The Matrix Essay, Research Paper
Reality Bytes: A journey through perceptions of reality in ‘The Matrix’ and the technological world.
The idea for this dissertation arose from the culmination of a number of thoughts that have interested me for some time. The question of ‘reality’ has always intrigued me. I perceived it as tangible and exact but at the same time intensely vulnerable. I saw the frailties of ‘reality’ exposed by the many differing ways it can be perceived. These differences of perception can be attributed to factors such as age, sex, colour, nationality, religion, political views, all of which alter the way we process what are presented to us as ‘facts’ by our senses. So numerous are these factors, I reasoned, that every person living, or that has ever lived must have a unique sense of reality. A point of perception so tailored to his or her own identity that it could never be shared exactly with anyone else. Having considered this idea, I arrived at a primary solution that there was no such thing as a shared reality. Furthermore, the word ‘reality’ should only be used tentatively and only accurately in relation to a specific individual’s view of a subject. However, having arrived at this conclusion I became aware that allowing individual realities was not a solution, indeed it merely raised more questions. The brain is a complex organ relying on naturally produced endorphins and chemicals such as seratonin to maintain a state of perceptive normality, if this chemical balance is altered then the individuals perceptions of reality are also subject to change. How is the reality of the individual affected if they are suffering from depression? Is it the bleak or the hopeful that forms the reality for that individual? How are we to view the differences that occur in the mind when intoxicated through drink or drugs? These were complex factors that I realised would need addressing in order to solve the ‘reality’ question. Having run into issues high above the plains of my idle considerations I mentally shelved the problem and it was not until the summer of 1999 that questions of reality were raised once again.
My reason for questioning reality once more was the release of the Wachowski Brothers film The Matrix. This science fiction film presents the idea that the world around us is an illusion. What we perceive to be reality is in fact a computer simulation (called The Matrix) which is inputted directly into our brains making us believe that we are living normal lives when in fact our inert bodies are providing heat to power the machines which, after years of human service became intelligent enough to have taken over the world.
In addition to the basic questioning of reality within the story line, The Matrix explores the importance of other areas concerned with perceptions of reality such as dreams and fate. Coming as it did at the very end of the 20th century, The Matrix as with many works of fin de si?cle deals with the ultra-modern and an apocalyptic view of the world. At a time when the end of an era is approaching, especially an ending/beginning as hyped as ‘The Millennium’, subconscious fears abound. While advances in technology have left us less to fear than ever before in terms of injury and disease, technology itself fills the void. In this case, The Matrix deals with the common fear of an over dependence on machines. At a time when the world at large was concerned about the effects of ‘The Millennium Bug’ machines turning on humans was a valid concern and it was this aspect that also interested me. While not c
ncentrating on the likelihood of machines taking over, the growing part they play in constructing and maintaining our realities is important to consider. Where do we draw the line between what we perceive as ‘reality’ and a computer generated representation that may be more ‘real’ than the original? In answering this question I will refer to the work of Aldous Huxley, specifically The Doors of Perception in order
to provide a view into the significance of enhanced hallucinogenic realities. Building on the idea of chemically enhanced reality I will examine, using the writings of Jean Baudrillard, the extent to which artificially created reality in terms of media presentation and has affected our perceptions of reality. I will also refer to Baudrillard’s work on simulacra and explore the significance of duplication and reproduction on commonly held ideas of reality. With this in mind I will explore the idea of ‘reality’ being distilled into a matrix of binary code and if so, what does that tell us about our supposedly organic realities? It is these questions, along with numerous others that I hope to answer during the course of this paper. I also wish to examine in detail how the human mind has adapted to the outside world, how ‘reality’ has been constructed to provide an acceptable platform on which to live, how that reality may be maintained and ultimately the significance of how it may be undermined.
Chapter One: Constructing Reality
“The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n”
The importance of a solid base on which to construct the events of everyday life is apparent throughout literature. The first lines of The Bible read:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void”
To have this statement at the very beginning of The Bible illustrates the human need to organise the world into a recognisable reality where the unknown can be explained. In early times the creation of the world was, from a scientific point of view, a mystery. In order to create a base on which to build their realities, mankind devised explanations for the creation of the world. Much as God moulded the shapeless earth into its current form, mankind fashioned a belief system as important to life as the world itself.
