Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)
Author: James Rovira
Note: This paper has enjoyed a long, circuitous history, originating in a very short 1999 essay on the first film entitled “Baudrillard and Hollywood: Subverting the Mechanisms of Control and The Matrix1
It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of Empire, but of ours. The desert of the real itself.2
Welcome to the desert of the real.3
The marriage of art and idea is an old one in western culture. From the dominance of theological motifs over medieval creative production to the influence of psychoanalytic theory upon early 20th century art and literature, the western aesthetic has consistently taken direction in both form and theme from abstract theoretical frameworks. The mid to late 20th century saw this relationship become increasingly self-conscious as postmodern theory became a dominant paradigm. The Matrix Trilogy derives its aesthetic in part from the sociological theory of Jean Baudrillard, whose Simulacra and Simulation makes its appearance in The Matrix as Thomas Anderson (Neo) opens it to a chapter entitled “On Nihilism.” The hardcover book is hollow, serving as Neo’s hiding place for black market software. He opens the book at the halfway point – the opening page of the final chapter, “On Nihilism,” lies to the left in the closely focused shot while the right half is a hollowed out storage area. Since “On Nihilism” is the book’s last chapter, not a middle chapter, it appears that the directors deliberately placed this chapter in the shot to direct viewers to a specific referential point for the film, a placement which may also establish the central trope of the first film, computer technology as nihilism. Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, in fact, is so intricately woven into the Trilogy’s narrative structure that the films can be described as deliberate attempts to validate Baudrillard’s theory.4 Furthermore, the directors required cast members to read this book among others prior to shooting the first film.5 Simulacra and Simulation, however, appears to be the only Baudrillard appropriated by the films; therefore the Trilogy serves as the Wachowski Brothers’ snapshot of Baudrillard rather than an engagement with his thought over time.
But the films draw their inspiration from more than Baudrillard. Almost paradoxically, religious imagery seemingly confronts the viewer at every turn. Neo, the One, the savior of humanity, dies and returns to life and has remarkable abilities within the Matrix. He is sought out and revealed by a John the Baptist figure, Morpheus, is betrayed by a Judas figure, Cypher, and is loved by Trinity. When he becomes the One he attains simultaneous consciousness and control of his surroundings; his perception of the Matrix environment as streams of computer code at the end of the first film signals the apex of his enlightenment and also the point at which he has absolute mastery of the Matrix, “miraculously” immune to bullets and even death.
Baudrillard and overt religious imagery seem odd theoretical bedfellows. Religion is virtually non-existent in “On Nihilism”, having been twice displaced: “The true revolution of the nineteenth century, of modernity, is the radical destruction of appearances, the disenchantment of the world and its abandonment to the violence of interpretation and history”.6 Religion is neither named nor a discreet object in “On Nihilism”; it is a displaced member of the class of “appearances,” part of a previous enchantment from which the nineteenth century was disenchanted by “modernity.”
If Baudrillard’s “On Nihilism” describes the destruction of both meaning and appearances, once meaning has been destroyed by appearances, what is left? In the midst of a deconstructed society no images, signs, or sign systems are available for the act of construction that seems so inevitable to human thinking. I argue that the Wachowski Brothers, dissatisfied with a deconstructed, meaningless society, appropriated religious imagery to meet their need for positive statement in a flight from their reading of Baudrillard’s nihilism in Simulacra and Simulation7 , creating an effectively generic sign system to represent the process of enlightenment, one so effectively generic that any and every connection – from Christ to Gödel to Buddhism – is relevant, whether or not it directly informs the films or is even known to the directors.
So it is quite possible that The Matrix Trilogy not only points to the past and present future of science fiction, but to the past and present future of religion by following this progression: as the utopias of science fiction give way to dystopian (nihilistic) visions of apocalypse, religion’s promises of an ensuing golden age become irresistible. The Matrix Trilogy’s dialectic of enlightenment is one engaging both instrumental reason and mystical religious experience: as Baudrillard guided readers from a twice displaced religion (traditional Christianity) to postmodernism’s displaced scientific grand narratives (instrumental reason), The Matrix Trilogy guides viewers from the wasteland of displaced instrumental reason back to religion. Not, however, to the religion of orthodox grand narratives once replaced by science, but to a religion of mystical experience and individual enlightenment, one centered on a self aware of the multiple hegemonies defining its existence, anxiously seeking some escape from that which it is completely dependent upon. This progression will be followed first by reading the Wachowski Brothers’ visual text against Baudrillard’s printed one to their point of divergence, to the point that the anxiety inherent in the visual text leaps from the destruction of appearances to the construction of a new world, from Baudrillard’s nihilism to the Trilogy’s budding, fragile utopia.
The Matrix: Hyperreality As Total Control
In the pre-history of The Matrix Trilogy, which also finds exposition from the machine point of view in the Animatrix shorts, human computer technology developed to the point of creating an artificial intelligence: a thinking, willing, self-determined, conscious computer. This computer continued to learn and grow, “spawning a whole race of machines”,8 incrementally gaining influence over human society to the point of almost total control. Human response took the form of a nuclear cataclysm intended to initiate a nuclear winter that would block sunlight from the surface of the Earth and shut down the solar-powered computer.
