by Richard Hanley
There is nothing new under the sun. With the death of the real, or
rather with its (re)surrection, hyper-reality both emerges and is
already always reproducing itself. The dead are already dead;
precisely more than the living which are yet alive.
God himself has
only ever been his own simulacrum; his own Disneyland…
To begin with it is no ''objective'' difference: the same type of
demand. Formerly the discourse of crisis, negativity and crisis. It
is pointless to laboriously interpret these films by their
artificial resurrection in systems of signs, a more radical
“The Precession of Simulacra”
Philosophers can get pretty excited about
exception is Jean Baudrillard, the author of
Simulation (henceforth, S&S), the book that appears in the movie.
Numerous sources report Baudrillard saying that the movie “stemmed
mostly from misunderstandings” of his work. So a natural point of
inquiry has been whether or not this is true.
contains two essays both entitled “The Matrix: Paradigm of
post-modernism or intellectual poseur?”; one answering “the former”
and the other “the latter,” and both apparently assuming the
disjunction is exclusive.1
In this article I will point out some
further interpretations, and (eventually) argue for one of them.
I. An analytic
take on post-modernism
But first, let me lay my cards on the table. I am no fan of either
Baudrillard or post-modernism.2 I am an analytic philosopher, and my
focus is entirely upon what to make of Baudrillard and his
connection to The Matrix, from the analytic point of view.
I think there’s a consensus amongst analytic philosophers that
post-modernism is largely self-indulgent, self-important bunk, that
has rather inexplicably taken hold in many philosophy departments
outside the English-speaking world, and in many non-philosophy
departments inside it. The following would be a fairly typical
Philosophy is hard enough to read, anyway, but analytic writers
strive to be clear, whereas post-modernists seem to strive to be as
obscure as possible. And just to make things worse, when an exponent
of Po-Mo occasionally makes a reasonably clear statement, taken
literally it’s either trivially true, or obviously false. So the
Principle of Charity (interpret others so that what they say has the
best chance of being both true and interesting) suggests that we
take them non-literally.
But then what is the non-literal meaning?
There’s even a joke about it. What do you get if you cross a
post-modernist with a Mafioso? Someone who’ll make you an offer you
But mostly, it’s no laughing matter. The more egregious the offense
against clarity and good sense, the more influential and celebrated
its perpetrator. They are elevated to cultish, pop-star status, with
an almost religious devotion to their writings. But many of the
“must-read” essays in Po-Mo circles would earn even an undergraduate
a poor grade in an analytic school - it’s more like the unedited guff
circulating on the internet, where any nut with a theory can hold
What post-modernists are doing is not really philosophy at
all, and they give the discipline a bad name amongst other
academics, take jobs that could and should go to more sensible
folks, and present dangerous falsehoods to the general public.
I confess to some sympathy with this line, perhaps tinged with some
professional jealousy. And if Baudrillard can’t be understood, then
he can’t be misunderstood, either. On the other hand, though, an
undergraduate in a philosophy program inhabited by post-modernists
can get a perfectly decent education in logic and the history of
philosophy, so it can’t be true that post-modernists are just not
doing philosophy. Rather, they have a very different conception of
what is possible for contemporary philosophy.
A start towards understanding their view is to consider our ordinary
use of fiction. A novel (or movie, or whatever) can provoke all
manner of thoughts in us, and we often ask what it means, whether or
not it was realistic, and what we can learn from it. The fiction
represents a (part of a) world, and part of our normal interest is
in how closely it resembles the real world.
But what are we really
comparing the fiction to? Isn’t it the way we think the real world
And that’s just another representation of the real world, a
mental story “about” it, not the real world itself.
Analytic philosophers are well aware of this potential regression in
representation, and there is an ongoing debate over what it and
related considerations might show. For instance, some think that all
our observations of the real world are “theory-laden,” and debate
whether or not this is a bad thing. Others think we have more direct
access to the real world.
But the touchstone in all the analytic
views on this subject is that representation - language, say - is aimed
at the real world: for instance, on one very common view, names
often refer to real individuals, and predicates often apply to real
properties. Truth is a matter of the predicates used applying to the
individuals referred to.
Post-modernists tend to have a fundamentally different view of
language and other representation, a view inherited from
structuralism in linguistics. Representations, they say, only ever
refer or apply to other representations, so that language (and
thought) is literally cut off from the real world. No matter how
hard you try to refer to the non-representational, you can’t do it.
