Notes on The Matrix

I wasn’t going to write about the new Matrix film here. I’ve been posting comments to some of the discussions of the film around the blogosphere, but didn’t feel I had enough to say to make it worth a post of my own. But it’s a funny thing–certain ideas kept reprocessing, some of my earlier sureties about the movie have come under question, and I find myself admiring the movie a lot more today than I did when I saw it 10 days ago. And then I read William Blaze’s take on the political implications of Matrix: Reloaded (via Doc Searls), and it all clicked together. So, for better or worse, here are my thoughts (or a selection of them, anyway) on the Matrix. Note: Spoilers ahead. If you plan to see the movie, don’t read the rest of this post.

Let me first say that we’re talking about a piece of popular culture here, and like any pop culture artifact, we approach it subjectively, with all the baggage of taste and experience that makes us who we are. I happened to like the new Matrix, though it’s not going to be one of my favorite movies. It was, I thought, good blockbuster material, even if you didn’t understand–or didn’t like–all the philosophical mind-gaming. But the meaning of movies, and their impact on cultural thought, has to do with more than just whether we liked a movie or not–heck, some movies can influence the way we think and feel even if we’ve never even seen them. So don’t take this as a review or my attempt to convince you to like a movie you haven’t seen or didn’t like.

The big question about the movie is the ending. After his encounter with the Architect, where he learned that there have been 5 previous iterations of the matrix and that each one gave rise to a "One" as a sort of error-recovery tactic, Neo leaves the matrix to find the Nebuchadnezzar under attack from a troop of sentinels. As the crew flees the ship on foot, the sentinels hot on the heels, Neo has a realization. Muttering, "Something’s different," he turns, holds his hands up, and *wham!* kills sentinels dead. The buzz in the blogosphere is that Neo could do this because he suddenly realized that the "real world", the world where Zion lays, is not actually outside the matrix at all, but is a simulacrum of the outside, developed ostensibly to keep the "errors"–the people who chose the red pill–from contaminating the system.

Many, many commentors found this utterly unsatisfying, a sort of "the last season of Dallas was a dream" cop-out. Despite some earlier reservations, though, I’m beginning to think that this may, in fact, be the correct interpretation. But rather than being disappointed, I find it highly intriguing.

William Blaze sees this as a commentary on the way society controls, contains, and disarms political dissent–a particularly powerful statement given the current vilification of dissent under the Bush administration particularly and contemporary American society in general.

The way the Matrix Reloaded points out the multiple layers of control built into society is perhaps the most potent of the messages it carries. Its one thing to make people aware of the first layer of control. Its far more powerful to make them aware of the way that a built in "resistance" can be used to solidify the power structure.

These are powerful seeds for any campaign to make the American public aware of the way the Bush administration is using the rhetoric and the media to sell a system of control. The left has been pushing these ideas for decades now, and the general public couldn’t give a fuck.

The most effective means of establishing and maintaining control, said Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, is through desire, or more properly the manipulation of desire. It is desire that defines markets–desire harnessed and channeled by the PR and marketing machines of corporations–and it is desire that drives the matrix (recall Cypher’s desire for the–illusory–pleasures of the matrix, discussed over a glass of wine and a steak). Because that which is desired is perceived as, well, desirable, the fulfillment of our desire is felt as a choice, and thus also the acquisition of that which fulfills it. The Architect describes the first iteration of the Matrix as "perfect", a system in which all human desires were easily met, and thus flawed; the second and later iterations all included (the illusion of) choice–looking remarkably like late 20th-early 21st century North America–and one very real choice: each denizen of the matrix chooses the matrix, in act after act of desire fulfillment.

Although their desires differ (though highly commodified, Gap-esque party style apparently remains a universal of human desire), the denizens of Zion (I hesitate to say "Zionists")are no less ruled by desire–the desire for change, for revolution (for revolutions sake, maybe?), for love, and ultimately for meaning. Which brings me to the crux of this discussion. Foucault wrote that their is no point outside society, outside the system, from which an attack on society or system could be mounted. As products of society, we are by definition of society, even as we imagine it in some other form. Neo’s sudden insight–along with the words of the Architect, and other hints throughout the movie as a whole–suggests that there is likewise no point outside the matrix from which an attack on the matrix can be mounted. In a scene with one of Zion’s councilors–the kind of scene whose "hidden meaning" is apparent through its seeming pointlessness–Neo visits the Zion machine room. All these machines, the councilor points out, grind away, day after day, to make the city of Zion habitable. Though crude in comparison to the matrix, the machines of Zion act as yet another means by which the society of (Zion’s) desire is realized.

