Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Matrix: The Artist as Superman

Neo-avant-garde (1999); Historical Avant-garde (1916)
The impulse to write my first essay about Star Wars was born out of a frustration. My frustration was that a movie that had created such an obvious aesthetic break: even as a very young boy I could instantly recognize scifi movies made before Star Wars (because they sucked), from those made afterwards (they still sucked, but at least they looked like Star Wars). That the seminal film of my youth had garnered little, if any, serious consideration; and that what scholarly attention it had received was so obviously wrong-headed, spurred me to action.

My experience of The Matrix was entirely different. So much philosophical, theoretical and intellectual ink has been spilled over franchise that I've hesitated to write anything about it - for years. Not because I had nothing to say, but because, almost immediatelyThe Matrix suffered from an embarrassment of riches; too much - too serious - attention can, as it turns out, be as bad as too little. Or, as Joss Whedon recent quipped about his own blockbuster, "At some point the embarrassment of riches is actually embarrassing." Enough time has passed, and the logorrhea has lapsed into an embarrassed silence, as the disappointment with the Trilogy has cemented into a consensus: the sequels "ruined the mythology". For myself, I enjoyed The Matrix sequels in much the same spirit I enjoyed the Star Wars prequels (they are all good-spirited and fun, if still deeply flawed, movies). I'd like to contribute one more flood of words about The Matrix, serious, but not a philosophical. I am less interested in what The Matrix might tells us about reality, than what it tells us about movies. In a season of superhero movies, in an era of superhero blockbusters, what follows is a consideration of The Matrix as a truly singular Hollywood portrait of the avant-garde artist: the artist as superman.

Saut dans le vide, Yves Klein (1960); The Matrix (1999)
While Hollywood filmmakers have imagined Neo-Liberal tech entrepreneur as superman, and in recent years we've had several versions of LGBT supermen; as a culture Hollywood seems to feel most comfortable with artists who sketch naked bodies with charcoal, carve naked bodies out of stone, or paint naked bodies. This makes a certain kind of sense: movies are a figurative art. The film industry understandably attracts the same kinds of people who might have painted murals or alter pieces in the past. The most positive image of contemporary artists we see in Hollywood film, is the artist as supra-men (these are heroes with no special powers, but extra-ordinary abilities/capacities). The supra-man is most commonly a relatively transparent image of film making itself. It is the contemporary artist seen as a skilled expert - the spy and his crew, the gang of thieves, or even assassins. All, are idealized portraits of contemporary film making as filmmakers see themselves: a very particular kind of skilled craftsmen - but still rule breakers. Not vandals or malefactors, but outlaws.

Filmmaking, as an artworld, still values the innovative craftsmanship of expert artisans (be they cameramen, script writers, directors, or what have you) above more general, much less more profound, conceptual playfulness. Hollywood is at its core a commercial art, and although it celebrates rebels, is weary of revolutionaries. But when it comes to more contemporary, less commercial understandings of the artist, the ideal is a very different. The contemporary artworld of fine art galleries and museums, has for the past century or more, celebrated provocateurs, revolutionaries, change agents; the artist as someone who trades primarily in ideas, not craftsmanship. That is what we mean when we say "fine" or "contemporary" artists; we mean avant-garde. That understanding is almost never portrayed on film, except as shadow: as serial killers. It is an incredibly sinister and pessimistic image of the avant-garde artist. Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix is the great exception; a portrait of the artist, that the then-Wachowskis brothers created is a uniquely positive vision of the avant-garde artist: artist as superman; although Neo doesn't start out a superman, far from it. He starts out like most artists do: with a longing.
Sigmund Freud; Alfred Adler
My father, who was an Adlerian psychologist, years ago explained his preference for Alfred Adler over Sigmund Freud by explaining the way the two contemporaries thought about artists. Freud, he told me, saw artists as stuck in some childhood stage of underdevelopment, and as underhanded. Freud, according to my father, imagined artists as still playing with their own shit, as men (women were not part of Freud's portrait of the artist) unable to attract women by virtue of their masculine strengths as bread winners, protectors, leaders, or what have you. Freud, my father told me, saw artists as seducers, who plied women with craft while the real men were away doing real work. Adler, an early feminist, had a much different view meanwhile. According to my father Adler saw artists as the epitome of psychological health, creative, socially engaged, and playful.

