Patrice Riemens on Wed, 8 Sep 2010 15:55:44 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Henry Jenkins: Avatar activism (LMD)

>From Le Monde Diplomatique, sept 2010:

Print the legend, and put it on Youtube
Avatar activism

Pop culture has now become the basis for a participatory approach to world
activism ? Harry Potter fans for gay rights in the US, defiant
Palestinians protesting about Israeli occupation with their traditional
keffiyahs over skins painted blue after Avatar?s Na?vi people

by Henry Jenkins

Five Palestinian, Israeli and international activists painted themselves
blue to resemble the Na?vi from James Cameron?s blockbuster Avatar (1) in
February, and marched through the occupied village of Bil?in. The Israeli
military used tear gas and sound bombs on the azure-skinned protestors,
who wore traditional keffiyahs with their Na?vi tails and pointy ears. The
camcorder footage of the incident was juxtaposed with borrowed shots from
the film and circulated on YouTube. We hear the movie characters proclaim:
?We will show the Sky People that they can not take whatever they want!
This, this is our land!?

The event is a reminder of how people around the world are mobilising
icons and myths from popular culture as resources for political speech,
which we can call Avatar activism. Even relatively apolitical critics for
local newspapers recognised that Avatar spoke to contemporary political
concerns. Conservative US publications, such as National Review and The
Weekly Standard, denounced Avatar as anti-American, anti-military and
anti-capitalist. A Vatican film critic argued that it promoted ?nature
worship? while some environmentalists embraced Avatar as ?the most epic
piece of environmental advocacy ever captured on celluloid?. Many on the
left ridiculed the film?s contradictory critique of colonialism and
embrace of white liberal guilt fantasies, calling it ?Dances with Smurfs?
(from the simplistic pro-Native American 1990 movie success, Dances With
Wolves). One of the most nuanced critiques came from Daniel Heath Justice,
an activist from the Cherokee nation, who felt that Avatar was directing
attention to the rights of indigenous people even as Cameron
over-simplified the evils of colonialism, creating embodiments of the
military-industrial complex which are easy to hate and hard to understand.

Such critiques encourage a healthy scepticism towards the production of
popular mythologies and are better than critics who see popular culture as
trivial and meaningless, offering only distractions from our real world
problems. The meaning of a popular film like Avatar lies at the
intersection between what the author wants to say and how the audience
deploys his creation for their own communicative purposes.

The Bil?in protesters recognised potential parallels between the Na?vi
struggles to defend their Eden against the Sky People and their own
attempts to regain lands they feel were unjustly taken from them. (The
YouTube video makes clear the contrast between the lush jungles of Pandora
and the arid, dusty landscape of the Occupied Territories.) The film?s
larger-than-life imagery, recognised worldwide thanks to Hollywood,
offered them an empowered image of their own struggles. The sight of a
blue-skinned alien writhing in the dust and choking on tear gas shocked
many into paying attention to messages we often ignore.

By appropriating Avatar, activists have made some of the most familiar
criticisms of the film beside the point. Conservative critics worried that
Avatar might foster anti-Americanism, but as the image of the Na?vi has
been taken up by protest groups in many parts of the world, the myth has
been rewritten to focus on local embodiments of the military-industrial
complex: in Bil?in, the focus was on the Israeli army; in China, on
indigenous people against the Beijing government; in Brazil, the Amazonian
Indians against logging companies.

Without painting themselves blue, people like the Indian writer Arundhati
Roy and the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek have used discussions about
Avatar to call attention to the plight of the Dongria Kondh peoples of
India, who have just won a battle with their government over access to
traditional territories rich in bauxite. It turns out that America isn?t
the only evil empire left on Planet Earth. Leftists worry that the focus
on white human protagonists gives an easy point of identification. But
protestors just want to be in the blue skins of the Na?vi.

The Avatar activists are tapping into a very old language of popular
protest. The cultural historian Natalie Zemon Davis reminds us in her
classic essay ?Women on Top? (2) that protesters in early modern Europe
often masked their identity through dressing as peoples real (the Moors)
or imagined (the Amazons) seen as a threat to the civilised order. The
good citizens of Boston continued this tradition in the New World when
they dressed as Native Americans to dump tea in the harbour. And
African-Americans in New Orleans formed their own Mardi Gras Indian
tribes, taking imagery from Buffalo Bill?s Wild West Show, to signify
their own struggles for respect and dignity (a cultural practice being
reconsidered in HBO?s television series, Treme, by David Simon, about the
post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans).

