by Slavoj Žižek

If, then, Hitchcock’s Psycho confronts us with the antagonisms of modernity, how are these antagonisms displaced in our postmodern era? Andy and Larry Wachowskis The Matrix unwittingly provides the answer. When I saw this film at a local theater in Slovenia, I had the unique opportunity of sitting close to the ideal spectator of the film — namely, an idiot. A man in his late twenties seated to my right was so immersed in the film that he all the time disturbed other spectators with loud exclamations, like “My God, wow, so there is no reality!’’ I definitely prefer such naive immersion to the pseudosophisticated intellectualist readings that project into the film the refined philosophical or psychoanalytic conceptual distinctions.1

It is nonetheless easy to understand this intellectual attraction to The Matrix. Is it not that The Matrix is one of the films that function as a kind of Rorschach test, setting in motion the universalized process of recognition (like the proverbial painting of God that seems always to stare directly at you, from whichever angle you view it), that practically every orientation seems to recognize itself in it? My Lacanian friends are telling me that the authors must have read Lacan; the Frankfurt School partisans see in The Matrix the extrapolated embodiment of Kulturindustrie, the alienated-reified social substance (of capital) directly taking over, colonizing our inner life itself, using us as the source of energy; New Agers see it in the source of speculations on how our world is just a mirage generated by a global Mind embodied in the World Wide Web. This series goes back to Plato’s Republic: does The Matrix not repeat exactly Plato’s dispositif of the cave (ordinary’ humans as prisoners, tied firmly to their seats and compelled to watch the shadowy performance of what is falsely considered to be reality)? The important difference, of course, is that when some individuals escape their cave predicament and step out to the surface of the Earth, what they find there is no longer the bright surface illuminated by the rays of the sun, the supreme good, but the desolate “desert of the real.” The key opposition is here the one between the Frankfurt school and Lacan: should we historicize The Matrix into the metaphor of the capital that colonized culture and subjectivity, or is it the reification of the symbolic order as such? What if, however this very alternative is false? What if the virtual character of the symbolic order as such is the very condition of historicity’?

REACHING THE END OF THE WORLD

The idea of the hero living in a totally manipulated and controlled artificial universe is hardly original: The Matrix just radicalizes it by bringing in virtual reality (VR). The point here is the radical ambiguity of VR with regard to the problematic of iconoclasm. On the one hand, VR marks the radical reduction of the wealth of our sensory experience to not even letters, but the minimal digital series of 0 and 1, of the passing and not-passing of the electrical signal. On the other hand, this very digital machine generates the “simulated” experience of reality that tends to become indiscernable from the “real” reality, with the consequence of undermining the very notion of “real” reality—VR is thus, at the same time, the most radical assertion of the seductive power of images.

Is not the ultimate American paranoiac fantasy that of an individual living in a small idyllic Florida city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show? The most recent example of this is Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998), with Jim Carrey playing the small town clerk who gradually discovers that he is the protagonist of a twenty-four-hour TV series: his hometown is constructed on a a gigantic studio set, with cameras following him constantly. Peter Sloterdijk’s “sphere” is here literally realized as the gigantic metal sphere that envelopes and isolates Truman’s entire city. This final shot of The Truman Show may seem to enact the liberating experience of breaking out from the ideological suture of the enclosed universe into its outside, invisible from the ideological inside. However, what if it is precisely this “happy” denouement of the film (let us not forget: applauded by the millions around the world watching the last minutes of the show), with the hero breaking out and, as we are led to believe, soon to join his true love (so that we have again the formula of the production of the couple!), that is ideology at its purest? What if ideology resides in the very belief that, outside the closure of the finite universe, there is some “true reality” to be entered?2

Among the predecessors of this notion, it is worth mentioning Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959), in which a hero living a modest daily life in a small idyllic California city of the late 1950s gradually discovers that the whole town is a fake staged to keep him satisfied. The underlying experience of Time Out of Joint and of The Truman Show is that the late capitalist consumerist paradise is in its very hyperreality irreal, substanceless, and deprived of material inertia. So it is not only that Hollywood stages a semblance of real life deprived of the weight and inertia of materiality; in the late capitalist consumerist society, “real social life” itself somehow acquires the features of a staged fake, with our neighbors behaving in “real” life as stage actors and extras. The ultimate truth of the capitalist utilitarian despiritualized universe is the dematerialization of the “real life” itself, its reversal into a spectral show.

In the realm of science fiction, one should mention also Brian Aldiss’ Starship, in which members of a tribe live in a closed world of a tunnel in a giant starship, isolated from the rest of the ship by thick vegetation, unaware that there is a universe beyond; finally, some children penetrate the bushes and reach the world beyond, populated by other tribes. Among the older, more “naive” forerunners, one should mention George Seaton’s 36 Hours, a film from the early 1960s about an American officer (James Garner) who knows all the plans for the D-Day invasion of Normandy and is accidentally taken prisoner by Germans just days before the invasion. Since he is unconscious from an explosion when taken prisoner, the Germans quickly construct for him a replica of a small American military’ hospital resort, trying to convince him that he now lives in 1950, that America won the war and that he has lost memory’ for the last six years—the idea being that he can now safely tell all about the invasion plans, in order for the Germans to prepare themselves. Gracks soon appear in this carefully constructed edifice. (Did not Vladimir Lenin himself, in the last two years of his life, live in a similarly controlled environment, in which, as we now know, Stalin had printed for him a specially prepared single copy of Pravda, censored of all news that would tell Lenin about the political struggles going on, with the justification that Comrade Lenin should take a rest and not be excited by unnecessary provocations?)