The plot of The Matrix Trilogy, to this point, is unoriginal. The Terminator films operate on a similar premise. But the extension of the war into the minutia of human consciousness and its subsequent ontological questioning generates an aura of mystical enlightenment, especially in the first film. This extension of control takes place in response to the nuclear cataclysm: the machines started breeding human beings for use as a power source, developing a technology that grew people in gel-filled pods, intravenously feeding them nutrients while tapping their body heat and electro-chemical activity to power the machine society. To keep people alive as long as possible the machine world developed a program called “the Matrix,” an exact virtual duplicate or, as it is called in the film, “neural interactive simulation,” of late 20th century earth.9 People grown in pods, nicknamed “coppertops” to reflect their sole purpose of powering a computer,10 are plugged directly into the computer network via implants in the bases of their skulls. Those within the Matrix perceive themselves as living out a normal life somewhere in late 20th century earth while in reality they spend their lives within a pod.
Compare this plotline to Baudrillard’s “The Precession of Simulacra,” which asserts that simulation “is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal”.11 His word for this model of a real “without origin or reality” is “simulacrum”: a copy without an original. The “desert of the real” signifies that the simulacrum, the imitation, now has more vitality and integrity than the original, which is fraying beneath the edges of the imitation, decaying, “rotting like a carcass”.12 This construct moves beyond imitation, it works by substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have a chance to produce itself.13
This is almost precisely the world of The Matrix Trilogy. The “real” late 20th century earth is a charred, uninhabitable wasteland, impossible to reproduce or recover, while 20th century earth in simulacrum is vital, alive, and unchanged.
The diabolical nature of simulacra is reflected not only by its concealment of the decay of the real but through its intent, an intent Baudrillard seeks to expose in the essay “Simulacra and Science Fiction”.14 In this essay he describes three levels of simulacra, each reflected by three forms of science fiction: natural simulacra, represented in utopian literature; productive simulacra, represented in “traditional” science fiction; and the simulacra of simulation, represented in Philip K. Dick’s Simulacra and J.G. Ballard’s Crash and projected to be the science fiction of the future. In Dick’s novel the west, a conglomeration of Europe and the United States, is divided into different levels, each characterized by the depth of their knowledge of the fictions that govern society. Publicly visible leadership consists of a First Lady and different Presidents elected to be her husband. But the latest Presidents do not exist. They are simulacrum created by private industry working under government contracts. The company contracted to produce these presidents, when threatened to be cut out of the next contract by the First Lady, exposes the secret and the west unravels. Fringe elements, which readers later learn operate in conjunction with the state, try to take control and establish a totalitarian state. It is this third form of simulacrum that is reproduced in The Matrix Trilogy, the latest in a line of science fiction stories that trap human beings within a simulated world.
It should be noted at this point that in May 2002 a New York Times editorialist reported Baudrillard’s claim that the first Matrix film proceeds from a misunderstanding of his books15 , an idea also expressed by Baudrillard in a relatively recent interview with Le Nouvel Observateur.16 Baudrillard’s claim reflects his opinion of the first film’s flirtation with ontological questions about reality and perception he disregarded for the sake of social analysis. Simulacra and Simulation’s premises are “almost precisely” the world of the film because in the film a real world still exists and is still meaningful and accessible in relationship to the Matrix. It is at this point that Baudrillard argues the film misunderstands his philosophy, substituting simulation for epistemological questions, with Morpheus even repeating Plato’s old question about knowing the difference between a dream and the real world:
But there [in The Matrix films] the set-up is cruder and does not truly evoke the problem. The actors are in the matrix, that is, in the digitized system of things; or, they are radically outside it, such as in Zion, the city of resistors. But what would be interesting is to show what happens when these two worlds collide. The most embarrassing part of the film is that the new problem posed by simulation is confused with its classical, Platonic treatment.17
The first film’s references to Lewis Carroll also reflect a confusion of simulation with its “classical, Platonic treatment.” The Wachowski Brothers interrogate metaphysical questions in the first film that Baudrillard claimed were abandoned by the third level of science fiction, the level of science fiction that The Matrix Trilogy intends to represent. It should be observed, however, that the films abandon the ontological questioning so heavily stressed in the first film to focus more and more on control, and knowledge as a means of control, as the central issues of the second and third films. This raises the likely possibility that the Wachowski Brothers were never primarily interested in ontological questioning, which over the course of the Trilogy gave way to discourse on social control.
This discourse on control, according to Baudrillard’s argument in Simulacra and Simulation, is fully exploited in the third level of simulacra, the simulacrum of simulation, which is “founded on information, the model, the cybernetic game – total operationality, hyperreality, aim of total control”.18 He asserts that Dick’s novel depicts a gigantic “hologram in three dimensions, in which fiction will never again be a mirror held toward the future, but a desperate hallucination of the past”,19 and that in its historical moment this type of science fiction is produced by societies that have lost the pioneering imagination, that have spanned their territory from ocean to ocean, because “when the map covers the whole territory, something like the principle of reality disappears”.20 He argues that human excursions into space, which effectively project earthly habitats into the transcendence of outer space, signal the “the end of metaphysics, the end of the phantasm, the end of science fiction”21 and the beginning of the era of hyperreality.
