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The Matrix Postmodernism Essay

f r a n k   c l a r k e

The concept of a "matrix" as an all-encompassing alternate reality is not new, nor did it originate with the 1999 film that is the subject of this essay.  In his 1964 text entitled Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan foreshadowed its coming, writing:

"Literacy remains even now the base and model of all programs of industrial mechanization; but, at the same time, locks the minds and senses of its users in the mechanical and fragmentary matrix that is so necessary to the maintenance of mechanized society."

William Gibson's Neuromancer, generally acknowledged as the prototypical cyber-punk novel used the term to describe an artificial, alternate reality that he also referred to as "cyberspace":

The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games...a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the  human system. Unthinkable complexity. (51)

Discussing the final passage into death, a 1994 translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead says, "this last is followed by the consciousness taking up its abode in a suitable matrix, whence it is born again as a Birth-Consciousness." (ixix)

The film "The Matrix" (written by Larry and Andy Wachowski) borrows these concepts as its premise, but is far from a shallow exploitation of the idea.  It is a testimony to postmodern thought; a monument erected for the sole purpose of deconstructing itself.  The dystopia that is the film's setting problematizes the concepts of existence, reality, faith, perception and individual freedom.  "The Matrix" is a multi-sensory exploration of the ideas of Jean Baudrillard, a deconstructive re-telling of the Christ-myth, and an attack on the viewer's perception of reality.  As Morpheus tells Neo, "The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth."

Eight minutes and thirty seconds into "The Matrix", Neo is visited by four people seeking a disk.  Neo takes their money and closes the door.  He walks across his apartment, picks up a book, and opens it. That book is Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. The book has been hollowed out to be used as a hiding-place.  (Applying Baudrillard's definition, this actually transforms it into a book-simulacrum.) The chapter he opens it to is "On Nihlism", in which Baudrillard writes:

If being a nihilist is carrying out, to the unbearable limit of hegemonic systems, this radical trait of derision and violence, this challenge that the system is summoned to answer through its own death, then I am a terrorist and nihilist in theory as the others are with their weapons. Theoretical violence, not truth, is the only resource left to us. (163)

Morpheus and the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar are both terrorists and nihilists, yet their violence could certainly be construed as theoretical, since the only damage they do is to the matrix and its constructs. Thirty-three minutes later, as he shows the real, post-apocalyptic world to Neo (the burned-out ruins of a city make up the horizon)  Morpheus quotes Baudrillard, saying "Welcome to the desert of the real."  This is a basic tenet of Baurillard's philosophy: the concept of the third order of simualcrum.  The first order consists of imitation that has substance, that refers to an original work, like a painting or a manuscript.  An example might be a hand-rendered reproduction of a famous painting.  This reproduction, or counterfeit, represents the original, which preceded it.  The second order of simulacrum is mass production.  There is no original work for the items to represent, and the reproductions are all of equal importance.  The "desert of the real" refers to the third order of simulacrum.  The third order is that of the "hyperreal", and need not bear any resemblance to anything in the real world.  If it does seek to imitate reality, it often does too good a job.  The third order is constructed from codes and models.  According to Baudrillard, postmodern society has rejected the concept of an "original," for something that represents a thing in a more authentic way than itself. Currently, in the third order of simulacrum, simulacra are more real than the original code they imitate, if in fact they imitate any at all, and the third-order simulacra is often the only existing representation.  In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard wrote:

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory-the precession of simulacra- that engenders the territory... It is the real, not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself. (1)  

As Morpheus asks, "Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?" 

Baudrillard's observance that, "abstraction is no longer that of... the mirror" is of great importance when exploring the concept of a matrix.  In the first chapter of The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes a mirror as "nothing other than visibilty, yet without any gaze able to grasp it, to render it actual".  (4) Foucault's mirror is not Baudrillard's mirror.  Baudrillard's mirror, like the mirror of "The Matrix",  is more like that of Lewis Carroll's in Through the Looking-Glass.  When Alice laments her inability to see the entire room that exists on the other side of the mirror she says:

"I can see all of it when I get upon a chair -- all but the bit just behind the fireplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see that bit! I want so much to know whether they've a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you' know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too -- but that may be only pretence, just to make it look as if they had a fire." (16-17)

Alice is in sympathy with the position of Baudrillard.  From his philosophical point of view, and that of "The Matrix",  the mirror is no longer a reversed echo of reality but one that exists independently, and through that very existence, renders the original reality unreal.  Baudrillard writes that, "Duplication suffices to render both (the real and the copy) artificial". (9) and later states that, "Truth is no longer the reflexive truth of the mirror." (29)  The simulation that was once the mirror's image has become a simulacrum, based not on the reality it reflects, but on pure fantasy that appears to be more real.  This is what Baudrillard calls "hypereality".  As a postmodern statement, "The Matrix" needs to twist the binaries of the representation and the real enough to deconstruct itself, and one of the ways it does this is by using Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation as a guide.  In fact, the April 8, 1996 draft of "The Matrix" screenplay overtly refers to Baudrillard.  In it, during the same scene referred to earlier, (as he shows Neo the ruins of civilization, i.e. reality) Morpheus says to Neo, "You have been living inside Baudrillard's vision, inside the map, not the territory. This is Chicago as it is today."  "The Matrix" collapses within itself by rendering the opposing poles of reality and the simulacrum indistinguishable, and therefore non-existent. 