What lurks in the background is, of course, the premodern notion of “arriving at the end of the universe”: in the well-known engravings, the surprised wanderers approach the screen/curtain of heaven, a flat surface with painted stars on it, pierce it and reach beyond —it is exactly this that happens at the end of The Truman Show. No wonder that the last scene of the film, in which Truman steps up the stairs attached to the wall on which the blue sky horizon is painted and there opens up a door, has a distinct Magrittean touch; is it not that, today, this same sensitivity is returning with a vengeance? Do works like Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s Parsifal, in which the infinite horizon is also blocked by obviously “artificial” rear projections, not signal that the time of the Cartesian infinite perspective is running out, and that we are returning to a kind of renewed medieval preperspective universe? Fredric Jameson has perspicuously drawn attention to the same phenomenon in some of Raymond Chandler’s novels and Hitchcock’s films: the shore of the Pacific Ocean in Farewell, My Lovely functions as a kind of end/limit of the world, beyond which there is an unknown abyss; and it is similar with the vast open valley that stretches out in front of Mount Rushmore’s heads when, on the run from their pursuers Eva-Marie Saint and Cary Grant reach the peak of the monument (and into which Saint almost falls before being pulled up by Cary Grant); and one is tempted to add to this series the famous battle scene at a bridge on the Vietnamese/Cambodian frontier in Apocalypse Now, where the space beyond the bridge is experienced as the “beyond of our known universe.” And how not to recall that the idea that our Earth is not the planet floating in the infinite space, but a circular opening, a hole, within the endless compact mass of eternal ice, with the sun in its center, was one of the favorite Nazi pseudoscientific fantasies (according to some reports, they even considered putting some telescopes on the Sylt Islands in order to observe America)?

THE “REALLY EXISTING” BIG OTHER

What, then, is The Matrix? Simply the Lacanian “big Other,” the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us. This dimension of the “big Other” is that of the constitutive alienation of the subject in the symbolic order: the big Other pulls the strings, the subject doesn’t speak, he “is spoken” by the symbolic structure. In short, this “big Other” is the name for the social substance, for all that on account of which the subject never fully dominates the effects of his acts, that is on account of which the final outcome of his activity is always something else with regard to what he aimed at or anticipated. However, it is here crucial to note that, in the key chapters of volume 11 of his Seminar, Lacan struggles to delineate the operation that follows alienation and is in a sense its counterpoint, that of separation: alienation in the big Other is followed by the separation from the big Other. Separation takes place when the subject takes note of how the big Other is in itself inconsistent, purely virtual, “barred,” deprived of the thing—and fantasy is an attempt to fill out this lack of the Other, not of the subject (i.e. to (reconstitute the consistency of the big Other). For that reason, fantasy and paranoia are inherently linked: paranoia is at its most elementary a belief into an “Other of the Other,” into another Other who, hidden behind the Other of the explicit social texture, programs what appears to us as the unforeseen effects of social life and thus guarantees its consistency: beneath the chaos of market, the degradation of morals, and so on, there is the purposeful strategy of the Jewish plot. This paranoiac stance acquired a further boost with today’s digitalization of our daily lives: when our entire (social) existence is progressively externalized/materialized in the big Other of the computer network, it is easy to imagine an evil programmer erasing our digital identity and thus depriving us of our social existence, turning us into nonpersons.

Following the same paranoiac twist, the thesis of The Matrix is that this big Other is externalized in the really existing megacomputer. There is —there has to be—a matrix because “things arc not right, opportunities are missed, something goes wrong all the time ; that is, the film’s idea is that it is so because there is the matrix that obfuscates the “true” reality that is behind it all. Consequently, the problem with the film is that it is not “crazy” enough because it supposes another “real” reality behind our everyday reality’ sustained by the matrix. However, to avoid the fatal misunderstanding: the inverse notion that “all there is is generated by the matrix,” that there is no ultimate reality just an infinite series of virtual realities mirroring themselves in each other, is no less ideological. (In the sequels to The Matrix, we shall probably learn that the very “desert of the real” is generated by another matrix.) Much more subversive than this multiplication of virtual universes would have been the multiplication of realities themselves—something that would reproduce the paradoxical danger that some physicians see in recent high accelerator experiments. As is well known, scientists are now hying to construct the accelerator capable of smashing together the nuclei of very heavy atoms at nearly the speed of light. The idea is that such a collision will not only shatter the atom’s nuclei into their constituent protons and neutrons, but will pulverize the protons and neutrons themselves, leaving a “plasma,” a kind of energy soup consisting of loose quark and gluon particles, the building blocks of matter that have never before been studied in such a state, since such a state only existed briefly after the big bang. However, this prospect has given rise to a nightmarish scenario: What if the success of this experiment will create a doomsday machine, a kind of world-devouring monster that will with inexorable necessity annihilate the ordinary matter around itself and thus abolish the world as we know it? The irony of it is that this end of the world, this disintegration of the universe, would be the ultimate irrefutable proof that the tested theory is true, since it would suck all matter into a black hole and then bring about a new universe, to perfectly recreate the big bang scenario.

