Welcome to the fourth and final part of our Marxian reading of the Matrix. Along the way, I hope I’ve managed to express what I perceive as strong affinities between central elements and themes of the trilogy and conceptual creations of Karl Marx. In “Battery”, we found out that the “simulation” of the movies is shown to be our exact world, and that the notions that we are simply batteries for productive purposes is not only also argued by Marx, but also supported by some statistical evidence. After that, in “Machine Praxis”, through the infrastructure-superstructure conceptual couple, we argued that the words and actions of the ‘rebel’ humans reflected the ideology of the machines, who themselves engaged in the world not as a reality they have historically inherited and are producing by their actions, but as an achieved and impenetrable universe. Finally, in “Contradictions”, we came to suspect that the main adversary of the machines were not the human ‘rebels’, but rather the ‘exiled’ programs refusing to be destroyed; we suggested this to be the result of the machines’ design of the Matrix, comparing it to Marx’s maxim where “the bourgeoisie produces, above all, its own grave-diggers”.
Before we begin, I want to ask something of you, dear Reader: I would like for you to watch the video that follows. I will explain no further but I really think you might enjoy this exercise. It might even be interesting to see it again after reading my piece.
So, after a few chuckles, let’s begin for real. As the title suggests, I want to argue here that the grave-digger in question is not Neo, but Smith. We’ve already seen by now that Neo is simply a pawn of programs in the grand design of the Matrix. Even though it is he who chooses the “incorrect” door during the Architect scene, history begs the question of what will happen to the Matrix to destroy it, since we already saw at the end of the first movie that Neo was exceedingly inefficient in setting up the destruction, deactivation or failure of the Matrix. We cannot say that he will keep “liberating” minds, because Zion is about to be destroyed by an unstoppable machine army. And we could say that it is highly probable that the machines can come up with a band-aid solution to keep the Matrix going (even in the face of rebel programs like Smith) while they deal with Zion, after which it would seem that nothing really precludes them from finding a new, more permanent, solution.
Except this last possibility is impossible not because of some human problem, but because of the problem that the machines themselves have created, in the form of rogue or ‘exiled’ programs. Beyond the formidable but nonetheless fringe resistance of the Merovingian’s group, one program has truly grown beyond control, and this program is Agent Smith. Let us repeat our suspicion from last time: the necessity to reset the Matrix is not due to the human rebels growing too powerful, but rather because of the rogue programs becoming too numerous and, thus, uncontrollable. This would be in tune with Marx’s argument that capitalistic relations of production unavoidably create crises (overproduction, ecosystemic collapse, etc.) necessitating diverse radical measures, among which wars, famines or anything else that re-establishes harmony between the production of capital and its circulation.
Smith is not some random, accidental element of the Matrix: we see from the very beginning that he is not like the other agents. He repeatedly demonstrates highly developed predictive capabilities: he stops chasing Trinity when he understands which pay-phone she is running toward; he is attentive to signals of the escape of Morpheus, Trinity and Neo after the latter two save the former, thus leading to his fight with Neo in the metro station; and, he manages to tell where Neo will run, thus being able to shoot him dead at the end of the first movie. He also repeatedly acts contrary to his fellow two agents: he first tries persuasion before force with Neo (noting that “my colleagues believe I am wasting my time with you”), as well as adopting what seems to be an extremely personal perspective when interrogating Morpheus. All this while, he retains what is shown to be a leading role among the Agents; this makes sense, as the machines would want a program with more advanced capabilities so that it may adapt and respond to the danger the human ‘rebels’ represent. It is even hinted at in the third movie that Smith may be a creation of the Oracle herself, as he calls her Mom before transforming her, which would again be highly plausible considering that the Oracle is extremely good at understanding human psychology, and that it is her passing down of this knowledge to Smith which makes him so good at ‘hunting’ humans.
So what we seem to arrive at until now is that Smith is a coherent element of the system whose reproduction he must assure thanks to the extra-ordinary properties of his programming. But we have yet to understand if and how he grows beyond the ideology of the machines, who, let us repeat ourselves, engage in the world not as a reality they have historically inherited and are producing by their actions, but as an achieved and impenetrable universe.
