The idea for the Na’vi, the made-up humanoid species indigenous to the planet Pandora in James Cameron’s 2009 primitivist blockbuster Avatar, came to the director via his mother. In the 1970s, she told her son about a dream of a 12-foot blue woman, and this formed the basis for the brief he would deliver to his designers 30 years later. The Na’vi were to be blue, tall, muscular, sleek, and feline. They had to be alien enough to be plausibly otherworldly, but take a form, the concept artist Jordu Schell recalled Cameron stipulating, that “the audience has to want to fuck.” Among other things, this meant that the film’s female Na’vi lead, Neytiri, had “to have tits” even though, Cameron freely admitted to Playboy, the Na’vi are not placental mammals. As he developed prototypes, Schell pinned up pictures of “beautiful ethnic women” to ensure that his feline aliens would reflect the ids of the teenage boys who made up the film’s key demographics.
The plot of the film follows the tested formula of primitivist transformation. A man of civilization, in this case the paraplegic US marine Jake Sully, is sent to colonize the primitive lands beyond civilization’s perimeter only himself to “go primitive” after learning of their innocent beauty and recognizing the barbarism of his own destructive civilization. It’s a structure that underlies other blockbusters like Dances with Wolves, its sci-fi equivalents, and numerous journey-into-the-interior classics (especially the work of Joseph Conrad). Eros is built into this formula. Coition marks the point at which the civilized man gives himself over to the primitive tribe and discovers, or recovers, his primitive self. Primitivist utopias, in short, are fuckable utopias.
Avatar played with this formula by having the mind of its primitivist hero transmuted into a Na’vi body — the “avatar” of the title. After he has been initiated into the tribe, consummated his relationship with Neytiri, and successfully defended the Na’vi against the human colonizers, Jake abandons his human form and bonds himself permanently to his avatar. Combined with the film’s pioneering use of stereoscopic 3D, Avatar gave new gloss to an old idea: that humans disaffected by urban civilization will recover their authentic selves by reuniting with nature. The idea is also autoerotic. It suggests that we desire the self from which we have become separated. James Cameron knew this just as well as the Neolithic Middle Eastern mythologizers who enshrined a naked couple living in a garden of untamed abundance at the center of their creation story. Evidently, the formula works: Abrahamic religions dominate the world, and Avatar remains the highest-grossing film ever.
Underlying all these trends is the promise of a truer, more natural self — a self that modern life has compromised.
The first of four sequels to Avatar is in production. Each will break new records for production costs and will appear amid what, a decade later, we can now recognize as a resurgence of primitivism in popular culture and radical politics. This has washed into the general consciousness largely in the form of nutrition fads and life hacks. There is, of course, the ubiquitous paleo diet, which emulates the carnivorous dietary intake of Paleolithic humans on the basis that our DNA evolved to support this form of life. This joins a plethora of other kinds of “nutritional primitivism.” There is also the fashion for running without shoes and other shortcuts to attaining the physical advantagesattributed to non-sedentary forms of life; and then the frequently reported experiments with psychedelic spiritual remedies, living off the grid, and embedding with societies labeled “hunter-gatherer.” Social media, in the meantime, has enabled radicals dedicated to anti-civilizational ideology to band together and disseminate practical advice on returning to nature or even becoming a hermit. Underlying all these trends is the promise of a truer, more natural self — a self that modern life has compromised.
Among utopian ideas, primitivism is distinctive for its reverse teleology. Marx’s communist society or the techno-utopias of Silicon Valley are premised on transcendence. When workers own the factories or robots do the menial labor, humans will be free to pursue their inmost desires. For primitivists, humans have previously achieved this state, and our urgent project is to restore it. We are to move forward into our past; or, equally, backward into our future. Primitivists thus spend a lot of time seeking out and heralding the evidence of the societies which they suppose lived (or live) in this state of grace. These might be lodged in religious mythology, the archaeological record beneath our feet, or some notional society beyond the frontier of civilization that hasn’t made the same grave errors that we have.
Like the capitalism that fuels it, the basic law of primitivist idealism is its constant expansion.
Primitivists are therefore prone to render theory and speculation as fact. This spans the religious dogmatists who insist on the real historical existence of Eden to the hard-core paleo nutritionists who hang their notions of health and vigor on DNA evidence of Paleolithic peoples. Such appeals to fact are a distraction, though, for primitivism is always an imaginative act. In the period when the European empires were expanding, metropolitan radicals imagined that the “savages” from regions that they had yet to colonize were the truly “noble” ones. The images they produced to imagine these societies typically represented them in the guise of a romanticized Greek antiquity. As this European social and economic system reached global saturation, the frontier between civilized and primitive shifted permanently into a chronological mode; or, as with films like Avatar, it was pushed outward to distant galaxies. Like the capitalism that fuels it, the basic law of primitivist idealism is its constant expansion.
In truth, primitivism doesn’t tell us anything meaningful about the forms of life that are idealized as being “primitive.” Our distant ancestors may have eaten a lot of protein, but it is dissatisfaction with the life centered on a grain-based diet that gives rise to the judgment that paleo diets are more natural. Put another way, primitivism is a manifestation of civilizational self-hatred. It is a creative pathology that makes lurid visions from the evidence of a self that we are convinced that we have lost, but which is nevertheless our inmost essential being. So why is primitivism again gaining traction? How does the hatred of civilization express itself in our time? In a world seemingly saturated by “civilization,” who now are the civilized and who the primitives?
»Read the full article in the Los Angeles Review of Books.