FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 31, July 1999

 


 

Mark Crosby

Reflections Upon* the Matrix

 


 

 

 

 

_The Matrix_

Written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

(Village Roadshow Pictures, 1999)

 

Reflections abound: in mirrors and monitors and, especially, door knobs -- portals for peering into the 'Matrix' that surrounds. Chances to be captivated by 'vision machines'. But there are also cables dangling everywhere, showing that all is not light, and carriers are still needed -- lines and plugs for transport -- to create the films upon which we reflect.

 

That _The Matrix_ manifests disparate reactions seems evidence that perception is always mediated. Many viewers cheer the will to power projected in the fight scenes. Engineers seem to despise this movie for its mushy foundations. [1] Those more philosophical seem to have several reactions: some who look with Virilio and Baudrillard may find fears confirmed, of the hopeless hyperreal, and helpless souls. But, others, less longing for lost ideals, more forward-facing, may find that life as a dream draws forth desire. Mostly, _The Matrix_ shows that life goes on no matter how bleak it gets.

 

Much could be said about the superb special effects in this movie. The focus on reflections has been mentioned. There are other, subtle scenes of melting -- buildings dissolving in the rain; Neo (Keanu Reeves) swallowed in quicksilver. How ironic it is that the robots we see are not stiff and mechanical, but more like slithering snakes and crawling insects! Instead, it is the people who appear most mechanical -- though none more so than the Artificial Intelligence's Agents -- especially when the rebel fighters cartwheel across the walls, or flip in mid-air while the world freezes around them. Interviews with the film crew at the official website [2] make much of the difficulty of filming the lobby gunfight and the helicopter rescue, but these scenes actually seemed, to my amateur eye, out of touch with most of the movie.

 

But, before moving on to the content, it's worth noting some non-filmic aspects of _The Matrix_, such as the fairly elaborate web site mentioned above, where, as aboard the rebel ship Nebuchadnezzar in the film, one may scan a bank of monitors (in this case) for the Shockwave game, interviews, comic book, photo gallery, cast and crew, trailers, links, chatroom, behind-the-scenes, and more. Maybe other movies do something similar, but this film seems to lend itself to a cult following (for those susceptible to such subjectivities). The comic book extension seems particularly promising: The 'Morning Sickness' episode, from special-effects director John Gaeta and crew, available online, offers a quite different glimpse of the world of _The Matrix_, and opportunities for future stories: 'Run! Head for the waste funnel; we'll meet you at the bottom.'

 

The 'waste funnel' could symbolize the 'Data Trash' as Arthur Kroker and Michael A Weinstein would reduce it all to(tally). [3] But, _The Matrix_ prefers to show that, as Michael Goddard aptly puts it in his 1998 _Film-Philosophy_ review article (quoting Andrew Murphie), 'in contrast to theorists such as Virilio or Levy, it is not so much that the world is becoming increasingly virtualized, 'but our ability to operate the virtual' has increased'. [4] As Goddard adds, and as I find consistently expressed in _The Matrix_: 'the world is and has always been virtual, and perception has always been a process of actualisation, which new technologies merely extend'.

 

(If I find myself overlooking the actual environment of _The Matrix_ -- the devastated, darkened world run by AIs -- it's because the movie's writers themselves seem to find this not so much something 'new' to mourn, as simply another 'society of control' against which we must find suitable weapons.)

 

It was a discussion of Brian Massumi's essay, 'Realer Than Real: The Simulacrum According to Deleuze and Guattari', [5] that first inspired this assemblage of thoughts on _The Matrix_. Massumi's essay notes that, against the 'naive realism' and the 'syntagmatic slippage' of Baudrillard's 'satellites in aimless orbit around an empty center', we expect that 'Deleuze and Guattari open a third way', that is, 'a different agenda', no longer 'defined by the presence or absence of internal, essential relations of resemblance to a model'. There are some signs of this in _The Matrix_ (for instance, at a trivia(l) level, Neo hid his illegal software in the 'On Nihilism' chapter of _Simulacra and Simulation_ by Jean Baudrillard).

 

Massumi extracts a 'theory of simulation' from the works of Deleuze and Guattari, citing their _Anti-Oedipus_ on how simulation 'appropriates' rather than 'replaces' reality. The processual nature of reality makes it already hyperreal: 'Reality is nothing but a well-tempered harmony of simulation', although 'two modes of simulation' can be distinguished: the normative 'system of resemblance and replication', and art. I think they are complementary, but it's not clear whether Massumi would agree given his utopian talk of 'rais[ing] it to a positive simulation of the highest degree by marshaling all our powers of the false toward shattering the grid of representation once and for all'.

 

At another extreme, for many Extropian ultra-modernists, representation is all, and the entire cosmos may be one huge computation. These folks tend to object that _The Matrix_ was silly, not realistic: 'AIs who have to run and chase things in their virtual reality rather than just deleting the relevant files?! . . . Pleeaase. An engrossing cartoon perhaps, but hardly a fruitful basis for thinking about the future.' [6] However, this assumes that the AIs can somehow stand outside the Matrix in which they're embedded, stopping the show, searching at their leisure. But, this Matrix is not *just* a program (not just a movie?) because it is driven by real-time interactive feeds from organic/chaotic beings, regardless of how physically captivated they may be.

 

Along these lines, as Floyd Merrell explains in _Signs Grow_, even in most postmodern discourse we have not progressed much beyond 'the Cartesian subject standing apart from the world, and from its centralized vantage enjoying access to determinate knowledge', nor from 'the Kantian subject *both* inside and outside the world yet capable, from its self-appointed cardinal position, of constructing knowledge of its phenomenal world', nor from 'the Hegelian subject trapped within the world yet capable of aiding and abetting it in its move toward the ultimate, totalizing goal'. [7]

 

All of these concepts compose the illusory Matrix which the Wachowski's movie explores. The rebels of _The Matrix_ are, paradoxically, only truly alive in their struggle with it -- even the AIs, as Agent Smith reveals, realized that their original utopian cyberspace did not work, precisely because nobody had to work or struggle. Neo's power and control over the Matrix arises only when he embraces his uncertainty. Floyd Merrell, following C. S. Peirce, explains: 'at its most basic, the self, as itself a sign . . . is no more than a locus of error and ignorance, at the same time that it is a centre of a certain degree of power and control'. [8] Merrell continues:

 

'What we seem to be left with . . . is the matrix of experience and the incessant push toward fulfilment of the range of possibilities implied by the matrix . . . patterned by DeWitt Parker's (1941) distinction between what he dubs the *matrix self* and the *focal self*. The first is the background allowing the focal self the range of possibilities available to it and with which it can operate. It is a 'womb' giving rise to a series of transitory selves . . . The matrix self . . . is continuous, and, like Firstness, endures . . . in spite of the series actualization of myriad focal selves. It is also rather commensurate with Kristeva's 'production of the text' from the chora (matrix, womb) . . . borrowed from Plato's _Timaeus_ via Derrida (1972, _Positions_)'. [9]

 

As far as the movie's action goes, I just blinked at the cascades of bullets and billowing explosions; the 'real' action, for me, was concealed within Neo and the others at the point of decision and intent. One review claimed to see Christian imagery, with Neo as the One, the Second Coming, his power coming from the self-sacrificial act in attempting to save Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Perhaps, but I prefer Florinda Donner's notion of 'acquiescence' to express what is involved here: 'In the second attention . . . one has to believe that the dream is as real as the everyday world. In other words, one has to acquiesce . . . And acquiescence is not acceptance. Acquiescence involves a dynamic element; it involves action'. [10] This is perhaps the same difference as when Morpheus says, in the movie: 'There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.'

