NOV 8-10


Tues, Nov 8

VIEW: Andy and Lana Wachowski, The Matrix


  1. BulletJean Baudrillard, ‘The Precession of Simulacra’

  2. BulletBaudrillard Module on Postmodernity

  3. BulletBaudrillard Module on Simulation

Thurs, Nov 10


  1. Bullet Dino Felluga, ‘The Matrix: Paradigm of ...? (Part I)’

  2. BulletAndrew Gordon, ‘The Matrix: Paradigm of ...? (Part II)’



"The Matrix of the Symbolic Order"

This week, we discussed Larry and Andy Wachowski's film, The Matrix, a film that purports to represent in cinematic form a number of theoretical concepts covered in this course (Jean Baudrillard's concept of the simulacrum, Jacques Lacan's understanding of the Real, and a feminist understanding of the power politics behind looking). Indeed, not only do the Wachowskis quote Baudrillard and embed a copy of Simulacra and Simulation in the movie but they had the main actors read Baudrillard in preparation for filming. Their concern with issues of gender and film was also made clear in their brilliant reworking of film noir, Bound, the movie they completed in order to prove to Hollywood studios that they were ready to take on the big-budget  Matrix. The class was prepared for their viewing of the film by reading Baudrillard as well as a debate between me and Andrew Gordon regarding the merits of The Matrix (published in Taking the Red Pill).


The first day was spent analyzing the extremely rich opening of the film. Even the opening manipulation of the logo can be analyzed: the opening underlines how late capitalism and the very film we're watching are aligned with the Matrix, as Ross Piedmonte argued; you pointed out that the destruction of Warner Bros.'s blue sky sets up the very genre of the film (i.e. dystopia); one might add that the extreme close-up followed by a zoom out parallels the plot of the film: you are thrown in medias res before being able to understand the real diegesis (i.e., before understanding that the opening of the film is set inside the matrix). By stepping back, you are able to see the code itself, which resembles Jameson's suggestion that what we lack in late capitalism are cognitive maps by which to make sense of the capitalist matrix in which we are caught. As I suggested, the manipulation of the logo was seen by the creators of the film as a statement of purpose. As John Gaeta, the special-effects coordinator of the film, puts it, "The opening of the movie was important in that we wanted to alter the logos of the studios, mostly because we felt they were an evil empire bent on breaking the creative juices of the average director or writer, so we felt that desecrating the studio symbols was an important message to the audience, that we basically reject the system." The movie could thus be said to reach out from its diegesis to make a statement about its own form of transmission, as Mary Komlofske argued in a previous version of this class. Ultimately, the movie functions as an allegory about our own culture: we too are in the matrix, the movie is suggesting. As Morpheus tells Neo in the original shooting script of the film, "You have been living inside a dreamworld, Neo. As in Baudrillard's vision, your whole life has been spent inside the map, not the territory." Of course, for Baudrillard, we too are living in a world of simulacra separated from any real referents. According to Baudrillard, when it comes to postmodern simulation and simulacra, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” ("The Precession of Simulacra" 2).


The first shot within the film is that of the matrix code. As Kailey Merida brilliantly pointed out, what we are thus given is, in fact, an establishing shot, though we don't realize it until the middle of the film. As in the traditional Hollywood opening, we are given a long shot of sorts establishing the location of the film's diegesis, which in this film occurs precisely inside computer code (rather than an actual city). The green code also suggests older computer technology—yet another exemplification of Jameson's concept of retro pastiche (here evoked through superceded technology, which we see throughout this film as we did in Blade Runner). We are thus given stylizations of the past but without any sense of actual history, or so Jameson would argue. I added that the very characters of the matrix code (somewhere between Arabic, Japanese, and dingbat symbols) serve to underscore how language and the symbolic order it undergirds are perfectly arbitrary: there's nothing that ties the written or spoken word, "tree," to the real thing it refers to, a fact that makes possible our creation of "reality" as a screen overtop an "impossible" or unrepresentable real. The mix of languages in the matrix code is like the argot spoken by the denizens of Blade Runner (itself a mix of German, Japanese, English, etc.), an analog to the multicultural and multinational nature of the postmodern world, as you suggested.


