Slavoj Žižek

    Boringly postmodern and an ideological fantasy: Slavoj Žižek reviews Matrix Resurrections

    Boringly postmodern and an ideological fantasy: Slavoj Žižek reviews Matrix Resurrections
    Keanu Reeves as Neo/Thomas Anderson in Matrix Resurrections. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
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    The first thing that strikes the eye in the multitude of reviews of Matrix Resurrections is how easily the movie’s plot (especially its ending) has been interpreted as a metaphor for our socio-economic situation. Leftist pessimists read it as an insight into how, to put it bluntly, there is no hope for humanity: we cannot survive outside the Matrix (the network of corporate capital that controls us), freedom is impossible. Then there are social-democratic pragmatic 'realists' who see in the movie a vision of some kind of progressive alliance between humans and machines, sixty years after the destructive Machine Wars. In these wars 'scarcity among the Machines led to a civil war that saw a faction of Machines and programs defect and join human society.' The humans also change tack: Io (a human city in reality outside the Matrix led by General Niobe) is a much better place to live than Zion, their previous city in reality (there are clear hints of destructive revolutionary fanaticism in Zion in previous Matrix movies).

    The scarcity among the Machines refers not just to the devastating effects of the war but above all to the lack of energy produced by humans for the Matrix. Remember the basic premise of the Matrix series: what we experience as the reality we live in is an artificial virtual reality generated by the 'Matrix', the mega-computer directly attached to all our minds; it is in place so that we can be effectively reduced to a passive state of living batteries providing the Matrix with energy. However, the unique impact of the film thus resides not so much in this premise, its central thesis, but in its central image of the millions of human beings leading a claustrophobic life in water-filled cocoons, kept alive in order to generate the energy for the Matrix. So when (some of the) people 'awaken' from their immersion into the Matrix-controlled virtual reality, this awakening is not an opening into the wide space of the external reality, but a horrible realisation of this enclosure, where each of us is effectively just a foetus-like organism, immersed in pre-natal fluid. This utter passivity is the foreclosed fantasy that sustains our conscious experience as active, self-positing subjects – it is the ultimate perverse fantasy, the notion that we are essentially instruments of the Other's (the Matrix's) jouissance, sucked out of our life-substance like batteries.

    Therein resides the true libidinal enigma of this dispositif: why does the Matrix need human energy? That this is to solve the energy problem is, of course, meaningless: the Matrix could have easily found another, more reliable source of energy which would have not demanded the extremely complex arrangement of a virtual reality coordinated for millions of human units. The only consistent answer is: the Matrix feeds on the human's jouissance. So we are here back at the fundamental Lacanian thesis that the big Other itself, far from being an anonymous machine, needs the constant influx of jouissance. This is how we should turn around the state of things presented by the film: what the film renders as the scene of our awakening into our true situation is effectively its exact opposite, the very fundamental fantasy that sustains our being. 

    But how does the Matrix react to the fact that humans produce less energy? Here a new figure called Analyst enters: he discovers that if the Matrix manipulates fears and desires of humans, they produce more energy that can be sucked by the machines:

    The Analyst is the new Architect, the manager of this new version of the Matrix. But where the Architect sought to control human minds through cold, hard math and facts, the Analyst likes to take a more personal approach, manipulating feelings to create fictions that keep the blue-pills in line. (He observes that humans will ‘believe the craziest shit,’ which really isn’t very far off from the truth if you’ve ever spent any time on Facebook.) The Analyst says that his approach has made humans produce more energy to feed the Machines than ever before, all while keeping them from wanting to escape the simulation.

    With a little bit of irony we could say that the Analyst corrects the falling profit rate of using humans as energy batteries: he realizes that just stealing enjoyment from humans is not productive enough, we (the Matrix) should also manipulate the experience of humans that serve as batteries so that they will experience more enjoyment. Victims themselves have to enjoy: the more humans enjoy, the more surplus-enjoyment can be drawn from them – Lacan’s parallel between surplus-value and surplus-enjoyment is again confirmed here. The problem is just that, although the new regulator of the Matrix is called 'Analyst” (with an obvious reference to the psychoanalyst), he doesn’t act as a Freudian analyst but as a rather primitive utilitarian, following the maxim: avoid pain and fear and get pleasure. There is no pleasure-in-pain, no 'beyond the pleasure principle', no death drive, in contrast to the first film in which Smith, the agent of the Matrix, gives a different, much more Freudian explanation:

    Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the programme. Entire crops of the humans serving as batteries were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was re-designed to this: the peak of your civilization.

