The Matrix, an explainer of revolutionary failures

In The Parallax View, Slavoj Zizek looks at The Matrix movies for an explanation of the failures of modern progressive movements. In his reading, the entire series–but in particular the first movie–represent a perfect description of the obstacles faced by such movements, and the reason why the obstacles are not overcome. Thus, the Matrix, where humans are kept in a virtual world to hide their exploitation by robots using up their energy (or, Zizek objects, their “jouissance,” to use the Lacanian term for “enjoyment without pleasure”) signals:

the juxtaposition of the two aspects of perversion—on the one hand, the reduction of reality to a virtual domain regulated by arbitrary rules that can be suspended; on the other, the concealed truth of this freedom, the reduction of the subject to an utterly instrumentalized passivity. And the ultimate proof of the decline in quality of subsequent installments of the Matrix trilogy is that this central aspect is left totally unexploited: a true revolution would have been a change in the way humans and the Matrix itself relate to jouissance and its appropriation. What about, for example, individuals sabotaging the Matrix by refusing to secrete jouissance?

The set up presented in the first movie leads to dark visions of alternative modernities, rather than a focus on a single path to emancipatory revolution:

The Matrix Reloaded proposes—or, rather, plays with—a series of ways to overcome the inconsistencies of its prequel. But in so doing, it gets entangled in new inconsistencies of its own.The end is open and undecided not only narratively, but also with regard to its underlying vision of the universe.The basic tone is that of additional complications and suspicions which belie the simple and clear ideology of liberation from the Matrix that underpins Part 1.The communal ecstatic ritual of the people in the underground city of Zion cannot fail to remind us a fundamentalist religious gathering.

The Progressives then start to have second thoughts: will their chosen Moses lead them to the Promised Land of equality and deliverance, or someplace else?

Doubts are cast upon the two key prophetic figures.Are Morpheus’ visions true, or is
he a paranoid madman ruthlessly imposing his hallucinations?

Are the bad guys really that bad, the Progressives wonder? I mean, they have their own progressive leanings and they see their own inner contradictions: perhaps they can be co-opted into the movement with minimum disruption to the system?

Neo does not know if he can trust the Oracle, a woman who foresees the future: is she also manipulating him with her prophecies? Or is she a representant of the good aspect of the Matrix—unlike agent Smith who, in Part 1, turns into an excess of the Matrix, a virus run amok, trying to avoid being deleted by multiplying itself.

Isn’t capitalism the only game in town really, when one thinks about it? I mean, look at the Soviet Union…

And what about the cryptic pronouncements from the Architect of the Matrix, its software writer, its God? He informs Neo that he is actually living in the sixth upgraded version of the Matrix: in each version a savior figure has arisen, but his attempt to liberate humanity ended in a large scale catastrophe.

Isn’t it better to understand emancipatory movements, radical campaigns, etc, as impulses so that the course of capitalism will be adjusted in the right direction?

Is Neo’s rebellion, then, far from being a unique event, just part of a longer cycle of the disturbance and restitution of the Order? By the end of The Matrix Reloaded, everything is thus cast in doubt: the question is not only whether any revolutions against the Matrix can accomplish what they claim, or whether they have to end in an orgy of destruction, but whether they are not taken into account, even planned, by the Matrix.Are even those who are liberated from the Matrix, then, free to make a choice at all?

So, of course:

Is the solution nonetheless to risk outright rebellion, to resign oneself to playing local games of “resistance” while remaining within the Matrix, or even to engage in a trans-class collaboration with the “good” forces in the Matrix? This is where The Matrix Reloaded ends: in a failure of “cognitive mapping” which perfectly mirrors the sad predicament of today’s Left and its struggle against the System.

All this, for Zizek, makes The Matrix a much more interesting series of movies about robot overlords than, for example, the Terminator movies:

A supplementary twist is provided by the very end of the movie, when Neo magically stops the bad squidlike machines attacking the humans by merely raising his the lunar parallax: toward a politics of subtraction hand—how is he able to accomplish this in “real reality” and not within the Matrix, where, of course, he can do wonders: freeze the flow of time, defy the laws of gravity, and so on? Does this unexplained inconsistency lead toward the solution that “all there is is generated by the Matrix,” that there is no ultimate reality? Although such a postmodern” temptation to find an easy way out of the confusion by proclaiming that all there is is an infinite series of virtual realities mirroring themselves in each other should be rejected, there is an accurate insight in this complication of the simple and straight division between “real reality” and the Matrix-generated universe: even if the struggle takes place in “real reality,” the key fight is to be won in the Matrix; this is why one should (re)enter its virtual fictional universe. If the struggle had taken place solely in the “desert of the Real,”we would have had another boring dystopia about the remnants of humanity fighting evil machines.

