavoj Žižek, “the film enables us to practise a typical ideological division: sympathising with the idealised aborigines while rejecting their actual struggle. The same people who enjoy the film and admire its aboriginal rebels would in all probability turn away in horror from the [rebels], dismissing them as murderous terrorists.”[35]

But there’s actually significantly more going here than this ideological displacement as I indicated above, and it plays out in the way that enthnoracial styles and gestures—as corporeal phantasms spectacularly materialized—become available for consumption. As Tobias details, the character design of the stars and that of the supporting actors are differently rendered. While all of the characters are produced through a combination of motion-capture performance and digital animation, the character-bodies of the stars—Sam Worthington; Sigourney Weaver; and Joel David More as avatar driver, Norm Spellman—look much more like the actors than the character-bodies of the supporting actors that play the Na’vi leads and, “for the record,” as Tobias notes, “Saldana is Dominican-Puerto Rican, Studi is Cherokee, Pounder is of Guyanese origin, and Alonso is African-American.” Saldana plays Neytiri; Pounder plays her mother, the spiritual leader of the tribe; Studi her father, the chief; and Alonso, her intended (at least before Jake shows up). Now, of course this makes some sense narratively. Jake Sully, Grace Augustine, and Norm’s avatars are produced through a mixture of their own DNA with Na’vi DNA, while all of the others characters are pure Na’vi. But it is nonetheless troubling that the labor of the white stars and the supporting actors, all people of color, is differentially visualized on screen—that is, that some of the actors’ labor is visualized very directly in terms of their individual appearance, and other actors somewhat less so. One particularly interesting feature of the character production in Avatar is that while the supporting characters features are not as directly mapped onto their characters, they are still impressionistically mapped.

So, what do we see—and feel—through these performances by actors who are less directly visible? In the process of performance capture, the actors perform with reflective dots that translate their movements into a “marker cloud,” a moving 3-D model. What we have of the actor’s performance is thus not an image but a moving diagram, what Scott Balcerzak calls a kind of “spectral kinesis.” According to Balcerzak, motion capture does not digitalize the human; rather, it humanizes the digital. That is, rather than explaining performance capture as human performance first and digital animation after, he sees it as ultimately “merely” an augmentation or humanization of what remains fundamentally a digital character. From my own perspective, it doesn’t seem important to decide or come down on a particular side of this debate; the combination of human and digital to which it draws our attention is rather itself the most interesting feature of the technique and the questions it raises. It is, however, instructive that in Balcerzak’s analysis, greater visual presence is associated with a greater, or more realized, humanity.[36] As with the stars, facial models and live-action reference footage were used to create the characters, but the matching was less precise. While their diagrammatic presence—their “spectral kinesis”—is similarly visualized, their iconic presence is differently visualized.[37] That is, it is produced with more animation and less reference footage, more rendering and less representation. In the terms of Balcerzak’s analysis, this makes their characters less human and more digital. While in the world of the film, as in Pandora’s eco-spiritual network, this seems to a good thing—being, or going digital-native allows seamless, glitchless info-download and communication-communion—but somehow this is not enough. It is ultimately the less digital, less animal, less animated, and thus more human Jake who is both the spectatorial avatar, our conduit to the action, and the hero of the story.

And in a film like Avatar, whose IMAX aesthetic prioritizes visceral response, the ethnoracial configuration of the spectral kinesis of performance capture has a particularly disturbing character. It makes ethnoracial gesture available for spectatorial consumption if not in the absence, then at least in the reduced visual presence of the labor of the individual actor. If it would be an exaggeration to say that some acting appears as bare life, in Agamben’s terms, we can nevertheless see played out here the kinesthetic spectacle of a kind of population racism where everyone has in common gestural, kinesthetic capture but the individualized visibility of qualified life is available to only certain white subjects, or is at least differentially distributed depending on the degree of iconic information that is added to the performance-capture diagrams. Of course, all of the actors are performing and what is “captured” is always this performance and never some racial essence in itself. It is the film’s own, let’s say, literalism, that opens up these issues of the actors’ racial identities.

