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The Becoming-woman of Machine in Avatar

A Comparison With The Fist of the White Lotus

[Early concept art for Cameron's Avatar]

In following up this rhizome series on Cameron’s Avatar, which involves this series of posts:

1. Avatar: The Density of Being, 2. Avatarship and the New Man: Reading Ideology, Technology and Hope, 3.Two Vectors of Avatar’s Cinematic Achievement: Affect and Space Interface, 4.Is the Medium the Message? Avatar’s Avatar, 5. Peking Opera and the Aesthetic Freedoms of Avatar.

I want to pick up on the last Peking Opera/Hong Kong Action reference, and open up a comparison I’ve suggested, between Avatar and the Kung Fu classic Fist of the White Lotus (1980, originally title among others Clan of the White Lotus). In each the process of education involves an implicit feminization of the more masculine powers, something that may have bearing upon both philosophical vitalism and the general fears about left, liberal, Hollywood pantheism. In Fist of the White Lotus the hero Hong Wending, played by the incomparable Gordon Liu (Liu Jiahui, forget Tarantino’s souless homage the character and actor in Kill Bill 2) seeks revenge against an evil martial arts master who has murdered nearly all of the hero’s Shaolin brethren. To be sure one has to be rather thoroughly steeped in the Hong Kong aesthetic to appreciate how the seemingly stilted plots, characters and actions of this film transcend into graced expression and very significant matters (or correspond to perceived weaknesses in Avatar), but it is enough to see that gender is under transformation in the film.

To give a sense of the storyline, Pai Mei “white eyebrows”, the evil villain high priest, has achieved a nearly undefeatable level of martial arts that required a highly choreographed combined attack of two persons, an attack used to defeat his twin brother. With the hero now a sole survivor after a White Lotus Clan ambush, having lost his martial arts compatriot, he has no way to fight this arch enemy and avenge his close friend’s death. The movie consists in Gordion Lui trying to perfect new forms of attack, and repeated showdowns that fail. The principle unusual powers that Pai Mei possesses are the bizarre defensive capacity to withdraw his genitals back into his body to protect them, and the ability to become so weightless that the force of any blow thrown just floats him back as if he were made of paper. 

At one stage in the hero’s development he comes into the tutelage of the wife of his fallen comrade, whose child she has now born. He believes that if he learns her “woman’s style” he may be able to combine it with his aggressive Crane and Tiger and finally be able to get close enough to strike his opponent. But first he must learn women’s work, he is told. This is the sequence of his feminization (the whole film is posted in parts on Youtube):

As the plot goes, this woman’s style is not sufficient to defeat the great Pai Mei, but it is componented to the skills that in the end prove necessary. The character must go through a feminization in order to draw up the powers of the feminine into his eventual expression of righteous force. Many of the social fears over the liberal creep of pantheism are no doubt linked to deeply entrenched gender notions, bodily configurations, cultural identifications with what is appropriate. One can see this in the conflict between the two kinds of technology in Avatar, the masculine puppetry and instrumental expression, machines operating in a kind of robotic Kung Fu like Hong Kong Tiger or Crane Style, and the limpid, synthetic and lithe Pandoran DNA lightness, which involved a distinct feminization of Sully’s body (the lengthening of his features and limbs, the corsetting of his waist, a general feline framing of his person). Sully learns, and becomes a mutuality of gender expressions, recovering a brute, warlike masculinity on the other side of woman. The mushy, spiritual New Ageism that makes much of the American Right recoil goes in two powerful directions. There are the strong gender (and sexuality) political questions that can at times dominate social discussion (for instance the question of Gay Marriage which rears its head and subsides with great tidal force), but these are intimately linked I believe to questions of technological synthesis, the way in which we feel the world through our technologies in such a way that they engender us, and steer us away from a much more (symbolically) masculine instrumental relationship to our capacities. The entire Gaia feminization of the world which some protest, and which marks something of the vitalisms of contemporary philosophy, are questions of immersion, how deeply should our body sink into our capacities, and feel our way forward through what is modern. The contest between instrument and embodiment is an aesthetic contest between distance and speed, something mediated by affect and our control of affects (most regularly codified and regimented in the register of gender). In this sense, the battleground of gender, in politics, and the seemingly reactionary political entrenchment on the issue of sexual rights and actions is to be expected, and in fact, respected, as the entire social body seeking equilibrium amid vast change in capacity to feel and do.