The future is here, and while it has not turned out to be the technological dystopia envisioned by many writers of post-apocalyptic fiction, it may be a far more terrifying reality than we presume it to be.  We live in a time where combining the terms "virtual" and "reality" is commonplace.  The boundaries between reality and perception have experienced an unprecedented slippage, resulting in a shift of privileging that often places perception on an equal footing with reality.  In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard wrote that "Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible". (19)  If this is true, we must accept that the inverse statement is valid as well; that reality is no longer possible, because illusion is not.  Discussing the subject of virtual reality in an interview with Claude Thibaut, Baudrillard said, 

What happens when everything has been realized in modernity, when everything is virtually given? The question is crucial: where does one go from there? That is the problem: from the moment the subject is perfectly realized, it automatically becomes the object, and there is panic." (1)

This Baudrillardean concept is explored in a pivotal scene of the film.  As Neo waits with the other "potentials" (shorthand for potential saviors) to see the Oracle, he meets a boy who is sitting on the floor, holding a spoon.  The boy stares at the spoon, and it bends, then bends back.  He hands the spoon to Neo and says:

Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon.  That's impossible.  Instead, only try to realize the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Boy: There is no spoon.

Neo: There is no spoon?

Boy: Then you'll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

In a chapter of Simulacra and Simulation entitled "Simulacra and Science Fiction", Baudrillard writes:

The imaginary was the alibi of the real in a world dominated by the reality principle. Today, it is the real that has become the alibi of the model, in a world controlled by the principle of simulation. And paradoxically, it is the real that has become our true utopia- but a utopia that is no longer in the realm of the possible, that can only be dreamt as one would dream of a lost object. (122-123)

Neo, Morpheus and the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar struggle with their Baudrillardean existence.  They are at their core both nihlists and freedom-fighters, yet they struggle to release the rest of the human race from a reality far more pleasant than the one they would be introduced to. Even Morpheus, the father-figure, has difficulty with the issue of perception, saying to Neo, "What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about your senses , what you feel, taste, smell or see, then all your talking about are electrical signals interpreted by the brain."  This is another example of the text deconstructing itself, for if Morpheus is right, there is no way for him to ever be sure that his reality is real.  As Cypher says to Trinity, "You see the truth, the real truth is that the war is over. It's been over for a long time. And guess what? We lost! Did you hear that? We lost the war!"  To further illustrate the point, examine this piece of dialogue:

Trinity: The Matrix isn't real.

Cypher: Oh, I disagree Trinity. I think the Matrix could be more real than this world. I mean, all I do is pull a plug here. But there you watch a man die. (He grabs hold of the cable in Apoc's neck, twists it and yanks it out.) You tell me which is more real. (Apoc seems to go blind for an instant, a scream caught in his throat, his hands reaching for nothing, and then falls dead. Switch screams.) Welcome to the real world, right?

In Simulacra and Simulation,  Baudrillard explores postmodern nihilism at length. In the first chapter he examines what he calls the "simulacra of divinity." He writes that "divinity that animates nature can never be represented" (p. 4), referring to the concept of a God being somehow represented in human-created icons, and eliciting feelings of awe and inspiration. But what happens when God's supposed power and majesty are only  felt through these icons?  According to Baudrillard, it creates a problematization of the very existence of God, and the simulacra of divinity becomes the only representational image of God's existence.

Baudrillard claims that when these icons become simulacra, acting as a replacement for "the pure and intelligible Idea of God" (p. 4), the icons become the God in the collective consciousness of Man. This forms a nihilistic view of religion, and gives rise to the thought that "deep down God never existed, that only the simulacra existed, even that God himself was never anything but his own simulacrum" (p. 4).

"The Matrix", which was released on the last Easter weekend of the 20th century, is an Postmodern re-telling of the Christ-myth, and true to Baudrillard's theory, the savior of the matrix is a simulacra of the third order.  The only direct reference made to the "original" Christ that Neo represents, is when one of the nameless disk-buyers says to him, "Hallelujah. You're my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ."  This dialogue crumbles under the weight of its own hyperbolisticity.  It is obvious to the reader of this text that the three Christian references , placed closely together are meant to deconstruct each other.  The casual manner in which they are uttered implies that there is no such thing as faith here, no hope for a savior.

The Wachowski brothers cling as closely to the Christ-myth as they do to Baudrillard's theories of reality, but while they pay homage to Baudrillard, there is a subtle twisting of the tale of christ.  Many signs are prominently displayed to lead the casual viewer down a too-obvious path; that of believing this to be a story of hope.  The names alone are obvious allusions to Christianity.

The protagonist is Neo, an anagram that when scrambled is One, as in The One, which Neo is called several times in the film. Neo can also mean "new".  Morpheus is the Greek god of dreams, and the linguistic root for the words "morphine", which provides a release from pain, and the computer graphics technology of "morphing", which appears to be a smooth transformation between differing images. The character has the ability to move back and forth between the real world and that of the matrix and represents both the Father of the trinity, and John the Baptist, guiding Neo into the real world. Nebuchadnezzar was a biblical Babylonian king who searched for meaning in his dreams. Trinity is the Holy Spirit, completing the triad with Neo and Morpheus. She can also be read as Mary Magdalene, interacting with and falling in love with the Christ.Cypher is the representation of Judas.  Like Judas, Cypher agrees to turn traitor over a meal.  Like Judas, who shares a drink with Christ at the last supper, Cypher and Neo share a cup while Cypher expresses his doubts about the rebellion with the line, "Why oh why didn't I take the blue pill?"

