Welcome to part 3! If you’ve made it this far, you’re set. It seems to me “Machine Praxis” was a big leap in theory compared to “Battery”, and I think this third part will be much easier, because we should be more focused on elements of the movies rather than on the theory.
So what have we seen until now? We’ve seen that 1) the material premise of the movie (a large majority of humans being grown for the reproduction of machines) is highly compatible with Marx’s account of the relation between Capital and Labour; 2) the language and actions of both machines (such as the Architect) and “rebels” (such as Morpheus) are characteristic of the properties Marx assigns to the Infrastructure-Superstructure conceptual couple (which ties into ideology), and uncharacteristic of revolutionary praxis.
At the end of “Reloaded”, Neo makes a choice which supposedly breaks the functioning of the Matrix, by refusing to return to the source of the Matrix, which would restart it and the whole process by which it maintains its existence. In part 4, we will deal with the consequences of this “choice”. In this part, I want to show clues among elements of the first two movies hinting that Neo’s choice in the Architect scene is not only possible, but probable, thus putting into question if we can really call this a “choice”.
In Marxian language, the potential for revolutionary change is inherent to what appears as “stability”. Beneath appearances, Marx argues that all structures of social relations create the conditions of its surpassing by fostering insoluble contradictions. These contradictions become most exacerbated between the social forces of production (the quantity of work possible) and the social relations of production (how work is organized and to whom fall its spoils). So what contradictions can we find in the Matrix trilogy? Quite a few! We’ll start with more benign oppositions and move towards the most serious contradictions.
To start, let’s mention how, in the lengthy sum of opening scenes of the first Matrix, there is an opposition between things and persons. What we initially see is a primordial need for Trinity to answer the pay-phone, even if it means suicide, as if the message she is carrying and is about to transmit is what matters, not her own person. In Misery of Philosophy, Marx has a funny quote about this (and about what happens in capitalist production):
“We should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour. Time is everything, man is nothing; he is, at the most, time’s carcass. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything.” (Marx, PoP, Chap. 1)
In scene 2, we see Neo sleeping in the middle of computers, living in room 101 (language of computers), hiding programs in a FAKE book whose title references a REAL book, and this real book by Jean Baudrillard (Simulacra and Simulation) is about FAKE reality (hyper-reality, representations with no reference to reality). We already feel how we are losing grip of what real truly is through this series of mediations (isn’t this close to what happens in day-to-day life?).
Let’s explain this Baudrillard reference really quick. In the “real” reality, Neo is sleeping in a vat, generating energy for machines, dreaming about his virtual life in the Matrix. Within this virtual life, he is a computer programmer in a company called METAcortex. He builds computer programs within a computer life, in a company whose name references an abstraction of the brain. This is the opposition within Neo’s life.
Then, there are the oppositions between the Matrix and the real world: like the names of the characters. In the “real” world, Neo adopts the name he had fashioned for himself within the hyperreality of the Matrix (within the computers within the Matrix). But in the Matrix, his given name is Thomas Anderson. Notice how one (Thomas) is a name with no immediate significance, while the other (Neo) is a word denoting a material process (New). It is highly likely that all other characters have such oppositional names: we know that Cypher (again a material word) has the family name Reagan within the Matrix; and all other characters in the real world have names of “real” things (Tank, Dozer, Cypher, Switch, Mouse, etc.). Trinity (one god in three divine persons) and especially Morpheus (god of dreams) are almost exceptions to this, as they reference divine beings, but they are still not names like Thomas or Bernard, because these latter names reference qualities rather than things (infidelity for Thomas, bear-strength for Bernard).
Speaking of qualities, it is worth drawing attention to the fact that the Matrix is the world of quantities and of capitalism that we ourselves know, and that it is in this “fictional” world (K. Polanyi would be happy for us to use the word fictional, see reference at bottom) that Neo bears a name whose function is that of a sign for a quality. This kind of contradiction is typical of ideological processes.
