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The Matrix | Following Jean Baudrillard in the Desert of the Real

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The Matrix is a film trilogy that can be endlessly analyzed. In the past, it’s been interpreted variously as a prime example of dystopian cinema, a staging of Plato’s thought experiments, and as a trans allegory (this one director Lilly Wachowski has actually confirmed). 

However, The Matrix is also a fulfillment of the ideas of one influential French philosopher: Jean Baudrillard. In his 1981 philosophical treatise Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard examined popular culture and argued that in the new technological world—and I say this in the simplest way—reality has ceased to exist.

Baudrillard’s ideas are so entrenched in The Matrix that fans couldn’t fail to recognize them, even if they’ve never read a word of Baudrillard. He stipulates that in the postmodern age (he’s talking about the 1970s and 80s, but his words still ring true in the internet age), our world has become so entrenched in signs and symbols—in part down to our saturated media culture—that we’ve lost all connection with the real, and instead live in the world of the hyperreal. Reality no longer exists; we aren’t connected to the real world; we live in a simulation. In a strange coincidence, my translated copy of Baudrillard’s Simulations from 1983 even has a black-and-green cover eerily reminiscent of how the matrix itself is rendered in the films. 

The cover to Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations side-by-side with the ‘code view’ from The Matrix. | University of Michigan Press, 1983./Warner Bros, 1999.

We know that the Wachowskis were interested in Baudrillard’s work. The cover of Simulacra and Simulations even appears in the first Matrix film—Neo (Keanu Reeves) keeps his floppy discs for clients in a box stamped with the treatise’s title on it. When he opens the box, the interior is turned to an essay from Simulacra titled ‘On Nihilism’, in which Baudrillard argues that “the universe, and all of us, have entered live into simulation.” Humanity’s nihilism (and isn’t Neo the archetypal nihilist human?) “has been entirely realized no longer through destruction but through simulation and deterrence.” The irony here is that if Neo had bothered to read this, he would have an inkling of what Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) will reveal to him later. 

Look even further, and the franchise becomes a vivid, on-screen portrayal of Baudrillard’s thesis—so much so that you could even say the movie coins a new genre of “virtual philosophy.” From the directing style to the philosophy, The Matrix as a franchise is a foray into Baudrillard’s postmodern mind—but it’s perhaps most apparent in the first film. 

Jean Baudrillard’s Postmodern Manifesto

Jean Baudrillard was a French philosopher who became synonymous with postmodernism in the late 20th century. His first work to center on the postmodern condition was Symbolic Exchange and Death in 1976, in which he first introduced readers to his ideas of ‘simulation’, ‘simulacra’, and the ‘hyperreal’. 

However, his most influential treatise was 1981’s Simulacra and Simulation—the book that actually appears in The Matrix. In this essay collection, the philosopher proposes that reality no longer exists and has been replaced by the ‘hyperreal’. The easiest way to explain this is to use Baudrillard’s own metaphor: Jean Luis Borges’ short story ‘On Exactitude in Science’. 

In this story, Borges imagines an empire where cartography has become so detailed that they have created a map with 1:1 scale. This map engulfs the real world, so much so that “the territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it.” This, Baudrillard states, creates the ‘hyperreal’: “a real without origin or reality.” 

It is this world that we are currently living in, says Baudrillard. With the influx of technology—primarily TV and mass media—“signs of the real,” those references we use to say we live in a real world, have been substituted for the real itself. Living in this world of ‘signs of the real’, we no longer know exactly what is real and what isn’t, and are in fact living in the ‘hyperreal.’ 

Though a French philosopher (and there is an added layer of difficulty in deciphering his texts considering they have been translated from French to English), Baudrillard was fascinated in how all this played out in America. This time, he chooses Disneyland as his metaphor, which he says is “a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation.”

In typical Baudrillard style—as in, almost impossible to understand—he says that Disneyland “is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland.” In other words, Disneyland is presented as imaginary to make us believe that the rest of America is real, when in fact the opposite is true, and Disneyland—with its hyper-capitalism and childishness—is the most real of all. “It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real.” 

See also: The Matrix | Transgender Allegory, Applicability, and Me by Ell Twine

In the Desert of the (Hyper)real

Even on a surface level, The Matrix clearly embodies established themes in postmodern culture. However, upon closer examination, the films have far more in common with the philosopher’s theories, most notably the first film in the franchise. It’s in The Matrix that the Wachowskis dive into the philosopher’s theories and play them out on the big screen. I would even argue that Neo could be substituted for the average postmodern reader, while Morpheus stands in for a sort of pseudo-Baudrillard figure.