We then turn in the movie to a trace program, which resembles the other aspect of a Hollywood film's opening: the search for a subject with whom to identify, as Gabby Teter explained: we begin to "zero" in, as one might put it. According to Laura Mulvey, we are usually invited to identify with a male subject (especially in film noir, which The Matrix evokes); we align our look with that of the principle male character who then looks at passive objects of desire (fetishized women). Indeed, in film noir, the protagonist often ends up precisely punishing the transgressive femme fatale. The opening sequence thus once again undoes our expectations, with the female object refusing to be subdued, taking control of the flashlight that is attempting to spotlight her. The look here is commandeered by the female protagonist as is the very frame of the picture, with the cop framed at one point by Trinity's arm while Trinity returns our look, as Alex Reynaud explained. The Wachowskis thus work against the gender expectations evoked by the binary, looking/looked-at, which is usually mapped onto the binary, active male vs. passive female. The gender politics are underlined at various points: the lieutenant stating "I think we can handle one little girl" or Neo assuming the famous hacker, Trinity, is a man. (As Trinity tells him, "most guys do.")  

The gender politics (and Lacanian allegory) of the scene are then nicely summarized in the crass play-on-words offered by the lieutenant in the opening sequence. As he tells Agent Smith, "if you give me that juris-my-dick-tion crap, I'll stick it right up your ass." That term, juris-my-dick-tion, perfectly summarizes Lacan's understanding of the symbolic order: juris/law, diction/language, and dick/phallus, as As Alex Reynaud and Sara Kramer explained.

The fact that we move through a zero to get into the matrix further underlines a Lacanian concept, Sara went on: that our "reality" is, ultimately, a nothingness (an illusion or fantasy) which is constructed over a hole or lack from which the Real forever threatens to erupt. That we move from that zero to a policeman holding at once a flashlight (suggestive of the film camera projecting our film) and a phallic gun underscores that the symbolic order compensates for its lack by creating fantasies of control tied to what Lacan terms the Name-of-the-Father.



We also discussed the reasons for the use of "Room 101" as Neo's room number: he is the one; the numbers suggest computer code; Room 101 is the room in George Orwell's 1984 where the main character is made to believe a false reality; a 101 course suggests an entry-level offering and we too are about to take the Matrix 101, you might say; and the numbers suggest a mirror (one of the important Lacanian themes in the film). This sort of play with language (along with the anagrams, Neo, Eon, One) could be said to underline the arbitrary nature of language, the fact that language does not refer to the world in any natural or necessary way, which, according to Lacan, ensures our separation from the Real.  Thanks to Ross Piedmonte, Alex Reynaud and Vivian Gu for leading us in this discussion.

We also discussed the first room we enter: 303: not only does the room tie in to Trinity but the room happens to be the same room where the film ends, where Neo is shot by Agent Smith. As with so many of the episodes and films we have examined this semester, the narrative thus comes full circle, with the zero in 303 thus representing for us yet one more metaphor for narrative. 


You also explored the way that Neo's awakening into the real world perfectly follows a Lacanian progression: from the matrix through the mirror stage (while the trace program is running) to the Real (Neo's rebirth into the human field of "batteries"), and then arguably back again (since Neo could be said to reconstitute a lost symbolic order once he enters the supposed "real world"). I also pointed out that the mirror goo joins the goop of Buffy, "Restless," and the vomit of Buffy, "The Body," as an effort to represent the real directly (or, at least, metaphorically). Thanks to Alex Reynaud and Ross Piedmonte for leading us in this discussion.

The construct sequence similarly explores the relation of reality to the Real, and in a fashion that is more complicated than the scene at first appears. After all, according to Lacan (or Baudrillard), it is impossible to welcome someone to the Real, as Morpheus does, since the Real is, by definition, outside of language. It should be recalled, however, that the scene claims to access the Real at two stages removed: the "real" is shown to Neo within an artificial computer program and the two characters access the "real" by appearing to move through a "deep image" television set. It may well be that the amorphous whiteness of the construct is, in fact, closer to the Real, resembling one of Žižek’s favorite examples of the Real, Robert Heinlein's The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag: the "grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life" in the story is, according to Žižek, the Lacanian Real, the recognition that we have "been confronted with the formless grey, with the emptiness of the screen, with the 'place where nothing takes place but the place'" (Looking Awry 15).

