Fear and Loathing in The Matrix: Deconstructing the Mask of (Post)humanism in The Matrix Franchise
Science fiction has accounted for much of Hollywood’s accolades throughout the years, though few franchises have seen the commercial or critical success of 1999’s The Matrix and its sequels The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions and the upcoming The Matrix Resurrections. Along with a slew of marketing products ranging from video games to cell phones to a series of animated shorts, the franchise has become a monolith in the industry.
While most of the fanfare surrounding the films focuses on their action-packed visuals, academic circles have concentrated more on the series’ underlying philosophy. To date, dozens of speculative essays about The Matrix have beenpublished by scholars from around the world. And in their analyses, many of these critics have posited that the The Matrix follows a post-humanist way of thinking, as evidenced by the actions of the protagonist, antagonist(s) and supporting characters. These studies focus on the pursuit of freedom from the eponymous dream/slave world run by machines, likening this to a post-human concept of reality.However, upon closer examination, the methods the characters’ in The Matrix use to pursue this autonomy (and the reasons for their pursuit) reveal an underlying philosophy that alludes to post-humanist ideals while actually remaining firmly entrenched in humanist values.
The creators of The Matrix acknowledge the ideas of post-humanism only so much as that acknowledgment serves to further promote the humanistic attitudes that have prevailed in society throughout history. Yet, by acknowledging post-human concepts—and, in doing so, emphasizing humanistic concepts—the films become façades, with post-humanism serving as a mask for the real thesis of the series. Furthermore, the humanistic concepts at the heart of the story also crumble upon deeper analysis. The Matrix and its sequels—though noble in their attempt to highlight the possible issues of a post-humanist future—ultimately end up contradicting themselves.
Philosophy in The Matrix
The philosophical elements in The Matrix—the first film—are hard to miss. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, the main character (Neo) is shown with a book, the inside pages carved out to house digital contraband. As Neo holds the book, the camera pans across the title: Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. (Wachowski and Wachowski) This is the first hint at the film’s philosophical approach, though the connections between the film and Baudrillard’s work do not end there. In his essay “The Matrix Simulation and the Postmodern Age” David Weberman states that the film is “perhaps the most sustained (implicitly) philosophical film to address one of the central features of the postmodern experience: the blurred or vanishing line between reality and simulation.” (Weberman 226) The duality of humans and machines in the film parallels the the duality of humanism and post-humanism.
Humanism concerns the essence of humanity, or what defines our species. While many philosophers have opined about what it means to be human, few have had the influence of French philosopher René Descartes. As quoted by Neil Badmington in the introduction to his anthology on posthumanism:
“At the very beginning of the Discourse on the Method, Descartes proposes that reason is ‘the only thing that makes us men [sic] and distinguishes us from the beasts…’ This innate ‘power of judging well and distinguishing the true from the false…is naturally equal in all men.’ Rational thought, quite simply, makes humans human.” (3)
Badmington goes on to define humanism using the medium that is central to this paper’s focus: film. “[…]popular culture was committed to a defence of humanism (the aliens were always defeated, frequently by a uniquely ‘human’ quality). Man, the film insisted, would survive: this was destiny, the law of nature.” (8) Humanism essentially came down to the right of humans to dominate due to our collective intellectual superiority over all other species on the planet.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant also defines humanism when he discusses the thing as opposed to the person:“beings whose existence rests not on our will but on nature, if they are beings without reasons, still have only a relative worth, as means, and are therefore called things, whereas rational beings are called persons because their nature already marks them out as an end in itself.” (qtd. in Kochhar-Lindgren 142)
Humanism then—according to humanist scholars—places the human firmly at the apex of existence due to a unique combination of evolution, acquired intellect and possible divine intervention.