I want to argue that Smith’s upcoming “change of attitude” is a symptom of: 1) his programming to understand human psychology and 2) his witnessing of Neo’s revival. This also explains the return of Smith after his apparent destruction at the end of the first movie. Seeing something impossible happen (the revival of Neo), he refuses to do what all programs are meant to do when their purpose is revolved (return to the Source). It is probable that the combination between his knowledge of the human psyche and the occurrence of what he thought impossible makes him understand exactly what more or less all other characters in the movies fail to acknowledge: that the world, whether in the Matrix or outside of it, is not an achieved and impenetrable universe, but one who is historically produced (while interrogating Morpheus, Smith indeed reveals his knowledge of the history of the Matrix) and whose reproduction is realized by the collective actions of all those involved in it.
This interpretation is highly compatible with the actions of Smith in the second and third movies. He sends a gift to Neo for setting him free, as if he would be a human being set free; the very act of the gift has a dimension of reciprocity, tributary of social structures (see “The Gift” by Marcel Mauss). His trademark new capability is to “copy himself”, which is telling of the importance he now lends to collective action.
It could also be said that he is now behaving like a computer virus, but I believe this to be incompatible with his motivations. In his “interrogation” of Morpheus, he accuses human beings of behaving like viruses, and not like mammals; after kicking out his colleagues, he very personally reveals to Morpheus his motivation to escape “this zoo, this prison” by destroying Zion, which would relieve him of the necessity of being an Agent of the Matrix. And when he meets Neo again in Reloaded, he not only confirms our previous suspicions by saying that his reason for still existing is that he witnessed something impossible (Neo reviving from the dead), but he also displays a striking thing when considering our previous arguments. He calls himself APPARENTLY free, and then proceeds to call out the misleading and outright oppositional nature of appearances: “Appearances can be deceiving. […] We’re not here because we’re free, we’re here because we’re not free”. We’ve seen that the role of ideology (the superstructure) is to distract the attention from the material truth, and that revolutionary praxis must act beyond the limits imposed by ideology by seeing beyond the language of appearances.
Remember when we said that machine praxis was particularly characterized by its invocation of purpose and of inherent qualities, thus denying the relational quality of all truth? Well, another indicator of the revolutionary role assumed by Smith is that before attempting to “copy” Neo, he explicitly tells him that he is here to take from him this very thing: purpose. So let’s review up to here: 1) Smith tells Morpheus that he hates the zoo that the Matrix represents, and that he wants to be set free by destroying Zion, thus eliminating his need to be an Agent of the Matrix; 2) he sends a gift to Neo as thanks for setting him free; 3) when finally meeting Neo again, he calls out the deceiving character of appearances, from which he goes on to assert that they (Smith and Neo) are both acting in a manner which is not free, because of this very thing, “purpose”.
If indeed Smith has come to understand that purpose is the ideological trap of an imprisoned conscience, why does he keep talking, in Reloaded, about the importance of purpose (“guides us, drives us, defines us, binds us”)? He says he wants to take from Neo what Neo tried to take from him: purpose. If Smith is still animated by purpose, does it not follow that he is animated by an ideological device?
I believe not. Rather, I think Smith is working to overturn the order of things by using purpose to move beyond what purpose can convince us to do. How? Well, if the notion of purpose is what makes you a prisoner by limiting what you consider possible, if purpose is the negating aspect of your freedom, the point is not to make purpose disappear. Purpose functions by opposing itself to freedom, but in so opposing freedom, it must presuppose it; that is, it must actively create the conditions by which freedom must exist, so that it may be opposed. In abolishing purpose, you also abolish the presupposition of liberty. This is the structure of Marx’s argument about political liberty in the first chapter, “The Jewish Question”.
The following is the crux of my argument: read it slowly and attentively, because it is the my way of cutting the Gordian knot of this trilogy’s plot. A Marxian reading of Smith’s character and motivation is to say that Smith, in his revolutionary praxis, is attempting to negate the negation: rather than abolishing purpose, thus also the presupposition of liberty, he is attempting a new take on purpose. Instead of purpose being defined by a single entity (God, the “Machines”, etc.) or by a small group of entities (the Architect, the Oracle, other dominating programs), Smith is acting on the assumption that COLLECTIVE definition of purpose can not only maintain the negative presupposition of liberty by purpose, but the active, positive realization of liberty through a negation of the historical way in which purpose has until now been defined. This is the exact explanation of why Smith’s new power is specifically the one of copying himself unto others: he is literally defining purpose, his purpose, in a collective way. And by doing this, he is amassing so much power, that his purpose will become also the purpose of others.
He has simply been following the logical conclusions of the conditions within which his purpose was initially defined. First of all, the machines gave him the name Smith: what else is Smith other than a placeholder name for all men? But why has it achieved such a status among American culture? Because it’s so common: Smith is the name of the common man. And remember, there’s some pretty intriguing statistical proof, as well as theoretical thinking (we saw both in “Battery”), that argues that the common man is forced to do the bidding of his masters’ wealth, to reproduce it.