Nonetheless, Neo's response to the intrusion of the Real is precisely the one we have already seen in the Buffy episode "The Body" and the X-Files episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," one that we have come to expect after reading Julia Kristeva on the abject: Neo vomits.


We also continued to pursue a question I’ve mentioned before this semester, taken up again this week: is it possible to mount an effective critique of multinational capitalism or of the postmodern condition in a form (Hollywood film) that is highly postmodern and not only reliant on multinational corporations for its funding but also a money-maker for those very corporations. This question speaks to the very heart of the postmodern condition and postmodern theory. The difficulty of answering the question explains how we can have such disparate takes on the postmodern condition: from positive readings of postmodern parody and self-reflexivity (Linda Hutcheon) to the dystopic versions of both postmodern society and postmodern theory that we find in Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson. In a previous semester, Ryan Fohl brought a perfect example of the difficulty of mounting an effective critique within a capitalist product. He brought in the then-new design for PowerAde, a drink that is, in fact, owned by that most perfect example of multinational corporations, Coke (recall the Enjoy! analysis from the class on Blade Runner). The matrix code, which in the film functions as a critique of our reliance on multinational corporations and the simulacra of postmodern culture, is here used to sell a product by one of the most notorious of multinational corporations. What's more, the product claims to give you "power," aid (spelled "ade"), "energy," and also the very vitamins that are missing from our diets because of America's turn to junk food (simulacra of real food, you might say). The product exemplifies one of the points raised this week: the ability of late capitalism to turn any critique directed against it into advertising that then sells more products.

We also discussed other contradictions of the film: the Matrix exists as a morality tale about the dangers of technology yet it employs new technologies (bullet time) that could be said to transform the way we understand time and space. We thus continued our past discussions regarding the effects of new technology on human consciousness. Another contradiction is the fact that at times the Matrix appears to be self-conscious and self-reflexive (the opening subversion on an establishing shot, Mr. Reagan's desire to be re-inserted into the Matrix as an actor), yet bullet time could well be said to be an example of suture taken to the nth extreme, even as it does effectively break the 180 degree rule so important to suture. (On suture, see the Buffy, “Once More, with Feeling” synopsis.) One goal of the film is to advance special effects to the point that we are completely convinced of the diegetic illusion before us, thus forgetting the massive amount of technology that actually makes the vision a "reality." The movie thus seems "more real than real."


One other scene we discussed is the interrogation of Morpheus by Agent Smith. Here again we could be said to be given an allegory of Lacanian concepts. As Agent Smith informs Morpheus,

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 were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human being define their reality through suffering and misery.

Lacan and Freud would both agree, of course. Freud argues that humans cannot help but feel the influence of the death instincts, which continually work in tension with the sex/life drives. Lacan argues that humanity is not interested in perfect consummation but in maintaining desire, which requires that the object of our desires remain always out of reach. One might also say that the rebellion that results from dissatisfaction is itself demanded by our superegos. The command of the superego, after all, is not "obey!" but "enjoy!" As we saw when I played the classroom clip from Monty Python's Meaning of Life, rebellion itself is caught up in the superego, which thus takes away our last private spaces of resistance and enjoyment. As Agent Smith explains, it is only after the AIs incorporated rebellion, crime, and dissatisfaction into the Matrix that they were able finally to control humanity. Of course, Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions go so far as to suggest that Neo's own supposed escape from the Matrix at the end of the first film was itself always already encoded into a yet bigger meta-matrix.


Synopsis for Nov 8-10

ENGL 373H: The Theory of SF&F

INSTRUCTOR         : Prof. Felluga

OFFICE                    : HEAV 430

OFFICE HOURS      : T,Th 1:30-2:30 (or email me)

E-MAIL:                   :


In this third block of classes, we will examine a number of science-fiction examples that explore our current age, which has been termed by many ‘postmodernity.’ We will explore the various elements of our current ‘postmodern condition,’ including computer culture, image culture, media culture, pop culture, and multiculturalism.  Alongside the films, we will be reading some of the most influential postmodern theorists of the last three decades. In so doing, we will explore a number of concepts that have been used to understand our age (pastiche, parody, cyborg and the simulacrum).