Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)

“Cyberspace abandons ‘the real’ for the hyperreal by presenting an increasingly real simulation of a comprehensive and comprehensible world” (Nunes 163). As we have already seen, postmodernity is characterised by the turn from the real towards the hyperreal caused by the proliferation of signs- an indication, perhaps, that cyberspace is a quintessentially postmodern medium. Certainly it is a site of crucial juxtapositions, an arena to showcase the clashing of the real and the hyperreal, humanity and machinery, freedom and enslavement. In the case of American society at least, cyberspace stands on the brink of dominating the shape of the society to follow the simulacrum we are currently contained in- although whether it will improve or disimprove the conditions within is arguable.

The following section will examine the nature of cyberspace both as it exists today, and as it is imagined in the future, through the lens of the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, with a view to establishing the importance of its role in the consumerist-apocalypse that so far seems inevitable. If the men who partook in Fight Club were literally busting themselves out of the simulacrum, are hackers the cerebral, paler versions of the same breed of rebel? The Matrix allows us to raise many pertinent questions- not least of which is the conundrum of whether cyberspace creates an utopian elsewhere for the disgruntled refugees of late capitalism, or merely provides a panicky escape-route as we abandon the body in a run for environmental cover. A cursory glance will also be given to several cyborg films for the dual purposes of establishing the evolution of technology based dystopias, and of exploring the hypothesis that we are all cyborgs in cyberspacei.

[2:1]Before we attempt to navigate through cyberspace, we must first take a general look at our attitude to technology, and explore if we have indeed enclosed ourselves in the external sensorium of technology alleged by technophobe Heidegger. Max Weber’s believed that modernity is characterised by enclosure in an iron cage of bureaucracy, that acts as a controlling force in our lives. This was developed the equally pessimistic Heidegger, so that it was an exteriorised technoscience that was enframing us. In Heidegger’s iron cage, it is technology that is stripping our reality of its intrinsic potentialities and turning our own world into something radically alien and hostile (Feenberg 11-13). We have cheerfully imprisoned ourselves in this iron cage, for the same reasons we fall prey to commodity fetishism. The alienation and reification at the heart of that basic consumer instinct are at work here also- we quickly fall into the thrall of any extension of ourselves in any material other than ourselves, be it the state, the church, the media, or technology. As a result we have become like Narcissus, gazing adoringly at our own reflection in technology, loving this extension of ourselves so much that we have become a closed system, “…the servo-mechanism of [our] own extended and repeated image” (McLuhan 51). It is for this reason that dystopic projections of a machine-dominated future do not alarm us as they once did- we feel closer both to the future and to the machine than we ever did before (Jameson Nostalgia 26).

In fact, the iron cage of technoscience has enclosed us to such an extent that we are now faced with a truly postmodern paradox- machines, and their human-hybrid cousin the cyborg, are seen as having greater moral potential than the fallible humans whom created them. To borrow a succinct illustration of the point: Star Wars gave us the postmodern storybook heroes R2-D2 and C-3PO, but unlike their predecessor Pinocchio, we do not want them to become human (Soloman 36). The humanism we grant technology is often denied to ourselves, making the iron cage even more obviously a product of capitalism/modernity. As already shown, commodity fetishism occurs when workers become alienated from the products of their labour as these products become fetishised. This concept was developed in the 1920s by Georg Lukacs to produce a theory of reification, namely that people tend to view the social structures which they themselves have created (and thus have the ability to alter), as if they have an objective life of their own which makes them seem unalterable, disconnected, and alienating. The iron cage of technology we have built around ourselves is in many respects the result of such reification- to deny us our machines would be viewed as a devastating blow that we might never recover from, even though it was we who created the machines in the first place. This is not to troubling in itself, only becoming problematic when we view it in terms of a nightmarishly capitalist future, such as the dingy dystopia of Blade Runner. The investment of technology with human potential can be viewed as a direct result of dead human labour being stored in our machinery until this alienated power turns back upon us in an unrecognisable form, with the Replicants of Blade Runner providing the “…perfect encapsulation of the vampiric form of capital accumulation…nothing but so much dead labour simulating life” (Jameson Postmodernism 69, Doel and Clarke 153).

