The idea of modern European/American people “going native” is not new. At first it was overwhelmingly viewed as a very bad thing. As far back as the 17th century the Pope worried that the missionaries he had sent to covert the Chinese were becoming Chinese instead. After James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans Americans devoured horror stories about white women being forced to go native. In the 19th century the British worried about officers and men stationed too long in India losing their British identity and this is a theme in some of Kipling’s tales. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) depicts going native in Africa as a horrifying descent into madness and evil. At some point in the 20th century the tide shifted and “going native” started to seem appealing rather than appalling. Dancing with Wolves depicts a white American shifting loyalty from American culture to the Lakota as something positive. In 2010 Avatar takes the going native theme and transports it into a beautiful science fiction setting and becomes the most popular movie of all times. Is this merely due to the stunning visual effects or did the movie make the idea of going native hypnotically appealing?
In Avatar Jake, a paraplegic ex-Marine is feeling useless and abandoned in an ugly world. The world of 2154 in which Jake lives is much like ours but darker, dirtier and nastier. Nature has been all but completely destroyed and human relationships are coarse, violent and exploitive. Medical science has the ability to heal Jake and let him walk again but society won’t pay for the operation. Jake has been left by society to fend for himself and he’s not doing very well. Jake shows no trace of anger or rebelliousness at his treatment by society. His whole attitude and demeanor is that of hopelessness. Jake is offered a chance to pay for the operation and get his legs back by taking his brother’s place in an expedition to an alien world. The organization that hires Jake has tremendous resources at its disposal and pursues its economic ends with unblinking ruthlessness. His mission is to infiltrate the alien culture and get them to sell their natural resources in exchange for modern consumer goods. But the Na’vi do not like the deal. They prefer to live simple lives in harmony with each other and with the animals and plants that make up their natural environment. They do not want to be like us. They don’t want to trade their forest homes for Ipods. Jake is stranded among the natives. They don’t like Jake but they take him in. They live in harmony with nature and with each other. Jake comes to feel that that this simple natural life is better than the world he left behind. A moment of crisis arrives and Jake finds his loyalties have firmly switched to his new people. There is a climactic battle in which the Na’vi win and a conclusion in which Jake abandons his human body and permanently becomes an alien.
The movie appeals to so many because so many feel like Jake does at the beginning of the story. He feels as though he’s been used and abandoned by a grimy, violent, uncaring society. Jake sees no reason to hope that things will get better for himself or for society as a whole. Life is hard and business is business. Nothing, not nature or the feelings of sensitive people, is going to interfere with the juggernaut of modern civilization. Mother Nature and poor little Jake are powerless. Resistance, shall we say, is futile. In the movie Jake escapes from the bleakness of modern life and finds love, harmony and right order among the Na’vi. The feel-good victory of Mother Nature depicted in the film is exposed as fantasy by the time the moviegoer gets to the parking lot to drive home. You are not on Pandora and there’s no way back. We told you that resistance was futile. Little wonder that some moviegoers felt depressed in the weeks following the movie.
Why is any of this of interest to a philosopher? Because it is evidence that many people feel something is deeply wrong with modern society and the lives it encourages us to live. Things are not in right order. If there is a deep dissatisfaction with the way things are then this is a call to philosophers to think deeply about how things should be.