"Who Put These Fingerprints On My Imagination?" Engaging the Matrix

David Dark

David Dark has published articles and reviews in Prism magazine and Books & Culture. His book Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons and other Pop Culture Icons was published in 2002 by Brazos Press. Dark teaches English at Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville and is married to singer-songwriter Sarah Masen.

"Propaganda makes up our mind for us, but in such a way that it leaves us the sense of pride and satisfaction of men who have made up their own minds. And in the last analysis, propaganda achieves this effect because we want it to. This is one of the few real pleasures left to modern man: this illusion that he is thinking for himself when, in fact, someone else is doing his thinking for him."

- Thomas Merton

With the latest New York Times in one hand and a Bible (NRSV) in the other, we try to explain ourselves to ourselves. What compels me? How did these clichés manage to hijack my consciousness? What does it profit a person to gain all the homeland security in the world and forfeit his soul? What is the Matrix? Or, to borrow a line from Elvis Costello's "Green Shirt": "Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?" What man, mind, or monster did (is doing) this. When and how did our thoughts get to feeling like they're not entirely our own? And when did we agree to it? Who benefits from our sedation? Who colonized my brain space? How hard it is to prefer the pounding headache of looking hard at the world over the blissful, happy-ending incomprehensibility of Technicolor and the easy answer, simple explanation, sound-bite culture of Fox News Network.

As a high school English teacher in America, ever in desperate need of a difficult-to-contest analogy, I've found a very present help in the metaphorical value, maximum applicability, and effective citation afforded by The Matrix. While very few propositions go unchallenged in a good classroom discussion, the intense relevance of this film to the experience of your average American teenager is something of a no-brainer. My students often accuse me of madness, but they find nothing particularly controversial in my observation that The Matrix powerfully names and describes the forms of captivity into which we're born and within which we live and move and, by all appearances, have our being. They know that worlds have been constructed around them, physically and psychologically, as protection against many a perceived threat, and they understand that it is an effort oftentimes well-intentioned and always in progress. They also understand that they are a target market whose buying power sustains the economy and that enormous amounts of money, mind-power, and resources are expended anticipating and manipulating their desires.

They live with the notion that their speech and their way of looking at the worldthe little red pill of reality are often the creation of television and market research. They are painfully familiar with the Trumanesque epiphany in which the words "I love you, man," whether spoken or heard, are part-joke, part-sincere, and part-conspiracy. They know what it means to be unsure as to whether your own laughter is genuine. When Lawrence Fishburne's Morpheus describes the Matrix as "a neural-interactive simulation," they don't have to stretch their imaginations to know what he's talking about. They know. It's obvious.

Although most of my students don't know what a metanarrative is, they have a pretty good idea after I suggest that The Matrix might be the most convincing metanarrative on offer in this present age of popular culture. They take personally the apocalyptic significance of films whose protagonists discover themselves in carefully scripted, immersive environments which create the illusion of freedom while using inhabitants to fuel their own death-dealing machinery. They know the joke's on them when a voice says, "Because we value you, our viewers/customers/clients...." And the bright colors, earnest-sounding voices, and lively music only serve to remind that someone (or something) is trying to create demand and move product. They don't like it particularly, but they don't see much in the way of available alternatives. As the popularity of the film suggests, any articulation of a spirit of resistance will have people lining up. As Dostoevsky observed, no one wants to want according to a little table, and the sense that they've been playing roles in a vast formula of market research, while occasionally consoling themselves with a packaged rebellion, isn't a realization anyone can sustain for long without becoming depressed. But there is something powerfully invigorating about imagining, especially in the company of young people, what it might mean to take the red pill of reality on a regular basis or to weather the storm to the limits of one's bubble and to break on through to the other side.