Participatory culture

The media theorist Stephen Duncombe (3) argues that the American left has
adopted a rationalist language which can seem cold and exclusionary,
speaking to the head not the heart. But by rejecting the wonkish
vocabulary of most policy discourse, it could draw emotional power from
its engagement with stories that already matter to a mass public.

Duncombe cites an activist group that called itself Billionaires for Bush,
whose members posed as mega-tycoons straight out of a Monopoly game, to
call attention to the corporate interests shaping Republican positions. He
might have been writing about protestors painting themselves blue or
Twitter users turning their icons green in solidarity with the Iranian
opposition party.

With a team of researchers at the University of Southern California?s
Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, we have been mapping
many recent examples of groups repurposing pop culture towards social
justice. Our focus is on what we call participatory culture: in contrast
to mass media?s spectator culture, digital media has allowed many more
consumers to take media in their own hands, hijacking culture for their
own purposes. Shared narratives provide the foundation for strong social
networks, generating spaces where ideas get discussed, knowledge gets
produced, and culture gets created. In this process, fans are acquiring
skills and building a grassroots infrastructure for sharing their
perspectives on the world. Much as young people growing up in a hunting
society may play with bows and arrows, young people coming of age in an
information society play with information.

The Harry Potter Alliance?s Andrew Slack calls this process ?cultural
acupuncture?, suggesting that his organisation has identified a vital
pressure point in the popular imagination and sought to link it to larger
social concerns. The alliance has mobilised more than 100,000 young people
worldwide to participate in campaigns against genocide in Africa; in
support of workers? rights and gay marriage; to raise money for disaster
relief in Haiti; to call attention to media concentration and many other
causes. J K Rowling?s creation Harry Potter, Slack argues, realised that
the government and the media were lying to the public in order to mask
evil, organised his classmates to form Dumbledore?s Army and went out to
change the world. Slack asks his followers what evils Dumbledore?s Army
would be battling in our world. In Maine, the alliance organised a
competition between fans affiliated with the houses of the fictional
Hogwarts school, to see who could get the most voters to the polls in a
referendum on equal marriage rights. All this may mobilise young people
who have traditionally felt excluded or marginalised from the political

Such efforts may sound cynical (in that they give up on the power of
reason to convert the masses) or naïve (in that they believe in myths
rather than realities). In fact, there is always a moment when
participants push aside comforting fantasy to deal with the complexities
of what?s really happening.

This new style of activism doesn?t require us to paint ourselves blue; it
does ask that we think in creative ways about the iconography that comes
to us through every available media channel. Consider the ways that Dora
the Explorer, the Latina girl at the centre of a popular American public
television series, has been deployed by both the right and the left to
dramatise the likely consequences of Arizona?s new immigration reform law;
or how the US Tea Party has embraced a mash-up of Obama and the Joker from
The Dark Knight Returns (one of the Batman films) as a recurring image in
its battle against healthcare reform.

Such analogies don?t capture the complexities of these policy debates,
just as we can?t reduce the distinctions between American political
parties to the differences between elephants and donkeys (icons from an
earlier decade?s political cartoonists). Such tactics work only if we read
these images as metaphors, standing in for something bigger than they can
fully express. Avatar can?t do justice to the old struggle over the
Occupied Territories and the YouTube video is no substitute for informed
discourse about what?s at stake there. Yet their spectacular and
participatory performance does provide the emotional energy needed to keep
on fighting. And that may direct attention to other resources.


Henry Jenkins is Provost?s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and
Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and author of
Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, New York
University Press, 2006

(1) See Colin Murphy, ?Avatar, not as liberal as it looks?, Le Monde
diplomatique, English edition, April 2010.

(2) Natalie Zemon Davis, ?Women on Top: Symbolic sexual inversion and
political disorder in early modern Europe?, in Barbara Babcock, The
Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, Cornell
University Press, Ithaca, 1978.

(3) Stephen Duncombe, Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age
of Fantasy, The New Press, New York, 2006.

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