Avatar in the Amazon - Narratives of Cultural Conversion and Environmental Salvation between Cultural Theory and Popular Culture


  • John Ødemark The Institute for Cultural Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo, Norway




Avatar, Amazonia, Environmentalism, Narrative and Indigenity, Cultural Theory


In 2010 the New York Times reported that ‘[t]ribes of Amazon Find an Ally Out of “Avatar”’, James Cameron. The alliance was against the building of Belo Monte, a hydroelectricdam in the Xingu River in Brazil. Cameron made a documentary about Belo Monte, A Message from Pandora. Here he states that Avatar becomes real in the struggle against the dam. This appears to confirm U. K. Heise’s observation that the ‘Amazon rainforest has long functioned as a complex symbol of exotic natural abundance, global ecological connectedness, and environmental crisis’. This construal, however, downplays the ‘symbols’ cultural components. In this article I show that the image of an ecological ‘rainforest Indian’ and a particular kind of culture constitutes a crucial part of the Amazon as ‘a complex’ cross-disciplinary ‘symbol’. Firstly, I examine how an Amazonian topology (closeness to nature, natural cultures) is both a product of an interdisciplinary history, and a place to speak from for ethno-political activist. Next I analyze how Amazonian cultures have been turned into ‘ethnological isolates’ representing a set of grand theoretical problems in anthropology, not least concerning the nature/culture-distinction, and how environmentalism has deployed the same topology. Finally I examine how Avatar and one of its cinematic intertexts, John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest, is used as a model to understand the struggle over the Belo Monte. In a paradoxical way the symbolic power of indigenous people in ecological matters here appears to be dependent upon a non-relation, and a reestablishment of clear cut cultural boundaries, where ‘the tribal’ is also associated with the human past. Disturbingly such symbolic exportation of solutions is consonant with current exportations of the solution of ecological problems to ‘other places’.


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Theme: Cultures of Disasters