The paradox is thus that both versions—(1) a subject freely floating from one to another VR, a pure ghost aware that every reality is a fake; and (2) the paranoiac supposition of the real reality beneath the Matrix—are false: they both miss the real. The film is not wrong in insisting that there is a real beneath the VR simulation; as Moqdieus puts to Neo when he shows him the ruined Chicago landscape, “Welcome to the desert of the real.” However, the real is not the “true reality” behind the virtual simulation, but the void that makes reality incomplete/inconsistent, and the function of every symbolic matrix is to conceal this inconsistency—one of the ways to effect this concealment is precisely to claim that, behind the incomplete/inconsistent reality we know, there is another reality with no deadlock of impossibility structuring it.

THE BIG OTHER DOESN’T EXIST

“Big Other” also stands for the field of common sense at which one can arrive after free deliberation; philosophically, its last great version is Jurgen Habermas’ communicative community with its regulative ideal of agreement. And it is this big Other that progressively disintegrates today. The expert jargon is presented as an objective insight with which one cannot really argue, and which is simultaneously untranslatable into our common experience. In short, the gap between scientific insight and common sense is unbridgeable, and it is this very gap that elevates scientists into the popular cult-figures of the “subjects supposed to know” (the Stephen Hawking phenomenon). The strict obverse of this objectivity is the way in which, in the cultural matters, we are confronted with the multitude of lifestyles that one cannot translate into each other. This split is perfectly rendered in the phenomenon of cyberspace. Cyberspace was supposed to bring us all together in a global village; however, what effectively happens is that we are bombarded with the multitude of messages belonging to inconsistent and incompatible universes; instead of the global village, the big Other, we get the multitude of “small others,” of tribal particular identifications at our choice. To avoid a misunderstanding: Lacan is here far from relativizing science into just one of the arbitrary narratives, ultimately on equal footing with “politically correct” myths and the like: science does “touch the real ,” its knowledge is “knowledge in the real”; the deadlock resides simply in the fact that scientific knowledge cannot serve as the symbolic “big Other.” The gap between modern science and the Aristotelian commonsense philosophical ontology is here insurmountable: it emerges already with Galileo, and is brought to the extreme in quantum physics, where we are dealing with the rules/laws that function, although they cannot ever be retranslated into our experience of representable reality.

The theory of risk society and its global reflexivization is right in its emphasis on how, today, we are at the opposite end of the classical Enlightenment universalist ideology’ that presupposed that, in the long run, fundamental questions can be resolved by way of the reference to the “objective knowledge” of the experts: when we are confronted with the conflicting opinions about the environmental consequences of a certain new product (say, of genetically modified vegetables), we search in vain for the ultimate expert opinion. And the point is not simply that the real issues are bluffed because science is corrupted through financial dependence on large corporations and state agencies; even in themselves, sciences cannot provide the answer. Ecologists predicted fifteen years ago the death of our forests—the problem is now a too-large increase of wood. Where this theory’ of risk society’ is too short is in emphasizing the irrational predicament into which this puts us, the common subjects: we are again and again compelled to decide, although we are well aware that we are in no position to decide that our decision will be arbitrary. Ulrich Beck and his followers refer here to the democratic discussion of all options and consensus building. However, this does not resolve the immobilizing dilemma: Why should the democratic discussion in which the majority participates lead to better result, when, cognitively, the ignorance of the majority remains? The political frustration of the majority is thus understandable: they are called to decide, while, at the same time, receiving the message that they are in no position effectively to decide, to objectively weigh the pros and cons. The recourse to “conspiracy theories” is a desperate way out of this deadlock, an attempt to regain a minimum of what Fredric Jameson calls “cognitive mapping.”

Jodi Dean3 drew attention to a curious phenomenon clearly observable in the “dialogue of the mutes” between the official (“serious,” academically institutionalized) science and the vast domain of so-called pseudosciences, from ufology’ to those who want to decipher the secrets of the pyramids: one cannot but be struck by how it is the official scientists who proceed in a dogmatic dismissive way, while the pseudoscientists refer to facts and argumentation deprived of the common prejudices. Of course, the answer will be here that established scientists speak with the authority of the big Other of the scientific institution; but the problem is that, precisely, this scientific big Other is again and again revealed as a consensual symbolic fiction. So when we are confronted with conspiracy theories, we should proceed in a strict homology to the proper reading of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw: we should neither accept the existence of ghosts as part of the (narrative) reality nor reduce them, in a pseudo-Freudian way, to the “projection” of the heroine’s hysterical sexual frustrations. Conspiracy theories, of course, are not to be accepted as “fact.” However, one should also not reduce them to the phenomenon of modern mass hysteria. Such a notion still relies on the “big Other,” on the model of “normal” perception of shared social reality’, and thus does not take into account how it is precisely this notion of reality’ that is undermined today. The problem is not that ufologists and conspiracy theorists regress to a paranoiac attitude unable to accept (social) reality; the problem is that this reality itself is becoming paranoiac. Contemporary experience again and again confronts us with situations in which we are compelled to take note of how our sense of reality and normal attitude toward it is grounded in a symbolic fiction, that is how the big Other that determines what counts as normal and accepted truth—what is the horizon of meaning in a given society —is in no way directly grounded in “facts” as rendered by the scientific “knowledge in the real.” Let us take a traditional society in which modern science is not yet elevated into the master discourse: if, in its symbolic space, an individual advocates propositions of modern science, he will be dismissed as “madman.” The key point is that it is not enough to say that he is not “really mad,” that it is merely the narrow ignorant society’ that puts him in this position —in a certain way, being treated as a madman, being excluded from the social big Other effectively equals being mad. “Madness” is not the designation that can be grounded in a direct reference to “facts” (in the sense that a madman is unable to perceive things the way they really are, since he is caught in his hallucinatory projections), but only with regard to the way an individual relates to the “big Other.” Lacan usually emphasizes the opposite aspect of this paradox in that “the madman is not only a beggar who thinks he is a king, but also a king who thinks he is a king,” that madness designates the collapse of the distance between the symbolic and the real, an immediate identification with the symbolic mandate; or, to take his other exemplary statement, when a husband is pathologically jealous, obsessed by the idea that his wife sleeps with other men, his obsession remains a pathological feature even if it is proven that he is right and that his wife effectively does sleep with other men. The lesson of such paradoxes is clear: pathological jealousy is not a matter of getting the facts false, but of the way these facts are integrated into the subject’s libidinal economy. However, what one should assert here is that the same paradox should also be performed as it were in the opposite direction: the society (its sociosymbolic field, the big Other) is “sane” and “normal” even when it is proven factually wrong. (Maybe it was in this sense that Lacan designated himself as “psychotic”: he effectively was psychotic insofar as it was not possible to integrate his discourse into the field of the big Other.)