Two thousand years later, the issues of reality are still unresolved and new questions are being raised. In biblical times, man was unique in his ability to reason and communicate thoughts and ideas. He was God’s chosen subject and the reason the world and all its ‘realities’ had been created. Nowadays machines and computers form such a large part of our lives that mankind’s uniqueness is called into question. Computers now perform complex calculations millions of times faster than the human brain and are able to take actions based on those calculations with reaction times far in advance of human physiological attributes. In addition to areas where machines have been made superior to human capabilities, the distinction between man and machine has become blurred:
“What is Real? How do you define Real? 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.”
Here the connection is made between the world of man and the world of machines. We are as dependent on electronic information as the computers and machines that we have created. More significantly, if external stimuli can be coded into electrical impulses that our brains decipher, can higher thought processes and emotions be similarly synthesised? This is a question I hope to explore in this dissertation but it is here, where we realise the similarities between physiology and technology that the name ‘The Matrix’ , ascribed in the film to the virtual reality computer programme fed to the humans, is so significant. The root of the word ‘matrix’ is the La
in ‘mater’ meaning mother, pluralized to ‘matris’ signifying at the basest level a number of wombs or animals kept specifically for the purpose of breeding. Further definitions are listed as,
1 a mould in which a thing is cast or shaped.
2 an environment or substance in which a thing is developed, a womb.
3 Math. a rectangular array of elements in rows and columns that is treated as a single element.
4 Biol. The substance between cells or in which structures are embedded.
5 Computing a grid like array of interconnected circuit elements.
It is interesting to note that the word can refer to both the organic nature of gestation and birth and also the electronic code used by a digital camera recording the process. Additionally, in its first definition, the word is used in relation to manufacture and duplication. The selection of the word ‘matrix’ for use in the film is therefore carefully chosen, and is accurate in describing the numerous functions that The Matrix performs within the film aside from the main aspect of creating a living, ‘real’ world from electronic code.
In suggesting a world that is entirely manufactured from a code, The Matrix questions that which we base our realities upon as well as the significance of the reality that is presented. The concept of one’s surroundings being constructed from computer code is difficult to grasp and according to The Matrix, difficult to implement. According to Agent Smith, when the machines first enslaved humans,
“the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none
suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would
accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the
programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that as a
species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The
perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake
Interestingly, this aspect of The Matrix echoes The Bible in terms of The Garden of Eden. Just as Adam and Eve could not live in paradise, it is suggested that the human brain constructs its reality based upon curiosity, hierarchy and suffering. The human mind is inquisitive and the reward for success is advancement among one’s peers, the punishment for failure is suffering. In addition, this concept is also a base for the manner in which Buddhism constructs reality, the Four Noble Truths:
1 That existence is suffering.
2 That all suffering is caused by ignorance of the nature of reality and the greed that is
created by ignorance.
3 That suffering can be overcome by mentally rejecting ignorance and attachment.
4 That overcoming suffering is achieved by following the eightfold path to
The Buddhist view is also present in The Matrix. For Neo, existence is suffering. He is uneasy yet does not know why. Morpheus later tells him,
“You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind.”
Neo later discovers the true reality, first of the existence of The Matrix then of his own power to change it and adapt the rules of the code. Ultimately he rejects what he
believed to be the real world, repeating his mantra, “There is no spoon” in order to reject the ‘real’ world, to step away from his senses and concentrate on the code, the life blood of The Matrix. With these truths learnt he is enlightened and becomes The One as Morpheus has predicted.
In The Matrix the path to enlightenment is through the code that constructs reality. We must ask ourselves how similar is The Matrix code-based framework to our own organic reality? This is an issue that is tackled in modernist writing. With the rise of the importance of industry, many writers discussed the concept of ‘the new’, how to decipher the modern world and man’s place within it. In Soft City Raban discusses problems of individuality that occur in ‘the city’. He acknowledges the
significance of the codes that shape an individual’s reality:
“People often have to live by reading the signs and surfaces of their environment and interpreting them in terms of private, near magical codes.”
