Avatar the Last Airbender and the Enframing
Benjamin N. Parks
“The sun’s warmth is challenged forth for heat, which in turn is ordered to deliver steam whose pressure turns the wheels that keep a factory running.” This quote from German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) on the steam turbine could just as easily describe the Fire Nation’s approach to the world. Heidegger’s quote is from “The Question Concerning Technology,” his famous critique of technology in which he shows that technology is not just the devices we use but a way of thinking about the world and all that is in it. It is a kind of vision (15). The heart of technology is what he calls the “Enframing,” a bit of jargon that means seeing the world solely as a big source of power. In this way of thinking, a mountain is no longer a mountain with its forests, animals, etc., but a big lump of coal waiting to be extracted. The great danger of this view is that everything, including people, becomes a mere source of power to be put to use.
Examples in ATLA abound. A recurring plot point is the Fire Nation’s destruction of nature as they extract resources and energy from forests, mountains, and streams. This is perhaps seen most clearly in the “The Painted Lady” (Book Three, episode 3). The Fire Nation had completely ruined the river and lives of the villagers with their military factory. For the Fire Nation, the river was nothing more than a means of running their factory. Then there is the comet. It is spoken of in no other terms than what it can provide for the Fire Nation’s ability to wage war. When Sozin or Ozai talk about the comet, they only speak of its usefulness for conquest. All Ozai can say is that it will give firebenders, “the power of a hundred suns” (“The Southern Raiders,” Book Three, episode 16). In contrast, Suki – a non-bender from the Earth Kingdom –sees the comet as something other than a resource of power. Full of awe, she says to Sokka and Toph, “It’s weird to say, but the comet actually looks beautiful” (“Sozin’s Comet, Part 3: Into the Inferno,” Book Three, episode 20). Suki, it would seem, is able to see things outside of the Enframing that has captured so much of the Fire Nation.
Additionally, firebenders see bending as an instrument for power. Firebending is perhaps best understood as the manipulation of physical – not spiritual – energy, of power itself. Combustion Man does not bend flames (“The Headband,” Book Three episode 2). Iroh and Sozin are both shown transferring heat without flame or explosion: Iroh heating tea and Sozin cooling lava (“The Serpent’s Pass,” Book Two, episode 12; “The Avatar and the Fire Lord,” Book Three, episode 6). It is no surprise then that many, if not most, firebenders see firebending as nothing more than a display of raw power. Among the firebenders that we meet, only Iroh, Jeong Jeong, and Zuko (eventually) see and understand firebending the way that the Sun Warriors do – as an expression of life.
The other elements are not as readily seen by their benders in the way that the Fire Nation sees fire. Water and earth exist outside the bender and make their own claims on their benders. Earth is a stubborn element. Water flows. Both must be available for the bender to utilize, unlike fire which is always available (except on the day of the black sun). Air is always available, but airbending is the most spiritual of the bending arts. The airbenders renounce, or at least are supposed to renounce, all attachments and the violence to which attachment leads. Moreover, airbending emphasizes creativity and thinking outside the box, and insofar that it does that, it resists being put into the box in which the Fire Nation wants to force the world. Yet, as we will see below, even the most spiritual of bending arts can be subjugated to the demands of power.
The Fire Nation when it encounters the three other elements only sees them as a means of power. They then use what could be called technological bending to manipulate the other three elements. In this way, the Fire Nation “bends” earth with the giant drill used to breach the outer wall of Ba Sing Se, a feat made possible by their taking earth in the form of coal and setting it on fire to change water into steam and drive their engines (“The Drill,” Book Two, episode 13). Thus, water too is dominated by fire and put to use. So sure of their domination of water through technology, Azula orders (threatens) her ship’s captain to take the ship into port against the tide (“The Avatar State,” Book Two, episode 1). Even air does not escape the Fire Nation’s grip. Hot air is used to lift the war balloons which transforms the skies from a place of joy, freedom, and creativity (as the airbenders would see it) to a place of war, a place from which the Fire Nation can cast fire upon the earth (“Sozin’s Comet, Part 3: Into the Inferno,” Book Three, episode 20).
Finally, this way of thinking is not limited to the Fire Nation and not limited to benders. For example, it is shared by the Mechanist. Even though he is well intentioned, his technological mindset inhibits him from seeing the beauty and sacredness of the Northern Air Temple (“The Northern Air Temple,” Book One, episode 17). Additionally, he invents – at the behest of the Fire Nation – the war balloon. Another non-Fire Nation example is earthbender General Fong’s attempt to use the Avatar State as a mere weapon. The spiritual aspects of the Avatar State fade from view, and more importantly, Aang as an individual unique person fades as well. All that matters to Fong is the raw destructive power of the Avatar State. As he declares to Aang, “With you leading the way, as the ultimate weapon, we could cut a swath right through to the heart of the Fire Nation” (“The Avatar State,” Book Two, episode 1). Aang’s concern that he pursues his destiny his own way, to say nothing of the spiritual dimensions of the Avatar’s duties, is brushed aside.
The danger Heidegger saw in the technological mindset was that it might eventually enframe everything including people and that no one will escape thinking technologically. The Fire Nation has made the greatest strides to that end, but as we just saw, the Enframing is not exclusive to the Fire Nation. To the Mechanist and Fong we could add Hama and bloodbending: all the spiritual and non-combative elements of waterbending drop away (“The Puppetmaster,” Book Three, episode 8). No harmony of the yin and yang of the koi, no communing with nature like the swamp benders, just the reduction of water, the very stuff of life, to a resource to be used as a means of power.
Despite claims to the contrary, Heidegger was not a pessimist. He did not think escaping the Enframing is impossible. In fact, he thought that escaping it was a matter of time. Unsurprisingly for a philosopher, Heidegger thought that philosophical reflection could provide the way out by helping us to recognize the nature of technology, which would in turn allow us to think differently. Subsequent thinkers have drawn attention to the importance of education in this endeavor (Thomson). Specifically, education as concern for, which is a kind of care, the youth (Stiegler). Iroh and his care for Zuko that ultimately led to Zuko being free of the Enframing is a good example of the kind of education that resists technological reductionism.
There are other ways besides education and philosophy that are suggested in the series. Toph can think of earth in a more holistic way because she is blind. Her lack of physical sight puts her out of the patterns of thinking common to the so-called able bodied. It is in that space of being that she is able to think of earth in a non-reductive sense. Aang falls back on the teachings of the monks and spiritual practices, suggesting that a return to older traditions can help us move forward and develop a technology that does not dehumanize us. For that matter, Zuko does the same when he meets the Sun Warriors.
There is no one solution to the question of technology. Any single solution can eventually succumb to the technological mindset. In fact, we have seen this in a variety of ways with education and spirituality. However, a variety of methods can chip away at the Enframing and provide alternative paths when we have fallen to the logic of technology on one path. It is no surprise then that in addition to Heidegger there have been several philosophers like Ellul, Albert Borgmann (1937- ), Peter-Paul Verbeek (1970- ), and Bernard Stiegler (1952-2020), who have all provided different, complementary solutions to the question of technology. That we would see this multiplicity of approach reflected in ATLA is not surprising. After all, it is a very Avatar solution: combining the different elements to overcome the Enframing.
Benjamin N. Parks is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Medical Ethics at Mercy College of Ohio. He was once made fun in high school for watching Avatar the Last Airbender. He was eventually proven right about the show.
Heidegger, Martin. 1969. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Translated by William Lovitt. New York: Harper.