Of Simulation and Simulacra: Baudrillard in The Matrix

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Of Simulation and Simulacra: Baudrillard in The Matrix
by W. Keith Beason (wkbeason@usa.net)

Knock knock.  Neo is startled by the late arrival of Troy, his punky friend, who comes seeking rather expensive hacked software.  Our hero retrieves the program from his stash inside a hollowed-out book of philosophy by Jean Baudrillard entitled “Simulation and Simulacra.”  In a film chocked full of symbolism, this seemingly innocuous moment is actually one of the more blatant significations employed in The Matrix.

We all know the Wachowski brothers are quite well rounded when it comes to serving up metaphors, covering everything in the film from Lewis Carroll to Plato to Jesus Christ.  Baudrillard provides them with a springboard by which they explore contemporary thinking and plays a more fundamental role in their creativity than one might expect at first blush.

“Simulation and Simulacra” (S&S) was written by Baudrillard in 1981.  Most of the comments I’ve seen regarding the obvious visual presentation of this work in the film revolve around the fact that the book appears to be too thick (in reality it is little more than 160 pages) and it opens to a chapter entitled “On Nihilism” which is, in fact, the last chapter in the book.

But, these are just superfluous remarks.  Taken as a symbol (which is what it is) this shot has a great deal of value.  In opening the book to the chapter about nihilism the filmmakers guide our thinking in what this represents and possibly make more than one statement.  The book is void, empty, a fake.  That is, it doesn’t contain what the cover would suggest.  What it does contain are copies of software.  What it does not contain is anything original (other than an essay on nihilism.)  It’s an emptiness filled with stolen goods.

The philosophy of Baudrillard as discussed in S&S is revealed in The Matrix in several primary categories.  Contemporary hyperreality and systems of control are metaphorically represented in the film by the matrix itself.  Existential melancholia and the use of terrorism serve as the human response to the operational construct.  Each of these aspects lies at the heart of the film.

Part One: “Welcome to the desert of the real.”

When Morpheus speaks this line to Neo he is paraphrasing Baudrillard’s first chapter in S&S.  Baudrillard proclaims that our world is no longer really “real.”  Instead, it has become “hyperreal,” a simulation of reality that is disconnected from whatever was real before.  What’s more, the mass of western civilization actually prefers simulation to reality itself.  Out of this basic truth, simulacra proceeds, the endless unfolding of copies of things until there is no longer a trace of anything original or until originality is trivialized.  The combined effect of S&S is that reality takes on the qualities of a desert, harsh and lacking genuine sustenance.

Simulation is our norm and should not be confused with “representation.”  A representation can be used to distinguish falsehoods because by definition representations are about something else.  A simulation, however, proclaims itself as the whole of whatever is being simulated.  In a simulation there is no reference point from which you can distinguish what is and isn’t genuine because everything within a simulation is counterfeit.  Like Neo’s hacked software hidden in an imitation of a book of philosophy.

“The real,” writes Baudrillard in S&S, “is produced from miniaturized cells, 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 no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance.  It is no longer anything but operational.”

This, of course, is the concept behind the matrix as presented in the film.  “You’ve been living in a dream world Neo,” Morpheus proclaims matter-of-factly.  Human beings supply the energy by which highly developed systems of computers and machines rule the earth.  In exchange for the energy, human “residual self-image,” the “mental projection of your digital self,” is “inserted” into what Morpheus labels “a computer generated dream world.”

The “real” world depicted in the film is nothing other than “operational.”  The computers and robotic machines that have mastered and imprisoned humanity go about their efficient tasks, growing humans, maintaining the matrix, running programs in search of those renegades who would disrupt the workings of relentless technological systems.

Since it was written in 1981, many of Baudrillard’s examples for his (at times) outrageous contentions are a bit dated if analyzed in isolation.  He deals with the ramifications of the Watergate scandal, for instance.   He proclaims that the crisis of Watergate is not about right or wrong.  Rather, it is about misdirection, blue smoke and mirrors.  The truth is that our political and cultural systems are devoured by corruption and murky ethics and these major scandals are nothing more than media events for our leaders and stars and heroes to make a great mythic show, to proclaim that fundamental justice and morality still pervade our society.  But, this is just a simulation.

