Thursday, June 5, 2003

The Matrix: Zhuang Zhou's Butterfly Dream (駭客任務: 莊周夢蝶)

The Matrix: Zhuang Zhou's Butterfly Dream (駭客任務: 莊周夢蝶)

Fiction, Cyberspace and Reality: The Matrix

"Once upon a time I, Chuang Tsu, dreamed I was a butterfly flying happily here and there, enjoying life without knowing who I was. Suddenly I woke up and I was indeed Chuang Tsu. Did Chuang Tsu dream he was a butterfly, or did the butterfly dream he was Chuang Tsu?"
-- Zhuang Zi, translated by Thomas Cleary

"Everyday, political, social, historical, economic, etc., reality has already incorporated the hyperrealist dimension of simulation so that we are now living entirely within the aesthetic hallucination of reality."
-- Jean Baudrillard

"Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"
-- Morpheus to Neo, in "The Matrix"

The Matrix, directed by the Wachowski brothers, was released in 1998. It was a huge success. This was partly for its impressive visual effects and partly for its thematic content, and also because of the appeal of its main actor, Keanu Reeves. Web sites and web discussion groups were constructed by fans to discuss and analyse its themes. Reflecting the enquiring nature of this interest, the 'official' site is named

In The Matrix, Neo learns the physical techniques of Chinese kung fu, with the philosophical connotations of the related practices of Buddhism and Taoism, from human-implanted virtual-reality programming. The notion that what you believe affects physical reality is one of the threads of the film, reminiscent of Kwai Chang Caine overcoming the searing heat as he lifts the urn and leaves the Shaolin temple, in the 1970s television series Kung Fu.

At several stages in the Wachowski brothers' film, we see the true form of the matrix: dense code in a phosphorous green colour, reminiscent of computers in the 1970s and 1980s. It is this code that generates the illusion, the latter similar to the Indian notion of maya. It is like a visual rendering of Jean Baudrillard's notion of simulation which, he claims, has taken the place of reality: The real is produced from miniaturised units, from matrices, memory banks and command models (Baudrillard 1986, p. 3) The great simulacra constructed by man pass from a universe of natural laws to a universe of force and tensions of force, today to a universe of structures and binary oppositions. After the metaphysics of being and appearance, after that of energy and determination, comes that of indeterminacy and the code (Baudrillard 1986, p. 63) We can therefore approach a film like The Matrix on a metaphysical level, a social-critical level, and also in terms of psychological philosophy. 'Nebuchadnezzar' - the name of the hovercraft in the film - was a biblical (Babylonian) king who experienced troubling dreams. In one dream he was instructed by God to destroy the people of Jerusalem because they were worshipping false prophets. In The Matrix, humans live in a world that is no more than a dream. The name 'Morpheus' (Laurence Fishburne's character) refers to the Greek god of sleep and dreams. In some philosophical and spiritual teachings, the 'illusory' nature of the world is depicted as a form of hypnosis or sleep. This is particularly apparent in the writings of PD Ouspensky, pupil of GI Gurdjieff, whose system was largely based on Sufism. Ouspensky used an analogy of sheep and a shepherd who does not tell the sheep they are captured and are being 'farmed', exactly like the humans are in The Matrix:

"There us an Eastern tale which speaks about a very rich magician who had a great many sheep. This magician was very mean. He did not want to hire shepherds, nor did he want to erect a fence about the pasture where the sheep were grazing. The sheep consequently often wandered, and above all they ran away, for they knew that the magician wanted their flesh and skins and this they did not like. At last the magician found a remedy. He hypnotised his sheep and suggested to them that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned that, on the contrary, it would be very good for them and even pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them; and in the third place he suggested to them that if anything at all were going to happen to them it was not going to happen just then, at any rate not that day, and therefore they had no need to think about it. Further the magician suggested to some of them that they were not at all sheep; to some of them he suggested that they were lions, to others that they were eagles, to others that they were men, and to others that they were magicians."
-- Petyr Demianovich Ouspensky

Cyberspace has become part of everyday and popular culture. Sometimes this is no more than entertainment or 'virtual networking' on the Internet; at other times it has a disturbing effect because it is purely imaginary and can become almost hallucinatory. As simulation in the Baudrillarian sense, it can sometimes replace reality, where human values are located. As we see from the writings of Chuang Tsu, philosophical enquiry into the nature of human reality is an ancient endeavour. The benefits, seductions and dangers of contemporary cyberspace complicate the matter even further, but do not change the fundamental nature of the questions. Many of these are represented in The Matrix and in this respect the film does indeed portray 'serious questions' and can be used in the enquiry as part of the "laboratory of the spirit".

Editor's Comments:

Back in early 2000 I penned an essay entitled "A New Millennium," in which I analyzed "The Matrix," along with several other science fiction films released one after another in close succession. These films included "The Truman Show," "Dark City," and "The Thirteenth Floor."

All dealt with a common theme: individual and/or collective awakening from mass delusion. All these films portrayed individuals rudely awakened from a collective spell, awakened to the fact that the world they took to be hard reality, was transparent illusion, thinner than gossamer. These films were modern renditions of Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist parables of transformation and transcendence, of awakening from "maya," or "illusion."

That such a string of films, unprecedented in Hollywood history, could be penned and produced at this moment in time, was no accident. Movies such as these erupted into the Collective Conscious from the Collective Unconscious only because a significant segment of our Information Age society was ready for them. A significant number of moviegoers had attained a level of awareness where these films' underlying premise could be greeted without either blank incomprehension or undisguised hostility. As numerous online articles confirm, I was not alone in noticing the philosophical connection between "The Matrix" and Daoist philosopher Zhuang Zi.

Does the appearance of such films herald a "New Age" of raised collective consciousness? I do not delude myself. The evolution of consciousness is a painfully slow process which cannot be rushed.

In the meantime, those of us engaged in the "cultural creative industries," including film-making, need to learn to appreciate our own culture. If a pair of brash, thirty-something Polish-American movie freaks from Chicago, Illinois named Wachowski can see the intrinsic value, not to mention immense profit potential inherent in ancient Chinese systems of thought, surely we can too.

-- Bevin Chu

Explanation: Fiction, Cyberspace and Reality: The Matrix
Illustration(s): Zhuang Zhou's Butterfly Dream, Jean Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulations"
Author(s): James Lomax
Affiliation: recumbent gaze
Publication Date: 2003
Original Language: English
Editor: Bevin Chu, Registered Architect

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