If this is correct, then whither philosophy? Well, there’s still the
possibility of objective inquiry, but it’s a matter of studying the
representations and the relations between them - the system of
“signs.” A sign is made up of a “signifier” and a “signified”: e.g.
the word “horse” is a signifier, and signifies the concept horse
(and never, as we analytics would often have it, real horses.)
this pursuit - semiotics, or semiology - has its limits, though it’s not
as limited as you might think, since post-modernists tend to
radically expand the domain of things that count as representations
(e.g. to include all artifacts). Moreover, some even suggest that
semiotics is not objective, anyway. So in post-modernist circles
there is a shift toward what I would call aesthetic aspects of
Philosophy becomes after all an art-form, where
presentation is as important (maybe more so) than representation.
The point becomes to be playful, to fill one’s writings with
double-meanings, puns, scare-quotes, irony, metaphors,
capitalizations, and so on. For instance, in a post-modernist’s
hands, the first sentence of this paragraph might be:
If this is “correct,” then w(h)ither Philosophy?
Baudrillard is entirely typical in this regard:
"The form of my language is almost more important than what I have to
say within it. Language has to be synchronous with the fragmentary
nature of reality. With its viral, fractal quality, that’s the
essence of the thing! It’s not a question of ideas – there are
already too many ideas!”
This quote is from Philosophers, a book of photo-portraits by
Steve Pyke, accompanied by each philosopher’s answer to the question:
“What does philosophy mean to you?”
Baudrillard did not answer the
question directly, and instead asked one of his English-speaking
commentators to provide a suitable quote from his writings. Look up
“synchronous” and “fractal” in dictionary, and it seems clear these
words are chosen for some effect other than their actual, or even
metaphorical, meanings. (“Viral,” on the other hand, at least makes
sense as a metaphor applied to language, as in Kripke’s metaphor of
the “contagion of meaning.”)
Philosophers also contains the answer from an analytic philosopher,
Sir Geoffrey Warnock, to the question, “What does philosophy mean to
To be clear-headed rather than confused; lucid rather than obscure;
rational rather than otherwise; and to be neither more, nor less,
sure of things than is justifiable by argument or evidence. That is
worth trying for.
Post-modernists reject this sort of answer as a quaint artifact from
the “modernist” past, a demand for clarity and objectivity that
cannot (now) be had. We analytics, modernist throwbacks that we are,
should bear this in mind when we examine Baudrillard’s writings, and
particularly since we usually are reading in translation.
The first chapter of S&S, “The Precession of Simulacra” begins:
The simulacrum is never what hides the truth
- it is truth that hides
the fact that there is none.
The simulacrum is true.
If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the
cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends
up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire
witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and fall into
ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts - the
metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction testifying to a pride
equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning to the
substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused
with the real through aging) - as the most beautiful allegory of
simulation, this fable has now come full circle for us, and
possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.
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 hyper-real.
The territory no
longer precedes the map, nor survives 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 subsist here and there
in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The
desert of the real itself.
In fact, even inverted, Borge’s fable is unusable. Only the allegory
of the Empire, perhaps, remains. Because 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. But it is
no longer a question of either maps or territories. Something has
disappeared: the sovereign difference, between one and the other,
that constituted the charm of the abstraction.
Because it is
difference that constitutes the poetry of the map and the charm of
the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real.
This imaginary of representation, which simultaneously culminates in
and is engulfed by the cartographer's mad project of the ideal co-extensivity of map and territory, disappears in the simulation
whose operation is nuclear and genetic, no longer at all specular or
discursive. It is all of metaphysics that is lost. No more mirror of
being and appearances, of the real and its concept.
imaginary co-extensivity: it is genetic miniaturization that is the
dimension of simulation.
The real is produced from miniaturized
cells, from matrices, and memory banks, models of control - and it can
be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these. It no longer
needs to be rational, because it is no longer measures itself
against either and ideal or negative instance. It is no longer
anything but operational. In fact, it is no longer real the real,
because no imaginary envelopes it anymore. It is a hyper-real,
produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a
hyperspace without atmosphere.
By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the
real, nor that of truth, the era of simulation is inaugurated by a
liquidation of all referentials - worse: with their artificial
resurrection in the systems of signs, a material more malleable than
meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to
all binary oppositions, to all combinatory algebra.
It is no longer
a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a
question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is
to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its
operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly
descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and
short-circuits all its vicissitudes.
