Science and Metaphysics in The Matrix and eXistenZ

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In his Organs Without Bodies Slavoj Žižek points out Deleuze’s emphasis on the passage from metaphor and towards metamorphosis in terms of the difference between “machines replacing humans” and the “becoming-machine of humans.”

The problem is not how to reduce mind to neuronal “material” processes (to replace the language of mind by the language of brain processes, to translate the first one into the second one) but, rather, to grasp how mind can emerge only by being embedded in the network of social relations and material supplements. In other words, the true problem is not “How, if at all, could machines imitate the human mind?” but “How does the very identity of human mind rely on external mechanical supplements? How does it incorporate machines?”[1]

In Cronenberg’s films we see the theme of machines replacing humans in the process of being replaced by the theme of humans connected to machines, or machines as extensions of humans providing them with another realm beyond and yet still within the material world; the psychic and the material horizontally situated next to each other. In eXistenZ, for instance, we see how the game-pod is plugged into the subject’s spinal cord through a bio-port and becomes an extension of the body. In Henry, as in Cronenberg, the obsession is not only with the machine taking over the body but also with body and machine acting upon one another. Perhaps Henry himself was becoming-machine internally, he was incorporating the dualistic and mechanical vision of the world surrounding him, but he thought his body was being attacked by external forces and the space he occupied was being invaded by forces that belonged to an altogether different realm, an external world. Perhaps he was indeed becoming a spiritual automaton to keep the Evil Spirit within at bay. The paradox is that the Evil Spirit is itself his own construction which in turn constructs him as a spiritual automaton constructing an external Evil Spirit.

In what follows I will attempt to show that Cronenberg’s films are caught in a vicious circle, that they are self-deconstructive, and that if one thinks too much about them they not only turn back on themselves but also collapse in on themselves. This is because they are shut up in themselves in a highly solipsistic fashion and are the victims of the way they attack what they consider to be dangerous for humanity.

It is a recurrent theme in science-fiction-thriller movies that in time humanity turns into the slave of its own creation, namely of machines. It is precisely because of this fear of being replaced that humanity attempts to get out of time, out of the physical, and eventually falls on the side of what it was attempting to escape from; be that which they fall in the direction of metaphysics or pure-physics, in both cases their thought itself becomes machinic.

Science fiction is obliged to construct a world, and by this very token, to elicit a comparison with the one that we already know. This comparative construction is always related – as was already the case in Plato with the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic, or even with the cosmology of the Timaeus – to a kind of conceptual epic woven out of images. It is demiurgic (creating the Whole) and normative (judging what is, on the basis of what could be or could have been). Science fiction resembles a metaphorical disquisition, because it elaborates a judgment about what is on the basis of a global fiction in which we experience the momentous question of the relation between the structure of the world and the reality of the choices that one believes oneself to be making within it, or the freedoms that one imagines to be exercising within it.[2]

With the aim of changing the past, the present, the future, or all at once, almost an impossible thing to do as of now, the subject messes with nature and culture alike, and this intrusion causes the very event which he was trying to prevent from happening. Just like Oedipus’s father who, in escape from a prophecy, falls victim to his choice of way to escape, and becomes the victim of his own choice. And his choice is, in the first place, to believe in the prophecy. It is as soon as he puts his belief into action that he prepares the grounds of his subjection to an external force. His own construct, that external force, governs his actions independently of his intentions. There still is a governor but this governor is an internally constituted external force.

What Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, calls the “oceanic feeling,” is the security of existence in the womb, tied to the mother with the umbilical cord, and swimming in the placental waters in foetal shape without the danger of drowning, within which the humans in The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999) are contained and those in eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999) experience life through. In his Dialectics of the Fable, Badiou analyzes The Matrix in relation to his own philosophy and eXistenZ in relation to Husserlian phenomenology. In what follows I will attempt to compare and contrast Badiou’s and Henry’s philosophies in the context of these two movies, in relation to Lacan’s theory of the subject and in the light of Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism.

