Feature Article

Forget the Red Pill: Queer Politics but also Transhumanist Ideology in The Matrix

Author: Niels Niessen (Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands)

  • Forget the Red Pill: Queer Politics but also Transhumanist Ideology in The Matrix

    Feature Article

    Forget the Red Pill: Queer Politics but also Transhumanist Ideology in The Matrix

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Abstract

Following the Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003, 2003) the franchise’s iconic red pill trope became an anti-feminist meme in neo-fascist circles. This essay analyzes how Matrix Resurrections (2021) reclaims the red pill in an explicitly feminist and queer narrative. But the fourth Matrix film also is an ideological fantasy: Resurrections resonates just too much with a transhumanist belief in a human-machine synergy that also fuels Silicon Valley’s new American Dream. Propelled by this transhuman delusion, The Matrix ultimately has little to say about life in the era of climate catastrophe and control capitalism.

Keywords: Feminism, Ideology, Matrix, Posthumanism, Queer Studies, Transhumanism, Zizek

How to Cite:

Niessen, N., (2022) “Forget the Red Pill: Queer Politics but also Transhumanist Ideology in The Matrix”, Film Criticism 46(2). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.3608

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14 Dec 2022
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Slavoj Zizek is right: Matrix Resurrections (2021, dir. Lana Wachowski) is “boringly postmodern and an ideological fantasy.”1 Ultimately, the film’s longing for synergy between humans and machines resonates just too much with the transhumanist fantasy that also drives Big Tech: an accelerationist new American Dream that burns out people and the planet. But I disagree with Zizek that the film is “not worth seeing” (which is why Zizek—so he claims—wrote his review without having seen the film). The fourth Matrix film is worth seeing, because it steals back the franchise’s famous red pill trope. Following the original Matrix trilogy (1999/2003/2003, dir. Lana and Lily Wachowski) the neo-fascist alt right movement hijacked this trope, turning it into an anti-feminist meme. Now, in an explicitly feminist and queer narrative Matrix Resurrections reclaims the red pill. In this article I embrace such progressive gender and sexuality politics, but at the same time I am critical of the film’s and the franchise’s overall ethereal transhumanist outlook on digitization. Against Matrix ideology—according to which human and artificially intelligent sentients may live together in harmony—I propose a more grounded posthuman outlook on our control society, in which datafication slices people into animate things.

Redpilling

Let’s start where it all started: We are thirty minutes into the first Matrix film when Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), seated in a worn Chesterfield wingchair, offers Neo (Keanu Reaves) the choice. “You take the blue pill, the story ends … and [you] believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” While Morpheus speaks these words, his cool clip-on sunglasses reflect Neo’s choice (Figure 1). Of course Neo chooses the red pill, waking up to the truth that he has been living in the Matrix, a collective prison for the human mind.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

“Or you take the red pill” (The Matrix, Warner Bros, 1999)

Following the Matrix trilogy, Neo’s choice has inspired quite a few people, mostly white men, to “take the red pill.” The red pill meme was coined by Silicon Valley developer and anti-liberal blogger Curtis Yarvin, who in 2007 under the pen name Mencius Moldbug posted “The Case against Democracy: Ten Red Pills.”2 In the 2010s the trope became a point of reference for the neo-fascist alt right subculture. In 2012 Reddit saw the birth of a misogynist community called The Red Pill, whose members had awoken to an apparent feminist threat.3 Redpilling thus became a meme of the “Manosphere”: a collection of websites and Internet fora (4chan, 8chan) on which men’s rights activists, incels (involuntary celibates), and pick-up coaches (who train men to conquer women) found each other in their misogyny.