[2:2]If we accept as a given the tendency to invest mechanical creations with all the human potential being denied to us, we can then approach the seemingly endless depictions of humanistic cyborgs with a view to establishing a connection between our current fascination with technology and its logical extension into the future. Here it may be useful to establish Constance Penley’s distinction between mere science-fiction entertainment and what she terms a ‘critical dystopia’ (such as the Terminator films, or RoboCop) which takes pains to locate “…the origins of future catastrophe” in the decisions we are currently making about technology, warfare and social behaviour (197). For Penley, Terminator achieves this through a proliferation of gadgets subtly erring with graphic consequences, most notably the answering machine that leads to the tracking down of Sarah Connor by the cyborg assassin. The ubiquitous nature of these gadgets coupled with evidence of their fallibility reminds us that if technology can go wrong, it will. The future catastrophe is hence brought a little closer to home, for although the defence network computer SkyNet will attempt to eradicate the human race it had its humble origins here, in the convenience items of today (Penley 198-9).

For Terminator 2: Judgement Day the critical gaze is placed upon social behaviour instead, roving over sterile locations such as a sadistic mental hospital and a gleaming super-mall, even a sunny suburbia housing our future saviour John Connor’s ineffectual foster-parents (Pfeil 25). In acknowledgement of the postmodern paradox, we are treated to the contrast between an ever more humanistic cyborg (who even wants to cry), and the intriguingly machine-like revolutionary fervour of the heroine. The critical dystopia seen in the Terminator films is one that brings a mundane quality to the eventual apocalypse: the endless parade of answering machines, laser discs, vending machines and so on make clear the ubiquitous nature of technology (and its surreptitious consequences). The newly on-line can marvel at the very fact of the internets existence, yet in a manner of days complain bitterly about downloading time. Similarly, the Terminator films reveal how our constant desire to update our technology in order to keep our narcissistic reflection enthralling will eventually lead us to create the agents of our own destruction.

In the paranoid and technophobic world of RoboCop, the thinly veiled critique of Reaganism calls to the fore the encroachment of technology into the human sphere so evident in the Terminator films. This is then coupled with the video-narcotic previously discussed for a truly hard-hitting connection between contemporary dependence on technology and a dystopian future. RoboCop‘s opening scene is awash with evidence of media saturation- we see a sixteen picture grid dominated by images of urban violence, followed by a news presentation prefaced by the voiceover “This is Media- you give us three minutes, we give you the world.” The news items which follow introduce us both to the arch-villains and the recently deceased, soon to be cyborg hero of the piece, in an opening scene which blatantly foregrounds the importance (and the longevity) of televisual technology. Prior to the complexity of, as the movie’s tagline would have it, the “fifty percent human, fifty percent machine, one hundred per cent cop” postmodern storybook hero, Verhoeven places before us the general tendency towards comfortable technological isolation -in the less obviously cyborg-form of the couch potato.

Television is shown here as the primary agent in transforming us into Baudrillard’s natural cyborgs- we are the restless inhabitants of a media panopticon in splendid isolation from all but our technology, making our disenchanted society “[n]ot a violent world, but cold as cruelty” (Kroker Possessed 64). While the global panopticon being constructed is not a unified architecture with a single tower but is instead composed of several towers disguised as social institutions, the effect on us prisoners is the same as it was in Bentham’s 1791 model (Crawford 56). The power granted by the perfect isolation of the prisoners, allowing us perfect liberty within our own private space, has cemented our numbness to social machinations. Within the private spaces of the tv room and the car, the news items which inject violence into our safe little worlds consolidates our desire to remain there, proving that the most secure prisons are those in which the inmates believe themselves to be free, as then “…they can harbour no thoughts of rebellion or escape” (Crawford 77). The viewers of the television news in RoboCop, and us, the extra audience it has unwittingly garnered, are shown sixteen separate instances of urban violence simultaneously in a manner surely designed to make us even fonder of our private utopian spaces. This is made even more apparent in Verhoeven’s later analysis of the neo-fascist impulse, Starship Troopers, where public executions are broadcast on interactive television. In this way, the disintegration of society becomes a technologically mediated event that effects other people (not us, never us), and the false security this brings ensures that the “…cruel exteriority of the world becomes something intimate and warm” (Baudrillard Consumer 35).