Here Raban acknowledges a subconscious method of constructing reality. It is the ‘sign and surface’ of the environment that is perceived, the sheer quantity of information prohibiting anything more than a cursory examination. This basic image of reality is then encoded and compared to those codes that exist within our memory. In The Matrix this idea is applied literally. Neo becomes aware that when he is inside The Matrix his perceptions are purely computer code as are the objects around him. Through the course of the film he learns that through freeing the mind from the code that interprets reality, reality itself can be altered. This bending of reality takes to an extreme the allegory of changing one’s point of view and seeing the world in a different way, a message found in myriad works from A Christmas Carol to Macbeth but the quantification of perception has frequently been questioned. Just as the establishment of Greenwich Mean Time contributed to the commodification of time, the modern mind, according to Simmel,
“has become more and more a calculating one. The calculating exactness of practical life which has resulted from a money economy corresponds to the ideal of natural science, namely that of transforming the world into an arithmetical problem and of fixing every one of its parts in a mathematical formula.”
In a reality constructed around the importance of time and money, every aspect of that reality possesses an economic value. This quantification can also be seen as a code that makes up reality that man may decipher in purely numerical terms.
So far I have discussed the importance of the codes that mankind has imposed on, and perceived within, his own realities. In addition to these created codes of ethics and values it is important to consider factual, scientific codes that construct our world. A significant thinker in this field was the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who, writing in 1714 in his book The Monadology discussed the existence of countless conscious conscious centres of spiritual force or energy which he names ‘monads’. Each monad represents a singular microcosm that reflects the universe in varying degrees of perfection and developing independently of all other monads.
These inter-related microcosms that construct reality are, according to Leibniz the result of a divine plan that despite its disparate form makes up a harmonious reality. It is a failing of mankind that we cannot easily perceive factors such as disease and death as part of a universal harmony. Leibniz concludes that if our aversion to these evils can be overcome then harmony with the universe can exist and a reality can occur where,
“Every body responds to all that happens in the universe, so that he who saw all could read in each one what is happening everywhere, and even what has happened and what will happen.”
Here we find a further interpretation of reality that relates to The Matrix in terms of a unified system, not unlike a computer program, where all factors are not only comprised of the same code, but are all inter-related in a perfect harmony. However, this is where human reality and the reality of The Matrix diverge. As Leibniz points out the necessity of death is an uncomfortable consideration within human construction of reality, which leads us to be out of touch with the rest of the universe.
But it is the nature of death that also provides a key to another area where codes determine our realities, the code of DNA. DNA is the code that influences more than any other the conditions of our reality. It determines everything about us from height to lifespan. We are in a purely organic manner, programmed on how we will live. Of all the factors that DNA conta
ns, it is lifespan that offers one of the most interesting possibilities. While humans can have some idea of their DNA in terms of skin colour and IQ, an aspect of the code that remains closed to us is that of our own lifespan. This aspect is explored in The Matrix where the Agents, are created knowing that their purpose is to live within what they know to be a false world, eliminating those who threaten it. It becomes for them restrictive, as Agent Smith confesses:
“I hate this place, this zoo, this prison, this reality, whatever you want to call it…I must get out of here. I must get free”
In the light of the concept of increasing knowledge and power through the study of the codes that construct reality we are presented with a quandary. Does absolute knowledge of the codes provide a more fulfilling life? Humans held within The Matrix are unaware of their fate. The Agents, although possessing complete knowledge of the code and its capabilities, enabling supreme strength, agility and knowledge, are the only ones aware that they are imprisoned. In this falsely constructed reality, only those with power are aware of the misery of their condition.
While The Agents have supreme power over The Matrix code for most of the film, the crew of The Nebuchadnezzar, existing in the ‘real’ (non computer generated) world also are aware of the lack of comfort offered by their existence. They are able to define their existence through knowledge of The Matrix but also through their memory of life within The Matrix before they were ‘freed’. It is this condition of possessing memory that forms a significant part of how we perceive reality. In The
Matrix, Cypher, the Judas figure that attempts to betray his colleagues wants his reward to be complete ignorance of reality. He remembers life within The Matrix where pleasure was possible, not, “being cold, eating the same God-damn goop everyday” He makes a deal with The Agents that he will be re-inserted into The Matrix where he will remember nothing of his past life apart from generated memories implanted in his brain by the machines. He sacrifices his unpleasant memories for a fool’s paradise. From this we can conclude that constructing reality in the present must involve an examination of the past.
Where Freud believed that an individual’s psychological mechanism could be explained in relation to the individual’s past, childhood experiences and repressions leading to certain types of behaviour in adult life. This may help to explain the construction of our realities as individuals, but in order to follow the Leibniz model of harmonious reality that encompasses us all it is necessary to examine the writings of Jung. While Freud believed behaviour was based on the individual, Jung maintained that all humans share a collective unconscious. Inherited feelings, thoughts and more significantly, memories, shared by the whole of mankind. Jung believed that this collective unconscious is made up of universally held images known as ‘archetypes’.
