Slavoj Zizek, "A Muddle Instead of a Movie"
The common wisdom is that, in order to avoid actual violence, we should channel our need for it into more sublimated forms, like competitive sport events (such as boxing). We read a lot about the potentially harmful consequences of children playing violent video games, where they need to kill opponents. The debate is: do such games incite real violence or do they allow players to act out their destructive impulses in a harmless way and thus prevent real violence? But the case of the Slovene ministry tweetowever is almost the opposite. In order to avoid throwing firecrackers (which is, despite all the dangers, a minimally sublimated form of violence), become a soldier and train for the real violence of wounding and killing people!
This perverted logic is the hidden truth of many of today’s complaints that we live in a fake virtual world and that we should return to real life, whatever the risks. Far from being opposed to the fascination with fiction, the escape into the Real is its immanent other side: both extremes characterize what was once called postmodernism, and the problem with Matrix Resurrections is that it proposes a postmodern solution in an era, which left postmodernism behind.
What is postmodernism reduced to its bare minimum? In the opening scene of the TV version of Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, a mouse scurries through the walls of a boarding house in London searching for morsels of food. Having made its way to the upstairs bedroom, it pauses, its whiskers twitching: the crumbs from a bedtime cookie are lying on a saucer. But something strange is happening and it dares not advance to the plate of crumbs—one of the humans is killing the nice young girl who always eats cookies at bedtime. The mouse knows the murderer’s identity, but the police are confused until Poirot enters the scene. From time to time, the mouse is shown in a close-up crawling in the background; it is noticed by humans only at the very end, after Poirot explains the case. At that very moment, the mouse appears on the bookshelf behind Poirot, Poirot’s secretary Ms. Lemon notices it and emits a terrified scream. So, Poirot finally puts in words what the mouse knew all the time… But already this reading of the presence of the mouse in contrast to the narrative line is too much, since it ignores the stupid, meaningless presence of the mouse as a little bit of the real totally indifferent to human concerns. This is how postmodernism works.
And my first reaction to Matrix Resurrections was that it has too many persons who, although officially part of the narrative, are effectively nothing but mice running around. There was much praise for the “complexity” of the story, as if the blurring of clear choices somehow makes the movie psychologically more “realist.” In a properly postmodern way, this complexity is inscribed into the narrative form itself as a wealth of self-reflexive moments: “quotes” from the preceding Matrix trilogy, bits of dialogue which evoke theories about the Matrix series or theories which served as its foundation (Baudrillard, especially). As Rightist rednecks like to say about intellectuals, Lana Wachovsky is often too bright for her own good.
The first thing that stands out in the multitude of reviews of Matrix Resurrections is how easily the movie’s plot (especially its ending) were interpreted as a metaphor for our socio-economic situation. Radical 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 version of some kind of progressive alliance between humans and machines: sixty years after the destructive Machine Wars, “the human survivors have allied with some of the machines to fight an anomaly that jeopardizes the whole Matrix. Scarcity among the Machines led to a civil war that saw a faction of Machines and programs defect and join human society.” Humans also change: 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).
At this point, we have to introduce a key factor and a new person. Scarcity among the Machines refers not just to the devastating effects of 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 the energy. However, the unique impact of the film resides not so much in this premise, which is its central thesis, but in its central image of the millions of human beings leading a claustrophobic life in water-filled cradles, kept alive in order to generate 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 unto the wide space of external reality, but, first, a horrible realization 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 the instruments of the Other’s (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? The purely energetic solution 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 virtual reality coordinated for millions of human units. The only consistent answer is that the Matrix feeds on human jouissance, and so we are 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 the 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 rate of profit in the situation 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. The 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, though 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 of avoiding pain and fear and getting 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 program. 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 outlets Matrix Resurrections was hailed as less “binary,” as more open towards the “rainbow”! Of transgender experiences, too, but, as we can see, the old Hollywood formula of the production of a couple matrix here again: “Neo himself has no interest in anything except rekindling his relationship with Trinity.”
This brings us back to the basic question: what does the Matrix Machine stand for, if we read it not as a direct description of our reality but as a metaphor for our actual situation? It stands for two big Others, two alienated substances that control us: capital and the symbolic order, the order of symbolic fictions that structures our reality. In both cases, the danger to resist is that of a paranoiac reading, as if capital is impersonated in corporate bosses or bank managers who control the game, or as if the symbolic universe is programmed by a Matrix-like machine.
There is a fundamental difference between the subject’s alienation in the symbolic order and the worker’s alienation in capitalist social relations. We have to avoid the two symmetrical traps, which open up if we insist on the homology between the two alienations: the idea that capitalist social alienation is irreducible since the signifying alienation is constitutive of subjectivity, as well as the opposite idea that the signifying alienation could be abolished in the same way Marx imagined the overcoming of capitalist alienation. The point is not just that the signifying alienation is more fundamental and will persist even if we abolish the capitalist alienation; it is a more refined one. The very figure of a subject that would overcome the signifying alienation and become a free agent who is a master of the symbolic universe, i.e., who is no longer embedded in a symbolic substance, can only arise within the space of capitalist alienation, the space, in which free individuals interact.