If Zion is simply matrix writ in cruder code, then there truly is no escape from the matrix. Or at least that’s what the disappointed commentors seem most worried about. Two interlocked dicta of Foucault’s thought address the issue of resistance. The first is that power is not only destructive–the power of the sentinels, of the Agents, of society as a whole to grind down, wear out, and ultimately destroy non-compliance–but is also constructive–the power to build coalitions, to create, to imagine and to reimagine. This is the One’s power, to reach into the code of the world and to rewrite its rules. The second, trickier dictum is that even the subversive can be subverted. This is the principle of the matrix–that the subversive elements can be isolated and contained in the subverts paradise, Zion–but it is also the principle of Morpheus–to challenge, even to destroy, the nascent hierarchies of Zion if doing so can produce the conditions for real freedom. (And suddenly it dawns on me: Foucault defined "power"–mysteriously, mystically–as "polymorphous perversity"; I just defined it as poly-Morpheus subversity…)

Foucault would have loved the Matrix movies, I think. A consumer product created largely through the manipulation of signs, fueled by a marketing campaign stretching back months, even years, to build up a desire to see the films (in many cases, perhaps, building a desire too strong to be fulfilled by what was ultimately released), about a world explicitly constructed by the manipulation of of signs, in which both resistance and compliance are mediated by the matrix, the machines that humans have constructed in their desire for a desire-free world. What remains to be seen is how Neo–although I still have a long shot bet on the Kid as the "real" One (or maybe just the Tall Cool One, with a nod to Robert Plant; kidding aside, the Kid was able to free himself from the matrix without the intervention of a Morpheus or other herald, without the act of choice–red pill or blue pill–that Neo and all others before and after him had to make to break the matrix’s hold, and I think we’ll be seeing more of him)–resolves the paradox of choice and desire in the third installment. Foucault’s vision could be bleak–not willing to hand over the reins of his own desire, he threw himself into a life of ever more extreme sex acts, in the course of which he contracted the AIDS he ultimately died of–but apparently did not share his critics’ misgivings about the political implications of his work. Although his work is often seen as undermining political activism (if the subversive can be subverted, then so too can the subvertor of the subversive), Foucault himself was active on behalf of prisoners, immigrants, mental health patients, and the politically oppressed. Neo’s sex life is considerably tamer–we’ll have to wait and see if his revolution proves equally tame.

Notes on the Matrix

I wasn’t going to write about the new Matrix film here. I’ve been posting comments to some of the discussions of the film around the blogosphere, but didn’t feel I had enough to say to make it worth a post of my own. But it’s a funny thing–certain ideas kept reprocessing, some of my earlier sureties about the movie have come under question, and I find myself admiring the movie a lot more today than I did when I saw it 10 days ago. And then I read William Blaze’s take on the political implications of Matrix: Reloaded (via Doc Searls), and it all clicked together. So, for better or worse, here are my thoughts (or a selection of them, anyway) on the Matrix. Note: Spoilers ahead. If you plan to see the movie, don’t read the rest of this post.

Let me first say that we’re talking about a piece of popular culture here, and like any pop culture artifact, we approach it subjectively, with all the baggage of taste and experience that makes us who we are. I happened to like the new Matrix, though it’s not going to be one of my favorite movies. It was, I thought, good blockbuster material, even if you didn’t understand–or didn’t like–all the philosophical mind-gaming. But the meaning of movies, and their impact on cultural thought, has to do with more than just whether we liked a movie or not–heck, some movies can influence the way we think and feel even if we’ve never even seen them. So don’t take this as a review or my attempt to convince you to like a movie you haven’t seen or didn’t like.

The big question about the movie is the ending. After his encounter with the Architect, where he learned that there have been 5 previous iterations of the matrix and that each one gave rise to a "One" as a sort of error-recovery tactic, Neo leaves the matrix to find the Nebuchadnezzar under attack from a troop of sentinels. As the crew flees the ship on foot, the sentinels hot on the heels, Neo has a realization. Muttering, "Something’s different," he turns, holds his hands up, and *wham!* kills sentinels dead. The buzz in the blogosphere is that Neo could do this because he suddenly realized that the "real world", the world where Zion lays, is not actually outside the matrix at all, but is a simulacrum of the outside, developed ostensibly to keep the "errors"–the people who chose the red pill–from contaminating the system.

Many, many commentors found this utterly unsatisfying, a sort of "the last season of Dallas was a dream" cop-out. Despite some earlier reservations, though, I’m beginning to think that this may, in fact, be the correct interpretation. But rather than being disappointed, I find it highly intriguing.

William Blaze sees this as a commentary on the way society controls, contains, and disarms political dissent–a particularly powerful statement given the current vilification of dissent under the Bush administration particularly and contemporary American society in general.