Never again will the real have
the chance to produce itself - such is the vital function of the model
in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrection, that no
longer even gives the event of death a chance. A hyper-real
henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction
between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for the
orbital recurrence of models and for the simulated generation of
Baudrillard apparently asserts that the post-modern condition is one
of “simulation,” where reality has disappeared altogether. This
historical process has been one of “precession of simulacra”:
representation gives way to simulation, through the production and
reproduction of images.
He writes (p6):
These would be the successive phases of the image:
it is the reflection of a
it masks and denatures a
it masks the absence of a
it has no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure
In the first case, the image is a good appearance
- representation is
of the sacramental order [i.e. not a simulacrum].
In the second, it
is an evil appearance - it is of the order of maleficence. In the
third, it plays at being an appearance - it is of the order of
sorcery. In the fourth, it is no longer in the order of appearances,
but of simulation.
Note that Baudrillard is here reacting to, amongst other things,
Marxist thought. Marx’s historical materialism postulated the
necessity of the overthrow of the bourgouisie by the proletariat.
Baudrillard claims instead that a different historical process is
playing out - and the crucial factor is not the mode of production,
but the mode of reproduction.
Moreover, whereas Marx claimed that
the masses suffered from false consciousness, Baudrillard writes
that the masses are post-modernist, understanding that all
consciousness is “false,” and hungrily consuming one “false” image
The historical nature of these processes suggests that it is only in
the post-modernist world - from the late twentieth century on - that
truth and objectivity is impossible. (This might explain why
post-modernists don’t depart radically from analytic philosophers on
the topic of the history of philosophy.) In Baudrillard’s terms, it
seems there once was a real world to be investigated. It used to be
that our images were more or less true representations of reality,
then they became false representations, then they became the false
appearances of representation, then finally (in the condition of
simulation) they no longer even appear to be representations.
However you take this (for instance, whether he’s saying that
there’s no reality, or only that our images bear no relation to it),
it’s pretty radical stuff. Of course, he might not really mean what
he says. If we interpret him literally, the obvious question to ask
is why we should believe a word of it. So perhaps it’s better to
take him as presenting a cautionary tale of some sort - that we in
some meaningful sense have lost touch with reality. But then, all
the obscure prose seems just unnecessary.
In any case, there seem to be many connections between Baudrillard’s
work and The Matrix, not least the question of whether or not
Matrix is a simulation of the sort envisaged. 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.
The connections become more obvious when we consider Baudrillard’s
update of Marx’s theory of exchange value. Symbolic exchange is the
key notion for Baudrillard, and ties in with the precession of
simulacra. There is an unequal symbolic exchange when one object is
a mere copy of an original (say a reproduction of a Queen Anne
In the next order of simulacra, the exchange is equal (say,
mass-produced chairs which are only copies of each other). In the
current order (simulation), objects are conceived in terms of
equal-exchange reproducibility (chairs, of course, were not
conceived in this way), in binary computer code. Again, The Matrix
looks like a simulation, conceived entirely in computer code.
Moreover, Baudrillard is very taken with the miniaturization of code
by means of the binary language of the computer chip; all those ones
and zeroes. A common post-modernist theme is deconstruction, very
roughly the process of exposing metaphysical problems, and
especially contradictions, in theoretical language.
If we understand
“contradiction” in a loose sense, it is the assertion of both what
is true and what is false, and it is common in logic to denote truth
by the numeral “1,” falsehood by the numeral “0.” So perhaps we are
to think that the Matrix necessarily contains the seeds of its own de(con)struction? After all, Neo is “the One,” and the name “Cypher”
has amongst its meanings, “zero.”
Finally, S&S has a short disquisition (“On Nihilism”) on the
necessity for terrorism and violence, and this may provide a
justification of sorts for the mayhem that occurs in the movie. Even
the electricity of human bodies turns up, by analogy, in
Baudrillard’s In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, but here human
beings are the “ground,” absorbing the “energy” of images.
So at first blush, The Matrix is based heavily upon Baudrillard’s
work, and seems relatively faithful to it. But let’s not leap to a
conclusion. Post-modernists are not the only ones interested in the
notion of simulation, which has some important applications in
analytic philosophy. I’ll mention just two. First, we want to know
when to attribute intentionality to other individuals.
there’s a famous debate involving Alan Turing, John Searle and
others, about the simulation of intelligence. (Searle argues against
Turing’s claim that a digital computer that successfully simulates
intelligence thereby counts as intelligent.) Second, global
simulation of the sort we see in THE MATRIX seems to be a logical,
physical and epistemic possibility, an observation that raises a
host of well-known philosophical bugbears.
