The Matrix and The Mater #5: Embodiment and the Ghost in the Machine
by Stephen Faller
Certain dualities have been transmitted through Western thought, and insofar as the Matrix trilogy is a Western myth, the movies try to touch on some of these dualities. We are going to look at some of these dualities here. One such duality is the problem between mind and body. What are the dimensions of the mind? Where does it begin and end, and where does it intersect with the body? Can we really separate the human organ that thinks (the brain) from all of the other human organs? Are we whole persons, or are we organic computers housed in these living systems?
Interestingly, the mind/body problem has paralleled another duality in Western thought; namely, the duality between men and women. Women tend to be associated with the body and sensuality and men tend to be associated with the mind. And this stereotype oozes from just about everywhere, whether it’s a hyper-rational male philosophy, or whether it’s religion itself. And so the mind/body problem has become intertwined with the male/female problem.
Let me try and flesh this out a little bit. Some men will say that men are reasonable and that women are strictly emotional. There is a humorous irony here, which stems from two sources. One source is fact that human experience is largely effected by our hormones and both sexes have them. Our brains are regularly washed in hormones. But women’s hormones change a lot with different levels at different times. For men, it’s pretty much the same level from start to finish. This constancy of hormones creates the illusion of stability, and because the world seems the same today as yesterday, there is the temptation to believe that we are seeing it the way it really is. The other source of irony is that men will cling to “rationality” and shun emotion because doing so produces a feeling of safety and control. We submit to all kinds of false-logic and the rejection of the romantic passions because doing so makes us feel good and safe. Funny.
In the Matrix trilogy we see some interesting approaches to this theme. This is what I mean by “embodiment”. Embodiment is the name for trying to talk about these things. How do we talk about these things? How do we examine people as whole persons? How do we deal with the problem of having bodies and being in harmony with them? We do so by talking about embodiment. There seem to be three major ways that the film trilogy deals with the embodiment question. They are as follows: (1) Fashion, (2) Images — usually of a shocking nature, and (3) Plot.
Fashion is one way that we struggle to fit into the world. The psychology and philosophy of fashion come into play as we try to coordinate and piece together how we are going to try to project ourselves to the outside world. Fashion is the place where we take ownership of our image. We can only do so much with our physical form (although these boundaries are constantly challenged). But little things, such as the clothes we are wearing or our hairstyle might become expressive of who we really are inside.
For this reason, it’s probably no coincidence that these personal attempts take on the larger function of being counter-cultural. Forty years ago, it was very threatening to the status quo for men to wear their hair long, for example, and this was part of the biker mystique. The longer hair becomes both at once a form of self-expression and rebellion. The rebellion, of course, is against those who are content to express themselves through the conventions of the day. Today, we’ve gone a bit further than long hair. Now we have body piercings (of just about any pinch of flesh you can think of) and extensive tattoos — and all of these are an attempt to articulate and embody personal truths. Of course, free expression can always become a type of conformity, where everybody who’s anybody has this or that body part pierced and people are unknowingly lined up around the block to get the same thing done.
As a side note, plastic surgery is worth a mention, whose name eerily suggests that the human countenance actually has become so malleable and moldable that it really is plastic. While it might be tempting to think of plastic surgery as a type of embodied image, a deeper reflection reveals that the purpose of plastic surgery is not a mission of individuality, but one of conformity. Instead of challenging and confronting the cultural norms, plastic surgery enthrones cultural norms and individuality is obliterated with fake boobs and chin implants. The human canvas is reduced to a blank sheet of paper, and the counter-cultural message of the Matrix trilogy is replaced, vis a vis the “Stepford Wives”.
So it’s no mistake that Agents are dressed like yuppies and our hero-hackers are dressed in varying degrees of Goth. For the Agents, the suit and tie are the uniform and armor of the establishment. And the point of our heroes’ clothes is not so much that they are sexy, but that they are counter-cultural.
Images are just as powerful in terms of exploring body issues. A lot of this credit deserves to be evenly distributed to Geoff Darrow and the Wachowski Brothers. There are positive and negative images, and they all have the effect of lingering in our imagination as we think about the nature of humanity. Some of these images are things that happen to our heroes. In the original Matrix, Neo’s mouth melts away as he is invaded by the tracer bug. In the sequels, we also see that Smith erases the faces of his victims.
A lot of the images are things that exist in the “real world”. From the insect-like appearance of the machines (tapping into our fear of insects and the mortality they represent), to the alien quality of the squiddies, we find ourselves continually assaulted by the horror of this brave new world. Maybe it’s Neo’s “rebirth”. Maybe it’s the organic quality of the machine-world at the end of Revolutions (in the scene following Trinity’s death, set designers were trying to create the look of the central nervous system — a mechanical spinal cord).
Some disturbing images happen to our heroes in the “real world”. Certainly Neo’s disfigurement is a powerful body image. We don’t expect something like that to happen to Keanu. Or we think of the brutality of Mifune’s last stand. But these images occur throughout the series and I don’t want to create the false impression that images that deal with embodiment are rare. Every time somebody jacks in, a foot-long spike goes into the base of the skull like pithing frogs in biology class. (It’s a nice touch that these Matrix ports become like orifices of vulnerability — notice how Neo and Trinity clasp one another’s Matrix port when they embrace). Through the series, disturbing body images create a rub in the viewer’s subconscious mind. The effect achieves perfection at the end of Reloaded where we see dripping blood which parallels the dripping Matrix code.
There are many aspects of the Animatrix and the online comics that continue to expand this visual theme. In Detective Story, Trinity removes a homing device from the detective’s eyeball. Or in the concept work called Bits and Pieces of Information we see the intensely destructive impact of machine against flesh. Everything about the Matrix vibrates along this string and forces us to see things that maybe we wished we hadn’t.
When it comes to the question of plot, the greater trajectory of the storyline moves from fantasy to the real. More and more screen time is devoted to exploring Zion than the Matrix (so much so that key questions are left unresolved: what happened between Smith and the Merovingian or the Trainman?). We also get the sense that the real world is increasingly cold and stoic. In the first Matrix movie we get some of Cypher’s bellyaching and complaining. But by the end of Revolutions, we know that the real is far less than ideal.
And this trajectory continues. Fans await to find out what happens next in The Matrix Online, a game that is shaped by the direction of the Wachowskis. Fantasy is no longer contained by the movie theater, and maybe — just maybe — Smith has found a way to cross over from his world into ours. And even if he hasn’t, we are still confronted by our own estimation of what is real and unreal.
This has been The Matrix and the Mater. We’ve looked at the issues of mothering, Trinity’s character, examples of female power in the Matrix, sexuality, and questions of embodiment. Unlike “The Passion of Neo”, the individual essays are not linked by argument, but they are linked by theme and topic. And when we look at that common theme, we see that the Wachowskis’ work readily resonates with the feminist critique. We see that this cyber mythology sheds a lot of light on our cultural project of trying to see men and women equally.
Thanks again to the gracious editors at The Matrix 101. I welcome your input and feedback. I really see this as a shared effort between you and me (and all those lurkers out there). So let me know what you think, and maybe if there is another theme you would like to explore together. If you would like to see other Matrix related articles, check out the “articles” section at http://beyondthematrix.stephen-faller.com. There is also a sign up feature if you would like to be informed of other new ideas and articles related to the Matrix. I do have some things in the pipeline, and the sign up feature is the best way to know about these new projects.
The Matrix has you.
Stephen Faller is the author of Beyond the Matrix: Revolutions and Revelations and is a frequent contributor to the online Matrix community. He maintains a website at http://beyondthematrix.stephen-faller.com with additional information on his book, as well as other original essays and articles.