“It is always a question of proving the real through the imaginary,” writes Baudrillard, “proving truth through scandal, proving the law through transgression, proving work through striking, proving the system through crisis.” Substitute Watergate for the more recent Iran-Contra scandal or the Clinton-Lewinsky “affair” and you can make the same point, however.  Baudrillard’s logic stands the test of time.

The recent incident wherein a Chinese pilot was killed after a collision with a U.S. spy plane that was forced into an emergency landing in Chinese territory is an obvious case in point.  Both sides interpret the event differently.  Both sides claim the other is responsible for what happened.  And how do they prove their respective points?  Through computer simulations showing how one craft collided with the other from whichever point of view that needs to be advocated.  The media shows us military footage of similar encounters as if somehow this video image is the reality of what happened in this specific case for which we have no video image.  Welcome to Baudrillard’s “hyperreality.”

One major facet of hyperreality is the “hypermarket” filled with “hypercommodities.”  The emergence of the shopping mall has trumpeted a time when shopping is an event in and of itself and is no longer directly related to things we genuinely need.  We go shopping just to have something to do.  We buy things we do not seek of our own accord.  Rather, these commodities have found us through the shopping experience and all the hype and marketing that goes into creating that experience.

This is even truer today with the emergence of e-Commerce, where money no longer changes hands and goods are not present at the time of purchase.  Rather, decisions are made over virtual images and electronic encryption.  So, while much that is in Baudrillard’s book is a creature of its time, his reasoning remains applicable.  Which, I’m sure, is why the Wachowski brothers were fascinated enough with his philosophy to prominently feature it in their film.

Our hyperreality engulfs us, according to Baudrillard, through economic and political systems, through the media in general and through advertising specifically.  “.the social.has fallen into the register of supply and demand, just as work has passed from being a force antagonistic to capital to the simple status of employment, that is to say of goods (eventually rare) and services just like the others.  One can thus create advertising for work, the joy of finding work, just as one will be able to create advertising for the social.  And, today, true advertising lies therein: in the design of the social, in exaltation of the social in all its forms, in the fierce, obstinate reminder of the social, the need for which makes itself rudely felt.”

This might seem perplexing until you consider the effects of ads featuring Tiger Woods or Brittany Spears upon the masses or, at the other end of the spectrum, former Senator Bob Dole pushing Viagra.  Telling us what is cool, what is wrong with us, what is correct, what we should do and wear and how we should be.  This is obviously the illusion of a freedom of choice, a simulated freedom of choice.  We are free to choose whatever is on the menu, but we do not get to create the menu.  Corporations and governments and the media and other social systems do that for us.  The menu is matricized.

Part Two: “Built to keep us under control.”

Hyperreality allows our lives to be more readily controlled.  “What is the matrix?” Morpheus asks by way of explanation to Neo.  “Control,” he answers, continuing the lecture.  Of all the things the matrix is it comes down to the enslavement of the human race to a scheme (or simulacra) of technological systems.  This symbol can be equated to the way Baudrillard views control in our society today.  Neo states that he doesn’t believe in “fate” because “I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.”  But the simple fact is that he is not in control at the very instant he makes that statement.  He has the simulated illusion of control devised by powerful systems that use him even in that moment to their ends.until he takes the red pill and scrambles his input/output signals so he can be located and unplugged from the matrix.

Obviously, Neo is actually enslaved without knowing it when he first encounters Morpheus.  Other than the rebels from Zion, no human being is in control of their life.  The matrix, that magnificent computer generated reality supported by vast and purely operational systems, is an absolute tyrant.  This is more than good filmmaking.  It is a metaphor for our time.

