Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 25, May 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jon Baldwin

 

Have You Taken Your Rorschach Test?:

_The Matrix and Philosophy_

 

 

_The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real_

Edited by William Irwin

Chicago and La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 2002

ISBN 0-8126-9501-1

280 pp.

 

'Perception: The everyday world is real. Reality: That world is a hoax, an elaborate deception spun by all-powerful machines of artificial intelligence that control us.' (Promotion for _The Matrix_)

 

When the Wachowski brothers' 1999 sci-fi hit _The Matrix_ was shown at theatres in Slovenia, Slavoj Zizek claims to have had the unique experience of sitting close to 'the ideal spectator of the film -- namely, to an idiot. A man in his late twenties at my right was so absorbed in the movie that he continually disturbed the other viewers with loud exclamations, like 'My God, wow, so there is no reality!'' (240) The collection of essays that make up the book _The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real_ would no doubt please such an *idiot* and draw further exclamations regarding the existence, or not, of reality. This is not at all to put down idiocy -- it is a welcome state of being -- and as Zizek opines: 'I definitely prefer such naive immersion to the pseudo-sophisticated intellectualist readings which project refined philosophical or psychoanalytic conceptual distinctions into the film.' (240)

 

This notion of projecting into the film is reiterated in Zizek's contribution to the book. Why, he asks, does a film such as _The Matrix_ draw so much *intellectual* attention? At present this volume of essays is one of 11 books to be published on the film thus far. [1] This is quite a phenomenon and with few exceptions it is hard to think of a recent film that, rightly or wrongly, has been the subject of so much academic industry. For Zizek the answer is relatively simple: 'Isn't _The Matrix_ one of those films which function as a kind of Rorschach test, setting in motion the universalised 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 recognise itself in it' (240-241). This is quite a promising thesis. The Rorschach test, it will be remembered, is a (pseudo) psychoanalytical tool (see, for example, http://www.deltabravo.net/custody/rorschach.htm), often the butt of Woody Allenesque jokes, whereby the client is shown a card with a coloured inkblot on it and asked to describe what they see. Readings into, and of, the coloured ink, which are often only remotely derived from the shape and colour of the blot itself, supposedly inform upon the emotional and intellectual functioning and integration of the client. Even Zizek is not immune to this process of projection and recognition, seeing in _The Matrix_, as we would expect, aspects of the Lacanian triad of the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real.

 

It is reassuring that Zizek *does* read into _The Matrix_ rather than, to retain the Rorschach analogy, say something like 'It's simply a card of blotted patterned ink!' Such a literal sentiment, like a denotative reading of _The Matrix_, would actually be the most ideological reading possible in its universality and 'objective' innocence. It would be the 'superior myth', as Barthes in _S/Z_ has it: 'Denotation is not the first among meanings, but pretends to be so; under this illusion, it is ultimately no more than the last of the connotations (the one that seems both to establish and to close the reading)'. [2] What, then, do the other philosophers in the collection project into _The Matrix_ when they take their Rorschach test? Responses range from nihilism to narrative to Nozick, scepticism to simulation to Socrates, materialism to metaphysics to Marx, the Enlightenment to existentialism to Christianity to Buddhism.

 

