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There is something inherently naive about taking the “philosophical” underpinning of The Matrix series seriously and discussing its implications. The Wachowski brothers, who wrote and directed the films, are not philosophers, but just two guys who flirt with and exploit, in an often confused way, some “postmodern” and New Age notions in the service of science fiction. But The Matrix is one of those films that function as a kind of Rorschach test, setting in motion the universalized process of recognition, like the proverbial painting of God that 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, directly taking over, colonizing our inner life itself, using us as the source of energy. New Agers see how our world is just a mirage generated by a global Mind embodied in the World Wide Web. Or the series is a baroque illustration of Plato’s cave, in which ordinary humans are prisoners, tied firmly to their seats and compelled to watch the shadowy performance of (what they falsely consider to be) reality -- in short, the position of the cinema spectators themselves.
This search for the philosophical content of The Matrix is therefore a lure, a trap to be avoided. Such readings that project into the film refined philosophical or psychoanalytic conceptual distinctions are effectively much inferior to a naïve immersion that I witnessed when I saw The Matrix at a local theater in Slovenia. I had the unique opportunity to sit close to a man in his late twenties who was so engrossed in the film that he repeatedly disturbed other spectators with loud exclamations like: “My God, wow, so there is no reality! So we are all puppets!”
However, what is interesting is to read The Matrix movies not as containing a consistent philosophical discourse, but as rendering, in their very inconsistencies, the antagonisms of our ideological and social predicament. What, then, is the Matrix? Simply what Lacan called the “big Other,” the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us. The big Other pulls the strings; the subject doesn’t speak, the subject “is spoken” by the symbolic structure. This big Other is the name for the social Substance, for all that on account of which the subject never fully dominates the effects of his acts; his activity is always something else than what he aimed at or anticipated. And the inconsistencies of the film’s narrative perfectly mirror the difficulties of our breaking out of the constraints of the social Substance.
When Morpheus tries to explain to the still perplexed Neo what the Matrix is, he links it to a failure in the structure of the universe: “What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there is something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is. But it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.” Yet toward the end of the first film, Smith, the agent of the Matrix, gives a different, much more Freudian explanation: “Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. ... As a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery.”
The imperfection of our world is thus at the same time the sign of its virtuality and the sign of its reality. Linked to this inconsistency is the ambiguous status of the liberation of humanity announced by Neo in the last scene of the first film. As the result of Neo’s intervention, there is a “system failure” in the Matrix. At the same time, Neo addresses people still caught in it as the Savior who will teach them how to liberate themselves from the constraints of the Matrix; they will be able to break its physical laws, bend metals, fly in the air. But the problem is that all these “miracles” are possible only if we remain within the virtual reality sustained by the Matrix and merely bend or change its rules; our “real” status is still that of the slaves. We are, as it were, merely gaining additional power to change our mental prison rules. So what about exiting from the Matrix altogether and entering the “real reality” in which we are miserable creatures living on the destroyed earth’s surface? Is the solution a postmodern strategy of “resistance,” of endlessly “subverting” or “displacing” the power system, or a more radical attempt at annihilating it?
Recall another memorable scene in The Matrix, in which Neo has to choose between the red and the blue pill. His choice is that between Truth and Pleasure: either the traumatic awakening into reality, or persisting in the illusion regulated by the Matrix. Neo chooses Truth -- in contrast to the most despicable character in the movie, the informer-agent among the rebels, who picks up with his fork a juicy red bit of a steak and says: “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.” He follows the pleasure principle, which tells him that it is preferable to stay within the illusion, even if one knows it’s only an illusion.
Yet this choice is not quite so simple. What, exactly, does Neo offer to humanity at the film’s end? Not a direct awakening into the “desert of the real,” but a free-floating between the multitude of virtual universes: Instead of being simply enslaved by the Matrix, one can liberate oneself by way of learning to change the rules of our universe and learn to fly freely or violate other physical laws. The choice is not between bitter truth and pleasurable illusion, but rather between the two modes of illusion. The traitor is bound to the illusion of our “reality,” dominated and manipulated by the Matrix, while Neo offers to humanity the experience of the universe as a playground in which we can play a multitude of games, freely passing from one to another, reshaping the rules that fix our experience of reality.
In an Adornian way, these inconsistencies are the film’s moment of truth: They signal the antagonisms of our late-capitalist social experience, antagonisms concerning basic couplings like reality and pain (reality as that which disturbs the reign of the pleasure principle), and freedom and system (freedom is only possible within a system that hinders its full deployment). But the ultimate strength of the film is on a different level. The unique impact of the film resides not so much in its central thesis (what we experience as reality is an artificial virtual reality generated by the Matrix, the mega-computer directly attached to all our minds), but in its central image of the millions of human beings leading a claustrophobic life in water-filled cradles, kept alive in order to generate electricity. So when (some of) the people “awaken” from their imprisonment, this awakening is not the opening into the wide space of the external reality, but first the horrible realization of this enclosure, where each of us is effectively just a fetus-like organism, immersed in prenatal fluid.