Baudrillard writes that large political and cultural issues are, in fact, mechanisms of control.  The most critical issues of the day, like the nuclear arms race back in 1981, are not about what they purport to be at all.  According to Baudrillard, the concept of nuclear deterrence “only serves as a pretext.for installing a universal security system, a universal lockup and control system whose deterrence effect is not at all aimed at an atomic clash but, rather, at the much greater probability of any real event, of anything that would be an event in the general system and upset its balance.  The balance of terror is the terror of balance.”

A more current example would be the rapid advances made in surveillance by our government and certain corporations to gain access to our lives.  In the alleged name of controlling, say, child pornography, or waging the drug war, or to “assist users in customizing their internet experience” we now endure all manner of spying gadgets that exceed their intended purpose, including microprocessors that potentially map our every move in cyberspace.

The matrix is a mechanism for keeping people enslaved and literally plugged in to a system that treats them tyrannically without their awareness.  The mass of humanity believes itself to be something it is not, just as Neo’s edition of Simulation and Simulacra is not what it appears to be.

Part Three: “There’s something wrong with the world.”

The chapter about nihilism is especially important to this symbolic scheme within the film.  Obviously, the Wachowski brothers intend it to be a special signification or they wouldn’t have placed it so prominently in the shot.  Why else put the final chapter in the book at it’s beginning unless you want to signify something?

“On Nihilism” represents the worldview of Neo as Thomas Anderson.  That is, the way he is confused, restless, even melancholy about his life.  He is directionless.  Trinity speaks of knowing why Neo can’t sleep at night.  Morpheus understands that Neo can’t sleep, is looking for something but doesn’t know what, and knows there is something wrong with the world, but can’t quite figure out what it is.  This condition would coincide with what Baudrillard call’s “melancholia” in his essay about nihilism in S&S.

Baudrillard writes of a pervasive feeling of being “melancholy attached to the system itself.that is becoming our fundamental passion.”  Further, “.melancholia is the fundamental tonality of functional systems, of current systems of simulation, of programming and information.  Melancholia is the inherent quality of the mode of the disappearance of meaning, of the mode of volatilization of meaning in operational systems.  And we are all melancholic.  Melancholia is the brutal disaffection that characterizes our saturated systems.”

In S&S, Baudrillard discusses a new kind of nihilism that is not so simple as the “God is dead” variety. That is too “romantic” for Baudrillard.  Instead, postmodern nihilism is based upon the inherent “transparency” or “disappearance” of things.  That is, not only is meaning fundamentally challenged, but so is appearance, resulting in “the disenchantment of the world.”  The result is not just meaninglessness but utter and complete indifference in the world.  This indifference is widespread among the masses, the greatest single indicator of how rampant nihilism has truly become, even among those who would claim to still be “religious.”

Agent Smith reflects all this when he asks a captured and subdued Morpheus if he has ever marveled at the matrix.  “Marveled at its beauty.  It’s genius.  Billions of people just living out their lives.oblivious.”  This is the result of what Baudrillard calls the “destruction of meaning through simulation, hypersimulation, hypertile.”  To that extent, the Agents represent the most repressive aspects of the nihilistic forces in the modern world.  They are the agents of vast operational systems, sent to protect and perpetuate those systems, like so many media and power driven forces in our real lives.

Part Four: “As long as the Matrix exists the human race will never be free.”

Within “On Nihilism” Baudrillard both advocates and disqualifies terrorism as the proper response to the circumstances of our reality.  Of course, the film is about a group of terrorists (or rebels, if you prefer) battling against the massive techno-culture that has invaded and enslaved the human realm, that has created and installed the matrix and thus controls all humanity with the simulation of late 20th century reality.  Each human being is unknowingly plugged in to a system that controls them completely, that robs them of any freedom or hope of meaning as individuals, though both meaning and freedom are fully simulated.  The system of automation and computerization is holistic and feeds off humans who, according to Morpheus are “not ready to be unplugged.”