The Matrix set-up also illustrates the fact that ideology, the software of society, is perfectly capable of crashing the economy, its hardware:

To put it in terms of the good old Marxist couple infrastructure/superstructure: we should take into account the irreducible duality of, on the one hand, the “objective” material socioeconomic processes taking place in reality as well as, on the other, the politicoideological process proper. What if the domain of politics is inherently “sterile,” a theater of shadows, but nonetheless crucial in transforming reality? So, although economy is the real site and politics is a theater of shadows, the main fight is to be fought in politics and ideology.

Sounds fanciful? Think again:

Take the disintegration of Communist power: although the main event was the actual loss of state power by the Communists, the crucial break occurred at a different level—in those magic moments when, although formally the Communists were still in power, people suddenly lost their fear, and no longer took the threat seriously; so, even if “real” battles with the police continued, everyone somehow knew that “the game was up.”. . . The title The Matrix Reloaded therefore is quite appropriate: if Part 1 was dominated by the impetus to exit the Matrix, to liberate oneself from its hold, Part 2 makes it clear that the battle has to be won within the Matrix, that one has to return to it.

So what do we learn?

In The Matrix Reloaded, the Wachowski brothers thus consciously raised the stakes, confronting us with all the complications and confusions of the process of liberation. In this way, they put themselves in a difficult spot: they now confront an almost impossible task. If The Matrix Revolutions were to succeed, it would have to produce nothing less than the appropriate answer to the dilemmas of revolutionary politics today, a blueprint for the political act the Left is desperately looking for. No wonder, then, that it failed miserably—and this failure provides a nice case for a Marxist analysis: the narrative failure, the impossibility of constructing a “good story,” which indicates a more fundamental social failure.

So, in the end Zizek is depicting The Matrix, no less, as a stubbornly realist series of movies:


The key feature of the entire Matrix series is the progressive need to elevate Smith into the principal negative hero, a threat to the universe, a kind of negative of Neo.Who is Smith really? A kind of allegory of Fascist forces: a bad program gone wild, autonomized, threatening the Matrix. So the lesson of the film is, at its best, that of an anti-Fascist struggle: the brutal Fascist thugs developed by Capital to control workers (by the Matrix to control humans) run out of control, and the Matrix has to enlist the help of humans to crush them, just as liberal capital had to enlist the help of Communism, its mortal enemy, to defeat Fascism.

And they also amount to yet another gnostic approach at the meaning of Christ:

In The Matrix Revolutions, however, does Neo really turn into a Christ figure? It may seem so: at the very end of his duel with Smith, he turns into (another) Smith, so that when he dies, Smith (all the Smiths) is (are) also destroyed. . . . If we look more closely, however, a key difference emerges: Smith is a proto-Jewish figure, an obscene intruder who multiplies like a rat, runs amok and disturbs the harmony of Humans and Matrix-Machines, so that his destruction makes possible a (temporary) class truce.What dies with Neo is this Jewish intruder who brings conflict and imbalance; in Christ, on the contrary, God himself becomes man so that, with the death of Christ,this man (ecce homo),God (of beyond) himself also dies.

Zizek likes to propose alternative endings for movies he likes, such as his famous suggestion for La Vita e Bella; this is one such suggestion:

The true “Christological” version of the Matrix trilogy would thus entail a radically different scenario: Neo should have been a Matrix program made human, a direct human embodiment of the Matrix, so that, when he dies, the Matrix destroys itself.

Absent that, what we have is not that terrible:

Perhaps, however—and this would be the only way (partially, at least) to redeem
Revolutions—there is a sobering message in this very failure of the conclusion of the
Matrix series: there is no final solution on the horizon today; Capital is here to stay; all we can hope for is a temporary truce.That is to say: undoubtedly worse than this deadlock would have been a pseudo-Deleuzian celebration of the successful revolt of the multitude.


About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
This entry was posted in Bad Propaganda, Zizekiana and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s