In subsequent years, redpilling spread more widely. As Kaitlyn Tiffany writes for The Atlantic: “Taking a red pill still meant opting in to a new worldview, but the worldview in question was now less clearly defined: QAnon believers took red pills, and so did garden-variety misogynists, [and] MAGA diehards who simply loathed and distrusted the media. The red pill became such a popular right-wing meme during the Trump years that people started to hear about it even offline.”4 Also online the red pill meme continued spreading. In 2020 Elon Musk tweeted, “Take the red pill,” soon joined by Ivanka Trump: “Taken!” To which Lilly Wachowski responded, also per tweet: “Fuck both of you” (Figure 2)

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Exchange on Twitter between Musk, Trump, and Lilly Wachowski

In light of the red pill’s appropriation history, the announcement of Matrix Resurrections sparked the question: Will the film reclaim the red pill? The film’s authors did indeed ask themselves this question. In an interview Aleksandar Hemon and David Mitchell (who co-authored Resurrections together with Lana Wachowski, who directed solo) stated: “We talked about … things like the Red Pill/Blue Pill trope or meme … One thing we were mindful of is how to … renew the meaning of Red Pill/Blue Pill.” But the authors wanted to avoid entering into an argument with right-wingers. “Lana decided that she did not want to give any credence to that position, even a semblance of dialogue with that.”5

Such an argument with the alt right also wasn’t necessary. In order to reclaim the red pill, the franchise could just stick to its story line. In difference with Zizek, who in Resurrections sees-without-seeing the “old Hollywood formula of the production of a couple-matrix,” I would argue that the Matrix franchise has always sought to be an explicitly feminist narrative.6 Traditionally, Hollywood narratives are structured as male quests, in which the male protagonist progresses the plot while the female characters have more passive roles. In The Matrix, however, the character of Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is at least as active as Neo. This was already the case in the first movie, in which Trinity saves Neo’s life, thus allowing the plot to progress. This is again the case in Resurrections, in which Trinity teaches Neo how to fly (Figure 3).

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Trinity teaches Neo how to fly in The Matrix Resurrections (2022)

The Matrix franchise also queers the Christian Passion story. Whereas the name “Trinity” refers to the Holy Trinity, Neo is the One, the redeemer. Above all Neo is Trinity’s chosen one; he is the one for her. The franchise thus picks and recombines elements from the story of Christ, while reappropriating its male-centered eschatological narrative into a less-linear quest for salvation.

Resurrections further emphasizes a progressive gender and sexuality politics. The red pill is key here. Or rather: Resurrections obviates the need for pills, red and blue. First Neo is seen flushing a box of blue pills that have been prescribed to him by his therapist, the Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), an anthropomorphic algorithm designed by the Matrix to keep Neo in the Matrix. Shortly after, Neo takes the red pill offered to him by Morpheus, now also a computer program designed by Neo himself. Yet whereas in the first Matrix film the red pill still contained a trace program, in Resurrections it is stripped of any material function. The red pill is reduced to a mere symbol, the swallowing of which stands for a conscious choice to leave the Matrix.

Trinity is offered the same choice: do I stay in the Matrix or will I open my eyes? Trinity is now called Tiffany, as in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). She is married and has two children. But Trinity is also still (cyber)punk. She doesn’t need a symbolic red pill to awaken to the truth of the system, the patriarchal system. Her annoying WASP husband still tries to hold her back, clasping her wrist: “Tiffany, you have to come with us,” to which Trinity responds: “I wish you would fucking stop calling me that, I hate that name.” Trinity thus frees herself from the Matrix without any red pill. Resurrections reclaims the red pill by voiding its value, turning it into an empty signifier. Message to the alt right: good luck with your red pill.

Besides challenging the patriarchal order and queering the passion story, The Matrix is also explicitly trans-positive. In an interview with Netflix Filmclub Lilly Wachowski—who came out as a transgender woman in 2016, ten years after her sister—states: “I am glad that people are talking about the Matrix movies [as] a transnarrative. I love how meaningful those films are to trans-people … When you talk about transformation [you talk about] science-fiction, which is just about imagination and world building, and the idea of the seemingly impossible becoming possible.”7 Wachowski refers to the character of Switch in the first film. Initially Switch was meant to switch genders, male to female, while traveling between the real world and the Matrix. Warner Bros mandated, however, that Switch’s gender identity stay stable. “The world wasn’t quite ready yet,” Wachowski says, “the corporate world wasn’t ready for it.”

