Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hic Blemmyae Sunt: "Avatar" and Neurosymbology

Bremselhacker, in his recent analysis of James Cameron's Avatar, has drawn our attention to the "extensive series of resemblances and correspondences" between the situation of the Na'vi and that of the "the deracinated, 'wired' subject of late technoscientific capitalism."  He argues persuasively that Cameron's twelve foot tall blue pseudo-feline aliens represent the Orthognostic Other of the "subject of vulgar economic determinism," because they represent "global technoscientific capitalism's spectral image of itself (...) without the conflicts it generates."  I hope to expand a little on Bremselhacker's perceptive treatment of Cameron's text and to make explicit some of the analytic apparatus which has been evolved by members of this forum for the analysis of what we have been calling "neurosymbology."

I. What is Neurosymbology?
We have become accustomed to an articulate critique of symbology rooted in the Generative Grammer which makes extensive and effective reference to the "subject positions" generated by this simple grid (i.e. orthognosis, cacognosis, mythognosis, and the unspoken central antagonist, "Judith Butler").  Bremselhacker is correct that it is difficult to find these in (most) of the male protagonists of Avatar, whom, as he notes, are "not even cacognostic," but rather "subjects of vulgar economic determinism."  While I agree that a mechanically symbological reading of Avatar is tenuous at best, I continue to believe that when confronted with any serious difficulty in symbological analysis our rallying cry must be, to paraphrase Lacan, "Back to Brown!"

The earliest characterization of Brownian symbology, which has remained the foundation of all subsequent criticism, was that it is driven by an anti-Saussurean epistemology.  That is to say, the arbitrary nature of the relation between the signifier and the signified is anathema to symbology.  In fact, symbology might be simply defined as discourse which demands of signifying relations, as a condition of their validity, that they be non-arbitrarily motivated; and further, that in hermeneutic discrimination univalence, indexicality, and antiquity be the fundamental evaluative criteria.  The Generative Grammar and all the descriptions it produces are posterior to these postulates, which constitute symbology's conditions of possibility.

Neurosymbology is a recently identified and related discourse which is primarily embodied in popular representations of neuroscience, and is can be considered a derivative of general symbology in that its conditions of possibility are simply refinements of those stated above.  Neurosymbology, therefore, is discourse about the mind which demands that phenomenological expeirence subsist in, and be sufficiently accountable for by, anatomo-physiological mechanisms in the brain and that, to continue the parallel, hermeneutic discrimination privilege indexically correlative relations (i.e. those observed in functional brain imaging studies) univalence, (how can mechanism be polyvalent?) and antiquity.  The final evaluative criterion refers not, of course, to the correlation of modern neuroscience with ancient notions about the brain (although certainly this is a salient feature of certain ancillary streams of commentary, e.g. the work of Fritjof Capra, and of recent iterations of classical symbology, e.g. The Lost Symbol,), but rather to the obsessive correlation of neuroscientific claims with speculative visions of primordial phenomenology which are derived either from pure speculation (e.g. by Leonard Shlain) or evolutionary psychology (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Pascal Boyer et al.)  Thus, neurosymbological explanations are judged according to their indexical coherence with modalities like fMRI and their putative explanatory power with reference to (pre-existing) narratives about the evolution of human consciousness (which are generally as tendentious as, say, Brown's precis of Western European history).

Similar derivative correspondences are obvious in the functional ramifications of symbology and neurosymbology, as well.  It is now well established that symbological narrative exhibits a circumspect ideological functionality, generally referred to as "ideological recontainment," which can be summarized as follows: the reader is asked to identify with a protagonist or group of protagonists who come to realize that an impending revelation will challenge the very foundations of their bourgeouis subjectivity. The body of the narrative is then concerned with the solution of the Code which conceals the ostensibly incendiary revelation, which proceeds through the discovery of a series of highly motivated and typically antique relations of signification.  In the denoument (AKA the "flagrant cop-out,") however, the threatening revelation turns out to be an illusion, and is resolved as a general statement of one or more of the basic precepts of the ideology which initially appeared to be under threat.  Bourgeois subjectivity is threatened, only to be re-constituted as the only possible mode of being.  The subject of ideology is thereby "recontained." "It is nothing, it is a symbol."
Neurosymbology exhibits a precisely analogous recontaining function.  In the neurosymbological text (typically a newspaper or popular magazine article,) an apparently counter-intuitive or alarming neurological finding is revealed by, say, an fMRI study or a behavioral study.  Tension is defused, however, by the neurosymbological explanation, which re-situates the finding as immanent in a precise neuroanatomical location and attributes to it a series of attributes and relations which comfortingly cohere with bourgeois ideology, particularly the subset thereof known as "evolutionary psychology."  The possiblity that the relationship of phenomenology to neuroanatomy may be irreducibly complex, only partial, radically different across time and culture, etc. is thereby foreclosed, and cultural chauvanism and local ideology are re-presented as equivalent to natural order.