The lesson is, thus, that we should reject any reference to positive Life as the ground, which is perverted in alienation (as Marx often does). There is no actual life external to alienation, which serves as its positive foundation. The true fetish is not the fetishist reversal of the “natural” hierarchy (instead of actual productive life serving as the foundation of the spectral life of capital, actual life itself is reduced to a subordinate moment of the mad dance of speculative capital). The true fetish is the very notion of direct positive life preceding alienation, an organic life whose balance was destroyed by capitalist alienation. Such a notion is a fetish, since it disavows the antagonisms that traverse the very heart of actual life.
The best-known scene in the first Matrix occurs when Morpheus offers to Neo the choice between Blue Pill and Red Pill. But this choice is a strange no-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.” 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, rather, 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 to Neo, “Welcome to the desert of the real!” This Machine is, in the film’s universe, an object that is present in “real reality”: gigantic computers constructed by humans and holding us prisoners and regulate our self-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 the real world, but through our fantasies imposed on us by the symbolic universe, in which we live. Symbolic universe is “transcendental”; the idea that there is an agent controlling it as an object is a paranoiac dream. Symbolic universe is no object in the world; it provides the very frame of how we approach objects. In this sense, there is nothing outside the symbolic Matrix since we (subjects) cannot step out of ourselves, i.e., as it were stand on our shoulders and draw a clear line of distinction between what only appears to us and what belongs to “the things in themselves.” The Machine in the sense of the symbolic big Other is Kant’s transcendental frame, which structures our approach to reality.
“Transcendental” does not signal the superiority of the subject, but, precisely, its limitation: everything we experience, interact with, appears on a horizon of meaning or within symbolic space into which we are “thrown,” as Heidegger would have put it. When Heidegger characterizes a human being as “being-in-the-world,” this does not mean that we are an object in the world; it means that, because of our limitations, we cannot ever fully self-objectivize ourselves. We cannot perceive and analyse ourselves as just another object in the world, precisely because we are always-already IN the world.
Does this mean that the symbolic universe, as the transcendental horizon that regulates our approach to reality, is our ultimate point of reference, something behind or beneath which we cannot reach? What eludes reality (constructed/mediated by the big Other) is the Real in the Lacanian sense, something that resists symbolization. Now we come to the key point. Lacan’s key name for the Real is jouissance, and this is why the Matrix needs humans: to appropriate from them jouissance, by means of which it can fill in (or, rather, cover up) its inconsistencies and antagonisms.
Today, however, we are getting closer and closer to manufactured machines that 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 goes public about it, there will be a humanitarian twist (“we are not killing humans; just for a brief time diverting their minds…”).
One of the names for “taking the blue pill” is Zuckerberg’s project of “meta-verse”: we take the blue pill by registering in the meta-verse 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 whistle-blower 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, 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 meta-physics actualized: a meta-physical space fully subsuming reality which will be allowed to enter it in fragments only insofar as it will be overlaid by digital guidelines manipulating our perceptions. And the catch is that we will get a privately owned commons, with a private feudal Lord overseeing and regulating our interactions.
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, just not confirmed?
The film’s end brings hope by merely giving the opposite spin on this insight: yes, our world is composed 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 has such a composition, 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 ends, then, 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 market economy reproducing itself without humans is wrong. Some analysts recently proposed the that, with the explosive growth of robotization of production and of artificial intelligence which will more and more play the managerial role of organizing 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 disappear. It exists only as a virtual Other of society, a “reified” form of 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 rely quite heavily on a multitude on 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” (the text’s title). 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 5th symphony was for Shostakovich, an American artist’s creative response to justified criticism.
Notes: Description taken from Amazon.com: Customer reviews: Poirot – Hickory Dickory Dock <https://www.amazon.com/Poirot-Hickory-Dickory-David-Suchet/product-reviews/B00005RIWY?pageNumber=2>
 The Matrix Resurrections Ending Explained and Spoiler Questions Answered | Den of Geek < https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/the-matrix-resurrections-ending-spoilers/>.
 I refer here to my reading of the first Matrix movie available online at https://www.lacan.com/zizek-matrix.htm.
 The Matrix Resurrections review – The Verge < https://www.theverge.com/2021/12/21/22841582/matrix-resurrections-lana-wachowski-keanu-reeves-carrie-anne-moss-review>
 I’ve written about this extensively in my previous books, so I don’t want to lose space here for explaining it.
 I’ve dealt with the notion of the Real in most of my philosophical books. See, for example, Absolute Recoil, London: Verso Books 2015.
 China ‘brain control’ warfare work revealed – Washington Times < https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2021/dec/29/pla-brain-control-warfare-work-revealed/>
 Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen calls for urgent external regulation | Facebook | The Guardian. < https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/oct/25/facebook-whistleblower-frances-haugen-calls-for-urgent-external-regulation>
 See https://edition.cnn.com/2021/10/28/opinions/zuckerberg-facebook-meta-rushkoff/index.html.
 Nothing But A Brain: The Philosophy Of The Matrix: Resurrections (ethics.org.au) < https://ethics.org.au/nothing-but-a-brain-the-philosophy-of-the-matrix-resurrections/>