Many of us often feel as if we are cogs in a vast system or machine.  More radical thinkers (like Baudrillard) point out that the majority of us are perfectly contented to exist within these techno-political-corporate systems that have no meaning beyond their own ends.  Technology seeks to process and present information faster, more “lifelike”, with constant improvements in productivity and efficiency.  Politics uses people as the means to whatever ends special interests design regardless of the form of government involved.  Corporations invade our private lives more and more through acquired marketing information and directed campaigns designed to manipulate our consumption as well as increasingly making demands on us as employees shifting around within the business climate.

Terrorism, according to Baudrillard, “does violence to these forces in broad daylight.”  However, Baudrillard’s sense of nihilism is so pervasive that he ultimately discounts acts of terrorism themselves.  Death and violence have not escaped the overpowering effects of nihilism in our postmodern reality.  They are meaningless because life has become merely transparent within the systems just described and within the media system.  TV annihilates the significance of things, for example.  It reverses and simulates reality.  “Reality” television is all the rage today.  We no longer watch TV.  It watches us.

In the face of this twisted mixed-up reality, acts of terrorism and any resulting deaths do not affect anything any more.  They are robbed of their potential power because the lives lost and violence inflicted has no reservoir of truth upon which to draw significance.  The intimate “transparency” of things leads to the annihilating indifference among the masses previously mentioned.  That’s how all-encompassing Baudrillard’s sense of nihilism is.

Instead, Baudrillard writes: “Theoretical violence, not truth, is the only resource left to us”  to combat the gigantic systems of control and hyperreality that confront us.  The Wachowski brothers borrow much from this.  One might go so far as to say they have hacked Baudrillard’s concepts as Neo hacks software and stashes it in a book by Baudrillard.  In doing so, they have succeeded in creating an artistic work of virtual terrorism that may be one of the film’s more compelling justifications.

This by no means exhausts all the symbolism contained in The Matrix.  The film is packed with numerous metaphorical discourses.  I would not go so far as to say the film is “nihilist.”  It is, rather, more of a hodge-podge of competing metaphysical value judgments.  Much like the postmodern world that it represents.  Though I would argue that Baudrillard plays a fundamental role in the films ideology, in the end it is up to the characters and, indeed, to us as viewers to sort through the maze of ideas and possibilities and to draw our own conclusions.

[to e-mail authors of responses, remove the spaces and the “(NO SPAM)“]
Rick says- I’m not sure if this is meant to be a space for comments on the essay.

I think it is. But I have a question I’d like to place here. An observation perhaps.

I’ve been talking this film over with other fans for some time now. In fact, after I saw the film for the first, of 7 times in a Theater. (a record for me)(2, prior to the Matrix)

I noticed in a few cases reflections were in slow motion, while the charecters that were in the reflection moved at normal pace. i.e. – Neo being placed into the car with the Agents. In Trinity’s mirror, the reflections were moving slower than eveything that was not in the mirror. Also when Neo reached for the door knob at the Oracle’s Apartment. The reflection of his hand was a bit slower.

I have yet to get a response from anyone on what significance, if any, this may have.

Thank you for such a cool site. I have spread the word that it exists.

Any input would be well recieved.

Das Clo says- Keith, you got the name of the book wrong, it’s SIMULACRA AND SIMULATION, not the other way around…
Tomi says- I am reminded of C.Paglia’s refrences to the “Apploian” western mind.  The removeal of the truth of ugliness of life replacing it with the refined beauty of serile images.
DANGRAD says- Even before Neo gets to open S&S, we find out that he resides in room 101 (1984 George Orwells nightmare novel with its futuristic world of all-seeing telescreens, and its insidious Ministries of Truth, Love … etc.)
per says- You could also see Neo as Jaques Derrida who is breaking down the binary oppsitions that the matrix (the superstructure) consists of, and since it’s physically possible to have an objective viewpoint the post-structuralistic analysis becomes superfluous, Neo can start deconstructing with a structuralist analysis
Teresa says- I don’t want to be criticizing you,  I just noticed this.  It’s Choi, not Troy.  It sounds like Troy, but it’s “Choi” in the script.  Great essay, i learned and realized a lot.