I can no longer ask my father to refresh my memory about that conversation - and because it took place over twenty years ago, lets assume that my memory of my father's description of Freud's attitudes towards artists isn't entirely fair or accurate - still the gist remains. Like my father, I am keen to to see artistic life portrayed as the epitome of human health and well being, rather than the product of human pathologies - making art and culture, at best, the human equivalent of a pearl, at worst a cultural pustule on the ass of real industry. I like to imagine art as the utility defying over exuberance of cherry blossoms; a florescence. In art theory circles "spectacle" is a form of denunciation. Rather than a mad-capped flowering, blockbuster films are a symptom of alienation; "accumulations of spectacle." Visual over-abundance is the cultural equivalent to an infantile man playing with money, or gold, or mud, or shit. There is an undeniable Marxist/Freudian Puritanism that runs through art theory - but there is a defiance of that Puritanism that runs through art.
Men in the mud: Matrix Revolutions (2003); The Agony and The Ecstasy (1965)
When we first meet Neo he is alone, but not an isolate sociopath. He is tucked into little garret  -working to make contact. The studio life of an artist is just that; time spent alone, thinking about and working on ways to meaningfully reach others. This is especially frustrating for young artists. While I have had my differences with Ira Glass, he nails the reason why:
For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
Neo works a day job, but he is distracted. I like to imagine he is distracted the way all artists with day jobs are distracted. He isn't thinking about not-working, he is thinking about the work he wants to do when he is done with the work he has to do. He is chronically tardy and tired from working after work.

Norman Bates, portrait of the artist as a Psycho (1960); Bruce Nauman, Self-Portrait as a Fountain (1966)
But even more interestingly Neo isn't a bullet-headed meat-eater supraman like John McClane - "just another American.... who thinks he's John Wayne" - or a failed family man like the model-making Roy Neary. Rather. Instead, Neo is as androgynous and as the gentle as the taxidermist Norman Bates. Neo is almost as pretty as his equally androgynous love interest Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss. But unlike Norman Bates, who's contact with women is deadly, Neo proves himself as being capable of love making. So far, so good - but not yet super.

According to the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard the function of the avant-garde “is to deconstruct everything that belongs to order, to show that all this 'order' conceals something else, that it represses.” The Matrix ends with the superman-Neo giving a short monologue that sounded like it could have been lifted straight off the pages of an early Twentieth Century avant-garde tract:
I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you are afraid, you’re afraid of us, you’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I am going to hang up this phone and I am going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I am going to show them a world without you, a world without rules or controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible – where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.
Italian Futurists (1912); The Matrix (1999)
That it called the existence of the 'real world' into question isn't what made The Matrix extraordinary. Although stepping out of the theater after seeing The Matrix for the first time, the 'real world' felt genuinely strange, it didn't make the world feel false - it made it feel new. Just as avant-garde artists promised in the early Twentieth Century, The Matrix - at the very end of that century - defamiliarized the familiar. "De-familiarization" was, according to the Soviet literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky, the purpose of new art:
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects "unfamiliar," to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important.
The Matrix shocked us by echoing the real world back on it self, transforming it in sensationalist ways, with almost subversive results. There was the pleasure of see the everyday objects like phones become portals to other worlds. But there was also the transformation of the status quo - upended in ways that were simultaneously exciting (like when we realize the clean cut Agents weren't Feds, but were instead some form of alien meta-authority, able to invade the bodies of whomever that chose), and genuinely upsetting (like when Morpheus is beaten in a horrible visual echo of the Rodney King beating - a trauma still fresh in the popular imagination of 1999). Again, this was exactly as avant-garde artists promised; that new art could and should be able to reorder our perceptions of the world. The Matrix, was (however briefly) able to deliver on the promise of the new.
Rodney King (March 3, 1991), The Matrix (1999)
That is not to say that the film's embrace of the new was complete. Like George Lucas, who grounded his Star Wars space opera in mythic archetype, the Wachowskis ground their epistemological scifi masterpiece in a gnostic pseudo-spirituality. But what made both Star Wars and The Matrix a shock to the visual culture, wasn't what was familiar, but what was new. While Quentin Tarantino was disappointed with the sequels for ruining the mythology of the original, that isn't what went wrong. The sequels doubled down on the original film's mythology; its weakest, least original aspect.