In this reading of The Matrix as a transgender allegory, Neo has dysphoria (a “splinter” in his mind), the Matrix is the gender binary, and the agents—who consistently deadname Neo as Mister Anderson—stand for transphobia. The red pill in this allegory refers to hormone therapy pills, which as Andrea Long Chu writes, in the 1990s were in fact red.8 As Chu also points out, referring to the late 2010s redpilling-meme-storm, “Twitter users now gleefully brandish this fact as a ‘well-actually’-style rejoinder to the alt-right’s recent co-optation of the red-pill scene as a parable for ‘awakening’ from feminist brainwashing.”9 And yes indeed, given The Matrix’ gender and sexuality politics it is quite ironic that the alt right ran with the film.

Conspiracy thinking

At the same time, it is also very understandable that with its pro-freedom story against “the system” (or what in alt-right circles is called The Cathedral, a term also dubbed by red-pill-meme inventor Curtis Yarvin) The Matrix has resonated with white-supremacist libertarians and right-wing conspiracy theorists. As Neo says during his first encounter with Morpheus: “I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.” To which his mentor responds: “I know exactly what you mean,” adding that Neo is a “slave” who like “everyone else [was] born into bondage.”

In her book Discriminating Data (2021) Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues that the reason redpilling became so popular is that the film adopts the vocabulary of the U.S. civil rights movement in a way that movement also echoes within conservative movements, from the tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck to a Trump adviser comparing protestors against Covid social distancing measures to Rosa Parks. Chun writes that “The Matrix is dominated by themes of slavery, militant civil rights movements, and the White Man’s Burden.”10 As far as civil rights references are concerned, Chun cites the black female character of the Oracle (Gloria Foster) and the African-American characters of Tank (Marcus Chong) and Dozer (Anthony Ray Parker), who are the only members of Morpheus’ crew who are 100% human (all others have electronics in their bodies through which they can be plugged in to the Matrix). As Chun argues, The Matrix tries to disrupt racial stereotypes, but while doing so it cannot avoid slipping into them. Chun writes: “When Neo first meets the Oracle, she states, ‘Not quite what you were expecting right?’ This disruption, however, itself relies on stereotypes: the Oracle lives in a rundown public housing unit. … Because of this, The Matrix, with all its good intentions, fails in its antiracist mission, and instead becomes high-jacked as a vehicle for [a] … ‘racism post race’.”11 Chun thus argues that The Matrix invited its own hijacking by the alt right. She wonders if this hijacking would have also happened if Will Smith, whom the Wachowskis asked first, had accepted the role of Neo. Chun thinks that it would not have mattered, “given the ability of alt-right red pill takers to completely ignore—and also to appropriate—references to civil rights.”12

Now, I don’t completely agree with Chun that The Matrix invited its appropriation by the alt right; for that its gender and sexuality politics are too outspoken. But the franchise does indeed offer a vocabulary to conspiracy theorists, appealing to the notion of a hidden truth behind the perceived “truth.” To cite Morpheus once more: “The Matrix is everywhere; it is all around us … You can feel it when you go to work … when you pay your taxes.”

So what is truth in The Matrix? What are the franchise’s own ideological underpinnings to its seemingly postmodern structure? Is really all ground absent in the film and does it involve, as argues Catherine Constable, “a refusal of transcendental categories, such as divinity or rationality”?13 Zizek, in his earlier essay “The Matrix, or, The Two Sides of Perversion” (1999), links this question of truth in The Matrix to conspiracy thinking. According to Zizek, conspiracy theories should not be reduced to a phenomenon of modern mass hysteria, because “such a notion still relies … on the model of ‘normal’ perception of shared social reality, and thus does not take into account how it is precisely this notion of [normal and shared] reality that is undermined today.” Zizek is critical of The Matrix, because of the film’s flirtations with a real, foundational truth. For Zizek, inspired by the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, the Real, rather than a foundation, is “the void which makes reality incomplete/inconsistent, and the function of every symbolic Matrix is to conceal this inconsistency.”14

Zizek is right in his verdict about The Matrix. Ultimately the film does offer firm ground to both its protagonists and the viewer, which perhaps makes the film not as postmodern after all. Yet the truth game that the franchise plays with the viewer is also slightly more complex than Zizek acknowledges. The franchise’s ideological is not the one it ostentatiously flirts with (the world of Zion and its successor Io), but is only found in thin air, in the film’s assertion of a quasi-spiritual transhumanist synergy between humans and machines.

