Baudrillard in The Matrix: the Hyperreal, Hollywood, and a Case for Misused References
by Vartan P. Messier
Vartan Messier is an Instructor in the Department of Humanities at InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico at Aguadilla. His writing has previously appeared in Atenea.
Written and directed by the Wachowski brothers, and released in 1999, The Matrix gave both cultural theorists and movie enthusiasts an opportunity to investigate the film on a variety of academic grounds. Interestingly enough, this implication was brought up within the movie by two references to the work of French sociologist Jean Baudrillard. The first reference is situated towards the beginning of the movie, when Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) grabs the author’s book Simulacra and Simulation to retrieve some mind-altering substances hidden in it. The second is uttered by Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) when he shows Neo the “real world,” saying to him, “Welcome to … the desert of the real.” As a matter of fact, the 1997 script had Morpheus say to Neo, “As in Baudrillard’s vision, your whole life has been spent inside the map, not the territory. This is Chicago as it exists today … ‘The desert of the real.’”
The aim of referring to or invoking a source of authority appears to be a type of tribute, an homage or reverence. To refer to someone else in one’s own text is to recognize the authority or intellectual pertinence of another, whose ideas and concepts are introduced to serve the purposes of illustrating, arguing, and/or reinforcing a set of ideas that is either built upon—or a continuation of—the reference and possibly to reassert its validity within a potentially different context. In doing so, however, a writer or director might miss the mark by misusing and/or misinterpreting the allusion.
Injecting a theoretical element into a big-budget and highly-glossed Hollywood super-production can be considered a commendable effort on the part of the Wachowski brothers. While the reference to Simulacra and Simulation in The Matrix might appear appropriate—indeed the premise of the first film seemingly exemplifies the key concepts articulated by Baudrillard—it is in fact, slightly misleading. What is more distressing, however, is that as the trilogy unfolds, the reference to Baudrillard is gradually eradicated by the commercial ideologies of the entertainment industry, because the marketing strategies and capital concerns of the Hollywood movie-producing matrix supersede the opportunity of accurately assessing the original theoretical foundation.
In “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard refers to Jorge Luis Borges’ fable, “On Exactitude in Science,” in which a 1:1 map of an empire’s territory has completely replaced the territory it represented, arguing that in modern consumer society, which promotes the gradual eradication of nature by culture, the sign, i.e. the map, has replaced reality (1). Typically, individuals privilege the sign over things signified and substitute “signs of the real for the real itself” (2). The purpose of the sign has become what Baudrillard calls “simulacrum,” which he differentiates from representation in the sense that a simulacrum marks the absence, not the existence, of the objects it is supposed to signify (3). Consequently, the world as we experience it is a simulation, where we emulate—or rather, simulate—models of who and what we are supposed to be, following social constructs and conventions propagated through various forms of mass media. For Baudrillard, this situation has created what he calls the “hyperreal,” an existential condition that has progressively eradicated anything that is “real”:
It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself. (1)
In the case of Baudrillard and The Matrix, it would seem that the film’s directors, the Wachowski brothers, aimed to illustrate this concept. Clearly, the directors intended to portray their so-called “matrix” as a “simulation” derived from a “real” that is no longer rational or accurately assessed. If the virtual world portrayed in The Matrix acts as simulacrum for the “real world,” marking its very absence, it would be logical to conclude that the Wachowskis’ reference to Baudrillard to illustrate the concept of their matrix is appropriate. A deeper investigation, however, will demonstrate that this inclusion is somewhat dissonant.