Animal, Woman, Child: Vitalism and Technology

To give some context to what is as stake, here is a selection from Deleuze and Guattari’s a thousand plateaus which I juxtapose to the gender, technological and conscience transformations of Avatar’s Sully:

What is a girl, what is a group of girls? Proust at least has shown us once and for all that their individuation, collective or singular, proceeds not by subjectivity but by haecceity, pure haecceity. “Fugitive beings.” They are pure relations of speeds and slownesses, and nothing else. A girl is late on account of her speed: she did too many things, crossed too many spaces in relation to the relative time of the person waiting for her. Thus her apparent slowness is transformed into the breakneck speed of our waiting. (292)

The girl’s becoming is stolen first, in order to impose a history, or prehistory, upon her. The boy’s turn comes next, but it is by using the girl as an example, by pointing to the girl as the object of his desire, that an opposed organism, a dominant history is fabricated for him too. The girl is the first victim, but she must also serve as an example and a trap. That is why, conversely, the reconstruction of the body as a Body without Organs, the anorganism of the body, is inseparable from a becoming-woman, or the production of a molecular woman. Doubtless, the girl becomes a woman in the molar or organic sense. But conversely, becoming-woman or the molecular woman is the girl herself. The girl is certainly not defined by virginity; she is defined by a relation of movement and rest, speed and slowness, by a combination of atoms, an emission of particles: haecceity. She never ceases to roam upon a body without organs. She is an abstract line, or a line of flight. Thus girls do not belong to an age group, sex, order, or kingdom: they slip in everywhere, between orders, acts, ages, sexes; they produce n molecular sexes on the line of flight in relation to the dualism machines they cross right through. (297-8)

Although all becomings are already molecular, including becoming woman, it must be said that all becomings begin with and pass through becoming-woman. It is the key to all the other becomings. When the man of war disguises himself as a woman, flees disguised as a girl, hides as a girl, it is not a shameful, transitory incident in his life. To hide, to camouflage oneself, is a warrior function, and the line of flight attracts the enemy, traverses something and puts what it traverses to flight; the warrior arises in the infinity of a line of flight. Although the femininity of the man of war is not accidental, it should not be thought of as structural, or regulated by a correspondence of relations. It is difficult to see how the correspondence between the two relations “man-war” and “woman-marriage” could entail an equivalence between the warrior and the girl as a woman who refuses to marry.61 It is just as difficult to see how the general bisexuality, or even homosexuality, of military societies could explain this phenomenon, which is no more imitative than it is structural, representing instead an essential anomie of the man of war. This phenomenon can only be understood in terms of becoming. We have seen how the man of war, by virtue of his furor and celerity, was swept up in irresistible becomings-animal. These are becomings that have as their necessary condition the becoming-woman of the warrior, or his alliance with the girl, his contagion with her. The man of war is inseparable from the Amazons. The union of the girl and the man of war does not produce animals, but simultaneously produces the becoming-woman of the latter and the becoming-animal of the former, in a single “block” in which the warrior in turn becomes animal by contagion with the girl at the same time as the girl becomes warrior by contagion with the animal. Everything ties together in an asymmetrical block of becoming, an instantaneous zigzag. It is in the vestiges of a double war machine— that of the Greeks, soon to be supplanted by the State, and that of the Amazons, soon to be dissolved—that Achilles and Penthesilea, the last man of war and the last queen of the girls, choose one another, Achilles in a becoming-woman, Penthesilea in a becoming-dog.

The rites of transvestism or female impersonation in primitive societies in which a man becomes a woman are not explainable by a social organization that places the given relations in correspondence, or by a psychic organization that makes the woman desire to become a man just as the man desires to become a woman.62 Social structure and psychic identification leave too many special factors unaccounted for: the linkage, unleashing, and communication of the becomings triggered by the transvestite; the power (puissance) of the resultant becoming-animal; and above all the participation of these becomings in a specific war machine. The same applies for sexuality: it is badly explained by the binary organization of the sexes, and just as badly by a bisexual organization within each sex. Sexuality brings into play too great a diversity of conjugated becomings; these are like n sexes, an entire war machine through which love passes. This is not a return to those appalling metaphors of love and war, seduction and conquest, the battle of the sexes and the domestic squabble, or even the Strindberg-war: it is only after love is done with and sexuality has dried up that things appear this way. What counts is that love itself is a war machine endowed with strange and somewhat terrifying powers. Sexuality is the production of a thousand sexes, which are so many uncontrollable becomings. Sexuality proceeds by way of the becoming-woman of the man and the becoming-animal of the human: an emission of particles. (299-300)

In a strong and distinct sense, every technological evolution requires a becoming-woman, a becoming-animal, a becoming-child, which necessarily must also involve distinct political reterritorialization of categories, a reaction, at the social-political level. Techologies are micro- molecular invasions of affect upon the body politic, one might say, and involve necessary immunological response.

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