Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Matrix as an Ideological Network

Note: this article was first published in January 2004, in the Tel-Aviv Cinematheque Magazine.

Abstract: “what is the matrix?” This big question that Morpheus presents Neo and us in the first Matrix, has been a matter for debate over the last 5 years. Since then the Matrix has been interpreted as Marxist, Psychoanalytic, Platonist, Post-Modern, Buddhist, Chsristian, Jewish and what have you. This article tries a different approach to this question. While seeking to preserve former interpretive possibilities, it claims: The Matrix is a devouring ideological network. The capitalistic nature of this network is at the center of this piece.

The Matrix Trilogy may be the Star Wars of our generation, creating a new mythology in a new world. It is undoubtedly pretentious in its special effects, and more so in its theory and philosophy, to the point that some critics dismiss the film's lengthy philosophical discussions as hopelessly muddled. Others have looked for coherent meaning in its symbols and langauge, and found exactly what they were looking for - which is to say, they found what they had already believed. That list includes Matxists, Psychoanalysts, Platonists, post-modernists, and even the believers of the world: Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Taoists. Each of them offered his own biased interpertation of the Matrix, like the six blind men who tried to describe an elephant - each was (partly) right, but also very wrong.

The truth is, the matrix is all of these things: seemingly incoherent, and yet Christian and psychoanalytic and post-modern. Yet everyone who has tried to analyze the film using any of these dogmas has have fallen prey to exactly the same deceptive Matrix with which the trilogy deals. The big question everyone is trying to answer -- the one Morpheus presents Neo and us in the first film – is, “what is the matrix?” This question cannot have a single answer because above all the Matrix is simply the Matrix itself, an irreducible term.

Like the Deleuzian idea of complexity, which claims reality has no simple source, the Matrix lacks any simple, ideologically homogeneous source. The meaning of this notion of “complexity” is that reality in itself is a complex being or experience, which is irreducible to the finite medium of words. The Matrix is likewise irreducible, and contains various ideological complexities as well as ideologically contradictory and complementary possibilities. The movie Matrix, much like the Matrix itself, presents us with an ideological network which is linked to all places. This is the meeting place for all places, an animate free market of religious, philosophical, political and social ideologies.

The plot

In the first Matrix, computer expert Neo is contacted by an enigmatic group of people who tell him that the world he knew is nothing but a simulation generated by an immense network of computers. The time isn’t the end of the 20th century, as he believes, but about 200 years later. The world is ruled by machines, which use the bodies of human beings to supply their energy needs. Machines grow people in isolated cells where they are connected to conductors that suck out their energy and transfer it to the machines. In parallel, people are also linked from their cells to a digital universe that simulates the world of the end of the 20th century: the Matrix. The only people living outside of this virtual world are a group of rebels who unplugged themselves from the matrix and built an underground world inside the earth called “Zion.” From this underground world they go on rescue missions across the matrix to save other prisoners of the Matrix.

In one of the classic scenes of the first movie, a scene that repeats in variations through the series, Neo is offered by Morpheus, the leader of the group, two pills which symbolize the choice he faces. If he takes the red pill, his mind and body will leave the Matrix and he will be pulled out into the fierce reality of the war against the machines. If he takes the blue pill, he would be able to get back into the Matrix, forget all that has occurred and continue a life of pleasant ignorance.

Neo chooses the truth, and here the plot starts to get complicated. Neo (an anagram of “one”) finds out that the leader of the rebels has nourished hopes that Neo is “the One,” the messiah, who will save people from the tyranny of the machines. Neo makes a good start in meeting their hopes. Soon he learns to look through the Matrix’s illusion of a world and see the Matrix as it is, a kabbalistic maze of letters that can be penetrated and altered, thus enabling the bending of the rules. Neo, as a digital “mekubal” (an adept of Jewish mysticism), acquires supernatural combat abilities inside the Matrix by playing and controlling the text that composes the world.

In his various adventures Neo also comes to know an array of curious characters, among which is the Oracle, a prophet who leads Neo in his way (although the credibility of her prophecies is constantly in doubt). Another important figure is the Architect, a creator and programmer of the Matrix, a dubious demiurge with dubious motives. The common factor among these various figures is that they are all computer programs, like sub-applications in the immense computer network that is the matrix.

The messiah is the one that lives in the real. And Neo, after learning to bend the rules of the virtual reality, develops similar abilities in the real world as well. The second and third movies have apocalyptic, almost Biblical, battles betweens the machines coming to destroy Zion and the rebels, while Neo – by contrast – goes on a peace mission to the machine city to bring peace with the machine world.

What narrative explains this story? There are several.

