Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for April 2010

I finally got around to seeing James Cameron’s Avatar. No doubt watching it on a computer screen cannot compare with the full 3-D experience in a cinema. As a cinematic work it is awesome in its visual power. But behind the special effects and fantastic computer simulations, what is the message the film conveys? This is not easy to answer. Many critics have lambasted it for purveying the stereotypical Hollywood caricature of non-Western societies and the patronizing “white Messiah” complex. But there are more interesting issues to do with Cameron’s fascination with technology, well brought out in a recent article about him by Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books.

Many of Cameron’s films have to do with the violent encounter between human (Western) and alien civilizations, the allure of the monstrous and the desire to transcend our human limitations even to the point of exchanging our physical bodies for new ones. Homo Sapiens is too  ordinary, ugly or drab a species for Cameron’s taste. In his first movie The Terminator (1984), the one that made his name as a writer-director of extraordinary technical and imaginary power, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a member of a race of apparently invincible, human-hating cyborgs who returns to the present in a human shell to assassinate a woman who will give birth to a man destined to lead humanity in a rebellion against the cyborgs. (The film seemed designed for Schwarzenegger whom most of us have believed was a cyborg anyway). As the film progresses, this creature loses more and more of his human limbs in fights with the woman’s protectors; and eventually springs out of an explosion as a chrome skeleton that devastates everything in its path.

Our relationship with technology is the issue at the heart of Avatar, just as it was with most of Cameron’s earlier films His heroes and heroines become more and more machine-like in their war with machines. Human beings merge with machines to acquire superhuman strength. Aliens (1986), another film he wrote and directed, has Sigourney Weaver battling the alien dragon queen by strapping herself to a giant forklift machine whose massive pincers she is able to manipulate with her slender arms. In Avatar, the crippled marine Jake Sully is transformed into a sleek, surefooted, athletic Navi by being strapped into a sarcophagus hooked up with special electronics that controls his brain.

On the one hand, there is a clear, anti-capitalist, anti-technological message. The bad guys are the military-industrial corporate world that wants to plunder the Navi of their rich mineral resources. They are symbolized by monstrous helicopter gunships and heavy mining machinery. Jake is, initially, a spy for this corporate world which is manipulating science for its own ends. This is before he falls in love with a Navi woman. The Navi are portrayed, in contrast, as a society wholly in tune with nature: pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers who solemnly apologize to the animals they are forced to slay.

On the other hand, the Navi are not simple “primitives”. At one point in the film the chief scientist declares in awed tones that their goddess Ewa is nothing less than “a global network”- to which the Navi are connected by organic cables able to upload and download consciousness itself. The Navi represent the perfect synthesis of flesh and machine, technology and religion. The heroes are both pre-civilized and hyper-civilized, technology is Saviour as well as Destroyer.

At the end of the film, while Jake’s avatar has led the Navi in victorious revolt against their imperialist aggressors, his dying human body is brought back to Pandora. In a religious ceremony, Jake’s human consciousness is uploaded permanently into his Navi avatar. His humanity is shed forever as Jakes now becomes a permanent member of the new, suffering-free world of Pandora.

This is, essentially, the vision of Posthumanism (sometimes also called Transhumanism), which is the Gnosticism of the twenty-first century. The human species thrown up by natural selection is an embarrassment. It has to be modified in the name of freedom, the freedom to maximize our latent potential. The human has to be re-engineered through technology, and whatever means- from genetic enhancements to nanotechnology- can serve this posthuman project must be promoted.

The biblical message of Incarnation points us in a different direction. The Word embraces human flesh, affirming our creaturely finitude and temporal nature. It is in frailty and vulnerability that God chooses to reveal his power. It is as if Ewa herself (the goddess of Pandora in Avatar) chose to enter Jakes’s world in Jakes’ broken body in order to transform our attitudes towards people such as Jake. Christians share with posthumanists the belief that humans should be transformed. But we profoundly disagree over the purpose and source of that transformation. The healing of our disfigured and broken humanity is brought about through a transformation effected from beyond- but this eschatological hope of resurrection is never a cancellation of our embodied humanity.

The cyborg is the posthumanist’s icon. It symbolizes the erasure of the borders separating the organic from the mechanistic, the natural from artifice, thereby giving it greater control over time and space. As the bioethicist Brent Waters notes: “Despite the best plastic surgery, technological enhancements, and spin doctors money can buy, celebrities grow old; they lose their allure, and their talents fade. Unlike cyberspace, finite borders are not entirely malleable, and ultimately time cannot be made virtual.”

We are so grateful for the comments and numerous letters expressing concern over my wife’s medical condition. Karin’s surgery was successful and she is recovering well at home under my expert nursing care. The wonderful news is that she does not need chemotherapy. We seem to have caught the cancer early, before it spread into her lymph nodes.

The topic of healthcare elicited more comments on my Blog than any other, including war and terrorism. This is obviously a topic that affects all of us directly, and it seems that the healthier we are the more obsessed we are with health issues. This is why health-care provision is a bottomless pit and generates such fervent political passions. But, as I tried to point out in my last post, it is dangerous and misleading to separate healthcare from debates about education, income poverty and the mass media. Healthcare budgets, in both rich and poor nations, can be greatly reduced by a multi-pronged approach to health. Bans on public smoking, stricter pub licensing laws, ethical codes on food advertisements, anti-pollution campaigns, safer work environments, shorter working hours and less stressful work conditions, inducements to families and local communities to care for their elderly and mentally handicapped… all these measures can significantly reduce what governments have to spend on a public health service.

This is why I am not impressed either by the oft-heard complaint that public medicine is too costly or by the charge that the system creates many “free riders”. Every system is liable to abuse, and ultimately if the moral ethos of a culture is disposed towards chronic dishonesty and corruption, obviously no economic system can work. But accusations of abuse are curiously selective. The indignation of the rich at the abuses of the poor are wondrous to behold. Who complains about the continued existence of offshore tax havens and anonymous bank accounts, by which the super-rich use public facilities without paying for them? Who protests at the “creative accounting” of multinational companies that enables them to hide their profits while enjoying lavish tax benefits? Before 2008, who complained when  corporations were bailed out by public funds? There are plenty of other anomalies that never get into the media. In Britain, for instance, elite private schools such as Eton and Harrow are registered as public charities. Donations to such schools can be exempt from personal income tax. What this amounts to is the diversion of taxes to subsidize privileged, private schools. Why is there so little hue and cry over these abuses compared to the rage over “welfare cheats”?

My recent experience with Karin’s surgery confirmed what others have told me about private hospitals in poor countries like Sri Lanka. Apart from speed, comfort and relative cleanliness (because far less crowded) private hospitals do not generally offer a better quality of medical and nursing care than government hospitals. We were also shocked at the doctors’ fees which seem totally arbitrary. Given a relatively small pool of specialists and the fact that it is the relatively well-off who use private hospitals, private medicine is enormously lucrative for the few. Surely, private hospitals can become fairer and more transparent institutions if the law insisted that the Board of Management had to include all stakeholders, including patient representatives and nurses (who are paid a pittance compared to the doctors).

I agree with those comments on my last post which called for more middle-class people to use government hospitals and other public services as the best way of improving them. Medical students in countries like Sri Lanka are trained only in public hospitals where the vast majority of patients they meet are poor. Thus they rarely learn to talk with their patients and to respect the latter’s rights. Little wonder that patients and even nurses in poor countries regard medical students and their professors as demigods. If more of us middle-class folk would use these hospitals and talk to the students and professors as our equals (which they are), perhaps that would help to improve the training of doctors as well as the efficiency of public health services. Or is this being naive?


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