These images, he believed, relate to experiences such as facing death, finding a lover, confronting a foe and so on. He states that the evidence for these binding archetypes are the common issues found in myths, legends, religions and folklore from around the globe.
The realities considered in Leibniz’s theory have a definite mathematical and
scientific base, he himself is described by McLuhan in the following terms:
“Leibniz, that mathematical spirit, saw in the mystic elegance of the binary system that counts only the zero and the one, the very image of creation. The unity of the supreme being, operating by binary function in nothingness, would have sufficed to bring out of it all the beings.”
Comparing this with the theory of archetypes, we realise that the Jungian view of reality construction is based much more in the world of art and literature and how these may be used to communicate ideas of reality. Myths, along with proverbs and fables are the encryption of archetypes. They are touchstones of reality, which can be applied to a multitude of situations, communicating a shared perception of reality. It is this communication of realities that exposes the limitations of a reality code. While the individual may use all manner of codes to decipher his surroundings, it is the communication of his findings and inspirations that cause problems. Communication primarily takes the form of language, but in this form the thought must be converted into a code of language (possibly inaccurately) that must then be interpreted (possibly inaccurately) by the listener. As Huxley says:
“Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition…the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things.”
Despite Plato’s view that art can never achieve the accuracy of the thought in the artist’s mind, the inadequacies of language led mankind to use art as a method of communicating the individual’s perception of reality. John Berger discusses the significance of art in the development of human communication in detail in Ways of Seeing . Berger explains how art became a unique form of presentation and initially was used only for religious and spiritual purposes and was inseparable from the place and purpose for which it was created. At this stage, I believe art was as far away from the code of communication as is possible. Of course individuals could observe, and impose upon it their own reality defining codes, but art stood alone communicating as accurately as possible the realities of its creator. Later art was taken into the houses of the wealthy, partly to enhance the self image of the owner and also to confirm the role of ownership, owning the image of a thing translating to actual ownership. It is here that art entered the world of the code. It was used by the wealthy as a sign of their wealth part of their self-defined code by which they judged themselves and were perceived by others. Modern reproduction and distribution techniques have removed art from any preserve it once had. As Benjamin believed, when art is reproduced it loses its original ‘aura’ and enters a new role. It has become ubiquitous, part of the code and used with such regularity that we use it to define ourselves or present our ideas. It has been reduced to the level of the proverb in providing a template for our realities.
We live our lives and form our realities based upon numerous codes. These may take the form of myths, religions and status symbols. Leibniz believed that the universe itself was an infinite code of interdependent microcosms and that that code, if completely comprehended could predict the future and know the past. The code can be liberating or restricting and how we perceive it goes a long way towards how we construct our realities. Milton is right; the mind can interpret the codes in many ways and form infinite conclusions. The question is, how accurate is the code that we receive?
Chapter 2: Maintaining Reality
“The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television…It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
Everyday we are confronted with ‘the real’. In the previous chapter I discussed the manner in which we construct our realities and the truths upon which we base the information that we are presented with. The point that is raised in the above quote is that all that you take to be ‘real’ may not necessarily be so. Now, more than ever the amount of information that reaches us is so great that while not necessarily in a sinister sense, our lives are directly influenced by stimulating factors outside our control. The world of advertising for example, presents images, and projects thoughts. It convinces us that our lives would be richer if we purchased a certain item and while we know we are witnessing a sales pitch, we cannot help but be affected by it. Advertisements influence our decisions on what to eat and drink, where to go on holiday and how to live our lives. While it is true that we retain a choice over what we buy and where we go, but in order for that choice to be made it must have appeared within the initial stimulation. If a product is unknown it is unlikely to be bought. In Ways of Seeing, Berger suggests that advertising and publicity are processes of manufacturing glamour. Publicity creates an intangible element of desire, which is based on the human emotion of envy. The product is presented in a manner that promotes envy in the viewer, and by association will afford the purchaser the envy of others. It is in this way that glamour is sold. We are unconsciously informed of what it is we will envy in others and what it is about ourselves that others will envy. Berger comments on this situation:
“Publicity speaks in the future tense and yet the achievement of the future is endlessly deferred.”
