The Matrix Term Paper
I wrote this paper for my Cultural Imperialism class about 4 hours before it was due. So any incoherence is excusable on that account and any poor writing (cliches, etc.) must be understood on the notion that I was running on little to no sleep for a few days and I didn't feel like taking the time to think of a more eloquent way to put whatever I said. Anyway...hope it gives some insight, please post any thoughts or questions you have on it.
In the movie The Matrix, topics are brought about which question what is real and what is just a simulation. The film is flooded with signs and signifiers, meanings and interpretations. The agents in the movie forcefully try to pull those people who have broken free of the Matrix down while the Matrix itself acts as an ISA to subtly repress (“There is no such thing as a purely ideological apparatus,” Althusser, 150) those still locked in to the system, not yet free. This film is an exemplary form of media that imposes ideas like signs and semiotics, and ideological and repressive state apparatuses.
In the movie, when people have not yet been “freed”, as Morpheus and his crew have, they are still a part of the Matrix: they live in a tub filled with thick liquid and are attached to the mainframe by numerous wires. Once they are freed, they are no longer attached to the system, but still have all the jacks in their body that were for the wires and cables to be plugged into. The crew of the Nebuchadnezzar (Morpheus and company) has found the right wiring so that they can plug themselves back into the Matrix and become simulations of themselves. In the movie, their simulations look like their ideal selves (also this way to avoid confusion with the audience of having someone else as their simulation): Neo, for example, has hair, nice(r) clothing and is clean, unlike how he is in the real world. Those who have not been unplugged yet and are in the Matrix are also without the jacks they have throughout their bodies in the real world. The crew of the Nebuchadnezzar could create simulations of themselves with all the jacks in their body if they wanted to because they have seen their “real” selves before, but non-unplugged people do not even know that they are not looking at their real selves, so their simulations can not possibly have the jacks in them. The crew has also created simulation training programs to prepare themselves with knowledge of fighting skills so they may survive longer against the agents while in the matrix. When running these simulation trainings, they are running, essentially, a simulation of a simulation. In the ‘Semiotics for Beginners: Signs’ webpage, a sign is defined as SD/SR (signified over signifier) – “a reflection of a profound reality,” (Baudrillard, 635) but SR/SR is a simulation of a simulation, a copy of a copy – it “has no relation to any reality whatsoever, it is its own simulacrum.” (Baudrillard, 635)
Having been recently unplugged, the character Neo is confused about all the new information he’s receiving. In Daniel Chandler’s ‘Semiotics webpage,’ Chandler writes that Saussure said:
‘The French word mouton may have the same meaning as the English word sheep;
but it does not have the same value. There are various reasons for this,
but in particular the fact that the English word for the meat of this animal,
as prepared and served for a meal, is not sheep but mutton. The difference
in value between sheep and mouton hinges on the fact that in English
there is also another word mutton for the meat, whereas mouton in French covers both.’ (Chandler)
What Neo called reality differed from what Morpheus calls reality. They were thought to be the same thing by two people, but ends up that only one is correct, but the original perception by the individuals was the same. On the dealings with reality, even Morpheus asks Neo early on, “What is real? If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” The simulations in the Matrix are so strong that everyone locked in believes they are living in the real world. The real world and the Matrix almost go hand-in-hand together: if you die in the Matrix, you die in the real world. Morpheus says, “The body cannot exist without the mind.” In another scene, Neo goes to see the Oracle and while in waiting talks to a young boy who is on the floor and appears to be bending spoons only by looking at them. We as the viewers see the bent spoons on the floor as does Neo and he cannot understand why, the boy tells him that “it is not the spoon that bends, it is yourself.” What Neo sees at first is of course the metal object we call a spoon, but what the boy tries to tell him is that “there is no spoon,” it is naught and therefore can be anything a person wants it to be and can be bent on your imagination, that is why Neo is able to apparently warp it just by looking at it. “He is beginning to believe.”