In order to grasp this foundational thin air, or quintessence, we need to dive deeper into the Matrix universe. Like the original trilogy, Resurrections plays a game with the viewer. The film starts as a remake of the opening scene of the first Matrix film. A bit later this self-reference turns out to be a coding experiment by Neo, who now again goes through life—that is his simulated life in the Matrix—as Thomas Anderson. Following his death in the third film, Revolutions (2003), in Resurrections Thomas/Neo is reincarnated as the creative genius behind Deus Ex Machina, the production company behind a trilogy of Matrix computer games. Pushed by Warner Bros—which in reality is the producer of the Matrix films—this company is now about to launch Matrix IV, so the very story we are watching.

The viewer is present at the brainstorm. “What made Matrix different?,” one developer asks. “Matrix is mind porn. Philosophy in shiny tight PVC,” a colleague says. “It is a metaphor of capitalist exploitation,” adds a third (voicing Zizek’s position, but I will come back to that). Then Neo is approached by Morpheus. That is to say: he is approached by the Morpheus modal program that he has just programmed himself, because the real Morpheus has died in The Matrix Online, the massively multiplayer role-playing game that between 2005 and 2009 continued the trilogy’s universe. Neo cannot believe his own eyes, until Morpheus asks Neo to grab his arm, just like Jesus did to the doubting Thomas, again twisting the Passion story.

Things are thus all very meta in Resurrections, and initially many viewers will find themselves lost in the postmodern maze of mirrors that the film opens with, partaking in Neo’s disorientation. Gradually, though, the viewer, along with Neo, obtains a firmer grasp on the story. This viewing game mimics that of especially the first Matrix film. As Thomas Wartenberg writes in relation to that first film, “as Neo comes to see that world he had believed to be real was only a computer simulation, so do we.”15 Resurrections goes fast for its first-time viewer, but the film also makes sure they won’t get lost. One of the way the film achieves this is through its consistent color coding. On the one hand, there are the scenes in the virtual world of the Matrix, which bathe in a bluish glow. This blue also returns in the Analyst’s clothing and glasses (Figure 4) and in the hair of Bugs (a newly introduced character and a true believer in the prophecy of Neo as the One). On the other hand, the real world often colors red, as in the scene in which Neo rises from his pre-natal-fluid-filled pod in which the machines hold him prisoner (Figure 5), or as with the strawberry cultivated by the people of Io, which is the successor of Zion as the last city in hands of the human Resistance. Color key: blue=illusion, red=real.

Figures 4 and 5.
Figures 4 and 5.
Figures 4 and 5.

Color coding in The Matrix Resurrections (2021)

Beyond this red-blue binary, the Matrix palette also has a third dimension, a world in between humans and machines that adopts the color of light itself. What does this translucent in-between-world tell us about Matrix philosophy? We encounter this light world in the Construct, a training environment hacked together by the Resistance in which newly-awoken redpills can find their bearings and reinvent themselves, as does Neo in his kung-fu lessons. We also encounter this light world in the Matrix itself, in those scenes where humans and machines coexist in harmony and perhaps even blend together. The best example in Resurrections is the paradise landscape where Neo re-encounters Sati (Tanveer K. Atval) (Figure 6). We met Sati for the first time as a little girl in Matrix Reloaded (2003), the second film. And like modal-Morpheus, Sati is a sentient, an artificially-intelligent program. Sati’s name refers to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness: awareness of reality. Like Christianity, Buddhism is a recurring theme in The Matrix. Think of the spoon scene in the first Matrix film, in which a young Buddhist monk teaches Neo how to bend a spoon with his mere thoughts: “Do not try and bend the spoon. … Only try to realize the truth: there is no spoon.”

Figure 6.
Figure 6.