In fact, it’s Morpheus who delivers one of the most significant lines in the entire film. When he invites Neo into Nebuchadnezzar’s simulation system to reveal the secrets of the real world, he says “welcome to the desert of the real.” This line comes directly from Baudrillard, back in his explanation of Borges’ 1:1 map.

“It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the desert which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.” 

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (1981)

With this one line, Baudrillard cements his postmodern theory, namely that we are now living in a false reality and our representations and signs no longer refer to anything real. Is there anything more Matrix-like than this? Neo, both physically and mentally, is forced to grapple with his changing reality in the film, of waking up one day and discovering that what he thought was the real world isn’t real in any sense of the word. He struggles with this new concept of hyperreality for a long time before fully accepting it. When he meets Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Apoc (Julian Arahanga), and Switch (Belinda McClory) and they remove the bug that Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) has planted in his body, he screams, “Jesus, that thing’s real!” Because, of course, it must be a dream?

It’s only later that Neo accepts that his universe is hyperreal, and understands that the signs he took for proof that he was in the ‘real world’ no longer refer to anything. When Neo is driven to meet the Oracle for the first time, he gazes out of the window of the car and points to a restaurant. “I used to eat there. Really good noodles. I have these memories from my life—none of them happened.”

This line is also close to Baudrillard’s theory on nostalgia. He says that “when the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.” Imagining those noodles, Neo is beginning to understand the power of signs to stand in for reality. However, he’s also embracing some of that nostalgia—which is also proof positive that he now rejects the idea of the simulation as real. 

Neo (Keanu Reeves) studies the grey slop served aboard Nebuchadnezzar. | Warner Bros, 1999.

Nostalgia can be seen elsewhere in The Matrix, too. Eating self-described “bowls of snot” on the Nebuchadnezzar, Mouse says the food reminds him of a cereal called Tastee Wheat. “Did you ever eat Tastee Wheat?” he asks Neo. Before he can get too deep into nostalgia, though, Switch is there to remind him that he’s never actually eaten Tastee Wheat either, only what the simulation gave him to stand in for Tastee Wheat. How can anyone say what Tastee Wheat actually tastes like, when the simulation has produced multiple truths and points of reference? It is as Baudrillard says; the hyperreal and its subsequent nostalgia produces “a plethora of truth, of secondary objectivity, and authenticity.”

See also: The Matrix | Wuxia Daddy? The Influence of Hong Kong Martial Arts Cinema by Jake Godfrey

America as “the Refraction of a Giant Screen”

Baudrillard became fascinated as America as the true encapsulation of a hyperreal culture. Five years after the publication of Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard released America, in which he wrote about his travels across the States and argued that America itself “is neither dream nor reality. It is hyperreality.” Though America may be a simulation, “the Americans, for their part, have no sense of simulation.” The same is true of The Matrix, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the films (though filmed in Australia), depict a typically American way of life that comes to be revealed as unreal. 

Baudrillard tackles a wealth of subjects in America: freeways, mass media advertising, the American city, the West. However, it’s his discussion of screens that is most pertinent to the films. He says that, though American reality certainly existed before the arrival of technology like the television, “everything about the way [America] is today suggests it was invented with the screen in mind, that it is the refraction of a giant screen.”

Screens are undoubtedly one of the most important motifs in The Matrix. Computer screens and TVs are everywhere: the crew of Nebuchadnezzar gathers around screens to watch Neo and Morpheus fight in their simulation, while in The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) the Architect is crowded by screens within the Source. Often, too, the physical directing makes clear that we are moving inside or outside of screens. This happens first in the scene where Neo is interrogated by Agent Smith. We see a wall of TV screens and slowly move into one of them until we are inside the interrogation room. In The Matrix: Reloaded, the Source is figured as a room devoid of anything but the Architect on his quasi-throne and a vast wall of screens—the very same that appear before Neo’s interrogation? Multiple times in the Architect scene, viewers are subjected to that same illusion of being projected into a screen and back into the real world. We know now, though, as we didn’t know in the first film, that there really is no reality, the world is simply screen after screen after screen – a hyperreal universe devoid of signs of reality.

Neo confronts the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) in The Matrix: Reloaded. | Warner Bros, 2003.

