Monday, February 1, 2010

Avatar Modern

Avatar has been criticized for revisiting a worn, and some say racist storyline - Dances with Wolves in space with Pocahontas all in blue. What Avatar brought to mind for me however was a much older story, one that was already ancient by 1492.

On the Palette of King Narmer and Victory Stele of Naram-sin we see the savage last moments of prehistory as Narmer clubs an unarmed naked man and as Naram-sin fearlessly speared naked unarmed men - with the support of ranks of identical uniformed soldiers - its good to be the king. These are not battles between equals, these are bullies lording their strength over clearly inferior opponents.

The encounter fictionalize in Avatar it is a variation of this moment. It is serial disaster that was acted out repeatedly and with very little variation all over the globe over the past 5000 years. One way or another the story haunts our entire species.

In his book Ghost Map Steven Johnson writes that “History books tend to orient themselves around nationalist stories: over throwing the king, electing the presidents, fighting the battles.” But, Johnson continues that, “the history book of recent Homo sapiens as a species should begin and end with one narrative line: We became city dwellers.”

European cave art gives evidence to 25,000 years of stable prehistoric cultural production. In all that time it never once occurred to those prehistoric artists to paint one man killing another man.

In his book The Third Chimpanzee Jared Diamond explains that "a gorilla or common chimp stands at least as good a chance of being murdered as does the average human."

It seems, at this late date, highly unlikely that humans are less violent then their primate cousins, and even more unlikely that Europeans are less violent then people from other parts of the world. So it seems reasonable to assume that prehistoric life was violent, but that the violence wasn't celebrated as a victory.

Human nature didn't change, no new lobe appeared inside the craniums of Egyptian and Peruvian city dwellers 5000 years ago. Instead it appears that if your willing to be a jerk of epic proportions it is not that hard to work out the culture technology of terrorizing groups of people from scratch. Once we start living together in dense enough settlements some violent screw figures out pretty quickly how to become King.

If you open an art history survey like Janson’s History of Art there will be a short chapter about prehistoric art. It will show cave paintings of wandering unranked figures, plump game animals, and thin little human hunters spilling out over cave walls without concern for depth or relation to ground. No hierarchy, no power.

These caves and the areas around them are littered with small hand-held wonders. Next to the precious stone cutting tools, simple bone hooks, and the needles carved from antler, archeologists find tiny fat ceramic and stone women with great hips, heavy breasts and carefully rendered vaginas.

These sexy figurines were never intended to sit on a shelf or a pedestal. Instead they were free to move from one adoring palm to the next. It is impossible to say what they were for, but I've always liked David Brin’s hypothesis from Kiln People:

“Oh, the goddess theory was quite fabulous and creative. Though there is a simpler explanation fro why these little figurines are found in so many Stone Age sites. Every human culture has devoted considerable creative effort to crafting exaggerated representations of the fertile female form… as erotic art. We can assume there were frustrated males in caveman days, as today. They must have ‘worshiped’ these little Venus figures in familiar ways.”

Whatever those guys were up to, all the evidence points to the fact that this was a good time to be alive. Skeletal remains show that prehistoric hunters were often as tall as a modern-day Americans, so they must have been very well fed. They enjoyed intact biomes and lived long healthy lives. Cameron is right to make the lives of his fictionalized hunter-gathers attractive.

Page forward in your Janson’s to the next chapter, and everything changes. Human nature is unaltered but the nature of power has gone through a phase transition, a change of state as radical as the difference between water and ice. In this chapter of art history the informal figures make their last appearance as free players. Here they are stabbed with spears, clubbed and their bodies are thrown off cliffs like trash.
The King meanwhile, will be raised above us on some sort of plinth or pedestal. He will be idealized. When he appears in art he's bigger than us, more beautiful and has cooler stuff. He has special weapons (and lots of them), extra decorations, and his dress and insignia are particular to him. He is a fierce martial being.

Key to any image of a king is an army - ranked solderiers moving together as a coordinated body. The Kings are cool and distant. They are idealized demi-gods, placed high above all others, in close proximity with God.
The victims of these bullies are our collectors of ceramic porn. They are vulgar and uniquely expressive in their pain as they are speared and bludgeoned. Their bodies are thrown over cliff sides while their women are shown wailing.
The coarse playful objects of small lives will never totally disappear (the informal figure reappears in Egyptian tombs slyly flushing ducks for a Royal Hunt, and in the shadow of the stern Roman patriciate little pornographic things will be still be passed around), but for the next 5000 years above them will be gigantic ranked orders grounded in domination.
The modern is as different from the premodern as the historic period is from the prehistoric. The grim truth is that modernity was born out of the Columbian Exchange. The disastrous encounter that devastated the Americas but enflamed the imaginations of Europeans.
The Eroticism of that moment is at least partly responsible for sparkingthe Enlightenment. The erotics of the chubby little Venus and the freeform world she belonged to had been totally forgotten in the old world. The democratic revolution that transformed the structure of Europe's dense city life could not have taken place without that charged glimpse of naked humanity (Na'vi/naive) Worlds without hierarchy and power inspired the first Utopias.
Avatar is an encounter between history and prehistory. A truly ambitious sequel would imagine how the encounter with The People once again transforms city life (in 3D).

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