Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Being a critic is a little like cleaning the toilet; it's not the house!" Donna Haraway on AVATAR

I am just back from seeing and hearing Donna Haraway at Revolution Books. The place was packed. (OK, so it wasn't packed for the Tinfish reading--I'll get that angst off my chest right away.) Haraway's talk was envigorating; like David Antin at his best, she speaks off the cuff in a way that you know she's laid out her road map ahead of time, moving forward and then circling back to say what she just did, and then taking off again. If I complained in my last post that my poetry class talked too much about Avatar, Haraway's talk was ON Avatar, so there was no escaping the subject. In this case, however, no poetry was involved. I wanted to ask her to explain her assertion early on in her talk that she was against metaphor and analogy, but admired story-telling. By the end, I thought that the problem with Avatar (which is also its virtue) is not that it's a bad story, but that it's incoherent poetry. Incoherence is not always a bad thing in a poem; Hart Crane's critics had something on The Bridge on that score, or at least parts of it (let's call it "Cape Hatteras" and leave it at that), but that poem remains a bone more worth picking than that of many coherent poems. What Crane called "the logic of metaphor" led often to what seems to us incoherent, but extremely rich.

Why I'm off on a Crane tangent I don't know; he had little to say about enormous blue native creatures or their invader/saviors, the people who figured out how to mimic them for a time. (Crane did inscribe a romanticized Indian narrative into The Bridge, however, so perhaps the digression isn't without its i-pod connector, as invented later by the later lesser poet, James Cameron.) Haraway's language is vivid. One of my favorite of her statements was "our partners are many and bumptious." Or, of Avatar's audience: "More people than e-coli on the planet saw the movie." Or, "all life depends on slime, and we become really sticky--love and rage make us sticky!"

Haraway feasts on connections; she began by riffing off how she knows Carolyn Hadfield of Revolution Books; why we should learn and teach the history of Haiti, including its ecological history; the two other women with whom she trains and shows dogs and how they tried to evade the Christian backdrop of their names, and the colonial pasts of their Australian shepherds, and so on. But the main point, always, was the way in which the particular makes us "worldly." We become more worldly, she said, as we inhabit contingency. "Here we are, who are we, and so what?" Accident and biographical detail form us.

Haraway clearly loved the film, but recognized its problems. What seemed to fascinate her the most is the many, often contradictory ways, audiences react to the film. These reactions were rife at the bookstore today: there was anger at the representation of natives; the film claimed to oppose commodification and yet !; there were the overly simple binaries; "the film is heterosexist, and so on. But there was awe at the film; a sense that the chicks were kick ass"; happiness that Fox had made a movie in which the Indians win. My colleague John Rieder put it well when he said that he was of two minds. One mind loved the visual creation; the other mind found an old colonial narrative at the heart of the film. As Haraway herself said later in the afternoon, "the film doesn't hold the contradictions, but this moment does." Her method, one of engagement, questioning, prodding, and then acknowledging complexity, was well suited for the moment. Having lived for a while in Hawai`i in the 1970s (her first job after earning her Ph.D. at Yale was at UH), she was aware that the moment is especially ripe here.

So, while I found the film a confused Pandora's box (allusion intended) of old stories and myths mixed together without a strong ethical basis except the ones we bring to it, and while I also found the film boring for long stretches, I would have happily paid Avatar's 3-D ticket price again to see Haraway dance through our discussion of it. She was entertaining in precisely the ways the film was not--she had ground to stand on, and her metaphors (should I call them archetypes?) were not as tired as many of those in Avatar.

One of the more difficult rhetorical moves Haraway made well was to take critiques of the film and suggest that there is also a "yes, but" element to what we do as an audience. Here is where the quote used as my title comes in. Yes, we can say that it is dangerous, harmful, for a white person to want to be a native, and yet is it not also good to love and desire being another? I was happy to hear this said by someone with enough intellectual substance to stand her ground. It is not a popular view, but it is one we need to consider. Now that the critiques are out there, let's synthesize, take elements of assertion and critique and make of them something different. A desire that does not appropriate; a metaphor that does not colonize (more on this, I'm sure, when my graduate class reads Derek Walcott's Omeros later in the semester). What I most appreciate about Haraway's critique of critique is that it refracts a message students need to hear. If you find a gap, fill it! If you care about literature that is not being published, publish it! This is a positive critique. The positive critique offers us the satisfaction of responding to an absence; it also offers us the joy of filling that absence in with products. Not commodities, products.

