Avatar Activism and Beyond

A few weeks ago, I published an op-ed piece in Le Monde Diplomatique about what I am calling "Avatar Activism." The ideas in this piece emerged from the conversations I've been having at the University of Southern California with an amazing team of PhD candidates, drawn from both the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism and the Cinema School and managed by our research director, Sangita Shreshtova (an alum of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program). Every week, this volunteer army gets together and explores the blurring line between participatory culture (especially as manisfested through fandom) and participatory politics (with a strong focus on youth engagement). Collectively, we've begun to generate conference presentations and publications, including jointly editing a forthcoming issue of Transformative Works and Culture, which is going to deal with fan activism. We've now received funding from the MacArthur and Spencer Foundations to do field work looking at political organizations which are engaging youth with the political process often through unconventional means. Our current focus is on Invisible Children and The Harry Potter Alliance, though other members of our group have been looking at a range of other examples. You can see some of our earliest accounts of this process on the web here.

Those of you who follow my Twitter account will already have seen the Avatar Activism piece in its published form, but I thought I would share here the extended version, including the bits that ended up on the cutting room floor. And after the article, I want to talk about an interesting response to the piece which was recently posted.

Avatar Activism

By Henry Jenkins

In February, five Palestinian, Israeli and International Activists painted themselves blue to resemble the Nav'I from James Cameron's science fiction blockbuster, Avatar, and marched through the occupied village of Bil'n. The Israeli military assaulted the Azure-skinned protestors, whose garb combined traditional Keffiyeh and Hijab scarfs with tails and pointy ears, with tear gas and sound bombs. The camcorder footage of the incident was juxtaposed with borrowed shots from the Hollywood 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!"

By now, most of us have read more than we ever wanted to read about Avatar so rest assured that this essay is not about the film, its use of 3D cinematography and digital effects, or its box office. Rather, my focus is citizens around the world are mobilizing icons and myths from popular culture as resources for political speech. Call it Avatar Activism.

Even relatively apolitical critics for local newspapers recognized that Avatar spoke to contemporary political concerns. Conservative publications, such as The National Review or 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." One of the most nuanced critiques of the film came from Daniel Heath Justice, an activist from the Cherokee nation, who felt that Avatar was directing attention on the rights of indigeneous 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 ideological critiques encourage a healthy skepticism towards the production of popular mythologies and are a step above critics who see popular culture as essentially trivial and meaningless, as 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 Bel'in protestors recognized potential parallels between the Nav'I's 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 offered them an empowered image of their own struggles. Thanks to Hollywood's publicity machine, Images from Avatar would be recognized world-wide. The site of a blue-skinned alien writhing in the dust, choking on tear gas, shocked many into paying attention to messages we too often turn off and tune out, much as Iranian protestors used Twitter to grab the interest of the digitally aware outside their country.

As they appropriate Avatar, the actvists rendered some of the most familiar ideological critiques beside the point. Conservative critics worried that Avatar might foster Anti-Americanism, but as the image of the Nav'I 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 Bel'in, the focus was on the Israeli army; in China, it was on the struggles of indigeneous people against the Chinese government; In Brazil, it was the Amazon Indians against logging companies. Without painting themselves blue, intellectuals such as Arundhati Roy and Slavoj Zizek have used discussions around Avatar to call attention to the plight of the Dongria Kondh peoples of India, who are struggling with their government over access to traditional territories which are rich in Bauxite. It turns out that America isn't the only "evil empire" left on Planet Earth. Leftist critics worry that the focus on white human protagonists gives an easy point of identification, yet protestors consistently seek to occupy the blue skins of the Nav'I,.

The Avatar activists are tapping into a very old language of popular protest. Cultural historian Natalie Zemon Davis reminds us in her now classic essay "Woman on Top" that protestors in early Modern Europe often masked their identity through various forms of role play, often dressing as peoples, both real (the Moor) and imagined (The Amazons), who were a perceived threat to the civilized order. The good citizens of Boston continued this tradition in the New World when they dressed as native Americans to dump tea in the harbor. 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 Treme).

In his book, Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy, media theorist Stephen Duncombe argues that the American Left has adopted a rationalist language which can seem cold and exclusionary, speaking to the head and not the heart. Duncombe argues that the contemporary cultural context, with its focus on appropriation and remixing, may offer a new model for activism which is spectacular and participatory, rejects the wonkish vocabulary of most policy discourse, and draws emotional power from its engagement with stories that already matter to a mass public. Duncombe cites, for example, a group called Billionaires for Bush, which posed as mega-tycoons straight out of a Monopoly game, in order to call attention to the corporate interests shaping Republican positions. Yet, he might have been writing about protestors painting themselves blue or Twitter users turning their icons green in solidarity with the Iranian opposition party.

Working with a team of researchers at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of 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, highjacking 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 organization has identified a vital "pressure point" in the popular imagination and sought to link it to larger social concerns. The Harry Potter Alliance has mobilized more than 100,000 young people world wide 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. Young Harry Potter, Slack argues, realized that the government and the media were lying to the public in order to mask evil in their midst and he organized 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, for example, the Alliance organized a competition between fans affiliated with Griffindor, Ravenclaw, and the other Hogwarts houses, to see who could get the most voters to the polls in a referendum on equal marriage rights. The group's playful posture may mobilize young people who have traditionally felt excluded or marginalized from the political process.

Sack acknowledges that journalists are apt to pay much more attention to what's happening at Hogwarts (or at least the opening of the new Harry Potter theme park) than what's happening in Darfer. Such efforts may sound either cynical (giving up on the power of reason to convert the masses) or naïve (believing in myths rather than realities). Actually, these new style activists show a sophisticated understanding of how utopian fantasy often motivates our desires to change the world. In traditional activism, there has been less and less room to imagine what we are fighting for rather than becoming overwhelmed by what we are fighting against. In such movements, there is always a moment when participants push aside the comforting fantasy to deal with the complexities of what's happening on the ground.

