Avatar’s global meme about an irresponsible/greedy/childish culture slashing and burning a planetary intelligence has its analog on Earth. So if James Cameron kicked open the pop culture door for this idea to spread through the mediasphere, now it’s time for our world’s indigenous to speak for themselves. Enter the Kogi from Colombia, who ask us to listen with our hearts and minds to their urgent call for human sanity. By using film as their bridging tool, our “elder brothers” are co-authoring Aluna, There is No Life Without Thought, a documentary manifesto designed to wake us up, asking us to think differently about our idiotic and suicidal treatment of the world/selves/others.
“Footage of the Kogi conducting rituals beneath a spectacular tree is straight out of Avatar. ‘Avatar has done great work for this,’ (filmmaker Alan) Ereira says. ‘Twenty years ago, the Kogi were pushing on a wheel that had just started to turn. Now that wheel is really rolling and they are part of the zeitgeist.’”
Indeed, but the scene is not out of Avatar; the film scene is from Earth (let’s not mistake the map for the territory!). However, the point is well taken: the wheel is turning. But the Kogi and Avatar can only do so much. You have to help push the wheel, too, internally and in the world at large. The task is vast, but there is one small tidbit from the Guardian story that you might find useful. When asked why it is that the current world system has such strong destructive momentum, Kogi spokesperson Jacinto Zabareta replied,
“Habit… That ambition to have more doesn’t have a framework. It’s just a drive to accumulate. The habit is a competitive one. ‘What everyone else has I must have too, otherwise everyone else has power over me.’ The consequences are evident, but it doesn’t seem obvious to you… You can go and live in space, that’s fine, but you don’t seem to be able to go back to the understanding of how to live harmoniously with the earth. That’s something you’ve forgotten.’”
This insight concurs with the essence of Buddhist teachings about habits of mind that lead to unskilled and confused action in the world. Jacinto, I believe, is asking for a kind of mindfulness that relates to cognitive scientist Francesco J. Varela‘s call for Ethical Know-How: “the progressive, firsthand acquaintance with the virtuality of self.” What he means by this is the age-old problem of duality in which we fail to be mindful of how our thoughts are not embedded within a fictional self, but are the result of an interaction of the world which brings us into existence. Our minds are not isolated, but co-evolve with the world around us. The few statements of the Kogi I’ve read and heard in the trailer seem to imply the same: our thoughts are what bring forth the world. For evidence, look no further than the ecological nightmare our civilization has produced. All is made possible by our ideas, and is a projection of a destructive thought process that simply needs to be reigned in.
Want to change the world? Change your mind. Or at least how you conceive it.
Unexpectedly the Avatar story is cloning itself onto real life situations. More accurately, it was life on Earth that inspired the imaginary action on Pandora, so not surprisingly many are drawing upon this new planetary myth to make their plight– ironically– more real.
For example, in the above video, clever Palestinian activists done Na’vi outfits to translate their cause’ imagery into a new symbolic order. By recontextualizing their cause through a new set of signs, the reality frames of the past can be challenged by the Avatar meme. Paradoxically, by identifying themselves as indigenous, these Palestinian youth are also connecting themselves with global pop culture, a hybridized strategy that can jujitsu around the political controls normally exercised in the mainstream news media.
Likewise, an indigenous group in India, the Dongria Kondh, are fighting the mining operation of Vedanta Resources. The whole thing more closely parallels Avatar, which has not escaped the attention of Survival International, an NGO that helps endangered tribal groups. They sent an appeal to James Cameron for support, and have released the following video that describes the plight of the Dongria Kondh.
(For more background information on the Dongria Kondh and how to support their struggle, follow this link.)
Expect to see more blue people appearing on Earth in the very near future.