The messiah as a Christian, Jewish and Eastern hybrid

One of the Israeli critics who wrote about the third Matrix dismissed it as a Christian movie. This is understandable because that is the most prominent aspect of Neo: Neo arrives as a messiah around whom a small group is gathered. He has his Judas (Cypher), his girlfriend is called Trinity, and his last name is “Anderson,” which can be taken as “Son of Man,” using the Greek root andros for man. During the film Neo dies, is resurrected, and finally leaves the world as a cross of light. These are fairly obvious Christian symbols. But how can you call a movie Christian when it has an oracle, hand-reading, a spaceship called Icarus, and an underworld goddess called Persephone?

The word “messiah” is an example of the ideological network that the matrix presents to us in different aspects. Neo as a messiah, for instance, is not a monolithic figure at all, but rather a complex incarnation of the Christian, Jewish and eastern messianic figures.

Neo as a kabbalistic messiah

The Matrix is full of Jewish kabalistic and Hasidic ideas. The Wachowsky brothers have studied Kabbalah, now their ideas are being taught in Kabbalah schools in Israel. So it is no surprise that the concept of the Messiah in the Matrix borrows quite a lot from Jewish Kabbalah and Jewish theology.

For example, Neo’s perception of the world as a textual world, where knowing the textual source allows the bending of the rules, is reminiscent of ancient Kabbalistic books such as the ancient Sefer Yetzirah from the first century, where the creation of the world is described as a textual event. As in the Matrix, Sefer Yetzirah tells us that the world is created from a sea of letters. One could even compare Neo and the midrashic character of Abraham as a person who has the power to recreate the world by textual acts (see Golem, by Moshe Idel).

Neo first sees through the digital Matrix. What he learns there, he implements later in the real world, which he reveals as another matrix. Interestingly enough, where Neo once found a maze of digits he now finds a blaze of light. Neo perceives the real world as a stream of emanating light that surrounds all things, a worldview reminiscent of the Kabalistic emanation theories in Jewish sources. The Book of Splendor -- the Zohar -- and Lurianic Kabbalah see the whole universe as a creation of light which is immanent in all things.

Smith, that self-duplicating agent against whom Neo fights time and again, could be Kabbalistically interpreted as the klipot. Literally meaning peels or shells, klipot is the kabalistic explanation of why we don’t perceive the true existence of the world as a world of light, the way Neo does. The reason is that things are covered with the klipot, peels which hide and prevent us from seeing the real divine light that is present in all things. The klipot represent the raw exteriority of things, an exteriority that must be peeled away to reveal the true essence, which is light.

Furthermore, the Kabbalah says that the process of the peeling of the klipot is a dynamic process. A person has to peel the klipot his whole life, because the klipot duplicate by nature and put new barriers in men’s search of the truth of reality. Every day in which you don’t clean your eyes, you get new dust obscuring your vision. This is the endless duplication of Smith.

The way Neo gets rid of Smith, by infiltrating Smith’s body and filling it with light until it cracks from the inside and burns with the inner light, calls to mind the radical 17th-century Kabbalah of the false Messiah Shabbtai Zvi and his believers. Shabbtai Zvi was arrested by the Turkish authorities and given a choice: death, or conversion to Islam. He chose to convert, which was naturally a blow to many (though not all) of his followers. Trying to justify his action, his faithful came up with a new theological explanation which describes the messiah as a worm inside an apple, or a sacred spy. The messiah goes down inside of the source of impurity (Smith; the klipot) and fills it with light until it cracks from within.

Neo as an eastern mystic

Taoism and Buddhism are also very evident in the Matrix. Through the prism of Eastern religion, Neo is not only the Messiah but also “the Enlightened” – the Buddha. Smith tells Neo that the two of them are very similar, and they are. They both identify the self with the world, only in a fundamentally different way. Smith is the Ego, the impurity of Buddhism, the one that sees himself anywhere he looks - egocentricity. This is why, when Smith touches people or other agents, they turn into him. Smith sees himself everywhere. Neo (One), on the other hand, follows the Buddhist ideal of seeing himself as a part of the unity of the universe. Neo can control the world because he is devoid of the ego that separates us from the world and can identify with the universe totally.

Because Neo and Smith are so similar to each other – indeed, Smith is actually part of Neo’s self -- Smith also gets stronger every time Neo gets stronger, as in the old Jewish saying “The greater a person, the greater his temptations.” In other words, in parallel with Neo’s spiritual developments, the traps of Ego (Smith) become more and more dangerous. As in Buddhism, the erasure of the self and becoming one with the surrounding world lead to total control. The Zen Archer doesn’t aim, and this aims his arrow. When the blind Neo fights without looking, and sees his opponents in a mystic way as streams of energies in the world, one can’t help being reminded of the Buddhist Kung-fu series “Zatoichi,” about a blind warrior whose blindness is a background to his spiritual perfection and fighting ability.