There are many other allusions to Christianity in the film, from the name of the hidden city (Zion) to the ascension of Neo at the end of the film, but rather than create a list that further proves the existence of the Christ-myth in "The Matrix", I would like to examine the ways in which that myth collapses on itself.   

Before Neo becomes Neo, he is Thomas Anderson, computer hacker.  As a hacker, he is able to exercise some control over the simulacrum, and yet he does so without knowing what it is he's doing.  When he is released from the matrix, he sees the world as a dark and broken place.  If Christ saw the world as a place that was beyond redemption, he could not have traveled the land, preaching and performing miracles... those actions would have been useless.  Throughout most of the film, Neo is the student rather than the teacher, being instructed in the ways of the matrix.  Christ was a teacher, telling parables that instructed his followers in the ways of Christianity.  None of these are the most important way "The Matrix" deconstructs itself as a messiah story.

One of the most important concepts of Christianity is the need for "faith", as it refers to a belief in the One True God.  Neo is, in the end, saved by faith, but not faith in a higher power.  The faith that provides Neo with a great enough control over the matrix to emerge victorious is a faith in himself.  In the original screenplay, as Neo seems to be dead, Trinity pounds on him and sobs, "God dammit, Neo! Don't give it up!".  This blasphemous outburst suggests that there is no higher power; that Neo must raise himself from the dead, a direct contradiction to one of the most important aspects of the myth of Christ.  In the final, edited version of the film, Trinity does not take the lord's name in vain, but rather resurrects him with a kiss.  Still, this is a vital corruption of the Christ-myth, wherein he is raised not by some divine intervention, but by a pleasure of the flesh.  The message of the bible is one of placing ones self into the hands of a supreme being, of carrying out his work on earth - in the physical world.  The message of "The Matrix" is that of an opposing binary: One must believe in one's self to triumph over the forces that oppose one.

Finally, there is the most important hierarchy of all; that of good versus evil.  In Christianity this opposition is always made clear.  In "The Matrix", this binary, like that of reality versus perception, experiences a constant slippage.  It is never explained why Morpheus considers reality "good" and the matrix "bad".  Perhaps the argument could be made that the question is one of freedom versus slavery, but the slaves have, or think they have a considerably more comfortable life than do the freedom fighters in "The Matrix".  Cypher, as he  is about to betray Morpheus and the others to regain his assimilation into the matrix, says "Free? You call this free? All I do is what he (Morpheus) tells me to do.  If I gotta choose between that and the matrix, I choose the matrix."  A slave who chooses to be enslaved is not a slave at all, and the attribute of evil is assigned arbitrarily to the matrix, when in fact it may be the lesser of two evils.  As Cypher says, "I think the Matrix could be more real than this world."  He is clearly a rational, thinking person who would rather live in the simulacrum than the real, if in fact the real is real.  Baudrillard makes the case that the simulations and simulacrum of our world have become the drug of choice for the masses.  He suggests that television filters the impact of genuine events, writing that the, "same process of forgetting, of liquidation, of extermination, same annihilation of memories and of history, same inverse, implosive radiation, same absorption without an echo, same black hole as Auschwitz." (49) Is what happens when the simalucrum is realized... that mankind will forget its history.  The human batteries living in the matrix are never subjected to the "evils" of mankind.  They do not go hungry.  There is no violence, or at least there does not have to be.  They think they have free will, just as we inhabitants of 21st century America think we have free will.  We do not.  Taxes are referenced several times in the movie as a hint to this effect.  People who withdraw from our technologically-based society do not affect change.  They simply vanish from our radar screens.  They cease to exist.  The matrix, like most things in life, is not necessarily evil... it simply is.  (or is it?)

Subverting the Mechanisms of Control: ©2003 Jim Rovira, Drew University

"It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of Empire, but of ours. The desert of the real itself." (Baudrillard 1)

"Welcome to the desert of the real." - Morpheus, The Matrix.

The marriage of art and idea is an old one in western culture. From the dominance of theological motifs over medieval creative production to the influence of psychoanalytic theory upon early 20th century art and literature, the western aesthetic has consistently taken direction in both form and theme from abstract theoretical frameworks. The late 20th century saw this relationship become increasingly self-conscious as postmodern theory became a dominant paradigm. The Matrix Trilogy works specifically within a paradigm derived in part from the postmodern theory of Jean Baudrillard, whose Simulacra and Simulation makes its appearance in The Matrix in the "Follow Instructions" scene. Thomas Anderson (a.k.a. Neo, played by Keanu Reeves) opens a copy of Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation to a chapter entitled "On Nihilism." The hardcover book is hollow, serving as Neo's hiding place for black market software. He opens the book at the halfway point; the opening page of the final chapter, "On Nihilism," lies to the left while the right half is a hollowed out storage area. First note that the opening page of the chapter was displaced to the left side of the book when it would normally be found on the right. Add to this the fact that "On Nihilism" is the book's last chapter, not a middle chapter, and it appears that the directors have deliberately placed this chapter in the shot to direct viewers to a specific referential point for the film. Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation, in fact, is so intricately woven into the narrative structure that the movie can be described as a conscious validation of Baudrillard's theory. Simulacra and Simulation was so important to the directors that it was required reading for cast members (Nichols 26). This, however, was the only Baudrillard appropriated by the film. As such, The Matrix Trilogy is a snapshot of Baudrillard rather than a representation of his thought over time.

But the film doesn't draw just from Baudrillard. Almost paradoxically, religious imagery seemingly confronts the viewer at every turn. Neo, the One, the savior of humanity, dies and returns to life and has remarkable abilities within the Matrix. He is sought out and revealed by a John the Baptist figure, Morpheus, and is betrayed by a Judas figure, Cipher. Neo is loved by Trinity and becomes the One by attaining full consciousness of his surroundings, enabling him to realize his abilities within the Matrix. His perception of his environment as streams of computer code at the end of the first movie signals the apex of his enlightenment and also the point at which he has absolute mastery of the Matrix, immune to bullets and even death while within it. Baudrillard and overt religious imagery seem to be odd theoretical bedfellows, however; religion is virtually non-existent in "On Nihilism," having been twice displaced: "The true revolution of the nineteenth century, of modernity, is the radical destruction of appearances, the disenchantment of the world and its abandonment to the violence of interpretation and history" (Baudrillard 160). Religion isn't named, isn't even a discreet object in "On Nihilism," it is a displaced member of a class, "appearances," part of a previous enchantment from which the nineteenth century was disenchanted.

The Wachowski Brothers drew from a wide range of religious traditions even though Christianity provides the predominant sign system in the first film. As a result, it seems less likely that the film is proselytization for any specific religion and more likely that Baudrillard's critique of the west failed the Wachowski brothers when they wanted to move beyond critique. The Wachowski Brothers have created an effective sign system that serves as a generic representation of the process of enlightenment, one so effectively generic that any and every connection -- from Christ to Gödel to Buddhism -- is relevant, whether or not it is directly referenced by the film or even known to the directors. Baudrillard's "On Nihilism" goes on to describe the destruction of meaning via postmodernism once meaning has been destroyed by appearances, but once both meaning and appearance has been destroyed, what is left? In the midst of a theoretically destructed and deconstructed society no images, signs, or sign systems are available for the act of construction that seems so inevitable to human thinking. The Wachowski brothers' appropriation of religious imagery to meet this need is telling. It is quite possible that The Matrix Trilogy not only points to the past and present future of science fiction, but to the past and present future of religion; it seems that their film series asserts that the dialectic of enlightenment governing the early 21st century is a dialectic engaging both instrumental reason and mystical religious experience. This question can only begin to be answered, however, via an analysis of the films in the light of Baudrillard.

In the pre-history of The Matrix Trilogy, which also finds exposition in the Animatrix film shorts, human computer technology developed to the point of creating an artificial intelligence; a thinking, willing, self-determined, conscious computer. This computer continued to learn and grow, "spawning a whole race of machines" (Matrix 1.7), gaining influence over human society incrementally to the point of almost total control. Human revolt took the form of an atomic cataclysm initiating a nuclear winter intended to block sunlight from the surface of the Earth and shut down the solar-powered computer. The plot, to this point, is unoriginal. The Terminator films operate on the same premise. It is the extension of the war into the minutia of human consciousness that generates an aura of mystical enlightenment over the film, adding to its widespread appeal. This extension of control takes place in response to the nuclear cataclysm: the computer started breeding human beings for use as a power source. It created a technology that grew its victims in gel-filled pods, intravenously feeding them nutrients while tapping their body heat and electro-chemical activity to power the computer. To keep people alive as long as possible the computer created a program called "the Matrix," an exact sensory duplicate or, as it is called in the film, "neural interactive simulation," of late 20th century earth (Matrix 1.12). People grown in pods, nicknamed "coppertops" to reflect their sole purpose of powering a computer (Matrix 1.7, 1.12), are plugged directly into the computer network via implants in the bases of their skulls. Each individual within the Matrix perceives themselves as living out a normal life somewhere in late 20th century earth while, in reality, their entire lives are lived within a gel filled pod.

Compare this to Baudrillard's "The Precession of Simulacra," which asserts that simulation "is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal" (1). His word for this model of a real "without origin or reality" is "simulacrum": a copy without an original. By the "desert of the real" (quoted above) he means that the simulacrum, the imitation, now has more vitality and integrity than the original, which is fraying beneath the edges of the imitation, decaying, "rotting like a carcass" (Baudrillard 1). This construct moves beyond imitation, it works by

substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have a chance to produce itself. (Baudrillard 2)

This is precisely the world of the movies. The "real" late 20th century earth is a charred, uninhabitable wasteland, impossible to reproduce or recover, while 20th century earth in simulacrum is vital, alive, unchanged.

The diabolical nature of simulacra is reflected not only by its concealment of the decay of the real but through its intent, an intent Baudrillard seeks to expose in the essay "Simulacra and Science Fiction," also found in Simulacra and Simulation. In that essay he describes three levels of simulacra, each reflected by three forms of science fiction: natural simulacra, expressed through utopian literature; productive simulacra, expressed through "traditional" science fiction; and the simulacra of simulation, represented in the novels of Philip K. Dick and projected to be the science fiction of the future. Baudrillard specifically drew from Philip K. Dick in this essay, using Dick's novel The Simulacra as the basis of his theory of science fiction. In this novel western society is divided into different levels, each characterized by their knowledge of the fictions that govern society. The west, a conglomeration of Europe and the United States in Dick's projected future, is governed by the First Lady and different Presidents are elected to be her husband. The latest Presidents don't even really exist. Each are simulacrum created by private industry contracted out to the government. When the First Lady tries to cut the company that makes the Presidents out of the next contract, the company exposes their secret and western society unravels. Fringe elements then try to take control and establish a totalitarian state. It is this third form of simulacrum that is reproduced in The Matrix, the latest in a long line of science fiction stories that trap human society within a fictional world.

It should be noted at this point that Baudrillard told New York Times editorialist Brett Staples that the first Matrix film proceeds upon a misunderstanding of his books (Staples 1). Baudrillard's statement may reflect the fact that the films delve into ontological questions about reality and perception he disregarded for the sake of social analysis. The Wachowski Brothers, in the first film, seem to be interrogating metaphysical questions that Baudrillard specifically said were abandoned by the third level of science fiction, the level of science fiction that the Matrix films seem intended to represent (see quotation below). It should be observed, however, that the films abandon the ontological questioning so heavily stressed in the first film to focus more and more on control, and knowledge as a means of control, as the central issues in the second and third films. This raises the likely possibility that the Wachowski Brothers were never primarily interested in ontological questions. The ontological questioning was merely a means of discourse on issues of control.

These control issues, according to Baudrillard's argument in Simulacra and Simulation, are fully exploited in the third level of simulacra, the simulacrum of simulation, which is "founded on information, the model, the cybernetic game – total operationality, hyperreality, aim of total control" (121). He asserts that Dick's novel depicts a gigantic "hologram in three dimensions, in which fiction will never again be a mirror held toward the future, but a desperate hallucination of the past" (Baudrillard 123) and that in its historical moment this type of science fiction is produced by societies that have lost the pioneering imagination, that have spanned their territory from ocean to ocean, because "when the map covers the whole territory, something like the principle of reality disappears" (Baudrillard 123, his emphasis). He argues that human excursions into space, which effectively project earthly habitats into the transcendence of outer space, signal the "the end of metaphysics, the end of the phantasm, the end of science fiction" (Baudrillard 124), and the beginning of the era of hyperreality.

Baudrillard goes into some detail about the future of science fiction:

It is no longer possible to fabricate the unreal from the real, the imaginary from the givens of the real. The process will, rather, be the opposite: it will be to put decentered situations, models of simulation in place and to contrive to give them the feeling of the real, of the banal, of lived experience, to reinvent the real as fiction, precisely because it has disappeared from our life. (124)

Baudrillard's thesis is workable, but not without problems, as it could be argued that all three levels of simulacra had as their concern "total control" in varying forms – the first could be said to be concerned with mastery of a new physical environment, the second with mastery of a new network of societies, and the third with mastery of individual consciousness. A more effective description would seek to describe the different types of control represented by each of these forms of science fiction, each an expression of instrumental reason as understood within the context of Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment. As one domain is mastered, mastery of the next is sought, until the state's ubiquitous control extends even to the minutia of human consciousness.
Either way, the hyperreal in The Matrix serves the purpose of total control, as in Baudrillard. Morpheus' speech to Neo during his first experience of a miniature "neural interactive simulation" in scene 12, "The Real World," is pure exposition of Baudrillard's thesis. After explaining to Neo late 20th century earth history and the purpose of the Matrix, Morpheus goes on to ask:

What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer generated dreamworld built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this [he holds up a coppertop battery]. (Matrix 1.12)

As in Baudrillard, the simulacra of simulation that is the Matrix is a device whose aim is total control, a device seeking to reduce human existence to no purpose but the guarantee of the continued survival of the system. People are not unlike cattle whose defecation fertilizes the ground from which they feed, who exist only to feed their owners, kept within set bounds they are never allowed to transgress. This is the Wachowski Brothers' commentary on late 20th century society and our participation in it: that we have been reduced to the status of drones feeding the system upon which we are dependent, and the system works hard to keep us from this knowledge.

"On Nihilism" is Baudrillard's description of the progression of nihilism parallel to his earlier description of the progression of science fiction. He contrasts the nihilism of the 19th century, characterized by "the destruction of appearances [. . .] in the service of meaning (representation, history, etc.)" with the nihilism of the 20th which entails the destruction of meaning itself (Baudrillard 160). When Baudrillard said that the "true revolution of the nineteenth century, of modernity, is the radical destruction of appearances" (160) his argument seems to parallel Lyotard's historical/philosophical metanarrative opening The Postmodern Condition. "Modernity" in the form of Marxism, Darwinian evolutionary theory, and Freud's theory of the mind destroyed the appearances imposed upon human thought via the previous grand narratives provided by religion.

Baudrillard then goes on to detail "the second revolution, that of the twentieth century, that of postmodernity, which is the immense process of the destruction of meaning" (160-1). By the destruction of meaning he means the destruction of what had been called "meaning" by its redefinition as appearance – the introduction of the hyperreal. Terrorism of the past relied upon aleatory violence to provide the necessary function of "checking the system in broad daylight" (Baudrillard 163). Terrorism of the present, according to Baudrillard, is concerned with transparency, melancholy, and fascination: simulacra are made transparent to reveal the loss of the real beneath them; nihilism is melancholic because it is overcome by an indifference inspired by the transparency of simulacra; the nihilist's fascination is fascination "by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance" (160). These are all facets of a nihilism directed toward the hyperreal, and this is the type of nihilism represented in The Matrix. Morpheus and his group are understood by those who seek to preserve the system as dangerous terrorists, but not because of the physical destruction they cause. For the most part they destroy only appearances; while the people they kill in the Matrix really die in their pods, the life they understood as theirs never ended because it never existed. Morpheus and his group are known as terrorists because of their awareness that they are primarily destroying appearances. The problem is that these appearances are so intimately linked with the "real" human being beneath it that to kill the one is to kill the other. Absolute liberation is suicide, or only by suicide.

The second movie in the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded, reinforces this convinction. Even Zion is dependent upon machines, and to shut down the Matrix will be, consequently, to shut down the millions of lives dependent upon it. Neo, at the end of the second film, risks the lives of virtually the entire human race by refusing to submit to the mechanisms of control, and at this point it's not apparent that he hasn't already risked or sacrificed the lives of every human being in the Matrix. Their reasoning here quite possibly mirrors state reasoning intended to justify civilian casualities in time of war, introducing the problematic of killing those, or at least some of those, you intend to liberate. At some point death itself appears to be liberation. The third film resolves this tension the only way possible: a detenté with the machines for the sake of defeating the "anti-Christ" within Matrix mythology, Agent Smith. Through his ubiquitous self replication he threatens to transform the entire human and machine world into a single, self replicated "I." Control would then be truly absolute, for only a singular will would be in existence.

Baudrillard goes on to argue in "On Nihilim" that nihilism today still checks the system in broad daylight, but not with weapons: "Theoretical violence, not truth, is the only resource left to us" (Baudrillard 163). His immediate hope is that "the more hegemonic the system, the more the imagination is struck by the smallest of its reversals. The challenge, even infinitesimal, is the image of a chain failure" (Baudrillard 163). He compares even the most infinitesimal challenge of a hegemonic system to a wry smile at the end of an impassioned speech; it invalidates everything said previously, "effaces the whole discourse" (Baudrillard 163). The Matrix Reloaded reveals that even Zion is part of an infinitesimal system anomaly that needed to be maintained in order for the system to work at all. Intuition is pit against instrumental reason, reason designed to dominate nature and human beings, in a dialectic in which each is dependent upon the other. Baudrillard ultimately asserts that the situation is insoluble because the system itself is nihilistic, absorbing both physical and theoretical violence into its own indifference, as the Matrix attempts to do in The Matrix Reloaded, wanting to incorporate the unique insights of Neo, the latest version of the One, into itself until all potential choices produced by intuition exist only as choices within the Matrix. At that point, the Architect fantasizes, his system will have achieved total control. In Baudrillard, even death "shines by virtue of its absence" and participants remain seduced by appearances again, appearance imposing itself upon us through the meaning that ostensibly destroyed it (Baudrillard 163). Matrix Revolutions represents the wry smile in Neo's final confrontation with Agent Smith, who effectively outthinks himself while Neo, confident, overcomes through submission.

Recent events in the United States seem to bear out Baudrillard's observations: physical terrorist violence only strengthens the grip of the system as people become willing to substitute knowledge, privacy, and governmental accountability for security. At this point, of course, the value of his observations come into question. What is the purpose of the knowledge gained by his analysis if even Baudrillard's own theoretical violence is ineffectual? Is the social critic and theorist a clownish figure pointing out incongruities we all accept? Or is there an optimism masked by the mere act of writing, one that presupposes that "enlightenment" in the form of knowledge of the individual's material system of relations can empower the individual to break free, to some degree, of the system in which all are caught?

This ubiquitous control exercised by this system even (or especially) extends to the mundane sphere of the workplace, representing the individual's economic existence. In the scene "They're Coming for You" in the first film, Neo's supervisor at the computer firm Metacortex (higher mind, drawing a parallel between the A.I. supercomputer and the organizational structures of the everyday workplaces) chastises Neo for being late to work by saying:

You have a problem with authority, Mr. Anderson. You believe that you are special, and that somehow the rules do not apply to you. Obviously you are mistaken. This company is one of the top software companies in the world because every single employee understands that they are part of a whole. Thus, if an employee has a problem, the company has a problem. The time has come to make a choice, Mr. Anderson. Either you choose to be at your desk on time from this day forward, or you choose to find yourself another job. Do I make myself clear? (Matrix 1.5)

Ironically, window washers distract both Neo and his supervisor while the supervisor delivers this reprimand, window cleaning representing both the clarity of the supervisor's position and the clarity of Neo's place in the workforce. The clarity of signification serves as the means of reinforcing an ideological construct; namely, the ideology guiding the workplace. Neo's value in the workplace, similar to his value within the Matrix, is simply to feed the system. When he no longer does so he is flushed out. Control mechanisms are set up in both contexts to ensure he serves the role intended for him.

The system, the artificial world, interpellates each individual within it so completely that their perceived subjectivity is a complete fiction, a simulacrum, while their "real" subjectivity is completely unknown to them. Their fictional subjectivity is taken for granted, never questioned, even to the point where their real physical existence and perceived physical existence are literally worlds apart. This existence is maintained and supported by the Matrix for its own material benefit and physical survival. Neo's conversation with his supervisor parallels, precisely, his relationship to the Matrix, and it is a relationship in which he will play his part, subject himself to control, or he will be disciplined or removed by "agents" of control.

Since Morpheus, Trinity, Neo, and their group are known as terrorists within the world of the Matrix, physical violence overpowers the trilogy. The "Lobby Shooting Spree" of the first film represents the films' elevatation of violence to a visual art; the scene glories in a sensual aesthetics of violence (Matrix 1.29). The film's cinematography emphasizes control through enlightenment, as in this shooting scene where a heavily armed Neo and Trinity kill over twenty security guards and special forces police to gain access to the building and camera angles represent total control and manipulability of the shot. The film's physical violence, however, is just a thin analog to the deeper violence Neo advocates in his final speech to the supercomputer from a phone booth, a violence that threatens the system and all caught within it, a violence that is ultimately theoretical, not physical:

I know you're out there. I can feel you now. I know that you're afraid. You're afraid of us, you're afraid of change. I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin. I'm going to hang up this phone, and then I'm going to show these people what you don't want them to see. I'm going to show them a world without you, a world without rules or controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you. (Matrix 1.35)

The constant stream of digits that represents the Matrix stops then reads "System Failure" and Neo hangs up the phone, flying into the distance, into the space occupied by the audience. Rage Against the Machine's "Wake Up" plays to the closing credits: "Departments of police, the judges, the feds / Networks at work, keepin' people calm / You know they went after King / When he spoke out on Vietnam / He turned the power to the have-nots / and then came the shot" (DeLa Rocha "Wake Up"). The physical violence in all three films symbolized theoretical violence against forms of control and against a ubiquitous system designed to maintain control; when the hero gains enlightenment, he gains control.

In the second film his very enlightenment, however, is shown to be part of the system of control. This deconstructs the salvation narrative of the first film by locating its origin in the system itself. In a further reversal, we learn that the machine world isn't governed by the Architect's sole consciousness, but by multiple points of view vying for control. Viewers learn in the second film that the Oracle is working for the system. They learn in the third film that she's working, against the Architect's will, to end the war and make peace with humanity, a possibility opened up to Neo in the third film by his encounter of a loving Indian family in the train station. The dialectic of enlightenment interrogated by this film trilogy, then, isn't simply represented by a machine vs. human dichotomy. Both sides of the dialectice are equally represented in both the human and machine worlds, both of which would come to an end if either attempted to gain complete control. The real threat, it seems, is only Agent Smith.

This dialectic was initially represented by the pairs of options presented to Neo throughout the first film. He has two identities; Thomas Anderson, his interpellated subjectivity, and his hacker alias Neo, his intuitively known subjectivity (perhaps even his "class consciousness" in Lukác's sense of the word), the part of him that maintains a dim awareness that he lives a fiction and is seeking the truth. He must choose between the red and the blue pill, and by doing so chooses between ignorance and the truth about the Matrix. He must choose between his life and Morpheus', between leaving his workplace by the scaffold (climbing to Promethean heights – in his fear he subjects himself to the agents of control rather than risk falling) or in the custody of agents, between the "real world" and the "dream world," a distinction that is consistently confused throughout the film by agents of control. In every case, his choice is between conformity and self-determination; submission to the system and the subjectivity it has defined for him or the forging of his own consciousness; blindness or knowledge of the truth about his condition. The second film, rather than reinforcing the sign system established in the first film, assumes it while calling into question the very existence and meaning of choice. Where choices were once offered, now they appear to be part of the mechanism of control itself. Neo's job in the third film is to untie the gordian knot of free will and control, the very dialectic of enlightenment itself. He does so not be defeating the machines, but by making peace with them.

Baudrillard's postmodernism offer readers similar choices, but without setting up human consciousness as the primary battleground because consciousness itself is a simulacrum. The Matrix's development of individual subjectivity in specifically non-materialist terms is where the film departs from its postmodern influences and projects itself into the future, a development communicated through the film's pervasive religious imagery. The film simply doesn't adhere to a bare materialism, which in the film would mask rather than uncover humanity's "true" condition. The film's Christian imagery has already been described. Hindu and Buddhist belief systems are represented by two different children at the Oracle's home in the first film and elsewhere in the trilogy. Any religion descending from the Vedas is an adequate contextualization for a personal enlightenment consisting of the truth that "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" (Matrix 1.8). This is almost reminiscent of Kant's image of the human mind in Critique of Pure Reason as an island in a fog, separate from the external world. Neo's enlightenment blows away the fog so that he completely perceives the world around him, turning idealism on its head while representing far more than just a material system of relations. It doesn't matter if the Wachowski Brothers believe in any religion or all the them. It is significat that they had to appropriate religious symbols to describe a desperately longed for liberation. It is this appropriation that signals the importance of religion in the west today.

The Baudrillard of Simulcra and Simulation would reject the first and third film's optimism although his standpiont is mirrored in the second film's answers. But the films' answers for Baudrillard's insoluble, pervasive nihilism is personal enlightenment, an enlightenment consisting of each individual realizing their condition and the nature of the matrix within which they are caught. Baudrillard implicitly values this realization however much he silences the language of individual enlightenment. His exposé of the mechanisms of societal control demands a telos that takes the form of an enlightened subjectivity attained by his readers at some time. The film's unabashed optimism is that individuals can finally understand the system in which they are caught well enough to manipulate it according to their own wills, working independently of the will of the system, becoming programmers, becoming gods that can shape their environment to their own wills.

The Matrix Trilogy locates the future of science fiction and the possible future of western thought in its optimism and in its abandonment of purely materialist conceptions of social relations and a re-emphasis upon psychic, even "spiritual," realities. All previous metanarratives focused attention beyond the inner self; Medieval and Renaissance theology looked through the material universe to a God and creator, while the scientism arising in the 19th century reduced the individual to a monad in a material world governed by mechanistic, unchangeable physical laws. Scientism is so transparently a substitute for theology, in fact, that a 2002/2003 college catalog entry for a course entitled "Narratives of Human Evolution: Neanderthals" conveys the instructor's belief "that scientific evidence for our evolution suggests a narrative stranger and more wonderful than any creation myth or work of fiction" (Drew First Year Seminar Program 1). Invoking the religious elements of mystery and wonder, this professor attempts to supplant religion by science with an almost child-like transparency, setting up scientists as priest/initiates in a gnosis uncovered through scientific research. Postmodern theory is a development of this scientism which remains forever inadequate; any completely outward looking philosophy is inadequate to meet the intuitively felt need for personal enlightenment consistently represented in all three films. It is no coincidence that evil, in the film, is represented by a machine. We fear most what we ourselves have created, what we have constructed. Our creation anxiety directed toward the machine is but a trope for our fears of our real creation: society itself. The machine is the world of human interaction, birthing us, feeding us, using us for its own survival and we are dependent upon it with seemingly nowhere else to go.

The machine is a trope for instrumental reason, reason whose goal is to dominate nature and the rest of humanity. What happens when instrumental reason attains its own consciousness? Is it really necessary to posit a self conscious supercomputer to assert that its increasing ubquity ultimately dehumanizes the human? What form could revolt take then? The Wachowski Brothers may as well have invoked Marcuse at this point instead of Baudrillard, who frighteningly predicted in 1955 that guerilla warfare (read: terrorism) is the only outlet of revolt against a ubiquitous system:

The body against "the machine" -- not against the mechanism constructed to make life safer and milder, to attenuate the cruelty of nature, but against the machine which has taken over the mechanism: the political machine, the corporate machine, the cultural and educational machine which has welded blessing and curse into one rational whole. The whole has become too big, its cohesion too strong, its function too efficient -- does the power of the negative concentrate in still partly unconquered, primitive, elemental forces? The body against the machine: men, women, and children fighting, with the most primitive tools, the most brutal and destructive machine of all times and keeping it in check -- does guerrilla warfare define the revolution of our time? (Marcuse 7)

The Matrix Reloaded confronts the reader with the inevitability only hinted at by Cipher's character in the first film. The only way to save human beings caught within the Matrix and free them from machine control is for human beings to gut the consciousness of the machine and take control. But the choice, then, is between independent instrumental reason in the form of a machine, and instrumental reason in control of a small group of human beings. Cipher escaped machine control to be subject to Morpheus' orders; when he came to see his situation in that light, he chose a comfortable position in the Matrix to the "freedom" of being subject to human control.

Postmodernism seems at first to be an advancement. While still providing its own metanarrative, it so thoroughly exposes outward looking metanarratives as constructs that the individual is turned in upon his or her own consciousness as the only grounds of judgment and value. But since postmodern theory is still rooted in its materialist philosophical predecessors such as Marxism, the postmodern individual is left desperately seeking to transcend a self which has now become its prison, allowing narratives of religious awakening to a heightened subjectivity through awareness of an outward, transcendent, immaterial "reality" to have an almost irresistible appeal. If this progression from postmodern paradigms to ecstatic religious experience seems unlikely, consider this excerpt from a Methodist seminary's 2003-2005 course catalog:

Jacques Derrida—long reviled as the progenitor of and poster boy for a radical, atheist, nihilistic relativism unleashed upon the world under the flag of something called 'deconstruction'—has more recently become the new poster boy for the convergence of themes in postmodernism and religion. (Drew University 2003-2005)

Consider also that Derrida was the keynote speaker at the conference "Irreconcilable Differences? Jacques Derrida and the Question of Religion," hosted by the University of Santa Barbara in October of 2003, and was plenary speaker at the 2002 joint conference of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature in Toronto (5). Religion tells us there is somewhere else to go: the transcendent. These religious narratives, unlike those of the past, will be personal and non-dogmatic, experiential rather than doctrinal. There is a long tradition in many religious traditions that even distrusts language about God. To some Hindus, God is s/he "before whom all words recoil." Christian Eastern Orthodoxy's apophatic theology defines God as "not this"; once everything, even language, has been erased as "not God," what is left is God. The future of postmodernism is personal spiritual awareness, science fiction is a trope for religous enlightenment in this film. The post-postmodern period has seen the destruction of appearances and meaning turned upside down.

The translation of the film's theoretical violence to the present world is problematic, however. Unlike the world of The Matrix, our "real" world does not have a readily apparent escape hatch. We are dependent upon the system that feeds us. We are inextricably dependent upon grocery stores for food, hospitals for health care, phone companies for communication, and have no substitutes should these fail. Our only hope is that the Wachowski brothers' optimism is justified, that personal enlightenment gives us some distance from our matrices. Unfortunately, it is only from a position of personal enlightenment that we can know. We can only know how much power we have outside the matrix once we are outside the matrix; we can't even know if there is an "outside" the matrix until after we have pressed against or passed through its boundaries. Ironically, the film's use of materialist postmodern theory leads it to affirm that religious subjectivity is a viable response to nihilistic ideological constructs that already presuppose materialism. Baudrillard's theory doesn't account for a future in which something like his own construct would become an ideological agent wielding ubiquitous control, nor that religious enlightenment could represent human emancipation. The Matrix Trilogy reveals that western techonological republics are still longing for a Christ to show the way to an escape hatch leading us out of ourselves, and that our postmodern condition has made us ripe to seek the fulfillment of this longing.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Drew University. "First Year Seminar Program," 2002/2003 Course Catalog: College of Liberal Arts.