RoboCop himself is a seething mass of internal conflict and hence is perhaps the best depiction of the inherent conflict between human and machine. RoboCop‘s human side not only continually outwits dumb machines but also continually struggles to reassert his identity as more-than-machine, culminating in his re-appropriation of the name ‘Murphy’ii. Conversely, his technological side allows him to easily vanquish his human foes (Arnold 13). In short, the position of the human/machine hybrid Murphy has become one above both humans and machines. The seemingly endless popularity of cyborg movies illustrates the appeal of situations in which the real contradictions of the increasingly technologically determined conditions of subjectivity are played out before us, but just how significant is the elevated status of the cyborg above both its component parts? (Arnold 4). Is it possible that the utopian rhetoric that continually shrouds cyberspace is the result of our desire to attain that elevated status ourselves? The impossibility of partaking in cyberspatial mediation without the use of machinery to project ourselves means that we are all cyborgs in cyberspace- but we have yet to determine whether or not our humanity will fight as much as Murphy’s did for survival.

[2:3]Cyberspace is still evolving- it is nowhere near the epic proportions that cyberpunk predicts for it, and its ability to generate virtual worlds has not yet become clear. At the moment, the element of cyberspace that touches most lives is the internet, a vast web of interlocking strands of information that is simultaneously being hailed as the only true democracy, and branded as a new hierarchy of knowledge. Old clichés of progress (most memorably the road in the phrase ‘Information Superhighway’), are regularly trotted out to sing its praises (Sclove 607, Nunes 163). For technophiles, it encapsulates all the progress that has been made by humanity, and now all that remains is for us do escape the “…prison of the flesh” into the world of pure information (Cooper 96). The more wary, however, tend to view the endless catch-cries of “Click here!” to be the perfect illustration of all that is going wrong with the world. While it remains to be seen if the Net is a repository of collective cultural memory, a reconceived public space overcoming the tyranny of geography (Fernback 37), or merely the latest expensive plaything of the West, it has certainly captured the public imagination.

At a cursory glance, there is vast utopian potential: it is a site where all voices can be heard, where like-minded yet distant individuals can come together, and its assistance to grassroots movements such as Globalise Resistance is astronomical. Taking the utopian outlook: however scattered the population of ‘netters’, however capable the Net is of “…ensnaring the unwary in its paradox of no beginning, no end, no centre”, it is still a quintessentially postmodern means of having full interaction with one’s society since “[o]ur society is a working pandemonium of fragments-much like the internet itself” (Kelly 75-7). Utopian accounts of the internet are structured on a huge fallacy however- an infinitesimal percentage of the world’s population has private phone lines, let alone the hardware necessary to connect to the internet. It is a Western toy, predominately used by middle-class white males whose promises of a computopia blissfully ignore the systematic inequalities that pre-exist the technology: claims for global empowerment through this new distribution of information ring hollow if we consider the internets impact on, for instance, an Indonesian factory worker who would certainly surprised to know an alien technology has radically altered her life (Kester 51). The blunt truth of the matter is that this factory worker would be far more empowered by a global redistribution of wealth- something that is never mentioned in this privileged world seemingly governed by the assumption that information has eclipsed material productivity as the key determinant of human life “…as if humans can live by bytes alone” (Winston 232). This would suggest that the alleged global community of the internet is able to proclaim “…its openness and democracy precisely because of its homogeneity and its privilege” (Kester 55), although the panspectral surveillance made possible by the Nets endless collection of minutiae may lead to the creation of pink and white collar sweatshops (Dennis 3). That as may be, the computer access patterns visible in contemporary society are creating the circuits of power in the emerging cyberspace to such an extent that they will continue to impact on conditions there even if it were to become a fully-realised four-dimensional virtual reality- to paraphrase Marx “[t]he facts of existing cyberspace weigh like a nightmare in the brains of future cyberspace” (Jordan 23).

