Real Simulations: Notes on the Matrix Trilogy

I spent my Friday / Saturday watching the Matrix trilogy for the first time in many, many years. The first one was still good! The second and third ones weren’t so much…

Invited to talk about simulations for “Simulations Like Us”, a conversation of sorts hosted by Enrico Monacelli as part of Turn Us Alias, an online music festival organised by Saturnalia, I wanted to read the films via Ray Brassier’s critique of the philosophy of Alain Badiou.

Neo, to me, is Badiou. They both proclaim to see the world through a mathematical ontology but both fall back on a strange kind of affirmative quasi-Christian philosophy, in which they simply will their way past the new capture that undoubtedly results from becoming one with the very thing you hope to critique. For Brassier, it seems like Badiou’s inability to account for this is a major stumbling block in his philosophy… I’m not sure I can confirm or deny that but it is definitely true of the Matrix trilogy.

Anyway, in the end, I ejected all the Badiou chat from my talk and just spoke about the Matrix. Thanks to Enrico for the invitation and for the really excellent discussion afterwards. I don’t know if it was recorded or anything but here’s my contribution below anyway.

Also thanks to those who set up the excellent Minetest server to host further discussion. I had a lot of fun in there. At first, I just collected loads of free drinks tokens. Then I took acid and killed a horse. Then I had a go at a parkour challenge but fell in lava but then I also glitched out so I couldn’t die. My Sonic the Hedgehog avatar (because you gotta go fast) is probably still in the lava pyramid somewhere… Anyway, it was a truly unique Minecraft experience. (There are two screenshots from my adventures at the bottom of this post.)

Thanks to everyone who came by and asked questions.

Real Simulations: On the Matrix Trilogy

Today, declaring that “the world is a simulation” has all the profundity of ending a story with the words “it was all a dream.” But that our outlandish stories sometimes turn out to be dreams isn’t a problem in and of itself. The problem with saying “it was all a dream” is that this often undermines the fact that dreams are really cool. They’re mysterious and fascinating and question-begging. They are starting points, not points at which to end.

In this sense, dreams and simulations share something in common.  They are situations: sets of circumstances in which we might act. Discovering what our circumstances are necessitates the question of what we do with them. As such, to say a story was all a dream is as laughable an end to a fiction as “it was all a life” would be to an obituary. It undermines the content and its affects, because knowledge of the conditions under which we engage with the world are important foundations, not conclusions. To discover something is a dream or a simulation doesn’t answer questions, it only begets more of them. This is because it is only at the point of realisation that we can truly choose how to act. It is only after discovering the true nature of an event that we can act accordingly and with fidelity to its truth.

It’s for this reason that, when talking about simulations, I think a film like The Matrix remains an interesting talking point. By now, culturally speaking at least, it is an example so far beyond cliché as to almost become interesting again. Much like a story that ends with the words “it was all a dream”, it has become something like an essential archetype that tells us a great deal about ourselves and the limits of our imaginations; limits which we’d perhaps prefer to just ignore.

Personally, I think the first film still stands up as a classic science-fictional exploration of our late-capitalist world and its contradictions. It is no surprise, however, that that allegory has been betrayed by the very system it sought to describe.

The disjuncture between the nature of reality and the nature of simulation is the Matrix franchise’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. At first, the potentials offered by the characters’ shared ability to lucidly dream within this simulation we call ideology seems to be infinitely productive but are these potentials not then betrayed by the characters’ dogged pursuit of the end of the dream as such? Is this even the case? It seems like a given, in the first film, that to destroy the machines is to destroy the Matrix, but just as the film’s sequels superficially address the symbiosis between man and machine, irrespective of the war raging between the two, it later becomes apparent that this symbiosis extends also to the relationship between reality and simulation. Here the true philosophical question at the heart of the Matrix begins to emerge. Are we at all capable of talking about reality and simulation in themselves? Or are we doomed to a restricted perspective that can only ever comment on the relationship between the two? A relation that is always making attempts to obscure itself, due to its being conditioned by the circumstances of late capitalism.

For example, in the first film, Neo’s desire for truth within the Matrix is mirrored by his desire, in the real world, for the destruction of the lie. But Neo immediately slips onto a paradoxical plane where an understanding of his own emancipation from the simulation is only possible in the context of his continuing non-freedom in reality. As such, if Neo is help humanity to transcend the Matrix, he has to become one with it. When Neo first gets a load of martial arts training uploaded directly into his cerebellum, the pun is obviously intended when Tank tells Morpheus he’s been going for ten hours straight. “He’s a machine!” he says — and necessarily so. Neo has to see like a machine to beat the machines. He has to become a better dreamer in order to dream differently. But when Neo’s powers later become useful outside of the Matrix, in the sequels, what does that say about reality itself? At what point does Neo’s oneness with the world and its representation just become another form of capture?

