Indonesian Indigenous Studies

Soul and Memory: Between Nature and Science

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) Film Review

Refan Aditya

Colonel Miles Quaritch returned to life in his Avatar clone body. His memories before the battle in Avatar (2009), had been backed up in case he died in combat. From this memory, a clone of himself in the form of a Na’vi, the Pandoran human, sprang to life. And the colonel came back to life to avenge his loss. Then make it clear that Colonel Quaritch in Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) is not the real Colonel Quaritch. He is a memory and a projection of his memory. He admitted it while interrogating Spider, his son, who has been in Jake Sully’s family since birth. “I’m not that man, but I do have his memories—enough to know that, well, he wasn’t always the best father. It’s not an apology. I’m not your father technically.”

This science fiction gives at least a glimpse of hints that in the near future, science will leave out the soul or spirit, or in religious terms, the divine dimension of humans, in discussions about human existence. Colonel Qauritch’s avatar is an example of how science has made memory, which used to be just a collection of data about human experiences and memories, have the capacity to project itself into a living body. In the Na’vi avatar’s body, the Colonel’s memory works like an artificial intelligence system drawing up a plan of vengeance.

The protagonist is Jake Sully, who used to be a human and then transferred his soul into his Na’vi clone body. He is no longer a Na’vi avatar because that body is where the whole of his soul lives now; I would rather see him as a full Na’vi. Unlike the antagonist Colonel, Jake transferred his soul into his clone Na’vi avatar body through the Omaticayan ritual. Under the tree of soul, the sacred tree where the spirits of the Omaticaya ancestors reside, it is Eywa, the God of all the inhabitants of the planet Pandora, who determines the success of the soul transference. Thus, Jake’s avatar is a souled avatar, while Colonel Qauritch’s avatar is a cloned avatar or artificial body animated by the projection of a certain memory algorithm. Precisely, this review is trying to approach the Avatar by involving the discourses of nature and science that perceive the self either as memory or as soul, engaging the concept of the hybrid world by Bruno Latour.

Na’vis and Their World

Avatar: The Way of Water is inspired by the Bajau, a native sea tribe that spreads across the eastern Indonesian archipelago. This Bajau or Bajo tribe lives in houses on stilts surrounded by rafts and uses the sea as their main source of livelihood. The way they live at sea, spending most of their time doing activities on the seacoast, led them to be called a sea tribe.  For further readings on the tribe, see Identitas Budaya dan Sejarah Suku Bajo di Bajo Pulau Pascanomaden (Cultural Identity and History of the Bajo Tribe in Post-nomadic Bajo Island).

This Avatar sequel features two extreme discourses of post-humanism that are contending with each other. On the science spectrum, the essence of man represented by the Na’vi colonel is reduced to mere memory. Memory is the vital force of human existence, from which humans exist and are worldly being. In the indigenous worldview, man’s essence is entirely related and cannot be separated from his relationship with the place he lives; his essence is his relationship with his environment.

The Pandoran biosphere; the tree of souls and forest for Omaticaya, and also the ocean, the underwater tree of soul, and the Tulkun (gigantic whale) for Metkayina, are sacred beings. The place they live in, their ancestral lands, the forests and trees they hold sacred, the ocean, animals, and their clan are their defining identity. Hence, the dignity of the Na’vi tribe does not lie solely in the individual Na’vi but is always interrelated to the ecosystem where their ancestors came from and died. That is why Jake and his family, who are Omaticaya, are admitted to becoming Metkayina, a water clan, when his son, Neteyam, fell in battle to withstand the assault of Colonel Qauritch’s fleet. Tonowari, head of the clan, said, “Your son lies with our ancestors. You… are Metkayina now.”

Unconscious Message

The Na’vi’s relationality, or their interdependent relationship with other beings, is at odds with the progressive sense of modern science. Modernity, or, in Latour’s terms, modern constitution, presupposes a rigid separation between the natural and the cultural (society). As a result, it creates an imaginary demarcation between science and non-science. Science must first capture nature as an objective entity that can be quantified and subdued. This artificial dichotomy, according to Latour, conceals the so-called hybrid of the world—a real world that is fluid and free from these modern distinction categories. The natural and the cultural are always mixed up, and science as a representation of the natural can never be reliably representative and completely authoritative. The modern constitution and its institutions, such as modern science, obscure, distort, and reduce the world’s hybrid into artificial categories.

Na’vi life features a hybrid life, meaning that their life is also the life of the forest, ocean, and its sacred trees. Place, according to Brian G. Campbell, has relational characteristics that make it different from other places. Unlike the concept of space, which only shows an abstract, empty, and undifferentiated physical location, the concept of place shows a familiar, intimate, meaningful, and existential relationship between humans and their environment. Progressive thinking of modernity is blind to looking at a place in that way.