This has a number of ramifications in terms of the issues introduced around the corporeal phantasm. First, both the production and reception of characters precedes less via identification in a classical psychoanalytic sense, and more via the “appersonization” of “cases in which the individual does not want to play the role of the other person, but wants only to adopt a part of the emotions, experiences, and actions of the other person.”[38] Particular features are chosen to allow partial identifications, while others are explicitly left out, as our conception of identification itself shifts from the realm of mirroring and mental representation conjured by Lacan’s mirror stage to the incorporation via habitual, tactile practice suggested by Wallon’s proprioceptive version. Looking at Avatar, we find a mediological version of Schilder’s “inter-corporeality,” where corporeal phantasm and digital phantasm exchange traits and gestures and more specifically, ethnoracial gesture is mobilized—and domesticated—through these partial captations and exchanges. Here, to return to Silverman’s problematic of idealization, certain idealized traits associated with the performance of race can be easily deployed when other, less idealizable traits—and historical contexts—can be easily left behind. Avatar clearly mobilizes features of a number of different ethnocultures—Native American, African, and Pacific Islander—to create the Na’vi as admirable, attractive, and compelling. This is part of a larger tendency in character design today, which in Tobias’ terms, now depends less on the “representation of a cohesive point of view or world views in terms of subjectivity and the gaze” and more on “registrational, configurable gestures.”

The film is thus able to make ethnoracial gestures available for spectacular consumption without running up against the challenges that Other bodies—in Fanon’s analysis, the black male body—may present to the white man’s “postural schema.” It provides the means for a kind of spectacular identification-consumption of partial, idealized traits, separated from any threatening or disturbing historical context. The spectator can experience this ethnogestural performance, incorporating it into his or her corporeal phantasm, without the intrusion of any threatening or troubling histories. The erasure of memory and history entailed in Avatar’s character design is colossal: All of its traits are culled from a gigantic, horizontal database—like the one imagined as Pandora’s energy network—and configured for maximum affective impact.

There is more to be said about the question of the human, which Balcerzak raises in relation to performance capture and that is implicitly raised by the new digital blockbuster’s animatic posthumanism or extrahumanism. After all, the Na’vi are blue extraterrestrials, not in fact Native Americans or Masai, and they are produced as database creatures made of collections of appealing traits. But it is undeniable that the film very purposively produces the posthuman, extraterrestrial future with the traits—what Tobias, following Barthes, calls the “grain,” and Balcerzak calls the “aura without body”—of ethnoracial gestures of performance. Even if the film did not itself disavow the superiority it apparently grants to its extraterrestrial, digital natives, thinking about the history of the fragmented, hemorrhaging subjectivity that Fanon described as a consequence of the denial of the proprio—the self-possession, even self-ownership that Silverman finds at the heart of the proprioceptive ego would still lead us to wonder whether the transition from coherent self to database animal could have the same connotations for all. As Alex Weheliye remarks in another context:

Because New World black subjects were denied access to humanity for so long, humanity refuses to signify any ontological primacy within Afro-diasporic discourses …. Current debates about the posthuman might do well to incorporate these ontological others into their theories in order to better situate and analyze the porous perimeters of the human.[39]