    One could effectively claim that Smith (let us not forget: not a human being as others but a virtual embodiment of the Matrix – the big Other – itself) is the stand-in for the figure of the analyst within the universe of the film much more than the Analyst. This regression of the last film is confirmed by another archaic feature, the affirmation of the productive force of sexual relationship:

    Analyst explains that after Neo and Trinity died, he resurrected them to study them, and found they overpowered the system when they worked together, but if they are kept close to each other without making contact, the other humans within the Matrix would produce more energy for the machines.

    In many media Matrix Resurrections was hailed as less 'binary', as more open towards the 'rainbow' of transgender experiences – but, as we can see, the old Hollywood formula of the production of a couple-matrix is here again: 'Neo himself has no interest in anything except rekindling his relationship with Trinity.' This regression is grounded in what is false already in the first movie. The best known scene in the first Matrix occurs when Morpheus offers to Neo the choice between a Blue Pill and Red Pill. But this choice is a strange non-choice: when we live immersed in virtual reality we don't take any pill, so the only choice is 'Take the red pill or do nothing.' The blue pill is a placebo, it changes nothing. Plus we don’t have only virtual reality regulated by the Matrix (accessible if we choose the blue pill) and external 'real reality' (the devastated real world full of ruins accessible if we choose the red pill); we have the Machine itself which constructs and regulates our experience (this, the flow of digital formulas and not the ruins, is what Morpheus refers to when he says Neo 'Welcome to the desert of the real.') This Machine is (in the film’s universe) an object present in 'real reality': gigantic computers constructed by humans which held us prisoners and regulate our experiences.

    The choice between the blue pill and the red pill in the first Matrix movie is false, but this does not mean that all reality is just in our brain: we interact in a real world, but through our fantasies imposed on us by the symbolic universe in which we live. The symbolic universe is 'transcendental', the idea that there is an agent controlling it as an object is a paranoiac dream – the symbolic universe is no object in the world, it provides the very frame of how we approach objects. Today, however, we are getting closer and closer to manufactured machines which promise to provide a virtual universe into which we can enter (or which controls us against our will). China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences pursues what it calls the 'intelligentization' of warfare: 'War has started to shift from the pursuit of destroying bodies to paralyzing and controlling the opponent.' We can be sure that the West is doing the same – the only difference will be (maybe) that if it will go public about it, there will be a humanitarian twist ('we are not killing humans, we are just for a brief time diverting their minds...').

    One of the names of 'taking the blue pill' is Zuckerberg’s project of the 'Metaverse': we take the blue pill by registering in the metaverse in which the limitations, tensions and frustrations of ordinary reality are magically left behind – but we have to pay a big price for it: 'Mark Zuckerberg "has unilateral control over 3 billion people" due to his unassailable position at the top of Facebook, the whistleblower Frances Haugen told to the British MPs as she called for urgent external regulation to rein in the tech company’s management and reduce the harm being done to society.' The big achievement of modernity, the public space, is thus disappearing. Days after the Haugen revelations, Zuckerberg announced that his company will change its name from Facebook to Meta, and outlined his vision of Metaverse in a speech that is a true neo-feudal manifesto:

    Zuckerberg wants the metaverse to ultimately encompass the rest of our reality – connecting bits of real space here to real space there, while totally subsuming what we think of as the real world. In the virtual and augmented future Facebook has planned for us, it's not that Zuckerberg's simulations will rise to the level of reality, it's that our behaviors and interactions will become so standardized and mechanical that it won't even matter. Instead of making human facial expressions, our avatars can make iconic thumbs-up gestures. Instead of sharing air and space together, we can collaborate on a digital document. We learn to downgrade our experience of being together with another human being to seeing their projection overlaid into the room like an augmented reality Pokemon figure.