Meaning cannot exist without language. Even the Matrix is formed from a computer language. The language of the system is based off of hexadecimal, in which the code consisted of purely 0s and 1s, and every six combination of those numbers is a value and all those values build the constructs for the system. The 0s and 1s (and various characters for the new code in the Matrix) are meaningless by themselves, but together they form a language, and ultimately – a meaning. Those numbers and characters are the Matrix and that is why at the end of the film, we see how Neo sees – images, meanings made out of them.
In the film, the agents are blatant examples of repressive state apparatuses. In one scene, Agent Smith comments on human existence to Morpheus:
“I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here.
It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you're not actually mammals.
Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium
with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area,
and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only
way you can survive is to spread to another area.
There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus.
Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet, you are a plague, and we are the cure.” (Agent Smith, The Matrix)
His comment on the virus of humanity sums up imperialism in the sense of taking over others’ culture and expanding. At the same time he is also repressing Morpheus, trying to break down his mind so that he will revert back into a worker for the state that is the Matrix. “The State is a ‘machine’ of repression, which enables the ruling classes to ensure their domination over the working class, thus enabling the former to subject the latter to the process of surplus-value extortion.” (Althusser, 148) Morpheus is acutely aware of where he stands in the schema of the Matrix when he tells Neo, “You can feel it when you go to work... when you go to church... when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. [The truth that] you are a slave.” He names some ISAs to Neo and then he addresses the idea of the RSA. Agents can be anywhere at any time; they can take over anyone’s body that is in the Matrix to do this, in order to keep things in line. Once life begins to realize a way to actually live, in the real world, the system will begin to fail.
On the Nebuchadnezzar while eating a meal, the character Mouse brings up the question of what I’m assuming is the cereal called Tasty Wheat. In not describing to the audience what kind of food it is, he is not completing a signifier, but as humans, we guess that Tasty Wheat could be a cereal, or a type of cracker, leaving the signified open for interpretation, skewing what the final product, the sign, is. Mouse says, “Maybe [the machines] got it wrong. Maybe what I think Tasty Wheat tasted like, actually tasted like oatmeal or tuna fish.” He is referring to times in the Matrix where he had the food called Tasty Wheat that the machines who packaged the food told him was wheat that was tasty. Humans invented the cereal and plugged the amounts necessary of the ingredients into the computer and let the machines do the rest of the work. In that, the final product is a signifier release upon the intended signifieds and forms the product.
Again with the signifiers is another quote from Morpheus (there seem to be an abundance of them), “I'm trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it. This is the exact instance discussed in ‘Semiotics’ about the word tree and what is signified. Morpheus tells Neo that he can show him the door, but what Neo sees as the door (or does not see) is what will make the difference when the time comes. Barthes writes, “It is as true to say that on the plane of experience I cannot dissociate the roses from the message they carry, as to say that on the plane of analysis I cannot confuse the roses as signifier and the roses as sign.” If one person or signifier does not or cannot convey the message they suppose they are, there is little or no way that that message will be signified by another to form a sign. The meaning of a thing must be the same to form a sign, otherwise it falls into nothingness. “Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” The intention of this quote by Morpheus is ambiguous; it allows a personal thought by anyone and everyone who sees the Matrix. He is not talking just about seeing the system from which those “freed” emerged; it is the principle of the thing, to understand what the Matrix is and being to manipulate and reproduce it (“reproduction of the means of production” Althusser, 146) and not just live or exist in it.
As is the meaning with what is considered the real world in The Matrix, maybe we are living in that world now, maybe we have already been freed. And if we have, then the movie almost acts as an ISA, perceptively repressing us to believe that we have control of our own minds and destiny. But nothing is for certain and everything is part of a sign or otherwise it is a simulation and nothingness.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation).”
Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today.” 1984
Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulation” from Postmodern American Fiction. New York: W.W Norton & Company, Inc., 1998
Chandler, Daniel. “Semiotics for Beginners: Signs.” Aug. 2004
The Matrix. California: Warner Home Video, 1999