Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Deus ex Matrix: Embodied Knowing and Love

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
(or: Toward a "Balls to Bones" Christian witness.)

When I first saw The Matrix just over a decade ago, it seemed like a movie that was made especially with my interests in mind. I was (still am) a life-long techno-nerd: The first kid in my class with a computer at home (Commordore64!), the first kid to get online, an avid reader of sci-fi novels and comic books of all sorts. When the movie was released in 1999, I was 20 years old and just finishing up an associate's degree in computer information systems. I worked for a software company. My buddy and I hung out until all hours playing video games and writing computer code, dreaming of becoming game developers. I had a problem with authority. So as I watched in early scenes of the movie, as Thomas Anderson/Neo slept with his head on his computer keyboard, or got chewed out by his boss for being late to work the next morning, I felt a deep sense of connection to his character. And when the final credits rolled before my eyes for the first time, as Rage Against the Machine's “Wake Up/Rock is Dead” blared, I could only echo Neo's words upon seeing Morpheus jump a chasmic gap between two skyscrapers (I realize this is cheesy): “Whoa.” This movie stuck a chord, the same year that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace struck out in the eyes of this (and many another) life-long Star Wars fan.

Four years passed before the final two installments of The Matrix trilogy were released. Like the Star Wars prequels, I was nonplussed. A brooding, cerebral story seemed to have been replaced by a fetish for over-the-top CGI action, horrendous “love scenes,” ridiculous philosophical conversations, and an overly complicated storyline with too many characters. The first movie was tight, sparse, and full of breathing mystery. The final two shot everything they had all over every scene, nothing left to subtlety. Disappointed, my DVD copy of the original has sat in my dwindling collection for the better part of a decade, collecting dust. Until out of necessity, this project gave it another lease on life to me.

In this post, I will offer reflections on what I'll call “The Doctrine of the Matrix” and then will put the movie into dialogue with Christian theology. After re-engaging with this movie, I've discovered that 1) I still love it, and 2) it has some very interesting biblical imagery/references alongside what I observe as a philosophical tension between knowing and being, or epistemology and ontology. With this latter tension, there may be some surprising parallels to Anabaptist or post-Christendom ways of knowing/being in the Christian faith. So read on for more Deus ex Matrix...

The Doctrine of The Matrix
Questioning chairness?
As a 20 year-old, this movie played with some big ideas that got me all riled up. I marveled at the implications of Morpheus' question to Neo – “What is real? How do you define real?” – as the digital representations of the two of them stood inside a computer program tellingly called “The Construct.” With whatever wisdom comes after aging eleven years along with the movie, I still get a kick out of the reality-bending/twisting/creating that goes on in the movie but have learned to ask deeper questions of such a prospect.

Early in the movie, Neo pulls some illicit digital material on physical media out of a book entitled, Simulacra and Simulation, which is a real book published in 1985 (1994 in English) by French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, some of whose work dealt with the intersections of symbol and reality. Neo's later conversation with the little boy in the Oracle's apartment is telling in this regard:
Boy: “Do not try to bend the spoon. That is impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth.”
Neo: “What truth?”
Boy: “There is no spoon.”
Neo: “There is no spoon?”
Boy: “Then you will see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
The boy had been bending spoons when Neo walks in and after this conversation we see Neo just beginning to bend the spoon (or himself?) before being taken into the kitchen to speak with the Oracle. What this and other pieces of conversation in the movie seem to imply with respect to reality is that “it's all in your head.” This is a purely cognitive-social construction of reality.

This cognitive, especially belief-oriented perspective also comes into play with the construction of identity. The prophecy of “The One,” which Morpheus believes Neo to be, is an especially striking example of this. After waking from the Matrix, Neo learns of this prophesy and his supposed place in it, but for most of the movie, he's not convinced. Morpheus encourages him and others as events unfold, e.g. “Do you believe now, Trinity?,” after Neo saves her from a helicopter crash late in the movie. But Neo is the last to be convinced that he is, indeed, The One. The role of belief in the construction of identity is crucial in this film. But it does also help us see a seeming tension in the film.

