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Reloaded Revolutions

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Articles by Slavoj Žižek

Nowhere is this constellation staged in a more clear way than in the Matrix trilogy. The Matrix movies should be read not as a work sustained by a consistent philosophical discourse, but as a work whose very inconsistencies point towards the antagonisms of our ideological and social predicament. What, then, is the Matrix? Simply what Lacan called the "big other," the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us. This dimension of the "big Other" is that of the constitutive alienation of the subject in the symbolic order: the big other pulls the strings, the subject doesn't speak, he "is spoken" by the symbolic structure. The paradox, the "infinite judgment" of The Matrix is the co-dependence of the two aspects: the total artificiality (the constructed nature) of reality, and the triumphant return of the body in the sense of the ballet-like quality of fights with slow motions and defiance of the laws of ordinary physical reality.

Recall a wonderful scene in which Cipher, the traitor, the agent of the Matrix among the rebels, who is located in reality, kills one after the other rebels (who are immersed into the VR of the Matrix) by simply unplugging them from the connection to the machine. While the rebels are experiencing themselves as fully immersed into ordinary reality, they are effectively, in the "desert of the real," immobilized on the chair on which they are connected to the Matrix: Cipher has the direct physical approach to them the way they really are "helpless creatures" just sitting on the chair as if under narcotics at the dentists, who can be mishandled in any way the torturer wants. Cipher is communicating with them via the phone which serves as the communicating link between virtual reality and the "desert of the real," and the horror of the situation is that, while the rebels feel like normal human beings freely walking around in reality, they know that, at the Other Scene of the "desert of the real," a simple unplugging of the cable will cause then to drop dead in both universes, virtual and real. This situation, while parallel to that of all humans who are plugged into the Matrix, is worse insofar as here, humans are fully aware not only of their true situation, but also of the threat posed in reality by the evil agent who intends to kill them shortly. It is as if the subjects obtain here the impossible direct link with the Real of their situation, the Real in its entire threatening dimension. (Surprisingly, The Matrix is much more precise than one would expect with regard to the distinction between the Real and reality: Morpheus's famous "Welcome to the desert of the real!" does not refer to the real world outside the Matrix, but to the purely formal digital universe of the Matrix itself. when Morpheus confronts Neo with the image of the ruins of Chicago, he simply says "This is the real world!", i.e., what remained of our reality outside the Matrix after the catastrophe while the "desert of the real" refers to the grayness of the purely formal digital universe which generates the false "wealth of experience" of humans caught in the Matrix.)

Recall another memorable scene in which Neo has to choose between the red and blue pill, his choice is that between Truth and Pleasure: either the traumatic awakening into the Real or persisting in the illusion regulated by the Matrix. He chooses Truth, in contrast to the most despicable character in the movie, the informer-agent of the Matrix among the rebels, who, in the memorable scene of the dialogue with Smith, the agent of the Matrix, picks up with his fork a juicy red bit of a steak and says: "I know it is just a virtual illusion, but I do not care about it, since it tastes real." In short, he follows the pleasure principle, which tells him that it is preferable to stay within the illusion, even if one knows that it's only an illusion. However, the choice of The Matrix is not as simple as that: what, exactly, does Neo offer to humanity at the film's end? Not a direct awakening into the "desert of the Real," but a free floating between the multitude of virtual universes: instead of being simply enslaved by the Matrix, one can liberate oneself by way of learning to bend its rules - one can change the rules of our physical universe and thus learn to fly freely and violate other physical laws. In short, the choice is not between bitter truth and pleasurable illusion, but rather between the two modes of illusion: the traitor is bound to the illusion of our "reality," dominated and manipulated by the Matrix, while Neo offers to humanity the experience of the universe as the playground in which we can play a multitude of games, freely passing from one to another, reshaping the rules which fix our experience of reality.