The Matrix has you.
What language shall we borrow to describe the length and breadth of our captivity? We can speak of the hegemony of multinational corporations over the human heart and mind, the preponderance of the Borg, or any of the many worlds of Philip K. Dick who never tired of employing fresh, outlandish articulations of how we go about lying to ourselves. But for sheer vastness and a monstrously effective borrowing from any number of available sources, little or nothing compares to The Matrix. Plato's allegory of the cave, for instance, certainly conveys the notion that we often warm ourselves by the fire of a cold delusion. But in The Matrix, we're conceived for the purpose of being plugged in. We're fuel for the prodigious machinery. The commodification knows no end. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Keanu Reeve' Neo is the Daysleeper ProtagonistKeanu Reeves' Neo is the daysleeper protagonist who, like many young (and increasingly not-so-young) people of the western world, has been raised on digital technology. By day, he sits in front of a computer screen in an office cubicle. By night, he's his own man, hacking legendarily into the early morning hours until he collapses at the computer beside his bed. The search is on, and it knows no satisfaction. It is unceasing. And while Neo wouldn't be able to tell you exactly what he's searching for, he has recently nailed it down to a specific, haunting question: "What is the Matrix?"

Something's in the air. Something's happening, and Neo possesses at least the beginnings of wisdom insofar as he knows that he doesn't know what it (the something) is. Everybody's looking for answers, we might say, but in Neo's world, it's perhaps better to admit that we don't even know the proper questions. Most of us are too busy grabbing and accumulating to even pause long enough to wonder or dream harder. We need a wake-up call, probably on a daily basis. Premeditated, protective stupidity or the non-conforming, ongoingly difficult path of being awake and alive. Choose.

"The Matrix has you." This message makes it through Neo by way of his computer. Its meaning will occupy the rest of the film alongside the apocalyptic discovery of what it can and must mean to wake up. When I first saw the film (on an Easter Sunday, appropriately enough), I couldn't help but think that our current, oft-discombobulated generation of Western culture was being given a sampling of language adequate to both its despair and its hope. When Neo is first introduced to Trinity, her words are tailor-made for the lone sojourner constantly found looking for answers (or less-than-edifying images) by way of the computer keyboard:

Please. Just listen. I know why you're here, Neo. I know what you've been doing. I know why you hardly sleep, why you live alone and why, night after night, you sit at the computer; you're looking for him...The answer is out there, Neo. It's looking for you and it will find you, if you want it to.

From here, it's back to the white-collar routine where he'll wait for something, anything, to happen. The Matrix does have him, for the time being, but he's about to be shaken by what is doubtless the fantastic daydream of many an employee in the workaday world of data entry. As he sits in his cubicle, he receives a call from the legendary hacker, Morpheus, who alerts him to the presence of "agents" who've come to take him away. For one glorious moment, Neo's office space is transformed into a playing field of real danger and cosmic significance. The interrogation that follows his capture is too fantastic, in Neo's view, to be accorded the name of reality. But as he will discover, his understanding of reality has been, to say the least, adulterated.


You're a slave, Neo.
As an enigmatic sage with impeccable fashion sense, Morpheus sits before Neo with a bemused confidence which knows more than he can communicate. He can only bear witness, a task peculiar to the apocalyptic, and when Neo is brought to him, he can only pull out the poetry and all available imagery in discussing with Neo the nature of the real. It has to be believed to be seen. And believing a revelation cannot be done on behalf of someone else. He has to try and inspire faith, but time is short. In Morpheus' view, Neo isn't far from understanding the facts beyond what appears to be matter: "I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up."

What is the Matrix? "The Matrix is everywhere...It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth." What truth? "That you're a slave Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind."

The Matrix is everywhere.While Morpheus' witness is scandalous, he also regards Neo with a gravity which, unless Morpheus is mad, is the most liberating and invigorating gaze he's ever experienced. He looks upon him as a being of infinite worth whose every self-estimation is a hopeless underestimation. This is the apocalyptic Yes. But it is also a No. The one depends upon the other. Neo's freedom depends upon an ongoing recognition (a vision, in fact) of his slavery.

When the self-proclaimed representatives of "the gospel" have reduced the good news to "how to get to heaven when you die," it's profoundly ironic that a science fiction action film would serve to bring the reality-altering significance of the Jewish and Christian revelations up on the cultural radar. All too often, such reductions make of religious faith the tacit (and sometimes not so tacit) sponsor of the powers that be, not the resistance force that might overcome them through radical, alternative, apocalyptic living. The Matrix reminds us of the stakes and the costliness of such living. Embodied belief. Were we expecting something else? This is the kind of thing people, students especially, want to talk about.

