It is now twenty years since the first Matrix film was released. Written and directed by the Wachowski sisters, Lilly and Lana, the film became a social phenomenon, transforming science fiction in the process. Inspired by everything from cyberpunk literature to the philosophies of Jean Baudrillard and René Descartes to the Gnostic gospels, the film was a melange of images and ideas that nevertheless found a mass audience. The movie’s arresting action scenes, particularly the groundbreaking ‘bullet time’ sequence, showed the Wachowskis’ profound debt to Japanese anime and Hong Kong kung-fu movies. While the rapid assimilation of these sequences into Hollywood’s CGI arsenal may seem like the movie’s greatest legacy, the ideas behind the film have had just as large an impact.
The film’s afterlife has been similarly spectacular, with a number of images from the film going on to become familiar memes on the internet of the new millennium – notably, the film’s ‘red pill/blue bill’ dilemma, which has been embraced by communities as disparate as the transgender community (more on that later) and men’s right activists (MRAs). Just as Morpheus gives Neo the red pill to expose him to the workings of the matrix, MRAs have used the metaphor to describe their awakening to the supposed workings of anti-male feminism. Even the loathsome incels use the metaphor of the ‘black pill’ to indoctrinate potential members into their violent ideology. Given the pervasiveness of homophobia and transphobia within these groups, there is comforting irony in the Matrix having been directed by two transgender women.
Considering the franchise’s cultural persistence, and the continuing admiration for its beloved star, Keanu Reeves, it is hardly surprising that a fourth movie has recently been announced, to be written and directed by Lana Wachowski.
Here, I wish to look at The Matrix as producing what science fiction theorist Darko Suvin once called a ‘cognitive estrangement’, a semiotic rendering that reveals some of the real social conditions both of the late 1990s, when the film was made, and of today. The virtualised world of the matrix shows the posthuman nature of identity in these late capitalist times, as well as illuminating contemporary anxieties around technology, gender and class. (Though two sequels were made in the early 2000s, they are unsatisfying and needlessly complicated variations on the themes of the first movie, and as such I will largely ignore them. I suspect I am far from alone in this attitude.)
Fin de siècle cultural theorists typically read the first movie as a postmodern text, noting its Jamesonian pastiche of disparate elements and its Baudrillardian simulation of reality (Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation appears in a scene in which Neo retrieves a disc from a hollowed-out copy of the book). The movie also quotes Baudrillard directly, with Morpheus saying, ‘Welcome to the desert of the real.’ But while postmodernism has had its day, the movie remains a cultural touchstone, one that has outlived this cultural and theoretical context.
In order to get at what makes The Matrix so interesting and relevant for contemporary audiences, it is worth looking at what has been termed posthumanism. Generally speaking, this refers to a field of theory critical of the traditions and assumptions of European humanism, specifically the presumed universalism of the rational and objective human subject (read: a white, heterosexual man). It also theorises how the very definition of ‘human’ is increasingly being challenged by technology.
The mother of all posthuman theory is Donna Haraway, specifically her essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, published in Socialist Review in 1985, which set the terms of future discussion. An American feminist, Haraway is equally fluent in the philosophy of science and leftist critical theory, and her work has for thirty years interrogated the question of humanity’s relationship with technology and non-human animals. In ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, Haraway anticipates the post-industrial virtualised capitalism that animates The Matrix. She notes, for example, that the line between human and machine has become thoroughly blurred:
Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.
In the era of artificial intelligence (AI), perpetual social media and covert data-mining, the human-machine cyborg of Haraway’s manifesto is arguably more pervasive now than at the time of writing. Haraway proffers the myth of the cyborg – a hybrid built from human and machine elements – as a metaphor for the ways people have become increasingly entangled with technology in the post-industrial digital age. Posthuman theorist N Katherine Hayles puts it another way: ‘[i]n the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals’. We see in The Matrix a celebration of many ideas explored in posthuman theory, notably the infinite plasticity of virtual technology, the expansion of human capabilities and the potential for bodily adaptation and self-making.
The film’s interest in self-making can be analysed through its gendered dynamics. When the first Matrix movie was made, the writing and directing credits were for ‘the Wachowski brothers’. In the past decade, both of the Wachowskis have transitioned, in the process becoming Hollywood’s most famous trans writers and directors. More recent Wachowski projects like Sense8 have explicitly featured trans characters, yet numerous critics have returned to earlier projects like The Matrix in search of signs of incipient transness. As Lily Wachowski notes:
[T]here’s a critical eye being cast back on Lana and I’s work through the lens of our transness. This is a cool thing because it’s an excellent reminder that art is never static. And while the ideas of identity and transformation are critical components in our work, the bedrock that all ideas rest upon is love.
