Fantasy Reloaded. On “The Matrix” Movies

There is something inherently stupid and naïve in taking the “philosophical” underpinning of The Matrix series seriously and discussing its implications: the Wachowski brothers are obviously NOT philosophers, but just two guys who superficially flirt with and exploit in a confused way some “postmodern” and New Age notions. The Matrix is one of those films which function as a kind of Rorschach test, 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 it the source of speculations on how our world is just a mirage generated by a global Mind embodied in the World Wide Web; not to mention the all-pervasive presence of Jean Baudrillard… This series goes back to Plato’s Republic: does The Matrix not repeat exactly Plato’s setting 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-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 pseudo-sophisticated readings which project onto 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 theatre in Slovenia. I had the unique opportunity of sitting close to the ideal spectator of the film-namely, an idiot. A man in his late 20’s to my right was so immersed in the film that he disturbed other spectators all the time 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. Recall the memorable scene from The Matrix in which Neo has to choose between the red and blue pills, his choice is between Truth and Pleasure: either the traumatic awakening into the Real or persisting in the illusion regulated by the Matrix. He chooses Truth, in contrast to the most despicable character in the movie, the Matrix’s informer-agent among the rebels who, in his memorable dialogue with Smith, the Matrix’s agent, picks up with his fork a juicy red piece of steak and says: “I know it is just a virtual illusion, but I do not care about it, since it tastes real.” In short, he follows the pleasure principle which tells him that it is preferable to stay within the illusion, even if one knows that it’s only an illusion.

However, the choice of The Matrix is not as simple as that: 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 learning to bend its rules-one can change the rules of our physical universe and thus learn to fly freely and violate other physical laws. In short, 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 the playground in which we can play a multitude of games, freely passing from one to another, reshaping the rules which fix our experience of reality. Is the solution then a postmodern strategy of “resistance,” of endlessly “subverting” or “displacing” the power system, or a more radical attempt at annihilating it?

In an Adornian way, one should claim that these inconsistencies are the film’s moment of truth: they signal the antagonisms of our late-capitalist social experience, antagonisms concerning basic ontological couples like reality and pain (reality as that which disturbs the reign of the pleasure-principle), freedom and system (freedom is only possible within the system that hinders its full deployment).

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 which render problematic the simple and clear ideology of liberation from the Matrix that underpins part 1. The ecstatic community ritual of the people in the underground city of Zion cannot but recall a fundamentalist religious gathering. Doubts are cast upon the two key prophetic figures. Are Morpheus’ visions true or is he a paranoiac madman ruthlessly imposing his hallucinations? Neo also doesn’t know if he can trust the Oracle, a woman who foresees the future: can she also be manipulating Neo with her prophecies? Is she a representant of the good aspect of the Matrix, in contrast to agent Smith who, in part 2, 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 then 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 Matrix Reloaded, everything is thus 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. Are then even those who are liberated from the Matrix free to make a choice at all? Is the solution to nonetheless risk outright rebellion, to resign oneself to play the local games of “resistance” while remaining within the Matrix, or even engage in a trans-class collaboration with the “good” forces in the Matrix? This is where Matrix Reloaded ends: in a failure of “cognitive mapping” which 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 squid-like machines from 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, freeze the flow of time, defy the laws of gravity, etc.? Does this unexplained inconsistency point towards the solution that “all there is is generated by the Matrix,” that there is no ultimate reality? Although such a “postmodern” temptation to find an easy way out of the confusions by proclaiming that all there is is the infinite series of virtual realities mirroring themselves in each other 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 one should (re)enter its virtual fictional universe. If the struggle were to take place solely in the “desert of the real”, it would have been another boring dystopia about the remnants of humanity fighting evil machines.

To put it in the 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 theatre 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. Take the disintegration of Communist power in the last years of 1980s: 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 threat seriously; so, even if “real” battles with the police continued, everyone somehow new that “the game is over”… The title Matrix Reloaded is thus quite appropriate: if part 1 was dominated by the impetus to exit the Matrix, to liberate oneself from its hold, part 2 makes it clear that the battle has to be won within the Matrix, that one has to return to it.

In Matrix Reloaded, the Wachowski brothers thus consciously raised the stakes, confronting us with all the complications and confusions of the process of liberation. In this way, they put themselves in a difficult spot: they now confront an almost impossible task. If the forthcoming part 3, The Matrix Revolutions, is to succeed, 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.

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis