The Characters in The Matrix
The Matrix (Wachowski & Wachowski 1999) is a battery powering an unending chatter of thought, images, productions, and discourse. In the film, a stabbing needle penetrates the black plug mounted on the back of a human skull, and the mind is overwhelmed by the matrix, an extensive simulacral world that, to its unknowing inhabitants, is in every way the same as reality, and to those merely passing through, is a sinister, green-tinted prison. The film sets, by dialogue and symbolism, a place for analysis, theology, theory, philosophy, and criticism that accommodates any stance within a language of freedom, choice, perception, reality, simulation, mind, computer code, and body. Rationalizations of and within these terms get a place at the table. This setting incites discussion as it limits it. For instance, we have a ready means to discuss what knowing a thing really means, but we are in less of a position to discuss how such paranoia gets off the ground. However, the accessible philosophical vocabulary everywhere present in the film ought not overwhelm our resources to move amongst the dimly legible codes and technologies of the cinematic body and world – the stylized sequences of events that produce the reactions in a viewer that give the film meaning. In this capacity for aesthetic indulgence – and contrary to the theoretical window dressing of the script, The Matrix makes an audio-visual presentation that reformulates agency as a matter of effect rather than choice.
Everyone knows the movie is full of really captivating philosophical questions. Why is it that, when you’re hurt in the virtual world, you bleed in the real world? Very heavy stuff. The film is easy to translate in this way because it draws upon the exact language it seduces into itself. For example, the film realizes the solipsistic metaphor of a brain in a vat: humans are bodies that house organs, which are being duped by data, fed into them by a computer. The philosophical conventions at play are a string of universalizing contentions about the ways of Man, Truth, and the World. What is striking in the appropriation of so many minutes of screen-time into rational argument is the theoretical inevitability into which they stumble as if for the first time and in a serendipitous glee. Is (discussion of) the film finally to be a moment of truth?
It is high time we rid ourselves of the notion that we can somehow free ourselves from illusion (or from ideology) by recognizing and theorizing our own entrapment within it. Such dialectical maneuvers tend, ironically, to reinforce the very objects of their critique. They achieve their explanatory power at the price of transforming local, contingent phenomena into transcendental conditions or developmental necessities. The self-reflexive theorizing that allows us to become aware of certain structural constraints also ends up echoing and amplifying those constraints,...