He knew all along!
Philosophical Tension: Epistemology and Ontology
In plainer terms this could be the tension between “knowing vs. being/doing.” In the same scene just mentioned, after Morpheus asks Trinity if she believes that Neo is the one, Neo begins to tell Morpheus that based on his conversation with the Oracle, he doesn't believe himself to be The One. Before he can finish, Morpheus cuts him off and says, “Sooner or later you're going to realize, just as I did, there's a difference between knowing the path...and walking the path.” So realizing one's true potential, one's true identity, is not simply a matter of head knowledge, but also entails concrete expression and doing. As the Oracle says (and I love this line): “Being The One is just like being in love. No one can tell you you're in love, you just know it. Through and through. Balls to bones.” There is an embodied knowing implied in those words. (Also an explicit connection to love, see sub.)

Power and Ends/Means
Driving the plot of this movie is a power struggle between a select few “awake” humans fighting the sentient machines that are keeping the rest of humanity locked within the false reality of the Matrix. The level of oppression and depth of deception so deep that even fellow humans locked in their digital selves within the Matrix are considered enemies of the rebels fighting to free them. This leads the rebels to justify extreme measures in order to bring about liberation of the human race. This exchange between Tank and Neo as he and Trinity prepare to rescue Morpheus is telling: Tank asks, “All right, so what do your need...(mumbles) besides a miracle?” Neo answers: “Guns. Lots of guns.” The fight scene that ensues in dramatic, slow-motion, and gravity-defying fashion entails Neo and Trinity taking the lives of real human beings (unwittingly in service to the machines) in order to advance their cause.

Love: A force more powerful?
At a pivotal point in the movie we find the point where prophecies converge and identities are fully realized. Neo has just been shot repeatedly by Agent Smith in the Matrix. In the real world, his heart stops and he is apparently dead. Speaking to his still body in the real world, Trinity reveals what the Oracle had told her: She would fall in love with The One, so he can't be dead because she loves him. (Of course) his heart starts beating again, he wakes up and goes on to do something to the Agents that only Agents were supposed to be able to do: Neo jumps inside Agent Smith and destroys him from the inside out.

So there is a lesson here: The power of love is the animating force that allows Neo to fully realize his identity and destiny as The One. The other expressions of love, besides just the romantic love that we see between Trinity and Neo, can also be seen in the camaraderie of the rebels throughout the movie. Loyalty and sacrifice are marks of what keeps this tenuous group alive through seemingly impossible odds. More than any technocratic exercise of power that the machines can muster, it is the very human capacity for love that overcomes even Agent Smith and his depressing assessment of human nature as “a virus.” Even through Cypher's betrayal of the rebels, we see the ultimately dead-end path (literally, for Cypher) of hedonistic/”ignorance is bliss” pursuits. Real life is forged in the bonds of love.

Theological Dialogue
"Now get up."
There are many interesting biblical references and themes scattered throughout the movie that could be discussed here, but I'd rather focus on two of the broader thematic dimensions discussed above put into dialogue with Christian theology: Embodied Knowing and Love. There is a strand of the Western Christian tradition this side of the Enlightenment that seems obsessed with rationality and cognition and having the right beliefs, as if knowing the the right things is the equivalent to being saved. Luckily, this is not the Anabaptist way. In some ways, I see deep resonance between the combination of Embodied Knowing and Love in The Matrix on the one hand, and the same two things in the Anabaptist tradition on the other.

Anabaptists have traditionally been keen readers of the Bible as not only a “divine answer book,” but as a narrative in which to couch their embodied practices as a Christian community. Jesus is not just the Lord of all (although indeed he is, Anabaptists will never deny) but he's also an exemplar for the faith. We do the things he told us to to (even crazy things like loving our enemies, see Dissonance below) and we try to live lives that look like his. We can't just say we're Christians and believe these certain things, rather we must deeply embody our claims and our normative biblical narrative in our individual and corporate lives as the Church, Christ's body. In other words, we have to be Christians, “balls to bones.”

But the likenesses only go so far, particularly when it comes to Power and Ends/Means. The myth of redemptive violence, so prevalent throughout human history and American pop culture, is on full display in The Matrix. This is a struggle for justice and liberation these rebels are engaged in against the machines, and any means will justify that end goal, even taking the lives of innocent people. There are some older streams of Christian liberation theology that would nod in agreement to such an approach, but the Anabaptist tradition says “No” to such formulations. In keeping with the Christ as exemplar model for embodying the faith, Anabaptists look to the life of Jesus and see someone who refused to grab power (though certainly could have), and instead “humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 5:8). So for Anabaptists (and all Christians, I would argue) the means must always be consistent with the end. Each mean is an end in itself, another chance to embody the faith we proclaim, which is “Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). Such witness looks goofy to the world and wouldn't make for a very good Matrix, but it's how we pull off our embodied way of knowing and loving.

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