With post-humanism, philosophers like Jean Baudrillard took the concept of humanism and looked at it in the light of an ever-changing social and hi-tech climate, acknowledging the conflict between Cartesian humanistic philosophy and a modern society steeped in technological dependency. “Baudrillard […] proposes that life in a technological society transforms the autonomous Cartesian subject into a figure resembling the Boy in the Bubble who depends upon machines for everything, including survival.” (Badmington 8)
Other theorists have defined post-humanism in their own ways. In her article “Neo’s Kantian Choice: The Matrix Reloaded and the Limits of the Posthuman” Dana Dragunoiu describes post-humanism as “a mode of being that challenges Descartes’s account of the human subject as a unified and autonomous entity.” (51) Overall though, Dragunoiu portrays the concept in a more positive light than Baudrillard: “certainly, posthumanism offers a much-needed corrective for a civilization that has gone too far in the privileging of its own subjectivity (colonialism and the abuse of animals and the environment are only the most immediate examples).” (64) In their anthology Jacking In to The Matrix Franchise, William G. Doty and Matthew Kapell define post-humanism as simply “that which comes ‘after’ the human.” (196).
But what does this have to do with The Matrix films?
To answer that, we only have to look at the films’ plot and, particularly, the main character: Neo.
The messianic protagonist of this soap opera.
As Gray Kochhar-Lindgren states in his essay “Biomorph: The Posthuman Thing”: “Neo is a neo-Romantic, neo-liberal, neo-humanist subject.” (Kochhar-Lindgren 145)
What is The Matrix?
Thomas Anderson—better known by his hacker alias “Neo”—is a young man living a mundane life in an anonymous city. By day he works as a computer programmer, by night he is a digital criminal guilty of nearly every hacking crime there is. As The Matrix begins, Neo meets two characters—Morpheus and Trinity—who claim they have been searching for him for some time. Morpheus gives him a series of choices, while Trinity tells him that his choices were already made for him the moment he asked the central question: what is the matrix?
After some suspense and action, Morpheus presents Neo with the most iconic choice of the film series: blue pill or red pill. Take the blue and Neo goes back home, wakes up and continues his mundane life plugged into the matrix. Take the red and Neo can see “how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” (Wachowski and Wachowski) The two pools of Morpheus’s sunglasses loom on screen as the audience ponders the glimmering mystery. Which one is Neo going to choose? Which one should he choose?
Religion in The Matrix
Neo, of course, chooses the red pill, embarking on a series of events that draw heavily from Christian dogma. Throughout the film, Neo is presented with challenge after challenge and overcomes them all while performing a number of miracles and suffering through a close betrayal, ultimately ending up murdered and—subsequently—resurrected. Additionally, in the second and third films we meet “The Architect” of the Matrix who—speaking about his recurring relationship with Neo and his “predecessors”—comes off as a God-like figure. At one point in his and Neo’s conversation, The Architect states that:
“The first Matrix I designed was quite naturally perfect; it was a work of art, flawless, sublime. A triumph equaled only by its monumental failure. The inevitability of its doom is apparent to me now as a consequence of the imperfection inherent in every human being. Thus, I redesigned it based on your history to more accurately reflect the varying grotesqueries of your nature.” (Wachowski and Wachowski)
The Architect’s words sound much like biblical allusions to God’s trial and error sessions in creating our world, in addition to referencing the Garden of Eden and the resulting fall of man. Likewise, another character known as The Merovingian—a rogue computer program who controls parts of The Matrix’s seedy underworld—wears black and red clothing and runs a club named Hel. The film’s overarching storyline presents a very clear-cut war between “good” (humans) and “evil” (machines). At the culmination of the original trilogy, this conflict ends in a truce that is painted as unstable at best, much like the biblical cold war between heaven and hell.
The Matrix filmmakers further capitalized on the franchise’s success by releasing the Animatrix, a series of animated episodes based in the world of The Matrix that explain some of the murkier backstory elements. In one of these episodes, titled “Kid’s Story”, a boy has an innate feeling that something is wrong with the world he is living in, going so far as to jump off the roof of a building only to awaken in the “real” world when he hits the bottom. This alludes to the common religious belief that death leads to rebirth; a new life in the “real” world (i.e. heaven), where a soul can truly be free.
Despite the many religious references within the film though, The Matrix ultimately discounts its own claims by surrounding these moments with contradictory elements. For example, during the above-mentioned interaction in The Matrix Reloaded between Neo and The Architect, the latter reveals that Neo himself was created by the machines within the matrix as a system of control. In so many words, he admits that Neo is simply a symbol of false hope for the sector of humanity that remains resistant to the matrix. By simply existing, Neo and the notion of “the one” serve as a distraction that keeps the element of human resistance in check so the machines can go about their business. Therefore, if Neo is the messianic character he is purported to be, he is also his own betrayer. The very system Neo is trying to fight is the same system that gave him life. Moreover, the theme of man betraying himself becomes much clearer during key episodes of The Animatrix series, where the background of The Matrix is revealed.