Mindful paradise in The Matrix Resurrections

This act of mindbending brings us closer to unravelling the ideological underpinnings of Matrix philosophy. As Zizek writes about the lesson that there is no spoon: “What about MYSELF? Is it not that the further step should have been to accept the Buddhist proposition that I MYSELF, the subject, do not exist?”16 I agree. While The Matrix challenges the subject’s sense of self-presence and self-awareness, it indeed doesn’t go as far as destroying the subject’s presuppositions through which it identifies itself as subject. The Matrix deconstructs many truths, but it leaves the truth of the individual intact: the protagonists ultimately remain distinct persons with distinct memories and faculties (unlike as in a film like L’Année dernière at Marienbad from 1961 where protagonist and memories blend together at the level of narration). The Matrix holds on to its protagonists’ integrity of selves even after their deaths and resurrections, whether digital (modal-Morpheus) or “real” (Trinity and Neo). In doing so, the series merely instrumentalizes Buddhist mindfulness-teachings in the service of its own transhumanist perspective on human and machines.

Here The Matrix resonates with Big Tech’s new American Dream created in Silicon Valley, because both mindfulness meditation and transhumanism are popular in the Valley.17 Transhumanism is a social and philosophical movement centered around the belief in a synergy between humans and machines, in a humanity enhanced by technology. We encounter this belief for example in the poem “All Watched over by Machines of Love and Grace,” which its author Richard Brautigan distributed in the streets of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco during the summer of 1967, the summer of love and the eve of the tech boom. This poem starts as follows:

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
Such cybernetic paradise is exactly what we have at the end of Matrix Revolutions, where Neo sacrifices himself for peace between humans and machines. After all, machines are not the enemy in the Matrix universe; bad code is the enemy, evil programs like the Analyst the viral Agent Smith who keep visionaries like Neo and Trinity imprisoned in the system. In order to “survive,” this system needs human energy, especially love, with the chosen “holy” love between Neo and Trinity as the main power source. Vice versa, humans need machines: Neo and Trinity would not have lived their second lives without them.

Other than this human-machine synergy, transhumanism’s second key tenet is a strict mind-body dualism, in favor of the mind. As modal-Morpheus explains: “The body cannot live without the mind.” The reverse, however, a mind without body, is no problem, Morpheus is the “living” proof. Disembodied, his spirit continues to live the life from before his carnal death. Here the science fiction of The Matrix agrees with the philosophy of transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil, Head Engineering at Google and a prominent prophet of Singularity: an imagined moment in the near future when technological advancement will have accelerated to the point humanity transcends materiality. Once the brain has been uploaded to cyberspace, the body will be reduced to the meat doll it always already was in transhumanist eyes.

Transhumanism is the central thread in the Wachowskis’ oeuvre. Other than The Matrix, the clearest example is their Netflix series Sense8 (2015-2018), which follows eight telepathically-connected sensates. As with The Matrix, love survives everything in Sense8, that is to say a redefined, queered love, because for the Wachowskis queerness and transhumanism go hand in hand. As online critic Andrew Todd writes, “[The Wachowskis] represent a critical approach to social norms, and to the bodies we’re given. … The person inside is more real than the one outside, state [their] films.”18 However, whereas queerness is the power of The Matrix (and of Sense8), transhumanism is its Achilles heel. The problem with transhumanism is that it decouples identity and autonomy from any embodiment or material reality. Transhumanism is mere spirituality in a cyber skin, an eschatological “religion for postmodern times.”19 Here we also return to Chun’s critique of The Matrix’ whiteness and its appropriation of the vocabulary and imagery of the Black struggle. What makes The Matrix indeed somewhat post-racially racist is not that it cites the civil rights movement, but that it does so in a transhumanist phantasy that seeks to do away with the body, ignoring that the Black struggle is also a struggle for people of color to be acknowledged as embodied subjects.

Control Society

In contrast to The Matrix’ transhumanist gaze, I propose a posthuman outlook. Transhumanism is not to be confused with posthumanism. Like transhumanism, posthumanism blurs the boundaries between human and machine. But whereas the transhuman decouples themselves from physical and social reality, the posthuman cyborg remains “embodied and embedded,” as Rosi Braidotti writes in her book The Posthuman (2013).20 More than the transhumanism of The Matrix, the posthumanist tradition offers a clearer perspective on our digitizing control society. Even though the franchise resonates with a social discontent about systems of control felt by many, it steers clear of any analysis of those systems. In fact, through the evil figure of the Analyst Resurrections even discredits analysis.