One is tempted to claim, in the Kantian mode, that the mistake of the conspiracy theory’ is somehow homologous to the “paralogism of the pure reason,” to the confusion between the two levels: the suspicion (of the received scientific, social, etc. common sense) as the formal methodological stance, and the positivation of this suspicion in another all-explaining global paratheory.

SCREENING THE REAL

From another standpoint, The Matrix also functions as the “screen” that separates us from the real, that makes the “desert of the real” bearable. However, it is here that we should not forget the radical ambiguity of the Lacanian real: it is not the ultimate referent to be covered/gentrified/domesticated by the screen of fantasy; the real is also and primarily the screen itself as the obstacle that always already distorts our perception of the referent, of the reality “out there.” In philosophical terms, therein resides the difference between Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel: for Kant, the real is the noumenal domain that we perceive “schematized” through the screen of transcendental categories; for Hegel, on the contrary, if we subtract from the thing the distortion of the screen, we loose the thing itself (in religious terms, the death of Christ is the death of the God in himself, not only of his human embodiment)—which is why, for Lacan, who here follows Hegel, the thing in itself is ultimately the gaze, not the perceived object. So, back to The Matrix: the matrix itself is the real that distorts our perception of reality.

A reference to Levi-Strauss’s exemplary analysis, from his Structural Anthropology, of the spatial disposition of buildings in the Winnebago, one of the Great Lake’s tribes, might be of some help here. The tribe is divided into two subgroups (moieties), “those who are from above” and “those who are from below ”; when we ask an individual to draw on a piece of paper, or on sand, the plan of his village (the spatial disposition of cottages), we obtain two quite different answers, depending on his belonging to one or the other subgroup. Both perceive the village as a circle; but for one subgroup, there is within this circle another circle of central houses, so that we have two concentric circles, while for the other subgroup, the circle is split into two by a clear dividing line. In other words, a member of the first subgroup (let us call it “conservative corporatist”) perceives the plan of the village as a ring of houses more or less symmetrically disposed around the central temple, whereas a member of the second (“revolutionary antagonistic”) subgroup perceives his village as two distinct heaps of houses separated by an invisible frontier.4 The central point of Levi-Strauss is that this example should in no way entice us into cultural relativism, according to which the perception of social space depends on the observer’s group membership: the very splitting into the two “relative” perceptions implies a hidden reference to a constant—not the objective, “actual” disposition of buildings but a traumatic kernel, a fundamental antagonism that inhabitants of the village were unable to symbolize, to account for, to “internalize,” to come to terms with; an imbalance in social relations that prevented the community from stabilizing itself into a harmonious whole. The two perceptions of the village’s plan are simply two mutually exclusive endeavors to cope with this traumatic antagonism, to heal its wound via the imposition of a balanced symbolic structure. Is it necessary to add that things stand exactly the same with respect to sexual difference: “masculine” and “feminine” are like the two configurations of houses in the Levi-Straussian village? And in order to dispel the illusion that our “developed” universe is not dominated by the same logic, suffice it to recall the splitting of our political space into left and right: a leftist and a rightist behave exactly like members of the opposite subgroups of the Levi-Straussian village. They not only occupy different places within the political space; each of them perceives differently the very disposition of that space, a leftist as the field that is inherently split by some fundamental antagonism, a rightist as the organic unity of a community disturbed only by foreign intruders.