In a recent article, “Simulacra and Simulation: Baudrillard and The Matrix,” Richard Hanley analyzes Baudrillard’s connection to The Matrix from an analytic point of view. As a self-proclaimed analytic philosopher, Hanley is particularly critical of postmodernism, which he considers to be “largely self-indulgent [and] self-important,” and whose popularity he finds unnerving. He claims that in an attempt to be “playful,” postmodernists tend to favor complexity over clarity, which renders their writings obscure and incomprehensible. In discussing Simulacraand Simulation, Hanley emphasizes what he considers to be the particular opaqueness of Baudrillard’s theories before concluding that “perhaps it is better to take him as presenting a cautionary tale of some sort—that we in some meaningful sense have lost touch with reality.” While it is true that Baudrillard’s latest offerings are somewhat inclined to rhetorical excess, Simulacra and Simulation certainly isn’t. Based on his reading of both The Matrix and Simulacra and Simulation, Hanley concedes nonetheless that the “Matrix is a simulation of the sort envisaged [by Baudrillard, and that] ‘a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes,’ even sounds like the Matrix.” To illustrate this point, he argues that Baudrillard’s emphasis on binary codes is well represented in the Wachowskis’ film by the names Neo, an anagram of “one,” and Cypher, which means “zero.” These two observations prompt Hanley to note that “at first blush, the Matrix is based heavily upon Baudrillard’s work, and seems relatively faithful to it.”
However, like the various programs that inhabit the matrix, Hanley did not previously insist on the differences between postmodernist and analytical philosophy without a sense of purpose. While his overall purpose may be disdainful, a couple of his observations are somewhat accurate, specifically when claiming that “Post-modernists are not the only ones interested in the notion of simulation … global simulation of the sort we see in The Matrix seems to be logical, physical and epistemic possibility.” As will be explained below, his opinion coincides with that of Baudrillard who argues that what he finds most disturbing about the film is that it confuses the new problem posited by “simulation” with the more ancient concept of “illusion” as articulated by Plato in the Allegory of the Cave. Hanley refers to the scene where Mouse discusses how the machines are able to determine what food tastes like to argue that The Matrix is actually a more appropriate illustration of analytical concerns regarding “traditional philosophical puzzles concerning global simulation.” He adds that the reference to Simulacra and Simulation is possibly based on a superficial reading due to Baudrillard’s murky and incomprehensible prose. Hanley seems over-anxious to discredit postmodernism by blaming the apparent misuse of the reference to what he perceives to be the source’s rhetorical failures, when in fact he is merely projecting his own frustrations and accusing the Wachowski brothers of intellectual ineptness.
Nonetheless, Hanley asks the correct questions in assessing The Matrix’s reference to Baudrillard: is it a more or less faithful homage or a misguided homage? In his answer he is surprisingly playful: while arguing that “the philosophical issues The Matrix plays with are better interpreted as traditional, modernist, analytic ones, than as post-modernist ones,” he notes that this fact should satisfy post-modernists for it establishes the reference to Baudrillard as ambiguous and ambivalent, and hence, that it is both appropriate and inappropriate. Hanley should have kept this position, for it would have rescued this rather vacuous article, which offers little more than his begrudgement of postmodernism’s academic and popular recognition. Unfortunately, he relentlessly persists in trashing Baudrillard and postmodernism by suggesting that since Neo uses Simulacra and Simulation to hide an “opiate,” it could be interpreted that the book only contains “brain-numbing escapism.” While Hanley admits that perhaps this was not the Wachowskis’ intention, he nonetheless concludes that “to the extent that the Matrix corresponds to Baudrillard’s vision of our condition, The Matrix rejects the pessimistic notion that the real has no chance. Just as escape from the Matrix is possible, so we could escape from the post-modernist condition of simulation, even were it our present lot. And that’s nice to know.” Whereas his overall assessment concerning the reference to Baudrillard is not entirely without merit—stemming from the fact that for Baudrillard, there is no “real” world, just the “hyperreal,” as will be explained in detail later—the na ïveté of his concluding remarks is apparent.
In sharp contrast to Hanley’s view, William Merrin argues that it is quite suitable for the producers of a glossy, hyped-up, big-budget action movie whose main theme is simulation and virtual reality to refer to someone who was once called the “high priest of postmodernism.” For Merrin, “Baudrillard’s inclusion is … an acknowledgement that his theory of simulation and the simulacrum is, in some way, central to the film” adding that The Matrix appropriately illustrates some of Baudrillard’s conceptualizations. Merrin performs the important task of retracing the philosophical discussions pertaining to “images” from Plato to Descartes before discussing Baudrillard’s definitions of simulation and simulacrum. As hinted previously, he aptly argues that The Matrix sends us back to Plato’s allegory of the cave and “the issue of the powerful image which eclipses the real to assume its position, rendering impossible in its usurpation the distinction of image and original, and to the enchaining of humanity.” However, there is one important distinction that needs to be pointed out. In Plato’s allegory, the images projected on the wall are actual projections of the real world, hence not only implying but also confirming the very existence of the real, whereas for Baudrillard, the real has been totally eclipsed by a simulation: the hyperreal.