In an Adornian way, one should claim that these inconsistencies are the film's moment of truth they signal the antagonisms of our late-capitalist social experience, antagonisms concerning basic ontological couples like reality and pain (reality as that which disturbs the reign of the pleasure-principle), freedom and system (freedom is only possible within the system that hinders -'its full deployment). However, the ultimate strength of the film is nonetheless to be located at a different level. The unique of the film resides not so much in its central thesis (what we experience as reality is an artificial virtual. reality generated by the "Matrix," the mega computer directly attached to all our minds), but in its central image of the millions of human beings leading a claustrophobic life in a water-filled cradles, kept alive in order to generate the energy (electricity) for the Matrix. So when (some of the) people "awaken" from their immersion into the Matrix-controlled virtual reality, this awakening is not the opening into the wide space of the external reality, but first the horrible realization of this enclosure, where each of us is effectively just a fetus-like organism, immersed in the pre-natal fluid... This utter passivity is the foreclosed fantasy that sustains our conscious experience as active, self-positing subjects - it is the ultimate perverse fantasy, the notion that we are ultimately instruments of the Other's (Matrix's) jouissance, sucked out of our life-substance like batteries. This brings us to the true libidinal enigma: WHY does the Matrix need human energy? The purely energetic solution is, of course, meaningless: the Matrix could have easily found another, more reliable, source of energy which would have not demanded the extremely complex arrangement of the virtual reality coordinated for millions of human units. The only consistent answer is: the Matrix feeds on the human's jouissance - so we are here back at the fundamental Lacanian thesis that the big Other itself, far from being an anonymous machine, needs the constant influx of Jouissance. Therein resides the correct insight of The Matrix: in its juxtaposition of the two aspects of perversion - on the one hand, reduction of reality to a virtual domain regulated by arbitrary rules that can be suspended; on the other hand, the concealed truth of this freedom, the reduction of the subject to an utter instrumentalized passivity. And the ultimate proof of the decline in quality of the following installments of the Matrix trilogy is that this central aspect is left totally unexploited: a true revolution would have boon a change-in how humans and the Matrix itself relate to jouissance and its appropriation. What about, say, individuals sabotaging the Matrix by refusing to secrete jouissance?

As every reasonable and cultured person knows, the true greatness and historical legacy of the Italian cinema, its world-historical contribution to the European and global culture of the XXth century, does not reside in neo-Realism or some other quirk appropriate only for degenerate intellectuals, but in three unique genres: spaghetti-westerns, erotic comedies from the 70s, and - the greatest of them all, without any doubt - the peuplum historical spectacles (Hercules Contra Macista, etc.). One of the great achievements of the second genre is the charmingly vulgar Conviene far bene l'amore (1974, directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile), whose fundamental premise was that when, in a near future, the world run out of energy, doctor Nobile, a young brilliant Italian scientist, remembers Wilhelm Reich and makes a discovery that a tremendous amount of energy is released by a human body during the sexual act - on condition that the couple is not in love. So, in the interest of humanity's survival, the Church is convinced to invert its stance: love is sinful, and sex is OK only if done without love. So we get people confessing to their priest: "Sorry, father, I've sinned, I fell in love with my wife!" To generate energy, couples are ordered twice a week to make love in large collective hills, controlled by a supervisor who admonishes them: "The couple in the second row to the left, move faster!" The similarity with The Matrix cannot but strike the eye. The truth of both films is that, in today's late capitalism, politics is more and more the politics of jouissance, concerned with ways of soliciting or controlling and regulating jouissance (abortion, gay marriages, divorce-).

The Matrix Reloaded proposes - or, rather, plays with - a series of ways to overcome the inconsistencies of its prequel. But in doing it, it gets entangled in NEW inconsistencies of its own. The film's 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 render problematic the simple and clear ideology of liberation from the Matrix that underpins part 1. The community ecstatic ritual of the people in the underground city of Zion cannot but recall a fundamentalist religious gathering. Doubts are cast upon the two key prophetic figures. Are Morpheus' visions true or is he a paranoiac madman ruthlessly imposing his hallucinations? Neo also doesn't know if he can trust the Oracle, a woman who foresees the future: is she also to be manipulating Neo with her prophecies? Is she a representative of the GOOD aspect of the matrix, in contrast to agent Smith who, in part 2, turns into an excess of the Matrix, a virus run amok, trying to avoid being deleted by multiplying itself? And what about the cryptic pronouncements of 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, a savior figure has arisen, but his attempt to liberate humanity ended in a large-scale catastrophe. Is then Neo's rebellion, far from being a unique event, just part of a larger cycle 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, planned even, by the Matrix. Are then even those who are liberated from the Matrix free to make a choice at all? Is the solution to nonetheless risk the outright rebellion, to resign oneself to play the local games of "resistance," while remaining within the Matrix, or even 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.

A supplementary twist is provided by the very end of the movie, when Neo magically stops the bad squid-like machines attacking the humans by merely raising his hand - how was he able to accomplish this in "the desert of the real," NOT within the Matrix where, of course, he can do wonders, freeze the flow of time, defy the laws of gravity, etc.? Does this unexplained inconsistency point towards the solution that "all there is is generated by the Matrix, that there is No ultimate reality? Although such " postmodern" temptation to find an easy way out of the confusions by proclaiming that all there is, is the infinite series of virtual realities mirroring themselves in each other is to be rejected, there is a correct insight in this complication of the simple and straight division between the "real reality" and the Matrix-generated universe: even if the struggle takes place in the "real reality", the key fight is to be won in the Matrix, which is why one should (re)enter its virtual fictional universe. If the struggle wore to take place solely in the "desert of the real," it would have been another boring dystopia about the remnants of humanity fighting evil machines.

