‘The Na’vi are terrorists who won’



From Triple Canopy:

Nadja Millner-Larsen: Perhaps what we have here, in the wake of the failure of the Abu Ghraib images—and countless similar images from Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and so on—is the nightmare of shamelessness. I think this is, at least in part, the product of a general recognition that, as David Rieff writes in A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (2002), “the first and greatest humanitarian trap is [the] need to simplify, if not actually lie about, the way things are in the crisis zones, in order to make the story more morally and psychologically palatable.”

So much of the imagery in which humanitarian campaigns have trafficked seems to suppose that there’s an abstract, universal experience of political violence into which all humanitarian crises can be collapsed. Nowadays, there seems to be a greater awareness that such stories are reductive, if not deceptive, and that, as Rieff points out, the collusion of nation-states, international governance bodies, and aid groups has enfeebled humanitarian campaigns and muddled the moral authority of their causes.

This could be liberating, though, inasmuch as it has allowed people to stop directing their appeals to the same Western governments and aid groups, and facilitated the development of more radical, unconventional strategies of self-representation and communication. While the Bil’in protesters were explicitly addressing Rice, the stagecraft of the event made it clear that the intended audience was really citizens around the world who might later encounter, and somehow be galvanized by, documentation of the event on the Internet.

Wazhmah Osman: I think the success of these acts still depends largely on whether, and how, they are covered by the news media, though some people may come across the documentation on YouTube. And I think they’re likely to be perceived as icons of struggle, righteousness, and victimhood; the references to Native American movements for self-determination are going to be lost on most people. Why would Palestinians choose to adopt the narrative of someone else’s near annihilation and failed struggle for liberation? Because the Palestinians’ image is so contentious that it makes sense to realign themselves with the victims, as opposed to the aggressors (terrorists).

Danyel Ferrari: Well, the Na’vi are terrorists who won; they are victorious because they’re possessed of that stoic passivity attributed to Native Americans but also because they’re being directed by a white military strategist. In the real world, the noble Native American victim is usually a historical figure—which is to say, he’s already dead. (The depictions of current-day Native Americans are more patently and stereotypically unheroic: reservations, poverty, alcoholism, casinos, though perhaps with the gloss of a stubborn attachment to, and pride in, their cultural autonomy despite it all.) And in films, the particularities of Native American history are traded for a hyperbolic emphasis on spirituality (see Dances with Wolves), which, ironically, follows from the long-standing denial of the validity of their belief system. Spirituality is thus inoculated from politics and religion and is invoked (by Palestinians or Burning Man participants) to suggest an originary connection to the land. Avatar, obviously, is the epitome of this.

“Brown Skin, Blue Masks”, Nadja Millner-Larsen, Wazhmah Osman, and Danyel Ferrari, Triple Canopy