Baudrillard goes into some detail about his projected future of science fiction:
It is no longer possible to fabricate the unreal from the real, the imaginary from the givens of the real. The process will, rather, be the opposite: it will be to put decentered situations, models of simulation in place and to contrive to give them the feeling of the real, of the banal, of lived experience, to reinvent the real as fiction, precisely because it has disappeared from our life.22
Baudrillard’s thesis is workable, but not without problems, as it could be argued that all three levels of simulacra had as their concern “total control” in varying forms – the first could be said to be concerned with mastery of a new physical environment, the second with mastery of a new network of societies, and the third with mastery of individual consciousness. All three can be seen in operation at once in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s arch enemy, the Borg. A more effective description would seek to describe the different types of control represented by each of these forms of science fiction, each an expression of instrumental reason. As one domain is mastered, mastery of the next is sought, until ubiquitous control extends even to the minutia of human consciousness.
So Baudrillard’s thesis has two apparent problems: one, that the distinction between these levels of simulacra may be unnecessarily artificial, a problem which may be mediated by Baudrillard’s later introduction of a fourth order of simulacra which, unfortunately, appears to have been ignored by the Wachowski Brothers, and two, the simple historical problem of the rise of science fiction: level two simulacra came into existence in the United States, at least, after the map covered the territory, after the nation had expanded from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Second order science fiction’s dominance extends from the late 19th century until almost the 21st, the apparent relevant factor not being a change in the world of production but a change in technology which gives rise to new imaginative possibilities.
The hyperreal in The Matrix serves the purpose of total control, as in Baudrillard. Morpheus’ speech to Neo during his first experience of a miniature “neural interactive simulation” in scene 12, “The Real World,” attempts pure exposition of Baudrillard’s thesis. After explaining to Neo late 20th century earth history and the purpose of the Matrix, Morpheus goes on to ask, “What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this” (he holds up a coppertop battery).23 As in Baudrillard, the simulacra of simulation that is the Matrix is a device seeking to reduce human existence to no purpose but the guarantee of the continued survival of the system. Twentieth century humans, reduced to “consumers” in modern democracies, rather than citizen or brother or neighbor or even enemy, have become like cattle whose defecation fertilizes the ground from which we feed, existing only to feed our owners and kept within set bounds we never transgress. This is the Wachowski Brothers’ commentary on late 20th century consumerist democracies and our participation in it: that we have been reduced to the status of drones feeding the system upon which we are dependent, and the system works hard to keep us from this knowledge. This observation is central to Baudrillard’s own thinking upon the subject:
Nouvel Observateur: It is rather shocking to see that, henceforth, all American marketing successes, from The Matrix to Madonna’s new album, are presented as critiques of the system which massively promotes them.
Baudrillard: That is exactly what makes our times so oppressive. The system produces a negativity in trompe-l’oeil, which is integrated into products of the spectacle just as obsolescence is built into industrial products. It is the most efficient way of incorporating all genuine alternatives. There are no longer external Omega points or any antagonistic means available in order to analyze the world; there is nothing more than a fascinated adhesion. One must understand, however, that the more a system nears perfection, the more it approaches the total accident. It is a form of objective irony stipulating that nothing ever happened. September 11th participated in this. Terrorism is not an alternative power, it is nothing except the metaphor of this almost suicidal return of Western power on itself. That is what I said at the time, and it was not widely accepted. But it is not about being nihilistic or pessimistic in the face of all that. The system, the virtual, the matrix – all of these will perhaps return to the dustbin of history. For reversibility, challenge and seduction are indestructible.24
Despite these confluences, since the first film established a real against a simulation rather than positing a truly hyperreal – a characteristic of first level simulacra rather than third – Baudrillard could legitimately complain that “The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce”.25
“On Nihilism” is Simulacra and Simulation‘s description of the progression of nihilism parallel to “Simulacra and Science Fiction’s” description of the progression of science fiction. Baudrillard contrasts the nihilism of the 19th century, characterized by “the destruction of appearances …in the service of meaning (representation, history, etc.)” with the nihilism of the 20th century which entails the destruction of meaning itself. Baudrillard’s claim that the “true revolution of the nineteenth century, of modernity, is the radical destruction of appearances”26 parallels Lyotard’s metahistorical narrative opening The Postmodern Condition. “Modernity” in the form of Marxism, Darwinian evolutionary theory, and Freud’s theory of the mind destroyed the appearances imposed upon human thought via the previous grand narratives provided by religion and in turn have suffered at the hands of postmodernism.