As a cultural meme, photos of the so-called “lost” tribe of the Amazon circulated more rapidly in the mediasphere than electrons buzzing through duel processors. But now that the images have been revealed to be a “hoax,” we should kick back in our collective armchairs and probe what happened. To be clear, the pictures weren’t a hoax per say, because the people depicted in them are real and do live off our grid, but the implication that they were unkown or off civilization’s radar was false. Survival International, one of the organizations who published the photos, said:
This is a classic example of journalists getting the wrong end of the stick. The only people who ever claimed that the Indians photographed were ‘lost’ or ‘undiscovered’ were…. the press, despite the fact that Survival has been campaigning for the protection of the many isolated Indian tribes on the Peru-Brazil border for more than twenty years…. Indeed, you might have thought that the fact that the Indians are living in a government reserve set aside for isolated Indian groups would tend to indicate that they weren’t exactly ‘unknown’.
I found the images intriguing as a media phenomena. With our point of view coming from the surveilling eye of extraterrestrial flight, I can’t help but feel like these are stills from a Star Trek scouting mission in which we– the humanoid aliens– are observing a distant world uncontaminated by our civilization. For many viewers, I’m guessing the reverse reaction was true: that the indigenous people covered in body paint and pointing bow and arrow at our high tech aircraft are the strange, exotic creatures of a “lost” world. But as a reflection of our own zeitgeist, the intrigue of a potentially “lost” tribe says a lot more about “us” (the scientifically “advanced” world) than “them” (the forgotten, primitive ur-past of yore). In our effort to name and identify the event at a distance– i.e. to “other” the Others– the media buzz surrounding these photos is yet another indication that we have become aliens in our home world.
The images struck a chord because of the nature of media (interesting pun), which survives by cannibalizing novelty. Any photo that presents “newness” metabolizes into information and will froth to the head of the noosphere only to be gobbled and digested rapidly like a yeasty beer. In particular, what drives media’s center of gravity is the striving for authenticity in order to fertilize its newness reproduction cycle. This is not without some irony. Upon looking up “authentic” in Merriam-Webster, I found several curious and contradictory definitions. One is “made or done the same way as an original,” and the other is “not false or imitation.” A photo can embody both senses of the word, because on the one hand it is an imitation of something– reality–, and the other hand, it is a reality unto itself. The tricky thing about photos is that we assume that they are facts, yet what we do with them, how we choose what we see and the impact of the photo is far from the reality it purports to represent. Add to that digital manipulation, context and framing– i.e. the “naming” of the image–, and you have one big fat dose of truthiness.
This is the subtext of the image controversy, because there is an underlying distrust of media and civilization itself as ultimately inauthentic. Most of us feel like the characters in The Matrix. The only way that machines can keep us interested is to offer us scraps of reality through these kinds of controversial images so that we can verify the existence of truth and the so-called real. Nonetheless, I happen to not believe in the simulacra argument, because most of our lives are actually not electronically mediated, though we assume that they are. The distrust of simulation is older than modern technology and particular to the European mindset, going back to Plato. He was the one who said the bed was a mere imitation of a more perfect bed made by God. His is not a bed made by machines, but by human hands with tools. The interesting thing is that human language actually evolved from our hands and the use of tools, not the other way around: technology is human communication.
Plato’s fear and distrust of appearances has repeated itself incessantly as a tulpa trapped inside a hall of mirrors that is now modern media. Advertising simultaneously assures us of the world’s stability while the news makes us fearful of its structural integrity. Despite this tension, the capitalist system of commodities and consumption has become nature, our habitat. It is so normal that anything that can differentiate itself from the ambient background of consumerism and the techno-fetishistic mind will become novel.
Nonetheless, in this semiotic war for attention, capitalism still struggles mightily to be relevant and real. The underlying argument of typical advertising pitches is that their product is “the real thing” (to paraphrase one of the more memorable slogans of the century). Marketers use every magician’s trick to offer us some kind of allusion to authenticity, be it the bodily sensations of fear, hunger, humor and sexuality, or to wink at us by acknowledging that we all know this is a con game. It’s a treadmill that marketers fear to jump off of.