Beyond the metaphors from Eastern religion, there are also ideas that are common to all religions such as peace and love. It is easy to forget that, aside from the Hollywood portrayal of these ideas, they have a deeply religious message. In the war of humanity against the machines in The Matrix, the underlying narrative is that the machines are not in themselves the true enemy of Neo. This fact becomes clearer as the Matrix series advances, when we encounter machines that feel (a breaking of the opposition between Machine vs. Man that could be the a subject of another whole article).

In the movie “Animatrix,” a collection of 9 animation movies written and produced by the Wachowsky brothers, the battle between the machines and the humans is actually an outcome following the oppression of the machines by people. The real enemy of Neo is therefore Smith, the klipot which separate machines from mankind in our perception and make them enemies. The difference between humans and machines is an external one that only Neo as the unified-unifier can abolish. This is why the destruction of Smith is in the movies the condition for peace.

In order to lose the klipot and see men and machine as one, Neo must discover love in its religious sense, the love Dostoevsky implies when he says “hell is the inability to love.” This is the love of acknowledging the oneness of things, of withdrawing yourself and making room for the Other: Neo’s ability to leave his city and go to the machine city and face the ultimate Other of the source, the code of all codes. When he totally gives himself over to the machine, when he lies on a bed of little machines, it is a token of that love.

It’s worth noting that the very fight with Smith, the ultimate redemption struggle, takes place within the boundaries of the Matrix. Salvation comes from inside the Matrix. This is the love that can bring the peace that Neo talks about – that peace which actually means the redemptive resolution of the opposition between man and machine, and between all oppositions.

The Meta-Religion and capitalism

Despite the abundance of religiousness in the Matrix, no orthodox clergyman would be content with these films. The Matrix accepts almost every spiritual direction that has ever been invented, and this total acceptance is a negation of every spiritual system that demands any sort of exclusiveness, or uniqueness. Take, for example, Neo’s conversation with the oracle in the second part of the Matrix. The oracle tells Neo that ghosts, angels, vampires, werewolves, UFOs and every unnatural phenomenon he has ever heard about all exist – their explanation is that they are trivial malfunctions in the digital system of the matrix.

So what religion do the rebels mean when they proclaim time and again that they “believe”? No other word is said so often in the Matrix as “belief.” Again and again Morpheus announces his belief in Neo; time and again the others are demanded to answer regarding their belief in Neo. And when Neo asks the oracle how he can be sure of the sincerity of her words, she tells him there is no way of knowing, nor any information which could help him decide whose prophet she is: Satan’s or God’s. The world is an equation composed exclusively of unknowns, and the question is – do you believe, or not? Neo, of course, chooses to believe.

Ultimately the only religion the Matrix is marketing is the meta-religion which is a radical expansion on the ecumenical idea. The Meta-religion is a name for perhaps the most widespread spiritual concept in today’s secular Western society. It is the religion without commandments or sacraments, the virtual-existence religion which is willing to abolish the form in order to reach the inner essence, symbolized by the letters-digits-symbol matrix (released from the klipot).

It therefore makes no difference if we call Neo Savior, Messiah or Buddha. The Meta religion is willing to assimilate all symbols without obliging itself to even one of them. This is a more sophisticated version of New Age. The believers of the Meta-religion don’t limit themselves to any discourse’s rules. The Meta-religion sucks in and makes a salad out of terms and ideas from different spiritual fields in order to reach the content it seeks. Hence the abundance of gods, symbols and ideologies with which the Matrix is saturated.

But whom does the Meta-religion serve? Whom is this Metaphor aimed after? The Matrix of the Meta-religion is first of all the capitalistic Matrix which profits from every commodity that passes through it and takes commission from every sale -- even the sale of Marxist books.

In the second movie Morpheus prepares his crowd of believers for the final battle against the machines in a Masada-style speech. Morpheus appears as the prophet of capitalism and calls to the audience: “Tonight, let us send a message to that army.” To explain what he means he adds, “Let us shake this cave! Tonight let us make them remember this is Zion.” The meaning of these words is conveyed in the next scene, maybe the most baffling in the Matrix series. For many long and seemingly meaningless minutes we watch the minimally dressed rebels dance to the sound of loud rock music and rub against each other sensuously in a sort of pagan fest. The combination of the glistening skin of the young sweaty youth and the rhythmically jumping human waves gives the scene the aesthetics of a commercial. This is the message of the people’s unification scene in Zion: a sex party and sensuality, the essence of capitalistic redemption.