In eXistenZ and The Matrix, it is a matter of finding a discriminating procedure, from within a regime of appearing (the game, or the Matrix), between what is real and what is only a semblance of the real. In my view, this question is watered down in Cronenberg’s film by the paradigm of the game. To pose the ludic virtual as an undecidable rival of the real amounts in effect to an inexact banality. As ‘realist’ as it may be in its representations, every game is played from within an irreducible consciousness-of gaming. By way of contrast, in The Matrix the question is posed in a radical fashion. In effect, what is at stake is not how to move in the midst of indecision, but how to endure the ordeal of the real faced with semblance. The One is in effect he who knows how to identify semblance from within semblance – the one who, in the Cave, succeeds in knowing that the shadows are nothing but shadows.[3]

In eXistenZ, we could say that the postulate is realist. In effect, the projection into another world has a very simple cause: you are asleep, and a game projects you into this fictional world by means of different connections to your nervous system. In sum, we are dealing with a ludic realism that mobilises the neuronal structure of dreaming.[4]

What Lacan calls the unconscious is the dead zone in-between the subject and the signifier, or the state of non-being in the space between the state of being governed by drives and the entry into the symbolic order. The unconscious understood as the dead zone in between the subject and language, is at the same time the gap between being and becoming. Entry into the symbolic is associated with a passage from the state of being, through non-being and into the symbolic order of becoming.

eXistenZ deals with the question: what is a subject who, with regard to the environing world, cannot lay hold of a stable clause of objective existence? In sum, what is the subject of transcendental épochè, of the suspension of the judgment of existence, for the sake of the pure flux of representational consciousness? This is obviously a Husserlian or phenomenological question. Cronenberg does not provide an assured response, and this hesitation is one of the film’s weaknesses. Nonetheless, it seems that the film points towards a subject of the unconscious, a monstrous, violent, sexual projection of an ‘Ego’ revealed by the ludic erasure of objectivity.[5]

The passage from the death drive to the desiring production is never achieved in Cronenberg’s films. As we see in eXistenZ, the subjects only become capable of desiring when they are in the virtual world of the game, attached to an organic bio-port with an umbilical cord. In escape from the realists Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) hides in her own game. At the end of the film we learn that even her escape from the realists was part of the game, a construct of her own psyche, her own creation. We also learn that eXistenZ is only a game within another game called transCendenZ and that the realists trying to annihilate the project turn out to be Allegra Geller and her security guard (Jude Law). As it was in Videodrome so too it is in eXistenZ; what the virtual world of another reality does is to sustain the subject with the environment in which he/she can act out his/her fantasies in a virtual realm beyond the flesh. Within the game Allegra and the security guard can make love, outside it they have a purpose; they have to free desire from the confines of virtuality and restore it to its true place, that place being the material world.

When Jude Law refuses to undergo the operation of being penetrated by what looks like a big machine gun, so that the bio-port can be plugged into him, Allegra Geller says, “this is it, you see! This is the cage of your own making. Which keeps you trapped and pacing about in the smallest space possible. Break out of the cage of your own, break out now.” Allegra Geller sees the physical world as limiting and unsatisfying. To go beyond this limited existence she creates an illusory time-space in which the player is in the service of his/her unconscious drives which are themselves represented in material objects. When the bio-port is plugged into the subject the subject’s five senses are governed by the sensual effects the game creates on the subject. The illusion of safety and security is the result of the depersonalization of experience; it is the Other that plays the game through me. A fantasy world which keeps death at bay, an impersonal consciousness that thinks through me, and a body that never dies. What the game eXistenZ does, then, is to promise immortality in a spiritual realm beyond the flesh. And yet it does this through stimulating the centres of reception in the body which activate the five senses. When Jude Law licks Allegra Geller’s bio-port hole she immediately withdraws and asks, “what was that?” Surprised at his own act, Jude Law says, “That wasn’t me, it was my game character. I couldn’t have done that!” After a very brief silence they realize that since they are in the game they can’t be held responsible for their actions and start kissing passionately.

The umbilical cords in eXistenZ, which seem to connect the subject with a world beyond the physical, in which there is no guilt, no responsibility, and no death, turn out to be the chain of negativity chaining the subject to a detached, meaningless, inauthentic existence. It was Hegel who pointed out that freedom without society is meaningless and not freedom as such. For freedom to become freedom it should be situated in a historical context and hence gain its meaning in relation to time. What Heidegger borrows from Hegel is this idea of the necessity of the social for any meaningful activity to take place. Heidegger’s attitude is very different from the Romantic understanding of freedom as something that can only be experienced in isolation, where, detached from his social environment, the subject bonds in a more profound way with nature, and unite with all the forces of nature in a state of euphoria.

This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infans stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence, would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject.[6]

Lacan’s Mirror Stage describes the child’s first confrontation with its image of itself on the mirror. Lacan says that the child is not as unified as it sees itself on the mirror. But the child needs this illusion of unity to be able to see itself as a being in the world. This is when the sense of omnipotence begins in the child.

