boringly postmodern

Image: Markus Spiske


Matrix: Resurrections it's more of a mess than a movie

The first thing that stands out in the crowd of movie reviews Matrix: Resurrections it's how easily the film's plot (especially its ending) is interpreted as a metaphor for our socioeconomic situation. Pessimistic radical leftists consider him a insight about how, to put it bluntly, there is no more hope for humanity: we cannot live outside the Matrix (the network of corporate capital that controls us), freedom is impossible. Then there are the realistic and pragmatic social democrats, who see in the film some kind of progressive alliance between humans and machines: sixty years after the destructive Machine Wars, “the human survivors have allied themselves with some of the machines to fight an anomaly that threatened the entire Matrix. The shortage among machines led to a civil war in which a faction of machines and programs failed to join human society.” And the humans have changed too: Io (an actual human city, outside the Matrix, led by General Niobe) is a much better place to live than Zion, the previous royal city (there are clear signs of revolutionary fanaticism in Zion in the previous films from the series Matrix).

The scarcity among the machines does not only concern the devastating effects of war, but, above all, the insufficient production of human energy for the Matrix. Remember the premise of the series Matrix: what we experience as the reality we live in is actually an artificial virtual reality produced by the 'Matrix', a megacomputer directly connected to all of our minds. Your role is to ensure that we are effectively reduced to living batteries in a passive state, powering the Matrix. However, the film's special impact is not so much in this premise, which is its main thesis, as in the image of millions of human beings living a claustrophobic life in water-filled pods, kept alive to generate energy for the Matrix.

So, when (some of) people “wake up” from their immersion in virtual reality controlled by the Matrix, their awakening is not an opening to the wide space of an external reality, but, at first, the terrible perception of this envelope, where each one of us is, effectively, just a fetal organism immersed in a prenatal liquid… This total passivity is the 'outsider' fantasy that sustains our experience as active and self-determined subjects. It is the ultimate perverse fantasy, the notion that we are instruments of the Other's jouissance (the Matrix), sucked out of our life substance like batteries.

Here lies the true libidinal conundrum of this device: why does the Matrix need human energy? The purely energetic solution is, of course, insignificant. The Matrix could easily find another, more reliable energy source that doesn't require this complex scheme of coordinated virtual reality for millions of human units. The only consistent answer is that the Matrix feeds on human cum. So we are back to the fundamental Lacanian thesis that the big Other, far from being an anonymous machine, needs a constant influx of jouissance. This is how we must reverse the state of affairs presented by the film: what it presents as the scene of our awakening to the true situation is, in fact, its exact opposite, the very fantasy that sustains our existence.

But how does the Matrix react to the fact that humans are producing less energy? Here, a new figure called 'Analyst' enters the picture. He discovers that if the Matrix manipulates human fears and desires, they will produce more energy for the machines to suck: “The Analyst is the new Architect, the manager of this new version of the Matrix. But, while the Architect sought to control human minds through mathematics and hard, cold facts, the Analyst prefers to take a more personal initiative, manipulating feelings to create fictions that keep the 'blue pills' in line. (He notes that humans will "believe the craziest shit," which really isn't far from the truth if you've ever spent any time on Facebook.) The Analyst says his approach made humans produce more energy to power the machines than ever before, while preventing them from ever wanting to escape the simulation.”

With a bit of irony, we can say that the Analyst corrects the falling profit rate of the situation by using humans as batteries: he realizes that just stealing the enjoyment from humans is not productive enough; we (the Matrix) must also manipulate their experiences to make them enjoy even more. The victims themselves have to enjoy: the more humans enjoy, the greater the surplus enjoyment that can be extracted from them. Here, the Lacanian parallel between surplus value and surplus enjoyment is confirmed.

The only problem is that, although the Matrix's new regulator is called 'Analyst' (in an obvious reference to psychoanalysis), he does not behave like a Freudian analyst, but like a primitive utilitarian seeking the maxim of avoiding pain and suffering. fear and get pleasure. There is no 'pleasure in pain', no 'beyond the pleasure principle', no death drive, in contrast to the first film, in which Smith, the Matrix agent, offers a much more Freudian explanation: “Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where no one would suffer and everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. Nobody accepted the program. Entire crops [of humans serving as batteries] were lost. Some felt that we lacked a programming language capable of describing their perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream his primitive brain kept trying to wake up from. That's why the Matrix was redesigned like this: the apex of your civilization."