[2:4]We have come some way towards an understanding of the conditions that may lead to The Matrix‘s particular critical dystopia, which presents us with an extraordinarily bleak picture of the future in a computer based world. The central protagonist, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), is a corporate drone very similar to the ‘Jack’ of Fight Club, but his double-life is lived through illegal night activity as the computer hacker Neo. Once discovered by the enigmatic Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne), Neo has it revealed to him that the world in which he lives is actually a computer-generated dream world known as the matrix, a simulation of life in the year 1999, designed to keep humanity under submission. In fact, the year is 2199 and humanity has become the power source for the race of Artificial Intelligence that now rules the blackened and scorched earth. Only one human city, Zion, remains outside the matrix, with humans engaging in guerrilla warfare hacking into the matrix from board their few hovercraft. We learn that Neo is believed to be the Messiah who will free humanity from its literalised thrall under the technology it created. A film with far more intelligence than you would expect from a shoot-em-up spectacular, it is the perfect vehicle for a discussion of the impact of cyberspace.

The most immediately apparent feature of this cyberspace is that it is indeed a startlingly real simulation of a comprehensive and comprehensible world- hyperreal to the extent that the vast majority of the human population is willing to accept it. Here, the matrix is not only “…the world which has been pulled over [their] eyes to blind [them] from the truth“, it is also a literalisation of Baudrillard’s dire prognosis of a “…reality of images, signs and simulations beyond the control and comprehension of any particular subject” (Botting 88). A simulated world so convincing that even the AI’s (referred to as Agents) who police it occasionally stop to marvel at its complexity, it is a simulacra so authentic that it is best described as Baudrillard’s country- it is life inside the map, not the territory (Baudrillard Simulacra 1-7). We are jolted into accepting that this is not the ‘real’ world before Neo does, as we are allowed to witness gravity-defying Kung-Fu displays by leather-clad Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) early in the film, but we are increasingly wary of the elusive nature of the ‘real’ as the action progresses. After all, what is real? Both ours, and Neo’s, tenuous grasp on ‘reality’ becomes shakier as we are continually faced with the blurring of dreams and reality. The Matrix is a solipsistic nightmare where we are never entirely sure who is doing the dreaming, and must passively spectate over the seamless trading of one version of reality for another (Nunn 19). Through consistent aligning of Neo with Alice and Dorothy, the two great characters of spatial and temporal dislocation, and several insidious allusions to the whole plot being a dream within a dream in a Chinese-boxes structure of reality, we are led to question Morpheus’ reality outside the matrix just as much as the one within it.

[2:5]The cyberspace of The Matrix owes much to the coiner of the term, cyberpunk guru William Gibson. For Gibson, cyberspace is less the computopia of Enlightened thought than a drugged state, an “…addictive space of desire” where the partaker in the cyber-narcotic is simultaneously engaged with, and detached from, their surroundings (Cooper 97). In Gibson’s seminal novel Neuromancer cyberspace is, as described by hacker Case:

…a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children behind taught mathematical concepts…Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data (Gibson 67).

The willingness of people to ‘hallucinate’ cyberspace is centred on the intrinsic awfulness of everyday life- Gibson presents an environmentally ravaged urban world where cyberspace is naturally addictive as it poses the only opportunity for transcendence.

Neo’s confusion of the dream and reality begins early in the film, when he asks a purchaser of his illegal software “You ever have that feeling when you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?” and receives the response “All the time. It’s called mescaline. It’s the only way to fly“. The usual narcotic framing is put in place here, yet quickly belied by the revelation that Neo’s confusion of the dream and reality is built upon his subconscious knowledge that this reality is indeed a dream. However, the narcotic framing is not entirely obsolete- Neo steps outside the matrix courtesy of a choice of pills proffered by Morpheus in a manner quite similar to Alice’s “Eat Me/ Drink Me” conundrum, and indeed learns to fly in the triumphal final scene once he has learned to control the non-consensual hallucination that is The Matrix‘s cyberspace.

