[Fwd: [BRC-NEWS] The Matrix and the Medium's Message]

Carrol Cox cbcox at SPAMilstu.edu
Thu Aug 24 21:44:58 MDT 2000

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] The Matrix and the Medium's Message
Date: Thu, 24 Aug 2000 20:58:15 -0400
From: Edward Miller <nedward at prodigy.net>
To: brc-news at lists.tao.ca


Social Policy

Vol. 30, No. 4 / Summer 2000

The Matrix and the Medium's Message

By Edward D. Miller <nedward at prodigy.net>

Combining science fiction with kung fu, The Matrix was one
of the most successful, innovative, and timely Hollywood-
made films of 1999. (It is also the biggest-selling DVD
ever in that new, mass-market medium.) The film cleverly
incorporates recent cultural theory into its plot line
and reflects millennial fears and hopes about the role
of technology.

In academic circles, The Matrix has captured much attention:
At two recent conferences on film and media that I attended,
panels were devoted to locating the subversive moments and
revolutionary potential of the film. For all its innovation
in terms of use of digital technology (it won four technical
Academy Awards this spring) and genre, The Matrix is all too
traditional. It insists -- as Hollywood films concerned with
injustice usually do -- that social change is possible only
through the heroic action of a hyperkinetic individual. In
the film, a sustained social movement does not prevail -- a
savior triumphs.

Like much of science fiction film and literature, The Matrix
is a tale of a young man waking up to a confining reality
and fighting for freedom. The dystopia in the film is
particularly gruesome and especially technophobic for a film
that revels in digital special effects. In the future, the
machines have taken over (again, typical for sci-fi). They
"farm" human beings to use them as batteries in a world that
has been drained of other sources of power due to (yes, you
guessed it) human folly. In order to pacify the minds of
their dormant prisoners (who lie in vast fields of amniotic
fluid encased in artificial wombs, digesting the liquefied
remains of the dead), the artificial intelligence creates
an elaborate virtual reality. In this coordinated and
micro-managed realm, the digital selves of the imprisoned
live and work in cities not unlike our own. Except for a few
bands of rebels, no one knows that their minds are operating
inside a dream that is programmed for them. This realm is
known by the artificial intelligence and the resistors
alike as the matrix.

The directors and producers of the film, the Wachowski
brothers (who also directed Bound, a lesbian-themed
thriller), pay homage to the French cultural theorist Jean
Baudrillard by having a book called Simulacra and Simulation
visible in the home of the hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves). Indeed,
the film quotes Baudrillard's earlier text, Simulations, when
the leader of the rebels, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne),
instructs his younger convert, Neo, that he is living in
the "desert of the real" and not in reality at all.

Baudrillard argues in Simulations, using America as
his example and Marshall McLuhan as his inspiration, that
reality is in fact a copy of a copy, or a simulation that
has pulled the wool over our eyes. For Baudrillard, Disney's
danger is not that it produces synthetic and appealing
environments in Florida, California, Times Square, and in
spectacles of animation or puppetry. The danger of Disney
is that it tricks us into thinking that there is a difference
between that which is Disney property and that which is not.
For Baudrillard, all of the United States is a theme park.
In this corporate-sponsored illusion, authentic experience
is in fact nostalgia. "Reality" can only appear in quotes
and the original is all but replaced by copies.

The Matrix picks up on Baudrillard's insistence and makes
manifest the latent paranoia in his vision. In the film,
virtually all of the masses are hoodwinked and complicit
with a system that is total and invisible. It suggests
that we are all somnambulists who mistake the narcotics of
routinized sleep as wakefulness where we can exercise our
freedom. What fools these mortals be as they drowse in a
false consciousness!

