Academic journal article Discourse (Detroit, MI)

Avatar and the Movements of Neocolonial Sentimental Cinema

Academic journal article Discourse (Detroit, MI)

Avatar and the Movements of Neocolonial Sentimental Cinema

Article excerpt

Modes of literature, art, and film animate the body and acculturate its movements. Sentimentalism, an Enlightenment epistemology and aesthetic mode that remains a viable form in commercial cinema, makes the audience's embodied connection with the characters onscreen central to the pleasure of viewing. In the present moment, something is often dismissively called "sentimental" when its flagrant and seemingly feminized indulgence in emotion appears rather more cliché than heartfelt. Sentimental approaches to knowledge production position self-reflective feelings as the individual's most reliable indicator of truth. As an aesthetic mode, sentimental texts seek to elicit emotional and physiological feelings in audiences that mirror those of the characters, most famously in the form of melodrama's shared tears.1 Yet while sentimentality in cinema serves as a particularly useful resource for thinking about how images move the viewer's body, all modes create patterns of sensory and motor response. Building on Kara Keeling's notion of cinematic "common sense," a set of habituated sensorimotor movements and collective images shared by contemporary consumers of film, I suggest that modes function as a political organization of the senses.2 Modes train sensorimotor responses in the context of specific social relations such that they function as a political organization of affective response.

In this essay, I turn to James Cameron's blockbuster film Avatar (2009) to explore how and to what ends contemporary sentimental cinema moves the bodies of its subjects and audience.3 The highest-grossing film yet released, Abater combines the emotional intensity of a tearjerker with the suspense and stimulation of a violent action film. This familiar and profitable combination of sensation and sentiment provokes us to consider how the pleasure of predictable cinema consists of the emotional satisfaction not only of met expectations but also of performing a habitual repertoire of physical sensations.4 The synchronic "pulse beats and sobs" of the bodies of viewer and actor in sentimental texts transpire through the exercise of sympathy, an imaginative projection into the hearts, minds, and bodies of another.5 Typically in U.S. nineteenthand twentieth-century iterations of the mode, the objects of sympathy have been marginalized by the social processes of race, class, and/or disability. The viewer thus simultaneously experiences the relief of an emotional catharsis, the munificence of an affective rescue, and the gratification of a newfound position of status vis-à-vis the abject position of the object of viewer sympathy.61 examine how Cameron marshals existing patterns of sensory-emotional movement typical of the sentimental mode while also adapting the form to contemporary political and technological conditions. Synchronically moving the bodies of characters and viewers on the level of content, production, and reception, Cameron creates a neoliberal iteration of sentimentalism that markets sensory stimulations, emotional movements, and affective responses. Through both plot and 3-D formal composition, Avatar extends the sentimental premise that the modern subject can animate the bodies of racial and sexual Others through imagining to feel and move as their bodies do. While generations of liberal reformers have argued that the experience of shared feeling elicited by sentimental texts produces a powerful affective bond that can be harnessed into social change, recent work in feminist criticism underscores the degree to which sentimentalism depends on asymmetrical power relations.7 Avatar brings into stark relief the degree to which sentimentalism stimulates the sensation of the audiences' own responsive, sympathetic body through dismissing the sovereignty of movement of the "savage."

Focusing on the centrality of movement to sentimental dynamics helps clarify the role of movement in affective responses and emotional relations. In what follows, I explore how sentimentalism functions as a key rhetoric of movement, one intertwined with the logic of racialization and colonialism, by briefly addressing the nineteenth-century heyday of sentimental popular culture in the United States. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.