In The Animatrix episodes “The Second Renaissance Part I”and “The Second Renaissance Part II,” we are told that humanity itself gave birth to the AI that would eventually conquer the species. We are also told that humanity subsequently rejected the AI out of fear of its advanced capabilities, ultimately declaring war on the entity. It is even revealed by Morpheus himself in the first Matrix film that humans are the ones who scorched the sky in an attempt to knock out the machine’s primary source of energy: the sun. As it is aptly put in the “Second Renaissance” episodes, “thus did man become the architect of his own demise.” (Wachowski et al.) Through these revelations, humans are painted as inept, brash, and foolhardy, which goes against the biblical notion of man’s superiority. On the surface, The Matrix is a story of man trying to escape enslavement. Beneath the layers though, the films are about humanity’s propensity to screw things up for itself.
Mind over Body
The film’s humanistic ideals are also apparent in its reverence of the mind-body connection, emphasizing that link as the right way to exist, as opposed to existing solely inside your head (or inside a simulation). The viewer is meant to see the original trilogy and its supplemental material as a statement against the latter concept. We are meant to despise the matrix as an oppressive structure and hate the machines that have enslaved humans in this system of dependency. However, deep within the setup is an objective fact: the fictional machines within the matrix are doing nothing that isn’t already naturally occurring in the “real” world.
When humans die, their bodies disintegrate and return to the earth where nutrients from the bodies nourish any amount of living organisms—including the creatures who eat what grows from the ground those humans died on. Likewise, the law of conservation of energy states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed but only transformed from one form to another. (“The Law of Conservation of Energy “) In other words, all energy is used to power something else. Therefore, by using humans as a power source in their construction of this dream world, the machines are simply mimicking naturally-occurring cycles.
In The Matrix,this yearningfor a pure mind-body connection runs parallel to humanity’s distress over its enslavement at the hands of machines. Humans in the film recognize that the mind cannot be free unless the body is also free, and vice versa. In reality though—that is, in our real-life history—humans (and their bodies) are very rarely free from the influence of the people and institutions that surround them. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines slavery as “submission to a dominating influence,” which is definitely what humanity has succumbed to in The Matrix series. Yet, from a theoretical standpoint, there isn’t much difference between how we operate in in our reality and how people who are plugged into the matrix operate.
In a scene from Reloaded, Neo speaks with Chancellor Hamann of the last human stronghold in the “real world”—an underground city fittingly named Zion. Standing on the engineering level, Neo listens as the chancellor speaks on the role of machines in their lives:
HAMANN: Almost no one comes down here. Unless, of course, there’s a problem. That’s how it is with people. Nobody cares how it works, just as long as it works. I like it down here. I like to be reminded that this city survives because of these machines. These machines are keeping us alive while other machines are coming to kill us. Interesting, isn’t it? The power to give life, and the power to end it.
NEO: We have the same power.
HAMANN: Yeah, I suppose we do, but down here, sometimes I think about all those people still plugged into the matrix, and when I look at these machines I … I can’t help thinking that in a way we are plugged into them.
NEO: But we control these machines, they don’t control us.
HAMANN: Of course not. How could they, the idea is pure nonsense, but it does make one wonder just what is control?
NEO: If we wanted, we could shut these machines down.
HAMANN: Of course, that’s it, you hit it, that’s control isn’t it? If we wanted, we could smash them to bits. But if we did, we’d have to consider what would happen to our lights, our heat, our air.
NEO: So we need machines and they need us. Is that your point, councilor?
HAMANN: No, no point. Old men like me don’t bother with making points. There’s no point. (Wachowski and Wachowski)
In the current age, technology has become a necessity for everything from work to play to life support. In a world where machines control our finances, our health and our social interactions, a computer-simulated reality where there are less physical worries outside of the mind’s capabilities could be conceived as a paradise to many. A rejection of this virtual world based on the belief that a non-simulated reality is more “right” than a simulated reality is a notion that The Matrix takes for granted; a notion that many in our reality might not agree with given the choice (red or blue pill).
