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The Matrix and PhilosophyReview - The Matrix and Philosophy
Welcome to the Desert of the Real
by William Irwin (Editor)
Open Court Publishing, 2002
Review by Martin Brodeur
Feb 4th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 6)

Life is hard sometimes, isn't it?  Ok, some of us may have it easier, but for most of us, life is a long road with pleasures scattered with displeasures.  Confronted with displeasure, one faces a choice.  Two options prevail: either you accept the suffering and try to understand it, to be conscious of its causes, etc. by a sort of auto-discipline (so you "hold your ground"); or you go on with indulging into more mundanely sensations in order to "forget", to fly away from displeasure, you become unconscious of the causes of your pain.  Since our body is an apparatus providing us with pleasure or displeasure, each of us will agree that it is easy to acknowledge a plus-value to pleasure; displeasure is, in counterpart, somewhat depreciated, a "have-to-not-experience-it".  The thing we elude in thinking this way is that life will maybe bring its lot of suffering because of its own intrinsic structure, so that anyway, we'll have to face that sad reality: the world is not always what we'd like it to be for us, on our own personal and egoistic will and demand.  In front of that choice, we can then consider for ourselves that there is a special value in letting life be everything it can be, with its suffering and hard times, or "reduce" our own consciousness in rendering less important the immediate impact on us of the suffering by trying to "forget" it, to not confront it, to forget about it. 

The Matrix, released in 1999, is a story in which computers and robots get hold of the humans as for their own energy source: they grow us in millions so that their existence continues feeding on our bio-energy.  But the best way to keep us slaves is to make us to be totally unconscious of that very condition, namely, that we are "coppertops" for the machines.  In one or two centuries from now, computers would have evolved to such a level so as to be able to provide humans with a Virtual Reality (VR) so powerful that they would really believe it and so forget about the real world: their consciousness is "filled" with an experience they believe to be true.  But all that is fake and so cunningly mastered by the computers that the almost totality of the humans believe it to be true, although they don't know that they are asleep in a coffin full of gel to maintain their essential functions. 

Evidently, this kind of VR is not the one we are used to in 2004: it is more than glasses in front of eyes badly recreating a 3D experience.  The contact is way more direct: it directly fires the right neurons in our brain to recreate a sense of "real experience".  It is achieved by connecting directly into the back of our head (in what proportion script-writers and directors the Wachowski brothers were influenced by the way the aliens in The Masters of the World connect to their human slaves by making penetrate into the back of our skull an extension of their very brain).  The Matrix is then the program that runs and that makes you believe that the world you think you live in is true.  What you see, touch, smell and hear are all but bits in a program arranged so that your brain processes it at if it were a true world, a true reality, in the deepest meaning.

And that's where I thought that this book was good: the implications of that possibility were scrutinized, analyzed, and for those who just loved the concept of the film, they were invited to ask more for their dollar: is such a VR experience even possible?  What are the deepest implications of such a possibility?  Is such a plot even possible?  Would the individual be able to recognize between the VR and Reality so to speak?

Neo, the film's hero, is freed from this Matrix by some "outlanders" (who have to work against the strong machines that want to sustain the state of slavery).  We follow Neo all the way through his discovery of the "true reality" of the Matrix, and of his super powers to act in this computerized world, as he is the One, that it, the prophesized Savior.

An important theme in the film is that to be free is hard, and that it asks a certain strength of consciousness to adhere to that new Real Reality.  Cypher, one of the movie's villains, is exactly not strong enough: he chooses to go back to the Matrix as he is tired of fighting for something he believes unattainable (winning against the machines) and as he prefers the sensuality of the Matrix even if it is totally false.  Food, in the Matrix, tastes very good, and the goop they eat outside the Matrix is unappetizing compared to the sensations (false though) of the Matrix's.  In the Matrix, life is quite easy, work is available, etc.  But living outside the Matrix is more than a choice: it is an obligation for those who choose that life, for they know that returning into the Matrix is incoherent, as it is a false world. 

