William Irwin, ed. The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real.
Chicago: Open Court, 2002. $27.00.
WILLIAM IRWIN, editor of the series Popular Culture and Philosophy, has written the third book in the series (the first two were on Seinfeld and the Simpsons). Irwin has brought together a group of philosophical essays on the Wachowski brothers' film, The Matrix (1999). According to Irwin, the movie is a philosopher's inkblot test [where] one can find Marxism, feminism, Buddhism, postmodernism. Name your philosophical ism and you can find it in The Matrix. Still, the film is not just some randomly generated inkblot but has a definite plan behind it and intentionally incorporates much that is philosophical." The authors collectively address the philosophical question of "What is Real?" The adventures of Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, include meeting Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, who offers him a choice of pills. He chooses the red pill, and that takes him into a virtual reality simulation (the Matrix).
In an essay by Gerald J. Erion and Barry Smith, the authors argue that "in philosophy, the hypothesis that the world we see, hear, and feel might be an illusion is advanced by defenders of the position known as skepticism." Followers of Descartes, they say, have long since seen the scenarios in Matrix as useful in exploring "fundamental questions about knowledge and reality."
David Mitsuo Nixon points to what he calls, "The Matrix Possibility," to put into context the question of whether or not we really know anything at all, and this raises the question of whether or not Neo even knows he is in the Matrix. If one is in the Matrix, he or she would have to admit to the fact that certain of one's beliefs (or perhaps all of them) could be false including, I suppose, the belief that one is inside the Matrix.
Carolyn Korsmeyer does an excellent job of exploring the connections between sensory perception and truth in The Matrix. Especially valuable in Korsmeyer's analysis are her conclusions on touch and intimacy existing outside the Matrix. In their essay, Jorge J.E. Gracia and Jonathan J. Sanford point out some of the metaphysical inconsistencies in the film. They explore the two fundamental categories in the film, real and unreal, and find that these "are presented as irreconcilable, and mutually exclusive. Yet the film contains inconsistencies in their presentation which required resolution." Their essay took me back to Korsmeyer's and made me wonder about her insights regarding sensory perception as truth. But both essays do a good job of addressing the questions of the nature of reality and truth in The Matrix.
Jason Holt declares The Matrix as "cutting-edge cool," but "old hat" stuff to philosophers, especially philosophers acquainted with "Descartes's malicious demon hypothesis." Defending materialism, Holt considers the mind-body problem and whether or not there might be an "artificial mind" and whether or not computers think. In The Matrix, computers do what they're programmed to do, but they are still creative; and, with the "real" mind, the brain creates meaning. But how does it do this? That's as much of a mystery as how the artificial mind creates meaning.
Daniel Barwick asks us to consider which pill we would take, and what "might be wrong with a fake but good life." Barwick claims that "the existence of a Matrix as depicted in the film is impossible, and that even if such a prison existed, it may be morally neutral with respect to those who are imprisoned." Imprisoned in the Matrix, we would likely be conscious of different things, but being conscious of one thing and not another is no measure of morality. "The plot of the film," Barwick says, "can be rendered plausible. But what is lost is the moral purpose of the characters."
Theodore Schick, Jr. places The Matrix in the context of determinism, and uses the Oracle in the film to show that, even though the Oracle can tell what might happen in the future, she is actually not predicting the future but shaping it. The prophecies make their own truth. All we need know about the powers of the Oracle are that those who consult her "believe she knows the future." Besides, Morpheus informs us that "there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path." In studying the determinists in history, this historian at least found Schick's insights into the Oracle's insights very valuable.
In the section on the text on ethics and religion, Michael Brannigan compares The Matrix with Buddhism asking us to consider whether or not The Matrix is a Buddhist film. He concludes that The Matrix makes good use of both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions; "it mixes metaphors with rich references to Christianity, Platonism, and Buddhism within a context of contemporary cybertechnology but is not a Buddhist film. Gregory Bassham considers The Matrix religion, Neopluralism, to be "an exercise in contemporary myth-making," and, "while fashionable, is very difficult to make sense of, or to defend." Charles L. Griswold, Jr. considers the question of happiness in the movie. The Matrix poses yet again the dilemma of whether or not true happiness depends on some knowledge of reality; are we truly happy just because we believe we are? This leads us back to Nixon's question: do we really know anything at all: happiness, misery, or anything else?