We find an early analysis of the control society in the short essay “Postscript on the Societies of Control” from 1992 by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze writes about “ultra-rapid forms of free-floating control” that slice people into data stored in “banks.”21 Whereas transhumanism clings to the individual self, in Deleuze’s posthuman analysis of digital control, the subject is shattered and scattered to the point they are no longer a single in-dividual, but have become a dividual, a shattered and scattered subject.

Does Matrix Resurrections touch on this dividualization of life? Only minimally. As David Sims writes for The Atlantic, the film, especially in the first part, engages our contemporary “universe of constant distraction and intense energy.”22 In those moments the film gives somewhat of an analysis of what happens to the subject in a digitizing world, where people’s attention is pulled in many directions. The film also throws a punch or two at social media, as with its reference to “Face-Zucker-Suck.” Ironically, though, Resurrections then travels on to transhumanist paradise, calling to mind the Metaverse as it was recently announced by Mark Zuckerberg and his avatar.

In his re-“view” of Resurrections, Zizek makes a parallel between taking the blue pill and entering the Metaverse: “We take the blue pill by registering in the metaverse in which the limitations, tensions, and frustrations of ordinary reality are magically left behind.”23 To make this parallel between the Matrix and the Metaverse even more precise, I would argue that the virtual and enhanced reality promised by the Metaverse corresponds to the third, translucent realm in the Matrix films, in which humans and machines coexist in harmony, while constructing, in that electric harmony, a precarious heaven in between virtual hell (blue) and hell on earth (red).

Zizek may not have seen Resurrections, but we have proof he did see the first Matrix film; he is in it after all (Figure 7). In the 2006 The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (dir. Sophie Fiennes), we see Zizek in The Matrix set, analyzing Neo’s choice. Seated in Neo’s wingchair, Zizek says: “The choice between the blue and the red pill is not really a choice between illusion and reality. Of course, Matrix is a machine for fictions, but these are fictions that already structure our reality. If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself.” Next, we see Zizek in The Construct, asking for a “third pill.” “So what is the third pill?,” he asks, “Definitely not some kind of transcendental pill which enables a fake fast-food religious experience. But a pill that would enable me to perceive not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality in illusion itself. … If something gets too traumatic, too violent, even too filled-in with enjoyment, it shatters the coordinates of our reality, we have to fictionalize it.” Cut to Zizek steering a motor boat on the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Figure 7.
Figure 7.

Zizek in the Matrix (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, 2006)

The third pill is not a translucent pill that gives access to The Matrix’ third, transhuman space, which indeed offers a fake religious experience. On the contrary, this third pill—let’s call it Trinity’s non-pill—allows the subject to confront the void that makes reality inconsistent and to work through the symbolic Matrix. The third pill also allows us to see how the transhumanist ideology that underpins The Matrix resonates with an accelerationist Silicon Valley new American Dream that structures and sustains a reality that burns out people and the planet.

Having swallowed the third pill, we see more and more clearly how the Matrix operates as a perpetuum mobile, an energy fantasy powered with the brain waves of disembodied souls who mind-wander through the Matrix, and who thus wander through their own brains. This would be a good point to discard Resurrections as a “boringly postmodern and an ideological fantasy” (Zizek) that has fully exhausted the franchise’s imaginative powers to comment on our world of intersecting climate catastrophe and technological accelerationism. At this point, though, Zizek continues his analysis. Why, Zizek asks, does the Matrix need human energy? According to Zizek, the only consistent answer is that the Matrix feeds on the human’s jouissance.” He writes:

The movie’s premise that machines need humans is thus correct—they need us not for our intelligence and conscious planning but at a more elementary level of libidinal economy. The idea that machines could reproduce without humans is similar to the dream of the market economy reproducing itself without humans. … Ideally, we can even imagine machines just feeding each other, producing machined parts, energy. Perversely attractive as it is, this prospect is an ideological fantasy: capital is not an objective fact like a mountain or a machine which will remain even if all people around it disappear, it exists only as a virtual Other of a society, a reified form of a social relationship, in the same way that values of stocks are the outcome of the interaction of thousands of individuals but appear to each of them as something objectively given.24