    Metaverse will act as a virtual space beyond (meta) our fractured and hurtful reality, a virtual space in which we will smoothly interact through our avatars, with elements of augmented reality (reality overlaid with digital signs). It will thus be nothing less than metaphysics actualised: a metaphysical space fully subsuming reality which we will be allowed to enter in fragments only insofar as it will be overlaid by digital guidelines manipulating our perception and intervention. And the catch is that we will get a commons which is privately owned, with a private feudal lord overseeing and regulating our interaction.

    This brings us back to the beginning of the movie where Neo visits a therapist (Analyst) in recovery from a suicide attempt. The source of his suffering is that he has no way of verifying the reality of his confused thoughts, so he is afraid of losing his mind. In the course of the film we learn that 'the therapist is the least trustworthy source that Neo could have turned to. The therapist is not just part of a fantasy that might be a reality, and vice versa... He is just one more layer of fantasy-as-reality, and reality-as-fantasy, a mess of whims, and desires, and dreams that exists in two states at once.' Is, then, Neo’s suspicion, which drove him to suicide, not just confirmed?

    The film’s end brings hope by merely giving the opposite spin to this sad insight: yes, our world is composed just of layers of 'fantasy-as-reality, and reality-as-fantasy, a mess of whims, and desires', there is no Archimedean point which eludes the deceitful layers of fake realities. However, this very fact opens up a new space of freedom – the freedom to intervene and rewrite fictions that dominate us. Since our world is composed just of layers of 'fantasy-as-reality, and reality-as-fantasy, a mess of whims, and desires', this means that the Matrix is also a mess: the paranoiac version is wrong, there is no hidden agent (Architect or Analyst) who controls it all and secretly pulls the strings. The lesson is that 'we should learn to fully embrace the power of the stories that we spin for ourselves, whether they be video games or complex narratives about our own pasts... – we might rewrite everything. We can make of fear and desire as we wish; we can alter and shape the people who we love, and we dream of.' The movie thus ends with a rather boring version of the postmodern notion that there is no ultimate 'real reality', just an interplay of the multitude of digital fictions:

    Neo and Trinity have given up on the search of epistemic foundations. They do not kill the therapist who has kept them in the bondage of The Matrix. Instead, they thank him. After all, through his work, they have discovered the great power of re-description, the freedom that comes when we stop our search for truth, whatever that nebulous concept might mean, and strive forever for new ways of understanding ourselves. And then, arm in arm, they take off, flying through a world that is theirs to make of.

    The movie’s premise that machines need humans is thus correct – they need us not for our intelligence and conscious planning but at a more elementary level of libidinal economy. The idea that machines could reproduce without humans is similar to the dream of the market economy reproducing itself without humans. Some analysts recently proposed the idea that, with the explosive growth of robotisation of production and of artificial intelligence which will more and more play the managerial role of organising production, capitalism will gradually morph into a self-reproducing monster, a network of digital and production machines with less and less need for humans. Property and stocks will remain, but competition on stock exchanges will be done automatically, just to optimize profit and productivity. So for whom or what will things be produced? Will humans not remain as consumers? 

    Ideally, we can even imagine machines just feeding each other, producing machined parts, energy. Perversely attractive as it is, this prospect is an ideological fantasy: capital is not an objective fact like a mountain or a machine which will remain even if all people around it disappear, it exists only as a virtual Other of a society, a reified form of a social relationship, in the same way that values of stocks are the outcome of the interaction of thousands of individuals but appear to each of them as something objectively given.

    Every reader has for sure noticed that, in my description of the movie, I heavily rely on a multitude of reviews which I extensively quote. The reason is now clear: in spite of its occasional brilliance, the film is ultimately not worth seeing – which is why I also wrote this review without seeing it. The editorial that appeared in Pravda on January 28, 1936, brutally dismissed Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as 'Muddle Instead of Music'. Although Matrix Resurrections is very intelligently made and full of admirable effects, it ultimately remains a muddle instead of a movie. Resurrections is the fourth film in the Matrix series, so let’s just hope that Lana’s next movie will be what the Fifth Symphony was for Shostakovich, an American artist's creative response to justified criticism.