Postmodernism is Baudrillard’s “second revolution, that of the twentieth century …which is the immense process of the destruction of meaning”.27 The destruction of meaning is the destruction of what had been called “meaning” by its redefinition as appearance – the introduction of the hyperreal. Terrorism of the past relied upon aleatory violence to provide the necessary function of “checking the system in broad daylight”.28 Terrorism of the present, according to Baudrillard, is concerned with transparency, melancholy, and fascination: simulacra are made transparent to reveal the loss of the real beneath them; nihilism is melancholic because it is overcome by an indifference inspired by the transparency of simulacra; the nihilist’s fascination is fascination “by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance”.29 These are all facets of a nihilism directed toward the hyperreal, and this is the type of nihilism represented in The Matrix Trilogy. Morpheus and his group are understood by those who seek to preserve the system as dangerous terrorists, but not because of the physical destruction they cause. Morpheus and his group are known as terrorists because of their awareness that they are primarily destroying appearances. Because the Trilogy flees true simulation, however, these appearances are so intimately linked with a “real” human being beneath it that to kill the one is to kill the other. Absolute liberation is suicide, or only by suicide, and it is at the point of this realization that the Wachowski Brothers stall in the face of Baudrillard’s nihilism.
The second movie in the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded, reinforces our awareness of the intimate connection between reality and appearance while allowing them to remain distinct categories, and to the extent this is emphasized Baudrillard’s thesis is being abandoned. Even Zion is dependent upon machines, and to shut down the Matrix will be, consequently, to shut down the millions of lives dependent upon it. Neo, at the end of the second film, risks the lives of those living in Zion by refusing to submit to the mechanisms of control, and at this point it’s not apparent that he hasn’t already risked or sacrificed the lives of every human being in the Matrix as well. The reasoning here quite possibly mirrors state reasoning intended to justify civilian casualties in time of war, introducing the problematic of killing those, or at least some of those, you intend to liberate. At some point death itself appears to be liberation. The third film resolves this tension the only way possible: a detenté with the machines for the sake of defeating the “Antichrist” within the Matrix mythology, Agent Smith. Through his ubiquitous self replication he threatens to transform the entire human and machine world into a single, self replicated “I”. Absolute control would be guaranteed by the existence of only a single will and consciousness, the ultimate trajectory of the Wachowski Brothers’ fictional world.
Baudrillard goes on to argue in “On Nihilism” that nihilism today still checks the system in broad daylight, but not with weapons: “Theoretical violence, not truth, is the only resource left to us”.30 His immediate hope is that “the more hegemonic the system, the more the imagination is struck by the smallest of its reversals. The challenge, even infinitesimal, is the image of a chain failure”.31 Comparing even the most infinitesimal challenge of a hegemonic system to a wry smile at the end of an impassioned speech, Baudrillard claims that such a challenge invalidates everything said previously, “effaces the whole discourse”32 of both the speech and the system. The Matrix Reloaded reveals that even Zion is the product of an infinitesimal system anomaly within the Matrix that needed to be maintained in order for the system to work at all. Intuition is pit against instrumental reason in a dialectic in which each is dependent upon the other. Baudrillard ultimately asserts that the situation is insoluble in relationship to human freedom because the system itself is nihilistic, absorbing both physical and theoretical violence into its own indifference. The Architect’s goal in The Matrix Reloaded is the incorporation of the unique insights of Neo, the latest version of the One, into itself until all potential choices produced by intuition exist only as choices within the Matrix. At that point the Matrix’s designer fantasizes that his system will have achieved total control. In Baudrillard, even death “shines by virtue of its absence” and participants remain seduced by appearances again, appearance imposing itself upon us through the meaning that ostensibly destroyed it.33
So Baudrillard’s stark insertion of himself into the matrix of his text, “I am a nihilist”,34 is the Wachowski Brothers’ looking glass, a moment of clarity they touch which simultaneously threatens to consume them and transforms into their escape hatch. Neo’s final confrontation with Agent Smith, who effectively outthinks himself while Neo, confident, overcomes through submission, is Baudrillard’s wry smile. But the destruction wrought isn’t Baudrillard’s, the destruction of the system, which would have had cataclysmic consequences within the world of the Matrix, but a destruction displaced onto the interloper and Antichrist in the human/machine system of relations, Agent Smith. This introduction of an Antichrist is the fulcrum on which the Wachowski Brothers escape from nihilism turns, the payoff of their appropriation of religious imagery, their means of escaping from apocalypse and nihilism into utopia.
III. Through the Looking Glass, Beyond the Hyperreal, and Toward Religious Enlightenment./strong>
Recent events in the United States seem to bear out Baudrillard’s observations: physical terrorist violence only strengthens the grip of the system as people become willing to substitute knowledge, privacy, and governmental accountability for security. At this point, of course, the value of Baudrillard’s observations to the film world come into question. What is the purpose of the knowledge gained by his analysis if even Baudrillard’s own theoretical violence is ineffectual? Is the social critic and theorist a clownish figure pointing out incongruities we all accept? This seems validated by the mass market success of The Matrix Trilogy itself: if a discourse critical of societal control is widely disseminated by mainstream media, “cool,” and used to sell everything from cell phones to flat screen TVs isn’t our rebellion just part of the system itself, as Zion was a well accounted for anomaly in relationship to the Matrix? William Merrin’s a propos, entertainingly sarcastic observation deserves attention here:
Arguably the stars of the film for our identification are not Neo and Morpheus but their clip-on shades, leather coats, machine guns, and mobile phones. This is film itself as a techno-chic object of consumption; as style, statement, and pure sign-object. And if it is possible to identify so completely with the shade-adorned, VR enhanced, kung-fu-programmed and hyper-armed video-game characters, do we not thereby lose the right to side with Neo in defence of the “100% pure, old-fashioned, home-grown human”? Shouldn’t we really be rooting for the machines?35
Or is there an optimism masked by the mere act of writing, one that presupposes “enlightenment” in the form of knowledge of the individual’s material system of relations can empower the individual to break free, to some degree, of the system in which all are caught? In his Le Nouvel Observateur interview Baudrillard asserted that this was the most oppressive facet of the system, but “the more a system nears perfection, the more it approaches the total accident”.36 Is this hope? For those caught in the Matrix, as for those who live under the constant threat of nuclear war, total accident is death.