More than that, I believe that Smith was assigned the name of the common man because of his purpose to understand the common man and his psychology better than the other agents. In so doing, he picked up a lot of the psychological characteristics of human beings, including their psychological potential to reject of the prison-simulation they are supposed to inhabit. But contrary to the human beings, Smith was fully aware, him being an Agent and all, of the Matrix’s functioning. In trying to build an effective safeguard against the best of human ‘rebels’, the machines created the biggest danger to their system, a program with human-like psychological qualities, who can hunt humans better than any other program, but who, because of his human-like psychological qualities, hates being in what he so precisely critiques as a zoo.
When Neo meets the Oracle for the last time, she tells him that Smith is his opposite, his negative, “the result of the equation trying to balance itself out”. But didn’t that Architect tell Neo that the equation is itself meant to unbalance eventually, because of the 1-99% dichotomy of near-unconscious choice, hence the need for a restart for when it becomes too unbalanced? We also know that the purpose of the Oracle is to assure the continuation of the Matrix by controlling this 1% of rebels so that they properly restart the system as planned when the One’s code is brought back to the source. Finally, we know that the Oracle has lied or omitted information from Neo before, so what is stopping her from doing it here again, in a last-ditch effort to salvage the situation?
So what the Oracle should have said to Neo, what we actually hear her saying to him through our theoretically concrete reading is a desperate rehash of the Architect speech: “Neo, Zion is going to be destroyed by us but we’re going to be destroyed by Smith, so let’s cut a deal: return to the source and restart the Matrix, and we leave Zion alone, we’ve killed most of the people for now anyway, so it’s almost like you never stepped through the wrong door”.
Neo, the good lapdog he is, obeys and does exactly that: he flies to the machine city, basically tells the baby-faced machine what the Oracle effectively told him, he gets jacked into the Matrix, and instead of walking through a door made of light (this was supposed to happen when he opened the “right” door in the Architect scene), he’s supposed to understand to let Smith copy himself unto him, thus somehow rerouting Neo’s code through the Matrix in such a way so that it reaches the source, restarting the Matrix for its 7th version. Remember, it is through the Matrix that Neo can reach the Source, he cannot directly reach it from outside of the Matrix. And this is exactly what happens after the Oracle gets a message through her Smith clone to Neo lying in a puddle of mud by tricking Smith through psychology (“I’ve seen this”, distracting him from revolutionary praxis). (This is after Neo keeps banging away at it by justifying his action as choice, which we have seen is the prime subterfuge and illusion of the balance of power.)
So, after failing to cause a systematic failure of the Matrix after the first movie, after failing to fulfill the purpose assigned to him by the machines at the end of the second movie, Neo finally gets his hand forced and his actions result in a restart and the beginning of the 7th version with a beautiful sunrise, where we also see the Architect congratulating the Oracle on such a tightly run improvisation after Neo chose the wrong door.
On the one hand, we see that the Merovingian was correct: “Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without”; his choosing of the wrong door did not preclude him from following the plan of the machines. On the other hand, at least we can emit a hypothesis explaining why Smith always greets his nemesis as “Mister Anderson”, except the one time he calls him Neo right before being defeated.
Indeed, we know that Neo means New, and he’s probably called New because he’s to restart the Matrix to a new version. The calling “Mister Anderson” is another way in which Smith shows us his revolutionary praxis. He doesn’t call his enemy by that name which signifies a predestined purpose (to restart the Matrix) but rather by a name so similar in quality to his own: Anderson is a very common name, just as Smith is. And so, maybe every time Smith is calling out to “Mister Anderson”, he is simply calling for the praxis of collective action, by telling him what Marx once told the working class: “You have nothing to lose but your chains!”
You can find the “nothing to lose but your chains” phrase at the end of the Manifesto. Same for the “produces its own grave-diggers” phrase.
In the text, I mention MAUSS, Marcel. (1925) The Gift, available online here.
On crises of capital: Marx’s chapters on “The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall” from Capital Vol. 3, available online here.
One of the my favorite short texts by Marx:
MARX, Karl. (1844) “Chapter 1” in On The Jewish Question, available online here.
In next week’s (kitchen) post, we discuss where this publication is headed after a return on the Matrix: what we left out and what that means.
If you’ve been following from the very beginning of this series, I really hope you’ve enjoyed it and that it’s made you see the trilogy in a completely different light.
It’s been a blast writing these.