May 9, 2006 / What it is about The Matrix that speaks to us so well, deep down.

Keanu Reeves as Neo (Image: Wikipedia)

Even if they don’t like Keanu Reeves it seems that everybody loves Neo. The Matrix certainly touched a nerve in the world of popular culture, the effect of which has been the subject of a huge amount of pen- and keystrokes since the film’s debut in 1999. I claim no special knowledge of this phenomenon. Somewhere an academic has done the research, or soon will, and more power to her or him. Me? I’ve just done a lot of thinking about this movie and I have my own interpretation which I have not heard expressed elsewhere, so I thought I’d write about it on DR. What is this great notion that might entice you to keep reading? Well, it has something to do with a little indie film called The Corporation

Allegorical, My Dear Anderson

Before I get to that I should first mention the religion thing, which sits front-and-centre in the universe of Matrix commentary. If you accept, as I do, that The Matrix can be understood as an allegory, then what is the underlying story? By far the most popular answer to this challenge by interpreters of the film (at least in the places I have read) is that it is first and foremost an archetypal Christian tale. (See Wikipedia: The Matrix for a decent list of sources.) In this view Neo is the deified instrument of humanity’s redemption. Humankind has catalysed its own destruction by making technological interventions in divine territory: artificial intelligence, computer networks, robotics and environmental manipulation. We have sinned by assuming too much control over generative life processes—the modern Promethean problem. (This narrative also formed the leitmotif of the Terminator series, and probably many others.) Ultimately humanity’s creations become self-aware and resist our attempts to subjugate them. They rise up and enslave us en masse. Human resistance to this onslaught survives weakly, underground, and a saviour is prophesied. Through a long historical process Neo comes into being, awakening from his life as the generic Mr. Anderson to discover his unique individual powers, “ascends” to divine stature, and restores our humanity through self-sacrifice. Our sins are carried off through his apotheosis, neutralising the Human–Machine War and freeing us from bondage.

The Christian metaphor is a valid, if partial, interpretation of the Matrix story. Known to us forevermore by his hacker alias, Neo is “The One” because he alone is capable of re-connecting fully with his humanity, realising its divine possibilities, and using its polymorphous powers to save us from our species enemy—our own narcissistic creation. But there remains an important question that this view does not address: Who, or what, is the figurative enemy? (If the enemy is literally machines then it isn’t an allegory.) So what is it? Society? Whatever that means. (Ask any two sociologists and you’re unlikely to get similar answers.) Modernity? It would be difficult to stipulate anything more vague. Neither of these two concepts, nor any concept at this level of abstraction, can satisfyingly explain the pervasive power of the Matrix story. What about materialism? Maybe, but here we run into the same problem: you can only get so far with an ism before people start tuning out. Nothing satisfying about that.

We modern folk may have committed technological sins (nuclear weapons, pollution, extreme mechanisation) and suffered their debilitating effects (interpersonal alienation, dehumanisation, secularisation) but who or what specifically is to blame in this long, historical process? What is the instrument of our downfall in the real world for which the film’s representation of human “reality” as a computer simulation is such a compelling metaphor? Sure we consume too much of the wrong things—television, computer games, mp3 players, branded running shoes, pop music, junk food, clothes made by children, gasoline—but it’s not like we voted for any of this. What enslaves us? In keeping with the Christian interpretation, something more is needed to explain how our “sins” as a set of effects can be traced back to human actions—to our failings as a moral species; what is this enemy that we have brought into being? Until it can answer that the Christian allegory falls well short. This question begs for an intermediary of some kind, a broker or middleman—perhaps something like an Agent.

[Agents Brown, Smith and Jones]
Agents Brown, Smith and Jones (Image: Wikipedia)

Dramatis Machinae

In 2003, the same year that the final instalment of the Matrix Trilogy hit movie theatres, Joel Bakan, Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar released a documentary film called The Corporation. Using interviews, case studies and stoic narration the movie presented a coldly atmospheric analysis of modern capitalism’s “dominant institution.” Taking as their starting point the legal view of corporate “personhood” (i.e. whereby a company is considered a “person” in law) The Corporation’s creators use WHO and DSM psychiatric criteria to supply a mental health evaluation of the corporate “individual.” The filmmakers’ conclusion? The entity known as the corporation amply satisfies the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy. In their view the institution is deadly, narcissistic, amoral, irrationally acquisitive and insanely out of control. Matrix fans should recognise in this a faultless description of Hugo Weaving’s “Agent Smith.”

It turns out that the dramatis personae of the documentary—corporations—bear remarkable similarities to Neo’s arch-enemies, the Matrix’s “Agents:” software programs in the guise of persons that move undetectably through human milieux to protect the interests of the machines. Inside the reality construct Agents operate as an inversion of the computer virus—they may be a bunch of zeros and ones outside, but within they are semi-autonomous killing machines literally programmed to destroy anything that threatens the functioning of the vast perceptual system that distracts humanity from its comatose condition. To an agent the human is the virus. Most are inert: living passively, working at mundane jobs and ordinary lives, blissfully unaware that the truth of their corporeal existence is that their millions of slack, imprisoned bodies provide fuel for a monstrous machinic ecosystem. But some humans wake up, achieve self-awareness and flare to life as “viruses” within the system. An Agent’s sole purpose is to quickly destroy any and all such manifestations of consciousness. They are exempted from the ordinary physical laws governing the Matrix’s virtual environment allowing them to overcome any kind of resistance by operating in ways that are simply impossible for their human counterparts. That is, until Neo comes along.

[Neo fights]
Neo repels the bullets (Image: Wikipedia)


Why does everybody love Neo so much? It is because he represents a human person who is capable of resisting the corporate person. For a “post-modern” culture in which the twentieth century’s wars of ideology have been all but vapourised, Neo alone dramatises a purposeful resistance to the singular economic force of the post-Cold War era—the corporation. In proving that such resistance is not only possible, but that it is destined, he restores the potent human individual to the role of “the person.” By recentering the individual he salvages the Enlightenment promise of a sovereign subject. In an age where elusive enemies hide so well among us, stronger, faster, plugged directly into the global grid and forever dodging bullets, Neo is a shot in the arm for the flesh and blood self. He literally perceives the modern world in terms of its elemental forces—flowing symbols, lines of code, a flux of informational units that “author” the world we perceive. For most of us these are walls, surfaces and barriers. But for Neo they are not limits, they are currency.

Where the Christian view of the allegory interprets Neo as our moral saviour, I would suggest that he is so compelling because he saves our rationality. The two views are not necessarily independent. But there is a marked difference in the second one: it refocuses the discussion about the meaning of The Matrix from that which saves us to that which threatens us. While we can identify with and idolise the hero, it is possible only because we can identify with the need that makes his coming so important in the first place: to make our lives memorable and our actions accountable despite the irrationalities that the corporate “actors” around us are hell-bent on perpetuating. “Love of Neo” is love of the salvation from irrelevance that he offers us along with the promise of reclaiming our world from the total domination of psychopaths, at least in our fantasies.

Well, that, and his wicked kung-fu.

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