On the first issue, I am in the Turing camp, holding roughly that
the best explanation of the ability of a computer to simulate the
linguistic output of a normal human would be that the computer is
intelligent. We might say that simulated intelligence can be real
intelligence.3 Can we interpret Baudrillard as saying the same thing
about reality: that simulated reality is real reality? Hardly.
It seems better to interpret him as
saying that simulation is not simulated reality, because it doesn’t
even have the appearance of reality.
So it seems that Baudrillard has some grounds for his complaint
The Matrix is more faithful to traditional
philosophical puzzles concerning global simulation, since there
seems to be a profound reality outside the Matrix, and the folks in
the Matrix falsely take their simulated condition to be reality. Of
course, it might turn out when the trilogy is completed that even
this appearance of reality is itself a simulation, but that’s not
THE MATRIX still has it that humans in or out of the
Matrix can conceptualize the distinction between reality and mere
Baudrillard has recently expanded his criticism in this
What we have here is essentially the same misunderstanding as with
the simulation artists in New York in the 80s. These people take the
hypothesis of the virtual as a fact and carry it over to visible
realms. But the primary characteristic of this universe lies
precisely in the inability to use categories of the real to speak
(Reported translation from an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur.)
There is a reflexive paradox here, of course. Baudrillard’s
criticism seems to presuppose that we can conceptualize and
communicate the difference between mere simulation and reality - else
could the movie could not give this impression - -which flatly
contradicts the claim that we can’t.
From an analytic point of view,
this alone shows Baudrillard (when taken literally) to be as
mistaken as it’s possible to be, and drives us towards non-literal
One possibility is that the Wachowski brothers were trying to be
faithful to Baudrillard, but relied on a relatively superficial
reading of S&S. After all, the “desert of the real” remark is one
that Baudrillard immediately disavows, because it embraces the
“impossible” conceptualization. The Wachowskis are easily forgiven
for such an oversight - the first two paragraphs of S&S are actually
pretty clear, but from then on, Baudrillard descends into murky
prose that, if I may be permitted a complaint, has taken me weeks of
my life to try to sort out. Frankly, if I was making a movie instead
of writing this article, I simply wouldn’t bother.
At one point the script required Morpheus to tell Neo “You have been
living inside Baulliaurd's [sic.] vision, inside the map, not the
territory.” (draft dated April 8, 1996) This again ignores
Baudrillard’s disavowal, and the horrid misspelling tends to
undermine any claim of serious scholarship.
The wonderful sequences involving the taste of food (Cypher and
steak; Mouse, Tastee Wheat and chicken) seem in one sense to support
Baudrillard’s view of the post-modern condition. Steak, Tastee Wheat
and chicken no longer exist. Moreover, the humans raised in the
Matrix never did taste the real thing, as Switch points out, so “the
taste of Tastee Wheat” in the Matrix condition might for all anyone
knows be entirely invented by the machines.
But, once again, this seems more in line with analytic concerns than
with Baudrillard’s, since it presupposes the conceptual line between
the real and the merely simulated. Indeed, consider the real import
of the chicken remark.
"Take chicken, for example. Maybe they couldn’t figure out what to
make chicken taste like, which is why chicken tastes like
The Wachowski brothers are here playfully evoking the old saw that
in our world chicken tastes like everything, prompting us to wonder
about the possibility of all this being a global simulation, again
presupposing that we can conceptualize the difference.
The whole sequence also evokes the very analytic debate over how
phenomenal content of a mental state (e.g. the subjective “what it’s
like” of a certain taste), is to be specified.
According to some
views at least, even if the Matrix produces in a human being a
mental state that plays the complete functional role of the taste of Tastee Wheat, that fact does not guarantee that the state has the
appropriate phenomenal content.
of post-modernism and intellectual poseur?
There is a real irony in Baudrillard’s focus on simulation.
first opened S&S and saw the epigraph attributed to Ecclesiastes, I
smelled a rat, and a few minute’s investigation confirmed my
suspicion that the attribution was false. Then as I read on, I
presumed that Baudrillard was trying to give a concrete example of
simulation. But I remain puzzled.