Holiness begins with a breach.

Having offered his testimony, Morpheus wastes no time in presenting Neo with the opportunity to begin initiatory rites. Though they have, in a sense, already begun, Neo has to decide before he enters the point of no return. As Tresmontant explains, the "personal act of judgment, of refusal, of choice" cannot be avoided; the No to the old world and the Yes to the new. This is only the beginning, but it isn't too late to turn back. The red pill or the blue pill: "You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe" In spite of Morpheus' charisma, the viewer knows that the blue pill is a genuine temptation of comfortable numbness and ease. The red pill is the avenue to truth, the unmasking of fictions, and as-yet-unimagined strife: "Remember, all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more." Neo takes the red pill.

Welcome to the real world, Neo.In a matter of seconds, Neo's perceived reality begins to liquefy around him, and as he touches a nearby mirror, he begins to be enveloped by all nearby matter as if he's being expelled from within like an air bubble. In one of the most horrific and effectively rendered moments in science fiction film, he then awakens in a completely wired state and enclosed within a gelatinous membrane which he will have to push through in order to breathe. After breaking through, he discovers that he is in one of a seemingly infinite number of pods, where the rest of humanity lie dormant, as far as the eye can see. He is, in a sense, graphically born again, but he's about to be discarded and flushed down the chute.

Once the Matrix has discovered his awakened state, a machine appears for the purpose of removing him from the system. In one peculiarly chilling moment, Neo see himself in the gaze of the machine and knows that he is exactly nothing, a defect whose awareness has made him useless, dead to the world of the Matrix because he's now alive to a new one. He's dropped into the sewage only to be salvaged by Morpheus' ship, the Nebuchadnezzar. "Welcome to the real world, Neo."
"Am I dead?" he asks. "Far from it."

He's beginning to believe.

Allegorically speaking, if the central question of humanity's destiny was merely the importance of being raptured out of the big, bad world, I suppose this would be the end of the film. Morpheus and his crew, including the newly saved Neo, would fly away to some distant, planetary shore, possibly shed their bodies, and know all the while that the world they'd left behind awaits its assured destruction in a big fiery ball.

I'm grateful to note, however, that The Matrix is more dependent upon and faithful to a specifically incarnational understanding of these matters. From the very first moment of his removal, Neo is being prepared for re-entry. The world has been subjected to futility. It is under siege, which is to say that the Matrix has it under a totalitarian control. But there is a resistance movement, a civilization in fact, that exists outside of the control and total observation of the Matrix. This ever-mobile, ever-beleaguered city functions in the world, seeking to free creation from its momentary bondage to decay. By now, it should come as no surprise to discover that this community calls itself Zion.

Neo never lays eyes on the home-base, the actual city itself, of Zion (This is a trilogy, after all), but he does come to know what it will mean to live a life of representation on behalf of its ways. In fact, the red pill was his inauguration and baptism into this new, devastatingly costly but nevertheless living way. In stark Redemption requires re-entry.contrast to their visually stunning, brightly colored manifestations within the Matrix, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar are clothed in drab, monastic-style fabrics and forced out of necessity to subsist on gruel. The authenticity of Zion-style living and it's quality of being, at the very least, unplugged are all that it has to commend itself over the sensory feast of the Matrix. Zion is, at best, the first fruits or the testimonial deposit which exists solely to embody the new day of authenticity which will overcome the present darkness of the Matrix.

Redemption requires re-entry. It will not do, for instance, to simply destroy the Matrix in one shot, because, even if this were possible, the mass of humanity remains unconverted and would very likely die with it. As Morpheus explains, "You have to understand that most of these people are not ready to be unplugged and many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it."

