Volume 1, Number 2 (July 2004)
Translated by: Dr. Gary Genosko and Adam Bryx
Note: Jean Baudrillard was interviewed for Le Nouvel Observateur (19-25 June 2003) by Aude Lancelin. The Editors of IJBS are grateful to Ruth Valentini and Le Nouvel Observateur for permission to translate and publish this interview in English. Aude Lancelin conducted the original interview for Le Nouvel Observateur.
The simulacrum hypothesis deserved better than to become a reality.1
Le Nouvel Observateur: Your reflections on reality and the virtual are some of the key references used by the makers of The Matrix. The first episode explicitly referred to you as the viewer clearly saw the cover of Simulacra and Simulation.2 Were you surprised by this?
Jean Baudrillard: Certainly there have been misinterpretations, which is why I have been hesitant until now to speak about The Matrix. The staff of the Wachowski brothers contacted me at various times following the release of the first episode in order to get me involved with the following ones, but this wasn’t really conceivable (laughter). Basically, a similar misunderstanding occurred in the 1980s when New York-based Simulationist3 artists contacted me. They took the hypothesis of the virtual for an irrefutable fact and transformed it into a visible phantasm. But it is precisely that we can no longer employ categories of the real in order to discuss the characteristics of the virtual.
Nouvel Observateur: The connection between the film and the vision you develop, for example, in The Perfect Crime, is, however, quite striking. In evoking a desert of the real, these totally virtualized spectral humans, who are no more than the energetic reserve of thinking objects… .
Baudrillard: Yes, but already there have been other films that treat the growing indistinction between the real and the virtual: The Truman Show, Minority Report, or even Mulholland Drive, the masterpiece of David Lynch. The Matrix’s value is chiefly as a synthesis of all that. But there 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. This is a serious flaw. The radical illusion of the world is a problem faced by all great cultures, which they have solved through art and symbolization. What we have invented, in order to support this suffering, is a simulated real, which henceforth supplants the real and is its final solution, a virtual universe from which everything dangerous and negative has been expelled. And The Matrix is undeniably part of that. Everything belonging to the order of dream, utopia and phantasm is given expression, “realized.” We are in the uncut transparency. The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.
Nouvel Observateur: It is also a film that purports to denounce technicist alienation and, at the same time, plays entirely on the fascination exercised by the digital universe and computer-generated images.
Baudrillard: What is notable about Matrix Reloaded is the absence of a glimmer of irony that would allow viewers to turn this gigantic special effect on its head. There is no sequence which would be the punctum about which Roland Barthes wrote, this striking mark that brings you face-to-face with a true image. Moreover, this is what makes the film an instructive symptom, and the actual fetish of this universe of technologies of the screen in which there is no longer a distinction between the real and the imaginary. The Matrix is considered to be an extravagant object, at once candid and perverse, where there is neither a here nor a there. The pseudo-Freud who speaks at the film’s conclusion puts it well: at a certain moment, we reprogrammed the matrix in order to integrate anomalies into the equation. And you, the resistors, comprise a part of it. Thus we are, it seems, within a total virtual circuit without an exterior. Here again I am in theoretical disagreement (laughter). The Matrix paints the picture of a monopolistic superpower, like we see today, and then collaborates in its refraction. Basically, its dissemination on a world scale is complicit with the film itself. On this point it is worth recalling Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message. The message of The Matrix is its own diffusion by an uncontrollable and proliferating contamination.
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.4
About the Author:
Dr. Gary Genosko is Canada Research Chair in Technoculture Studies, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.
Adam Bryx is a graduate Student in English, Lakehead University.
1 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV. New York: Verso, 2003:92.
2 – Upon opening the book during the “Follow Instructions” scene in Neo’s apartment, the hollowed out text reveals the first page of the short essay “On Nihilism.”
3 – It was perhaps Peter Halley more than any other American Simulationist painter who triumphed Baudrillard’s conceptualization of hyperreality in relation to day-glo colours. And, as he wryly notes, Baudrillard dashed the hopes of Halley by distancing himself from claims on him. But it wasn’t only Simulationist painters who received a cold critical shoulder. As Paul Hegarty heard in a recent interview with Baudrillard (April 2003; in his book Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory, London: Continuum, 2004), “the last ones were those ‘symbiotic’ artists. They kept pestering me, saying, ‘but you must love what we’re doing. I said, ‘hang on, this is not acceptable’.”
4 – Gerry Coulter’s essay in this volume examines this aspect of Baudrillard’s writing over the past thirty years. See Gerry Coulter. “Reversibility: Baudrillard’s One’s Great Thought“