On the one hand, it seems a
remarkably poor attempt at simulation - no one even remotely familiar
with Ecclesiastes would be taken in by it. But on the other hand, to
judge from the plethora of Baudrillard pages on the World Wide Web,
many of Baudrillard’s readers seem either to be fooled by the false
attribution, or else not to care one way or the other. And maybe
that’s Baudrillard’s point: that to the “masses,” Ecclesiastes is no
more and no less than the author of the epigraph.
More on this
What makes the debate over “simulated intelligence” particularly
interesting is that it’s possible in principle for a digital
computer, suitably programmed, to simulate the linguistic output of
a typical human being. But in practice it’s very difficult, in part
because there are just so many things that might come out of a
typical human being’s mouth.
There are, however, atypical linguistic outputs that are much easier
to simulate. An early, eerily real-sounding program was Weizenbaum’s
ELIZA, which simulated a Rogerian psychotherapist. (Rogerians take a
passive approach, which mostly involves taking what the patient has
just said, and turning it into a question.) Another domain of
discourse which seems ripe for simulation is professional
sports-talk, which seems to consist largely in repeating the same
clichés over and over, with 20/20 hindsight.
Curiously, the linguistic output of post-modernists likewise seems
relatively easy to simulate, with reasonably successful actual
attempts by both human beings and computers. For instance, NYU
physicist Alan Sokal submitted a parody of post-modernist writing
entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative
Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” to the journal Social Text, only
to have it published in their Spring 96 issue.5
Analytic philosophers and their sympathizers reacted with glee, of
course. Once the dust had settled a bit, most of the commentary on
the Sokal affair focused, in high dudgeon, on the nature of the
editors’ error. The editors admitted to not understanding a good
deal of the article - the science and math parts - and to being
underwhelmed by most of what they did understand - the post-modern
The diagnosis, then, has been that the editors
inappropriately included the article on grounds unconnected to its
actual content - political grounds, and particularly the fact that
Sokal was an established scientist.
But perhaps the editors conceded error too readily. The fact that
editors are unmoved by a view is by itself no reason not to publish
it. And analytic philosophy is hardly free from political
constraints - modern edited collections (and the relevant issue of
Social Text was a themed collection) often contain articles chosen
because they present a certain point of view, rather than on sheer
philosophical merit. Moreover, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for
non-technical journal to assume that an expert in science and math
would take care to maintain accuracy in that respect.
But this line of defense assumes modernist standards of evaluation.
Why not just reject them outright, as post-modernism would see to
require? Baudrillard, for one, can embrace Sokal’s simulation
positively, as analogous to his own “Ecclesiastes” effort. After
all, for Baudrillard, a simulation cannot be a parody, because
parody is impossible.
But post-modernists needn’t go to this extreme. The key question
here is why modernists like Sokal think the success of the
simulation is damaging to post-modernism. In a follow-up article,6 Sokal explains why and how he wrote the parodying article, and the
implication is that he knows he wrote a parody because he intended
it as such.
But (literal) post-modernists have a ready response: Sokal’s
reasoning commits the intentional fallacy of supposing that a text
means just what its author intended it to mean. Even analytic
philosophers tend to accept that works of fiction can and do differ
in meaning from that intended by the author, and the more
post-modern you are, the less distinction you see between fiction
and non-fiction. Indeed, post-modernists tend to reject the notion
of a privileged interpretation, holding that if a text can be read a
certain way, then that’s one of its many meanings.
So a natural
post-modernist response to Sokal is that he inadvertently produced a
serious work. (One needn’t claim that it’s a good serious work.)
The same can be said of the many amusing computer simulations to be
found on the World Wide Web.7 Clicking on the link just footnoted
will produce a new “post-modern” essay in a matter of seconds. But
the mere fact that it’s generated “randomly” doesn’t by itself
settle whether or not it can be read meaningfully. Consider an
accidental “work” of fiction - suppose it turned out that Of Mice and
Men was, by a massive coincidence, actually produced by an army of
monkeys typing away.
This might diminish it in some ways, but the
text could still be engaged with meaningfully.
Speaking of simulating the post-modern, it’s time for a confession:
the epigraph at the head of this essay is not to be found in the
works of Baudrillard. The first paragraph is my own attempted parody
(for fun I included bits of the real Ecclesiastes), and the second
is an excerpt from a computer simulation of Baudrillard, chosen only
because it mentions films.8 Now I don’t claim either is a good
simulation, but as with Baudrillard’s “Ecclesiastes” ruse, I bet
they would fool a lot of people.
What should a modernist make of this?
