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The Matrix of Visual Culture
As Patricia Pisters (2003) asserts in her study of Deleuze and film theory The Matrix of Visual Culture, the Wachowski brothers’ film can be read from number of different theoretical perspectives. It invites readings via Lacanian psychoanalysis, Platonic notions of the cave and the disparity between the two strata of perception and also as a “New Age” (Pisters, 2003: 11) quasi-religious evocation of the second coming. However, here I would like to place the film’s visual sense and diegesis into a context of postmodern philosophy; drawing inferences and theoretical connections between the film and the work of Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin and the neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School, most notably Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1979).
The importance of postmodern philosophy and cyber culture to the visual sense of The Matrix is declared from its very opening titles. Random strings of green neon data are scrolled against a black background imbuing the viewer with a sense of the virtual and the cybernetic and this is concretised and given definite focus later on as Neo (Keanu Reeves) hides the two thousand dollars given to him by Anthony in a copy of Simulacra and Simulation by Baudrillard. This reference however is more than a mere visual joke it is a signifier for a number of the film’s sub-textual tropes and motifs.
For Baudrillard, the notion of the simulacra was central to an understanding of the modern capitalist society. In his essay “The Precession of the Simulacra” (2004) he offers up four vital concepts, all of which appear, in one form or another in The Matrix: the simulation, the simulacra, the Real and the hyper-real. The simulation covers the gaps in the Real, the actual; as Baudrillard says “To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have” (Baudrillard, 2004: 3). The simulation takes on the image of the Real in order to cover the fact that it is fractured and disparate, however, we are aware of a simulation, we imbue it with no faith or belief. For Baudrillard, Disney World is a simulation par excellence, the visitors are fully aware that they are witnessing a pretence, an unreality but disavow themselves for the sake of an experience:
“It (Disneyland) is first of all a play of illusions and phantasms: the Pirates, the Frontier, the Future Wolrd, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to ensure the success of the operation. But what attracts crowds is without a doubt the social microcosm, the religious, minitarised pleasure of real America.” (Baudrillard, 2004: 12)
This sense can be seen to be reflected in The Matrix’s use of computer-generated training videos. Neo and Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburn) are fully aware that what they are partaking in is simulated, even though it has the look of a world “in microcosm”. Their simulated dojo is constructed of artificially generated images that are themselves made up only of binary numbers (like The Matrix’s titles) and pixels and it is, surely, no stretch of the imagination to link this with modern cyber and media orientated culture.
The simulacrum however represents a simulation that is imbued with as much faith and belief as the Real and thus presents a very different position in human ontology. Modern technology has enabled us to create copies without originals, what Baudrillard terms “a hypereality” (Baudrillard, 2004: 1), or perhaps what is seen in the film as The Matrix. In a discussion of Baudrillard that comes surprisingly close to themes and tropes we have looked at already in The Matrix, Mike Gane (1991) asserts that:
“(In) the order of hyperreality itself: effectively the real world, its otherness, has been left behind as an idea appropriate to a different way of thinking. The intrusion of the binary schema, the 0/1, the yes/no, question/response, begins, effectively and dramatically, to render, immediately, every discourse inarticulate. It crushes the world of meaningful dialogue, of representation, of the formulation of questions which may be difficult, even impossible to answer.” (Gane, 1991)
Here we see many of themes and images of the film: the computer generated binaries, the comic book concepts of good and evil and the constant yes/no questioning that permeates the dialogue (Are you the One? Etc) all of which emanates from the simulacrum and reflects the simple constructs of the hyper-real.
In Baurdrillard, the hyper-reality of the modern consumer society covers what he calls the “desert of the Real” (Baudrillard, 2004: 1), it disguises the fact that the Real no longer exists or, at least, does not exist in any recognisable, consistent form. The hyper-real does not only arise from the media and culture (although these are important elements), as Marc Auge (1992) suggests in Non Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, it can also be constructed though architecture, town planning and the many other disciples that go to making contemporary society.
This point is highly pertinent to The Matrix whose visual sense and mise en scene, as Bell, Loader and Pleace (2004) suggest reflects not only future dystopic worlds like those of Blade Runner (1982) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) but also the computer generated architecture of games like Tomb Raider. The evocation of the Baudrillardian notion of hyper-reality that is at the heart of The Matrix’s diegesis, then, also underlines its visual sense. For instance, while Neo is awoken to the true nature of his own simulacrum, the audience gradually becomes more and more aware of the CGI used and as the film moves on, the visual distinction between the real and the false begins to break down; we begin to see the effects for what they are, artificial.
This, of course, reflects Walter Benjamin’s assertions on the place of film itself in contemporary culture. Like the hyper-real, Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1999), sees film itself as being a copy without an original:
“To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the authentic print makes no sense.” (Benjamin, 1999: 218)
The film here is seen as the ultimate hyper-reality, it exists as pure simulacra that we invest with meaning and reality, it consists merely of representational images and, through continuity editing and the Hollywood mode of image manipulation, contains an inherent ideology.
In their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1979) Adorno and Horkheimer extend this to mass culture per se. For them, mass consumer culture represents a hegemonic system of ideology proliferation that is designed primarily to palliate and control:
“Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in ever part. Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are on in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system.” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979: 120)
Viewed in this way, The Matrix becomes a meta-discursive film about the very nature of cinema and its audience. The hyper-reality of Neo is easily equitable to the hyper-reality of the audience member viewing Neo, except of course that the character becomes aware of his situation.
For both Baudrillard and the neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt school there is very little ambiguity in the notion of the hyper-real. When we read either Simulacra and Simulations or Dialectic of Enlightenment we are left in very little doubt as to the relative worth of the Real and that which disguises its lack. Both philosophies are imbued, as Julian Pefanis (1991) asserts with nostalgia for the Real and “a melancholy for its lost systems.” (Pefanis, 1991: 71). In Adorno and Horkheimer, for instance, modern culture obscures the authentic, it disguises real emotion we are kept from the truth by what they term “the culture industry” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979) that manipulates and indoctrinates (Strinarti, 1995: 58).
Popular culture is seen as perpetuating the dominant capitalist ideology through hegemony, it upholds the structures and frameworks of exploitation and palliates its audiences, by offering them entertainment instead of exposing their situation. Unlike, say the dialectical montage of Eisenstein (1977, 1973), the continuity based structures and techniques of major Hollywood productions, say Adorno and Horkheimer among others, denies the audience the chance to engage with the material and question it, as they themselves say:
“In the culture industry this imitation finally becomes absolute. Having ceased to be anything but style, it reveals the latter’s secret: obedience to the social hierarchy.” (Adormo and Horkheimer, 1979: 131)
The Wachowski bothers, however, manage to create a symbiosis of diegesis, visual sense and philosophical subtext in their film. In their use of CGI and computer game aesthetics, they do not so much attempt to create a simulacrum as expose film for the simulation that it is, this countering some of the Marxist critiques of the Hollywood film industry. In many of the scenes, the CGI acts as what Lacan called a point of “anamorphosis” (Lacan, 1977: 79) its very unreal-ness serving to deconstruct the reality we take for granted; there is no attempt to disguise the fact, for instance, that the famous “bullet time” sequence is artificial and once we recognise this the whole system of signification, the whole matrix, begins to unravel.
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Blade Runner (1982), dir. Ridley Scott
Strange Days (1995), dir. Kathryn Bigelow
The Matrix, (1999) dir Andy and Larry Wachowski