I wanted to ask about her distrust of metaphor and her love of story-telling in this context. What are stories but extended metaphors, especially in films as overtly allegorical as this one? Rather than sweep metaphors away, shouldn't we think about them, ask our audiences to do so? Weren't our problems with the story inherently problems with symbol, metaphor, with its poetry as much as its narrative? Could we not gain something by interrupting not only the narrative of Avatar, but also the narratives we use to talk about it? How can we interrupt them best but by interrupting narrative itself, honing in on the detail, or that which is most (or least) poetic, not driving the story where we know it must go. There is no great avant-garde Hollywood poem. For a reason.


Anonymous said...

Nice blog on the Avatar discussion with Donna Haraway. I didn't hear her say she was against metaphor and analogy per se, but I might have missed it. Speaking of metaphors, I think of the dialogue in Avatar as itself being like one of those cyborg killing machines in the film--very clunky, not entirely in control of itself or what it is deploying, no fine motor control.

I've been thinking recently about venues and formats for academic exchange. I really appreciated that she had a road map and found her set up fascinating. I wonder if she had given a paper on Avatar at the university would the exchange have been as wide-ranging and relatively open and generous? I hate to ask that because it sounds a little anti-intellectual, and actually I love good academic talk and the Q & A; at the same time, they are often not so satisfying. I wouldn't toss out the old formats, but this one was refreshing. I'd say more but I have a toilet bowl desperately in need of cleaning.

susan said...

Not anti-intellectual at all! Stephen Fredman at Notre Dame said once in my hearing that we should all TALK when we give talks; aside from later seeing him read a talk, I think he's very right. There's something more open about talking and inviting responses. I've been trying to do it more. But I need notes!

susan said...

Bianca Isaki
Thanks for the blog! I couldn't post either, so I'm writing here:

I'm provoked by your statement, "Yes, we can say that it is dangerous, harmful, for a white person to want to be a native, and yet is it not also good to love and desire being another? I was happy to hear this said by someone with enough intellectual substance to stand her ground. It is not a popular view, but it is one we need to consider."
It provokes me to think about the ways that love and desire are never totally opaque, particular not in narrative representations. B/c it seems that the harm comes from the particular pleasure produced by consuming a story in which that becoming-native is possible - sanctioned by an authoritative metaphysical connection to the Great Tree in this case - and thereby bypassing the critical and compromising work of relation that might actually bring us to a place of "loving and desiring being another". It is a case where pleasure is an obstacle - where the "but" of the "yes, but" circumvents the more important critique of the "yes" (i.e. yes, it is a colonial move to understand native identity as something verifiable outside of the historical and political structures of native community).
... Afficher davantage
Thanks for letting me continue to think out loud about this wonderful lecture!

susan said...

Bianca--thanks for writing; I appreciate your point of view, and would push what I said outside the particular context of this film, which I found a confusing mishmash, and which did do more "yes-sing" than "but-ting" on this subject.

norman fischer said...

hi susan,

we saw the movie the other day. yes the story was stupid, i thought. a vehicle for the special effects, which were good but a few chases and crashes too many (it was exactly like all the car crash movies where after everything gets blown up the hero and the villian finally meet in hand to hand combat and the hero wins - barely but definitively.) i actually feel asleep toward the end. still, there is of course something to be said for plain our visceral spectacle, which it was. 3-d makes me a little queasy though. i was most impressed by all the people listed at the end in all the various categories - huge number of people participated in making this thing. i wonder how all the americans love this film and don;t see it as an indictment of our escapades in vietnam, iraq, etc. how do the same people who cheer for iraq war also cheer for the hero in this movie? a powerful phenomenon worth noting.

susan said...

About your last two sentences, Susan: no, poetry doesn't seem generically suited to Hollywood. Poetry is about wordplay, but the moving picture is probably the most anti-playful genre there can be. There, imagination is always subordinate to the constraint and mechanical sequence of an opening and closing shutter. That rhythm is to poetry's biorhythm as Yeats's mechanical bird is to what's called the real thing.

But writers of prose have the freedom to think of their words as unliving things, mere grammatical elements of a story that finally has nothing to do with words. And if a writer of prose seizes that freedom, he may wind up with something like _The Day of the Locust_ -- which is, if not a great avant-garde Hollywood novel, at least a very good one.

Jonathan Morse