 

In the 'Datapocalypse' chapter of _TechGnosis_, Erik Davis cites how Jean Baudrillard 'argues that the 'harsh and inexorable light of information and communication' has now mastered all spheres of existence, producing an omnipresent system of media flows that has colonized the interior of the self. Passion, intimacy, and psychological depth evaporate, and we wind up 'only a pure screen, a switching center of all the networks of influence''. [11] Davis adds:

 

'The problem with the totalizing pessimism of Baudrillard and other technological doomsters is that humans remain protean beings, blessed with enormous elasticity and a profound potential for creative adaptation. . . And in the periphery of perception, where all the networks intersect, we may glimpse the outlines of some nameless Matrix emerging, some new structure of being and knowing that undergirds the merely material real, a vast webwork of collective intelligence within which we are at once on our own and one with the immense ecology of a conscious cosmos'. [12]

 

It is to its credit that what is so compelling about _The Matrix_ is also so disturbing: the complete bracketing of what we know today as 'nature': there is not a single living/organic thing, other than humans, depicted in this movie. From any reasonable standpoint, the premises of humans completely 'shutting out the lights', and AIs, on the other hand, resorting to humans grown in mechanical pods as power sources -- when a race of machines would likely prefer more efficient nuclear or thermal power sources -- is the ultimate in tragi-comedy or irony. Mysterious Zion, refuge of the 'true child' is said to be hiding in the center of the Earth. Are any flowers perchance preserved there? This fair(i)ly cries out for a sequel . . .

 

In _Viroid Life_, Nietzsche scholar Keith Ansell-Pearson argues for something in between 'futile Luddism' and 'vacuous cyber-celebrationism'. [13] That something seems to me closer to _The Matrix_ of the Wachowski brothers, or the techgnostic Matrix of Erik Davis, than to the Extropian vision portrayed by Ed Regis, who suggests that humans are beings with feeble mentalities and cheap bodies, or roboticist Hans Moravec who proposes 'machine intelligence [as] a Christian fantasy [of] how to become pure spirit'. [14] Here, the dominant Extropian theme -- and primary critique of _The Matrix_ -- is that, since thought is nothing but computation, AIs will soon make humans obsolete, nor will they need humans as 'batteries', or even want them as pets -- though I have to wonder what Agent Smith was doing while 'offline' with the imprisoned Morpheus, tasting his sweat? ;)

 

So, rather than a confirmation of the Extropian AI-takeover/Singularity, it is possible to see _The Matrix_ as a caricature of this, while simultaneously being a subtle critique of what -- in a _Film-Philosophy_ review of _Open Sky_ -- Douglas Kellner calls Virilio's 'ascetic' and 'ferocious critique of technology [which] seems to assume something like a religous humanism, that human beings are significant by virtue of their capacity for speech, reason, morality [etc.] . . . while technology is seen as undermining these human capacities'. [15] I say this because the paradox of _The Matrix_ is that it shows how all these humanistic things can still exist in what would, presumably, be Virilio's ultimate dystopia.

 

In any case, it seems entirely appropriate that _The Matrix_ should be incomplete and unfinished -- an ongoing story ridden with mystery. As Erik Davis ends _TechGnosis_: 'Prometheus is hell-bent in the cockpit, but Hermes has snuck into Mission Control, and the matrix is ablaze with entangling tongues'. [16] But, where is the Mother in this (Trinity -- an inverted Sleeping Beauty)? That is the mystery of the Matrix: the sphinx-like Oracle baking cookies, providing inspirational riddles, and above the portal to her kitchen, the message: 'Know Thyself'.

 

Arlington, Virginia, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

* Oh the angst of choosing the appropriate word here ;) Reflections 'on'? No, that would violate J. J. Gibson's 'experiencing of things rather than a having of experiences'! Reflections 'of' then? Well, Francois Laruelle's 'non-philosophy' suggests 'this new kind of thinking is not *of* the world, but *for* the world' (see <gopher://lists.village.virginia.edu/0R339052-362983-/pubs/listservs/spoons/deleuze-guattari.archive/deleuze-guattari.9906>). Reflections 'Upon' then, *for* now, so that we can get *on* with the show. . .

 

1. This negative opinion is based mostly on discussions on the Extropians email list, where many of the participants are futurist engineers of one sort or another (mostly avid fans of the sort of 'uploading' of minds into virtual reality worlds depicted in _The Matrix_) who seem to think that the Matrix of the movie is simplistic or naive.

 

As far as the attitudes of engineers goes, I prefer to say I grow econometric software for a living (no academic affiliation), practicing it more as a form of creative writing rather than as an engineering discipline -- although the criteria for what 'works' are usually much more stringent in software development.