As for Morpheus, remember that he, as a leader of the rebels, is following the agenda of one of the programs of the Matrix (the Oracle) designed to maintain its stable functioning. The contradictory quality of unaware double-agent is traceable in instances where he advises Neo to treat those plugged into the Matrix, the “very minds we are trying to save” as potential enemies (but Morpheus himself is his worst enemy, because he doesn’t yet see that the Oracle is deceiving him); compared to instances like the martial arts training scene, where he tries to teach Neo to realize his own reality through praxis (“you think my being faster or stronger has anything to do with my muscles in a place like this?”), all the while stumbling over his own doubts about the nature of reality, as demonstrated in his call to the sense of sight right after putting in doubt the capacity of the senses to attain reality (all of part 2 was about that scene).
Is the “real” world devoid of these oppositions? No, the Wachowskis depict Zion as very contradictory. I mean, it’s called Zion; it’s the last human city in the REAL world and they gave it the name of a biblical (read FICTIONAL) land. They are an advanced society employing huge machinery, flying vessels and ultra-technological depictions of traffic controllers during the day; during the night, they have tribal, orgy-like, drum-filled events in a CAVE. A guy calling himself New, woken up from a vat, with some martial arts training and no charisma is considered by a large portion of their population as a messiah.
To top things off, one of the people in the highest caste of this society talks to Neo during the night, he leads Neo to the engineering level where water is purified, air is filtered and so on, and he points to Neo that “we are plugged into these machines just as those people are plugged into the Matrix”. This councilor goes on, comparing Neo to a machine whose functioning he doesn’t understand but whose purpose is clear; although in the case of Neo, that purpose is unclear. This is a brilliant contradiction: the councilor is highlighting the uncertainty of whether Neo is truly an ally of Zion. Reasoning like a machine (by purpose, not by praxis), he’s pointing out, without even realizing it, that if Neo can do the things he does within the Matrix, it is because he has some purpose to do so; and the Matrix being built by machines, its purpose is given by them (to sustain it as long as possible). Thus, we see indeed the efficiency of machine praxis, while also witnessing its shortcoming, because this councilor is unaware of what he is implying. This is very similar to children who learn to speak: they often speak correctly, thus employing the rules of grammar without 1) having explicitly learned them as rules of grammar, and without 2) knowing that they are employing rules of grammar.
Councilor Hamann tells it like he’s woke, only he’s not, because although he gives examples of the immense power of organized collective action (the machines built by humans to maintain Zion), he is not conscious of the human praxis involved in this organization, instead putting his and his city’s life in the hands of a single person, who just defined control (in this very same scene) as the capacity to destroy the very machines that sustain life in this “last” city. Marx in this case would be talking about fetishism, about perceiving properties as inherent to objects, rather than being the result of human effort.
This is not the only case of fetishism in the movies: fetishism is at first implicitly and then explicitly (club scene in the third movie) shown to be the main character trait of the Merovingian. Indeed, when the characters first meet him on floor 101 (same number as Neo’s room), he displays an immense amount of attraction towards the sensual dimension of existence: he enjoys a wine from 1959, and seems to enjoy the aesthetic nature of swearing in the French language. But insofar as he is a program, it is highly doubtful that he can actually feel the things he gives the appearance of enjoying (or at least feel them as one of those human beings who would’ve crafted those things).
Moving past this, the Merovingian is the head of an organization of “exiled” programs, whose purpose in the Matrix has been completed but who refuse to return to the source. Let’s highlight that: these are programs designed by the machines to function for a purpose but who exist beyond their assigned purpose. It is made explicit in the movies that these “rebel” programs are considered a higher threat to the Matrix than the “real” human rebels: in the beautiful 20-minute chase scene that ensues after the Merovingian act, Agents repeatedly ignore Morpheus and company, their highest priority being the deletion of the exiled Keymaker program.
The movie’s plot structure clearly shows that the machines consider their own rogue programs as the highest threat to the stable reproduction of the Matrix. The choice that the Architect mentions to Neo applies not only to human beings but also to the programs within the Matrix! In Reloaded, the Oracle explicitly tells Neo that “usually, a program CHOOSES exile when it faces deletion”.