The paralyzed comprehensibilities of their captive minds require a more subversively wrought conversion (as we've seen in the case of Neo), and even afterwards, the blue pill of escape and blissful delusion remains an ongoing temptation. Aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, we have one crew-member, Cypher (whom the agents of the Matrix call "Mr. Reagan") who wants to be plugged in again. In exchange for handing over Morpheus, he insists that his memory of life outside the Matrix be erased and his mind be immediately reincorporated in the life of a celebrity actor. The process of dissimulation (against that of redemption) is something we will happily have done to ourselves. We will, as it turns out, pay for the privilege.
Cypher wants, among other things, the taste of steak and understands that regaining the world of illusory sensations will require the forfeiture of his soul. He knows that such a final re-entry will mean surrendering his mind to the system. The redemptive re-entry of Neo, and any other Zion citizen, will require a different mental exercise. The action of bearing witness against the mind-altering powers of the Matrix and for the not-yet-awakened living will be a practice of belief, a mindfulness that asserts what it knows against the all-pervasive force of appearances. Holding on to reality, bringing it in as it were, will be an all-consuming occupation.

There is no spoon.
Neo's vocation is one of mind over that which foists itself upon the mind as matter. And as we're graphically reminded throughout the film, this matter is lethally powerful in spite of its illusory nature. He has to assert the true and the real against the false and the fake in a realm where fake, for the moment, reigns supreme, where the fake, moving in for the kill, crowns itself with such descriptions as "the sound of inevitability." The counter-performance of Zion dreams large but also celebrates, in the face of the computer-generated construct, such small, local, but earth-shatteringly effective affirmations as "There is no spoon." This is dictionary-definition apocalyptic. Our world is not unfamiliar with the processes which would reduce all human life to the status of the coppertop battery, fueling the machinery of stone-cold profit by utilizing humanity's preference for the Disneyified over the incarnationally redeemed. To the man with a hammer, as the saying goes, everything's a nail. To Christof, an unborn child is a ratings phenomenon. And to a corporation, a human is a target market. Apocalyptic unveils another way of doing things. Apocalyptic awakens.

He is in this world but not of it.As The Matrix ends, Neo directly addresses the Matrix and explains that he's about to do some awakening. In contrast to to the limits the Matrix has imposed, arrogantly asserting the meaning of "realistic" and "the inevitable," Neo will unveil "a world where anything is possible." He will make a spectacle of the principalities and powers, parading the commodifying folly of the Matrix before the watching world. He is in this world but not of it. And he's about to start us imagining what it might mean to rage against the dying of the light and the pretentious busyness of the machine, which we now know, of force, to be death-dealing. He's announcing Zion's new day which is and was and is to come.

Taped on the wall above the doorway exiting my classroom, I have two drawings, each of a pill, one red and one blue. Much of what I profess to students at fifty-minute intervals is dismissed as complete lunacy, much is forcibly ignored, and plenty fails to overcome the myriad images and sounds that occupy their minds even when I'm the only one talking. They've been bombarded by a multifaceted media presentation before they entered my room, and the bombardment will continue once they're out. The Matrix has them.

But from Beowulf to Philip Larkin, we talk about choices, the grids that define them for us, and what it might mean to represent new life in the mass hypnosis of the present. We start small with such seeming trivialities as not breaking in front of other students in the lunchline just because you can and somehow expanding your sphere of respect by kindly regarding the people you're not inclined to notice. These are red-pill decisions, representing a lifestyle the darkness does not know or comprehend. The blue-pill option, on the other hand, will involve submission to hostile forces which constantly generate more illusions in such a way that we're eventually doing it to ourselves.

The two drawings are but one more invitation for my students to a more determined clarity of thought and action. They know that it's a funny idea, but many also acknowledge that it can be a help. We've talked, read, and written, and now they're made to re-enter (though hopefully they've never left it) the real world. There they can either willfully misconstrue what transpires around them to fit their mindset or receive the faces and situations that confront them in all their uncommercial beauty. The broad path of the former has many takers, and they've long known that the wide-awake latter is narrow and fraught with danger. They'll note, too, that red-pill living is best undertaken in groups and that, on his best days, their teacher is attempting to join them.

Based on the book, Everyday Apocalyptic: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons and Other Pop Culture Icons, Brazos Press. Copyright ©2003 by David Dark. Used by permission.