Ecocritical Reading of James Camerons "Avatar"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Ecocriticism & Anthropocentrism

3. Ecocritical discussions evoked by the film

4. The Relationship between Humans and the Environment as Represented in Avatar

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In nowadays’ society, we frequently come across discourses dealing with nature, sustainability and climate change. Whether we are reading the news or simply pursuing common leisure activities like reading books and watching films: The subject of nature and human’s interaction with it appears to be gaining relevance, scientists, politicians and journalists are talking about the Anthropocene age, the era dominated and forever changed by us humans (Macfarlane). This might be an indicator for growing awareness for environmental issues among society in the 21st century. This paper is meant to depict in which ways popular culture is dealing with ecocritic questions and motifs of anthropocentrism. I have chosen Avatar by James Cameron as an object of investigation, since it is a piece of popular culture which has attained a massive popularity at the end of the previous decade. It can therefore be seen as a rather modern representation of our society, keeping in mind that the movie has met a greatly positive resonance within a worldwide audience, occupying the first position in the box-office index Top 100 – Films of all time worldwide gross and has obtained 73 awards and another 148 nominations. The environmental message behind it can easily be assumed by the average spectator and has also been discussed by Cameron himself during several interviews, but I plan on further analyzing the different motifs used in this work which contribute to this perception, regarding elements of ecocriticism and representations of anthropocentrism within the story and its realization.

There's a sense of entitlement - 'We're here, we're big, we've got the guns, we've got the technology, we've got the brains, we therefore are entitled to every damn thing on this planet […] That's not how it works and we're going to find out the hard way if we don't wise up and start seeking a life that's in balance with the natural cycles of life on earth (The Telegraph)

My plan is to have a look at articles published by popular magazines dealing with the perception and potential messages behind the movie and to do an ecocritical reading of the movie with these perceptions in mind. On the one hand, the movie has enjoyed an overall positive resonance and high rankings by movie critics. One could argue that the underlying environmental message has raised awareness for the preciousness and vulnerability of the world we live in, which can be seen in the amount of environmental discussions evoked by the film and its plenty reviews dealing with the intended message behind the story. Manola Dargis has argued that “with blue people and pink blooms he [Cameron] has confirmed its [cinema’s] wonder”, other critics such as Michael Graham Richard have called it a “Big Movie with Big Environmental themes” and noted that “it's pretty obvious that the movie has an important green theme”. Usually, movies and other literary works conveying “big themes” do not gain positive resonance only, and that is what I am interested in.

2. Ecocriticism & Anthropocentrism

Before dealing with the critiques, I would like to define ecocriticism, as well as other related terms that seem relevant.

Ecocriticism explores the ways in which we imagine and portray the relationship between humans and the environment in all areas of cultural production, from Wordsworth and Thoreau through to Google Earth, J.M. Coetzee and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (Garrard iii)

So, different from natural sciences like ecology, ecocriticism has its foundation in the humanities and is concerned with representations in literature and other media. Considering its beginnings, scholars agree that the field of ecocriticism has emerged in the late twentieth century, at least under this official term. It is argued that human’s fascination for nature and their dedication towards it is rooted very deeply in our history, even if not necessarily linked to a specified field of study.

[I]f environmental criticism today is still an emergent discourse it is one with very ancient roots. In one form or another the ‘idea of nature’ has been a dominant or at least residual concern for literary scholars and intellectual historians ever since these fields came into being. (Buell 2)

As regards the overall approval and the rapidity of development of ecocriticism, there are different conceptions among academics. Buell claims that, “[u]ntil the end of the twentieth century, such a book as this could not have been written” and notes that “[t]he environmental turn in literary and cultural studies emerged as a self-conscious movement little more than a dozen years ago. Since then it has burgeoned”. In her view, ecocriticism is “still finding its path, a path bestrewn by obstacles (Buell 1-2)”.

There appear to be regional variations in the term as well, as Buell notes that scholars in the UK sometimes prefer the term Green Studies over Ecocriticism, although the latter, being the original term, is still more popular and preferably used worldwide when referring to “environmental literary studies” (Buell 138)

Since ecology studies the relations between species and habitats, ecocriticism must see its complicity in what it attacks. (Glotfelty, Fromm 69)

