Issue 10.3 | Summer 2012 / Guest edited by Jonathan Beller

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

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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. See Shaviro 2010; Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: U of California P, 2004). [Return to text]
  2. Alison Griffiths, Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View (New York: Columbia UP, 2008). [Return to text]
  3. IMAX corporate website. [Return to text]
  4. Jo Piazza, “Audiences Experience Avatar Blues,” CNN Entertainment, 11 Jan. 2010. [Return to text]
  5. Slavoj Žižek, “Return of the Natives,” New Statesman 4 Mar. 2010. [Return to text]
  6. 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]
  7. 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]
  8. Schilder 1978: 251. [Return to text]
  9. Alexander Weheliye, “‘Feenin:’ Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music,” Social Text 20.2 (2002): 27. [Return to text]
  10. Silverman 1995: 6. [Return to text]