The red pill or the blue pill? Which pill to take? That is the question in the sci-fi classic, The Matrix – a reframing of Shakespeare’s ‘to be or not to be?’ But I’ve jumped ahead. Let me start from last week in front of the screen where I was
in the Matrix again after 20 years. This time it felt more like a horror movie than a dystopian sci-fi. Maybe because in COVID lockdown Melbourne, reality feels more virtual, more like Bauldrillard’s simulacra where the real world is simulation – on line at work, in Zoom meetings, via digitised icons and virtual brands, liking friends posts and hashtags.
Life is a digitised string of code.
On the upside, it was super cool watching this classic with the fresh eyes of my daughter who was seeing it for the first time. The film has aged well – both aesthetically and as cultural critique.
The narrative premises is a world invaded by machines after human kind stumbled to the cliff edge of a climate change melt down. As a race, we humans are now preserved bodily in fluid filled vats, our brains wired into the virtual reality of the Matrix, our bodies harvested for energy to power the machines.
In this dystopian, cyberpunk reframing of ‘the end’ it is the machines as AI that save humanity and the planet.
The movie opens with Neo, an alias for a computer hacker played by Keneau Reeves, who is pursued by Agent Smith, a programmed character inside the Matrix. Neo is rescued by Trinity to meet Morpheus. Cue, the famous red pill, blue pill, scene. Neo gets to choose which pill to swallow – red for truth, blue for going back to his old life of complacency, wired inside a computer simulated reality of the world as we think we know it.
Of course he choses red (there would be no story if he didn’t) and discovers the ‘real’ outside the Matrix. And that’s where the fun begins and I stop for you to watch the movie (if you haven’t already, and after you’ve finished reading this – no ‘real’ spoilers, I promise).
It’s not hard to read multiple layers into the movie which has been part of it’s success and appeal. The Wachowski sisters who wrote and directed the Matrix loaded it to the hilt with philosophical, religious and pop references.
Slavoj Žižek calls the Matrix a Rorschan test “setting in motion the universalised process of recognition … that practically every orientation seems to recognise itself in.”1
My first re-reading of the movie is Christian gnostic. Gnostic because salvation comes by secret knowledge (the red ‘truth’ pill) but more radically, because life is lived in the Matrix detached from the body and the ‘real’ world. (Read my post, Are You A Christian Gnostic, for my take on this.)
Christian because of the multiple Christ allusions. Neo, an anagram for the chosen “One,” is a type of Christ called by Trinity. Morpheus is like John the Baptist in his belief in Neo as the One, the human prophesied to free humankind from our brain wired listless bodies preserved in fluid. Agent Smith insists on calling Neo by his given name Mr Anderson, which means ‘Son of Man,’ (look it up!) – Jesus’ self designated title.
Outside the Matrix, after swallowing the red pill, is ‘the real’ staged in a dystopian void of vats and cyber space through which Morpheus captains a flying pirate ship Nebuchadnezzar with its apocalyptic allusions to the Book of Daniel.
The ship’s name plate stencilled with Mark III No 11 is a reference to Mark 3:11 where evil spirits cry out, “You are the Son of God” relating Jesus’ path to Neo’s story. Zion is even included as an underground city for the last refugees of free humans.
Neo is re-birthed in a full water immersion symbolising baptism. At the end of the movie Neo dies and is resurrected through Trinity’s kiss, saved by an act of love, that triumphs over belief (alludes to 1 Corinthians 13:13 where love is greater than faith). In the final scene, Neo ascends into the sky.2
Any attempted Christian reading is disorientating because the real is dystopic and the virtual is utopic. Heaven and Hell seem somehow inverted. The Christian references are buried in the apocalyptic wastelands of the real. And the world of desire lies in the machine programmed fed utopia of the Matrix. Later in the movie we find the machines had to reengineer the Matrix because the first version was too perfect, not real enough for human desiring.
Agent Smith tells Morpheus, “It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”
It reminds me of a joke about a religious fundamentalist who died and woke up in a paradise city of opulent luxury where nothing was denied him. After 300 years of utopian bliss, the dogmatic man, who was by now more than a little jaded, asked his guide, “well I wonder how the other half are getting on in Hell?” His guide, looking amused, responds, “where do you think you are?”