The resolution of Matrix Revolutions acknowledges this need for harmony between man and machine. As Dana Dragunoiu states, “given its mix of romance and science-fiction conventions, the trilogy could have been expected to conclude with an annihilation of the machines. Instead, the trilogy’s culmination in a truce between humans and machines summons a vision of perpetual peace.” (64)
Real vs. Unreal
Perhaps the most poignant humanistic ideal propagated by The Matrix—a direct connection to Baudrillard—is that the “real” world is more desirable than the simulated one. This is illustrated in everything from Neo’s character arc to the film’s negative painting of its eponymous simulated world. They even reference Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra on more than one occasion: in the beginning when we see Neo housing computer contraband in Baudrillard’s text, and later on when Morpheus uses Baudrillard’s words to describe to Neo what the real post-Matrix world looks like, referring to it as “the desert of the real.” (Wachowski and Wachowski) This barren, dusty, dark and ruined version of Earth is meant to be more desirable than the matrix precisely because it is “real.” David Weberman examines this in his essay “The Matrix Simulation and the Postmodern Age”, stating that a skeptic of the matrix would believe “[…] no matter how many sensory impressions one has of the virtual world and no matter how much they cohere within and between individuals, the cyberworld is not real because it does not exist in space.” However, Weberman also proposes a counter-argument when he claims: “the cyber-believer will respond: but the cyberworld does exist in space, in cyberspace.” (238)
Baudrillard himself mentions this dilemma in his own work, as David Detmer points out in his essay “Challenging Simulacra and Simulation: Baudrillard in The Matrix”:
“[…] Baudrillard further insists that the postmodern world is devoid of meaning…meaning depends upon depth, stability, permanence, and reality. Theories that can’t latch on to anything real are ultimately meaningless. This, life in our postmodern world is constantly becoming more and more meaningless.” (95-96)
According to Baudrillard, there is no meaning within the matrix—no matter how real it feels—simply because it is not real. And no amount of simulation can make it have real meaning. “They [The Matrix Trilogy] affirm, as is made abundantly clear in Reloaded and Revolutions, that there is a way things really are.” (Detmer 102)
To counter the claim that there is only one reality though, we return again to Baudrillard, who has spoken about his name being involved in The Matrix films. “What’s really embarrassing about The Matrix […] is that the new problem posed by simulation gets confused with the classical problem of illusion, which one finds already in Plato. That’s a serious misunderstanding.” (qtd. in Detmer 102) As Detmer explains, “[Baudrillard] claims that the forces of artificial reality-creation have become so powerful as to have abolished reality and truth all together.” (102) Detmer clarifies further, saying that “the thesis of the Matrix trilogy is that images mask reality; Baudrillard’s claim is that images have replaced reality.” (103)
According to the philosopher whose ideas are central to the film’s focus, neither the matrix or the “real” world is fundamentally real. David Weberman touches on this when he discusses Neo’s sadness at seeing a restaurant he used to eat at with his friends, realizing now that it (and his friends) were all an illusion. “Neo’s memories were experienced at one time as occurring in the present.” (236) And during that present experience, that restaurant and its food were real.
A fitting analogy can be made through the exploration of theme parks. Say that a human being who is plugged into the matrix goes to Disney World. Would that experience be real? Those who say no, why not? Because it is a simulation? But what exactly is the “real” Disney World? Is it not a simulation of an actual world? What exactly is the difference between a simulation and a simulation of that simulation?
We can also look at music technology for another example. Sales of physical music albums—CD’s, vinyl, 8-track, etc.—have stagnated over the past couple of decades as the music industry turned digital. In this shift, we can see the direct argument between the physical—the “real”—and the digital—the “simulated.” If one person walking down the street is listening to a song on a portable CD player, and another person is listening to the same song through a digital app on their phone, they are both experiencing the same song at the same time, albeit through different mediums. Likewise, two people listening to the same song through digital apps on their separate phones are both experiencing that song at the same time, even though there is no physical musical act there to play the song for them. So, if a human is listening to a digital song while plugged into the matrix—what is the difference between that and reality? Weberman touches on this through a discussion of Plato: “Plato held that Forms or ideas were more real than material objects locatable in space.” (238) If ideas are how we make sense of the world, then why shouldn’t ideas be the essence of what is real?
