Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Matrix: The Female Cyborg

This blog originally appeared here, at the first blog I ever kept about a year ago.

I want to wrap up discussion of The Matrix films with today's blogs, at least for now. With the recent difficulty getting onto the Writing Up site, I haven't posted on the films in a few days now, and so this post might become long. But I think it is a topic worthy of exploration and discussion regarding the films.

It is a commonly understood foundation of feminist thought to think of the female as the long-pointed-to "Other" in patriarchal thought. From some of the foundational writings of feminist thought as regards literary and cultural studies, such as Simone de Beauvoir's work in The Second Sex, the feminine has been demonstrated to be nothing more in masculine thought than the Other to his Absolute. He defines himself by making her his negative (as a photo is printed from a negative), noting what he is by pointing to her and saying, "I am not that." This, coupled with the idea that woman is nothing more than a womb (and do take a look at a good dictionary like the OED -- it is obvious that this becomes the sole identifying factor in describing/defining what the feminine is), has led to the feminine being defined purely in terms of lack. This is represented by the empty space of the womb, and also, naturally, by the lack of a phallus.

That is a pretty well-known fundamental principle underlying feminist thought and its criticism of patriarchal thought and power structures. I want to think here, in connection with The Matrix, of how that thought has developed through thinkers such as Donna Haraway. I have actually asked Dr. Haraway if she's done any writing on The Matrix films, but her email reply was "Alas, I have not written on the Matrix." But I do think her writings have much to offer to a consideration of the films. I will apologize in advance -- a blog is no space to do her thought justice in regards to the movies, and I am starkly aware of my own inadequacy for the task too. I hope that there will be plenty of discussion generated here that will move toward a better exposition of the valuable ideas available to us in Haraway's work, and how that thought can illuminate a film like The Matrix.

A part of what goes on in feminist thought in writers such as Helene Cixous is an attempt to re-appropriate language and the power inherent in it and "remake" the image of the female, not as a person of lack, but as a Subject herself, and not simply Other to the masculine. Haraway's thought builds on such ideas, and perhaps takes us a step further. While Cixous advocates an ecriture feminine (feminine writing), Haraway is more focused on the image of the cyborg, and sees the issues of language and power in connection to the cyborg. A cyborg, or cybernetic organism, is "a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction," according to Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto". This, of course, has a connection with the beings we see in The Matrix, who are constantly plugged into the Matrix, which seems to be the site where things are "really happening." It is similar to the distinction, too, I often see made on this site between what we say and do here at this site and what we do in "real life." I have seen Mitchell Allen point out several times that this site is real life. And that is just the sort of "social reality" that Haraway seems to be getting at in her ideas about cyborgs and human identities -- it is an identity which is no longer tied to the body. Indeed, I am finding just how true that is the longer I blog here. I have made several new friends at this site, but none have met me in the flesh or know what this body I inhabit looks like. Does that make them less friends? Are the relationships, then, less real?

And this is a large part of what the films probe into -- what is reality and what is illusion? Is what is "real" what happens when Neo, Trinity and the rest plug in? It seems to be, and indeed, Morpheus tells Neo that the blows he receives in the Matrix can be real enough to make the body bleed because "your mind makes it real." And, as Cypher so clearly reminds us, it is the food in the Matrix that gives so much satisfaction, unlike the tasteless fare that his "real" body consumes when he is unplugged. A similar dialogue occurs with the Merovingian in the early part of the second film too. And at the end of the day, it is those cyborg Selves who are able to see past the boundary of real and illusion, body and mind, and make new realities, new Self-images, and in a sense reconstruct the Self altogether by their power over the mind-body division that ultimately come out ahead in the films.

In all of this, though, I have not yet tied it back to the question of feminism, which is what Haraway discusses so fully. I think part of it lies in the idea of both machine and woman functioning as Other to Man. And partly, as Haraway points to, in the cyborg's exploding the myths of origin. It is a radical grasping for power long denied. She writes, "Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other." (175)

Central to the feminist-cyborg agenda, then is a retelling of the story of the feminine, and indeed of humanity. Again, Haraway says, "The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities. In retelling origin stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin of Western culture. We have all been colonized by those origin myths, with their longing for fulfilment in apocalypse. The phallogocentrie origin stories most crucial for feminist cyborgs are built into the literal technologies - teehnologies that write the world, biotechnology and microelectronics - that have recently textualized our bodies as code problems on the grid of C3I. Feminist cyborg stories have the task of recoding communication and intelligence to subvert command and control." (sic, 175)

In The Matrix, one powerful emblem for this retelling lies in the person of the Oracle. She is a perfect symbol for this feminine cyborg, being a woman "of colour" (this being for Haraway the prime spokeswoman for the feminine cyborg, being doubly denied a voice by the patriarchy because of her gender and her race). And the Oracle holds a place of special power in the films, perhaps not less than that of the Architect (who, interestingly, almost serves as the Other to her Subject).

Another central tenet of Haraway's thought is that no single construct is a whole. This is a very important concept in The Matrix films. Not only is it pictured visually in the shattered mirror before which Neo sits when he finally chooses to leave the Matrix in favour of "real life," but it is a constant theme of the films that the constructs put forth in the Matrix -- the mental projections of the Self -- are, or can be, in some way divorced from the bodies lying in the chairs on the ship, plugged in. The ability to divorce mind from body, to choose a particularized mental projection, is a manifestation of this fragmented identity.

Tied up in all of this thinking, for Haraway, is the oppression of colonized peoples (see the above quotation). To associate the colonized with the feminine, and specifically with the female body (remember -- thought of in terms of lack) is not a new direction for feminist thought. Indeed, there is a strong tradition of seeing connections between the colonized and the feminine, especially related in their joint identity as "Other." This link can be traced back through Edward Said's Orientalism, in which all of these themes of language and power, domination of the Subject over his "Other," naming, etc., all come together to show the nature of domination in the patriarchal power game. Susan Suleri does a nice job of relating Said's thought to the human body in her essay "The Geography of A Passage to India (found in this book.) The feminist cyborg, though, is one who is not bound by her body. Neither is she bound by her origins. She is a hybrid Self, one who does not rely on presenting her whole Self for the public gaze, but is content to allow fragmented identities to represent her as she wills. This is certainly a central theme of The Matrix films, which advocate an exploding of the physical boundaries which we think of as limiting us. It is a fuller development of the Self, not by naming woman or machine as man's Other, but by a merging of these identities.

In part, this also brings to mind for me three fairly recent movies that I loved, which all deal with the question of blurring the "line" between humans and machines: Bicentennial Man, A. I., and I, Robot. Each of the movies is based on an Isaac Asimov story, and so approaches the topic quite differently than do The Matrix films. In Asimov's stories, we see an exploration of computers evolving into a Self, a consciousness. This is different from what we see in The Matrix, where the humans are so merging with machines as to become a sort of "coevolution." Of course, Haraway would argue that part of the beauty of cyborgs is that origins are not so important anyway. What matters is the final product -- what Asimov explores as the Self.

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