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Avatar Ecopsych

Avatar Ecopsych

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Published by Renee Aron Lertzman

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Published by: Renee Aron Lertzman on Dec 17, 2011
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Desire, Longing and the Return to theGarden: Reflections on
Renee A. LertzmanPortland State University, Portland Center for Public Humanities Portland, Oregon
n the wake of 
hitting our theaters and rituals of Holly-wood accolades, ecological thinkers around the world are busy parsing out its various meanings, codes, symbols and implica-tions as a contemporary piece of environmental imagination.For the more radical environmentalists, it can be a surreal experienceto watch certain ‘‘tropes’’—common patterns, theme, or motifs—socentral to environmental ethics and philosophy presented not only in Hollywood-style Technicolor, but now in 3D, an immersive modeof movie-going. Like the characters, we can leave our bodies behindin the theater seats and enjoy a vicarious adventure in Pandora,and taste a life of symbiosis with nature—respect and reverence for natural ecological systems, and mourning the death of every singleliving creature—a mode of being so distant in our own industrial, Western lives.However, it is not enough to simply marvel at the first truly ‘‘green’’ film to hit the Oscars and popular media with such a vengeance. While we may exit the theater in a rosy glow (until weare hit with ‘‘Post-Avatar Ecological Depressive Disorder’’ (Croken,2010) feeling perhaps finally vindicated to see radical greenthinking on the multiplex screen, there is a serious opportunity for further analysis and investigation into our own practices andunconscious fantasies. Specifically, what we can witness in thefilm, its impacts, and its aftermath, are ways in which green fan-tasy lends itself to a splitting up of the world—and arguably our psyche—in our desire to return to a more innocent, primitive,and sensual mode of existence. From a psychoanalytic, object-relations perspective,
(and quite possibly much of ecolog-ical thinking) contains the seeds of splitting: How we split theworld into good-bad / self-other, and idealize both other culturesand previous times.Therefore,whatmakes
socompellingformillionsofpeopleis not
its technological prowess and dazzling imagery, glowingcreatures, and transporting beauty, but the way both viewer andcharacters (via Jake Sully) find themselves suddenly being shuttledbetween two entirely different worlds. The affective dimensions of thisfilm that Jake manifestsas heispulled between the two modes of Earthly and Na’’vi existence can be complicated, contradictory,paradoxical, andprofound—attributes of experiencing contemporary industrial degradation and our own complicity in it. The parable in
is as much about the experience of splitting as a centralfeature of contemporary, Western environmental subjectivity—whatan environmental awareness feels like. In this filmwe can experiencein a safe and culturally sanctioned context the deepest longings wehave for the return to the Mother (embodied in the film by the all-knowing ‘‘Tree of Voices,’’ the Na’’vi, and Pandora). No wonder wefind it so powerful and yet so wrenching to return to the streets andbuildings, to our own fragile and broken lives. Although humans have such profound capacities for splitting upour external and internal worlds, the movement between two worldsis often deeply painful, confusing, anddisorienting. Anyone who hasspent ten days on the Playa at Burning Man, or lived in a differentculture for an extended time, or spent even more than a few daysbackpacking in wilderness has tasted this. And no one knows thisexperience of being pulled between worlds more than environmen-talists. PhilosopherNeil Everndenonce referred totheenvironmentalactivist as the ‘‘natural alien,’’ an alien in his or her own culture and
DOI: 10.1089/eco.2010.0037
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society, feeling the pain of nature’s destruction while most carry onas usual. We see this aspect of environmental subjectivity in AldoLeopold’’sfamousquotethatthepriceofanenvironmentaleducationis to ‘‘live alone in a world of wounds.’’ The more we know, the morewe are pulled between worlds—social worlds, biotic worlds, psychicworlds—forced to shuttle, like Jake Sully, to and from a reality we areboundto(theoneofcars,toxicwaste,carbonemissions,andsoforth)and one we aspire to help make real (biotically whole, harmonious,and synergistic).ThesplittingweseeinJake’’scharacterashebecomesincreasingly involved with the world of Pandora is one that most environmentaladvocates can relate to: The parallel lives we lead, with our desires toprotect and conserve natural systems, while most of us are forced todrive,fly,andengageinmyriadpractices weknow tobeinsomeway part of the damaging system.Of course, it is not so black and white; those of us who love natureand want to protect it, may also be quite attached to our long-haulflights to New Zealand, our leather hiking boots, and various ‘‘guilty pleasures’’ found at the supermarket. The point is that such attemptsto split the world into black and white are inevitably bound to fail. Where