The occasion when Morpheus quotes from Simulacra and Simulation in the film, showing Neo that the “real” world is in fact a post-apocalyptic waste land, could be considered an appropriate illustration of Baudrillard’s observations for according to the latter, “the real … is no longer really the real [but rather] … It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” (2). Nevertheless, although the Matrix itself can be perceived as hyperreal—especially considering that it is a simulation entirely constructed on simulacra—the film clearly establishes that outside the Matrix there is a “real” world—albeit, of course, an apocalyptic one. This particularity stands in clear contrast to the theory of Baudrillard, according to whom there is no “real,” rather only its “vestiges”: “the desert of the real.” As pointed out earlier, this is one of the reasons Baudrillard finds his own inclusion in the movie misguided, and so it could be argued that The Matrix is closer to Plato’s allegory than to Baudrillard’s theories. What betrays the reference made to Simulacra and Simulation, or rather, what renders it somewhat inexact, is that according to Baudrillard, humansare not given an alternative, humans are trapped in the hyperreal world of the Matrix: they can’t unplug themselves like the characters in the movie and wake up to a “reality” where they are not subjected to a totalizing system of control. Referring to the point made previously regarding the claim that The Matrix is actually a more faithful representation of Plato’s allegory, one needs to recall that after leaving the cave and having lived in the real world, the characters are so disillusioned by their experience that they choose to return to the cave, very much like Cypher when he makes a deal with agent Smith to be “replugged” into the matrix. This is what prompts Merrin to conclude: “For us there is no system failure to return us to the real and this is where the horror of Baudrillard’s vision surpasses that of the Wachowskis’.”
I would argue that this horror is amplified in the next episodes, for the original concerns regarding simulation and the hyperreal are gradually dodged by a kaleidoscope of considerably diverging allusions. Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions display an amazing variety of references and cross-references, a veritable supermarket of interlacing theories and ideas, in which the original premise of simulation is superseded by a smorgasbord of possible religious, philosophical, cultural, and metaphysical interpretations, concurrently demonstrating that the all-encompassing, mass-producing, Hollywood machine-empire has been “reloaded” to the age of globalization in pursuit of world market dominance. As Baudrillard would put it in his critique of capital, “What every society looks for in continuing to produce, and to overproduce, is to restore the real that excapes it. That is why today this “material” production is that of the hyperreal itself” (23).
In an interview entitled “Baudrillard décode Matrix” [“Baudrillard decodes The Matrix” (translation mine)] published in Le Nouvel Observateur soon after the release of Matrix Reloaded, Baudrillard noted that he had been contacted by the production team regarding a possible contribution. “It was not really conceivable,” he apparently chuckled before pointing out that the movie failed to investigate intelligently the implications of simulation, because he considered that what was interesting in simulacra was the “increasing indistinctiveness between reality and virtuality.” For him, the model displayed in The Matrix was rather crude and did not play on this indistinction: “the characters are either in the matrix, i.e. in the numerisation of things, or radically outside, in occurrence in Zion, the rebel stronghold. Rather, what would have been interesting is to show what happens in between these two worlds.”