To turn now from what the film’s modality of visualization occludes to what it shows quite clearly; if the gradations of qualified life in its ethnoracial gestures are what are not visualized, then the narrative of gender relations is allowed to make the film’s mode of appropriation-consumption visible. First, that gender is disturbed in the human realm and corrected in the Pandoran fantasy is immediately explicit in the character design. Jake’s superfast, superpowerful, hypermasculine aboriginal body is the corrective to all that ails him in the broken, human world, and whereas the real-world Grace is presented as a chain-smoking, aggressive, difficult, professional woman in a white lab coat, the Na’vi Grace is lithe and smiling, with swinging arms and a swivel-hipped stride, in shorts and a tank top. Neytiri, for her part, is a serious badass for the whole first half of the film. When we first meet her she almost kills Jake before she is stopped by a sign from Eywa, the Na’vi deity. Then, unwillingly, and at the behest of her father, she becomes Jake’s tutor in Na’vi life, including the demanding feats of hunting, in which she is clearly his superior. For much of the movie, she is pictured as knowledgeable where he is ignorant, strong where he is weak, graceful where he is clumsy. That is, up until she and Jake “are mated for life.” Following this, Jake seems to have leeched Neytiri’s powers. She cries through much of the second half, in an almost total transformation of her character, while he becomes the most powerful figure of all. In the visual-kinesthetic dispositif of Avatar, configured around extreme verticals (and adapted, as I have noted, from an IMAX aesthetic that encodes a history of imperialist and colonial visuality), being higher is equivalent to being more powerful. In his final performance of heroism Jake will ride a giant flying creature, a feat only performed five times in the apparently biblical generations upon generations of the Omaticaya tribe of the Na’vi people, swooping in from above the people and their enemies to save the day. Jake’s “higher” power ultimately “allows” Neytiri to be a “proper” woman in his own terms, if not in those attributed to the Na’vi.

One of the central characteristics that Silverman describes as obtaining in the proprioceptive ego—particularly as its configured in Western, male subjectivity—is a drive to maintain what she calls a “self-same body.” This drive tends to make all identification incorporative, cannibalizing and annihilating the other. She calls this mode of identification (following Max Scheler) “idiopathic,” and suggests that in order for proprioceptive identification to have a positive effect, that is, for it to redeem particular bodies from cultural deidealization, it must take a different form. “It is crucial,” she writes, “that this identification conform to an externalizing rather than an internalizing logic: that we identify excorporatively rather than incorporatively, and, thereby, respect the otherness of the newly illuminated bodies.”[40] Identification must follow a “heteropathic” logic. It seems that Avatar ultimately maintains the imperialist hypermasculinity of the blockbuster but hides it—precisely by claiming that extreme idiopathic forms of identification are, in fact, heteropathic. Throughout the narrative of Avatar, we are told that Jake is learning to see as a Na’vi, with the deeply heteropathic bonding vision ascribed to them. (They greet each other with the phrase, “I see you,” which, in the Na’vi world, signifies precisely a kind of empathic-heteropathic communion, a mode of spiritual or extrasensory vision which attends its sensory exercise.) When we uncover the mechanics of the film, however, we find that it is doing precisely the opposite, consuming everything in its path, stripping it of history, context, and autonomy and repurposing it as spectacular fantasy.

For all this, as I have argued, neither can we characterize Avatar’s audiovisuality in terms of the “sadistic, classifying gaze” diagnosed by gaze theory. As Parisi and Terranova already recognized a decade ago, there is something new happening with the “cybernetic re-wiring of vision” and the immersive, disorientating regime of digital images. While features of the regime of representation, subjectivity, identification, and ideology connected to classical film, and classic film theory certainly persist—and we can see ample evidence of this afterlife in Avatar—a new formation is emerging in the age of affect-capital. In this new regime, appersonization structures both character design and spectatorial response, while affective exchanges at the digital interface, mediated in habitual, tactile practice, circulate in between the flickering, spectral lives of corporeal phantasms.