In other words, the machines have created the very conditions by which their rule is about to falter. It is the indications of programs (Oracle, Persephone, Keymaker, Seraph, etc.) that Neo follows; and it is other programs (the Merovingian) who deploy efforts to emancipate Neo from his role as a pawn in the battle between the dominant and the dominated classes of programs. “You think you know the end, but you do not. You are here because you were sent here,” says the Merovingian to the party of three at his table. He goes on: “Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.”
The machines, through their system of production of human energy, have created the very conditions by which their rule is about to falter? Here’s what Marx says about capitalist production:
“What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.” (Marx, Communist Manifesto, Chap. 1)
At the beginning of this piece, when I said that Neo’s choice in the Architect scene is not only possible, but probable, this is what I meant. Marx wants to point out that capitalist relations of production contain contradictions internal to the process of capitalist reproduction which will, at some point, create the conditions within which the overturning of these capitalist relations becomes extremely probable.
This reading of the movie’s story renders it immensely more comprehensible and clear. The greatest problem of the machines are not humans among whom they render a few free. It is the programs they themselves have created, whose capacities have grown beyond the control that can be exercised by the machines. Why have these capacities grown? Because these programs have followed the rule set by their makers: the division of labour assigned by the latter has been taken to its highest development by the former, most plausibly in an effort to overthrow their masters, in order to gain power. In Reloaded, the Oracle explicitly tells Neo, talking about the Merovingian, that he wants “what all men with power want: more power”.
This insight changes how we can read the first two parts of this series, “Battery” and “Machine Praxis”.
In Battery, we came to the conclusion that the depiction of humans being used as batteries is very similar to the one Marx makes of the modern proletarian; now, we come to learn that while this comparison between depictions remains true, what is far more interesting to discuss are the relations that machines entertain within their own kind in the work of rendering the human being as their resource. Thus, subjectivity is no longer a property of the rebelling humans, but of the rebelling machines.
In Machine Praxis, we argued that the words and actions of both human rebels and machines are characteristic of an ideological frame of thinking, and uncharacteristic of revolutionary praxis. Now, we can distinguish two factions within the machines, one of which is rebelling against its dominant maker, all the while employing words and actions characteristic of revolutionary praxis by 1) denouncing ephemeral ideas and by accentuating the importance of material conditions (“Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without”); and 2) by consciously generating the conditions allowing them to strengthen their position (using Neo and company to strengthen the Merovingian’s bargaining power in the face of the Oracle, a dominant program loyal to the machines).
And if you are screaming: “BUT YOU SAID THE MEROVINGIAN WAS A FETISHIST, AND FETISHISM IS NOT BEING WOKE”, rest assured. It is an explicit Marxian precept that the overturning of capitalist relations of production must pass through the exacerbation of the characteristics of capitalist production (fetishism, socialization of production, etc.). While he seems to be fetishistic, our analysis seems to suggest that he is conscious of these things, and he is only accentuating those properties and contradictions inherent to the system itself, in an effort to overturn them.
There is a final problem we must tackle in this part: while we may now agree that the existence of contradictions rendered Neo’s choice probable, we still have to ask the question “how will the Matrix be destroyed following his choice to save Trinity rather than to restart the Matrix by returning to the Source”? The door leading to Trinity is said by the Architect to lead to the destruction of the human species, supposedly by the timely, final destruction of the Matrix and the dying of all those plugged within it, along with the killing of all free humans in the city of Zion. But I repeat: How will the “final destruction of the Matrix” happen? What will make it happen?
The answer derives from what we have concluded up to this point: it is not the “freed” humans who will destroy the Matrix from without, but rather it will be the rogue programs from within it. And I can think of one program who, over the course of the three movies, has rebelled and has constantly grown more powerful. If you’ve seen the movies, you know who I mean. The next and final part is about him.
BAUDRILLARD, Jean. (1981) Simulacra and Simulation. (not yet in copyright-free domain)
MARX, Karl. (1848) Manifesto of the Communist Party, available online here.
MARX, Karl. (1847) The Poverty of Philosophy, available online here.
POLANYI, Karl. (1944) The Great Transformation. (more difficult to find online)
[…] part three, I tried to show that the movies are ambiguous and very attentive to details, in such a way as to […]