Which brings us back to the photos. Like passengers in a spaceship Hummer driven by the corporate dream world, many of us have become accustomed to feeling like aliens on our own planet. I consider this kind of “alienation” the true source of our pill-popping, “social anxiety disorder” ways. I quibble with some postmodernists who contend we are too alienated to be alienated, arguing that alienation requires a sense of self, believing that when we are decentered simulations of our own beings, there is nothing to bounce off of. I disagree. I believe we yearn for nature and connection because they are tangible and exist no matter how minute the splinter in our minds and souls. Without this longing, advertising could never proceed because it traffics in the language of loss.
These images demonstrate, however, that the prevailing “lost” trope in the media zeitgeist is reversing: in our grasping for the real, more than ever we feel the urge to really be “lost”: off the radar, away from the cell phone, pager and Internet like Into the Wild‘s Chris McCandless or the actor reciting Jack Kerouac in a recent BMW ad. In our post-National Geographic world where all has been disovered, cataloged, photographed and integrated into the electronic sphere of our realm, there is little left for us to remember or know about how we used to be. But like the X File’s Agent Mulder, we feel the truth is out there, hovering outside us like pixel dust blowing in the cosmic winds.
Contact with “authentic” humans in the natural world gives us hope and wonder, yet the very act of taking the photos violates that innocence. Some even argue that trolling the forests for “authentically lost” humans violates their right to be uncontacted. Consider Star Trek’s Prime Directive:
“No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations.” (Quoted from Wikipedia)
Because these photos indeed touched upon the “lost” meme, they also drew awareness to Survival International and to the plight of indigenous people in the Amazonian preserve (an interesting word in itself) and elsewhere. The fact that ultimately we are talking about the fate of real people with integrity and just as much of a right to exist on their own terms as we do, makes the this whole discussion more urgent. The civilization end game is upon us, and our budget of cultural diversity is dwindling rapidly, suffering the same fate as the biological diversity that supports us.
So, while acknowledging that organizations like Survival International do necessary and important work, they also depend on the media to educated the public about their mission and projects. Like many NGOs, Survival International’s site has plenty of sensationalistic images and videos, which begs the question of whether or not other people’s suffering can be contained and communicated effectively through images. Is this unethical? Not necessarily, as long as we are clear about the game we are playing and the nature of how it works. But it certainly remains ironic that it’s through media that we have to communicate civilization’s inauthenticity via the language of propaganda and exploitation.
Bonus footage: the following is a short documentary produced by Survival International,”Uncontacted Tribes.”
Pygmies are using GPS to map their land in order to save sacred sites and ecologically sensitive areas. I find it an interesting and novel approach, but I’m a little apprehensive about one thing. Traditionally mapping has been the precursor to colonialism. Marking the territory precludes ownership. But given the arrogance of the Northern colonial powers to take whatever they think is theirs by right of power, then it’s nice to see the roles change. It remains to be seen if this will truly benefit the Pygmies, but anything to support their cause I’m all for. They have a right to their land, so perhaps for once the map can be the territory.
“The sets have icons on them, so they don’t have to be able to read and write. They basically go out and say, ‘OK, click, here is a sacred site,’ and a GPS point is taken and links up to the satellite,” Poynton said.
“They can wander through the forest and map all of the areas — the tombs of their ancestors, hunting grounds, sacred areas, water holes, areas of medicinal plants — these are all captured on GPS points, all downloaded on the computer,” he added.
You may have noticed the Rosetta Stone ad on the right column. Rosetta Stone is a great language learning software package that I have been using to learn Italian. Not only is it a great system, they are one of the more responsible corporations out there providing a tremendous planetary service. Their Endangered Language Program is designed to help indigenous communities develop their own Rosetta Stone software to preserve their local language. The most amazing thing is that the community gets to retain rights to the program. I big high five to one corporation making a difference.
We Preserve More Than Words
Pass on a Living Language to Future Generations
Across North America and around the world, indigenous communities are working to preserve and revitalize their languages. Rosetta Stone can be a valuable resource for these efforts. Indigenous communities contract Rosetta Stone to develop editions in their language for their exclusive use. Around North America—from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake in the northeast, to the Seminole Tribe in the deep south, to NANA Corporation’s Inupiat shareholders in the Arctic—Rosetta Stone has been selected as the technology of choice for language revitalization.