Luckily, There's a Resistance

Unlike rebels of the past, who are often depicted as wearing
worn berets, torn combat fatigues, and beards, the rebels in
The Matrix sport '90s high fashion when they go to battle in
the virtual reality. They are clad head to toe in form-
fitting black leather or vinyl Prada-wear. Their chicness
suggests that commodity fetishism is a defense against the
blandness of everyday consumerism. The rebels are a multi-
cultural group, led by the African-American Morpheus (named
for the Greek god of sleep) who is a mystical kung-fu master.
Morpheus and Trinity (an aerobicized lieutenant who could be
Keanu Reeves's female twin) are convinced that Neo is the
"one" -- a Jesus-like savior who can navigate and
disassemble the matrix using pure will.

The rebels fight the sentient programs inside virtual
reality. The appearance of these agents proves the old
Hollywood saying that costume is character. The enemy, all
Caucasian (and quite pale at that) with receding hairlines,
wear the requisite suits of middle management, off-the-rack
and by-the-book dull gray-green. They patrol the virtual
reality. They, too, know martial arts, but have unnatural
speed and superhuman strength. As embodiments of artificial
intelligence, they do not die no matter how often they are
kicked and punched. (Luckily for special-effects enthusiasts,
they can be blown up!)

The Matrix flirts with showing how an organized, multi-
cultural movement can sustain resistance to a system run by
"suits." This sets it apart from much recent Hollywood fare.
In mainstream cinema, aberrance from the norm is usually
punished within the film (see, for example, Boys Don't Cry,
where the gender-confused hero/ine is murdered, or American
Beauty, where the closeted homosexual neighbor kills himself
after shooting dead the nonconforming straight white male
hero). Indeed, The Matrix is clever in concept and rich with
allusions -- not only to Baudrillard, but also to the more
popular Alice in Wonderland and the Bible as well as to
earlier to sci-fi films.

The Matrix is also intelligent, if contradictory, concerning
technology. It warns that far from freeing us from the
doldrums of ordinary life, new technology may be aligning
computer stations as the assembly lines of the recapitalized
western world, allowing the masses to be controlled by the
"techno-bosses." The film urges its audience to wake up to
power dynamics and recognize the illusion of balance and
propriety that corporate and governmental forces put forward.

In the end, The Matrix reverts to a time-proven and
particularly American device: the individual, acting
heroically and alone, prevails and modifies the system.
Keanu Reeves' character, finally accepting that he is the
"one," destroys a trinity of devilish agents. This signals
that the matrix is vulnerable. Neo catches and darts bullets
with the greatest of ease, and starts to fly through the
dissolving simulated realm. Due to expert effects, this is
exciting to watch as a moment of personal triumph and power,
but disappointing politically. Where collective action and
resistant strategies fail, the force of the hero succeeds.

In this way, The Matrix moves to a more conservative
position, preserving America's insistence on the individual
as the agent of change. This agent of change is goodness
itself and can identify the shrouded face of evil. In this
hope for a hipper America, every day is casual Friday, and
the clothes still make the man. The nonconformist hero-
hacker eschews the suit and wears designer garments in order
to master the pathways of the Internet and the corridors of
corporate capitalism. He is in all ways committed to seeking
truth and reality -- with a gym-buffed body. In other words,
Neo is an emblematic male hero of the late `90s.

Perhaps with Julia Robert's Erin Brockavich, we have
the '00s female counterpart. Armed with an always-revealed
cleavage, she single-handedly takes on corporate polluters
and wins, using her wits -- and her fetishized body -- to
advantage. The message from Hollywood is clear: the many
must wait for the heroic and attractive few to bring about
social justice. Part of the reason for Hollywood's conservatism
is box-office economics. Collective action is just not sexy
enough and unsuitable for depiction by stars. Films that are
about sustained political movements remain scarce, even as
the use of civil disobedience increases and the efforts of
unions intensify in the contemporary United States.


Edward D. Miller teaches media theory and cultural studies
at The College of Staten Island, City University of New
York. He is a contributing editor for the forthcoming
Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Culture, published
by Routledge, and writes on broadcasting history and policy
and the cultural politics of music, sound, and technology. He
has just completed a manuscript on American radio in the 1930s.

Copyright (c) 2000 Social Policy. All Rights Reserved.

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