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Debord’s Matrix

May 20th, 2003 · No Comments

Warning: Matrix Reloaded spoilers in post below.

The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.

—Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

Even as reviews of the second much-anticipated film in the Matrix trilogy fault it (justly) for falling short of the original, there is near universal praise for the ambition of what might otherwise have been one more flashy action series. Several books have already appeared, exploring the philosophical questions raised by the Matrix—Cartesian skepticism about reality, the problem of free will, and the desirability of living in a Nozickian “experience machine” as exemplified by Cypher’s choice in the first film.

So dense are the Matrix films, so varied the interpretations, that audiences could be forgiven for wishing for a red pill to resolve a question voiced by so many of the films’ characters: “What is the Matrix?” Much has been made of the film’s rather heavy handed New Testament allegory, in which Neo plays the role of gnostic cyber-Christ, as well as nods to Buddhism and other traditions. Some of my fellow travelers profess to appreciate it because it’s “all about freedom.” One friend saw it as a massive “theory joke”—the “theory” in question being “critical theory,” which requires no identifying adjective to those who move in its circles—because of its many Baudrillard references. Among the more obvious of these are Morpheus’s use of the Baudrillardian phrase “the desert of the real,” and the appearance of Simulacra and Simulation on several bookshelves in the film.

I’m increasingly struck by the parallels between the world of the Matrix and another work of post-Marxist social theory: Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (also available online). For Debord, as for Baudrillard, the “spectacle” is the immersive media world that, to quote Morpheus, has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth. It is the labor power of the working class (over 50 thousand BTUs of body heat…) expropriated by capital and returned in a fragmentary, alien form that induces false consciousness and obscures the power relations underlying modern capitalist societies. The Agents are, again following Debord, a ruling class whose mode of domination demands that they deny their own existence as a separate class. The Agents “are everyone, and they are no-one.” (cf. also Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.) The prison of the Matrix/spectacle is itself a necessary development of advanced capitalism, the result of our own highest material achievements—in the film, AI technology.

As an archetypally spectacular pageant itself—Debord mentions, as an instance of the spectacle, films spinning off fashion trends—The Matrix trilogy is required to function as its own critique. The second film begins to expose the chosen One as himself a spectacular commodity, “just another form of control,” as Neo says. Debord’s spectacle contains an apparent tension—commodified rebellion—which is itself one of spectacle’s internal reinforcing mechanisms, as suggested in the scene in which Neo confronts the Architect. Neo appears as the iconoclastic defender of human individuality—an ultimate individual, the One. This, in Debord’s schema, is a feature of the “absolute celebrity,” who in reality undermines individuality by being the figure with whom all others identify. We see this in Reloaded in the form of the eager kid and the prostrate masses who revere Neo. We also see it in Morpheus, whose own fatalistic belief in the One leads him to eschew every other strategy of resistance.

Another revelation dropped by the Architect is that Neo isn’t the first of his kind, or even the second, but the sixth. The title of the final installment in the series, Matrix: Revolutions is distinctly plural. It suggests both a series of rebellions and the turning of a wheel. This may be a hint that the story’s denoument will play out in accordance with Debord’s idea of the emergence of historical consciousness from “cyclical time.” One possible key point in that final film, then, will be the question of what positive goal (as opposed to the negative one of defeating the machines) is to be relaized in a post-revolutionary human world. Not, one would think, a Zion writ large, itself dependent on machines (as is emphasized in Reloaded) and with its own internal hierarchy of councils and captains.

So is this what the Wachowskis had in mind? Well, who knows. One test will be whether, contrary to what I think we’ve been implicitly led to expect, the climactic action of the final movie takes place outside the Matrix. For Debord, the Matrix is finally significant, above all, as a mask for the material reality that gives rise to it. Facility in its spectacular idiom is valuable only as a means of exposing that material base, in enabling the non-spectacular struggle for economic power.

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