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  1. Belá Balázs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art (New York: Dover, 1970). [Return to text]
  2. Michel Foucault, “Theatrum Philosophicum,” Language, Counter Memory, Practice (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977). [Return to text]
  3. James Tobias, “Going Native with Pandora’s (Tool) Box: Spiritual and Technological Conversions in James Cameron’s Avatar,” Acting and Performance in Moving Image Culture: Bodies, Screens, and Renderings, eds. Deborah Levitt, Dieter Mersch, and Jeorg Sternagel (Berlin: Transcript Verlag, 2012). [Return to text]
  4. Simon During, “Popular Culture on a Global Scale,” Internationalizing Cultural Studies: An Anthology, eds. Ackbar Abbas and John Nguyet Erni. (Malden: Blackwell, 2005). [Return to text]
  5. Stephen Prince, “True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images and Film Theory,” The Film Cultures Reader, ed. Grame Turner (London: Routledge, 2002). [Return to text]
  6. Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, “A Matter of Affect: Digital Images and the Cybernetic Re-Wiring of Vision,” Parallax 7.4 (2001): 124. [Return to text]
  7. Parisi and Terranova 2001: 123. [Return to text]
  8. Parisi and Terranova 2001: 124. [Return to text]
  9. Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (New York: Verso, 1991). [Return to text]
  10. See Patricia Ticineto Clough, “Introduction,” The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, eds. Patricia Clough and Jean Halley (Durham: Duke UP, 2007); Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Constantin Boundas and John Stivale (New York: Columbia UP, 1990); Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke UP, 2002); Steven Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect(New York: Zero Books, 2010). [Return to text]
  11. Steven Shaviro, “Post-Cinematic Affect: On Grace Jones, Boarding Gate and Southland Tales,” Film-Philosophy 14.1 (2010): 3. [Return to text]
  12. Parisi and Terranova 2001: 123. [Return to text]
  13. Mary Zournazi, “An Interview with Brian Massumi,” International Festival n.d. [Return to text]
  14. Parisi and Terranova 2001: 125. [Return to text]
  15. Steven Shaviro, “Gamer,” Post-Cinematic Affect(New York: Zero Books, 2010). [Return to text]
  16. Silverman, Kaja, The Threshold of the Visible World (New York: Routledge, 1995) 2. [Return to text]
  17. Silverman 1995: 15. [Return to text]
  18. Henri Wallon, quoted in Silverman 1995: 16. [Return to text]
  19. Silverman 1995: 30-31. [Return to text]
  20. Paul Schilder, The Image and Appearance of the Human Body (New York: International UP, 1978) 174. [Return to text]
  21. Schilder 1978: 38. [Return to text]
  22. Schilder 1978: 15. [Return to text]
  23. Schilder 1978: 126. [Return to text]
  24. Schilder 1978: 11. [Return to text]
  25. Schilder 1978: 206. [Return to text]
  26. Schilder 1978: 251. [Return to text]
  27. Schilder 1978: 27. [Return to text]
  28. Schilder 1978: 18. [Return to text]
  29. Frantz Fanon, quoted in Silverman 1995: 29. [Return to text]
  30. Quoted in Silverman (30). [Return to text]
  31. See Shaviro 2010; Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: U of California P, 2004). [Return to text]
  32. Alison Griffiths, Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View (New York: Columbia UP, 2008). [Return to text]
  33. IMAX corporate website. [Return to text]
  34. Jo Piazza, “Audiences Experience Avatar Blues,” CNN Entertainment, 11 Jan. 2010. [Return to text]
  35. Slavoj Žižek, “Return of the Natives,” New Statesman 4 Mar. 2010. [Return to text]
  36. Scott Balcerzak, “Andy Serkis as Actor, Body, and Gorilla: Motion Capture and the Presence of Performance,” Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, vol. 1, eds. Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb (London: Wallflower Press, 2009). [Return to text]
  37. For a very interesting discussion of the diagrammatic and iconic features of digital characters, see Vivian Sobchack, “Final Fantasies: Computer Graphic Animation and the Disillusion of Life,” Animated Worlds, ed. Suzanne Buchan (London: John Libbey, 2006). [Return to text]
  38. Schilder 1978: 251. [Return to text]
  39. Alexander Weheliye, “‘Feenin:’ Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music,” Social Text 20.2 (2002): 27. [Return to text]
  40. Silverman 1995: 6. [Return to text]