This was originally posted over at my other blog about a year ago
In The Matrix, Neo hides a disk in Jean Baudrillard's book Simulacra and Simulation. I think Baudrillard gives us an essential key to understanding the films. Any real understanding of what the movies are about is, it seems to me, not quite possible without some understanding of Baudrillard's point of view. (In fact, Keanu Reeves read extensively in Baudrillard before filming of the movies began.)
Jean Baudrillard's thinking grows out of a structuralist mindset into the world of postmodernism (a term he rarely uses, though) -- you could say it moves through structuralism and surpasses it. In his writings, he points to the importance of reproduction in art, as opposed to production. Now, he says, we can move past an industrialist emphasis on production and concentrate on the reproduction of signs, codes, formulae, etc. The use of code or formula to (re)produce new objects is everywhere, he says, such as in the DNA of living beings. In reproduction, what is actually happening is a process of giving body to code, but the reality is as inherent in the code as in the body. In this sense, then, we see a collapsing of what is real and what is imagined, or in the mind. Further, this limit is pushed when we consider that the body is simply a simulation of the reality already present in the code.
That's just talking about DNA and physical bodies. It gets even more complex and mind-blowing when you begin applying it to the technologies that are ever developing around us (and which the Matrix films exploit to really show how Baudrillard's thought works). Computer simulations can enact various potential events to see how they would play out in the "real world" (where is that happening, then? is it less "real"?). Holograms, models, art, virtual reality, global communications systems, digital code in television, information technology.... it seems we live in a world of embodied codes.
And that is what The Matrix is all about. Remember when Dozer is watching the code on the screen, narrating to Neo what is going on in the Matrix? Neo says it is confusing, but he replies with, "To me, all I see is blond, red-head, brunette." That is someone who has mastered the illusion. He is no longer deceived by the apparent difference between the real and the imagined -- he can see the code for the reality it is. And at the end of the first movie, as Neo's eyes are finally opened, he too gains the power to see past the tricks the Matrix is playing on his mind. Suddenly, he sees not the agents, their guns, and their bullets, but code. And from there, he is able to manipulate the code, stop the bullets, and even realize that the death he experiences in code does not have to have any effect on his body resting in the ship. It is at this point that he has mastered the problem of the illusory nature of the "reality" he is experiencing in the Matrix. It is here that he becomes The One.
And here Baudrillard steps in again. According to him, this "hyperreality" in which we live collapses the distictions between real and imagined. And his recommendation for how to deal with the problem is that we should push the boundaries, explode the extremes, upset the equilibrium. It is through such actions that we move past tautology and banal cultural criticism.
In addition, he says, opposites begin to collapse, and all becomes "undecidable." Death isn't an end, but is assimilated into the system as a whole (a theme very present in The Matrix). And the further we move towards simulation, the more controls and power/authority structures begin to crumble. What are they really needed for, if everything is a reproduction of what has gone before? Indeed, aren't these power structures equally part of the simulation, part of the code? (Think of all the agents in the film.)
And that is echoed in the words (spoken to the computers) with which Neo closes the first film:
I know you're out there. I can feel you now. I know that you're afraid of us. You're afraid of change. I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin. I'm going to hang up this phone, and then I'm going to show these people what you don't want them to see. I'm going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you."
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