McKenzie Wark on Mon, 29 Nov 1999 17:40:09 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Matrix: Keanu lost in Plato's Cave

The Matrix: Keanu lost in Plato's Cave
McKenzie Wark

"Welcome to the desert of the real." I'm not sure if I heard Laurence
Fishburne say that, in the movie The Matrix, or if I dreamt it. After
walking out of the cinema, I wasn't sure of much at all, really. The
Broadway cinema and shopping complex seemed uncannily unreal. The Matrix
is one of those rare films that can do that. 

It's not often someone spends a few million dollars illustrating my
favourite bits of esoteric theory. The Matrix is rare example of the
cinema of ontological horror.

The Matrix looks like a science fiction action movie. It has all of the
comforting surfaces of a genre piece. Everyone dresses in cool black
outfits and wears shades. The future looks exactly like Darlinghurst,
Sydney, here and now. And of course there's plenty of biff. 

All this is sugar coating. You can't spend that amount of money on an
ontological horror movie without adding some sweet excrescences to get 15
year old boys into the cinema. And forget about whether Keanu Reeves can
act or not. All he has to do is look puzzled by all the weird things going
on, and he's good enough at that. Besides, his long skinny body makes a
change from all the beefy musclemen who animate the action cinema

At the heart of The Matrix, buried under layers of cinema craft, is a
mediation on the difference between essence and appearance. It's a trip
into Plato's cave. Keanu plays a computer hacker called Neo who has some
questions about the nature of appearances. The way the world appears to
him just doesn't seem right.

He makes contact with Trinity and Morpheus, who it is a relief to report
are played by capable actors, Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne.
Morpheus persuades Neo that the world of appearances is not real, and that
appearances mask an ugly truth. He offers Neo the choice of returning to
the world of appearances, or freeing himself from them. Neo chooses to
escape from Plato's cave. 

At this point, we get the 15 seconds of cinema experience that is worth
the whole price of the ticket. Freed from the world of appearances, Neo
has to confront the horror of a world not made to order for his point of

The Wachowski brothers, who made the film, opt to give this sublime vista
of the real a political twist. The world of appearances, which is what the
Matrix turns out to be, is a human-centred world not unlike our own. The
world of the real, which it masks, is a horror of the complete
subordination of the human to a vast inhuman apparatus. Take away the
comforting, self-centred point of view of human subjectivity, and the
human body appears enmeshed in a vast machinery that does not serve human
ends at all.

Its the images that provide the ontological shock, the confrontation with
the conceit of a 'real' world that doesn't conveniently arrange itself
around our point of view. The story works overtime to explain the feeling
of dread, the sudden shock of selflessness, or rather, to explain it away.
Borrowing from the Terminator movies, the story claims that in a war
between humans and artificial intelligence, the machines won, and now hold
humans in subjugation via The Matrix, an entirely false world of

The narrative consigns the horror safely to the future, but the images
suggest otherwise. The Matrix popularises the postmodern critique of
humanism. The neurotic insistence on clinging to the conventional
perception of the world, as if the real could be properly known from the
point of view of the human subject, is the veil that the film would rip
from our eyes. Discard humanism and the sublime horror of a world not made
for us, a world in which our existence counts for less than nothing,
breaches the defences of the mind, dissolving the false certainties to
which we cling.

Neo's liberation from Plato's cave, his escape from the doxa of everyday
appearances, starts when looks in the mirror, but the mirror does not
quite reflect back his comforting self-image. The mirror cracks, and when
Neo touches that crack, the mirror merges with his finger, the boundary
between self and other is breached. Neo's trip is about to begin. It's a
trip western philosophy has taken many times, from Plato to Heidegger. 

A big budget movie has to be the ultimate in appearances.  That one might
be devoted to the ancient metaphysical art of the critique of appearances
is a remarkable occurrence in screen history. But the same limitations
plague this film as plague the Platonist theory on which it rests. It gets
off to a good start with a critique of human- centred appearances, but
what it hastily erects a new world of fantasy and concept behind those
appearances. As in Platonism, so too in The Matrix -- metaphysics opens
the door to ontological horror just long enough to scare us into a more
subtle but no less false metaphysical world view.

The exploration of what lies beyond the limits of humanism interested a
good many thinkers who, like Heidegger, were not satisfied with ripping
away the veil of appearances only to put another false construct in its
place. Emmanuel Levinas, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and Jacques
Lacan all took the same trip to the desert of the real as Neo, only
without the kick boxing. Like the makers of The Matrix, they discovered
the limits to what can be imagined to lie beyond the limits of

Humanism dispensed with the postulate of a God who had made a world in
which Man was at the centre of all things. But it left Man at the
imaginary centre. Humanism put the human power of reason in God's place.
Only now, late in the modern era, not many people are convinced that
reason is up to the job. The options are to go back to theology, or to try
and invent a new way of thinking, one that accepts the horror of a world
not made for us, indifferent to us, and perhaps not ultimately knowable to
our limited capacity to reason. The philosophers have wrestled with this
problem for some time, but it's an interesting and rare moment for it to
break surface in a work of popular cinema. 

McKenzie Wark is senior lecturer in media studies at Macquarie University. 


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