It is in that sense that the people outside the Matrix are strongly conscious, to come back to my introductory theme.  Confronted with suffering, would you choose it and accept the very facts and consequences of it?  Would you go for a life of eating goop for breakfast, dinner and supper with the eternal fear that the machines might break into your retrenchment?  Would you go on living that for the sake of truth?  As Morpheus puts it, "people in the Matrix are not ready to be deconnected" as they are not "strong" enough consciously speaking.  So that film is an allegory of consciousness: the world is false, and by not being conscious, you fall short in truth.  Evidently, the film proposes us that we ought to be conscious in that sense, even if it is hard sometimes.  Clearly, not everyone believes that this theme is a good theme, as some might prefer horror movies or comedy.  But I feel, like Slavoj Zizek, that the film The Matrix acts like a Rorsach test : everyone sees in it their favored theme.  And some don't like that theme, others will simply love it.

So as the film was not for everyone, that book isn't too.  It is filled with references to these sorts of questions.  Matrix and Philosophy, edited by William Irwin, is for those who loved the film: it is too long to pass through the same themes if you hated the film.  A panoply of implications arising from the film are vividly discussed in this book.  It is really food for thought, as themes go into deep and broad roads.  Since it is written by 20 people, we get to see represented a wide spectrum of thought.  It ranges from basic Plato's cavern to Habermas' on society.  That book would be good for anyone for their general culture in philosophy since it is not quite uniform in its aims.  But that also is a little flaw: on first opening the book, we don't clearly understand to whom it might be addressed.  To the layman?  To someone interested in knowing a little more on philosophy (like the excellent Sophie's World)?  To college philosophy students?  To philosophers? 

The quite technical language of the majority of texts makes it hard to believe that non-philosophers would comprehend the essence of the discussion particularly in the last text.  So first thing to notice: that book is clearly for philosophers.  Someone with no philosophical formation will surely not be able to read all the texts as philosophy is a frame of thought.

This book really makes you understand more of the film.  If you thought the Matrix was a neat reflection, at least a representation of some nicely put questions, this book will delight you in that it helps you appreciate it even more.  For example, it helped me clarifying several issues such as religious pluralism.  The presence of such texts (three actually) on religion in the film makes it clear that the essential message in the Matrix is dedicated for people having a somewhat religious, at least a real ethical point of view on life.  It takes more to really appreciate that film than its cool special effects: you need to understand the parable that lurks within its development.  Specifically, that ethical life is better, even if harder to live.  And this reflects itself into the book.

A theme discussed again and again in the book is: would you choose the red pill or the blue one?  The blue one makes you return to your dream-world (the Matrix), the red one brings you to see "how far does the rabbit hole go".  But to even have the choice, it seems that you need to have proven your hatredness of the world (the Matrix) by your hinting at thinking that this world is not real.  If you actually sit in your chair not thinking that you might, for yourself, have to do this choice, clearly, you are still in the Matrix, and you are not ready to exit from it.  This brings us to assert that the general theme is the interplay between spiritual existence (maybe more mental existence in our context here) and material existence.  The link then with spiritual "sanity" is not hard to do since you need to have become aware of the slick trick the Matrix is to become free of it.  It tends to show that your spirit, not the program, is stronger.

The first essays are easy to follow.  The authors clearly attempted to make them readable by any college students.  But as it is hard to talk about the car's engine mechanism without talking about cylinders, valves, crankshaft, etc., it's as hard to talk about philosophy without taking into discussion words like ontology, conscience, subject, epistemology, etc.  The articles quickly back into their domain of thought, philosophy namely.  That's why I felt that this book was intended to people with a certain familiarity with philosophy, if not people in graduate studies in philosophy!  All the papers were written by philosophers, and some of them, especially the last one, are clearly dedicated to philosophers.  The book would be good to work from since the film had a quite good success with teenagers: it could feed vivid ideas into philosophical discussions in college for example, which sure can be of help to trigger their interests and reflection where it's often hard to even make clear the problem there is in thinking this or that in a philosophy class in college! 

