Don’t play with that, or you’ll go blind

James Cameron’s 3-D movie Avatar gave me a four-hour headache. Probably the headache was caused by a combination of the 3-D effect, a seat near the front and at the far edge of the theater, the way the 3-D glasses skewed my plain old glasses beneath, and the dark in which I biked home afterward, my bike light having been stolen while I was in the theater. But I can’t help but also attribute the headache to the movie’s moral corruptness.

It’s a finished corruptness. The easiest way I can think of to describe it is by comparison with The Matrix, a movie which is merely disingenuous, and to some extent struggling with its disingenuousness. The moral lesson that The Matrix purports to offer is that the glossy magic of life inside a simulation distracts from painful truth. But the moral problem faced by the Matrix is that this lesson is betrayed by the fun that the movie has in playing inside the simulation. A viewer enjoys the scenes of jumping over buildings, and of freezing explosions and fistfights in midair and then rotoscoping through them. In fact, the viewer enjoys them much more than the scenes of what, within the conceit of the movie, is considered reality. There may be a brief yucky thrill to learning that in reality people are grown in pods so their energy can be harvested by robots, but as a matter of aesthetics, reality in The Matrix turns out to be drab and constricted by gravity and other laws of physics. The closing sequence, where Neo (Keanu Reeves) plugs back in to the matrix and runs a sort of special-effects victory lap, makes no sense, in terms of the moral victory he is supposed to have won. If he has really joined the blue-pill team, he ought to be sitting down to another bowl of bacterial gruel with his ragged, unshowered friends, and recommitting himself to the struggle. Instead he’s leaping around in a Prada suit. So the viewer departs from the movie with a slightly queasy feeling, a suspicion that visual pleasures aren’t to be trusted. That queasiness is the trace of the movie’s attenuated honesty.

And such queasiness and honesty are completely absent from Avatar. Some might protest: But what about Avatar’s anti-imperialism and anti-corporate attitudinizing? They’re red herrings, in my opinion, planted by Cameron with the cynical intention of distracting the viewer from the movie’s more serious ideological work: convincing you to love your simulation—convincing you to surrender your queasiness. The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own. The compromised, damaged world we live in—the one with wars, wounds, and price-benefit calculations—can and should be abandoned. All you need is a big heart, like Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the movie’s war-veteran hero, and the luck of being given a chance to fall in love.

In Cameron’s movie, Sully joins a corporate mission to extract a valuable mineral from a distant planet, Pandora, whose ten-foot-tall blue-skinned aborigines, who call themselves the Na’vi, are uninterested in cooperating with their planet’s exploitation. In order to talk to the Na’vi, and win their hearts and minds, corporation-funded scientists have grown adult-size hybrid human-Na’vi bodies, which humans can remotely operate by lying down inside a pod—a coffin-shaped pod, not unlike the pod where Neo wakes up to discover he’s been soaking his whole life in soup. But whereas Neo jacks into a simulation, Sully jacks into to a new, improved nature, and Cameron musters the mythologies of Henry D. Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and James Lovelace in order to convince. Or anyway the mythologies of The Lorax and The Lion King. The Na’vi respect the balance of nature. They commune with a deist-ecological world-spirit.

Or so the movie would have you believe. Of course you don’t really believe it. You know objectively that you’re watching a series of highly skilled, highly labor-intensive computer simulations. But if you agree to suspend disbelief, then you agree to try to feel that Pandora is a second, improved nature, and that the Na’vi are “digital natives,” to repurpose in a literal way a phrase that depends on the same piece of ideological deception. For on Pandora, all the creatures have been equipped by a benevolent nature with USB ports in their ponytails. When Sully, inhabiting his Na’vi body, first discovers his, the curmudgeonly lead scientist played by Sigourney Weaver snaps at him, “Don’t play with that, you’ll go blind.” This is a little startling. The organ in question looks sort of like flower pistils wriggling out of the hairy end of a tail. But we gradually learn that it isn’t his reproductive organ, which for better or worse we never see. It’s for making “the bond” with various other species on Pandora. In order to ride a horse-like creature, for instance, Sully is instructed to first connect his ponytail-USB port to the horse’s. Same with various species of flying dragon. And if you want to connect to the Na’vi ancestors, you plug your ponytail into the willow-tree-esque tendrils of the Tree of Life. In other words, on Cameron’s Pandora, the animals cavort with one another much like the peripherals on his desk, plugging and playing at will, and the afterlife is more or less equivalent to cloud computing. Once you upload yourself, you don’t really have to worry about crashing your hard drive. Your soul is safe in Google Docs. In a climactic scene, rings of natives chant and sway, ecstatically connected, while the protagonists in the center plug into the glowing tree, and I muttered silently to myself, The church of Facebook. You too can be reborn there.