[2:6]The pivotal scene in the film in many ways is the choice of the ‘reality pill’ over the ‘passivity pill’ as presented by Morpheus. Should Neo accept the blue pill, he will forget all about Morpheus and the suspicion that the matrix exists; should he choose the red pill, he will “…stay in Wonderland” and be shown “…how deep the rabbit hole goes“. The choice lying before him is hammered home to Neo by the mirrored lenses of Morpheus’ glasses, with one lens reflecting back Neo and the red pill, the other reflecting back the blue pill and Thomas Anderson. The colour coding is interesting here, and must be considered in-depth before we jump to the pro-offered conclusion that choosing the red pill uncovers reality. The consequent scene with Neo waking up from his enforced sleep in a (red) bio-pod in the AI’s powerplant has him less “… like Alice-tumbling down the rabbit-hole” than naked, terrified, and ejected down a chute with his atrophied limbs unable to help him. Why are the pill, the pod, and even the leather chairs that are used only when Morpheus is explaining the Matrix all red? Colour symbolism, although culturally acquired, seems the same in almost every society, for instance, cool colours such as blue and green tend to fade into the background and hence suggest tranquillity, serenity, or aloofness. Red is traditionally associated with blood, danger, violence- even hell, whereas the reassuring blue of the passivity pill suggests peacefulness. The fact that the ‘real’ world outside of the matrix appears very blue automatically makes us connect it with the choice of the dream that Morpheus associated it with previously, and begs the question if the red pill has not just put us deeper inside another dream. The pill is “…a symbol. Of your desire to return to reality. Inside your dream, you’ll fall asleep…” [quote Dr. Edgemar, Total Recall] and the dangers inherent in accepting to exit the matrix are none too subtly hinted at through the marking of this pivotal scene with lavish horror-clichéd thunderbolts and lightning.

The possibility that the world outside the matrix is no more real than the one inside it, and is under Morpheus’ control, is foregrounded mainly by his name; in similar fashion Neo is suggested both as ‘new’ and as the ‘one’, Switch wears opposite colours to the rest of the crew, and so on. Morpheus was the Greek god of dreams, although he was more important as a poetic concept (known from Ovid’s Metamorphoses) than as a mythological figure. The name means “he who forms/molds”, and he is the son of Hypnos, the god of sleep. He appears in dreams in human form and is responsible for shaping dreams- he scatters the seeds of red poppies to induce sleep. There may well be a connection between the red pill and the red poppies, both of which as the gateway to a world under Morpheus’ control.

As the red pill begins to take effect, Neo is told “Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy- because Kansas is going bye-bye!” This would make far more sense if it were reversed: it is the desert of the real that qualifies as sepia miserable Kansas, with the world inside the matrix resembling vibrantly colourful Oz (Newman Rubber 9). As already mentioned, the ‘real’ world is tinted blue, and the impression that the matrix provides us with an emerald city is created by a distinct green hue throughout the matrix scenes (Observations). The lofty city of Oz is the stuff of dreams- Dorothy first sees the Emerald City through a field of poppies (Sobchack Cities 128), yet she eventually clicks the heels on her red shoes three times to leave the dream in favour of a very dull reality. The only way that Cypher’s linking of the matrix world (which he eventually betrays his fellow rebels in order to return to) to Kansas, and hence the world outside of the matrix to Oz, makes sense is if we look at the truth that is finally revealed at the end of The Wizard of Oz. Behind the city of dreams is one man frantically trying to maintain the illusion that he is something he is not- and since Cypher’s main reason for wishing to return to the matrix is to escape Morpheus’ stringent control over his life (after all, “There’s no place like home“), Morpheus may be occupying such a role aboard the Nebuchadnezzar.

[2:7]The critical dystopia presented by The Matrix then, is by far the most challenging that we have dealt with. Unlike the binary opposition of good and evil evident in Terminator and RoboCop, here we are faced with a future where the mentor, Morpheus, may be the arch-villain and vice-versa. This is suitable for a film so clearly grounded in postmodernity- a critical dystopia built upon a society that has hidden the real under a rubble of signification is bound to contain a meaning extremely difficult to uncover. One of the films many allusions to Baudrillard occurs when Neo opens up his copy of Simulacra and Simulation only to reveal it to be a hollow shell storing his illegal software: proof indeed that we have tried to compensate for the hole we ourselves have made in the real with technology (Keuss 19). The specific critique of computer-culture is revealed through major plot points such as the Mr. Anderson/Neo involvement with software, but also through the green-on-black colour scheme that runs through the matrix scenes. This is the colour scheme of the matrix code, but is also a clear reference to older monochrome computer monitors, and is repeated ad nauseum even in such small details as Morpheus wearing a green necktie only when inside the matrix.