However, Levi-Strauss make here a further crucial point: since the two subgroups nonetheless form one and the same tribe, living in the same village, this identity’ somehow has to be symbolically inscribed, but how, if the entire symbolic articulation, all social institutions, of the tribe are not neutral, but are overdetermined by the fundamental and constitutive antagonistic split? Levi-Strauss’s answer is what he ingeniously calls the “zero-institution,” a kind of institutional counterpart to the famous mana, the empty signifier with no determinate meaning, since it signifies only the presence of meaning as such in opposition to its absence: a specific institution that has no positive, determinate function. Its only function is the purely negative one of signaling the presence and actuality of social institution as such, in opposition to its absence, to presocial chaos. It is the reference to such a zero-institution that enables all members of the tribe to experience themselves as such, as members of the same tribe. Is, then, this zero-institution not ideology at its purest, that is the direct embodiment of the ideological function of providing a neutral all-encompassing space in which social antagonism is obliterated, in which all members of society can recognize themselves? And is the struggle for hegemony not precisely the struggle for how this zero-institution will be overdetermined, colored by some particular signification? To provide a concrete example: Is not the modern notion of nation such a zero-institution that emerged with the dissolution of social links grounded in direct family or traditional symbolic matrixes, that is, when with the onslaught of modernization, social institutions were less and less grounded in naturalized tradition and more and more experienced as a matter of “contract”?5 Of special importance is here the fact that national identity is experienced as at least minimally “natural,” as a belonging grounded in “blood and soil,” and as such opposed to the “artificial” belonging to social institutions proper (state, profession, etc.) premodern institutions functioned as “naturalized” symbolic entities (as institutions grounded in unquestionable traditions), and the moment institutions were conceived as social artifacts the need arose for a “naturalized” zero-institution that would serve as their neutral common ground.

And, back to sexual difference, I am tempted to risk the hypothesis that, perhaps, the same logic of zero-institution should be applied not only to the unity of a society, but also to its antagonistic split: what if sexual difference is ultimately a kind of zero-institution of the social split of humankind, the naturalized minimal zero-difference—a split that, prior to signaling any determinate social difference, signals this difference as such? The struggle for hegemony is then, again, the struggle for how this zero-difference will be overdetermined by other particular social differences. It is against this background that one should read an important, although usually overlooked, feature of Lacan’s schema of the signifier: Lacan replaces the standard Saussurean scheme—above the bar the word arbre, and beneath it the drawing of a tree — with two words above the bar, homme and femme, and, beneath the bar, two identical drawings of a door. In order to emphasize the differential character of the signifier, Lacan first replaces Saussure’s single scheme with a signifier’s couple, with the opposition man/woman, with the sexual difference; but the true surprise resides in the fact that, at the level of the imaginary referent, there is no reference; we do not get some graphic index of the sexual difference, the simplified drawing of a man and a woman, as is usually the case in most of today’s restrooms, but the same door reproduced twice. Is it possible to state in clearer terms that sexual difference does not designate any biological opposition grounded in “real” properties, but a purely symbolic opposition to which nothing corresponds in the designated objects —nothing but the real of some undefined X that cannot ever be captured by the image of the signified?

Back to Levi-Strauss’s example of the two drawings of the village. It is here that one can see in what precise sense the real intervenes through anamorphosis. We have first the “actual,” “objective” arrangement of the houses, and then two different symbolizations that both distort in an anamorphic way the actual arrangement. However, the “real is here not the actual arrangement, but the traumatic core of the social antagonism that distorts the tribe members’ view of the actual antagonism. The real is thus the disavowed X on account of which our vision of reality’ is anamorphically distorted. (And, incidentally, this three-level dispositif is strictly homologous to Freud’s three-level dispositif of the interpretation of dreams: the real kernel of the dream is not the dream’s latent thought, which is displaced/translated into the explicit texture of the dream, but the unconscious desire that inscribes itself through the very distortion of the latent thought into the explicit texture.)

And the same goes for today’s art scene: in it, the real does not return primarily in the guise of the shocking brutal intrusion of excremental objects, mutilated corpses, shit, and so on. These objects are, for sure, out of place, but in order for them to he out of place, the (empty) place must already be here, and this place is rendered by “minimalist” art, starting from Malevich. Therein resides the complicity between the two opposed icons of high modernism, Malevich’s The Black Square on the White Surface and Marcel Duchamp’s display of ready-made objects as works of art. The underlying notion of Duchamp’s elevation of an everyday common object into the work of art is that being a work of art is not an inherent property of the object; it is the artist himself who, by preempting the (or, rather, any) object and locating it at a certain place, makes it the work of art—being a work of art is not a question of why but where. And what Malevich’s minimalist disposition does is simply to render—to isolate—this place as such, the empty’ place (or frame) with the protomagic property’ of transforming any object that finds itself within its scope into the work of art. In short, there is no Duchamp without Malevich: only after the art practice isolates the frame/place as such, emptied of all its content, can one indulge in the ready-made procedure. Before Malevich, a urinal would have remained just a urinal, even if it were to be displayed in the most distinguished gallery.

The emergence of excremental objects that are out of place is thus strictly correlative to the emergence of the place without any object in it, of the empty frame as such. Consequently, the real in contemporary art has three dimensions, which somehow repeat within the real the triad of imaginary/symbolic/real. The real is first here as the anamorphotic stain, the anamorphotic distortion of the direct image of reality—as a distorted image, as a pure semblance that “subjectivizes” objective reality. Then, the real is here as the empty place, as a structure, a construction that is never here, experiences as such, but can only be retroactively constructed and has to be presupposed as such —the real as symbolic construction. Finally, the real is the obscene excremental object out of place, the real “itself.” This last real, if isolated, is a mere fetish whose fascinating/captivating presence masks the structural real — in the same way that in Nazi anti-Semitism, the Jew as excremental object is the real that masks the unbearable “structural” real of the social antagonism. These three dimensions of the real result from the three modes to acquire a distance toward “ordinary” reality: one submits this reality to anamorphic distortion; one introduces an object that has no place in it; one subtracts/erases all content (objects) of reality, so that all that remains is the very empty place these objects were filling in.

THE FREUDIAN TOUCH

The falsity of The Matrix is perhaps most directly discernible in its designation of Neo as “the One.” Who is “the One”? He who is able to see that our everyday reality is not real, but just a codified virtual universe, and who therefore is able to unplug from it, to manipulate and suspend its rules (fly in the air, stop bullets). Crucial for the function of this One is his virtualization of reality: reality is an artificial construct whose rules can be suspended or at least rewritten; therein resides the properly paranoiac notion that the One can suspend the resistance of the real (“I can walk through a thick wall, if I really decide it,” i.e., that the impossibility for most of us in doing this is reduced to the failure of the subject’s will). However, it is here that, again, the film does not go far enough: in the memorable scene in the waiting room of the prophetess who will decide if Neo is the One, a child who is seen twisting a spoon with his mere thoughts tells the surprised Neo that the way to do it is not to convince oneself that one can twist the spoon, but to convince myself that there is no spoon. However, what about oneself? Is it not that the further step should have been to accept the Buddhist proposition that oneself, the subject, does not exist?

In order to further specify what is false in The Matrix, one should distinguish simple technological impossibility from fantasmatic falsity: time travel is (probably) impossible, but fantasmatic scenarios about it are nonetheless “true” in the way they render libidinal deadlocks. The most improbable narrative twists are usually those which are most strongly libidinally invested. Billy Wilder’s underrated Fedora tells the story of an elderly Hollywood star who mysteriously retains the beauty of her youthful appearance; a young actor who falls in love with her finally discovers the secret of her eternal youth: the woman who appeared as Fedora is actually her own look-alike daughter who replaced her at a certain point, while the true Fedora lives a secluded life in a lone villa. Fedora organized this replacement (which condemned her daughter to the total identification with the maternal image) so that her stardom will outlive her and continue to shine even after her physical decline. Both the mother and the daughter are thus thoroughly alienated: the mother is excluded from the public space, since her public self is embodied in her daughter; the daughter is allowed to appear in the public space, but deprived of her symbolic identity. Is the very unpalatable, disturbing, taste of the film not due to the fact that it comes all too close to the fantasy? Do we not get here the distilled fantasmatic scenario that underlies Mike Nichols’ much more successful The Graduate, whose hero is also libidinally split between a mother (Mrs. Robinson) and her daughter?6

Consequently, the problem with The Matrix is not the scientific naïveté of its tricks: the idea of passing from real it)’ to VR through the phone makes sense, since all we need is a gap/hole through which one can escape. (Perhaps, an even better solution would have been the toilet, as discussed earlier.) The problem is a more radical fantasmatic inconsistency, which erupts most explicitly when Morpheus (the African-American leader of the resistance group who believes that Neo is the One) tries to explain to the still-perplexed Neo what the matrix is, he quite consequently links it to a failure in the structure of the universe:

MORPHEUS: It’s that feeling you have had all your life. That feeling that something was wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is hut it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. . . . The matrix is everywhere, it’s all around us, here even in this room…. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

NEO: What truth?

MORPHEUS: That you are a slave, Neo. That you, like everyone else, was born into bondage . . . kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison of your mind.

Here the film encounters its ultimate inconsistency: the experience of the lack/inconsistency/obstacle is supposed to bear witness of the fact that what we experience as reality is a fake. However, toward the end of the film, 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 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 redesigned to this, the peak of your civilization.

The imperfection of our world is thus at the same time the sign of its virtuality and the sign of its reality. One could effectively claim that the agent Smith (let us not forget: not a human being as other, but the direct 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: his lesson is that the experience of an insurmountable obstacle is the positive condition for us, as humans, to perceive something as reality. Reality is ultimately that which resists.

STAGING THE FUNDAMENTAL FANTASY

The further inconsistency concerns death: Why does one “really” die when one dies only in the VR regulated by the matrix? The film provides the obscurantist answer:

NEO: If you are killed in the Matrix, you die here [i.e., not only in the VR, but also in real life]?

MORPHEUS: The body cannot live without the mind.

The logic of this solution is that your “real” body can only stay alive (function) in conjunction to the mind, that is, to the mental universe into which you are immersed: so if you are in VR and killed there, this death affects also your real body. The obvious opposite solution (you only really die when you are killed in reality) is also too short. The catch is: is the subject wholly immersed into the Matrix-dominated VR or does he know or at least suspect the actual state of things? If the answer is yes, then a simple withdrawal into a prelapsarian Adamic state of distance would render us immortal in VR and, consequently, Neo who is already liberated from the full immersion in the VR should survive the struggle with the agent Smith that takes place within the VR controlled by the matrix (in the same way he is able to stop bullets, he should also have been able to derealize blows that wound his body).

It is a well-known fact that the “close door” button in most elevators is a totally dysfunctional placebo, placed there just to give the individuals the impression that they are somehow participating, contributing to the speed of the elevator journey. When we push this button, the door closes in exactly the same time as when we just pressed the floor button without “speeding up” the process by pressing also the “close door” button. This extreme and clear case of fake participation is an appropriate metaphor of the participation of individuals in our “postmodern” political process. So we are all the time pressing such buttons, and it is the matrix’s incessant activity that coordinates between them and the event that follows (the door closing), while we think the event results from our pushing the button.

The final inconsistency concerns the ambiguous status of the liberation of humanity announced by Neo in the last scene. As the result of Neo’s intervention, there is a “system failure” in the matrix; at the same time, Neo addresses people still caught in the matrix as if he is the savior who will teach them how to liberate themselves from the constraints of the matrix —they will be able to break the physical laws, bend metals, fly in the air. However, the problem is that all these “miracles” are possible only if we remain within the VR sustained by the Matrix and merely bend or change its rules. Our “real” status is still that of slaves of the matrix; we, as it were, are merely gaining additional power to change our mental prison rules. So what about exiting from the Matrix altogether and entering the “real reality’’ in which we are miserable creatures living on the destroyed earth surface?

In an Adornian way, one should claim that these inconsistencies7 are the film’s moment of truth: they signal the antagonisms of our late-capitalist social experience, antagonisms concerning basic ontological pairings like reality and pain (reality as that which disturbs the reign of the pleasure principle), freedom and system (freedom is only possible within the system that hinders its full deployment). However, the ultimate strength of the film is nonetheless to be located at a different level. Years ago, a series of science fiction films like Zardoz and Logan’s Run forecast today’s postmodern predicament: the isolated group living an aseptic life in a secluded area longs for the experience of the real world of material decay. Till postmodernism, utopia was an endeavor to break out of the real of historical time into a timeless otherness. With postmodern overlapping of the “end of history” with full disposability of the past in digitalized memory, in this time where we live the atemporal utopia as everyday ideological experience, utopia becomes the longing for the real of history itself, for memory, for the traces of the real past, the attempt to break out of the closed dome into smell and decay of the raw reality. The Matrix gives the final twist to this reversal, combining utopia with dystopia: the very reality we live in, the atemporal utopia staged here is in place so that we can be effectively reduced to a passive state of living batteries providing the matrix with the energy.

The unique impact of the film thus resides not so much in its central thesis (what we experience as reality’ is an artificial virtual reality generated by the matrix, the megacomputer directly attached to all our minds), but in its central image of the millions of human beings leading claustrophobic lives in water-filled cradles, kept alive in order to generate the energy (electricity’) for the matrix. So when (some of the) people “awaken” from their immersion into Matrix-controlled virtual reality, this awakening is not the opening into the wide space of the external reality, hut first the horrible realization of this enclosure, where each of us is effectively just a foetus-like organism, immersed in the prenatal fluid. The first association that imposes itself here, of course, is the miserable position of human as the self-reflective allegory of the very position of the cinema viewer: Are we all not, when we sit in the cinema, in the position of humans in The Matrix, tied to chairs, immersed in the spectacle run by a machine? However, a more appropriate allegory is that of the viewer himself—beneath the illusion that we “just look” at the perceived objects from a safe distance, freely sliding along them, there is the reality of the innumerable ties that bind us to what we perceive. While just looking, we are always hunting among objects, looking for what we desire or fear, endeavoring to recognize some pattern; on the other hand, objects themselves always “stare back,” vie for our attention, throw at us their lures and endeavor to entrap us. As James Elkins explains,

There is also something quietly hypnotic about just looking, something less like hunting and more like dreaming. It is as if the looker were Gulliver, tied to the beach by the Lilliputians but still dreaming he’s in England having a nice time, perhaps out for a stroll, but beginning to notice in some dull way that it’s hard to move—it’s inexplicably difficult to just walk down that street in London, to reach out and turn that doorknob—and then waking up and discovering himself in a much worse nightmare. But unlike Gulliver, I never really wake up. Just looking is like dreaming, but dreaming fitfully, tossing and turning and not knowing quite what’s happening.”8

Does this phenomenological description of the stance of “just looking” not uncannily echo the dispositif of humans in The Matrix?

However, one is tempted to reverse the relationship between “illusion” and “reality” implied by this description and to claim that the utter passivity of humans in The Matrix stages the foreclosed fantasy that sustains our conscious experience as active, self-positing subjects—it renders the ultimate perverse fantasy, the notion that we are ultimately instruments of the Other’s (the matrix’s) jouissance, sucked 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 that would have not demanded the extremely complex arrangement of the virtual reality coordinated for millions of human units. (Another inconsistency is discernible here: Why does the matrix not immerse each individual into her own solipsistic artificial universe? Why complicate matters with coordinating the programs so that the entire humanity inhabits one and the same virtual universe?) The only consistent answer is: the matrix feeds on the human’s jouissance—so we are here back at the fundamental Lacanian thesis that the big Other itself, far from being an anonymous machine, needs the constant influx of jouissance.

The intimate connection between perversion and cyberspace is today a commonplace. According to the standard view, the perverse scenario stages the “disavowal of castration”: perversion can be seen as a defense against the motif of death and sexuality, against the threat of mortality as well as the contingent imposition of sexual difference. What the pervert enacts is a universe in which, as in cartoons, a human being can survive any catastrophe; in which adult sexuality’ is reduced to a childish game; in which one is not forced to die or to choose one of the two sexes. As such, the perverts universe is the universe of pure symbolic order, of the signifier’s game running its course, unencumbered by the real of human finitude. In a first approach, it may seem that our experience of cyberspace fits perfectly this universe: Isn’t cyberspace also a universe unencumbered by the inertia of the real, constrained only by its self-imposed rules? And is it not the same with virtual reality in The Matrix? The “reality” in which we live loses its inexorable character, becomes a domain of arbitrary rules (imposed by the matrix) that one can violate if one’s will is strong enough. However, according to Lacan, what this standard notion leaves out of consideration is the unique relationship between the Other and the jouissance in perversion. What, exactly, does this mean?

