Matrix analysis (2): Machine Praxis

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Credits: Pixabay.

Welcome back. This is part two of four of our analysis of the Matrix trilogy through the lens of Karl Marx’s writings. In the previous entry, we tried showing how the Battery Scene is indicative of a message within the movie which is extremely similar to the one propagated through Marx’s written work. Through the notions of wages, the content of the “first historical act”, the conditions under which something transforms into capital, some supporting data by Thomas Piketty and, finally, two dimensions of alienation, we argued that the battery scene and Marx were saying the same thing: that the human being has become, for all intents and purposes, a simple repository of the resource Capital needs so that it may exist and reproduce.

What we did not yet discuss is that, within this same scene, there is a problem, an internal incoherence, a contradiction.

Whether or not this contradiction is an intentional ploy by the Wachowskis is irrelevant: it is coherent with the rest of the trilogy, which is what matters for our purposes. Still, let it be said that I believe that in the same way our society is not willfully planned by the Illuminati but still follows rules and obeys limitations, something similar is happening within the trilogy’s narrative.

Today’s challenge for you is to try to find the contradiction in the battery scene that we discussed in last week’s post. I recommend watching the scene again:

If you found it, congratulations, you have an eye for contradictions. If you can’t be bothered by that, here is the contradiction, clear as day: 1) At the beginning of the scene, Morpheus asks Neo: “What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” 2) Towards the end of this same scene, after the camera shows the ‘field of people’ being ‘grown’, Morpheus says: “For the longest time I wouldn’t believe it. And then I saw the field with my own eyes, watched them […]”. In 1), Morpheus asks a question whose content suggests very strongly that he intends to subvert the notion Neo has of reality, and to suggest a new definition for its observance; in 2) Morpheus says he didn’t believe something until he saw it with his own eyes. But in the first quote, seeing is the last element he enumerates among those unreliable to know the truth. As you can see (pun intended), this makes no sense: Morpheus criticizes the senses for their insufficiency in providing truth, then proceeds to call to one of these senses as a ‘source’ of the truth he now believes.

So… what’s up with that? Just a minor incoherence? Maybe the movies’ plot is just a glorified crutch for the marvelous action and martial arts? You might believe that, but then you get the Architect scene. Here it is:

Remember when I said that the content of each movie helps explain the content of the other two? This is one of those cases. The scene is notorious for being incomprehensible, mostly because of the ‘complex’ language employed by the Architect. What does the Architect tell Neo? Put simply, that the existence of Neo as “The One” (‘integral anomaly’), that the prophecy behind his existence and that even the guidance offered by the Oracle is a plan designed by the machines to maintain the stability of their human ‘crops’. In other words, what was presented to the viewer from Neo’s perspective, that he was a rebel to the system, is shown to be an integral part of that very system. Neo is as much a tributary of the system as the very Agents that he has learned to fight and defeat.

Bear with me as I explain this, but the point of this second part is to argue that Marx, in his account of the concept of praxis, is giving a very similar message. It is similar because just as the Architect scene allows to render coherent Morpheus’ incoherence, so does the notion of praxis allow an authentic engagement with the difficulties or contradictions of our own lives in a society dominated by capitalist relations of production.

Even without broaching the praxis-oriented interpretation of this, the Architect paints a picture worthy of Marx’s own paintbrush. He explains that the point of the programming of the Matrix and the evolution of its different versions is that human beings respond well to it (with docility, that is); this is very close to what Marx would conceptualize as the Infrastructure-Superstructure couple, infrastructure being described by terms such as relations of production and productive forces, superstructure being described by terms such as forms of social conscience.

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. (Marx, “Preface”, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)

The machines create a neural-interactive simulation and design it so that its contents, the form of life (of “social conscience”) of those who inhabit this simulation, is such so that they may tolerate it and even come to become attached to it. By some, this ‘contents’ might be called ideology, insofar as it occults the material truth: that human beings are placed in liquid vats to generate energy and heat for a race of ‘intelligent’ machines.

A fun part of this is that, at the same time, the relationship between form of conscience and material reality is not a one-way street: while the form of conscience may serve to occult material reality, conversely, it is equally necessary that the form of conscience reflect the boundaries of material conditions.

How is this two-way relationship relevant? It is crucial because it answers the question: but why did the machines program the Matrix so that insurgent elements arise within it (the One, the prophecy, the Oracle)? As we said, it is material conditions (the loss of entire crops of people mentioned by the Architect) that pushed the machines to build a version of the Matrix which did not end in failure, and such a version seems to have only been possible if insurgent elements were added to it.

What the Architect presents as this seemingly sustainable version of the Matrix is the narrative heart and the moral behind the allegory of this trilogy. The solution, found by the program assigned to study human psychology, consisted in the following: within the Matrix, the human mind would be ‘presented a choice on a near-unconscious level’; 99% of individuals would accept the system; 1% would rebel and form ‘the last free city’; after having developed, the city would be destroyed by the machines and the Matrix ‘restarted’, with the same cycle beginning anew. In part four of this series, we will come back to this from the perspective of Marx’s exposition of the structural instability of Capital. For now, we will try to understand what this alleged ‘choice’ consists of.

How does this choice present itself on a near-unconscious level? I think we all intuitively know it, when we swallow a reprimand, a wage reduction or more difficult working conditions. Often times, the rationale behind the decision to swallow rather than spit is the well-being of our family, the projection of a greater satisfaction in the future compared to the present indignation, or some other similar thought. The first movie points to this rationale in the scene where Morpheus tells Neo that the Matrix is everywhere, followed by the quite explicit choice he presents to Neo as to which color of pill he chooses to swallow.