The way the Matrix Reloaded points out the multiple layers of control built into society is perhaps the most potent of the messages it carries. Its one thing to make people aware of the first layer of control. Its far more powerful to make them aware of the way that a built in "resistance" can be used to solidify the power structure.

These are powerful seeds for any campaign to make the American public aware of the way the Bush administration is using the rhetoric and the media to sell a system of control. The left has been pushing these ideas for decades now, and the general public couldn’t give a fuck.

The most effective means of establishing and maintaining control, said Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, is through desire, or more properly the manipulation of desire. It is desire that defines markets–desire harnessed and channeled by the PR and marketing machines of corporations–and it is desire that drives the matrix (recall Cypher’s desire for the–illusory–pleasures of the matrix, discussed over a glass of wine and a steak). Because that which is desired is perceived as, well, desirable, the fulfillment of our desire is felt as a choice, and thus also the acquisition of that which fulfills it. The Architect describes the first iteration of the Matrix as "perfect", a system in which all human desires were easily met, and thus flawed; the second and later iterations all included (the illusion of) choice–looking remarkably like late 20th-early 21st century North America–and one very real choice: each denizen of the matrix chooses the matrix, in act after act of desire fulfillment.

Although their desires differ (though highly commodified, Gap-esque party style apparently remains a universal of human desire), the denizens of Zion (I hesitate to say "Zionists")are no less ruled by desire–the desire for change, for revolution (for revolutions sake, maybe?), for love, and ultimately for meaning. Which brings me to the crux of this discussion. Foucault wrote that their is no point outside society, outside the system, from which an attack on society or system could be mounted. As products of society, we are by definition of society, even as we imagine it in some other form. Neo’s sudden insight–along with the words of the Architect, and other hints throughout the movie as a whole–suggests that there is likewise no point outside the matrix from which an attack on the matrix can be mounted. In a scene with one of Zion’s councilors–the kind of scene whose "hidden meaning" is apparent through its seeming pointlessness–Neo visits the Zion machine room. All these machines, the councilor points out, grind away, day after day, to make the city of Zion habitable. Though crude in comparison to the matrix, the machines of Zion act as yet another means by which the society of (Zion’s) desire is realized.

If Zion is simply matrix writ in cruder code, then there truly is no escape from the matrix. Or at least that’s what the disappointed commentors seem most worried about. Two interlocked dicta of Foucault’s thought address the issue of resistance. The first is that power is not only destructive–the power of the sentinels, of the Agents, of society as a whole to grind down, wear out, and ultimately destroy non-compliance–but is also constructive–the power to build coalitions, to create, to imagine and to reimagine. This is the One’s power, to reach into the code of the world and to rewrite its rules. The second, trickier dictum is that even the subversive can be subverted. This is the principle of the matrix–that the subversive elements can be isolated and contained in the subverts paradise, Zion–but it is also the principle of Morpheus–to challenge, even to destroy, the nascent hierarchies of Zion if doing so can produce the conditions for real freedom. (And suddenly it dawns on me: Foucault defined "power"–mysteriously, mystically–as "polymorphous perversity"; I just defined it as poly-Morpheus subversity…)

Foucault would have loved the Matrix movies, I think. A consumer product created largely through the manipulation of signs, fueled by a marketing campaign stretching back months, even years, to build up a desire to see the films (in many cases, perhaps, building a desire too strong to be fulfilled by what was ultimately released), about a world explicitly constructed by the manipulation of of signs, in which both resistance and compliance are mediated by the matrix, the machines that humans have constructed in their desire for a desire-free world. What remains to be seen is how Neo–although I still have a long shot bet on the Kid as the "real" One (or maybe just the Tall Cool One, with a nod to Robert Plant; kidding aside, the Kid was able to free himself from the matrix without the intervention of a Morpheus or other herald, without the act of choice–red pill or blue pill–that Neo and all others before and after him had to make to break the matrix’s hold, and I think we’ll be seeing more of him)–resolves the paradox of choice and desire in the third installment. Foucault’s vision could be bleak–not willing to hand over the reins of his own desire, he threw himself into a life of ever more extreme sex acts, in the course of which he contracted the AIDS he ultimately died of–but apparently did not share his critics’ misgivings about the political implications of his work. Although his work is often seen as undermining political activism (if the subversive can be subverted, then so too can the subvertor of the subversive), Foucault himself was active on behalf of prisoners, immigrants, mental health patients, and the politically oppressed. Neo’s sex life is considerably tamer–we’ll have to wait and see if his revolution proves equally tame.

LinktoComments(’94923253′)
Old Comments

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>