This new style of activism doesn't necessarily require us to paint ourselves blue; it does ask that we think in creative ways about the iconography which comes to us through every available media channel. Consider, for example, the ways that Dora the Explorer, the Latina girl at the center of a popular American public television series, has been deployed by both the right and the left to dramatize the likely consequences of Arizona's new "Immigration Reform" law or for that matter, how the American "Tea Parties" have embraced a mash-up of Obama and the Joker from Dark Knight Returns as a recurring image in their battle against health care reform.

Such analogies no more capture the complexities of these policy debates than we can reduce the distinctions between American political parties to, say, 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 century old struggle over the occupied territory and the YouTube video the protestors produced is no substitute for informed discourse about what's at stake there. Yet their spectacular and participatory performance does provide the emotional energy they need to keep on fighting and it may direct attention to other resources.

A growing number of people know how to Photoshop images, sample and remix sound, and deploy digital editing tools to mash up footage from their favorite film or television shows. This public is developing a new kind of media literacy, learning to read such deployments of popular icons for what they express about ourselves and our times. And where Photoshop fails us, protestors are turning to blue body paint in their effort to get the attention of potential supporters on Facebook and YouTube.

So, that's where I left it in the original draft of the essay, but the great thing about the blogosphere is that others add to your ideas in unexpected ways and they do so with much more rapid turnaround than would be possible in the sluggish realm of traditional academic publishing. Over the weekend, a response to my essay appeared on line, written by an expert about the tactics and rhetoric shaping politics in the Occupied Territories, and placing the Avatar video from Bilen into the larger context of the ongoing tactics of the group of protestors who created it. The entire post is must-read for anyone who cares about either the politics of the region or the general theme I am exploring here, how activists can use participatory media practices in order to direct greater attention onto their struggles and engage with new supporters. But I thought I would share a few chunks here in the hopes of enticing more of you to check out what Simon's Teaching Blog has to say.

Thus viewers of a video of the Bil'in demonstration on YouTube, or photographs of the same demonstration on Flickr might turn to text-based forms of communication as a means of informing themselves about why these images were produced. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites have suggested that the Abu Ghraib photographs disseminated internationally in 2004 encouraged people to read documents that were already in the public realm, but which had not gained as much attention as they should. Thus they state: 'Strong images can activate strong reading.' (Robert Harimen and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, Chicago, 2007)

The organisers of the Avatar demonstration in Bil'in aimed to produce strong images that would have an impact upon those who saw them and would attract the attention of a much wider audience. The video of this demonstration posted on YouTube by Bil'in based video maker Haitam Al Katib has received 245,440 views, at the time of writing, as opposed to the video of Naomi Klein's visit to Bil'in in August 2009 which has received 9,498 views. Taking the motif of blue aliens from a science fiction film and relocating it within the political reality of the West Bank could not be anything but a strong image, generating an uncanny effect and one hopes encouraging reflection and 'strong reading' that might help explain what was being seen. But the potential effects of strong images are not restricted to media audiences. The strength of these images can also shape how these audiences encounter them in the media. Thus Kevin Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples have argued that the strong images created by acts of symbolic violence performed by anarchists during the protests against the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle in 1999 focussed the media spotlight on the concerns of the demonstrators, allowing their ideas to be aired and given a greater degree of serious attention (Kevin Michael DeLua and Jennifer Peeples, 'From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the "Violence" of Seattle', Critical Studies in Media Communication, Volume 19, Number 2, June 2002). With these considerations in mind, it can be suggested that whatever loss of conceptual understanding occurs through the immediate impact of the images of 'Avatar activism' can be made up for in how these images relate to the written word.

Considering Jenkin's fleeting discussion of Bil'in it should be added that the Avatar demonstration was just one instance in which demonstrators in the village appropriated motifs from other contexts, most of which were not related to popular culture. More usual has been imagery related to the broad historical frame of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and current events related to the occupation. Thus the Bil'in Popular Committee have set up demonstrations themed to reference, for example, the iconography of the Holocaust and the storming of the Free Gaza flotilla. This affirms that the image repertoire of the Bil'in demonstrators is much broader and more historically and politically aware than the appropriation of imagery from a Hollywood blockbuster might suggest.

The key point here is that the people of Bil'in have repeatedly appropriated imagery for their demonstrations that is in some way relevant to their cause and that enables them to not only keep going, but also to break out of their isolation. To do this they have had to constantly innovate themes for their demonstrations and develop new props that can become the focal point for demonstrators and the media alike. What this suggests is that although the imagery used in the demonstrations is often simple and involves the reinforcement of crude binaries between oppression and freedom defined in terms of a contrast between the Israeli state and the Palestinian struggle, this mobilisation of simple imagery is the result of a sophisticated understanding of what resources politically weak agents can mobilise in a long term struggle against the power of a sovereign state. The people of Bil'in have committed themselves to non-violence and consequently have had to turn to other media oriented means of resistance to the classic 'weapons of the weak' utilised in the armed struggles of guerrilla and national liberation movements.

It was fantastic to see someone place the Avatar protest in this larger context of other interventions and tactics deployed by this same group of protesters. As someone who lacks expertise on the Middle East, I didn't know anything more about this situation than I had read in existing news reports, though it spoke to the global context where these appropriations are occuring. When we launched our paper call for the Transformative Works and Culture special issue on "Fan Activism," we were surprised that the overwhelming number of submissions on this issue came from researchers working outside of the United States and recounting very powerful examples of such tactics being deployed all over the world. I look forward to sharing more about these issues in future blog posts.