This rationale is not at all reprehensible: remember that in a market where you only have your labour-time to sell, you are going to have to sell that in order to buy for yourself (and/or your family) the necessities of everyday life from the ones who own them. What is rather more reprehensible is that, contrary to the machines who openly and ‘honestly’ exploit the human body, many liberal economists, in other words the representatives of the dominant class, give us working class fools the trickle-down theory of wealth, or what Marx calls the golden chains of the proletariat:

To say that ‘the worker has an interest in the rapid growth of capital’ means only this: that the more speedily the worker augments the wealth of the capitalist, the larger will be the crumbs which fall to him […] and the more favourable will be the conditions under which it will be permitted to toil anew at the multiplication of bourgeois wealth, at the enlargement of the power of capital, content thus to forge for itself the golden chains by which the bourgeoisie drags it in its train. (Marx, WLAC, Chap. 8)

Perfect consistency being the virtue of machines, the heart of the Architect scene is resolved in the choice presented to Neo anew: either consciously pursue the plan of restarting the Matrix and the cycle, or try to save Trinity from certain death, which would lead to the failure of the Matrix, the death of all human beings within, as well as the annihilation of those in the ‘last free city’. The Architect explicitly agrees that this would deprive the machines of their main energy source, but he tells Neo there are levels of survival they are prepared to accept.

As Neo walks towards the door leading to Trinity, the Architect says something which will lead us to the end of this second part, by bringing us back to its beginning. He tells Neo that he is deciding on the basis of hope, the ‘quintessential human delusion’. This echoes an earlier moment in their conversation, where he places the blame of the failure of the first ‘sublime’ Matrix on the ‘imperfection inherent in every human’.

Thus, perfect consistency becomes the greatest defect of machines. Despite being ‘intelligent’ machines, they do not understand praxis: they only understand purpose, as in programming. To understand praxis would mean to understand that there is little inherent in man, or even machine, except his animalistic heritage, mostly reflected in the characteristics of his bodily existence: the nature of work (accepting delayed gratification) and the immense power of social relations to mold the human mind are far greater indicators of behaviour. This is a crucial precept of Marxian thought: “It is not the conscience of men that determines their existence, it is their social existence that determines their conscience.” (Foreword of A Contribution…)

Remember that the Superstructure serves to occult its material basis (the Infrastructure), all while being fashioned by the boundary conditions of this material basis: the process of occultation is that by which social conditions and hierarchies become naturalized, “inherent“, “normal”, unquestionable. The Architect, through his naturalizing discourse, enforces his position as subjector of the superstructure called “The Matrix”.

Let’s review: we started from Morpheus’ contradiction in the Battery scene and we went through the Architect scene to understand how the latter explains the former. As a result, I argue that Morpheus’ difficulty in this scene is neither coincidence nor accident: his failure in achieving a proper definition of ‘what is real’ is a symptom of his absolute belief that it is he who will find the One, thus accomplishing the prophecy and saving the human race from eternal slavery. As the Oracle says to Neo the first time they meet: Morpheus believes so blindly.

To Morpheus, the world presents itself as constituted by means, ends and obstacles. Because of the Oracle, a program designed to reproduce the existence of the Matrix, Morpheus engages himself in his social relations (he is captain of the Nebuchadnezzar, former lover of Niobe, confidant of the Council, etc.) in such a way that this engagement reflects itself in his conscience not “as a reality which he has himself created, but as an achieved and impenetrable universe” (Kosik, DotC, Chap. 2). He has been taught by a program to view the world not as a result of human action, but as the unfolding of prophecy, of purpose.

What is praxis? It is practice. It is the acts that produce and reproduce the world in which we live in. And since the world as we know it is basking in social habits, institutions and traditions, producing and reproducing the world contains a strongly predominant collective dimension. But when this world appears to us as the result of something else other than our (collective) actions, we are basking in ideology, in that system of ideas, of laws and of morals which distract the attention from the material conditions of existence.

In distinction, revolutionary praxis is, first, understanding that the material world as well as subjective conscience are realized by the activity of the subject itself in the world and, second, it is (re)acting in consequence of this understanding. “The given conditions of human life become intolerable and inhuman insofar as these conditions are transformed by praxis.” (Kosik, DotC, Chap. 4) To summarize, we understand the world only insofar as we participate in its production and reproduction.

We thus arrive at the end of our second part. Beginning from a curious contradiction from the Battery scene, we showed that this contradiction was a reflection of the ideology imposed by the machines upon the humans living inside and outside of the Matrix. As we take act of the shortcomings in the praxis of the ‘rebels’ insofar as they are reflections of the shortcomings of the praxis of machines, we are pushed to the revolutionary potential of these shortcomings: Neo seems to have chosen a different path than that predefined by the programmer of the Matrix to whom he owes his “superpowers”. By doing this, he has proven the machines’ system unstable and unsustainable. Before we tackle the results of this choice, I want to further exacerbate the tension leading up to this moment of potential change. Neo’s choice was only possible under certain conditions which, I want to argue in part 3, not only render his choice possible, but foreshadow it.

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. (Marx, “Preface”, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)


Material cited:

Kosik, Karel. (1963) Dialectics of the Concrete, Goodreads link.

Marx, Karl. (1849) Wage Labour and Capital, available online here.

Marx, Karl. (1859) A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, available online here.

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