The first series of articles (let's say the five first) have the problem of repeating themselves a little: the choice between the red and blue pill, Morpheus telling to Neo that reality has been pulled in front of his eyes, Cypher's choice to "sell" his mates to the agents, all these come repeatedly and we start to find the text running around after its tail after a moment.  Personally, I would have put aside one or two of the chapters, maybe those of Nixon (#3), Holt (#6 -- one of my least favorite!) and Danahay and Rieder (#18: a bad text, poorly argued and unclear about its issue).

The best contributions were those found starting from the middle of the book going on to the end.  The articles on religion were neat, very instructive, though you sure need to be sensitive to these sorts of issues.  The articles on religion make it clear: The Matrix stirs reflection on deeper questions such as spirit.  Here's a quote from Lawler: "For this world to exist, it is necessary that egotism be overcome, that we rise to an understanding of our essential unity with one another."  It makes the line of this text evident: it does set a correspondence with our real life context, in the world out of the film, so as to generate an "ethical" reflection.  Griswold's text (#11) was so-so as being not as clear as its neighbors, and #12 (Lawler's text) shows how philosophical the book can be: it clearly uses philosophical dialect to make its point explicit, which was appreciated.

Because of my philosophical formation, I really appreciated McMahon's text (#14): he discusses Sartre's Nausée in details.  It states in a parallel way the fact that Matrix' fans are maybe somewhat looking for that "splinter" in their mind (!): what is our position in this world, as we are condemned to experience the vague and sad reality of it?  With the excellent text #20, we may be gazing at the essential goal of The Matrix : it would be a parable to help us figure out how to act and live in our real "not-cinema" world, walking out of the theatre and gazing as we did : "whoo, so all my perceptions are fooling me!".  This last text is a very complex text (that I should read again to extract all of its substance!) but really interesting, surely the best of them all.  The author (Zizek) is essentially pointing to the fact that the Matrix is good in showing us that perversion, as a general category, is maybe what is making us, its public, to appreciate the film.  How does it make us feel to imagine we were innocents (as in the film) providing energy for the machines but into my considering my pleasure, sheer pleasure if compared to the "desert of the real"?

"Real Genre and Virtual Philosophy" by Deborah H. Knight and George McKnight was not so good, being quite technical (on cinema genres, etc.); I thought it fitted badly with the other texts.  #17 Freeland's text was shocking as we get to read the opinion of a girl who thinks the film is quite easy and cheap.  Her position, interestingly enough, is opposite to the "archetypal" fan of the Matrix I depicted earlier: that this film is too pristine in its approach of the body, and that a film such as eXistenZ (which I didn't watch) is way more realistic and nourishing (!) with its goey bodies and flesh, etc.  I found her discussion interesting (she asks us the very question: How come even the agents are men in the film?  For her it shows that this film is sexist…) but not enough to change my point of view.  Finally, #19, "The Matrix, Simulation and the Postmodern Age, " by David Webermanis a very neatly written text.

I found that book particularly good for general culture in philosophy.  I learned about politics, hermeneutics, Hegel, religion pluralism, fiction philosophy, ethics, etc.  Because of the book being written by 20 different authors, you get to see 20 different points of view, which is really intellectually nourishing (I believe it's good to change of perspectives…) and secondly if you become bored with one of the 20 articles, you know it won't be for long.  I would say 1/4 to 1/5 of the total book was uninteresting.  I found it a little tiresome to read about the same theme over and over, particularly in the early chapters. 

The Matrix and Philosophy was written for those fans of the film who are already philosophers.  That's a small audience indeed.  This book has its own language that we call philosophy.  Unfortunately, I didn't feel it was for anyone not speaking that language, except for one or two texts, merely parts of texts. It's a book not for the layman, but I felt you could at least hop into some of them if you liked The Matrix a lot and were curious about what we can say philosophically about it.  I felt it could trigger someone's interest for philosophy: the first chapters are written so as to grasp the attention of the reader, to make him troubled, to let him think he'd be better off to finish the book, and choose the red pill metaphorically speaking…

 

© 2004 Martin Brodeur

 

Martin Brodeur is a student in Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).  He is

finishing soon his Masters' memoir in philosophy.  He has done 1½ year

of electrical engineering in Sherbrooke before switching to

humanities. 

 

Link: For a long review of this book by Peter B. Lloyd, May 2003: Click Here


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