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The Matrix (BFI Modern Classics): An Exclusive Excerpt
Joshua Clover, author of award-winning books of poetry Madonna anno domini and The Totality for Kids, is Associate Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California Davis. He writes on art and politics for the Village Voice. His most recent work is the just-released The Matrix (BFI Modern Classics).
The Matrix 101 is proud to present an exclusive excerpt from The Matrix (BFI Modern Classics). BFI Modern Classics is a series of critical studies of films produced over the last three decades. Visit the British Film Institute site for more information. The following excerpt is from the introduction of The Matrix and is Copyright 2004 Joshua Clover.
Whatever the Matrix is, The Matrix is a movie. It's a visual object, and much of its meaning must reside there. It's also a significant event in the history of film - its industry, its audience - and this too demands an account. But, inescapably, it's a movie that alternately whispers and bellows its possession of Big Ideas; to ignore these cries would be as foolish as to accept them without question.
There have already been a number of books and countless articles more or less devoted to, as one title bluntly offers, The Matrix and Philosophy. These works tend to be fascinated, in fact, with both philosophy and theology; the film doesn't shy from proffering fuel for both fires. The religious tracts follow two main paths: the messianic features Neo as the One who will save humans from their enslavement by the machines; the Gnostic rehearses the worldview in which humans are prevented from realising heaven through the elaborate deception of a malevolent demiurge.
This latter structure, so familiar to sci-fi fans from Philip K. Dick tales and the movies that love them, dovetails graciously with the most popular of the philosophical investigations: the 'brain in a vat' hypothesis. It takes the form of the basic epistemological conjecture described by Jonathan Dancy: 'You do not know that you are not a brain, suspended in a vat full of liquid in a laboratory, and wired to a computer which is feeding you your current experiences under the control of some ingenious technician scientist.'
The reader will perhaps be happy to learn that I plan to take up these questions only in order to set them immediately aside. This is not to deny their presence. In one of their relatively rare interviews, the writer-directors (Larry and Andy Wachowski) responded to a question about how much of the religious and philosophical reference was intentional with a terse 'All of it.' Such concerns are compelling, especially if you're stoned. However, they're so general they could attach to many films and almost any time. As noted earlier, the 'brain in a vat' hypothesis in particular is essentially a variation on the reality is a hoax or it could all be a dream imaginary - a veritable sci-fi cliché.
If we accept that the movie is more interesting than the cliché, we're left wondering why so many commentators settle on readings of such banality. The first answer must be that the film so demands: The screenplay and scenario studiously invite us to grow entangled in their conceptions, their insights and meanderings, as if we were characters. But in so doing, we risk losing track of the film as a total object, as a cultural product of its time and place. We give ourselves to understanding the Matrix, rather than The Matrix.
Moreover, I would suggest that theology and analytic philosophy here are equally convivial sorts of inverted belletrism, promising a moral or instructive content while requiring little but passive contemplation. The former provides not reference so much as the sensation of reference, the satisfaction of catching at least some of the allusions as they pass by, like watching Jeopardy or reading Foucault's Pendulum. And the latter, similarly, provides the sensation of abstract thinking.
What's obscured by these satisfactions is, to put it in the terms of the film, real life: all that might be concerned with the nuts and bolts of everyday existence, and all that might speak to actual social relations in specific moments. In a word, history.
It's a messy category, resistant to the transcendental longueurs of messianism and metaphysics. And it certainly won't explain everything - nor does it wish to. I accept that The Matrix is a kitchen sink running over with ideas great and small, often tossed in with more concern for their cool-appeal than their coherence; I have seen the sequels. Certainly, it's tempting, given that this is not Antigone but a Hollywood blockbuster, to assume that it wishes to be all things to everyone - or at least enough things to enough people that its owners, having blown $60 million, might reap the whirlwind.
But if denying the movie its particularities by settling for passive and abstract meanings is an easy out, dismissing the film's capacity to have meanings beyond its entertainment value is equally lazy. Signing the dismissal slip with the name 'incoherence' ought to make us especially leery.
History is not coherent; moreover, the politics of coherence tend to drive history in the least tolerable directions. So again, since we are still in the Introduction - a calm moment for averrals and caveats - I'll accept that The Matrix will fail any test for coherence. Indeed, it flickers under the sign of two contradictions, which correspond to its paired sci-fi commonplaces. It's a historic advance in digital entertainment that is unpacifiably anxious about the dangers of digitality; it's a critique of spectacles that is itself a spectacle. These two pairs organise the central four chapters of this book.
If the movie is contradictory, this may not be at odds with the audience's ambivalences about its own experiences outside the theatre. And if the film's ideas fail to form some totality, they might still be partial to something rather specific, and rather evident. I want to propose that, if there is an allegory to be found in The Matrix, it's not about truth. Equally, though it might concern these things, it's not about machines, nor is it about movies. It's about life as we lived it around 1999.
Long before that threshold, Marshall McLuhan proposed that there were two kinds of media: 'light on' and 'light through'. The latter included the most longstanding forms: paintings, the newspaper, street signs. The former suggests more modern apparitions: movies, television, computer screens. This distinction is nowhere more vivid than in the wired cubicle of 1999, shaded on three sides by temporary partitions and on the fourth opening into a labyrinth of more cubicles, each with a monitor rather than a window - a country in which light through had displaced light on with imperial indifference.
For billions of people, this was not a central story of 1999. But for the core audience of The Matrix, daily life bobbed near the wavefront of the tech boom, the infinitely expanding 'new economy' that was always hiring, if you could write code or just punch keys. You worked in a cubicle not so different from Thomas Anderson's, for a company that wanted as many of your hours as it could get, and had newer and better ways to get them. Everything was fluid but the work. The company might change every month, and the cubicle needn't be fixed. Any monitor would do, if it could connect to the system. At stake is not whether this was good or bad, but rather simply that it was, at that moment, a social fact. You sat at a workstation and worked long hours staring at a screen. When you were done, if you weren't too exhausted, maybe you went to the movies.
Did You Know?
Neo's opening scene in The Matrix shows the computer displaying 'Wake up Neo'. This echoes HAL's opening line in '2001: A Space Odyssey'.