Why does the digital nativity bother me so much? I think the answer has something to do with the smug anti-corporate plot. In reality—in the reality outside the movie—the Na’vi, too, are a product of corporate America and are creatures of technology, not nature. Now there’s nothing wrong with technology per se, and there’s nothing wrong with fantasy, either. But Avatar claims that there is something wrong with technology, and that the Na’vi of Pandora somehow represent opposition to it. That’s rank mystification, and one has to wonder about motive. I think there are aspects of being human that a movie like Avatar wants to collude with its viewers in denying—aspects of need and of unfixable brokenness. There are traces of this denial in the movie. We never see the Na’vi eating, for instance, except when the transcarnated Sully briefly samples a significantly pomegranate-like fruit. Yet they have high, sharp canines. Vampire-like canines. Indeed, Sully turns into a Na’vi after he lies down in his coffin-pod. Once he takes to his avatar, even his human body has to be coaxed to eat. Like a vampire’s, Sully’s cycles of waking and sleeping become deeply confused. In the unconscious of the movie, I would submit, all the Na’vi are avatars. That is, they are all digital representations of humans, lying elsewhere in coffin pods. And they are all vampires. They have preternatural force and speed, wake when others sleep, and feed on the life-force of mere humans—the humans lying in the pods, as a matter of fact. This, I think, is the strange lure of the movie: Wouldn’t you like to be the vampire of yourself? Wouldn’t you like to live in an alternate reality, at the cost of consuming yourself? Vampires have a culture, a community, feelings. They don’t have bodies, but they have superbodies. The only glitch is this residue offstage, rotting and half-buried, that you won’t ever be able separate from altogether—until, at last, you can.

Buck-E

Jimmy Carter, Dedication of White House solar panels, June 1979

My essay-review “Good at Being Gods,” about Buckminster Fuller and the alternative energy movement of the 1970s, is published in the 18 December 2008 issue of the London Review of Books. It begins thus:

In the recent Pixar movie Wall-E there is a conflict between two different visions of technology. From one angle, technology appears to be humanity’s overlord: the movie imagines that in the future a megacorporation called Buy N Large will so exhaust and pollute the planet that it will have to whisk its customers away on a luxury outer-space cruise ship for their own protection. From another angle, technology appears to be the only thing capable of saving humanity’s soul. Wall-E, a scrappy, pint-sized robot left behind to tidy up Earth, scavenges for mementos of human culture, finds evidence of resurgent plant life and falls in love. The two visions are inconsistent but inextricable: Wall-E is himself a Buy N Large product.

A similar ambivalence colours the reputation of the 20th-century designer Buckminster Fuller. You might say that Fuller aspired to engineer a post-apocalypse outer-space cruise ship but in the end managed only to get himself adopted as technology’s mascot. . . .

The article is available online, but you have to subscribe or buy an electronic copy to read it. (I encourage you to, because ultimately that’s how I find the money to buy my daily allotment of toast and peanut butter.)

The file folder containing my notes for this review is titled “Utopian post-oil,” because when I started thinking about the issues, it seemed to me that a lot of the utopian alternative-energy notions of the 1970s were returning to haunt (or inspire) us today. The review focuses on K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller’s Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe, because much of the 1970s movement crystallized around Fuller, and the Whitney Museum show and Yale University Press exhibition catalog provided an opportunity. But I also take account of Andrew G. Kirk’s Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (University Press of Kansas, 2007), an informative book on an aspect of technological and social history that hasn’t been much chronicled; Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), an analysis and manifesto that seems to have been taken to heart by the Obama campaign, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly; and Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini’s Sorry, Out of Gas: Architecture’s Response to the 1973 Oil Crisis (Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2007), a sort of visual encyclopedia of the 1970s alternative-energy movement and as a book an object of great charm. The “Sorry, Out of Gas” website is also well worth a visit. I also tapped the following for more information:

As close students of my work, if there are any, will have noticed, this is part of an ongoing obsession about the history of energy. Or anyway, a trilogy, comprised of my recent New York Times Book Review piece on horses as a nineteenth-century energy supply, this one for the LRB on windmills and solar power, and another forthcoming in the New Yorker.

Happily for those who disagree with my skepticism about do-it-yourself environmentalism, the website Treehugger recently released a buying guide to “Hot Home Wind Turbines You Can Actually Buy.” (Hot as in stylin’.) And for those in search of more Fulleriana, here are links to Stanford University’s R. Buckminster Fuller Archive, which features an entertaining slide show; a sort of interactive information tree of Fuller’s ideas called the Fuller Map; and for explications of the Fuller terminology that flummoxed me, the R. Buckminster Fuller FAQ.