What we want is not the same as what we need. And what we need is hope in something real.
So where does hope lie in the “wasteland of the real” and the symbolic world of the Matrix? Is belief in a human hero, the One, our only hope?
Žižek starts with the premise of the hero in his reading of The Matrix from Enjoy Your Symptom (in the revised edition). The Matrix radicalises the hero in a virtual world as the ‘problematic of iconoclasm’ where simulated experience becomes indiscernible from ‘the real.’ 3
Žižek postulates from the hero, which we see in other movies like The Truman Show, that ideology lies in the belief of some ‘true reality.’ “What lurks in the background is… the premodern notion of arriving at the end of the universe.’’4
The problem with the hero’s quest for the end of the universe for Žižek, is that the Other (the Symbolic order which in this case is the Matrix) imagined as the ‘real’ cannot be known because the Real is an unknowable void. (See my previous post, When Is A Chair Not A Chair?)
So the hero can never really arrive. There is no destination to get to the Other as there is no arriving at the Real. (Žižek equates the Symbolic order with Lacan’s concept of the Other.)
So what is represented as the Real – Nebuchadnezzar and brains in vats outside the Matrix – is another fiction (within a fiction) or as Žižek puts it in Lacanian terms ‘the Other of the Other.’5
The hero is alienated from the Other of the Matrix and creates fantasies and phobias that imagine an Other behind the Other.
“The real is not the ‘true reality’ behind the virtual simulation, but the void that makes reality incomplete, inconsistent, and the function of every symbolic matrix is to conceal this inconsistency…”6 In other words, The Matrix doesn’t go far enough for Žižek. It posits a reality outside the virtual reality. Its thesis is then false, but, says Žižek, the image is right, we just need to invert its terms.7
“Our awakening is not from a virtual reality dreaming to find ourselves in vats of prenatal fluid but rather our reality is we are free agents in the social world. But in order to sustain our situation we have to supplement it with the disavowed terrible fantasy of being passive prisoners…. The mystery of the human condition, of course, is why the subject needs this obscene fantastic support of his existence.”8
For Žižek this is a mystery that necessitates the Real. Even though we can’t find the Real, it still exists and we need it to survive. Žižek is a disciple of the German philosopher Hegel and the French psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan who argued if we lose the distortion of the Real, we lose the thing itself. The distortion is its symbolisation – what Žižek calls the screen through which we ‘see’ the Real.
Both readings of The Matrix – Žižek’s or all the other readings (what Žižek calls the pseudo sophisticated intellectualist) – betray the world to ‘apocalypse now’ scenarios.
Christian gnosticism abandons the world in the expectation that God will resurrect (rapture) us to a new heaven and earth.
For Žižek’s realisation of our human passivity to work, it must motivate us politically to take action. For Žižek, the solution is Marxist. “The choice we face is: barbarism or some kind of reinvented Communism.”9
But the reality is we have not yet found a political solution that will save the world. To believe so is no more delusional than Cypher, the Judas betrayer in the Matrix, wanting to swallow the blue pill and return to the banal comfort of the Matrix’s wired reality.
At this point in time both positions – escapist gnosticism or political activism – will push us over a cliff into an apocalyptic abyss. Is there another way to end apocalypse without a gnostic whimper or a political bang (T.S. Elliot)? Is there an answer in Morpheus’ hope in Neo as the One?
What is the Christian answer? Christ. But which Christ? This is a valid question as there are many false Christs – anti-Christs (1 John 2:18-23). Or we can reframe the question by asking what makes a ‘true’ Christian believer? This provokes answers like ‘born again’ ‘orthodox’ and ‘evangelical’. But there can only be one answer. One answer for ‘which Christ?’ The same answer for ‘what is a true Christian?’
Real Christianity is an existential commitment to the belief that God has entered our world in-carnate, in Christ (1 John 4).
Any thing else is anti-Christ and by definition gnostic. Gnostic heresies come from denying Christ’s humanity and Jesus’ divinity (yes, I’m mixing the theological labels to drive home the point).