He concludes that this method succeeds because publicity does not speak to reality but to the fantasies of the individual. It could be reasoned that fantasies such as these enable mankind to maintain realities. This refers back to the idea mentioned in the previous chapter where the first Matrix failed because everybody was created happy. Perhaps envy fulfils a vital role that presses us forward, that provides us with the will to live.
But to look on envy as the only means of maintaining reality is rather simplistic. If we take this thought a step further and examine the message that is being projected rather than the emotions it creates it is possible to find a new method of maintaining reality. As John Jervis writes in Exploring the Modern:
“The pleasure is in a vicarious sense of adventure, linked with a satisfaction gained through decoding, ‘reading’, the signs of the city.”
He suggests we are to embrace the information we are presented with. To examine and appreciate its role in the reality in which we live; that ultimately pleasure lies in interpretation rather than direct experience, as Huxley put it:
“the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence”
But how, and to what extent, do ‘naked existence’ and the information we receive and analyse conform to reality? The evidence of reality that exists within our local environment we can interpret ourselves. In constructing our realities we create the codes in which realities communicate. Difficulties arise however, when in attempting to maintain our reality we are confronted with issues that we cannot directly perceive for ourselves. The most basic of images that we are unable to perceive directly is that of ourselves.
“To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves.”
It is here that we come across the importance of the mirror in maintaining reality. During the 1960s and 1970s Neo-Freudianism was a popular movement in France and with it the philosophies of Jacques Lacan became widely known. Among these was the ‘mirror-stage’. Lacan believed that:
“The unified self posited by object relations theory is an illusion. The child begins as fragmented drives, precepts and attachments that eventually congeal into an imaginary identity at the ‘mirror stage’”
It is at this stage, when the child perceives himself in the mirror and acknowledges himself as a single entity separate from his mother and surroundings. In a more abstract sense, this is the process that Neo himself goes through upon suspecting the existence of The Matrix. His suspicions and dissatisfaction with the world as it appears becomes apparent as he receives a reprimand from his employer, Mr Rheinheart:
“You have a problem with authority, Mr Anderson. You believe that you are special, that somehow the rules do not apply to you. Obviously you are mistaken. This company is one of the top software companies in the world because every single employee understands that they are part of a whole.”
As a function of The Matrix, Neo’s software company is attempting to restrict him. To place him in the ‘illusory’ world of object relations theory discussed by Lacan. At this point in the film, the office in which Neo is getting his dressing down is, at the same time, having its mirrored windows cleaned, perhaps echoing Blake’s thought that:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”
This infinity described by Blake may be related to the infinite possibilities open to Neo if he rejects the restrictive world that contains him.
Interestingly, the theme of mirrors as a symbol of release is common throughout the film. Indeed, Neo is released from The Matrix through a mirror, much like Alice going through the looking glass; a reference alluded to by Morpheus. Also, it seems that whenever Neo meets those who are entering The Matrix specifically to talk to him (The Agents, Trinity and Morpheus) he is seen frequently as a mirror image, either in the rear view mirror of the motorcycle that Trinity is riding or in the mirrored sunglasses of Morpheus and The Agents. The mirror is used in this context as it presents an image of the world that appears accurate but is not. It presents a reversed and possibly distorted view of the world. Significantly in terms of the film, it also presents another world, similar to, but very different from, our own. As children, according to Lacan, we learn to identify ourselves in terms of the mirror. Our self-image, that with which we maintain our reality is based upon what we see there and yet the information we are receiving is inaccurate. Our self-image is in fact a reverse copy of the truth and an example of the flawed perceptions with which we maintain our realities.
As technology has evolved, so too have our methods of maintaining reality. Television has provided us with intimate knowledge of the world outside our local environment. While I have discussed the advertising that television brings I have not mentioned the impact of the news reports upon which we depend for maintaining our realities.
George Washington once remarked,
“We haven’t heard from Benjamin Franklin in Paris this year. We should write him a letter.”
Nowadays, live communication in both sound and image is possible across the globe. Our horizons have been expanded to the maximum possible extent and we rely upon television to maintain those realities that we have never experienced for ourselves and it is here that we run into complex problems concerning reality. We assume that the images we are watching are an intrinsic part of the information being presented. This is not always the case as Jean Baudrillard explains in The Gulf War did not take place . In this book Baudrillard discusses how the media representation of the Gulf War was in no way an accurate description of the reality.