To elaborate on this analysis: Machines need humans, certainly, but machines are also built by humans. And some humans have more control over machines than others, dehumanizing other humans who, to cite Karl Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” in his Grundrisse (1857-8) become the “conscious linkages” of “an automaton, a moving power that moves itself.”25

Think of the ecology of digital platforms to which we are all tethered in the control society, colonizing our integrity of selves on a constant basis. In their book Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism (2019) Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias argue that this datafied subject in control society is characterized by a double consciousness, a term dubbed by W.E.B. Dubois to describe the Black experience in a racist society, “in which the self is forced to describe itself in anothers language.”26 Similarly, in Critique of Black Reason (2017) Achille Mbembe argues that driven by Big Tech’s thingification of experience, the Black experience is universalized. Mbembe argues that the transformation of human beings into “animate things made up of coded digital data” generalizes the “Black” condition that “early capitalism imposed on people of African origin.”27

Personally I feel hesitant about using the terms “Black” and “double consciousness” to describe the dividual experience of control society. After all, there is the risk to appropriate a vocabulary that is particular to the struggle of communities that have lived and still experience the effects of historical colonialism and enslavement. That said, I agree with Mbembe and Couldry & Mejias that Big Tech’s logic is colonialist in essence. Now, according to the transhumanism of The Matrix, the only way out is through, but that is ideology. The only way out of the machine is to become more conscious of it, to become more conscious of ourselves as its linkages, to become more collectively conscious of the ongoing virtualization and thingification of life, and while we become more conscious build alternative and less exploitative public and common infrastructures that allow us to be less dependent on Big Machine (Big Tech, Big Finance, Big Oil, Big Pharma).

Corona protest

I would like to end with a picture I took in the German city of Hamburg in January 2022 (Figure 8). The picture shows a protest against Covid measures by the regional government. At this protest, like at similar protests elsewhere in Europe, we found two intersecting cultural streams whose vocabularies also resonate in The Matrix. The first is a libertarian drive towards freedom, self-control, and less government, a drive that in more extreme forms manifests itself in conspiracy thinking and redpilling. The other is a spiritual and mindful hippie-esque discourse about love and connection with roots in 1960s counter culture.

Figure 8.
Figure 8.

“The choice is yours.” Protest against Covid lockdown measures in Hamburg, Germany (own photo)

These cultural streams found each other in a muddled discontent about increasing control by governments and corporations, with corona passports and vaccinations as the main nemeses. The challenge for the Left, or at least one of its challenges, is to channel this social sentiment and attach it to a critique of control exercised by governments and corporations like Meta and Alphabet alike. Control interpellates people as dividual cogs, slicing them into data and managing them by algorithm, all for the smooth functioning of the consumption machine. Instead, we need a society that facilitates people’s collective creativity, and that facilitates collective conversation about how the feelings of discontent that many now experience (not only those attending corona protests) are structured by capitalism and the techno-feudalist system it is transforming into.

As Zizek writes in Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity (2018), with the progressive digitalization of our lives the feminist slogan “the personal is political” gains new meaning.28 While acknowledging its emancipatory effects, digitization, especially when driven by monetary gain and social control, turns many people anxious, burned-out, suspicious, and violated in their integrity. It is necessary that the Left tunes into those feelings and channels them into an alternative vision of life and labor in the digitizing age. As James Muldoon writes in Platform Socialism: How to Reclaim our Digital Future from Big Tech (2022), “we need a new sense of hope for the future to replace the current cynicism and pessimism about the future of technology.”29 Muldoon calls for a “platform socialism” that creates new digital platforms that expand human freedom, understood as collective self-determination. I agree. The Left, more than it does now, has to resist control society and reinvent its emancipatory project for the digitizing age. I am not sure if The Matrix offers much insight about how to do so, but at least the film deals with the alt right’s hijacking of the red pill. It is up to the left that the alt right doesn’t also further hijack a slumbering social discontent about control society.

Notes

  1. Slavoj Zizek, “Boringly Postmodern and an Ideological Fantasy: Slavoj Zizek Review Matrix Resurrection,” The Spectator (12 January 2022), https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/a-muddle-not-a-movie-slavoj-i-ek-reviews-matrix-resurrections. [^]
  2. John Wilmes, “The Twisted, Stolen Legacy of the ‘Matrix’ Red Pill,” The Ringer (21 December 2021), https://www.theringer.com/movies/2021/12/21/22847157/the-matrix-red-pill-legacy [^]
  3. Stephen Marche, “Swallowing the Red Pill: A Journey to the Heart of Modern Misogyny,” The Guardian (14 April 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/apr/14/the-red-pill-reddit-modern-misogyny-manosphere-men [^]
  4. Kaitlyn Tiffany, “The Alt-Right Has Lost Control of Redpill,” The Atlantic (13 April 2021), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2021/04/red-pill-meme-alt-right-twitter/618577/ [^]
  5. Matt Schimkowitz, “Matrix Resurrections Co-Writers Aleksander Hemon and David Mitchell on Reclaiming the Red Pill,” AV Club, 12 December 2021, https://www.avclub.com/matrix-resurrections-co-writers-aleksandar-hemon-and-da-1848234303 [^]
  6. Zizek, “Boringly Postmodern and an Ideological Fantasy.” [^]
  7. Netflix Film Club, “Why the Matrix Is a Trans Story According to Lilly Wachowski” (video), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adXm2sDzGkQ&t=9s (accessed 30 March 2022). [^]
  8. Andrea Long Chu, “What We Can Learn about Gender from The Matrix,” Vulture (7 February 2019), https://www.vulture.com/2019/02/what-the-matrix-can-teach-us-about-gender.html?regwall-newsletter-signup=true. [^]
  9. Andrea Long Chu, “What We Can Learn about Gender from The Matrix,” Vulture (7 February 2019), https://www.vulture.com/2019/02/what-the-matrix-can-teach-us-about-gender.html?regwall-newsletter-signup=true. [^]
  10. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2021), p. 33. [^]
  11. Chun, Discriminating Data, 34. [^]
  12. Chun, Discriminating Data, 265n61. [^]
  13. Catherine Constable, Adapting Philosophy: Jean Baudrillard and The Matrix Trilogy (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), p. 150. [^]
  14. Slavoj Zizek, “The Matrix, or, the Two Sides of Perversion’ (on the occasion of “Inside the Matrix: International Symposium” at the Center for Art and Media, 28 October 1999), https://www.lacan.com/zizek-matrix.htm [^]
  15. Thomas E. Wartenberg, Thinking on Screen: Film as Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 72. [^]
  16. Zizek, “The Matrix.” [^]
  17. Noah Shachtman, “In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career,” Wired (18 June 2013), https://www.wired.com/2013/06/meditation-mindfulness-silicon-valley/ [^]
  18. Andrew Todd, “The Wachowskis’ Post-Corporeal Future: How ‘Sense8’ Ties the Duo’s Entire Filmography Together,” Slash Film (22 June 2018), https://www.slashfilm.com/559097/wachowskis-movies-revisited/ [^]
  19. Wesley J. Smith, “Transhumanism: A Religion for Postmodern Times,” Acton (29 November 2018), https://www.acton.org/religion-liberty/volume-28-number-4/transhumanism-religion-postmodern-times [^]
  20. Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity, 2013). [^]
  21. Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations 1972-1990, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia UP 1995), p. 180. [^]
  22. David Sims, “The Matrix Resurrections Is a Self-Aware Sequel,” The Atlantic (21 December 2021), https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/12/the-matrix-resurrections-movie-review/621082/ [^]
  23. Zizek, “Boringly Postmodern and an Ideological Fantasy.” [^]
  24. Zizek, “Boringly Postmodern and an Ideological Fantasy.’ [^]
  25. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans. Martin Nicolaus, (London: Penguin 1993), p. 692. [^]
  26. Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Meijias, The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford California Press, 2019), p. 158. [^]
  27. Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, trans. Laurent Dubois (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), pp. 5-6. [^]
  28. Slavoj Zizek, Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity (London: Allen Lane 2018), p. 104. [^]
  29. James Muldoon, Platform Socialism: How to Reclaim Our Digital Future from Big Tech (London: Pluto 2022), p. 7. [^]