The Matrix, or, the two sides of perversion

[Delivered at the Inside the Matrix: International Symposium at the Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, on October 28th 1999.]

When I saw The Matrix at a local theatre in Slovenia, I had the unique opportunity of sitting close to the ideal spectator of the film – namely, to an idiot. A man in the late 20ies at my right was so immersed in the film that he all the time disturbed other spectators with loud exclamations, like “My God, wow, so there is no reality!”… I definitely prefer such naive immersion to the pseudo-sophisticated intellectualist readings which project into the film the refined philosophical or psychoanalytic conceptual distinctions.13

It is nonetheless easy to understand this intellectual attraction of The Matrix: is it not that The Matrix is one of the films which function as a kind of Rorschach test [http://rorschach.test.at/] setting in motion the universalized process of recognition, like the proverbial painting of God which seems always to stare directly at you, from wherever you look at it – practically every orientation seems to recognize itself in it? My Lacanian friends are telling me that the authors must have read Lacan; the Frankfurt School partisans see in the Matrix the extrapolated embodiment of Kulturindustrie, the alienated-reified social Substance (of the Capital) directly taking over, colonizing our inner life itself, using us as the source of energy; New Agers see in the source of speculations on how our world is just a mirage generated by a global Mind embodied in the World Wide Web. This series goes back to Plato’s Republic: does The Matrix not repeat exactly Plato’s dispositif of the cave (ordinary humans as prisoners, tied firmly to their seats and compelled to watch the shadowy performance of (what they falsely consider to be) reality? The important difference, of course, is that when some individuals escape their cave predicament and step out to the surface of the Earth, what they find there is no longer the bright surface illuminated by the rays of the Sun, the supreme Good, but the desolate “desert of the real.” The key opposition is here the one between Frankfurt School and Lacan: should we historicize the Matrix into the metaphor of the Capital that colonized culture and subjectivity, or is it the reification of the symbolic order as such? However, what if this very alternative is false? What if the virtual character of the symbolic order “as such” is the very condition of historicity?

Reaching the End Of the World

Of course, the idea of the hero living in a totally manipulated and controlled artificial universe is hardly original: The Matrix just radicalizes it by bringing in virtual reality. The point here is the radical ambiguity of the VR with regard to the problematic of iconoclasm. On the one hand, VR marks the radical reduction of the wealth of our sensory experience to – not even letters, but – the minimal digital series of 0 and 1, of passing and non-passing of the electrical signal. On the other hand, this very digital machine generates the “simulated” experience of reality which tends to become indiscernible from the “real” reality, with the consequence of undermining the very notion of “real” reality – VR is thus at the same time the most radical assertion of the seductive power of images.

Is not the ultimate American paranoiac fantasy that of an individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show? The most recent example of this is Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998), with Jim Carrey playing the small town clerk who gradually discovers the truth that he is the hero of a 24-hours permanent TV show: his hometown is constructed on a gigantic studio set, with cameras following him permanently. Sloterdijk’s “sphere” is here literally realized, as the gigantic metal sphere that envelopes and isolates the entire city. This final shot of The Truman Show may seem to enact the liberating experience of breaking out from the ideological suture of the enclosed universe into its outside, invisible from the ideological inside. However, what if it is precisely this “happy” denouement of the film (let us not forget: applauded by the millions around the world watching the last minutes of the show), with the hero breaking out and, as we are led to believe, soon to join his true love (so that we have again the formula of the production of the couple!), that is ideology at its purest? What if ideology resides in the very belief that, outside the closure of the finite universe, there is some “true reality” to be entered?14

Footnotes

  1. If one compares the original script (available on the internet) with the film itself, one can see that the directors (Wachowski brothers, who also authored the script) were intelligent enough to throw out too direct pseudo-intellectual references, like the following exchange: "Look at 'em. Automatons. Don't think about what they're doing or why. Computer tells 'em what to do and they do it." "The banality of evil." This pretentious reference to Arendt totally misses the point: people immersed in the VR of the Matrix are in an entirely different, almost opposite, position in comparison with the executioners of the holocaust. Another similar wise move was to drop the all too obvious references to the Eastern techniques of emptying your mind as the way to escape the control of the Matrix: "You have to learn to let go of that anger. You must let go of everything. You must empty yourself to free your mind."
  2. It is also crucial that what enables the hero of The Truman Show to see through and exit his manipulated world is the unforeseen intervention of his father - there are two paternal figures in the film, the actual symbolic-biological father and the paranoiac "real" father, he director of the TV-Show who totally manipulates his life and protects him in the closed environment, played by Ed Harris.
  3. On whom I rely extensively here: see Jodi Dean, Aliens in America. Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspasce to Cyberspace, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press 1998.
  4. Claude Levi-Strauss, "Do Dual Organizations Exist?", in Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic Books 1963), p. 131-163; the drawings are on pages 133-134.
  5. See Rastko Mocnik, "Das 'Subjekt, dem unterstellt wird zu glauben' und die Nation als eine Null-Institution," in Denk-Prozesse nach Althusser, ed. by H. Boke, Hamburg: Argument Verlag 1994.
  6. See Jacques Lacan, "Television", in October 40 (1987).
  7. The main work of Nicolas Malebranche is Recherches de la verite (1674-75, the most available edition Paris: Vrin 1975).
  8. As to this ambiguity, see Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press 1995.
  9. The notion of this connection between cyberspace and Schreber's psychotic universe was suggested to me by Wendy Chun, Princeton.
  10. A further pertinent inconsistency also concerns the status of intersubjectivity in the universe run by the Matrix: do all individuals share the SAME virtual reality? WHY? Why not to each its preferred own?
  11. What Hegel does is to "traverse" this fantasy by demonstrating its function of filling in the pre-ontological abyss of freedom, i.e. of reconstituting the positive Scene in which the subject is inserted into a positive noumenal order. In other words, for Hegel, Kant's vision is meaningless and inconsistent, since it secretly reintroduces the ontologically fully constituted divine totality, i.e. a world conceived ONLY as Substance, NOT also as Subject.
  12. Quoted from Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler, New York: Harper 1999, p. 134.
  13. If one compares the original script (available on the internet) with the film itself, one can see that the directors (Wachowski brothers, who also authored the script) were intelligent enough to throw out too direct pseudo-intellectual references, like the following exchange: “Look at ’em. Automatons. Don’t think about what they’re doing or why. Computer tells ’em what to do and they do it.” “The banality of evil.” This pretentious reference to Arendt totally misses the point: people immersed in the VR of the Matrix are in an entirely different, almost opposite, position in comparison with the executioners of the holocaust. Another similar wise move was to drop the all too obvious references to the Eastern techniques of emptying your mind as the way to escape the control of the Matrix: “You have to learn to let go of that anger. You must let go of everything. You must empty yourself to free your mind.”
  14. It is also crucial that what enables the hero of The Truman Show to see through and exit his manipulated world is the unforeseen intervention of his father – there are two paternal figures in the film, the actual symbolic-biological father and the paranoiac “real” father, he director of the TV-Show who totally manipulates his life and protects him in the closed environment, played by Ed Harris.

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