may reify vividly the sort of splitting that makes sensein our cultural and psychic histories (one need only recall the Gardenand the Fall, and longings to return to Arcadia), it also can be di-sastrous emotionally and politically. With the splitting comes long-ing;andwiththelongingforanunobtainableUtopia(yes,Cameron’’s‘‘UnObtainium’’ on Pandora), comes a form of melancholia that canonly lead to a form of paralysis (or death, as Jake who effectively leaves his imperfect and frail body behind). As with TimothTreadwell, who left to live in harmony with Grizzly Bears, only tomeet his death with one (‘‘Grizzly Man’’) or Christopher McCandless(‘‘IntotheWild’’)whosought tomergewith wildnatureinAlaskaandmet his own end, the risks of idealizing nature come with great risks. We don’t see these risks in
. Rather, when Jake becomes‘‘native,’’ we can’t help but feel euphoric on his behalf.It is not only the minerals on Pandora that are ‘UnObtainium’’ butthe idealized image of nature before the Fall itself: the fantasy of returning to the Garden that continues to plague most of us with any form of environmental consciousness. One need not be an environ-mentalist in any shape or form to have known a deep longing for areturn to something simpler, more pure, and innocent. Yes, soundsa lot like childhood. But where psychic maturity happens is precisely in our ability to mourn the losses of our childhood fantasies, andidealisms but to not fall into a stasis of melancholia, either. As Du Toit (2010) has astutely noted in his essay, ‘‘Leaving the World: Avatar,’’ the film visually splits the world into two realms:The technological world of the Corporation, all steel andbulkheads, shot in grim, greyed-out colours, and the magicalworld of the jungle, which is presented as a fairyland. . . Inentering the world of the jungle, Jake Sully enters the realm of Faerie–not another physical realm but another world entirely.This is particularly obvious in the sequences where Jake firstarrives at Home Tree, the natives’’ city-in-the-branches. But-terflies all round, glowing mushrooms, silver leaves, gargan-tuan trees with buttresses spiralling into the light: this is notPandora, this is Lothlo´rien; and the aliens are not humanoidsfrom another planet, they are Tolkien’’s Elves, imbued with allthe powers and qualities proper to them.On one level, the mass success of 
is a remarkable event indisseminating environmental imagery and values to a mass audienceof eager moviegoers. On the screen at the multiplex are representa-tions of the very ethos that has mobilized environmental work for decades. As we witness Jake going through the agony of being splitbetween two worlds, we can notice a reflection of our own strugglesover the years; what it is like to have an ecological consciousnessamong the machines.
So, what is the message in the parable of 
While the filmpurports to be pro-environmental—‘‘Enter the World,’’ the taglinesays—the psychic message delivered by the story is about leaving theworld. Our bodies and our planet are too broken. It is now aboutconstructing virtual worlds through which to extend our fantasies of a place prior to the rift. Don the glasses and leave our world of plasticcups and sticky soda, and drift among the trees and exotic specieslikely to be endangered on our own planet. Rather than an Avatar body you only need 3D glasses. However, unlike Jake, we can makethe choice to stay put, to dig in, and to find expressions of Pandoraright here growing up in the cracks in the sidewalk.
InthinkingaboutJake’sdilemmaandourown,wearewellservedin remembering Melanie Klein’s groundbreaking work concerningthe paranoid-schizoid and the depressive positions (c.f. Klein, 1937).For Klein, the real task of adulthood is the capacity to mourn thelosses of childhood innocence, and to move forward into a moreintegrative psychic capacity to both hold and contain complexity andmultiplicity: thedepressive position. Incontrast, the paranoid-schizoidposition is marked by manic defenses to ward off overwhelming anx-ieties, and leads to the splitting up of ourselves, others, and the worldinto fragments. In other words, the task of becoming a mature adult isto tolerate knowledge of the caregiver’s own human frailty and our 
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own,andtocontinuelivingintheworldwithlove,attachment,passionand capacities for reparation. Winnicott referred to this in terms of the‘‘capacities for concern’’ as a vital stage of maturity.
Croker, R. (2010, January 28). No garden to get back to: understanding post-
ecological depressive disorder. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from
website: http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/mediaculture/2226/no_garden_to_get_back_to:_understanding_post-avatar_ecological_depressive_disorder__Du Toit, A. (2010, January 10). Leaving the world: Avatar. Retrieved March 15, 2010,from
A Subtle Knife 
website: http://asubtleknife.wordpress.com/2010/01/10/leaving-the-world-avatar/Klein, M. (1937).
Love, guilt and reparation
. In Klein, M. and Riviere, J. (Eds.)
Love,hate and reparation
(pp. 57–119). New York: Norton, 1967.
 Address correspondence to:
Renee A. LertzmanPortland State University Box 751Portland, OR 97207 E-mail:
lertzman@pdx.eduReceived: April 2, 2010 Accepted: April 2, 2010
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