Respectively, and each author's name and essay title is in the end note: '_The Matrix_ is many things; a retelling of the Socrates story is just one of them.' (6) '_The Matrix_ exposes us to the uncomfortable worries of philosophical scepticism in an especially compelling way.' (27) 'Descartes didn't watch _The Matrix_, but he had his own scary story.' (29) In _The Matrix_ 'the smell of human bodies is especially emphasised in ways both positive and negative' (48). 'Neo's path out of the matrix is not unlike the prisoner's ascent from the cave in Plato's allegory.' (55) 'This is very cool stuff. To philosophers, though, it's old hat. Descartes's malicious demon hypothesis is hundreds of years old.' (66) 'In a certain sense, _The Matrix_ is a fake.' (75) 'The parallels between Nozick's experience machine and the Matrix are many.' (90) 'The parallel here with Buddhism is striking.' (102) 'Christian themes abound in _The Matrix_ . . . Neo's path has many elements of the Jesus story, including virgin birth' (111-12). _The Matrix_ 'imaginatively presses a number of important questions on us . . . one of which concerns the true nature of happiness' (127). 'Kant explains how to manipulate the matrix . . . _The Matrix_ is more Platonic or Cartesian than Kantian' (138-39). '_The Matrix_ replays old debates about Enlightenment modernity . . . there are striking resemblances between many of the issues addressed in _The Matrix_ and Dostoevsky's _Notes from Underground_' (155-56). 'In both _The Matrix_ and Sartre's _Nausea_, the main characters come to an awareness of the true nature of the human condition.' (172) '_The Matrix_ makes a number of clever and important references to _Alice in Wonderland_. Alice had many of the same problems in facing her strange new reality as did Neo.' (183) '_The Matrix_ is unproblematically a Romance.' (191) '_The Matrix_ creates a naive fantasy of overcoming human flesh.' (205) 'The film is full of allusions to numerous social and economic themes that can be traced back to Karl Marx's work.' (216) _The Matrix_ 'is perhaps the most sustained (implicitly) philosophical film to address one of the central features of postmodern experience: the blurred or vanishing line between reality and simulation' (226). 'What, then, is the matrix? Simply the Lacanian 'big Other'' (244). [3]

 

This academic pluralism, seemingly of 'anything goes!', is revealing and could use some analysis itself. There should not necessarily be a master discourse or position with which to discuss, or limit discussion on, _The Matrix_, and of course the author is dead in terms of being the site of definitive meaning. But insofar as the Wachowski brothers 'readily acknowledge that they have woven many philosophical themes and allusions into the fabric of the film' (1) it might have made sense for the contributors to investigate one such major theme: the work of Jean Baudrillard. [4]

 

After all, Baudrillard is notorious for proposing not just the theory but actuality of the simulation of reality. There are several other, often blatant reasons to support the importance of him in consideration of _The Matrix_-related affairs. First and most obviously, the cover of Baudrillard's book, _Simulacra and Simulation_ (the English translation of _Simulacres et simulation_), appears in the film (not Plato's _Republic_ or Descartes's _Meditations_). Second, page one of _Simulacra and Simulation_ contains the familiar line, 'The desert of the real', [5] which Morpheus uses when he addresses Neo in front of a desolate wasteland, a void, a space supposedly untouched by the matrix. Thirdly, two books appear in 2002 with 'Welcome to the Desert of the Real' in the title: the book currently under review, and Zizek's _Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates_. [6] And four, the Wachowski brothers made an abortive attempt to get Baudrillard involved with their project. Baudrillard reveals that they 'asked me to do something on the [sequel], actually. They got in touch when they started filming it. There had been something on the simulacrum in the first one. This time they wanted to set up a private showing for me, and for me to write something on it.' [7]

 

So I think there were enough clues there to hint towards, at the very least, a cursory glance in Baudrillard's direction. Admittedly one essay in the volume does indeed attempt such a thing, but the result is not entirely successful. In his '_The Matrix_: Simulation and the Postmodern Age', David Weberman's slight grasp of Baudrillard's material is evident when he claims (226) that the original _Simulacres et simulation_ is available in a compilation of Baudrillard called simply _Simulations_. [8] Actually it's not. Weberman quotes (236) from _Simulations_, believing he is quoting from _Simulation and Simulacra_, but he is actually quoting from a section of Baudrillard's _Symbolic Exchange and Death_, which *is* included in _Simulations_. Weberman does helpfully suggests that Morpheus's words 'Welcome to the desert of the real' *may* have been inspired by Baudrillard. However, as I suggest above, I think we can discard with any uncertainty. Unfortunately Weberman also does not seem to fully understand some of the implications of the notion of simulation. He writes that, 'Yes, simulation is, for almost all intents and purposes, fundamentally an enhancement of reality' (233). Actually, no. For Baudrillard, at least, simulation entails the loss of symbolic exchange and erosion of engagement with the Real, and it is the replacement, not enhancement, of reality. There is a qualitative loss.

