Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Avatar and Heidegger

Yes, I waited this long to see the film. And no, this isn’t another blog post about it’s amazing visuals and juvenile plot. I Avatar Movie actually liked the film and it’s plot.

First off, I found myself responding to the film in ways I didn’t expect. Avatar wasn’t a story about how amazing it is to switch consciousness between bodies. If it had been, I’d have been bored for 3+ hours. Instead, I found myself getting drawn into a world that still had some “green” left in it.

This was a compelling story line, not because it reawakened some smoldering environmentalism in me, but because it invited me into another possibility of world.

I couldn’t help but read the film through the lens of Heidegger’s language of Enframing. In a Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger suggests that the posture of human being has been taken over by technology. We don’t see the world anymore when we look at it, we can’t. Rather, in the place of trees we see lumber. Rivers become hydroelectric power. Animals become meat, etc.

This Enframing extends even to human being: as we grow accustomed to ordering the world (into what he calls a “standing reserve”) we begin to re-order ourselves as well. If we’re not careful, we become resources too.

countryside According to Heidegger, this is our destiny. Cameron challenges this outcome, not by disagreeing with Heidegger, but by offering a vision of a different world. This vision serves as an interruption to our frame. It creates the space for us to shift our posture toward the world.

The question remains: what frame do we choose for our world?


  1. Yes. I also loved the film. I’d like to give your Heidegger-inspired question a twist: How do we best live within our frames? Or, How do we (can we) alter our “enframedness”? I would argue that certain frames [technological and otherwise] constitute our subjectivity.

    An analogy might be the technology which allows the main character in Avatar to become the Avatar. Without it, he could not arise as a subject within the tribe of blue tall people. This is only a partial example because his consciousness gets transferred from one body to another, and I think that certain frames offer the possibility of our consciousness. That is, they coincide with the arising of our subjectivity. For instance, from a psychoanalytic point of view, I depend on an-ego projection for my sense of self. That ego projection is dependent on a series of frames including family, society, and even medical technology. I would say that the ego-projection is constituted by frames and is itself a frame for the “I”.

    Now the question arises as to the difference between “natural” and “artificial” frames, and Cameron’s movie certainly plays with this notion. However, I’d like to divert the question to the following: how much power/freedom do we really have to change our frames, whether artificial or natural?

    Ultimately what I am getting at is a variation of Judith Butler’s point. We are already in trouble (eframed). We depend on that enframing for our subjectivity. So, we do not have absolute freedom in choosing our frames. What is left is how we will live within those frames and what unexpected possibilities (vistas) do the specific iterations of our frames afford.

    You can only see the 3D with the glasses on!

  2. The fact that we can follow Heidegger and use the word “enframed” suggests the possibility inherent in the frame itself. Heidegger often talks about this frame in terms of destiny, but in his later work this destin-ing is opened up to human agency.

    No, we don’t have “absolute freedom” to choose our frames. Many of them locate us within our specific ontos. But saying that our freedom is less than absolute is something very different from suggesting that having noticed a frame, having arrived at an understanding of the trajectory it sets, and having become aware of other frames (other trajectories/postures), agency presents itself as a component of our destiny.

    We en-frame ourselves constantly. This is one of the ramifications of being thrown into the world.

    Part of being in trouble then, part of making the best of it, is taking up a posture, or choosing a trajectory.

  3. Agreed. I guess the point I’d like to emphasize is that we don’t enjoy a neutral position from which to view our frames. Our frames determine us. So, in seeing our frames, we see ourselves, or at least structures that shape us. So, altering a frame is not like peeling off a wet suit. It is more like noticing a happily-placed hole in a wet suit and then learning how to take advantage of it. (Please help me out with a more apt metaphor if it strikes you).

  4. As per usual, I think we agree in principle, but disagree with the ramifications of our own little nuance.

    Foregoing that nice little wetsuit metaphor, I’d suggest that the more fundamental our frame, the more background it is to us, the more we depend upon an interruption of it to allow us to become aware of it.

    It’s less like noticing a hole in your wetsuit, and more like that shocked realization of nakedness in public spaces we have only when we’re dreaming.