James Lawler invites Kant into the analysis by considering the principle of self-liberation. "Kant argues that no one can save us but we ourselves.... In Kant's conception, Jesus is not an exceptional being who saves a helpless humanity, but the model of our own inner God-like potential to save ourselves." In The Matrix as well, liberation means the creation of free human beings, not happy, contented beings devoid of freedom. In the film, Neo posits that the Savior is not an exceptional Superman, but a universal Teacher, one who teaches the unlimited potential of the self. We can conclude that The Matrix is not a Buddhist film, but it is not traditional Christianity either.
Thomas S. Hibbs makes some comparisons between The Matrix, The X-Files, Die Hard, and Terminator and concludes that The Matrix, "perhaps more than any other in recent memory, aspires to a kind of philosophical gravity. It wants us to take its philosophical musings seriously." Seriously, maybe. But Deborah Knight and George McKnight believe The Matrix is a mixed-genre film; it includes the Western, science-fiction, action, and horror but was "never intended to provide a forum for the solution of philosophical problems."
Jennifer L. McMahon helps us along the path of Existential authenticity by comparing The Matrix and Nausea. In both, she observes the main characters come to an awareness of the true nature of the human condition. In The Matrix, she argues, we come face to face with this truth: we don't really aspire to the Oracle's injunction, "'Know Thyself' but prefer to "flee the facts and remain in a 'dreamworld' of [our] own--or someone else's--design." We don't really want to know the conditions of our existence; what we really want is to rid ourselves of the burden of authenticity. But unauthentic individuals can't make informed choices because they don't want to make choices in the first place. But Neo soberly reminds us that "the future is up to us. Take the red pill."
Sarah E. Worth tackles the question of the differences between appearance, reality, and fiction. She addresses the comparison between The Matrix and Alice in Wonderland. Alice and Neo had similar problems with having to cope with a strange new reality. Morpheus, at one point in the film, says to Neo, "I imagine right now you are feeling a bit like Alice--tumbling down the rabbit hole." The viewer also deals with a new wonderland, drawn into the new reality in the same way as Neo is drawn in. Cynthia Freeland compares The Matrix to eXistenZ, both released in the same year (1999) and find eXistenZ "more satisfying." As useful as the comparison is, her best contribution can be found in her setting out of bodies, minds, and gender in The Matrix. The scenes of "male penetration, or of the insertion of hew holes into the male body, are worth exploring," and find a context in the work of some feminist philosophers.
Martin A. Danahay and David Rieder see the "exploitation of the average American worker in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America from a Marxist perspective. David Weberman reminds us that "reality can be simulated and improved on," and "machines haven't made things unnecessarily impoverished, the virtual world gives us the opportunity to visit museums and concerts, read Shakespeare and Stephen King, fall in love, make love, raise children, form deep friendships, and so on." These are "deep and diverse types of gratification," and what The Matrix tells us is that "such gratification is to be found far more easily in The Matrix than in 'the desert of the real.'"
Finally, Slavoj Zizek reminds us that "living in a totally manipulated and controlled artificial universe is hardly original: The Matrix just radicalizes it by bringing in virtual reality (VR)." The Matrix is juxtaposed between "two aspects of perversion: on the one hand, reduction of reality to a virtual domain regulated by arbitrary rules that can be suspended; on the other hand, the concealed truth of this freedom, the reduction of the subject to an utter instrumentalized passivity."
This collection of essays has something for nearly everyone interested in the intersection between philosophy and pop culture, but personally, I'd settle for just one the Oracle's cookies.
Indiana University, Bloomington
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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