Miles per oat

What Happened on 23rd Street, NYC, 1901

“A World of a Different Color,” my review of Ann Norton Greene’s Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America, appears in the 30 November 2008 issue of the New York Times Book Review. Jennifer Schuessler, my editor, has also posted to Paper Cuts, the NYTBR blog, about the uncanny parallels between anti-car diatribes today and anti-horse diatribes a century ago, as reported by Greene. Another tidbit from Greene’s book that might be of interest to Streetsblog readers: it was late-nineteenth-century bicycle culture that paved the way, as it were, for the displacement of horse by automobile, “by advocating an increased role for the state and national government in what had been the largely local responsibility for road funding and road building” (p. 259).

Diatribes, of course, need not be fact-based, whether they be anti-car or anti-horse. Were horses really as dangerous as cars? In his recent treatise Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt notes in passing that

in the New York of 1867, horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week (a bit higher than today’s rate of traffic fatalities, although there were far fewer people and far fewer vehicles). (p. 9)

Fearful if true! While reading Greene’s Horses at Work for my review (as well as a book on the same topic, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century by Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr), I was on the lookout for evidence to confirm or refute Vanderbilt’s statistics, which he sources to a 1992 book titled Ways of the World: A History of the World’s Roads and the Vehicles That Used Them.

As it happens, McShane and Tarr agree with Vanderbilt that horse-drawn vehicles were dangerous, writing that “Per vehicle, nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicles caused more accidents than motor vehicles would later, an appalling accident toll, at least in New York City” (p. 54). Not all accidents are fatalities, though, so this isn’t complete vindication.* And it turns out that Greene disagrees with Vanderbilt. She writes:

Few accident statistics predate the earliest twentieth century, and much evidence is anecdotal. . . . The cited dangers of horse-driven traffic must be understood within the context of nineteenth-century traffic control, of which there was none. Cities did not institute systems of traffic police and mechanical signals until the twentieth century. . . . New York City gave right of way at intersections to north- and southbound vehicles, mandated signaling by drivers, forbade stopping and parking except in designated areas, and limited speeds to five miles per hour for business vehicles and eight miles per hour for passenger ones. Speed limits could not be enforced because there was no way to measure speed anyway. Since the streets were congested, speeding was rarely an issue. It is hard to imagine that horse-drawn vehicles traveling two to five miles per hour were dramatically more dangerous than heavy metal cars and trucks traveling ten to forty miles an hour.

So maybe horses are innocent after all. Clearly there is room for further research. If you’d like to see some nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicles in action, the Library of Congress offers video of traffic in New York’s Herald Square in 1896, near New York’s Dewey Arch in 1899, and on South Spring Street, Los Angeles, in 1897. On the verge of the twentieth century, there’s “What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York,” in which, against a background of equine transport, a young woman has an adventure with a street grate that prefigures Marilyn Monroe (but with sturdier and more abundant undergarments). There are also two movies of traffic in New York’s Broadway in 1903, a very long film of San Francisco’s Market Street in 1905, and for good measure here’s some footage of the Place de l’Opéra in Paris in 1900. Alas, in none of this documentary footage are the horses wilding. In the absence of any death and dismemberment, I found myself noticing that New York City streets seemed much more expansive then that now. It took a moment for me to figure out why, but then it came to me: there wasn’t any curbside parking. You can pause a horse at the side of the street while you make a delivery, but you can’t leave it in harness unattended for any serious length of time. It’s a living animal. So here’s an easy proposal for returning spaciousness to New York’s streets: restrict parking to stables.

* UPDATE (Dec. 2): In a comment added below, author Clay McShane has written in to say that the accident statistics in his and Joel Tarr’s book are in fact for fatalities, not merely casualties, and that the major issues are kicking and biting.

Palin on the environment

Theodor Horydczak, Polar bear eating, 1920-50

Greg of Hermits Rock points out that Columbia Journalism Review is urging the media to examine Palin’s environmental record and providing a primer. They quote Thomas Friedman’s observation in yesterday’s New York Times: “Palin’s much ballyhooed confrontations with the oil industry have all been about who should get more of the windfall profits, not how to end our addiction.” And they point out that she supports creationism, mountain-top-removal mining, the shooting of wolves from airplanes, and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve; doubts that human actions have caused global warming; and opposes trying to save polar bears. Oh, and, as you may recall, last night Palin said, “Our opponents say, again and again, that drilling will not solve all of America’s energy problems—as if we all didn’t know that already.” The Obama campaign points out that this summer, Palin told Investor’s Business Daily that “I beg to disagree with any candidate who would say we can’t drill our way out of our problem.”