Humans plugged into the matrix seemingly have access to everything people in the “real” world do. In his essay “Try the Blue Pill: What’s Wrong with Life in a Simulation?” Russell Blackford says “you [people plugged into the matrix] certainly have access to complex philosophical books such as those by Jean Baudrillard.” (177) Weberman touches on the subject when he says: “The Matrix has juicy steaks; the real human world has bland gruel. The Matrix has great nightclubs; the real world has none […] the Matrix is a paradise of sensual pleasures compared to the real world.” (234) He continues “the whole world lies at our feet, except that it’s probably better than our world since the machines have every motivation to create and sustain a world without human misery, accidents, disease, and war so as to increase the available energy supply.” (235) Even The Matrix itself can’t avoid this philosophical dilemma; at one point Morpheus asks Neo flatly “What is real?” (Wachowski and Wachowski)
Blackford goes deeper into the issue of reality, pointing out the subjectivity of what is considered real: “…really, at what previous period in history have human beings had even the knowledge of reality available now, through the advance of science? Yet, we do not dismiss all people who ever lived before, say, the discoveries of Darwin and Einstein, as living inauthentic lives.” (179)
The only issue had by the humans who are running free in The Matrix’s “real” world is with their own knowledge of the matrix. They just don’t like the idea of it. But why?
Who Controls Who?
Neo gives his answer to the question of preference halfway through the first film: “Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.” (Wachowski and Wachowski) Which serves to switch the topic of discussion from one of reality to one of control. As evidenced by its political and social structure and Neo’s discussion with Chancellor Hamann on the engineering level, the real world of Zion is nearly as trapped as the people plugged into the matrix. Taking this into account, the only truly free society—as proposed by the freedom fighters in The Matrix—is one that adopts an anarchistic outlook. Yet in the final film of the series, when given the option of an anarchistic future in the form of the virus known as Agent Smith—a virus which threatens to disrupt the matrix and release all humans to the “real” world—Neo decides, instead, to fight and defeat the Agent Smith virus.
The conversation Neo has with the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded proves that Neo’s self-perception as the savior of mankind is an illusion, and what Neo is pursuing has been programmed into him not once, but six times through reincarnation. His values were constructed by the same machines he is fighting, as were the values of all those who inhabit Zion. So even if Zion won the war in the end, their morality was ultimately just another construct of the machine world, and therefore no different than any concept they would have had while living in the matrix. Their resistance was always just another part of the system.
A more subtle method used by the Wachowskis to promote humanistic values can be seen in their decisions while filming. The Wachowskis did everything they could to make scenes within the matrix itself look undesirable. The screen is always greenish when the characters are plugged in, giving the world a sickly look and feel. Russell Blackford states that “again, the technological process by which humans are contained, kept sleeping and dreaming, and provided with a simulated reality, is repulsive and sinister partly because…well, it looks so repulsive.” (171) The matrix itself is perceived through biased lens right from the get-go, a deliberate choice of the filmmakers.
However, this use of camera technique to illustrate the theme also serves as a contradiction of the theme when the films’ heavy use of CGI is taken into consideration. CGI—or computer-generated imagery—is a tool that has been used throughout the film industry for some time now to create better visuals for the audience. In her essay “Moving The Matrix: Kinesic Excess and Post-industrial Being,” Anne Cranny-Francis states that “The Matrix is only able to show the viewer the awesome and potentially subjugating power of this technology by deploying the same technology – which thereby both awes and subjugates the viewer; positions her/him as a puppet of this media(ted) experience.” (113)
The ideas posited by The Matrix trilogy are interesting and thought-provoking, employing many different ideas from many different veins of philosophy to create an epic tale of biblical proportions. However, the combination of post-humanist and humanist concepts within the film largely contradict each other, ultimately canceling one another out. Hollywood cinema has come a long way in acknowledging the potential existence of the post-human man and woman, but the success of films such as The Matrix show that humanism is still a predominant mentality within society.
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