Avatar & Nature Spirituality
A Call for Proposals for a Special Issue of the
Situated in the mythical planet Pandora, James Cameron’s motion picture Avatar is a metaphor for the relationships between human beings and their affective and religious (or if one prefers, their spiritual) relationships to the earth. It expresses a view commonly found among those in the environmental milieu, including grassroots environmentalists, sustainability practitioners, indigenous activists, and academicians analyzing the centuries-long erosion of Earth’s biocultural diversity. The movie takes a strong stand in favor of such diversity, and for the animistic and pantheistic spiritualities long considered beneficent by many environmentalists. It has triggered a hostile reaction by many from religious traditions who consider the worldview expressed in Avatar a threat to their own beliefs and understandings, and to religious truth itself. It has left some viewers deeply depressed, feeling that there is no place left on earth where they can connect to nature and to each other, as did the Na’vi. Yet it has also evoked a highly positive response, which is not only reflected in terms of record attendance, but in widespread confessions of how the movie moved people to tears, in some cases, inspiring or rekindling environmental activism. Early journalistic reports even indicate some indigenous people have had a positive reaction to the film, finding affinities between their own spiritualities and struggles and those of the Na’vi. These are just a few of the reactions to the film that deserve critical scholarly analysis, which the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (JSRNC) seeks to facilitate.
The Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture seeks to explore “the relationships among human beings and what are variously understood by the terms religion, nature, and culture,” as well as to reflect critically on “ethically appropriate relationships between our own species and the places, including the entire biosphere, that we inhabit.” It is, therefore, an appropriate venue for the scholarly exploration of the cultural significance of Avatar. The editors of the JSRNC, therefore, are inviting proposals for a special issue tentatively titled “Avatar and Nature Spirituality.” The overall goal is to illuminate the nature of the biocultural ground that Avatar has promoted, and which has also led to significant contention.
Submitting a Proposal
Interested scholars should send to Bron Taylor, the journal’s editor, a 200-500 word prospectus for a paper or forum contribution, along with a short biography up to 150 words, including a website link, if available.
In the case of paper proposals (which run between 5,000-8,000 words), please describe the methodological approach you would expect to take and the argument(s) likely to be considered. Taylor is especially interested in articles based on qualitative and quantitative methodologies that illuminate the meanings, reactions and behavioral changes, if any, that redound from the film, in diverse countries and spaces.
Also to be considered are proposals for essays of a length between 1,500 and 2000 words, offering diverse and provocative perspectives as to whether the film should be understood as progressive or regressive, with these terms constructed in whatever ways the prospective author finds most fitting.
If possible, send proposals to Bron Taylor by 15 March 2010. This will afford him the chance to make suggestions to increase the diversity and quality of the submissions. Decisions about the publication schedule and whether a published volume, in addition to a journal issue, will be published, will be made later. The likely deadline for essays will be 1 July 2010, but extensions may be possible and negotiable.
Additional ideas for contributions are provided below.
The editor of the JSRNC is Bron Taylor, Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida.
He has long focused on the religious, ethical, and political dimensions of grassroots environmental movements and the role of other actors seeking to slow and reverse the escalating decline of the world’s biocultural diversity. His books include, most recently, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2010), now available from the University of California Press, the edited Encyclopedia of Religion & Nature (2005), and Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism (1995).
While editing the quarterly Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture (from 2007), Taylor also helped found the affiliatedInternational Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. He wishes to add that the fourth International Conference of the Society will be held 16-19 December 2010 in Freemantle, Australia, and that the conference call for papers is now online. This conference will be a possible venue for presentation of Pandora-related papers, among other research.
Additional Ideas for Contributions
There are many questions worth pursuing in this issue. Possible approaches and foci for contributions, but hardly an exhaustive list, include:
Š A focus on the religious dimensions of the film and/or the religion-related conflicts it precipitates.
Š Quantitative and/or qualitative studies that capture the felt affinities, ambivalence, and hostility to the film’s theme, within as many different ethnic, religious, and other social groups as possible. Journalists have already described appreciation and denunciation of the movie from different religious groups, as well as a generally positive reception among some indigenous and other ethnic groups, as well as a strong negative reaction to the film from conservative political groups. The JSRNC seeks more in depth and intimate analysis from inside the social groups that are in contention about the views expressed in the film.
Š Explorations of why has Avatar generated such a following, and of how much of the positive response is because its ecological and political themes are finding fertile cultural ground. What are the tributaries to the views in Avatar? James Cameron wrote the original screenplay and has acknowledged that the film is political. He has even indicated (if flippantly) that he is sympathetic to ecoterrorism. What are the cultural sources of his views and that made many receptive to his plotline? Can anything be discovered about Cameron’s own nature-related experiences and spirituality, and/or, that of those involved in the production, distribution, and celebration of the film?
Š Theorizing Avatar with explorations of the relationships between biophilia and the sacred. Is there something in the human genome that draws humans toward recognizing that biologically healthy ecosystems are good (sacred and worthy of reverence), and that ecosystems simplified (if not utterly destroyed) by human activities are bad (desecrated, and deserving of restoration/re-consecration)?
Š Examining ethnicity, gender, and animality in Avatar. Does the depiction of the Na’vi, by linking them metaphorically to earthly indigenous peoples, implicitly denigrate them, whether as noble savages or otherwise? What is to be made of the representation of the Na’vi as colored nature people with tails? Does this symbolize that it is desirable and beneficial to establish affective connections with other animals, or is it instead a depiction of the Na’vi as sub-humans (and what can we make of the very critique that blurring the line between humans and other animals denigrates the human)?
Š Asking whether Avatar reflects, evidences, and promotes an emerging earth nationalism or civil earth religion, and if so, whether this should be welcomed or feared?
Š Reflecting on Avatar and the senses, from the sensual and sensing forest to the beautiful and erotic heroine Neytiri.
Š Investigating Avatar and academicians: What are the fault-lines among scholars about Avatar (and possibly other films that resemble it)? How have scholars promoted (or resisted) the assumptions, ideas and representations presented in Avatar? Does the cosmogony in Avatar resemble, for instance, the scholarship of the human ecologist Paul Shepard, the novels of Daniel Quinn, the historiography of Jared Diamond, or the work of ethnobiologists and those who advance the idea that peasants and tribals have a Traditional Ecological Knowledge and wisdom unknown to civilizations? Scholars should turn their analytical lenses back on their own role in eco-religious production, whether for or against the eco-spiritual-political views presented in Avatar.
Š Historicizing Avatar, including in cinematic context: what continuities and discontinuities are there with earlier films and documentaries in terms of nature spirituality, environmental destruction, and resistance to deracination and ecocide. Here for some examples, attention might be given to the perennial edenic theme in human cultures, to documentaries beginning with Disney’s true life adventures in through Planet Earth in 2006, and to motion pictures from early anthropomorphic animated film to films including The Mission, Emerald Forest, Fern Gully, Ewoks, Mosquito Coast, Dances with Wolves, and the Lion King, and Pocahontas.) Beyond the innovative technology, and perhaps the cultural receptivity to the film, how innovative is Avatar?