The Matrix was a watershed movie in a watershed year. 1999. Seriously, go look at what came out that year. I have done 8 Poz Buttons on films from that year: The Matrix, American Beauty, Fight Club, Eyes Wide Shut (2-parter), Office Space, 8mm, Breakfast of Champions. I could easily do 8 more from that year alone. I often come back to 1999 as we’ve frequently said that the 90s were the decade where history was put on pause and 1999 was the year that people tried to make sense of that weird decade and everything that came before it because there was this hope and promise of what 2000, the new millennium, was going to bring.
As we can now see, it was the highwater mark and everything has just been receding sense as we get pulled into the undertow. I often am astounded by the prescience of the film as it remains formless enough to be enduring but memorable. There is no Matrix, as it were. It’s only what you’re willing to see and what you’re willing to bend it toward that makes it what it is. That is what you get though when you take the religion, new age, and philosophy section of a Barnes and Noble bookstore and attempt to throw it all into one movie.
Baudrillard was famously ambivalent about the original Matrix film, seeing it as a general misunderstanding of his works. It’s actually quite easy to sympathize with him on this point as once you begin to understand what Baudrillard means by simulacrums and simulations and hyperreality, it begins to become more apparent why a flashy action film about being inside an actual computer simulation because you’re a human “battery” probably wasn’t going to get quite across the notion of how images become copies divorced from their originals. In order to rectify this problem he was offered a hand in helping to shape the sequels. He, likely wisely, declined this offer.
It might be helpful to try and explain a little bit more of Baudrillard’s philosophy, more than I usually have in the past. We can’t talk about this movie without mentioning Baudrillard and you can’t mention Baudrillard without talking about his ideas. Simulation and Simulacrum is the book that Neo uses early on in the film, before he has become awakened to what the Matrix actually is, to conceal the disks he keeps when he is committing his heinous computer crimes, as 90s hackers are wont to do. When Neo opens the book, the chapter facing the hollowed out other side is the final chapter of the book, “On Nihilism”. I see what you did there, Wachowskis. Quite the way to close out the 90s.
Morpheus quotes the phrase “desert of the real” from it. “Desert of the Real” is from the early pages of Simulation and Simulacrum where Baudrillard is comparing the world to a Borges story about a very realistic map, as his preface to what is called the Third Order of Simulacra. But at the very least I will pull some quotes for you so you can get a taste for the way Baudrillard writes and why people often struggle with him without constant review and re-grounding in his ideas to make sense of what he is saying here:
“Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. 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. “
The Borges story in reference here, by the way, is “On Exactitude in Science”.
That’s not an excerpt by the way. That’s the whole story.
Baudrillard is drawing on this story to illustrate his notions because this tension in the relationship between map and territory is illustrative of the problem that occurs when people begin to mentally inhabit abstract systems. In Borges’ story, you have men who have given themselves over to great, glorious projects to map the plains of their own existence that their descendants find no use for and give it over for the animals and beggars to live in. But it’s a real problem, these issues of modeling, that led Korbynski to remark “a map is not the territory“.
Yes, this is exactly where Houellebecq got his 2010 book title from. I don’t just randomly pick things that are interesting to me. These things are one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of…well, it’s a lot of things.
But this remark of “a map is not the territory” has become one of those philosophical points of fascination for people inclined to think of the systems of complexity we’re developing, especially with regard to the technological system and even more so to the information and media technological system. McLuhan drew upon this notion for his ideas of the medium being the message, not the actual content that it’s delivering. Before Baudrillard came around, Korbynski and others were very concerned that the attempt to model reality could cause people to become confused and accept the map (abstract model) with the territory (concrete reality). Baudrillard building on McLuhan but especially of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (a post all its own), is very much concerned with how the map and the territory blend together because of the way experiences and sensations can be simulated in ways to create an experience more real than real. That is, the map would just simply be far more preferable to live on. Those real falls just don’t look as good as they look on the map.
Ultimately, Baudrillard rejects this example of Borges’ map, “[b]ecause it is with this same imperialism that present-day simulators attempt to make the real, all of the real, coincide with their models of simulation.” What is real has been rendered into an abominable desert, and we’ve wandered so far off the beaten path that we’ve become unmoored in the seas of sand with no sense of direction, chasing only mirages that are copies of images that may only be a product of our delirium. If I am not being clear, what I mean to say is the complexity of our society has become so vast and we have become so divorced from any sense of reality through the technological lives we live that we can’t even distinguish what was the original in this society of endlessly copied images. Was there even such a thing? We are lost in simulations of sensations and feelings. All we have are simulacra.
Simulacra, for those who aren’t a bunch of gay dorks who read postmodern French philosophy, are copies of a thing that have lost its original or never had one. The First Order of Simulacra was bourgeois fashion in the Renassiance period to the Industrial Revolution. Because you had people who were now economically mobile, they could try to counterfeit their role in society with the signs and symbols of the nobility, in order to emancipate themselves from their bourgeois duties and elevate the appearance of their social rank. They wished to simulate being within that aristocratic milieu, that they may even one day become that. Fake it until you make it, counterfeit it until…okay I don’t have a rhyme for this. At best they can only feign or falsify it and can often easily be found out. This leads to the intrigue and the ostentatious upper class cultures of this time period in order to mask a basic reality, but as I said, these things are detectable. The fashion decadence that emerged in 18th century Europe, but especially in France, speaks to this need to remain always the original, unable to be counterfeited lest the copy bankrupt themselves.