The wastelands of the real are now where we find ourselves on planet earth. This is the Matrix, Baudrillard’s simulacra where the real is constructed with signs. This is life after we have unchained ourselves from the sun (Nietzsche). This is life after God where all we can see are shifting cyphers and signs that mask the real.
In Douglas Coupland’s Life After God, the character in the short story 1,000 Years (Life After God) moves away from society and into the wilderness searching for meaning, religion, a connection to God. Todd, a university, drugged up drop out, who has theories about everything, comes out of his drug fog one day and reaches out to Scout. In Scout’s words…
He [Todd] will.. grab me by one shoulder and place his other hand on top of my head, and then seemingly yank my spirit out of my body through the top of my skull with a great pull, shocking me.
He will then say, looking at my body, ‘Here you are. You have this meat thing here – your corpse – and then here you have…’ he will look at my imaginary spirit, draped from the fingers of his other hand, ‘You.’
I will feel dizzy. I will feel as though Todd has cut me in two.
‘What is you, Scout? What is the you of you? What is the link? Where do you begin and end? This you thing – is it an invisible silk woven from your memories? Is it a spirit? Is it electric? What exactly is it?’
He will gently, mime-like, place my spirit back into my body and I will be glad.
He will pat me on the head. ‘Don’t sweat it, man. You’re all there. Nothing escaped.’
We will sit and listen to the silence for a while. Then Todd will speak some more. He will say, ‘Oh, I know you guys think my life is some big joke – that its going nowhere. But I’m happy. And it’s not like I’m lost or anything. We’re all too … middle class to ever be lost. Lost means you had faith or something to begin with and the middle class never really had any of that. So we can never be lost. And you tell me, Scout – what is it we end up being, then – what exactly is it we end up being then – instead of being lost?10
Life After God was published in 1994, five years before The Matrix appeared in 1999. Both are saying – You are not just your body. But what then are we? Neither offer solutions. Both map the wastelands of uncertainty in search for authenticity.
Maybe it’s better to be honest about doubt rather than thinking we have answers when we don’t. But then, how can we have hope if we can’t know the truth – what’s real?
Žižek’s reinvented Communism, or our politics of tribes and rights are the desperate messianic claims of salvation. But there can be no salvation from within ourselves. Our hope, if there is any, has to be beyond ourselves.
Christian hope is in the real miracle that God has entered our universe as ‘one of us’ to bring God’s kingdom to earth. A new creation from heaven on earth that is now underway. This is the Christian hope and the mission of the Church.
Real Christianity, then, is about changing the world in the power of the Spirit (Jürgen Moltmann). The Church has within its ‘body’ the power to radically transform history by participating with God in redemptive history (N.T. Wright). This is true church history, much of which is hidden and much, to our disgrace, of which is visible, corrupted by the idols of ideology and power.
We are called to fight injustice, to stand with the disempowered and steward creation (funny but also tragic how Christians have muddled money with stewardship).
If we understood and believed in our God given mandate, we would take it seriously, recognising God’s hand in our world, the wind of the Spirit blowing through ‘the wastelands of the real,’ reviving God’s people to move and take action in the world for what is right and just.
If we truly believed in God, we would see a changed reality, the coming of God’s kingdom to this earth and the end of apocalypse.
- I missed some of these references in my second viewing. Matthew S. Rindge, Bible and Film: the basics, Routledge, London 2021 pp 93-94 clued me in to the more obscure allusions I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up on like ‘Mr Anderson’ equating to ‘Son of Man’ and Trinity’s kiss to 1 Corinthians 13:13.
- Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom!, (2nd ed) 2001, Routledge Classics edition NY, p243
- Žižek 243-4
- Žižek 245
- Žižek 247
- Žižek 248
- Žižek 261
- Žižek 264
- Slavoj Zizek, Pandemic: COVID-19 Shakes the World, Polity Press, UK, 2020, p70
- Douglas Copeland, Life After God, pp304-5
Wow! I’m impressed. You made it all the way here to the bottom of the blog. If you liked what I had to say – or even if you didn’t and have a different view – I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment and subscribe below before you leave. If you’re a fellow blogger, I’ll make sure I check out your blog and leave a comment.
You can enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.
It would also be great to interact with you on Face Book and Twitter.