In his introduction to the book, Patton comments that the first and most basic way in which the media can corrupt reality is in the confusion of past and present. He claims this was achieved unilaterally during the War, the present being portrayed as the past with the whole war as a John Wayne film complete with action-movie language. We also saw the past being represented as the present, video footage of a sea bird, covered in oil from the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989 where used to illustrate the ecological problems in the Gulf.
The problems presented by an image of reality is summed up by Baudrillard:
“The same illusion of progress occurred with the appearance of speech and then colour on screen: at each stage of this progress we moved further away from the imaginary intensity of the image. The closer we supposedly approach the real, or the truth, the further we draw away from them both, since neither one nor the other exists. The closer we approach the real time of the event, the more we fall into the illusion of the virtual.”
Once war, or any other event is converted from a directly perceived reality to information it enters the realm of communication and subject to the codes that were discussed in the previous chapter. It becomes open to interpretation. Our failing lies with the fact that our technology has succeeded in creating information so apparently accurate we mistake it for reality. In The Gulf War did not take place Baudrillard has updated Benjamin’s theory on reproducibility negotiating the aura of experience. Much of Baudrillard’s writing has commented on ‘Simulacra’, a scenario in which reality and a simulation have been combined and become unidentifiable from each other. This third order of reality is referred to as ‘Hyperreality’ Through the media, a simulacra of the real has been created and we ourselves enter a hyperreality where the boundaries between what is real and what is a representation of the real become blurred.
This is an area explored almost constantly in The Matrix. In the film The Matrix is the ultimate hyperreality. Inside The Matrix, reality is coded into information so effectively that those to whom it is fed cannot even perceive the reality on which their world is based. Neo acts as a disciple of Baudrillard , attempting to separate the information from the real. In real life, this is harder than it seems. In Simulations Baudrillard refers to hyperreality as a M?bius strip in that:
“All the hypotheses of manipulation are reversible in an endless whirligig”
A condition of the hyperreality is that the two contributing realities are so interdependent that a manipulation in one of the realities causes a reaction in the other which will in turn manipulate the first. It is inside a hyperreality that Neo himself resides. On the one hand there is perceived reality, on the other there is The Matrix code that constructs it. Neo’s quest throughout the film is to mentally separate the two, yet at the same time acknowledge their interdependence. At the end of the film he succeeds and becomes ‘The One’. In a wonderful piece of cinematography we see The Matrix from Neo’s point of view. We see the corridor he is standing in and The Agents at the end of it, yet the entire image is composed of the constantly changing green code that The Matrix uses to construct reality.
It is here that we realise the news reports that we perceive to be separate from ourselves become, in our own minds, united with our own perceptions of reality and will be used in the future to process and evaluate information. However, in doing so we become part of a hyperreality not too dissimilar from The Matrix, where the information we receive as a media defined code must, in order to maintain reality, be separated from our own perceptions. We must see the media for what it is, not only a flawed representation of reality but also the concealment of the fact that reality is questionable.
To this extent at least television and the media can be seen as our own Matrix. We turn on our televisions and at once become,
“hostages of media intoxication.”
It is up to us to maintain our realities by separating the realities we perceive ourselves from those that are presented to us.
Chapter Three: Undermining Reality
Weapons of Mass Distraction.
The popularity of television as entertainment has gone from strength to strength. While we must be aware of its dubious capabilities of maintaining our realities, it provides us with information and stimulation without conscious effort, yet keeps the entire production at a comfortable distance. This nature is explained by Baudrillard. Television has created the cult of ‘the real’ we have developed a need for live broadcasts in Technicolor from around the world. However, at the same time as television has built our need for stimulation, it has cultivated our preference for simulation rather than direct immersion in the reality portrayed:
“We prefer the exile of the virtual, of which television is the universal mirror, to the catastrophe of the real.”
Television simulates an alternate reality it stimulates our senses providing information from realities outside our own. We are intoxicated by it and instinctively absorb its information as truth, much as Native Americans believed their peyote induced hallucinations to be spiritual visions of prophecy. Just as Marx described religion as the opium of the people , television has become a narcotic for the digital age.
But why should removing oneself from reality be such an important part of the human condition? Perhaps one significance lies in the fact that while conscious we are experiencing whatever we perceive to be reality and in our unconscious state, the dreams that we experience allow us to make sense of our waking experiences. Freud himself explored the intricacies of analysing dreams to provide insights into the individual. This practice of maintaining or enhancing reality perception through the undermining of the reality is echoed by shaman around the world who enter a trance in order to gain a greater understanding of their realities.
