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Slavoj Zizek: THE MATRIX: THE TRUTH OF THE EXAGGERATIONS
Apropos of psychoanalysis, Theodor W. Adorno claimed that nothing in it is more true than its exaggerations - and the same can be said about The Matrix. This is one of the few films which function as a kind of Rorschach test, like the proverbial painting of God which seems always to stare directly at you, from wherever you look at it: practically every theoretical orientation seems to recognize itself in it. My psychoanalytic 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...
What, then, is the Matrix? Simply what Jacques Lacan called "big Other," the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us. In a properly paranoiac way, the film externalizes this virtual symbolic order in the really-existing Mega-Computer. However, the strength of the film resides not so much in this 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 the image of the millions of human beings leading a claustrophobic life in water-filled craddles, kept alive in order to generate the energy (electricity) for the Matrix. So when (some of the) people "awaken" from their immersion into the Matrix-controlled virtual reality, 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 foetus-like organism, immersed in the pre-natal fluid...
The truth behind this fantasy can be detected through its very inconsistencies. When Morpheus (the African-American leader of the resistance group who believe that Neo - Keanu Reeves - is the One who will liberate them) tries to explain to the still perplexed Neo what the Matrix is, he - he links it to a failure in the structure of the universe:
"It's that feeling you have had all your life. That feeling that something was wrong with the world. You don't know what it is but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. /.../ The Matrix is everywhere, it's all around us, here even in this room. /.../ It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. NEO: What truth? MORPHEUS: That you are a slave, Neo. That you, like everyone else, was born into bondage ... kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison of your mind."So the experience of the lack/inconsistency/obstacle is supposed to bear witness of the fact that what we experience as reality is a fake - however, towards the end of the film, Smith, the agent of the Matrix, gives a different, much more Freudian explanation:
"Did you know hat 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. Entire crops /of the humans serving as batteries/ were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.Which is why the Matrix was re-designed to this: the peak of your civilization."Here the film encounters its basic inconsistency: the imperfection of our world is at the same time the sign of its virtuality AND the sign of its reality. Linkied to this inconsistency is the inconsistency about death: WHY does one "really" die when one dies only in the VR regulated by the Matrix? The film provides the obscurantist answer: "NEO: If you are killed in the Matrix, you die here /i.e. not only in the VR, but also in real life/? MORPHEUS: The body cannot live without the mind." The logic of this solution is that your "real" body can only stay alive (function) in conjunction to the mind, i.e. to the mental universe into which you are immersed: so if you are in a VR and killed there, this death affects also your real body... The obvious opposite solution (you only really die when you are killed in reality) is also too short. The catch is: is the subject WHOLLY immersed into the Matrix-dominated VR or does he know or at least SUSPECT the actual state of things? If the answer is YES, then a simple withdrawal into a prelapsarian Adamic state of distance would render us immortal IN THE VR and, consequently, Neo who is already liberated from the full immersion in the VR should SURVIVE the struggle with the agent Smith which takes place WITHIN the VR controlled by the Matrix (in the same way he is able to stop bullets, he should also have been able to derealize blows that wound his body).
The final inconsistency concerns the ambiguous status of the liberation of humanity announced by Neo in the last scene. 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 the Matrix as the Savior who will teach them how to liberate themselves from the constraints of the Matrix - they will be able to break the physical laws, bend metals, fly in the air... However, the problem is that all these "miracles" are possible only if we remain WITHIN the VR sustained by the Matrix and merely bend or change its rules: our "real" status is still that of the slaves of the Matrix, we as it were are 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 surface?
The lesson of these inconsistencies is that it is crucial to maintain open the radical ambiguity of how cyberspace will affect our lives: this does not depend on technology as such but on the mode of its social inscription. Immersion into cyberspace can intensify our bodily experience (new sensuality, new body with more organs, new sexes...), but it also opens up the possibility for the one who manipulates the machinery which runs the cyberspace literally to steal our own (virtual) body, depriving us of the control over it, so that one no longer relates to one's body as to "one's own". What one encounters here is the constitutive ambiguity of the notion of mediatization: originally this notion designated the gesture by means of which a a subject was stripped of its direct, immediate right to make decisions; the great master of political mediatization was Napoleon who left to the conquered monarchs the appearance of power, while they were effectively no longer in a position to exercise it. At a more general level, one could say that such a "mediatization" of the monarch defines the constitutional monarchy: in it, the monarch is reduced to the point of a purely formal symbolic gesture of "dotting the i's", of signing and thus conferring the performative force on the edicts whose content is determined by the elected governing body. And does not, mutatis mutandis, the same not hold also for today's progressiver computerization of our everyday lives in the course of which the subject is also more and more "mediatised", imperceptibly stripped of his power, under the false guise of its increase? When our body is mediatized (caught in the network of electronic media), it is simultaneously exposed to the threat of a radical "proletarization": the subject is potentially reduced to the pure void, since even my own personal experience can be stolen, manipulated, regulated by the machinical Other. One can see how the prospect of radical virtualization bestows on the computer the position which is strictly homologous to that of Cartesian evil God /genie malin/: since the computer coordinates the relationship between my mind and (what I experience as) the movement of my limbs (in the virtual reality), one can easily imagine a computer which runs amok and starts to act liker an evil God, disturbing the coordination between my mind and my bodily self-experience - when the signal of my mind to raise my hand is suspended or even counteracted in (the virtual) reality, the most fundamental experience of the body as "mine" is undermined... The commonplace is that, in cyberspace, the ability to download consciousness into a computer finally frees people from their bodies - but it also frees the machines from "their" people...
In an Adornian way, one should therefore claim that the inconsistencies of the film are its 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).
As to this ambiguity, see Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press 1995.