It is no exaggeration to say that The Matrix is one of the most famous pieces of transgender cinema ever made, despite the absence of explicit trans characters.
The posthuman nature of the matrix, with its infinite plasticity and simulated reality, positions gender itself as cyborg. It is this that many transgender critics see as a metaphor for the self-creation of genders, of the new freedoms brought by cyberspace and pharmacology.
This plasticity echoes the concerns of posthuman theory as well as those of cyberpunk fiction. Haraway puts it another way: ‘the cyborg is a creature in a postgender world’. Many of the film’s characters can be seen as postgender, from Trinity (Neo says to her: ‘I thought you were a guy’) to Neo himself, whose body is distinctly feminised. As critic Emily Todd VanDerWerff has recently written, ‘The entire movie is about transcending the limitations of the physical form to explore what the mind is capable of. Bodies are, at best, a suggestion. Your brain is what really matters.’
We see the self-making ethos of transgender politics in the scene in which Neo awakes to the true reality of the matrix. As he pulls himself out into the ‘real’ world, he finds himself encased in a slimy substance, with tubes sticking out of him. The slime suggests a kind of birthing, a movement from the pre-linguistic world of the womb to the adult world of the ‘speaking subject’. The Bulgarian-French psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva calls this the semiotic, a ‘psychosomatic modality of the signifying process.’ In the semiotic, ‘language is not divorced from the body: “word” and “flesh” can meet at any moment, for better or for worse.’
After he is rescued by Morpheus’ ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, Neo’s body is remade, for his life in the matrix has atrophied his muscles. His mind, too, is remade, with his education in both the politics of revolution and the physical acts of self-sufficiency – ‘I know kung-fu!’ he exclaims. In this remaking of Neo’s body and mind, we can clearly see the ways in which body and mind work dialectically in transition, where body follows mind and where the experiences of being a body in social space change the perceptions of the mind. It is not simply that the matrix is a trans experience in which identity can be made and remade, but rather that the relationship between ‘real’ and virtual has been changed.
But for all that, The Matrix is not an uncritical celebration of cyborg subjectivity; like Haraway’s writing, the film is a more ambivalent look at the possibilities of liberation and domination within the new machinic economy. The Matrix stages a conflict between human and machine, in which the disturbingly lively machines of AI feed on humanity, imprisoning us as a species and extracting energy from our bodies. Humans are kept unaware of this reality, instead inhabiting a virtual world called the matrix, described by Morpheus as ‘a computer-generated dream world, built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this [a battery].’
It is easy to see the subjugation of humanity as a metaphor for the strategies of domination under late capitalism, in a world in which digital technologies have pervaded every aspect of life. Morpheus says: ‘You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch, a prison for your mind.’ The matrix is a virtual reality that masks the true strategies of exploitation in late capitalism.
Haraway states that ‘the dichotomies between mind and body, animal and human, organism and machine, public and private, nature and culture, men and women, primitive and civilised are all in question ideologically’ in what she calls the ‘informatics of domination.’ Information is power, and it constructs social reality. As a result, it is not just the users of virtual reality who become cyborg: the factory workers, those making the technology that enables virtual reality, are cyborg, too, their material conditions a product of humanity’s increased dependency on and demand for technology.
The Matrix shows the ways in which all elements of subjectivity have become forms of production. In 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary suggests that even sleep has been colonised by digital capitalism:
[We live in] a switched-on universe for which no off-switch exists. Of course, no individual can ever be shopping, gaming, working, blogging, downloading, or texting 24/7. However, since no moment, place, or situation now exists in which one can not shop, consume, or exploit networked resources, there is a relentless incursion of the non-time of 24/7 into every aspect of social or personal life.
In other words, digital capitalism has effectively removed any ‘outside’ experience, producing a regime of ‘non-stop consumption, social isolation, and political powerlessness,’ as Crary puts it. We check our social media around the clock, producing content for data-mining mega-corporations, as well as keeping ourselves and our virtual ‘friends’ perpetually logged in. We, too, are trapped in the matrix, in which even our communication – the ‘attention economy’ – has been commodified and weaponised against us.