This tension in the first film is best explored through the character Cypher, who betrays his emancipated cohort to the machines because he wants to return to the lie and forget the truth. He is sick of the questions; for him, “ignorance is bliss.” His betrayal is presented to us as the selfish reasoning of a man who enjoys his own oppression. But Cypher’s reasoning makes a lot more sense than Neo’s utter lack of criticality, which is to say that Cypher’s unbelief, even if exercised through evil, seems far more rational than Neo’s techno-Christian evangelism. In this sense, Cypher is a nihilist but he is also much more of a realist than those who declare themselves to be on the side of the Real. This is only exacerbated in the sequels, when the militarised religiosity of the freed peoples of Zion feels even more ideologically unhinged than the somnambulist behaviour of those trapped within the Matrix.

This begs the question: do the characters in the Matrix really want what they say they want? Intriguingly, in the first film, the dichotomy between necessity and desire appears to be wholly absolute. The real world is necessarily a world without seduction. The slop that the characters eat, for instance, is described as this perfect substance that contains every mineral, protein and amino acid that the body needs, but it is still slop. The character Mouse claims that this slop, then, evidently doesn’t supply everything the body needs. He then changes the subject to talk about the Woman in the Red Dress — a programme he has written into a training simulation for the Matrix — a simulation of the simulation – in which she is meant to distract the dreamer. The Matrix is clearly the world of desires but we might interpret the lesson provided by the Woman in the Red Dress as being that your desires aren’t always going to make you act in our own self-interest.

Mouse’s more immediate insinuation, of course, is much more superficial. He seems to be making the point that the body also needs sex. But the Woman in the Red Dress isn’t somehow sex personified; she’s still just a sexy image. She’s seductive, like the Matrix itself, but she’s nothing more than that. She’s a centrefold, ripped out and stuck to the digital façade. She has no lines. She walks on and walks off. But there is a deeper psychoanalytic point made here. The fulfilment of all our basic needs is nothing if we can’t also tickle our libido but the Matrix has monopolised desire so absolutely that the real world is one even more devoid of an imaginative sexiness. In this sense, the Matrix is a libidinal sandbox. Anything you want you can have. In the real world, the opposite is the case. There is nothing to want. You do what must to survive and little more than that. So which world is more real in that respect? Mouse says: “To deny our own basic impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.” So what good is the real world, then, if it is a world without desire? Or rather, what is the real world if it is devoid of things to be desired? So surely we can acknowledge that, despite its irreality, the characters all like the Matrix to a certain extent? Yes, the human battery farms are horrible and the world is a hellscape and unplugged humanity lives underground fearing for their lives, but in the Matrix Neo can fly!?

This strange tension between reality and simulation, necessity and desire, isn’t just highlighted by the plot holes of the later sequels, however. It is readily apparent in Morpheus’s own mind games, which he uses to awake Neo to the possibilities of his newfound agency within the Matrix.

For Morpheus, the real world and the simulation are hardly that empirically different. Morpheus makes this clear when he first reintroduces Neo to the old world. Neo is aghast, running his hand along the back of a wore leather armchair in a pure white void.

“This isn’t real?”

“How do you define ‘real’?” Morpheus replies, smugly. “If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” This is true enough. And yet, whilst this may explain the Matrix, it hardly grounds what Morpheus, in the previous scene, calls “the real world” upon any sort of superior truth. Are we supposed to believe that the real world is the real world simply because it is the worse of the two? And how does this explain Neo’s emergent ability to use his superhuman powers in the real world as well as the Matrix? If the real world is as much of a simulation as the Matrix is, then isn’t the Matrix just as real as the world in itself? If that’s the case, then what is anyone fighting for?

From the vantage point of the end of the trilogy, Cypher’s betrayal in the first film only becomes more interesting in this regard, as we consider the extent to which it mirrors the Wachowski sisters’ meta-betrayal of their own franchise. Do they want what they say they want? Are they not also seduced by the very thing they want to critique? Their hypocrisy is plain to see in the later films, when the critique is so bloated on steroids that the visual effects go into hyperdrive at the expense of the story. As a result, the trilogy is robbed of all punch and satisfaction. In the end, the Matrix is rebooted — hurray!(?) — but the character’s sacrifices carry no weight now that we have overdosed on the very spectacle that the film sought to question. We are left flirting with our own impotence as an initially good idea is extended outwards into a trilogy of bad ones — a trilogy that leaves us on a cliffhanger with Neo — and, indeed, the new itself – left for dead whilst the Matrix supposedly starts over again, having successfully reterritorialized the threat to itself. Agent Smith, the true deterritorialising agency, unhooked from the rules and regulations of the computer mainframe, somehow becomes the ultimate villain, as if, as far as Neo is concerned, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and so reality and simulation enter a new period of peace; a new stasis. Bizarrely, it seems that, somewhere along the way, we have been left with the suggestion that this utter dissipation of the first film’s potentials is meant to be something to celebrate. In truth, it only leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

And so, The Matrix franchise ends precisely where it began. This is all a dream, the first film tells us, in its opening scenes. The final scenes of The Matrix Revolutions tell us much the same thing. This was all a dream, a recurring one at that, and wasn’t it fun. Maybe you’ll have that same dream again one day. With all of this in mind, the first Matrix film becomes a perfect allegory to the nature of neoliberalism’s cybergothic capture of human subjectivity. By contrast, the film’s sequels are an ironic demonstration of how capitalism reterritorializes all of the critiques we might lay at its feet into a sickly postmodern confusion.

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