What could ecocriticism possibly attack? Considering that this field studies “the relationship between human and non-human life as represented in literary texts”, Coupe argues that the “most important branch of green studies […] theorises about the place of literature in the struggle against environmental destruction” (Coupe 302). Given that Coupe defines ecocriticism as a subcategory of green studies, I would like to give a short definition of how he describes the latter: “an emerging movement which seeks to ensure that nature is given as much attention within the humanities as is currently given to gender, class and race” (302). The reference to environmental destruction brings me to another term I would like to have a look at: Anthropocentrism. According to Garrard, anthropocentrism is a “system of beliefs and practices that favours humans over other organisms” (Garrard 206), or, as Coupe puts it, “the assumption that human life is the central fact of the planet (Coupe 302)”. Buell phrases it as “[t]he assumption or view that the interests of humans are of higher priority than those of nonhumans” and notes that it is “[o]ften used as an antonym for biocentrism or ecocentrism” (Buell 134). From this perspective, respecting and following the own interests as a human could justify exploiting other forms of life and make environmental destruction appear as inevitable consequence of evolution, especially when looking at the definition of the terms biocentrism and ecocentrism. Buell’s definition of biocentrism is “the view that all organisms, including humans, are part of a larger biotic web or network or community whose interests must constrain or direct or govern the human interest” and he explains that it is “[u]sed as a semi-synonym for ecocentrism and in antithesis to anthropocentrism” (ibid.134). According to his classifications, it is a more narrow term than ecocentrism, which is explained to be “[t]he view in environmental ethics that the interest of the ecosphere must override that of the interest of individual species” (ibid.137). Other than biocentrism, which “refers specifically to the world of organisms, ecocentrism points to the interlinkage of the organismal and the inanimate. […] In general, ecocentrists hold that ‘the world is an intrinsically dynamic, interconnected web of relations with no absolute dividing lines between the living and the nonliving, the animate and the inanimate” (ibid.). What might be important to state is that “even most self-identified biocentrists or ecocentrists recognize these ethical paradigms as ideals toward which to strive, rather than actualities likely to be implemented in practice” (ibid.134). So by now we have an idea of what anthropocentrism is and also of how it is opposed to bio- and ecocentrism, but while one might solely think of what is called strong anthropocentrism, so to say a reprehensible belief that it is reasonable to view nature instrumentally (Coupe 303) or the “positive conviction […] that human interests should prevail” (Buell 134), one should not overlook the construct of weak anthropocentrism, which exists due to the belief that a complete absence of anthropocentrism is not desirable, which is eager to “maintain biocentric values in principle while recognizing that in practice these must be constrained by anthropocentric considerations, whether as a matter of strategy or as a matter of intractable human selfinterestedness” (ibid.). Now, one could intensively discuss to what extent it is ethically reasonable and simply natural to put the own species and its interests first and at which point it becomes improportional and abusive. But my goal is to have a look at ecocritical discussions about the film that might reveal a standpoint towards the concept of anthropocentrism and the ones opposed, as they are represented in the movie.

3. Ecocritical discussions evoked by the film

Reviews picking apart several aspects of Cameron’s costly science-fiction blockbuster do not seem to be hard to find. Apparently, the movie has considerably displeased the political conservative audience and evoked sharp ideological arguments between writers. Besides first-hand-reviews, one can find a whole range of articles summarizing and reacting to fierce criticisms which were expressed by those on the political right. One could call this a good example of how vivid ecocriticism can be. Xan Brooks notes that some conservative critics are seeing leftist propaganda in the story of Avatar (Brooks), references to the Hippie counterculture’s mindset are mentioned as well. The conservative writer John Nolton calls it “a big-budget animated film with a garish color palette right off a hippie's tie dye shirt” (qtd. in Khan), Goldstein and Rainey review some of the conservative criticism and acknowledge that the movie “portrays U.S. military contractors in a decidedly negative light; and [that] it clearly evokes the can't-we-all-get along vibe of the 1960s’ counter culture”. The movie critic and political commentator Debbie Schlussel reflects how, in her view, the storyline represents Americans as the evil characters who greedly terrorize and exploit innocent beings and the environment and concludes that Avatar “is cinema for the hate America crowd”. Another much cited conservative column dealing with Avatar is that by RedCounty-blogger Dr. Richard Swier, given the title: “Recruiting Film for Eco Terrorists?”, in which he refers to the strong pro-environmental message and seems to hint at potential anti-human mindsets conveyed by the movie when he claims that Avatar is “part of the never ending propaganda movement to ‘save the planet’ from you and me, the evil human beings” (qtd. in Lewis). The anti-establishment culture stance is also referred to by Ross Douthat by saying that “the science fiction epic is a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message. Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism - a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world […] Indeed, it represents a form of religion that even atheists can support” (Douthat, qtd in Taylor 302). The film critic John Podhoretz states that “[t]he conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism - kind of”. But he also claims that Cameron “was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people” and comments on the movie being “mystical mushy enviro-nonsense spouted by pacifist characters who are beyond reproach because they are not actually human and who then happily turn around and commit mass murder themselves against humans in the name of pacifism and environmentalism”. Podhoretz is not the only one to state that most of the audience is so stunned and hypnotized by the fancy filmmaking that it makes them overlook the political message, which therefore becomes irrelevant. This is what Govindini Murty is also commenting on:

It has the politics of the left, but it also has extraordinary spectacle. James Cameron didn't come out nowhere. He came on the heels of all the left-wing filmmakers who went before him, who knew that someone with their point of view would have the resources to finally make a breakthrough political film.But even though 'Avatar' has an incredibly disturbing anti-human, anti-military, anti-Western world view, it has incredible spectacle and technology and great filmmakingto capture people's attention. The politics are going right over people's heads. Its audience isn't reading the New York Times or the National Review. (qtd in Goldstein, Rainey)

So in this spectrum of reviews, one can easily identify the same core aspects of criticism in various articles. These can be summarized as the notion of a strong pro-environmentalism linked to a romanticized picture of nature and a relentless condemnation of the western world, if not the whole human kind. This goes along with a stance of anti-military and the praise of a religion which sees God in every animate and inanimate being and therefore encourages the strong bond with nature which is described in the reviews. All of these are notions often associated with the mindsets of Leftists and the Hippie counterculture of the 1960s, which are mentioned as well. Another remark to mention is that of a stereotyped good vs evil -scheme leaving no room for grey areas. In addition, some of the reviewers claim that the fancy filmmaking is meant to hide a bland storyline and at the same time, is the only thing that keeps the politically unconcerned audience entertained.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Ecocritical Reading of James Camerons "Avatar"
Ruhr-University of Bochum
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Cultural Studies, Ecocriticism, Anthropocentrism, Film analysis
Quote paper
Kira Fleckenstein (Author), 2017, Ecocritical Reading of James Camerons "Avatar", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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