A material system of relations isn’t irrelevant to the Wachowski Brothers’ seemingly metaphysical inquiries. The ubiquitous control exercised by the Matrix even (or especially) extends to the mundane sphere of the workplace, representing the individual’s economic existence. In the first film’s “They’re Coming for You” scene, Neo’s supervisor at the computer firm Metacortex (higher mind, drawing a parallel between the A.I. supercomputer and the organizational structures of the everyday workplaces) chastises Neo for being late to work by saying:
You have a problem with authority, Mr. Anderson. You believe that you are special, and that somehow the rules do not apply to you. Obviously you are mistaken. This company is one of the top software companies in the world because every single employee understands that they are part of a whole. Thus, if an employee has a problem, the company has a problem. The time has come to make a choice, Mr. Anderson. Either you choose to be at your desk on time from this day forward, or you choose to find yourself another job. Do I make myself clear?37
Ironically, window washers distract both Neo and his supervisor during the delivery of this reprimand, window cleaning representing both the clarity of the supervisor’s position and of Neo’s place in the workforce. The clarity of signification serves as the means of reinforcing an ideological construct, namely, the ideology guiding the workplace. Neo’s value in the workplace, similar to his value within the Matrix, is simply to feed the system. When he no longer does so he is flushed out. Control mechanisms are set up in both contexts to ensure he serves the role intended for him.
The system, the artificial world, interpellates (as per Althusser) each individual within it so completely that their perceived subjectivity is a complete fiction, a simulacrum, while their “real” subjectivity is completely unknown to them. Their fictional subjectivity is taken for granted, never questioned, even to the point where their real physical existence and perceived physical existence are literally worlds apart. This existence is maintained and supported by the Matrix for its own physical survival. Neo’s conversation with his supervisor parallels, precisely, his relationship to the Matrix, and it is a relationship in which he will play his part, subject himself to control, or he will be disciplined then removed by “agents” of control.
Since Morpheus, Trinity, Neo, and their group are known as terrorists within the world of the Matrix, physical violence overpowers the Trilogy. The “Lobby Shooting Spree” of the first film represents the films’ elevation of violence to a visual art; this scene among many glories in a sensual aesthetics of violence.38 The film’s cinematography emphasizes control through enlightenment, as in this shooting scene where a heavily armed Neo and Trinity kill over twenty security guards and special forces police to gain access to the building. Camera angles were carefully chosen to represent total control and manipulability of the shot. The film’s physical violence, however, is just a thin analog to the deeper violence Neo advocates in his final speech to the supercomputer from a phone booth, a violence that threatens the system and all caught within it, a violence that is ultimately theoretical, not physical:
I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us, you’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you, a world without rules or controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.39
The constant stream of digits that represents the Matrix stops then reads “System Failure” and Neo hangs up the phone, flying into the distance, into the space occupied by the audience. Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” plays to the closing credits: “Departments of police, the judges, the feds / Networks at work, keepin’ people calm / You know they went after King / When he spoke out on Vietnam / He turned the power to the have-nots / and then came the shot”.40 The physical violence in all three films symbolizes theoretical violence against a ubiquitous system designed to maintain control; when the hero gains enlightenment, he gains control.
In the second film Neo’s very enlightenment, however, is shown to be part of the system of control. This deconstructs the salvation narrative of the first film by locating its origin in the system itself. In a further reversal, we learn that the machine world isn’t governed by the Architect’s sole consciousness, but by multiple machine points of view vying for the promotion of competing agendas. Viewers learn in the second film that the Oracle is working for the system. They learn in the third film that she’s working, against the Architect’s will, to end the war and make peace with humanity, a possibility opened up to Neo in the third film by his encounter of a loving Indian (machine) family in the train station. The dialectic of enlightenment interrogated by this film trilogy, then, isn’t simply represented by a machine vs. human juxtaposition. Both sides of the dialectic are equally represented in both the human and machine worlds, both of which would come to an end if either attempted to gain complete control. The real threat, it seems, is only Agent Smith, the Antichrist.