We can effectively say that Smith (let's not forget: he is not a human being like the others, but a virtual incarnation of the Matrix itself – the big Other) is much more the substitute for the figure of the analyst in the film's universe than the Analyst. This regression from the last film is confirmed by another archaic characteristic, the affirmation of the productive force of the sexual relationship: “The Analyst explains that, after the death of Neo and Trinity, he resurrected them to study them, and found that when they worked together they overloaded the system, but if they were kept close together, not touching, the other humans in the Matrix would generate more power for the machines.”

In many media outlets, Matrix: Resurrections was hailed as less “binary”, more open to the “rainbow” of transgender experiences – but, as we can see, the old Hollywood way of producing a couple appears again: “Neo himself has no interest other than rekindle his relationship with Trinity.” This regression is based on what was already false in the first film. The most famous scene from the first Matrix is the one where Morpheus offers Neo the choice between the blue pill and the red pill. But this choice, in fact, is a strange non-choice: when we live immersed in a virtual reality, we don't take any pills, so the only option is: “take the red pill or do nothing”. The blue pill is a placebo, it doesn't change anything.

Furthermore, we not only have, on the one hand, virtual reality regulated by the Matrix (accessible by choosing the blue pill) and, on the other, 'real reality' (the devastated real world, full of ruins, which can be accessed by red pill); we have the Machine itself, which constructs and regulates our experience (it is this, the flow of digital formulas and not the ruins, that Morpheus refers to when he says to Neo “welcome to the desert of the real”.) This Machine is ( in the universe of the film) an object present in 'real reality', composed of giant computers built by humans and that keep us prisoners and regulate our experiences.

The choice between the blue pill and the red pill, in the first film of the series Matrix, is false. But this does not mean that all of reality is reduced to our brain: we interact in a real world, but through fantasies imposed by the symbolic universe in which we live. This symbolic universe is 'transcendental', and the idea that there is an agent, an object, that controls it is a paranoid dream – the symbolic universe is not an object in the world, it offers the very framework through which we approach objects. Today, however, we are getting closer and closer to such machines built by humans and that promise to offer a virtual universe that we can enter (or that controls us against our will).

China's Academy of Military Medical Sciences is pursuing what it has called the 'intelligence' of warfare: "Wars have begun to shift from seeking to destroy bodies to paralyzing and controlling the opponent." We can be sure that the West is doing the same – the only difference (perhaps) would be that, if it made this public, it would give it a humanitarian touch ('we are not killing humans, we are just diverting their minds for a short time...') .

One of the names for 'taking the blue pill' is Zuckerberg's project, the 'Metaverse': we take the blue pill by registering in the metaverse, where the limitations, tensions and frustrations of ordinary reality are magically left behind – but we have to pay a price for this: “Mark Zuckerberg 'has unilateral control over 3 billion people' thanks to his untouchable position at the top of Facebook, whistleblower Frances Haugen told British parliamentarians when demanding urgent external regulation to control the management of companies technology and reduce the harm they inflict on society. The great achievement of modernity, the public space, thus disappears.

Days after Haugen's revelations, Zuckerberg announced that his company will change its name from "Facebook" to "Meta", and described his vision of the "metaverse" in a speech that is a true neofeudal manifesto: "Zuckerberg wants the metaverse, ultimately encompasses the rest of our reality – connecting parts of real space here with parts of real space there, while totally subsuming what we consider the real world. In the virtual and augmented future that Facebook plans for us, it's not that Zuckerberg's simulations will rise to the level of reality, but that our behaviors and interactions will become so standardized and mechanical that it won't even make a difference. Instead of imitating human facial expressions, our avatars can make iconic thumbs-up gestures. Instead of sharing air and space together, we can collaborate on a digital document. We learned to reduce our experience of being together with another human being to seeing him projected over a room like an augmented reality Pokémon character.”