In consequence, modern science plainly does not consider a place as a place but as a mere space. Just as maps show the earth’s surface from above, the way science represents space ignores the diversity of power-geometry underlying each place. In science, space, as an objective and abstract concept, is ontologically treated as central rather than place. Thus, space is ontologically distinct and not constitutive of human identity. At the extreme of this perspective, man is his own self, and in our avatar case, that self is the memory. A decaying physical body and living environment do not obliterate one’s self as long as one’s memory exists and resides in another body. The film Self/Less (2015) nakedly explains this.

Yet Avatar is not as blunt as Self/Less. Avatar hints vaguely that the memory that drives the avatar’s body is the same as the soul or spirit. Regardless of his antagonism, the colonel’s Avatar shares a sense of identity or self with Jake Sully’s Avatar. This begs the question, then: does Avatar want to demonstrate that, thanks to increasingly sophisticated science, memory will eventually replace the importance of the soul or spirit in the human body? Or does it subtly convey to the viewer’s subconscious that the soul, which is believed to be a sublime force, is actually a mere memory, which is pre-scientific and pre-modern? This silent message of “everything will be modern eventually” seems to pass unnoticed by the eyes enchanted by the battle between good and evil in the defense of nature against capitalism and modern civilization. Finally, the natural (soul) and the cultural (memory) are completely separated, and the explanation that the soul is memory reinforces the scientific paradigm’s superiority over other paradigms; in this case, Na’vi’s human-nature relations paradigm.

“The way of water has no beginning and no end”

In We Have Never Been Modern (1991), Latour dismantles the modern constitution’s way of thinking that creates an imaginary category separating nature and culture, which then blurs the hybrid of the world. As a representation of the natural, which is imposed to be objective, modern science places supremacy on the human subject as the determinant of how nature should run according to the will of modern civilization. Nature is seen merely as a machine that works according to the laws of physics and can be modified and manipulated under the logic of modern civilization. Carolyn Merchant, in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, explains that the degradation of the image of nature as mother earth and the source of life that graces life force is the precedence of the ecological crisis of the modern era. In the name of civilization and progress, the mysterious forces that drive nature are cast out as ghosts. The insight into nature has become mechanistic, based arrogantly on the laws of physics, rejecting any other way of thinking but the scientific explanation. This is why Merchant proclaims the death of nature at the hands of science. The doctrine of discovery, then, became the postulate for the discovery of the scientific-mechanistic laws of nature. Because of this doctrine of discovery, the act of recovery or preservation is considered to be anti-progressive.

Avatar highlights this tension. The sky people—as the Na’vi call humans from Earth— with their civilizing logic and dogma of discovery come to invade and threaten a planet where life has always nurtured, balanced, and recovered each other. Science makes human identity and self no longer bound to nature like the Na’vi’s. Modern man’s identity is even more confirmed when he succeeds in discovering and finding something outside himself to conquer and consume. Thus, modernity, with its logic of civilization and doctrine of discovery, has shaped human identity and made him continue to sustain his identity as an explorer and conqueror. He will wander everywhere until there are no more things to discover. Unless his memory is backed up, the end of his life means the exhaustion of the energy stored in his body—inevitable destruction.

Na’vi are born from nature, live with nature, and will return to nature. The Metkayina clan says:

The way of water has no beginning and no end. The sea is around you, and in you. The sea is your home, before your birth, and after your death. Our hearts beat in the womb of the world. Our breath burns in the shadows of the deep. The sea gives, and the sea takes. Water connects all things. Life to death. Darkness to light.”

In time, the Na’vi souls will return to nature, gathering with the souls of the ancestors in the bosom of God Eywa, or as science cum theology, and eco-theology term it, Gaia, the Earth’s network system of nature-nurturing agencies. In God and Gaia: Science, Religion, and Ethics on a Living Planet, Michale Northcott calls this concept of Gaia “a new scientific and naturalist theological concept” that sheds light on the fact that the Earth is alive and that all life and all matter on it are interconnected and networked. The Gaiaian worldview sees that there has always been a symbiosis between things on Earth that has led to the evolution of a diversity of ecosystems that make it possible for living things to live.

Behind the beautiful graphics and the thrilling scene of Jake Sully fighting the Colonel, it turns out that Avatar is unexpectedly taking us into an overriding issue of modernity: nature and culture separation. The question of whether it is a soul or a memory that holds the body of the Avatar appears to be sunk into the unconscious and overlooked, implying that today, these two things seem to be taken as the same, or perhaps they have been thought of as one thing with slightly different terms. Indeed, this has to do with the modern way of thinking. This review seeks to withdraw from that oblivion by addressing the post-human discourse that continues to grapple with the long-standing question and debate over what it means to be human.

Refan Aditya is a graduate student in the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), Graduate School, Universitas Gadja Mada

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