The critical dystopia here works in quite a similar way to those already covered, merely with the iron cage of technoscience here ramified to the Nth degree. Now technology is no longer the externalisation of our human potential but is instead an umbilical cord: if we were to unplug we would threaten our economic and/or social survival (Jordan 196). Why was it that the AI created the matrix as a simulation of 1999, why did they decide it was “…the peak of [our] civilisation“? Aside from the obvious reasons that an AI would have more information on this time than on any other in human history, could it be because by 1999 we had attained the realisation of a world cold as cruelty? In much the same way as a computer programmer would give a character a solid-black shirt because a plaid one would use up too many bytes of memory, the harsh metropolis of the matrix is easy for the AI to create as it contains little other than its prisoners. The fact that we are not jolted by the world in which Thomas Anderson lives- dark flat, Metacortex skyscraper, bustling streets- shows just how accustomed we have become to a technologically mediated life, since it should surely worry us more that other than a “…juicy and delicious” steak there is no evidence of any life-form other than humans either within the matrix or without.

[2:8]The primacy of humanity in this world suggests that Agent Smith is correct when he informs Morpheus that “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet“. Just as the virus does, we multiply until every natural resource is consumed and then move to another location and repeat the process. In fact, we are not content to be virus-like ourselves and implant the same attributes into our technology: the media is a virus mutating the real into the hyperreal. For McLuhan technology is a disease, for Baudrillard it is a viral contamination of subjectivity making it “…the site for the fantastic proliferation of cynical signs, like a cancer cell” (Kroker Possessed 69). The supreme irony in the attempt to transcend our vulnerable flesh through cyberspace lies here, in our susceptibility to a different form of contamination in the realm of technology. While cyberspace may allow us to ignore our fleshy prison as we fly through a world of pure information, an escapism that rests on a total denial of the concrete materiality of the world rings hollow, creates the danger “…of becoming merely ghosts in the machine” (Sobchack Scene 3).

[2:9]One of the most troubling aspects of computer culture, especially the Internet, is the reification of information. This has always been a primary concern of cyberpunk, with Gibson’s hackers in particular attempting to re-appropriate the vast citadels of knowledge that have been garnered by huge corporations and locked away in cyberspace. The reification of information is yet another symptom of the capitalistic malaise that has given us commodity fetishism: in the words of VR pioneer Jacon Lanier “[i]nformation is alienated experience” (quote Jordan 194). In the case of experience (or true knowledge), it is impossible for the human mind to keep hold of it at all times, and so we store it away as we add more to our mental store: to trot out the proverbial illustration of the point, you never forget how to ride a bicycle. However, cyberspace has become something of a dumping ground for surplus experience, and hence has become a huge resource of information which can be accessed and yet never lived out in such a way as to truly encompass it. In short, there is a huge distinction between possessing information and knowing what it means (Jones 4), or, as the ever morose Baudrillard would have it “[w]e live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning” (Simulacra 79).

The Matrix makes this quandary even more problematic by having the rebels download information directly into their cerebrum through the same bioport in the back of their skull which had fed them the matrix. Now, reason would say that this information is knowledge, after all, it is in their brain, and yet this seems the same as saying that Lara Croft has true knowledge of firing rounds and jumping off walls, since she is equally programmed to do so. In fact, the rebels seem even more programmed: Trinity, in one memorable scene straight out of Tomb Raider, downloads the ability to fly a helicopter in a matter of seconds, while a novice player of the game would have to master a complicated sequence of moves to have Lara respond in the correct way. The hallucinations produced between Neo’s swallowing of the red pill and his awareness of the biopod made him think that he was being swallowed by his mirrored reflection: and like another famous character who went through the looking glass game-playing skills are crucial to his existence on the other side. The most puzzling aspect of this involves Neo’s journey into the belief that he is indeed ‘the One’: instead of Morpheus constantly requesting that he believe (“Don’t think you are, know you are“), why not simply create and download the belief that he is so? It is very disturbing that the enlightened ones of the matrix are those who have programmed themselves to move and speak with the logical deliberation of robots, and to “…execute acrobatic stunts…with a mind numbing clarity of purpose” (R. Wright 14). The impression created is that this dystopian future will reverse that of They Live: here it is the enslaved who live and dream, and the free who must struggle.