It isn’t that the Matrix really says that capitalism represents redemption, but neither is it Marxist in the classical way. Perhaps The Matrix is a Marxist-capitalistic movie. It does criticize capitalism, but it also makes clear that resistance is futile. The end of any resistance is to be sucked inside the system. In other words, The Matrix is a Hollywood film. The criticism is also part of Hollywood. Without the stars, the production crew and the Hollywood marketing system, none of this would exist.

The cinematic matrix religion of capitalism

In a Marxist reading, one could see Neo’s fight against the agents as a fight against the salesmen of capitalism. Smith, the self-duplicating agent, does look much like one of the businessmen populating Manhattan, and indeed in the third Matrix we see huge skyscrapers full of duplicated Smiths. Smith is dressed in a black suit and impenetrable black sunglasses. In his hand he holds a James Bond suitcase, as if he’d come to sell you something. The commodity Smith would like us to see is of course the symbolic world, the digital simulation which he would like to force on everyone. One could interpret Neo as a sort of Marxist fighter against the duplicating sales agents, but on closer inspection the rebels aren’t any different from the salesmen.

Anyone who saw the first Matrix must remember the digital-visual presentation and the convincing speech Morpheus makes to Neo in their first meeting, when he explained the history of the matrix and tried to convince him to leave the Matrix and join the rebels. Later, when we are told that the rebels’ main occupation is freeing people, which means convincing people to move to their “real” world, one can understand that Morpheus and Neo are in a way also 9-to-5 salesmen, only with a more sexy product: they sell reality.

The matrix in that case is a battleground between two kinds of sales agents, and in capitalism it doesn’t matter what you buy, the house always wins. This immunity of the capitalistic network of the Matrix could be seen in the scene at the end of the third Matrix, where agent Neo and agent Smith fight the final battle between mythic skyscrapers. The interesting detail here is that, despite the huge shock waves rising from the ground during this titanic battle and moving as fierce storms between the skyscrapers, those skyscrapers continue to stand and the panes continue to shine.

The destructive forces of the titanic battle between the two salesmen move through and get swallowed inside the dark impenetrable skyscraper glass. Capitalism watches the great struggle between the symbolic and the real indifferently. At the movie’s end, when the long awaited redemption finally arrives, the only symbol of it is a little girl standing and looking at the glistening skyscrapers – this is the redemption of capitalism.

But ultimately, why should we immerse ourselves in illusions? After all, we are the ones living among symbolic but also very real skyscrapers. The battle between Neo and Smith symbolizes, perhaps improbably, the visit to the cinema, whose results are also capitalistically preordained. The cinema is then the very cell in which the Matrix imprisons us, where you sit as an inert puppet and produce energy for the capitalistic matrix.

What could be more ludicrous than Neo appearing on the screen, calling us to leave the illusion and selling us the world of the “real”? Neo’s voice comes from the inner depths of the simulation, Neo and Smith are both agents of the capitalistic Matrix, designed to keep us docile in our seat. Who would dare to rise up from his seat and go outside to “reality” after paying good money to get inside the matrix of cinema?

The commandment of the sequel

In a very striking way, the ending of the Matrix is a kind of combination between religious theory and pure commercial interests. The prominent feature of the redemption at the end of the Matrix series is that ultimate redemption has still not come. Religiously one could understand that from the existence of distinguishable entities and the occurrence of redemption within the boundaries of skyscrapers and the existing world. This is a restorative redemption, a redemption which brings things back to their functioning state at the past, but does not bring any new and radical message. Ultimate redemption should result in the world becoming One, eliminating any conflicts and dualities. The problem is made clearer in the conversation between the Oracle and the Architect, the Matrix’s demiurge. The Architect doubts the future of the peace that has been achieved. There is a big religious problem here. Is this the peace we have been waiting for? Or merely a ceasefire?

One possible answer can be found in the kabalistic theory of shmitot. According to this esoteric theory the world exists in 7 cycles of 7,000 years. At the end of each cycle there is a renewed creation. The 7th cycle is like the Jewish Shabbat (the seventh day of the week), the ultimate cycle, at the end of which comes the fiftieth-year jubilee of total redemption.

The Architect tells Neo that he is the sixth in a series of messiahs. The use of this number and the undetermined ending of the matrix make us think that the Wachowsky brothers plan another resurrection of Neo, a seventh redemption battle that would be the Matrix’s Sabbath. Or maybe this is a thought about redemption as a utopian concept which never does fulfill itself as a permanent state but only as a process, similar to the Jewish paradox of an always imminent, yet always absent, redemption.

Either way there is a striking combination of deep religious thought with pure commercial interests, a combination that characterizes the Matrix as a movie which is a meeting point of so many ideologies which coexist on an ideological net – the Matrix.


Doron said...

In one article you say neo is the Messiah, in the other he is a capitlist agent.
Maybe he is the capitalist messiah.

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