To summarize, then, neurosymbology is discourse about the mind which shares the fundamental epistemological commitments already identified in symbology proper, and which produces similar functional results.

II. Neurosymbology in Avatar
Bremselhacker has also noted (ibid.) that,
The extensive human installation in technological prostheses is similarly parallel to the Na'vi's relationship to their animal prostheses, horse and pteradactyl-like beings into which they plug a tendril-like supernumerary limb in order to control their movements. The total integration of mind and nature always already achieved in the Na'vi's orthognostic inertia is also the explicit goal of both Augustine's research and the military technologies used by the Colonel to bring Pandora under the more effective control of corporate power.
What I wish to draw attention to is the persistence of this symmetry when the situations of the humans and the Na'vi in Avatar when viewed as neurosymbological positions, and their correspondence to the Orthognostic Other: Subject of Vulgar Economic Determinism dialectic as Bremselhacker has described it. 

Both groups are characterized by their realization of the dreams of neurosymbology, although they achieve them in dialectically opposed ways.  The humans, as we are led repeatedly to infer from their frequent use of three-dimensional functional brain imaging, possess a perfected neurosymbological technology which, qua perfect simulacrum, is capable of projecting individual phenomenal experience into other bodies.  The brain is clearly figured here as nothing more than a vehicle for neurosymbological representation.  This utopian vision re-figures the recurring Western nightmare of the necromantic automaton (whose avatars, so to speak, range from Frankenstein's monster to the Terminator,) as the perfect expression and logical conclusion of technoscience, neurosymbologically construed.

The Na'vi achieve exactly the same result; they too are capable not only of accessorizing their consciousness with various prostheses, but actually effecting the transmigration through neurosymbological representation of whole minds between different bodies.  However, they do so through organic (i.e. orthognostic) means, mediated by the world-spirit of Pandora (who's famous box is, of course, the eternal metaphor for the dangers of technoscience).  Correspondingly, the dominant metaphor for Na'vi neurosymbology is not necromancy but sexuality, (as is inescapably conveyed by their moist, pink polyphallic appendages), or, as suggested by the highly disturbing scene of pterodactyl domestication, rape. 

It should be obvious that the neurosymbological dialectics of Avatar are homologous to those already described by Bremselhacker, in that they "remind us of the necessity of our assuming this position by allowing us to forget that we are assuming it;" the Na'vi's neurosymbological utopia is exactly that of the humans,
"minus the contradictions it generates."  However, I think the neurosymbological turn allows us to appreciate a larger, environing circumstance of both.

If the series [Na'vi : Nature : Sexuality :: Necromancy : Technology : Human] presents a dialectic in which the subject must imagine itself as one half in order to be the other, both sides have, as a fundamental condition of their possibility, the exclusion of the possiblity of any substantive intersubjective or intercultural difference.  Bremselhacker notes early on that,
Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that one could set the same storyline in, say, the Amazon, Indonesia, or the Congo, with few significant alterations, and you would have a relatively realistic, if schematic and manichean, representation of the very real and very contemporary catastrophic impact of the extraction of raw materials on small-scale subsistence communities. 

It seems to me that this is precisely the point.  Despite the lip-service paid to anthropology and to field study, both halves of Avatar's dialectic deny the possibity of any substantive difference between humans and the distillate of National Geographic cliches that is the Na'vi.  In fact, the film's anthropologists seem to be comprehensively incapacitated by their presupposition that intense linguistic, historical and cultural study might be necessary to understanding Pandora's inhabitants.  It is, after all, the untutored, foul-mouthed, gung-ho Marine who turns out to be the only one capable of achieving a hermeneutic fusion of horizons with them, confirming that, as the saying went, "inside every gook there's an American waiting to get out."
In keeping with the hierarchy of subtlety in Avatar, this point is made more crudely but perhaps more evocatively by the mercenary subjects of vulgar economic determinism.  The favored prostheses of the future's warriors are, unmistakeably, robotic acephali, AKA Blemmyae:

The same technology of neurosymbology which establishes the equivalence of Jake Sully and the Na'vi produce the equally significant equation of corporate mercenaries with one of the more evocative and durable symbols of radical cultural difference ever produced.

Avatar can thus be read as a neurosymbological refutation of the possibility that significant problems of intersubjective understanding may exist, and an affirmation that, in fact, the situation of the mercenary American subject of late capitalism is coeval with subjectivity generally.  Clearly this has ramifications for a variety of American xenophobic discourses, particularly those treating the "Clash of Civilizations" ostended to underly the "War on Terror."  These must be explored elsewhere, but I think the forgoing suggests that they will turn out to be less than innocent.