The metaverse will act as a virtual space beyond (meta) our painful and fractured reality, a virtual space in which we will pleasantly interact through our avatars, with elements of augmented reality (reality superimposed by digital signs). It will be nothing more than updated metaphysics: a metaphysical space that completely subsumes reality, which can enter it in fragments, as long as it is superimposed by digital guidelines that manipulate our perception and intervention. And the trick is that we will be given a common that is private property, with a private feudal lord overseeing and regulating our interaction.

This takes us back to the beginning of the film, when Neo visits a therapist (Analyst) to recover from a suicide attempt. His source of suffering is the lack of a way to test the reality of his confused thoughts; therefore, he is afraid of going mad. As the film progresses, we discover that “the therapist is the least reliable source Neo could turn to. The therapist is not just part of a fantasy that can be reality and vice versa... he is more of a layer of fantasy-as-reality and reality-as-fantasy, a mess of pretensions, desires and dreams that exist in two states at the same time”. Wouldn't Neo's suspicion, which had led him to suicide, be thus confirmed?

The end of the film brings hope simply by reversing this unfortunate idea: yes, our world is only composed of layers of 'fantasy-as-reality, and reality-as-fantasy, a mess of pretensions and desires'. There is no Archimedean point that escapes the deceptive layers of false realities. However, this fact opens up a new space of freedom – the freedom to intervene and rewrite the fictions that dominate us. The fact that our world is only composed of layers of 'fantasy-as-reality and reality-as-fantasy, a jumble of pretensions and desires', means that the Matrix is ​​also a mess: the paranoid reading is wrong, not there is a hidden agent (Architect or Analyst) who secretly controls everything.

The lesson is that “we must learn to fully accept the power of the stories we make up for ourselves, be they video games or complex narratives about our past… – we can rewrite all. We can create fear and desire as we like; we can alter and shape the people we love and dream about.” The film then ends with a somewhat boring version of the postmodern notion that there is no ultimate 'real reality', just an interrelationship of the multitude of digital fictions: “Neo and Trinity have abandoned the search for epistemic foundations. They don't kill the therapist who kept them slaves to the Matrix. Instead, they thank you. After all, through their work they discovered the great power of re-description, the freedom that comes when we abandon our quest for truth, whatever that nebulous concept may mean, and strive forever for new ways of understanding ourselves. And then, hand in hand, they take off, flying through a world that is theirs to play.”

The film's premise, that machines need humans, is therefore correct – they need us not for our intelligence and conscious planning, but on a more elemental level of libidinal economy. The idea that machines can reproduce without humans is akin to the dream of the market economy reproducing itself without humans. Some analysts have recently proposed the idea that, with the explosive growth of robotic production and artificial intelligence, which will increasingly play a managerial role in organizing production, capitalism will gradually turn into a self-reproducing monster, a network of digital machines. and production that will need less and less humans. Property and shares will continue to exist, but competition on the stock exchanges will be done automatically, to optimize profit and productivity. So, who will things be produced for what for? Will humans not continue to exist as consumers?

Ideally, we can imagine machines simply powering themselves, producing mechanized parts and energy. As perversely attractive as it is, this prospect is an ideological fantasy: capital is not an objective fact, like a mountain or a machine, that will continue to exist even if all the people around it disappear. It exists only as a virtual Other of a society, a reified form of social relationship, in the same way that the values ​​of financial shares are the result of the interaction of thousands of individuals, but appear to each of them as something objectively given.

All readers will surely have noticed that, in my description of the film, I have relied heavily on several reviews which I quote extensively. The reason is now clear: despite its occasional brilliance, the film is ultimately not worth watching – which is why I, too, wrote this review without seeing it. The editorial published in Pravda on January 28, 1936 brutally rejected the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk District, deeming it a “mess instead of music”. Even if Matrix: Resurrections whether it's cleverly done and full of amazing effects, it ends up being a mess instead of a movie. resurrections it is the fourth film in the Matrix series; let's hope that Lana's next film is what the Fifth Symphony was to Shostakovich, an American artist's creative response to fair criticism.

*Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Author, among other books, of Lacrimae Rerum: Essays on Modern Cinema (Boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published in The Spectator

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