Fantasy is necessary as it reinforces our belief in ‘the real’. This is a premise that Baudrillard sees as a threat to reality. He cites the example of Disneyland as a fantasy that dupes the observer into a distorted view of reality:
“Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.”
In accepting Disneyland as fantasy, we subconsciously affirm our faith in reality. This issue is confronted by Morpheus in The Matrix. He says to Neo:
“You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he’s expecting to wake up. Ironically this is not far from the truth.”
When we visit Disneyland, we allow ourselves, and our perceptions of the outside reality, to be placed in limbo. This is because we know that at some point in the future we will leave wonderland and take up our lives in reality once more.
This is a concept explored in The Matrix that refers to Baudrillard. In the film, Neo must leave behind the false world of The Matrix in order to perceive the truth. He must ‘wake up’ to the fact that what he saw as the real world is, as Baudrillard suggests, a false hyperreality that generates chimaeras to maintain its own status. Interestingly, within the film, The Matrix literally uses dreams in two different ways in order to preserve itself. I take as my example the scene where Neo is interrogated by The Agents. In this part of the film he is exposed to very disturbing experiences. First his mouth is sealed making him unable to scream, followed by the insertion of a semi-organic ‘bug’ that burrows into his navel. Immediately following this the scene cuts to Ne
waking up in his apartment screaming, presuming it was all a nightmare. In this context, The Matrix has used the concept of the dream as a Baudrillardian alibi that enhances the plausibility of ‘the real’. In addition, the ‘non real’ nature of the dream has been exploited in order to implant in Neo a very real tracking bug that The Agents hope will lead them to Morpheus, who they perceive to be the prime threat to The Matrix.
The importance of dreams to humanity is well documented. Aside from the Biblical tale of Joseph interpreting the dreams of the Pharaoh and the Australian Aboriginal legends of the dreamtime, the ancient Greeks themselves had a god of dreams interestingly named Morpheus. It is therefore important to note that there is some
aspect of the dream world that is of specific importance to humans. I believe there is a significant link between the attachment we have to television and the historical importance of dreams in that both share active and passive elements. So much so in
fact that it is impossible to determine either dreams or TV as active or passive distractions. In everyday life we make active choices. As Berger says, even the images that we see every day are perceived actively:
“We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice”
Television and dreams take us away from a world where constant choices are made. We can experience, for better or worse, a vicarious reality that is fed to us almost intravenously. It is in this aspect that both Baudrillard and Neo see a danger. In the world of the media and dreams, overt choice is removed from reality and as a result leads to an undermining of the real.
In The Matrix, Morpheus asks Neo if he believes in Fate. Neo says that he does not and when asked why replies:
“Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life”
In much the same way that dreams offer access to a passive reality, the concept of Fate provides a reality that has no bearing on our individual choices. While we are free to make choices, the outcome is pre-determined. Neo does not believe in Fate just as he believes there is something wrong with The Matrix world. Whereas Leibniz saw a knowable, monad-based world as harmonious, Neo, a Baudrillard disciple, sees the knowable as restrictive. It is on this premise that Neo’s suspicion of The Matrix is based. He does not believe in Fate, yet senses that because of the digital nature of The Matrix x will equal y. Indeed, Baudrillard himself could have been talking about the uncomfortable oppression of The Matrix when he wrote:
“It is by the simulation of a conventional, restricted perspective field, where the premises and consequences of any act or event are calculable, that a political reality can be maintained.”
It is in undermining the calculable, that Neo becomes in control of The Matrix and from there can begin to attack its political reality. This is the ability that Morpheus sees in Neo. In an attempt to instruct his pupil to “free his mind” Morpheus refers to The Agents as gatekeepers:
“They are guarding all the doors. They are holding all the keys, which means sooner or later, someone is going to have to fight them.”
He goes on to point out that The Agents’ strength and speed,
“are still based in a world that is built on rules. Because of that, they will never be as strong or as fast as you can be.”
Morpheus points Neo down the path towards defeating The Matrix by freeing his mind from all the realities formerly imposed upon it. He believes Neo must centre on the fluid, organic nature of his mind that, if focussed will overcome the world of proscribed rules on which The Matrix is based. However, as Morpheus says, this is a state that must be achieved alone:
“I can only show you the door. You have to walk through it.”