In “Le prix du progres,” one of the fragments that conclude The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer quote the argumentation of the nineteenth century French physiologist Pierre Flourens against medical anesthesia with chloroform: Flourens claims that it can be proven that the anaesthetic works only on our memory’s neuronal network. In short, while we are butchered alive on the operating table, we fully feel the terrible pain, but later, after awakening, we do not remember it. For Adorno and Horkheimer, this, of course, is the perfect metaphor of the fate of reason based on the repression of nature in itself: his body, the part of nature in the subject, fully feels the pain; it is only that, due to repression, the subject does not remember it. Therein resides the perfect revenge of nature for our domination over it: unknowingly, we are our own greatest victims, butchering ourselves alive. Isn’t it also possible to read this as the perfect fantasy scenario of interpassivity, of the Other scene in which we pay the price for our active intervention into the world? There is no active free agent without this fantasmatic support, without this Other scene in which one is totally manipulated by the Other.9 A sadomasochist willingly assumes this suffering as the access to being.

Perhaps, it is along these lines that one can also explain the obsession of Adolf Hitler’s biographers with his relationship to his niece Geli Raubal who was found dead in Hitler’s Munich apartment in 1931, as if Hitler’s alleged sexual perversion will provide the “hidden variable,” the intimate missing link, the fantasmatic support that would account for his public personality. Here is this scenario as reported by Otto Strasser:

Hitler made her undress [while] he would lie down on the floor. Then she would have to squat down over his face where he could examine her at close range, and this made him very excited. When the excitement reached its peak, he demanded that she urinate on him, and that gave him his pleasure ”10

Crucial is here the utter passivity of Hitler’s role in this scenario as the fantasmatic support that pushed him into his frenetically destructive public political activity; no wonder Geli was desperate and disgusted at these rituals.

Therein resides the correct insight of The Matrix: in its juxtaposition of the two aspects of perversion —on the one hand, reduction of reality to a virtual domain regulated by arbitrary rules that can be suspended, and on the other the concealed truth of this freedom, the reduction of the subject to an utter instrumentalized passivity. In other words, The Matrix gets it right, but in a wrong (inverted) way. That is, we just have to turn around the terms in order to get at the true state of things: what the film renders as the scene of our awakening into our true situation is effectively its exact opposition, the very fundamental fantasy that sustains our being. We are not dreaming in VR that we are free agents in our everyday common reality, while we are actually passive prisoners in the prenatal fluid exploited by the matrix; it is rather that our reality is that of the free agents in the social world we know, but in order to sustain this situation, we have to supplement it with the disavowed, terrible, impending fantasy of being passive prisoners in the prenatal fluid exploited by the matrix. The mystery of the human condition, of course, is why the subject needs this obscene fantasmatic support of his existence.

Notes

1 If one compares the original script (available on the Internet) with the film itself, one can see that the directors (the Wachowski brothers, who also authored the script) were intelligent enough to throw out too-direct pseudointellectual references, as in the following exchange: “Look at ’em. Automatons. Don’t think about what they’re doing or why. Computer tells ‘em what to do and they do it.” “The banality of evil.” This pretentious reference to Hannah Arendt totally misses the point: people immersed in the VR of the matrix are in an entirely different, almost opposite, position in comparison with the executioners of the holocaust. Another similar wise move was to drop the all-too-obvious references to the Eastern techniques of emptying ones mind as the way to escape the control of the matrix: ‘Ton have to learn to let go of that anger. You must let go of even,-thing. You must empty yourself to free your mind.”

2 It is also crucial that what enables the hero of The Truman Show to see through and exit his manipulated world is the unforeseen intervention of his father. There are two paternal figures in the film, the actual symbolic-biological father and the paranoiac “real” father, the director of the show (played by Ed Harris), who totally manipulates Truman’s life and protects him in the closed environment.

3 On whom I rely extensively here: see Jodi Dean, Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998) .

4 Claude Levi-Strauss, “Do Dual Organizations Exist?” in Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1963), 131-63; the drawings are on pages 133-34.

5 See Rastko Mocnik, “Das ‘Subjekt, dem unterstellt wird zu glauben’ und die Nation als eine Null-Institution,” in Denk-Prozesse nach Althusser, edited by H. Boke (Hamburg: Argument Verlag 1994).

6 The final scene of The Graduate, with Ben and Elaine (Mrs. Robinson’s daughter) disturbing the marriage ceremony and eloping, is thus far from being transgressive with regard to the common bourgeois morality. On the contrary, it stands for the constitution of the normal heterosexual couple, while the true transgressive sexual link is that between Ben and Mrs. Robinson.

7 A further pertinent inconsistency also concerns the status of intersubjectivity in the universe run by the matrix: do all individuals share the same virtual reality? Why? Why not to each her preferred own?

8 James Elkins, The Object Stares Back (New York: Harvest, 1996), 20.

9 What Hegel does is to “traverse” this fantasy by demonstrating its function of filling in the preontological abyss of freedom, i.e. of reconstituting the positive scene in which the subject is inserted into a positive noumenal order. In other words, for Hegel, Kant’s vision is meaningless and inconsistent, since it secretly reintroduces the ontologically hilly constituted divine totality, i.e. a world conceived only as substance, not also as subject.

10 Quoted in Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler (New York: HarperCollins 1999) , 134.

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