It’s also pertinent that The Matrix mostly takes place in an unnamed city, not a small town, suburb, or desert community—though these may exist in the universe created by the matrix. Baudrillard fixated on cities in his philosophy, saying that to truly understand the American city, “you should not, then, begin with the city and move inwards to the screen; you should begin with the screen and move outwards to the city.” Again, it seems the Wachowskis had this in mind when creating The Matrix, as screens are an indisputable part of how we view the events of the film. 

The Matrix as the Prime Example of Postmodern Science Fiction

While Baudrillard didn’t produce much work on postmodern cinema, he did have something to say about science fiction in Simulacra and Simulations. His essay ‘Simulacra and Science Fiction’ posits that classical science fiction has reached a turning point. Since humanity has traveled to space, has been to the moon, is beginning to understand new things about the outer limits of our universe, then science fiction must explore new realities. “The conquest of space constitutes an irreversible crossing toward the loss of the terrestrial referential,” Baudrillard writes. Space has become “everyday” and thus science fiction has lost its reference point. It was this that gave science fiction its charm, now that it cannot “forge its path in the narratives of spatial exploration.”

It is, Baudrillard says, “no longer possible to fabricate the unreal from the real, the imaginary from the givens of the real.” We know space, we’ve been there, how can we produce imaginary fictions from it? Instead, science fiction should “put decentered situations, models of simulation in place and contrive to give them the feeling of the real… to reinvent the real as fiction.” And is this not what The Matrix does?

Neo, living as Thomas Anderson, in a repetitive office job. | Warner Bros, 1999.

Thomas Anderson, at the beginning of The Matrix, is living in a world that is truly familiar to audiences. The rise of computers, the music scene, the repetitive office job—they are all things that we could look to and recognize. Sure, they look slightly different 20 years on, but reality has not changed so much. As Baudrillard says, though, the genius of the film was reinventing the real as fiction. Instead of this science fiction taking place in an imaginary world/planet, the Wachowskis brought science fiction to the so-called ‘real world’. 

Baudrillard offers Philip K. Dick as an example of a science fiction writer doing this successfully. His short stories, Baudrillard says, are “not about a parallel universe, a double universe, or even possible universes… it is a universe of simulation, which is something else altogether.” So is The Matrix a true universe of simulation. We do not stray into parallels—there is one universe for humanity, and that is the matrix. If people have learned to escape that universe into the ‘real world’ in The Matrix (and not many will), then this serves only to cement the hyperrealness of the simulation. 

What did Baudrillard think of The Matrix?

If you’re wondering if Jean Baudrillard ever actually saw The Matrix, well, he did. And he hated it.

In an interview from 2003 (published after Reloaded but before Revolutions), Baudrillard revealed that the Wachowskis had contacted him after the first film was released and asked him to work on the second and third films, but “this wasn’t really conceivable.”

His criticism with the series is partly that the Wachowskis depicted on-screen something which cannot actually be depicted (because we are no longer living in the ‘real world’). In his words, “They took the hypothesis of the virtual for an irrefutable fact and transformed it into a visible phantasm. But it is precisely that we can no longer employ categories of the real in order to discuss the characteristics of the virtual.” 

He goes on to say that, in The Matrix, “the brand-new problem of the simulation is mistaken with the very classic problem of the illusion.” And it’s true that—in the film’s separation of reality into ‘the matrix’ and the ‘real world’ (encompassing Zion and the Machine City)—the Wachowskis do necessarily impart some reality into the universe. Zion and its inhabitants are precisely the opposite of unreal, and this becomes the central issue of Revolutions (2003): the fight for those humans who do exist in this apocalyptic world. 

Baudrillard might be right, and I don’t wish to refute the actual writer of Simulacra and Simulations—he certainly understands it more than I do. But, I do think his criticisms come from a flaw within his writing. A frequent criticism of Baudrillard’s work is that it seems to be devoid of actual human beings. And if The Matrix takes Baudrillard’s theories and adds a human element, then is this so bad? Instead of embracing nihilism and a world devoid of reality—as Neo might have if he’d read his own copy of Simulations—the films offer some hope for humanity in the redemption of Zion and the humans living in the city. 

Baudrillard may not have approved of the films, but that still doesn’t change the fact that the Wachowskis are deeply indebted to his theories. Verbose and wilfully complex though they are, The Matrix introduced Baudrillard’s philosophy of postmodernism to a huge audience, packaging it in incredible directing and perfect dialogue that still stands up 20 years later.

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Abigail is a freelance writer from North East England now living in York. She has an MA in American Studies and is interested in writing about literature and culture, including postmodernism. When she’s not reading, you can find her talking about books on Instagram @bookbandying.  

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