[2:10]As The Matrix is an extrapolation of the concerns of society in 1999, it is little wonder then that Morpheus’ list of the places that the matrix ‘has’ us touches upon the main social apparatuses of capital, religion and the state. The matrix ‘has you’ whenever you “…go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes“: all institutions that promise us escape as a method to capture us. The church promises escape from hell through prayer, capital promises us escape through consumption and so on (Bogard 9). This leads us back once more to reification, and the fact that we have imprisoned ourselves: “By picturing themselves as unfree, men make themselves unfree. The prophecy of powerlessness is self-fulfilling” (Berman 135). The matrix was created by a race of AI’s which were created by humans, hence we caused our own enslavement, yet even when we were ‘free’ we were captured by a host of various institutions of our own making.

As we have seen, The Matrix strongly criticises the iron cage of technoscience as an enclosure of human potential, yet it appears on many levels to approve of religion as a means of control. Not only is Neo very clearly expressed as a Christ-figure, but also the shadow of divine retribution hangs over this particular apocalypse. The religious allusions scattered throughout the film are far too numerous to mention, but include multiple biblical references (Nebuchadnezzar, Trinity, Zion…) and span both Judeo-Christian and Eastern philosophy. One of the most obvious religious influences on the film concerns the Buddhist belief that enlightenment comes when we recognise that the world around us is an illusion: revealed when Neo is taken to see the Oracle and meets a young boy able to bend spoons with his mind because he knows that “[t]here is no spoon“. Christian imagery is more widespread however, with Neo’s sacrifice of his own life to protect Morpheus and consequent death and resurrection providing the main narrative drive of the filmiii. The religious impact on the film is significant when we view religion as Marx did, namely as yet another instance of alienation. For Marx, God was a human creation invested with all of the power for change, and for good, that humanity was denying itself. If we view religion in this light, we can see divine acts of vengeance as merely the human judgement on a human crime. Whether we take this view, or whether we believe that there is a divinity shaping our future, there is little doubt that the apocalyptic future within this critical dystopia is the result of the human projection of life-like properties onto their lifeless creations, machines.

The sin committed by the human race in The Matrix was to break free of the ontological spheres intended for them and strive to be like God. The biblical vanquished whom the rebels most closely resemble are Adam & Eve and the builders of the Tower of Babel: by striving to be like God in our creation of AI we have been severely punished (Fontana 22). The stereotypically evil Agents patrolling the matrix are offensive to us purely because they are our own creation turned back upon us in a truly hideous revision of the Frankenstein myth. Having spent the entire span of human history repeatedly bettering our technology, from clubs to knives right through to computers we have granted the inanimate with powers which have been expanded on until, The Matrix seems to say, we are doomed to enslavement by them. It is unsurprising that Cypher chooses the dream of the matrix over the reality of the Nebuchadnezzar: life in the matrix is easier. In the technologically mediated world of postmodern society, few (if any) people would willingly choose the desert of the real over the comfort of their private utopian spaces. I wrote this chapter on a PC, after numerous viewings of the film on a VCR, so perhaps this caustic dismissal of technology and its consequences will ring hollow: as Morpheus would have it “Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony“.

i While there is a wealth of material to discuss in the cyborg movies which I have chosen, there is such a vast amount of critical material already written on them that original insights are next to impossible to achieve.  See Alcalay, Arnold, Berger, Best Robocop, Crooks, Dool & Clarke, Haraway, Hoberman, Holland, Landsberg, Melehy, Mulhall, Neale, Penley, Pfeil, Pyle, Rayns, Schaub, Tomas,

iiArch-villain Mort insists that Robocopdoesn’t have a name. He has a programme“, ensuring that his re-appropriation of his name is a victory over the corporate mentality that is the blatant enemy in the film. In The Matrix, however, the problem facing Thomas Anderson is that he has both a name and a programme. Rather than a return to prior humanity, The Matrix contains a celebration of an entirely new mode of being. Here it is the seizing of a new identity (“My name is Neo!“) that is presented as a victory.

iiiThe religious imagery contained in The Matrix, and its implications, contains enough subject matter for a thesis in itself- indeed, the Fontana article in the works cited is just such a thesis. Since space limitations do not allow me to deal with this area to the extent it deserves, I have chosen merely the most fundamental point that aligns with my previous arguments about the postmodern condition.

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