Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Neo's Kantian Choice: The Matrix Reloaded and the Limits of the Posthuman

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Neo's Kantian Choice: The Matrix Reloaded and the Limits of the Posthuman

Article excerpt

Kant's Categorical Imperative procedure is applied to the conundrum that animates the second installment of The Matrix trilogy: how can Neo act autonomously in a deterministic world? The essay argues that Neo's success depends on his ability to act on principle, an achievement that recovers a liberal humanist ideal from the claims of posthumanism.

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Theorists such as Leslie Fiedler, Ihab Hassan, and N. Katherine Hayles have used the term "posthuman" to describe a mode of being that challenges Descartes's account of the human subject as a unified and autonomous entity. (1) Recent advances in science and technology promise to transform the humanist notion that human beings are creatures of mind and body by solving once and for all one of the most baffling problems of modern philosophy--the relation of mind to matter. The dream of laying to rest the Cartesian conundrum is being pursued on several fronts: computer scientists, neurobiologists, and materialist philosophers are working toward the common goal of showing that the mind is not an autonomous, immaterial entity, but something that emerges directly from lawful physical processes.

"The task of putting the mind back into nature" (8), as Gerald Edelman has described this project, threatens to make the concepts of agency and self-determination the most conspicuous casualties of the posthumanist paradigm. Different disciplines frame this new ontology in different terms. Sociobiologists such as Edward Wilson and Richard Dawkins argue that we are gene-machines driven by the compulsion to disseminate our genetic material. (2) For digital physicists, such as Edward Fredkin and Stephen Wolfram, our lives are information processes governed by programming rules akin to those that run our personal computers. (3) Whether biological or cybernetic, our ontology is said to be governed by the laws of a master program.

The view that autonomy is a fiction is not new, nor are the terms in which this view is being challenged. Today's attempts to arrive at a posthumanist topography of mind are being contested by arguments that have emerged at various points in our intellectual history. This enduring pattern of argument and counterargument, in which the terminology and frames of reference are constantly shifting, makes interesting accommodations to the clarifying properties of anachronism--that is, to the value of teaching new dogs old tricks. It is, therefore, entirely fitting that the sexy, PVC-clad, cyber-geekiness of the second installment of The Matrix trilogy--Larry and Andy Wachowski's The Matrix Reloaded (2003)--should turn on a problem as old as the hills, or, more accurately, as old as Immanuel Kant. This flashy and self-consciously hip film is at its most daring when it tests the limits and limitations of the rhetoric of posthumanism against arguments borrowed from Kant's moral philosophy. Kant's thesis that acting on principle bears witness to the will's autonomy informs the climactic moments of the film's increasingly beleaguered search for human attributes capable of transcending external determination.

The Matrix Reloaded methodically debunks the most cherished beliefs of the Resistance fighters who seemed, at the end of the first film, to be on the verge of victory against the machines. We are informed at the beginning of the sequel that the machines have launched a massive attack calculated to destroy Zion--the underground refuge of the human race. Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) readies Zion's military defense system, but his plans are compromised by the fact that Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and his crew persist in placing their trust in the Oracle. As the sentinels burrow deeper into the earth's core, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar is busy trying to fulfill the Oracle's prophecy. During a second meeting with the Oracle (Gloria Foster), Neo (Keanu Reeves) learns that to win the battle against the machines he must first liberate the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) from the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), and that the Keymaker will help him gain access to the mainframe of the Matrix. …

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