 

Although I promote the necessity of considering Baudrillard in an investigation of the film I should now retract somewhat and question whether such a consideration would actually bear fruit. Undoubtedly the Wachowski brothers feel that what they are doing somehow resonates with Baudrillard's simulation thesis. However, as revealed in his reluctance to get involved with the film(s), Baudrillard is keen to keep a distance. In an interview Baudrillard, not without irony and in 'theoretical disagreement', says that 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.' [9] Further _The Matrix_ itself plays a role in the Western fantasy that is the utopia of transparency and the virtual real. The phantasm is that everything excessive, evil, secret, and negative in our culture can be expelled from our existence in the final solution of a clean, clear, virtual universe. In _The Matrix_ simulation is revealed, made transparent, thus the film is actually complicit with the above fantasy and what might be considered simulation today. The 'virtual' simulation of simulation takes our attention away from 'real' simulation!

 

Responding to a question regarding how _The Matrix_ is presented as a critique of the very system that markets and promotes it, Baudrillard replies: '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.' [10] Ultimately, '_The Matrix_ is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.' [11] Likewise, the book, _The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real_, is surely the kind of book about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.

 

The book will obviously be a useful pedagogic tool and it is perhaps on these grounds alone that it should be judged. There is a vast array of philosophic approaches on offer, [12] and some of the essays are truly engaging, in particular the offerings by Korsmeyer, Brannigan, Zizek, and Knight and McKnight. It is the case though that the specifics of film and film theory are more than often secondary to philosophy and pedagogy. The much vaunted 'bullet time' special effect, for instance, draws hardly any comment at all apart from the odd complaint about the 'slick and tiresome special effects' (51). Considering that the effect offers a unique perception of time and space one would have felt it worthy of consideration. The editor has clearly not let _The Matrix_ theme of the deterritorialisation of place and (cyber-)space affect his selection of contributors: all the twenty essays are authored by North Americans with the one exception that is Zizek. Irwin's introduction is also rather short, just ten pages. Justifying the use of _The Matrix_ in the general '[Insert artefact of popular culture] and Philosophy' series, Irwin unashamedly writes, 'Willie Sutton was a criminal mastermind, a genius of sorts. Once asked, 'Willie, why do you rob banks?' he replied straightforwardly, 'Because that's where the money is.' Why write about popular culture like _The Matrix_? Because that's where the people are.' (2) Previous subjects of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series include _Seinfeld_ and _The Simpsons_. Those to come include _Buffy the Vampire Slayer_, _The Lord of the Rings_, and Woody Allen. The seemingly sole criterion of general popularity in justifying philosophical analysis seems rather mercenary and is worthy of analysis itself.

 

London Metropolitan University, England

 

 

Notes

 

1. Books currently available include Kristenea M. LaVelle's _The Reality Within The Matrix_ (2002), Harun Yahya's _Idealism: The Philosophy of The Matrix and the True Nature of Matter_ (2002), Peter B. Lloyd's _Exegesis of the Matrix_ (2003), Glenn Yeffeth's (ed.) _Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix_ (2003), Karen Haber's (ed.) _Exploring the Matrix: Visions of the Cyber Present_ (2003), Alain Badiou, et al, _Matrix, machine philosophique_ (2003), Stephen Faller's _Beyond the Matrix: Revolutions and Revelations_ (2004), Kapell and Doty's (eds) _Jacking into The Matrix Trilogy: Cultural Reception and Interpretation_ (2004), Matt Lawrence's _Like a Splinter in Your Mind: The Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy_ (2004), and Joseph Clover's _The Matrix_ (BFI Modern Classics, 2004). Forthcoming titles include: Christopher Grau's _Philosophers Explore The Matrix_ (2005), Mark Worthing's _The Matrix Revealed: The Theology of The Matrix Trilogy_ (2005), Stacy Gillis's (ed.) _The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded_ (2005), as well as a follow-up to this volume: William Irwin's (ed.) _More Matrix and Philosophy: Revolutions and Reloaded Decoded_ (2005). Peter B. Lloyd's website <http://www.ursasoft.com/matrix> is an excellent resource detailing academic and popular material on _The Matrix_.

 

2. Quoted in Jean Baudrillard, _For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign_ (St Louis, Missouri: Telos Press, 1981), p. 158. Incidentally, for those interested in such things, a genealogy, or critique, of Baudrillard's concept of simulation (a veritable pushing over the 'verge of paradox'?) could do worse than begin on the very next page. In a footnote relating to the notion discussed above of how denotation is in itself connotation, Baudrillard maps this onto the signified and signifier and claims: 'The analysis could be extended to the level of metalanguage (a system of signification staggered in reverse): [there follows a diagram of signifier / signified, then a bar, then signified, then a bar, then signifier] where the entire sign is transformed into the signified of a new signifier. In the end, the signified of metalinguistic denotation is only an effect of the signifier, only a simulation model whose coherence derives from the regulated exchange of signifiers. It would be interesting to push [this hypothesis] to the verge of paradox.' _For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign_, p. 159.

 

3. The references are to the following essays respectively: William Irwin, 'Computers, Caves, and Oracles: Neo and Socrates'; Gerald J. Erion and Barry Smith, 'Skepticism, Morality, and _The Matrix_'; David Mitsuo Nixon, 'The Matrix Possibility'; Carolyn Korsmeyer, 'Seeing, Believing, Touching, Truth'; Jorge J. E. Garcia and Jonathan J. Sanford, 'The Metaphysics of The Matrix'; Jason Holt, 'The Machine-Made Ghost; or, The Philosophy of Mind, Matrix Style'; Daniel Barwick, 'Neo-Materialism and the Death of the Subject'; Theodore Schick Jr, 'Fate, Freedom, and Foreknowledge'; Michael Brannigan, 'There Is No Spoon: A Buddhist Mirror'; Gregory Bassham, 'The Religion of _The Matrix_ and the Problems of Pluralism'; Charles L. Griswold Jr, 'Happiness and Cypher's Choice: Is Ignorance Bliss?'; James Lawler, 'We Are (the) One! Kant Explains How to Manipulate the Matrix'; Thomas S. Hibbs, 'Notes from Underground: Nihilism and _The Matrix_'; Jennifer L. McMahon, 'Popping a Bitter Pill: Existential Authenticity in _The Matrix_ and _Nausea_'; Sarah E. Worth, 'The Paradox of Real Response to Neo-Fiction'; Deborah Knight and George McKnight, 'Real Genre and Virtual Philosophy'; Cynthia Freeland, 'Penetrating Keanu: New Holes, but the Same Old Shit'; Martin A. Danahay and David Rieder, '_The Matrix_, Marx, and the Coppertop's Life'; David Weberman, '_The Matrix_: Simulation and the Postmodern Age'; Slavoj Zizek, '_The Matrix_; or, The Two Sides of Perversion.'

 

4. For a review of Baudrillard's most recent book _Passwords_, see my 'He took off his sandal, put it on his head, and walked away . . .', _International Journal of Baudrillard Studies_, vol. 1 no 2, July 2004 <http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol1_2/baldwin.htm>.

 

5. To give the context of the quote: 'The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory -- precession of simulacra -- that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.' Jean Baudrillard, _Simulacra and Simulation_ (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 1.

 

6. Slavoj Zizek, _Welcome to the desert of the real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates_ (London and New York: Verso, 2002). Just to confuse matters, the essay by Zizek in _The Matrix and Philosophy_ is actually some of Zizek's essay from his own book.

 

7. Jean Baudrillard interviewed in Paul Hegarty, _Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory_ (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), p. 140-41.

 

8. Jean Baudrillard, _Simulations_ (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983)

 

9. Jean Baudrillard, '_The Matrix_ Decoded: _Le Nouvel Observateur_ Interview with Jean Baudrillard', trans. Gary Genosko and Adam Bryx, _International Journal of Baudrillard Studies_, vol. 1 no 2, July 2004 <http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol1_2/genosko.htm>.

 

10. Ibid.

 

11. Ibid.

 

12. Although it must be said that 'philosophy of the mind' does not come across as well as the other approaches. Jason Holt, in 'The Machine-Made Ghost: Or, The Philosophy of Mind, Matrix Style', unhelpfully says, 'So how do mind and matter interact? They just do' (68). Further: 'There are other reasons to reject materialism, and lines of development of the points above, which I wont cover here. It would bore you. It would bore *me*, and I do this for a living' (69).

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Jon Baldwin, 'Have You Taken Your Rorschach Test?: _The Matrix and Philosophy_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 25, May 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n25baldwin>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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