It is in an attempt to explore these doors that Aldous Huxley wrote The Doors of Perception. In a spirit of scientific discovery, Huxley offered himself as a guinea pig. To take four-tenths of a gramme of mescaline and have his intoxicated thoughts and perceptions recorded on tape and documented by an observer. The Doors of Perception consists of Huxley’s own insights into the hallucinogenic condition in relation to reality.
The significance in Huxley’s writing lies in how the mind of the individual can be altered under the influence of drugs and how the perceptions of reality experienced while intoxicated undermine the individual’s reality. One of Huxley’s first realisations is that the manner in which we perceive reality from day to day has, along with our physiology, been through a process of Darwinian natural selection. The perceptions of reality that allow us best to survive in our surroundings are those that exist in our minds today. He comments on the mind as a ‘reducing valve’, that exterior
stimulation is reduced by the mind and nervous system so that:
“What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.”
Through hallucinogenic drugs Huxley believes that one can perceive reality purely, as it actually exists. The mind under mescaline:
“does its perceiving in terms of intensity of existence”
“Where? ? How far? ? How situated in relation to what?”
Mescaline negates the codes with which we construct our realities. It enables us to perceive things as they are, standing alone. It allows us to appreciate what Meister Eckhart meant by Istigkeit or Is-ness. The idea of existence purely on its own terms, without the signs that have been attached to reality by ages of human experience. In other words, to see things as they are.
Unfortunately, the truth remains that although hallucinogenics may offer an untainted perception of reality, that reality is only something that can be experienced, never communicated. The addict who spends hours sitting staring at his hand is to be pitied no matter how intense his experience. Only realities that are communicable are appreciable, and it is there the problem lies. In order to make sense of our realities it is necessary to undermine them, to test their limits. This is the message communicated by The Matrix. Do not take the world for granted, ask questions of it and seek the truth but at the same time remember the Oracle’s motto, Temet Nosce: Know Thyself.
In providing a concept of a world in which reality is constructed entirely from computer code, The Matrix has enabled me to examine how these codes affect our own realities. In a positive sense they have contributed hugely to the development of mankind. The coded manner in which we construct our realities not only enables us to be comfortable with our existence and organise experience into a manageable format, but also to communicate our perceptions with others. It is during this stage of communication that we need to be aware that our realities are fragile and communication itself may alter the true nature of the reality presented. Ultimately in order to appreciate reality fully we must step outside our everyday world and appreciate that reality is negotiable.
In writing this dissertation I was hoping to discover whether reality could be accurately presented in code form. In terms of technology the possibilities are limitless, computing power is ever increasing and the concept of virtual reality can only increase in its accurate portrayal of the world. However when experiencing VR there is always the knowledge that it will be turned off and reality will return. This has the effect of making reality more secure as the production of a counterfeit has made it genuine. Therefore in relying on a coded representati
n of reality our perceptions of the real are dulled. We become less inclined to question reality. As Baudrillard says:
“Everything which is turned into information becomes the object of endless speculation, the site of total uncertainty.”
The duplication of the real creates its own questions, deflecting us from questioning reality.
Ultimately, I believe that reality is infinitely elusive and unobtainable. As our perceptions change, so do our identities. In The Matrix, Thomas Anderson becomes Neo and finally The One as his perceptions of The Matrix reality become more elaborate. Reality can be experienced and observed in different ways but never in one true manner. At the end of The Matrix Neo finds the correct way to see The Matrix and becomes The One. This, however, is not reality. All he does is perceive an alternate version of reality and separate that from his own reality. As Morpheus promises all along this is achieved through freeing the mind, being open to experience and not necessarily believing the senses. While my opening quotation remains true, the importance of Housman’s sentiment must be recognised:
“Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.”
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McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage. London: Penguin Books, 1967.
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Rivkin, J and Ryan, M. Eds. Literary Theory: An Anthology, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998.
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Simmel, Georg. ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, On Individuality and Social Forms, 1903.
Encarta Multimedia Encyclopaedia. CD-ROM format, Microsoft Corporation, 1995.
A centre for movie clips, chat rooms, questions and fans’ message board.
An analysis of the film focusing on themes, religious references, motifs and analysis of characters’ names. Provides the ability to download the film transcript for which I am grateful.
Again, a focus on themes within the film, appears to have plagiarised the above link but interesting thoughts on the use of colour within the film.
Centre for fan queries about the film.
Official Warner Bros. site concerning all aspects of the film. Regularly updated giving current information and news on the upcoming sequels.