This utter passivity is the fantasy that sustains our conscious experience as active, self-positing subjects -- it is the ultimate perverse fantasy, the notion that we are ultimately instruments of the Matrix’s -- the big Other’s - - jouissance, sucked of our life-substance like batteries. This brings us to the true libidinal enigma: Why does the Matrix need human energy? The purely energetic solution is, of course, meaningless: The Matrix could have easily found another more reliable source of energy, which would have not demanded the extremely complex arrangement of virtual reality coordinated for millions of human units. The only consistent answer is that the Matrix feeds on human jouissance. And so we are back at the fundamental Lacanian thesis that the big Other itself, far from being an anonymous machine, needs the constant influx of jouissance of those who come to define it, even constitute it.
The Matrix Reloaded proposes -- or, rather, plays with -- a series of ways to overcome the inconsistencies of its prequel. But in doing so, it gets entangled in new inconsistencies of its own. The film’s end is open and undecided not only narratively, but also with regard to its underlying vision of the universe. The basic tone is that of additional complications and suspicions that render problematic the simple and clear ideology of liberation from the Matrix that underpins the first film.
The communally ecstatic ritual of the people in the underground city of Zion cannot but recall a fundamentalist religious gathering. Doubts are also cast upon the two key prophetic figures. Are Morpheus’ visions true, or is he a paranoiac madman ruthlessly imposing his hallucinations? Neo doesn’t know if he can trust the Oracle, a woman who foresees the future: Is she also manipulating Neo with her prophecies? Is she a representative of the “good” aspect of the Matrix, in contrast to Agent Smith, who turns into an excess of the Matrix, a virus run amok, trying to avoid being deleted by multiplying itself? And what about the cryptic pronouncements of the Architect of the Matrix, its software writer, its God? He informs Neo that he is actually living in the sixth upgraded version of the Matrix: In each, a savior figure has arisen, but his attempt to liberate humanity ended in a large-scale catastrophe. Is Neo’s rebellion, far from being a unique event, just part of a larger cycle of the disturbance and restitution of the Order?
By the end of The Matrix Reloaded, everything is cast in doubt: The question is not only whether any revolutions against the Matrix can accomplish what they claim or whether they have to end in an orgy of destruction, but whether they are not taken into account, planned even, by the Matrix itself. Are even those who are liberated from the Matrix free to make a choice at all? Is the solution to nonetheless risk the outright rebellion, or to resign oneself to play the local games of “resistance” while remaining within the Matrix, or even engage in collaboration with the “good” forces in the Matrix? This is where The Matrix Reloaded ends: in a failure of “cognitive mapping” that perfectly mirrors the sad predicament of today’s left and its struggle against the System.
A supplementary twist is provided by the very end of the movie, when Neo magically stops the bad squidlike machines attacking the humans by merely raising his hand. How was he able to accomplish this in the “desert of the real,” not within the Matrix where, of course, he can do wonders? Does this unexplained inconsistency indicate that “all there is is generated by the Matrix,” that there is no ultimate reality? Although such a postmodern temptation -- the easy way out of ontological confusion -- is to be rejected, there is a correct insight in this complication of the simple and straight division between the “real reality” and the Matrix-generated universe. Even if the struggle takes place in the “real reality,” the key fight is to be won in the Matrix, which is why the human rebels re-enter its virtual universe.
To put it in terms of the good old Marxist couple infrastructure/superstructure: One should take into account the irreducible duality of, on the one hand, the “objective” material socio-economic processes taking place in reality as well as, on the other hand, the politico- ideological process proper. What if the domain of politics is inherently “sterile,” a theater of shadows, but nonetheless crucial in transforming reality? So, although economy is the real site and politics a theater of shadows, the main fight is to be fought in politics and ideology.
Consider, for example, the disintegration of Communist power in Eastern Europe in the last years of the ’80s. Although the main event was the actual loss of state power by the Communists, the crucial break occurred at a different level -- in those magic moments when, although formally Communists were still in power, people all of a sudden lost their fear and no longer took the state’s threats seriously. So even if “real” battles with the police continued, everyone somehow knew that the “game” was over. The title The Matrix Reloaded is thus quite appropriate: If part one was dominated by the impetus to exit the Matrix, to liberate oneself from its hold, part two makes it clear that the battle has to be won within the Matrix, that one has to return to it.
The filmmakers have thus dramatically raised the stakes of the Matrix series, confronting us with all the complications and confusions of the politics of liberation. And they have put themselves in a profoundly difficult spot: They now confront an almost impossible task. If the forthcoming part three, The Matrix Revolutions, is to succeed with anything like a happy ending, it will have to produce nothing less than the appropriate answer to the dilemmas of revolutionary politics today, a blueprint for the political act the left is desperately looking for.
Slavoj Zizek, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, in Essen, Germany. Among other books, he is the author of "The Fragile Absolute" and "Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?"