We needn’t press the point
about authorial intentions applied to non-fiction. Instead, we
should ask, what is the best explanation of relative ease of
simulation of linguistic output?
In the Rogerian psychotherapist and
professional sports cases, it’s obvious: there is a very limited
range of possible outputs. But that can’t fully explain the
post-modern case. I suggest that we get the rest of the explanation
by agreeing with the post-modernist. The post-modernist ought to
regard simulated post-modernism as real post-modernism, and so
But, armed with the modernist distinction between mere
simulated philosophy and real philosophy, we ought to conclude that
post-modernism is (in large part) a simulacrum, in Baudrillard’s
sense: either it masks the absence of a profound reality, or else it
has no relation to any reality whatever, and is its own pure
Take your pick.
The irony, then, is that the most promising exemplar of
Baudrillard’s literal claims about the post-modern condition is
post-modernism itself! Of course, I don’t expect that to concern
him. But in case any post-modernists are concerned, I propose a sort
of test-in-reverse. Take a term or expression that appears
frequently in post-modernist writing, say “fetishize.” Despite my
efforts, I don’t know what this term means, and if Sokal and others
are right, it might not mean anything at all.
Here’s the test: try
to simulate an analytic philosopher, and explain what the term in
question means, without resorting to:
in terms equally obscure
of the test for a decent number of post-modern expressions would
provide some evidence of post-modernists being mere simulators of
philosophy - intellectual poseurs.
V. The meaning
of The Matrix
To return to the question with which we began, how should we
modernists interpret The Matrix? As a more or less faithful homage
to Baudrillard, or as a misguided homage? Or neither?
I have already
argued that the philosophical issues The Matrix plays with are
better interpreted as traditional, modernist, analytic ones, than as
post-modernist ones. But even if I’m wrong about that, it clearly
can be interpreted that way, and by post-modernist lights, that’s
enough. So perhaps it’s true that The Matrix is a paradigm of
post-modernism, and not an intellectual poseur, and also true that
The Matrix is an intellectual poseur, and not a paradigm of
A third interpretation is that The Matrix is solidly modernist - not a
paradigm of post-modernism, and not (at least, not in this respect)
an intellectual poseur. But what then are we to make of the apparent
references to Baudrillard and his work?
I suggest that they are
playful, ironic references. In real life, S&S is a slim volume, in
the movie it is rather thick. But not because it has more content - if
anything, it has less content than in real life. The last chapter,
“On Nihilism” has only the first page, and the rest of the book is
hollowed out, a hiding place for contraband software.
And what is
the purpose of the software? It is an opiate for the masses.
message is either that S&S is only good for hiding stuff in, or, at
a deeper layer of subtlety, that the real S&S is a simulation, in
reality only containing brain-numbing escapism. Neo really
escapes - rescued from the whole business by waking up to cold,
S&S represents the post-modern condition, a
condition only post-modernists themselves are trapped in, a
condition where everyone is a drone or an addict (where’s that red
pill when you need it?); and, as far as the rest of us are
concerned, entirely expendable. Of course, this is likely not what
the Wachowski brothers intended. If it were, then their reported
insistence that Keanu Reeves read S&S, in preparation for the role,
borders on cruelty.
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.
1. Glenn Yeffeth (ed), Taking the
Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix
(Dallas: Benbella Books, 2003)
2. There’s no doubt that post-modernists vary in the extent to
which the criticisms to follow can be leveled at them. But
there’s also no doubt that Baudrillard is representative of what
we analytics regard as the worst of it.
3. The language of the debate is apt to mislead here. Every
simulation captures some features of the thing simulated,
otherwise it would not do as a simulation. An analytic
philosopher will say (a) that any simulation is as real as
anything else (i.e. if it exists, it exists), (b) calling
something a simulation only means that some of the features it
appears to have are not really had, and (c) if the computer
really is intelligent, then its intelligence is not simulated,
but real. The Turing camp would say that a computer can
demonstrate real intelligence by simulating a human being.
4. This seems so, even if in fact it’s simulation “all the way
down”: say, if somehow there is only layer upon layer of
simulations, in an infinite regress. The denizens of the Matrix
still seem able to conceptualize that which is not a simulation.
5. See Sokal’s website: http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/,
for the article, and a large collection of responses and
7. E.g. http://www.elsewhere.org/cgi-bin/postmodern
9. Again, there are post-modernists and post-modernists. The
reluctance to really bite the bullet over the Sokal affair
suggests to me that at least a lot of American proponents are
really more modernist than they like to let on.