Abnegation of the flesh, that the world we know is an illusion - these Gnostic memes have haunted the world for millennia before computer simulation. There are more than enough essays that dwell on the epistemological and ontological aspects of The Matrix  - which are genuinely important and interesting aspects of the film - but my goal is not add to that literature of familiar ideas. What was most startlingly new about The Matrix was it's corporeal materiality. The film's radicalness, it's great conceptual innovation, is not that Neo discovers that the world is not real, it is that he discover that his body is real.
Testa di Eutropio (ca 450); The Matrix (1999)
In his book, Debt: The first 5000 Years, David Graeber makes an amazing historical observation about the material vs the spiritual world. He tells the story of Maurice Leenhardt, a Catholic missionary who worked in New Caledonia in the 1920s, who asked one of his Kanak students, "an aged sculptor named Boesoou, how he felt about having been introduced to spiritual ideas." The anecdote bear repeating here:
Once, waiting to assess the mental progress of the Canaques I had taught for many years, I risked the following suggestion: “In short, we introduced the notion of the spirit to your way of thinking?” He objected, “Spirit? Bah! You didn’t bring us the spirit. We already knew the spirit existed. We have always acted in accord with the spirit. What you’ve brought us is the body.”
Graeber explains: "The notion that humans had souls appeared to Boesoou to be self-evident. The notion that there was such a thing as the body, apart from the soul, a mere material collection of nerves and tissues —let alone that the body is the prison of the soul; that the mortification of the body could be a means to the glorification or liberation of the soul—all this, it turns out, struck him as utterly new and exotic." Graeber argues that the alienation of the spiritual from everyday things, animals, plants, and most disastrously other people and our own bodies, dates back to the invention of debt, and in particular the most horribly to the invention of the most horrible form of debt: human bondage.
Debt, David Graeber (2011); The Matrix (1999)
I would place Graeber's book on a shelf with Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel, Francis Fukuyama's Origins of Political Order, Charles Mann's 1491, and Jane Jaccob's The Economy of Cities. Together, these books (and many others besides) form a literature that might be called "deep-modernization theory"; all struggling to tell the story of the violent transition from the prehistoric to historic worlds. All these books that grapple with that same trauma, that same alienation; societal loss of innocence.

The Matrix nicely bookends that literature, because it is about a future trauma, the alienation caused by the violent transition from the historic to the post-historic; from the human to the post-human. From our civilization to theirs. Not as Agent Smith describes it, a transition from the human to the machine, but as Neo announced it at the end of the last film: a world without rules or controls, without borders or boundaries. But more importantly as The Watchowskis showed it: a civilization of cyborgs. Cyborgs in the sense that Donna Haraway promised:
It is also an effort to contribute to socialist-feminist culture and theory in a postmodernist, non-naturalist mode and in the utopian tradition of imagining a world without gender, which is perhaps a world without genesis, but maybe also a world without end. The cyborg incarnation is outside salvation history. Nor does it mark time on an oedipal calendar, attempting to heal the terrible cleavages of gender in an oral symbiotic utopia or post-oedipal apocalypse.
That was and is a radical and original idea that remains buried within the mythological heap of the sequels.
Rrose Sélavy (1921): The Matrix (1999)


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    1. Pulling quotes is always problematic. What I wrote was "In art theory circles "spectacle" is a form of denunciation. Rather than a mad-capped flowering, blockbuster films are a symptom of alienation; 'accumulations of spectacle.'" - I don't believe that blockbuster films are symptoms of alienation. (Why write about them then?) My point is that this is how they are treated (dismissed) within the elevated environs of most art theory.

      Neo is a portrait of the artist, a friendly - particularly friendly for Hollywood standards. That is what I find most remarkable about the film. (But do check out Donna Haraway if you are interested in cyborgs and prophesies.)

  2. Great stuff! Who'da thunk I'd have read an interesting Matrix essay in 2015. I would have liked to see more on Neo as Artist, though - you lay out the beginning and end points, but it seems there are lots of other interesting parallels. After all, Neo's a hacker - he writes code which is designed to disrupt. (Is his regular job coding for a big company - the equivalent of Lester Burnham's unfulfilling press-release-crunching job in American Beauty?)
    After he enters the cyber-bohemian world he's heard about but never fully experienced (hackers can girls too!) and undergoes his drug-fuelled epiphany, seeing the world as it is for the first time - one of the first things he does is begin to learn new arts. Martial arts, in fact, which are both violent and aesthetically pleasing. Morpheus, meaning 'shaper', is an artistic mentor in this process, but here's where the religious side intrudes - although Morpheus may be a fellow artist, and one with much more experience, he's also a zealot who believes he's raising the Chosen One, someone who will surpass him in every way. This on-rails path jars with the artist's anything-is-possible mission statement, and probably presages everyone's issues with the next two films, as well as making Morpheus turn out to be much less interesting than we think he's going to be when he first turns up.
    I'd go so far as to say (unoriginally) that Neo is as much terrorist as artist, and that many of the same processes that turn him into a fully self-realised creator, who destroys the rules, also destroys people and property, etc. It's all a bit Bader-Meinhof, in my opinion...

    1. These are all good points, and worth chewing on. (Want to write a guest post?) On ello I wrote a series of posts about the sequel I imagined after the first film came out. One of the weaknesses of that series (it was written, very much, stream of consciousness) was how much little vitality I was able to invest Neo with. I plan on editing and reposting that series here at some point this summer - making Neo more interesting, more the artist I wished he had become, would improve things.