The Second Order of Simulacra we get from the 19th century. This is the simulacra that came with the revolution of factory technology and mass production. The simulacra, instead of trying to copy something with a higher social status, are now just repeating and recreating the same thing over and over again with only a serial number for differentiation. Sameness becomes the order of the day. The aristocracy continue their decay to the triumph of the bourgeoisie, as one no longer needs social rank to obtain power but simply money. Unlike the first order the signs here aren’t counterfeits such as in fashion, but being a product of mass production it is indifferent to all of the other signs. This is where Marxist ideas and ideology and use value and the commercial law of value take root. The Secord Order of Simulacra gives birth to homo economicus.
The Third Order of Simulacra, which is where we ware, is the technocapital and media saturation order of things. We often talk about this in the context of media and its hyperreal images, but technology plays a large role in this beyond just making the movies look so good. You’ve got tampering with genetics, cybernetics, the proliferation and bombardment of information technology worming its way into every nook and cranny of culture and society. The rise of science fiction literature is the response and contextualization of all of that. Baudrillard refers to Ballard’s novel Crash, where there is neither fiction nor reality any more (it’s a novel about people who are sexually aroused by car crashes)–hyperreality abolishes both. And that is what is meant by the “desert of the real”. Our relationship with media and technology have abolished the real and have rendered it a desert of itself. The map we have of what a sane society looks like, the one in our heads, is now completely disjointed from this desert of reality we have to now reside in.
When I was preparing my notes on all of this, I realized I was beginning to wander off the reservation of the Matrix. For all of its interesting philosophical ideas the first film plays with, it doesn’t really scratch the surface of what Baudrillard is talking about other than we are moving toward simulation and that ultimately may result in living in a computer simulation but man fighting machine who imprisons man in the simulation against his will is certainly not what Baudrillard meant. That’s fine. It’s largely a movie that serves as one part teenage power fantasy and one part baby’s first Allegory of the Cave, and I will appreciate it for that on those merits. But while typing these notes, I began to wonder what the future of our simulation looks like and a single name popped into my head:
I’ve been recovering from a long term illness so maybe I was just having a fever dream when I had this notion, but whenever Trump is brought up as helping to usher in the postmodern, hyperreal presidency I think people are missing the book end that is Rachel Dolezal. She was unmasked in June 2015, the same month Trump descended the escalator and announced he was running for president.
I don’t believe in meaningful events like these are coincidental. This is our future being set in stone.
Rachel was what everyone needed her to be, right up until the moment one person pointed at her and made everyone see the African Queen has no clothes.
Everyone can hate Rachel Dolezal all they want, but they do so only because her real crime was that the truth about her simulated race came out, and so the socially agreed upon response was that she needed to be the sacrificial goat for hyperreality. Everyone would have been quite content to just go on pretending. She was doing good work for the NAACP, people loved her, and though they may have suspected that something was wrong, she was a beloved simulation of a hard-working and passionate black woman committed to social justice. That she had been a pretty white girl, a girl who probably would not have stood out in 1930s German propaganda, completes the picture of what the hyperreal society of 21st Century America is meant to become.
While they try to get more whites to embrace playing with non-white avatars in video games and identify with non-white characters on movie screens, a veritable stepping into their shoes in the visceral medieas, Rachel Dolezal was ahead of the curve. Why wait with these 1.0. Simulations of black heroism when you can become the black hero, the ultimate expectation of this society with its drive toward creating a mixed-race future for the sake of world peace and the end of the various oppressive isms–you can impress that girl who is going to accuse you of rape later if you call it the kyriarchy. This is present in the way people talk, that one day in the future racism won’t matter because everyone will be mixed and that we are one race, the human race. But getting there won’t be done with just breeding. It’ll be done with gene manipulation, simulation, and other technologies. The Third Order of Simulacra. To find their place in such a society people will simulate being more mixed than they are or a different race entirely for the sake of the social power required to move through such a society. It’s the only one way one would even be able to cope with a future where the preference is for people to be as mixed and diverse as possible and whether you just came from a happy white home or one where your parents are antiracist activists, as technology improves the temptation will always be there to just make yourself black.
Certainly this was a fear that Jordan Peele tapped into with his masterful horror film about white folks stealing the bodies of black folks because “black is in” in his debut film Get Out.
Rachel Dolezal was a pioneer, and her career martyred for it as the truth of what she represents in this hyperreal state is a level of reality that these people simply aren’t ready for even though this is the world they’ve created for us. Like the people of the Matrix, she became a bit too cognizant of the Matrix and had to be dealt with.
For those of us who are attempting to just keep our wits in this desert of the real that has been laid out for us, it’s an extremely daunting challenge. And we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We are in the early stages of it all, we are Howard Carter in that hot Egyptian desert just starting the excavation of Tutankhamen’s Tomb, hearing Lord Canavron call out to us: “Can you see anything?”
“Yes, wonderful things.”
You may live to see man-made horrors worse than Rachel Dolezal beyond your comprehension.
To end back around to where we started, I come back to Simulation and Simulacrum‘s final paragraph, “On Nihilism”, from which Neo conceals all of his dirtiest little secrets in this persona that has been crafted for him of Thomas Anderson, the doubting son of man (this on-the-nose symbology!).
“There is no longer a stage, not even the minimal illusion that makes events capable of adopting the force of reality–no more stage either of mental or political solidarity: what do Chile, Biafra, the boat people, Bologna, or Poland matter? All of that comes to be annihilated on the television screen. We are in the era of events without consequences (and of theories without consequences).”
“This is where seduction begins.”