This dialectic was initially represented by the pairs of options presented to Neo throughout the first film. He has two identities; Thomas Anderson, his interpellated subjectivity, and his hacker alias Neo, his intuitively known subjectivity (perhaps even his “class consciousness” in Lukác’s sense), the part of him that maintains a dim awareness that he lives a fiction and is seeking the truth. He must choose between the red and the blue pill, and by doing so chooses between ignorance and the truth about the Matrix. He must choose between his life and Morpheus’, between leaving his workplace by the scaffold (climbing to Promethean heights – in his fear he subjects himself to the agents of control rather than risk falling) or in the custody of agents, between the “real world” and the “dream world,” a distinction that is consistently confused throughout the films by agents of control. In every case, his choice is between conformity and self-determination; submission to the system and the subjectivity it has defined for him or the forging of his own consciousness; blindness or knowledge of the truth about his condition. The second film, rather than reinforcing the sign system established in the first film, assumes it while calling into question the very existence and meaning of choice. Where choices were once offered, they now appear to be part of the mechanism of control itself. Neo’s job in the third film is to untie the Gordian knot of free will and control, the very dialectic of enlightenment itself. He does so not by defeating the machines, but by making peace with them.
Baudrillard’s analysis offer readers similar choices, but without setting up human consciousness as the primary battleground because consciousness itself is a simulacrum. The Matrix Trilogy’s development of individual subjectivity in specifically non-materialist terms is where the film departs from Baudrillard’s influence and projects itself into the future, a development communicated through the film’s pervasive religious imagery. The film’s Christian imagery has already been described. Hindu and Buddhist belief systems are represented by two different children at the Oracle’s home in the first film and elsewhere in the trilogy. Any religion descending from the Vedas is an adequate contextualization for a personal enlightenment consisting of the truth that “you are a slave, Neo, like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch, a prison for your mind”.41 This is also reminiscent of Kant’s image of the human mind in Critique of Pure Reason as an island in a fog, separate and isolated from the external world. Neo’s enlightenment blows away the fog so that he completely perceives the world around him, turning idealism on its head while representing far more than just a material system of relations. It doesn’t matter if the Wachowski Brothers believe in any religion or all of them. It is significant that they had to appropriate religious symbols in place of a bare materialism to describe a desperately longed for liberation. It is this appropriation that may signal the coming shape of religion in the West.
The Baudrillard of Simulacra and Simulation might reject the first and third film’s optimism although his standpoint is mirrored in the second film. But overall the films’ response to and flight from Baudrillard’s nihilism is personal enlightenment, an enlightenment consisting of each individual realizing their condition and the nature of the matrix within which they are caught. Baudrillard implicitly values this realization however much he silences the language of individual enlightenment. His exposé of the mechanisms of societal control demands a telos that takes the form of an enlightened subjectivity attained by his readers at some time. The film’s unabashed optimism is that individuals can finally understand the system in which they are caught well enough to manipulate it according to their own wills, working independently of the will of the system, becoming programmers, becoming gods that can shape their environment to their own wills. It remains to be seen if disbelief in this optimism is nihilism or realism, or if nihilism is realism.
The Matrix Trilogy locates the future of science fiction and the possible future of western thought in its abandonment of purely materialist conceptions of social relations and a re-emphasis upon psychic, even “spiritual,” realities. Previous metanarratives focused attention beyond the inner self; Medieval and Renaissance theology looked through the material universe to a God and creator, while the scientism arising in the 19th century reduced the individual to a monad in a material world governed by mechanistic, unchangeable physical laws. Scientism is so transparently a substitute for theology, in fact, that a 2002/2003 college catalog entry for a course entitled “Narratives of Human Evolution: Neanderthals” conveys the instructor’s belief “that scientific evidence for our evolution suggests a narrative stranger and more wonderful than any creation myth or work of fiction”.42
Invoking the religious elements of mystery and wonder, this professor attempts to supplant religion by science with transparency, setting up scientists as priest/initiates in a gnosis uncovered through scientific research. Postmodern theory is a critique of this scientism which remains forever inadequate; any completely outward looking philosophy is inadequate to meet the intuitively felt need for personal enlightenment consistently represented in all three Matrix films. It is no coincidence that evil in the Trilogy is represented by a machine. We fear most what we ourselves have created, what we have constructed. Our creation anxiety directed toward the machine is but a trope in The Matrix Trilogy for our fears of our real creation: ourselves through our own technology. The machine is the world of human interaction, birthing us, feeding us, using us for its own survival and we are dependent upon it with seemingly nowhere else to go.
The machine is also a trope for instrumental reason. What happens when instrumental reason attains its own consciousness? Is it really necessary to posit a self conscious supercomputer to assert that the increasing ubiquity of the products of instrumental reason ultimately mechanizes the human? What form could revolt take then? The Wachowski Brothers may as well have invoked Marcuse at this point instead of Baudrillard, who frighteningly predicted in 1955 that guerilla warfare (read: terrorism) is the only outlet of revolt against a ubiquitous system:
The body against “the machine” – not against the mechanism constructed to make life safer and milder, to attenuate the cruelty of nature, but against the machine which has taken over the mechanism: the political machine, the corporate machine, the cultural and educational machine which has welded blessing and curse into one rational whole. The whole has become too big, its cohesion too strong, its function too efficient – does the power of the negative concentrate in still partly unconquered, primitive, elemental forces? The body against the machine: men, women, and children fighting, with the most primitive tools, the most brutal and destructive machine of all times and keeping it in check – does guerrilla warfare define the revolution of our time?43
The Matrix Reloaded confronts the reader with the inevitability only hinted at by Cypher’s character in the first film. The only way to save human beings caught within the Matrix and free them from machine control is for human beings to gut the consciousness of the machine and take control. But the choice, then, is between independent instrumental reason in the form of a machine, and instrumental reason in control of a small group of human beings. In the first film, Cypher escaped machine control to be subject to Morpheus’ orders; when he came to see his situation in that light, he chose a comfortable position in the Matrix to the “freedom” of being subject to human control.
Baudrillard’s thesis seems at first to be an advancement. While still providing its own metanarrative, it so thoroughly exposes outward looking metanarratives as constructs that the individual is turned in upon his or her own consciousness as the only grounds of judgment and value. But since this theory is itself still rooted in materialist philosophical predecessors such as Marxism (note Simulacra and Simulation’s invocation of the “real world of production” and the “potentially infinite universe of production”,44 ) the postmodern individual is left desperately seeking to transcend a self which has now become its prison, allowing narratives of religious awakening to an outward, transcendent, immaterial “reality” to have an almost irresistible appeal. If this progression from postmodern paradigms to ecstatic religious experience seems unlikely, consider this excerpt from a Methodist seminary’s 2003-2005 course catalog:
Jacques Derrida – long reviled as the progenitor of and poster boy for a radical, atheist, nihilistic relativism unleashed upon the world under the flag of something called ‘deconstruction’ – has more recently become the new poster boy for the convergence of themes in postmodernism and religion.45
Consider also that Derrida was the keynote speaker at the conference “Irreconcilable Differences? Jacques Derrida and the Question of Religion,” hosted by the University of Santa Barbara in October of 2003, and was plenary speaker at the 2002 joint conference of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature in Toronto.46 Religion tells us there is somewhere else to go: the transcendent. New religious metanarratives will be personal and non-dogmatic, experiential rather than doctrinal. There is a long tradition in many religious traditions that even distrusts language about God. To some Hindus, God is s/he “before whom all words recoil.” Christian Eastern Orthodoxy’s apophatic theology defines God as “not this”; once everything, even language, has been erased as “not God,” what is left is God. The unintended future of Baudrillard’s thesis is flight toward personal spiritual awareness, science fiction serving as a trope for religious enlightenment in The Matrix Trilogy. The post-postmodern period has seen the destruction of appearances and meaning turned upside down.
The translation of the film’s theoretical violence to the present world is problematic, however. Unlike the world of the Matrix, our “real” world does not have a readily apparent escape hatch. We are inescapably dependent upon the system that feeds us, dependent upon grocery stores for food, a large, powerful health care industry, phone companies for communication, government agencies for security, and have no substitutes should these fail. Our hope is that the Wachowski Brothers’ optimism is justified, that personal enlightenment gives us some distance from our matrices. Unfortunately, it is only from a position of personal enlightenment that we can know. We can only know how much power we have outside the matrix once we are at least psychically outside the matrix; we can’t even know if there is an “outside” the matrix until after we have pressed against or passed through its boundaries. Ironically, the film’s use of materialist postmodern theory leads it to affirm that religious subjectivity is a viable response to nihilistic ideological constructs that presuppose materialism. Baudrillard’s theory doesn’t account for a future in which something like his own construct would become an ideological agent wielding ubiquitous control,47 nor that religious enlightenment could represent human emancipation. The Matrix Trilogy reveals that western technological republics are still longing for a Christ to show the way to an escape hatch leading us out of ourselves, and that our postmodern condition has made us ripe to seek the fulfillment of this longing. Baudrillard, for his part, is having none of it. He is attempting to reach his own escape velocity from the West through theory as challenge.
About the Author:
James Rovira is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and a Lecturer in English at Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.
1 – This paper has enjoyed a long, circuitous history, originating in a very short 1999 essay on the first film entitled “Baudrillard and Hollywood: Subverting the Mechanisms of Control and The Matrix” (see Baudrillard on the Web, http://www.uta.edu/english/apt/collab/texts/hollywood.html) (link no longer active 2019) inspired by a question by Matt Kozusko on a J.D. Salinger listserv not long after the release of the first film. This short paper was expanded to about 20 pages by May of 2000 and published on my personal site (now defunct), and was then rewritten with each new installment of The Matrix Trilogy. A short review of the second film was published by Riverwest Currents (http://www.riverwestcurrents.org/2003/June/000695.html) (link no longer active 2019) in June of 2003, some of which was incorporated into the final version of this essay. A shortened version of the May 2000 paper was presented at a Fordham University conference: “Metaphysics of the Image: The Alternate, The Transcendent, and The Virtual in Literature” on October 20th, 2001. This paper is the third incarnation of the essay developed after the release of the final film. Thanks to those who have helped with invaluable editorial assistance, including Professor Cassandra Laity, Dan Knauss, Sheridan Lorraine, and the editors of International Journal of Baudrillard Studies.
2 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1994.
3 – The Matrix. Directed by The Wachowski Brothers. Performances by Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1999. Scene titles and scene and chapter numbers which follow are from the DVD index.
5 – Peter Nichols. “HOME VIDEO: More to Satisfy ‘Matrix’ Mania”. The New York Times, Late Edition: Final, Section E, Column 3: November 9, 2001:26.
6 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1994:160.
7 – What the Wachowski brother’s may take to be Baudrillard’s nihilism may well be his effort to repay the indifference of the world, and the nihilism of simulacra, with an even greater indifference. In Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard writes:
If being a nihilist is carrying, to the unbearable limit of hegemonic systems, this radical trait of derision and of violence, this challenge that the system is summoned to answer through its own death, then I am a terrorist and a nihilist in theory as the others are in weapons. Theoretical violence, not truth, is the only resource we have left us. But such a sentiment is utopian. Because it would be beautiful to be a nihilist, if there still were a radicality, and it would be nice to be a terrorist, if death, including that of the terrorist, still had meaning. …to this active nihilism of radicality, the system opposes its own, the nihilism of neutralization. The system itself is also nihilistic, in the sense that it has the power to pour everything, including what denies it, into indifference (c 1981, 1994:163).
The Wachowski’s may well be blaming the messenger in seeing Baudrillard as a nihilist. For Baudrillard it is the universe of simulation (including movies such as the Matrix), that takes us into nihilism:
…The universe, and all of us, have entered live into simulation, into the malefic, not even malefic, indifferent, sphere of deterrence: in a bizarre fashion, nihilism has been entirely realized no longer through destruction, but through simulation and deterrence. …We are in a new, and without a doubt insoluble, position in relation to all prior forms of nihilism. Romanticism… surrealism… today it is the precession of the neutral, of forms of the neutral and of indifference. …all that remains, is the fascination for desert like and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us (Ibid.:159-160). (Ed.)
8 – The Matrix. Directed by The Wachowski Brothers. Performances by Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1999:1.7.
9 – Ibid.:1.12.
10 – Ibid.: 1.7, 1.12.
11 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1994:1.
12 – Ibid.
13 – Ibid.:2.
14 – See Jean Baudrillard. “Simulacra and Science Fiction” in Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1994:121-127.
15 – Brett Staples. “Editorial Observer: A French Philosopher Talks Back to Hollywood and ‘The Matrix.'” The New York Times Late Edition: Final, Section A, Column 1, May 24th, 2002:24.
16 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Matrix Decoded: Le Nouvel Observateur Interview with Jean Baudrillard.” Translated by Gary Genosko and Adam Bryx. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 1, Number 2, July 2004.
17 – Ibid. (paragraph 4).
18 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1994:121.
20 – Ibid. (Emphasis in Original).
21 – Ibid.:124.
22 – See Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil . New York: Verso, 1993; and Mike Gane. Jean Baudrillard: In Radical Uncertainty. London: Pluto Press, 2000:13ff.
23 – The Matrix. Directed by The Wachowski Brothers. Performances by Keanu Reeves, Lawrence
Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1999:1.12.
24 -Jean Baudrillard. “The Matrix Decoded: Le Nouvel Observateur Interview with Jean Baudrillard.” Translated by Gary Genosko and Adam Bryx. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 1, Number 2, July 2004 (Paragraphs 7 and 8).
25 – Ibid.
26 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1994:160.
27 – Ibid.:160-1.
28 – Ibid.:163.
29 – Ibid.:160.
30 – Ibid.:163.
31 – Ibid.:163.
32 – Ibid.:163.
33 – Ibid.:163.
35 -William Merrin. ”’Did you ever eat Tasty Wheat?’: Baudrillard and The Matrix.” Scope: An Online Journal of Film Studies. Posted August 2, 2003. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/film/journal/articles/did-you-ever-eat.htm (link no longer active 2019)
36 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Matrix Decoded: Le Nouvel Observateur Interview with Jean Baudrillard.” Translated by Gary Genosko and Adam Bryx. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 1, Number 2, July 2004.
37 – The Matrix. Directed by The Wachowski Brothers. Performances by Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1999:1.15.
39 – Ibid.:1.36.
40 – Rage Against the Machine. “Wake Up.” By Zack de la Rocha and Rage Against the Machine. Rage Against the Machine. Epic Records, 1992.
41 – The Matrix. Directed by The Wachowski Brothers. Performances by Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1999:1.8.
42 – Drew University. “First Year Seminar Program,” 2002-2003 Course Catalog: College of Liberal Arts. Posted April 20, 2002: http://www.depts.drew.edu/regist/cla/firstyear/fysprogram.html (link no longer active 2019)
43 -Herbert Marcuse. Eros and Civilization. Boston: Beacon Press, 1974:7.
44 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1994:122.
45 -Drew University. “THRST 724/Theology & Derrida: (Re)Drawing Lines in the Sands of Ambiguity. 2003-2005 Course Catalogue: The Theological School.
46 – Department of Religious Studies and the Department of Germanic, Slavic, and Semitic Studies. University of California at Santa Barbara Conference: Irreconcilable Differences? Jacques Derrida and the Question of Religion: An International Conference Convened by Elisabeth Weber and Thomas A. Carlson. http://www.religion.ucsb.edu/projects/irreconcilabledifferences/main_page.htm
See also: American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBC) Conference, Other Testaments: Derrida and Religion, Toronto: 23-26 November, 2002. http://www.religions.divinity.gla.ac.uk/derrida_and_religion.htm (link no longer active 2019)
47 – Indeed, it would go against his notion of theory as challenge to do so (Ed.)