The primary process—which is simply what I have tried to define for you in my last few lectures in the form of the unconscious—must once again, be apprehended in its experience of rupture, between perception and consciousness, in that non-temporal locus, I said, which forces us to posit what Freud calls, in homage to Fechner, die Idee anderer Lokalitat, the idea of another locality, another space, another scene, the between perception and consciousness.[7]

If we keep in mind that the primary process is the death-drive then we can see that Lacan’s shift is away from Cartesian dualisms of subject and object, mind and body, nature and culture. In Lacan there is an opposition to a Heideggerian attitude towards the world and its relation to the self. A third world is introduced in addition to the imaginary and the real. And this third world is the symbolic. For Lacan, between the illusory sense of omnipotence and the symbolic loss of self with the acquisition of language, there is a dead zone, a space in-between, a gap between the symbolic and the imaginary. That space is the Lacanian Unconscious, the Real which refers to what Descartes called Cogito, Freud Ego, and Heidegger Being.

What Descartes, and to some extent Freud, presuppose is that there is a cogito before anything else, that there is an ego who says “I.”  There can be no self in relation to an external world before language. There is nothing before the subject says “I.” For the ego to begin to exist and develop it has to acquire language and say “I” first. The real entry into the symbolic takes place when the subject is sufficiently equipped with language and capable of realizing that “I” is an illusion, that the self who is to say “I” is lost upon entry into the realm of language. This illusion, however, this imaginary self who says “I,” should be preserved at least to a minimal extent, otherwise the Real slips through and life becomes painful. It is a necessary illusion, the subject, if one wants to be able to do things. Fantasies are illusions we need to keep the Real of our desire at bay.

Is it not remarkable that, at the origin of the analytic experience, the real should have presented itself in the form of that which is unassimilable in it—in the form of the trauma, determining all that follows, and imposing on it an apparently accidental origin? We are now at the heart of what may enable us to understand the radical character of the conflictual notion introduced by the opposition of the pleasure principle and the reality principle—which is why we cannot conceive the reality principle as having, by virtue of its ascendancy, the last word. [8]

So the Real is in-between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. The conflict between the pleasure principle and the reality principle takes place when and if the subject falls victim to the drives and the pleasure principle by letting himself be governed by the unconscious drives.

For Lacan progress takes place when and if the subject passes from the state of being governed by unconscious drives to becoming capable of desiring and being desired. Since for Lacan desire is the desire of the Other, desire is essentially social and symbolic, which means that it is the drive that is prior to the symbolic, and the imaginary is the support of the reality principle, without which the Real would enter the scene and destroy the subject. Lacan forgets that death drive is the cause of conflict as well as being its effect. With the traumatic incident the subject’s relation to the Real changes. The direction of this change may lead to destruction as much as it may lead to creation. A traumatic incident either creates a possibility of relating to the world in a profoundly engaging new way or turns into an obsession with the self, detached from the social reality and locked in a delusional and rigid vision of existence projected onto the Real, giving birth to neurosis or psychosis.

We do not write with our neuroses. Neuroses or psychoses are not passages of life, but states into which we fall when the process is interrupted, blocked, or plugged up. Illness is not a process but a stopping of the process, as in “the Nietzsche case.” Moreover, the writer as such is not a patient but rather a physician, the physician of himself and of the world. The world is a set of symptoms whose illness merges with man. Literature then appears as an enterprise of health.[9]

It is a matter of becoming capable of using the unconscious drives in the way of producing new modes of being and thinking as well as new forms of life.

Reference Matter

[1] Slavoj Žižek, Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), p. 16

[2] Alain Badiou, Dialectics of the Fable, trans. Alberto Toscano, Science Fiction Film and Television, Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2008, Liverpool University Press, p. 16

[3] Alain Badiou, Dialectics of the Fable, trans. Alberto Toscano, Science Fiction Film and Television, Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2008, Liverpool University Press, p. 21

[4] Alain Badiou, Dialectics of the Fable, trans. Alberto Toscano, Science Fiction Film and Television, Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2008, Liverpool University Press, p. 18-9

[5] Alain Badiou, Dialectics of the Fable, p. 20

[6] Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1977),  p. 2

[7] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Hogarth Press, 1977),  p. 56

[8] Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis,  p. 55

[9] Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, transl.Daniel W. Smith and Michale A. Greco (London and New York: Verso, 1998), p. 3

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