Even though the second episode of the trilogy only reinforced the clear distinction between the two worlds, the script of Matrix Revolutions, the final episode, seem to have taken Baudrillard’s objections into consideration. At the beginning of the movie, Neo is lost specifically in an “in between world,” where he meets a computer program that has traveled to the “source” in the “real” world to rescue his “daughter” from deletion and is awaiting his ride back to the matrix. The interaction between these two characters, each belonging to the opposite worlds of the real and the virtual, in this physical “in between” reveals what discursive possibilities lie at the intersections of the two dimensions. The indistinctiveness between reality and virtuality is made increasingly apparent and seems to align itself with Baudrillard’s notion that “simulation threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary.’” Yet there is something particularly interesting and sadly distressing at once in this scene; the fact that a simulated entity is able to feel “love”—a point that is immediately picked up by Neo, who finds it paradoxical. Responding to his dubiousness, the computer program tells Neo that “love” is not an emotion, but a “word”: a “connection.” This could signify that this connection represents the affinity between the two dimensions—which in itself reveals an original and thought-provoking idea. Unfortunately, this possibility is not investigated any further and the plot quickly jumps-cut to another high-tech, flawless action sequence. What is even more dumbfounding is that when put in the perspective of the entire trilogy, it appears that “love” is also the connection between the three movies, for it plays an important role in the denouement of each episode. It is in part the reliance on such an obvious cliché—the importance given to love as the ultimate force, the savior of mankind—that reduces the possibilities offered by the simulation model. The use of such a formula only bears witness to the fact that it is a strategy aimed to please the general audience, which is especially gullible and credulous of these crowd-pleasing devices. I would argue that this aspect, coupled with the overuse of crowd-pleasing special effects and the MTV-style editing, constitutes the major weakness of the trilogy. Whereas the first episode presented “a neatly knotted marriage between a spectacle and a speculation,” as Adam Gnopnik points out (68), it is the gradual imbalance between “spectacle” and “speculation” that ultimately causes the defeat of thought-provoking philosophical musings by the tentacles of the money-making sentinels of Hollywood movie producers.
There is no doubt that the purpose of the Matrix-machine—which, by the release of the second and third episode had become a franchise—was aimed to produce capital rather than to offer a window of speculation. Yet, although Baudrillard explicitly rejects the possibility that The Matrix offers an adequate illustration of his theories of simulation in the aforementioned interview, there is one particular interpretive stance that calls not only for a reconsideration of the movies’ intellectual premise but also the categorization of the initial reference made to Simulacra and Simulation. Drawing from a number of scenes from Reloaded and Revolution, some critics and commentators suggest that the “real” world—the one where man and machine fight a deadly war—is in actuality another matrix. Dubbed “meta-matrix” or the “blue matrix,” its viability engenders a series of discursive implications. Peter B. Lloyd claims that Baudrillard’s concept of “the desert of the real” is an allusion to vestiges that only seem real and that “since they are contained within the hyperreality, they are simulacra, copies of nothing at all.” Hence Lloyd points out that “when Morpheus alludes to the ‘desert of the real,’ he is not referring to a genuine reality, but to an illusion of reality within a fully virtual world. He is implying that the scorched Earth is not real, but virtual: a simulacrum of something that never existed.” This last point raised by Lloyd could be supported by the fact that when Morpheus shows Neo an apocalyptic landscape, he does so through a television screen in a simulation of the Matrix, which legitimates the idea that the scorched earth that Neo witnesses for the first time isvirtual and hence, as much a simulation as the original matrix.
The premise of the “Meta-Matrix” can also be supported by the scene where the Architect and Neo meet in Reloaded. At that moment, the former informs the latter of his nature and his purpose; namely that he is in not the first, but the sixth recurrence of the “One” and that he represents an “anomaly: the problem of choice” or as Lloyd has suggested, the concept of free will, precisely that which distinguishes humans and their deterministic enemies. The Architect claims that this anomaly has gradually been assimilated by the system and that Neo’s purpose is to prompt the matrix to cause the system to “reboot” itself. This would then achieve the destruction of Zion before it is eventually reincorporated in a perpetual cycle of death and rebirth, which ensures the proper functioning of the system by purging it of the ruptures caused by the repeated occurrences of the anomaly. Consequently, this implies that “the One” co-opts with the system by creating the illusion of a savior, the illusion of choice and free will when what he actually represents is another system of control. As the Merovingian aptly notes in what could be considered a Foucauldian conceptualization of power, “Choice is an illusion created between those with power, and those without.” Apart from this pivotal episode, there are a number of additional scenes that reinforce the possibility of two matrices: when Neo is able to feel the Sentinels and stop them very much in the same way he stops bullets in the regular matrix; when Smith “infects” Bane’s avatar in the Matrix and is able to enter the Meta-Matrix and take control over his body; or again when Neo is left blind and is able to see the Meta-Matrix as a series of codes, which is similar to the way hackers see the Matrix. As advanced by Lloyd, one rational explanation for the existence of the Meta-Matrix is that both virtual worlds were created simultaneously in order to insure the total control over its subjects: “[the original creators] anticipated that some individuals would escape from the Matrix, and that a movement would develop in which freed humans would seek to recruit other Matrix refusers. These rebels would be siphoned off into the Meta-Matrix, where people would happily remain in the mistaken belief that they were free.”
