“The adventures of the saga provide material for anthropology, the science of changing perspectives”

Dsince the release ofAvatar in 2009, the Na’vi way of life on Pandora is often interpreted as praising a reconnection with nature. For anthropology, this message is less interesting than the exploration of the diversity of cultures undertaken by james cameron.

Admittedly, the director likes to restore the close links of the Na’vi with a multitude of living beings: they know the behavior of fauna and the powers of plants; they respect each individual existence, especially when taking life away; through rites, they communicate with mother nature, the source of vital energy circulating between bodies.

Two “ontologies”

The spectators are however not invited to immerse themselves in a virgin forest: the first episode reveals a set of cultural facts (knowledge, techniques, social order, cosmology) with which the Na’vi inhabit their environment. Instead of the fantasized return to an existence closer to nature, we witness the coexistence of several cultures developing in interactions with non-human living beings. Informed by the work of Philippe Descola such as Beyond nature and culture (Gallimard, 2005), Avatar can be analyzed as the staging of this plurality.

On the one hand, the technoscientific universe of humans materializes “naturalism”, which affirms the resemblance of humans and non-humans from the point of view of their “physicality”, while “interiority”, manifesting itself for example in thought, is considered a human specificity.

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On the other hand, the Na’vi experience an opposite regime of relations, animism: the perception of a multiplicity of living forms does not prevent them, precisely, from attributing an interiority to all these beings. The contrast between these two cultures – these two “ontologies” in Descoli’s vocabulary – leaves little hesitation about the position of the director: against the greed of the industrialists and the violence of the military – in particular the abominable Colonel Miles Quaritch -, the hunter-gatherer society appears as a model of peaceful cohabitation.

This clash of civilizations is not, however, the only plot of a story that is enriched by the detailed description of the ways of overcoming cultural differences. The first opus is organized around the learning journey of Jacktreated by Neytiri, his Na’vi companion, like a child to whom everything must be taught.

Dynamics of acculturation

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