Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Matrix or Malebranche in Hollywood

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Matrix or Malebranche in Hollywood

Article excerpt

When I saw The Matrix at a local theatre in Slovenia, I had the unique opportunity of sitting close to the ideal spectator of the film-namely, to an idiot. A man in his late twenties at my right was so immersed in the film that he continuously disturbed the other spectators with loud exclamations, like "My God, wow, so there is no reality!" I definitely prefer such naive immersion to pseudo-sophisticated intellectualist readings that project into the film refined philosophical or psychoanalytic conceptual distinctions.1

It is nonetheless easy to understand this intellectual attraction of The Matrix. Is it not that The Matrix is one of those films that function as a kind of Rorschach test, setting in motion a universalized process of recognition, like the proverbial painting of God which seems always to stare directly at you, from wherever you look at it? Practically every orientation seems to recognize itself in it. My Lacanian friends tell me that the writers must have read Lacan; Frankfurt School partisans see in The Matrix the extrapolated embodiment of Kulturindustrie, the alienated-reified social Substance (of Capital) directly taking over, colonizing our inner life itself, using us as a source of energy; New Agers see in it a source of speculations on how our world is just a mirage generated by a global Mind embodied in the World Wide Web. This series goes back to Plato's Republic. Does not The Matrix repeat exactly Plato's dispositif of the cave: ordinary humans as prisoners, tied firmly to their seats and compelled to watch the shadowy performance of (what they falsely consider to be) reality? The important difference, of course, is that when some individuals escape their cave predicament and step out to the surface of the Earth, what they find there is no longer the bright surface illuminated by the rays of the Sun, the supreme Good, but the desolate "desert of the real." The key opposition is here the one between Frankfurt School and Lacan: should we historicize The Matrix into the metaphor of the Capital that colonized culture and subjectivity, or is it the reification of the symbolic order as such? However, what if this very alternative is false? What if the virtual character of the symbolic order "as such" is the very condition of historicity?

Reaching the End Of the World

Of course, the idea of the hero living in a totally manipulated and controlled artificial universe is hardly original: The Matrix just radicalizes it by bringing in virtual reality. The point here is the radical ambiguity of the VR with regard to the problematic of iconoclasm. On the one hand, VR marks the radical reduction of the wealth of our sensory experience to-not even letters, but-the minimal digital series of 0 and 1, of passing and non-passing of the electrical signal. On the other hand, this very digital machine generates the "simulated" experience of reality that tends to become indiscernible from the "real" reality, with the consequence of undermining the very notion of "real" reality-VR is thus at the same time the most radical assertion of the seductive power of images.

Is not the ultimate American paranoiac fantasy that of an individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumer's paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show? The most recent example of this is Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998), with Jim Carrey playing the small town clerk who gradually discovers the truth that he is the hero of a 24-hour a day permanent TV show. His hometown is constructed on a gigantic studio set, with cameras following him everywhere. Sloterdijk's "sphere" is here literally realized, as the gigantic metal sphere that envelopes and isolates the entire city. This final shot of The Truman Show may seem to enact the liberating experience of breaking out from the ideological suture of the enclosed universe into its outside, invisible from the ideological inside. …

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