To put it in the terms of the good old Marxist couple infrastructure-superstructure: one should take into account the irreducible duality of, on the one hand, the I objective" material socio-economic processes taking place in reality as well as, on the other hand, the politico-ideological process proper. What if the domain of politics is inherently -sterile," a theatre of shadows, but nonetheless crucial in transforming reality? So, although economy is the real site and politics a theater of shadows, the main fight is to be fought in politics and ideology. Take the disintegration of the Communist power in the last years of 1980s: 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 normally Communists were still in power, people all of a sudden lost their fear and no longer took the threat seriously; so, even if "real" battles with the police continued, everyone somehow new that "the game is over". The title The Matrix Reloaded, is thus 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.

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 miserably failed - and this failure provides a nice case for a simple Marxist analysis: the narrative failure, the impossibility to construct a "good story," which signals a more fundamental social failure.

The first sign of this failure is simply the contract with spectators broken. The ontological premise of The Matrix (part one) is a straightforward realistic one: there is the "real reality" and the virtual universe of the Matrix which can be entirely explained in the terms of what went on in reality. Matrix Revolutions break these rules: in it, the "magic" powers of Neo and Smith extend into "real reality" itself (Neo can stop bullets there also, etc.). Is this not like a detective novel in which, after a series of complex clues, the proposed solution would be that the murderer has magic capacities and was able to commit his crime violating laws of our reality? The reader would feel cheated - the same as in Matrix Revolutions, where the predominant tone is the one of faith, not knowledge.

But even within this new space there are inconsistencies. In the film's final scene, the meeting of the couple who makes the deal, the (feminine) oracle and the (masculine) Architect, takes place within the virtual reality or the Matrix - why? They are both mere computer programs, and the virtual interface is here only for the human gaze - computers themselves do not communicate through the screen of the virtual imaginary, they directly exchange digital bites... For which gaze is then this scene staged? Here, the film "cheats" and is taken over by the imaginary logic.

The third failure is a more narrative one: the simplicity of the proposed solution. Things are not really explained, so that the final solution is more like the proverbial cutting of the Gordian knot. This is especially deplorable with regard to the many interesting dark hints in Matrix Reloaded (Morpheus as a dangerous paranoiac, the corruption of the ruling elite of the Zion City) which are left unexplored in Revolutions. The only interesting new aspect of Revolutions - the focus on interworld, neither Matrix nor reality - is also underdeveloped.

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 effectively Smith? A kind of allegory of Fascist forces: a bad program (lone wild, autonomized, threatening the Matrix. So the lesson of the film, is, at its best, that of an anti-Fascist struggle: the brutal thugs Fascist developed by the Capital to control workers (by the Matrix to control humans) run our of control, and the Matrix has to enlist the help of humans to crush them in the same way liberal capital had to enlist the help, of Communists, its mortal enemy, to defeat Fascism... (Perhaps, from today's political perspective, a more appropriate model would have been to imagine Israel on the verge of destroying Arafat and PLO, and then making a deal with them for a truce if PLO destroys Hamas who run out of control... However, Revolutions colors this anti-Fascist logic with potentially Fascist elements: although the (feminine) Oracle and the (masculine) Architect are both just programs, their -difference is sexualized, so that the film's end is inscribed into the logic of the balance between the feminine and the masculine "principles."

When, at the end of Matrix Reloaded, a miracle occurs in reality itself, there are only two ways out left open: either postmodern Gnosticism or Christianity. That is to say, either we shall learn, in part III, that "real reality" itself is just another matrix-generates spectacle, there being no last "real" reality, or we enter the domain of divine magic. However, does, in Matrix Revolutions, Neo really turn into a Christ figure? It May look 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... However, a closer looks renders visible a key difference: Smith is a proto-Jewish figure, an obscene intruder who multiplies like rats, who runs amok and disturbs the harmony of Humans and Matrix-Machines, so that his destruction enables a (temporary) class truce. What dies with Neo is this Jewish intruder who brings conflict and imbalance; in Christ, or, the contrary, God himself becomes man so that, with the death of Christ, this man (ecce homo) , God (of beyond) himself also dies. The true "Christological" version of the Matrix trilogy would thus entail a radically different scenario: Neo should have been a Matrix program rendered human, a direct human embodiment of the Matrix, so that, when he dies, the Matrix itself destroys itself.

The ridicule of the final pact cannot but strike the eye: the Architect has to promise the Oracle not only that the machines will no longer fight men who are outside the Matrix, but that those. Humans who want to be set free from the Matrix will be allowed to do it - how will they be given the choice? So, at the end, nothing is really resolved: the Matrix is here, continuing to exploit humans, with no guarantee that another Smith will not emerge; the majority of humans will continue their slavery. What leads to this deadlock is that, in a typical ideological short-circuit, the Matrix functions as a double allegory: for the Capital (machines sucking energy out of us) and for the Other, the symbolic order as such.

Perhaps, however - and this would be the only way to (partially, at least) 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, and all we can hope for is a temporary truce. That is to say, undoubtedly worse that this deadlock would have been a pseudo-Deleuzian celebration of the successful revolt of the multitude.

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