This might seem a depressing, even nihilistic critique of the informatics of domination. But the cyborg is an ambivalent figure, and the virtual reality of the matrix inevitably creates its own sites of resistance. Early in the movie, Morpheus talks about the ‘splinter in your mind’ that detects the unreality of such social practices as paying your taxes or going to your job. The illusion of the matrix is incomplete, an infinitely tearing wound in need of perpetual suturing, with the agents of the matrix trying to stifle any nascent opposition to the exploitation of the human race by the machines of capitalism. In this sense, the movie astutely recognises the inhuman nature of capitalism – it acts on those it subjugates in a systemic fashion. The sequels’ focus on Agent Smith as an antagonist is therefore a retrogressive step, for it places the blame onto one ‘bad’ actor in much the same way that liberal critiques of capitalism place the blame on selected unethical business practices (such as those of hospitality mogul George Calombaris) rather than on the systemic exploitation of surplus labour. In a Marxist sense, every capitalist conception of labour is already wage theft.
If the movie anticipated the ubiquity of cyberspace in the new century, it also anticipated the coming of climate change, with the ‘real world’ outside of the matrix devastated by the war between humans and machines. ‘We know that it was us that scorched the sky,’ says Morpheus. Exploitative post-industrial capitalism has destroyed the natural world, and there is no returning to the comparative innocence of pre-industrial civilisation.
Marxist historian Jason W Moore talks about the way in which industrial capitalism has relied on the appropriation of what he calls ‘cheap nature’. Left with no natural resources to exploit, the matrix transforms human production and consumption into cannibalism, with the human dead liquefied and fed intravenously to the living. The ‘outside’ to virtual capitalism is a depressing, grimy reality. It is little wonder that the traitor Cypher decides to betray his comrades in exchange for the illusory wonders of virtual capitalism, for a fake steak rather than real gruel.
Ultimately, however, the film suggests that the ‘real’ world is infinitely preferable to the fake world of the matrix – indeed, that revolutionary politics might galvanise humanity. The crew aboard the Nebuchadnezzar are comrades, intent on the destruction of a corrupt system that feeds off humanity. Yet they draw on the virtual for their power, turning the machine against itself, bending and breaking the rules of apparent reality as they do so. As Neo’s (re)birth shows, cultivating a revolutionary politics that opposes the alienating tendencies of late capitalism may be difficult, but remains possible. We have, more or less, all become cyborgs, with the entanglement of virtual and somatic technologies modifying what it means to be human. It is not only transgender people who are cyborgs, who take body and mind modifying medication, who have surgery, who experiment with virtual forms of self-making – it is all of us. There is potential there, but only if accompanied by a revolutionary politics.
Twenty years on, what does The Matrix teach us? What does it mean for Neo to be metaphorically in utero in a world that mirrors the capitalism of America in 1999, and to be torn from the womb into a dank, post-apocalyptic hellscape in which the climate has been destroyed by nuclear weapons and machines rule over humanity? What does this mean for the way we conceptualise fantasy, especially in its gendered permutations? You can fly in the matrix, but the limitations of the body are still very much present in the film – if Neo is killed virtually, his real body will die, too. What does this suggest for trans people, who might be able to imagine new gendered ways of being in cyberspace but who still have to walk streets that are hostile to gender variance and still have to fight for correct documentation and access to public facilities? The recent transphobic policies of the Trump administration in the US and the culture wars here in Australia (witness the war on trans people in the pages of The Australian) have shown that this fight may not necessarily end in greater freedom for trans people. While certain forms of acceptance have been found in some quarters, these are far from universal; around the world, trans people continue to experience very real persecution and violence.
The Matrix serves as a much broader allegory for posthuman subjectivity in the present day, with the interpenetration of technology in everyday life showing both the methods of domination and the possibilities of resistance, as they are embedded in digital late capitalism. The initial discourse around cyberspace was that it offered infinite potential, infinite play, infinite connection. That has proven to be far from the case, with the capture of digital life by corporations (Facebook, for instance, demands a ‘real’ name) that turn our play into opportunities for profit.
Posthuman theory has taught us that there is no real return to the ‘common sense’ of humanism – technology has removed that possibility. Early in the movie, Neo is told that ‘it sounds to me that you might need to unplug,’ yet that is, in the end, impossible. For all the scaremongering about smartphone ‘addiction’, there are few people who truly suggest we should permanently unplug. Perhaps what The Matrix’s really teaches us, with its fight against AI and its ambivalence towards the virtual, is that we need to revolutionise our encounters with the machinic. To take the possibilities inherent in the virtual and radicalise them. How different would our world look if the apps we used, from Facebook to Uber, were socialised, created not to exploit workers and consumers alike but to benefit society? More than that, what would it mean to have a social system that does not cannibalistically feed on human labour and attention? That, perhaps, is the most relevant question The Matrix poses today.
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