 

It also seems that many people became so involved in the visual action of _The Matrix_ that they may simply have *missed* many of the 'messages' I saw. For instance: 'I was expecting some kind of [Philip K] Dickian 'what's real anyway?' story rather than just an action movie', wrote <mark@unicorn.com> (28 June 1999, temporarily at <http://www.lucifer.com/exi-lists/extropians/4643.html>)

 

2. The official web site for _The Matrix_ is at <http://www.whatisthematrix.com>. The interviews are fairly interesting -- although I have found no online interviews with creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski. In fact, if one clicks on the brothers' entry under 'Crew' it says that their most recent film was _Bound_ and adds: 'Little else is known about them.'

 

3. Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein's _Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class_ (New World Perspectives, 1994) is perhaps the most cynical look yet at information technology and the society it is producing (<http://www.nwpbooks.com/bottom/content/datatrash.html> provides the preface and chapter one online).

 

4. Michael Goddard, 'Beauty Lies in the Eye (So Why Can't I Touch It?)', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 25, September 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n25goddard>; a review of 'Deleuze, Guattari and the Philosophy of Expression', special issue of the _Canadian Review of Comparative Literature_, vol. 24 no. 3, 1997. See in particular Goddard's comments on Andrew Murphie's essay 'Putting the Virtual back into VR'.

 

5. Brian Massumi, 'Realer Than Real: The Simulacrum According to Deleuze and Guattari', <http://www.anu.edu.au/HRC/first_and_last/works/realer.htm> (originally published in _Copyright_ no.1, 1987). Film philosophers who haven't seen this essay might enjoy checking out Massumi's discussion of three films here: _Blade Runner_, Cronenberg's _The Fly_, and Louis Feuillade's 1919 silent film _Vendemiaire_.

 

6. Economist Robin Hanson expressed this view in a post labeled 'Matrix Shmatrix' to the Transhuman email list on 9 April 1999. See <http://mail.planetx.com/transhuman/msg02416.html>.

 

7. Floyd Merrell, _Signs Grow: Semiosis and Life Processes_ (University of Toronto Press, 1996), p. 189. For an excellent online review of Merrell's work see 'The Sign Trek Trilogy' by Robert E. Innis in the _Semiotic Review of Books_ at <http://www/epas.utoronto.ca/epc/srb/srb/signtrek.html>.

 

8. Merrell, _Signs Grow_, p. 198.

 

9. Merrell, _Signs Grow_, p. 202.

 

10. Florinda Donner, _Being-in-Dreaming_ (HarperCollins, 1991), p. 266. The cover of this book notes: ' Florinda Donner, the longtime colleague and fellow dream-traveller of Carlos Castaneda, offers a riveting autobiographical account of her halting, sometimes unwilling, often bewildering initiation into the world of being-in-dreaming.'

 

11. Erik Davis, _TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information_ (New York: Harmony Books, 1998), p. 278. See <http://www.levity.com/techgnosis>, which contains a table of contents for the book, as well as links to many online writings by Erik Davis.

 

12. Davis, _TechGnosis_, p. 279.

 

13. Keith Ansell-Pearson, _Viroid Life: Perspectives on Nietzsche and the Transhuman Condition_ (Routledge, 1997), p. 148. Engaging not only transhumanists (especially Extropians), the cover notes that 'Keith Ansell-Pearson also considers the ideas of Nietzsche and Deleuze in relation to Darwinism, neo-Darwinism and complexity. _Viroid Life_ sketches a compelling new thinking of technics and machines.'

 

14. Ed Regis, _Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition_ (Perseus, 1991): see page 145 for the 'feeble mentalities' claim, and page 176 for the Moravec quote. Ansell-Pearson also cites these claims on pages 32-33 of _Viroid Life_. Hans Moravec's latest book is called _Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind_ (Oxford University Press, 1998).

 

15. Douglas Kellner, 'Virilio on Vision Machines', _Film-Philosophy_, vol.2 no. 30, October 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n30kellner>.

 

16. Davis, _TechGnosis_, p. 335. 

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Mark Crosby, 'Reflections Upon the Matrix',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 31, July 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n31crosby>.

 

  

 

Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle

  

Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here

 

Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England

Contact: editor@film-philosophy.com

 

Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage