Old Texts


Avatar - an Exploration of Psychic Space


“ The essential elementary self is gone, evaporated into a vigorous plurality of interactions. I discharge myself, time and again, in a discontinuous flow, a passage of impossible states leaping into successive configurations.” Helen Chadwick, Enfleshings


The sensuality of phenomenology, the world perceived more consciously, and philosophically, through the senses, reminds me of studying Computer Animation at the NCCA (National Centre for Computer Animation) at Bournemouth University, and where, not only I but many of us, found the leaves on plants and bushes ‘ sensual’ and ‘ more alive’ , because of the knowledge we were absorbing so intensively, (mathematics, programming and animation theory none of which had I done before to anything like that level). This was the sensuality, triggered by structural - that is geometric and algorithmic - perception in the form of an intense new awareness of how nature is configured and described in all its complexity, where reality is mapped into virtual or psychic space. T here is just that sensuality in a film like Avatar (James Cameron, 2010) where the environment, and embodiment, has an erotic charge, distributed through the minute descriptions of data objects, like plants and animals… life as ‘ perceived through the interface’ which is in fact an alternate reality in terms of being the ‘representation’ of life on another planet, which can be ‘ enfleshed’ with through technology, explores and transgresses the ‘ screen’ separation of life and illusion. This encourages viewers to experience this enmeshment more fully. T hat the central character, who is disabled, falls in love with a woman from this exotic ‘ tribe’ and therefore his loyalties change in terms of fighting with them rather than against, ‘ explains’ the enfleshing through ‘ finding out what makes them tick’ to empower the Earth-based military confrontation and colonisation. W hat is implied by the Na’Vi’ s way of life is a closer synchronicity of nature and their enmeshment with nature through a ‘ higher intelligence‘. T his ‘ closer relationship with nature’ parallels what I felt when I was studying computer animation, and therefore emerges from employing technology to describe and to ‘ generate’ a virtuality. T hat it blurs the boundaries between a science fiction fantasy and an experience of enmeshment with illusion in terms of ‘ virtual reality’ which enables the disabled character, parallels our experience of enmeshment with digital technology generally, is it fantasy or reality? W hen we interact with others in Second Life, we can look at captured images of the interaction and see ourselves, so that as in ‘ real life’ we are documented as ‘ being there’ . In other words feeling that ‘ I did share this psychic space with other people’ , described and reified by mathematics and algorithms.

That it is the visualisation of psychic space, as well as that it is a phenomenological experience, which can tell us something about how we physically perceive and cognate that ‘enmeshment’, is, I think, important. If we were to see the computer generated film or artefact as only a phenomenological experience, this would not entirely address how we are affected psychologically by that merging with the other. In Avatar this merging is specifically addressed, both through description of a fantasy, highly detailed in its evocation, a quality Jean Cocteau would have approved of : “People have decided once and for all that fuzziness is poetic. Now, since in my eyes poetry is precision, number, I’m pushing [for] …precisely the opposite direction…” [1] , and the filmic insistence that it is ‘part of reality’ for the characters, which as a trompe l’oeuil effect encourages the viewer to think that it is in fact the portrayal of reality albeit a science fictional one. And yet the conceit employed by the film addresses what it means to be represented by an avatar in more than a psychic space, implying the potential political repercussions of enmeshment. In other words the political subtext might be ‘do we want to change the world?’, or can we look differently at Earth, and what it means to be human on this planet? This has for a long time been appreciated as an important role of science fiction - to conceive of a reality that is not what we would want, a position which is located outside of reality and yet which is interpolated from the reality that we have so far experienced. As such the political repercussions of science fiction can be felt to be among its most valued qualities, and Avatar does address the politics of racial difference. Its combination of tribalism and nature, as the ontology of that which the human characters want to control, and even to exploit, contributes to the insistence that we embrace the complexities of tribal culture which is the ‘feel good’ factor of the film. The question is - is it simply a compensatory narrative, where the diegetic is one of uplifting psychic and (meta)physical reality, whose main aim is to liberate a new understanding and appreciation of alterity, or is it in part a celebration of the complex effects of technological use, in CGI, where the highs, in terms of portraying a virtuality seduce the film makers and the viewers into a fresh dialogue with nature and its concomitant cultures.

It is no accident that the central character is wheelchair bound, as this places centrally the theme of empowerment through technology. And yet the implication is that although the character is disabled he has ‘special knowledge’ through the very experience of disability. Therefore he represents learning from adversity. His body becomes the metaphor for persistence ‘against the odds’ and that this very application of the self, pitted against the hostilities of life will triumph in the end. That the disadvantages bring with them advantages of a greater understanding of that which makes life important. Therefore the enmeshment with technology is also portrayed as aiding this positivity, if engaged with on a level which doesn’t exploit, but instead allows for the possibility of greater understanding for the benefit of all races, on all planets. In this sense the film relates to Star Trek whose embracement of difference in terms of race, culture and even combinations of humanoid beings with technology has had a profound affect and exemplifies the tropes of science fiction. The difference with Star Trek is that in its portrayal as a reality ‘some time in the future’, is that it doesn’t employ the same trompe l’oeuil conceit as Avatar, in which even though the military equipment is futuristic, the film tries to make that aspect of the picture ‘believable’. This is to offset the CGI ‘world’ which is in fact situated on another planet. This is important, as the whole premise of Avatar seems to be the Microsoftian ‘Where Do You Want To Go Today?’ rather than being ’beamed’ onto the planet in Star Trekian fashion. The main character climbs into a coffin shaped pod and through the complexity of technology extends himself as an avatar into the Na’vi world. This type of embodiment, or ‘enfleshing’ with reality is, through the tribal nature of the Na’Vi race, a reference to older meanings of avatars, which have mainly in anthropological terms been characterised as extending the self into an animal form, and under the province of the Shaman. In this sense the hallucinatory or ‘high’ quality of the experience, all achieved through maths, algorithms and intensive post-production techniques, is a ‘safe way’ for us all to experience this consensual fantasy.

Here, I want to return to the psychic aspect of Avatar and the merging with an image, or is it an alternate reality ? In the film the images generated of the avatar‘s world are treated both as imaginary and as real. This confusion between fantasy and reality, perhaps creates, and is an expression of, the new desire to extend oneself ‘into space’. This is less disappointing than reality itself, and approaches the psychotic in it’s confusion of illusion with the real. The conceit of the film, to make real, what is in fact a fantasy, indexes the hallucinatory aspects of the shamanistic avatars of older cultures. The Na’Vi tribe are in fact realised in a consensual psychic space, mapped out, generated from vertices and polygons, albeit a lot of processing power and descriptive geometry has obviously gone into this realisation of an alterity, where the ‘alter ego’ of the American dream is one of a deep understanding of nature and confluence with it. This vies with the militarised super ego appearing in the conjoined space as encased in robotic fighting machines which have more to do with Japanese manga and a preoccupation with preserving their lives at all costs. So there is a very real tension in the interface between ‘us and them’. The ‘hallucinatory’ world of the Na’Vi is a ‘reality’ rather than a virtuality. As such the director ‘uses’ the artificial and the virtual to extend psychic space as a reality.

There is a confrontation of military proportions between the American army and the Na’Vi , a conflict arising from the ‘reflection’ that occurs; the ‘us’ and ‘them’ within the ‘imaginary’. From this the central disabled character emerges as a third term, as the law maker, who in his ‘real’ experience has seen action in the armed forces, and as he befriends the Na’Vi organises them to resist the assault on their planet and their lives. In this way he crosses the boundary and makes the imaginary into the ‘real’, and in doing so saves their eco-system. The feminine dominance of the Na’Vi culture; the ancestral knowledge which they continually consult, is represented as the (mother) and therefore situates the Na’Vi as closer to ‘mother earth’ or the maternal signifier. In this sense we are encouraged to engage with the immersive virtuality in a way which is to engage with the sublime although it also raises questions of separateness from the maternal signifier, a coherence which has to be ‘fleshed out’ by the filmmakers. What is the effect of making the imaginary reflect within itself? As Foucault said drama is close to madness, “the theatre develops its truth, which is illusion. Which is, in the strict sense madness.” [2] This lack of differentiation between the fictional and the real is a device within the film, and as such results in a kind of madness within the film; the head of the military operation is determined to control the Na’Vi, and attempts to, within the madness of the conflict situation - demonstrating his position as ignorant and unbalanced. This in fact is in relation to a virtuality, as metaphor for alterity.

In this sense we can see that the phenomenology of immersion is a complex one of intensely described psychic space, which aims to simulate an alternate reality. The aspects mapped into this artificial realm are therefore a fantasy of lived phenomenological experience, an eroticisation through exaggeration of aspects of the real of detailed geometric and algorithmic descriptions, and as ‘data objects’ the characters of the Na’Vi are illusory in their ‘blueness’, while their movements are indexically linked to motion capture. How can we believe that it is anything other than psychic space? By being enmeshed ourselves in the diegesis of the film, whereby the fantasy exists within a fiction. The data objects in the form of the Na’Vi are apparently real, although the disabled lead seems only to ‘manipulate’ his avatar through mental power, rather than physically moving in sync with the CGI model. This mental immersion is therefore akin to computer games’ avatars or Second Life avatars, without the physical constraints imposed by the animatography, or in other words the possibilities for interaction. This has been calculated by the scientists involved, who again have a superior power within psychic space. But they ‘are up against’ the ‘mother force’ of the Na’Vi’s planet, whereby the scientists can simulate reality itself presumably. The head of the military operation wants to destroy this ‘mother force’ which is logical as this is the basis of Na’Vi power.

There are questions of embodiment and of disembodiment posed by this film, in the sense of projection into psychic space being independent of able-bodiedness, and the concomitant disembodiedness which this projection seems to imply. This ignores the fact of mental projection as part of psychic health as well as pathology and here we see mental space in fact as a ‘battleground’ in the same way that it is so often characterised in online computer games. That we can play out these projections without causing any actual damage might well be healthy, unless we become too ‘disembodied’ by the experience; and this is all achieved within the brain.

The military group are the external persecutors in real terms of the lead’s new life as part of the Na’Vi. Mentally, he, and we -the audience - agree that they suddenly appear extremely persecutory. Reality starts to seriously threaten the imaginary within the film. The fact that he is able bodied, though simultaneously disembodied, within the imaginary means that he becomes like a god in a true avatar sense. The fact that the lead scientist is played by a woman enhances the themes of feminine empowerment within the film. Along with the ‘mother force’ which the women in the film identify with. And yet, the central problem is one of ‘how do they manage to program the flesh?’ This then means that the avatar is made flesh, or simulated flesh, within the life-world he now inhabits. In phenomenological terms, ‘enfleshing’ is literalised, thus making popular through a fictionalised ‘reality’ that which philosophers apprehend through the ‘flesh’ of the real, or perception of reality.

That the central character wishes to be permanently embodied as a Na’Vi - and who can blame him - although to do this he will presumably have to leave his disabled body permanently encased in his coffin-pod, with huge amounts of scientific investment in his life project, he seems to be looking forward to a time of ‘re-birth’. And yet this ‘closeness’ with the image made flesh, enfleshed, presents a problematic in terms of embodied being, one which starts to explore the discrepancies between reality, with all its disappointments as well as wonderments, and fantasy which seems so much better and yet is all too perfect.

Sarah Thompson 2011

printer version

[1] Beauty and the Beast - Diary of a Film, Jean Cocteau, Dover Publications, 1972, p.78

[2] Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault, Routledge, p.31