In light of all this, how does the thesis of the Meta-Matrix then shape the categorization of the reference to Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation? If Zion and the supposed “real” world are indeed another level of simulation, the view articulated previously concerning the misquoting of Baudrillard needs to be reassessed. For Lloyd, there is no doubt: if the characters perpetually “wake up” from one matrix only to find themselves in another, “it would … be perfectly consistent with Baudrillard’s notion of reality.” My own conclusions, however, are not so unambiguous. What is most disputable is that the sociologist’s conceptualization of the hyperreal does not provide for the possibility of multiple, simultaneous matrices. As Baudrillard points out, The hyperreal is “produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere,” and that these “models” stem from the real where “the miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control … can be reproduced an indefinite number of times.” I agree that if this passage is not carefully scrutinized, it could allow the likes of Lloyd to perceive that this reproduction includes that of matrices and the hyperreal. What Baudrillard suggests, however, is that all these “cells, matrices, memory banks, and models of control” that are reproduced to infinity have collapsed to produce the hyperreal, and not that the hyperreal is able to reproduce itself to infinity as Lloyd claims. As a matter of fact, in the same interview cited above, Baudrillard specifically insists that he is in theoretical disagreement with the idea of a total virtual circuit. For the French sociologist, there is only one hyperreality; it is the one we live in.
Baudrillard argues that “The Matrix portrays an overpowering monopolistic image of the actual situation, and collaborates with its refraction.” In other words, the motivation behind The Matrix movies has always been one of co-optation. Baudrillard perceives the work of the Wachoski brothers to be merely another instrument of a major institutional power, Hollywood, before concluding, “The Matrix is like the film on the matrix that the matrix could have fabricated.” As a form of entertainment, a work of fiction, The Matrix trilogy creates the false idea that the hyperreal is merely an illusionary world, a veil, when in actuality it isn’t—and that is particularly frightening.
Works Cited and Consulted
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
- - - . “Baudrillard décode ‘Matrix.’” Le Nouvel Observateur. June 19, 2003: (2015).
Gnopik, Adam. “The Unreal Thing: What’s Wrong with the Matrix?” The New Yorker. May 19, 2003. 79 (12): 68-73.
Hanley, Richard. “Simulacra and Simulation: Baudrillard and The Matrix.” Philosophy & The Matrix. December 19, 2003. <http://whatisthematrix.warnerbros.com/rl_cmp/phi.html> April 5, 2005.
Lloyd, Peter B. “Glitches Reloaded.” KurzweilAI.net . June 1, 2003. <http:// www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0581.html>. April 5, 2005 .
Merrin, Willian. “‘Did You Ever Eat Tasty Wheat?’: Baudrillard and The Matrix.” Scope: An Online Journal of Film Studies. February 2, 2003. <http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/ film/journal/articles/did-you-ever-eat.htm > April 5, 2005.
Simpkins, Rebekah. “Visualizing Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation through Matrix.” Notes on Contemporary Literature. 30.4 (2000): 6-9.
The Matrix. Dirs. Andy and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves. Warner Home Video: 2000.
The Matrix: Reloaded. Dirs. Andy and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves. Warner Home Video: 2003.
The Matrix: Revolutions. Dirs. Andy and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves. Warner Home Video: 2004.
Wachowski, Andy and Larry. The Matrix. [movie script]. June 3, 1997. <http://www.scifiscripts.com/scripts/matrix_97_draft.txt> April 5, 2005.