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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Worldly Desires

The Matrix trilogy circulates within our imaginaries not as an enclosed cultural artifact but as an ensemble that weaves together “multiple texts to create a narrative so large that it cannot be contained within a single medium”(97).  Jenkins describes the phenomenon as an example of “transmedia storytelling”(97). The Wachowski Brothers’ dream fashions an entire world fresh for an eager audience to conquer, explore, and build upon.

New Media theorist Janet Murray compares the horizontal integration of media to the works of Faulkner, while perhaps a less modern example I think Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine is most illustrative of the dynamic.

Balzac created a world of his own by writing over 30 novels. La Comedie Humaine is composed of nearly 1000 characters whose lives and stories often intersect. Balzac’s style, however, is characterized as Realism. This seems to be distinct from the most successful styles of transmedia storytelling. The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter all relied on fantasy or science fiction in order to give the author the freedom to invent an entire new world.

Within the culture of convergence corporations must work harder to captivate their audiences. Transformations in consumption patterns mirror changes in production. Jenkins notes that with the move to a Post-Fordist economy “our workplaces have become more collaborative; our political process has become more decentered; we are living more and more within knowledge cultures based on collective intelligence”(133). The thing that makes The Matrix such an interesting example of Convergence Culture is that it is a meta-commentary and perhaps a dystopian prediction about where the trend itself is taking us. While our minds may not be directly plugged into a machine that sucks our energy out, it is apparent that the shift to affective forms of consumption has some striking implications. There is now an assemblage of diffuse forces that seek to subtly manage and maintain the ways populations relate to different stimuli. The realm of human perception and attention has become commodified. The rift between the flow of material and immaterial forms of capital has shrunk to the point where the opposition between the two is now a sham, if there is an opposition at all.  Jonathon Beller described this process in an article titled “The Spectatorship of the Proletariat” [Boundary 2, Vol. 22, No. 3 Autumn, 1995, pp. 171-228] over 15 years ago. He writes, “The commodification  of  the public sphere and the attendant commodification of the sensorium returns the struggle with capitalism to the senses.” Rather than seeing affect as a solely repressive force, Beller argues that we must use our own potential to resist “in the very arena of domination.” He sees film as an opportunity for that form of resistance itself.

Perhaps The Matrix is an example of this. On the other hand it seems the continued references to Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation indicate that the movie is just an attempt to push theory and culture to its extremes, to its point of implosion rather than a political act in the strong sense of the term. In a world already oversaturated with meaning, political struggles that attempt to accumulate and make as much meaning as possible are just another futile wave crashing against the rocks of the status quo. This stance however just feels too nihilist.

Slavoj Zizek a Slovenian, Psychoanalytic Marxist and cultural critic wrote an article on The Matrix titled The Matrix or Two Sides of Perversion [Philosophy Today 1999, Celina 1999, Volume 43. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/the-matrix-or-two-sides-of-perversion/]. He interprets the concept of the matrix as “the Lacanian "big Other," the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us.” The matrix is the name for the “substance of the social.” It accounts for the structure by which the subject is not master of his own house. It is the paranoiac fantasy that explains the ways in which we are not fully in control of our own actions, that what we do is the result of an entire edifice that determines what and who we are.  The matrix conceals the inconsistencies, gaps, and excesses that prevent us from having a complete or true view of reality. Some interpret The Matrix as meaning reality is a hoax, there are only multiple virtual or fictional worlds we choose to move between or as being a screen that blocks our view of the real world behind the matrix. For Zizek both of these views miss the point of the paradox, “the Real is not the "true reality" behind the virtual simulation, but the void which makes reality incomplete/inconsistent, and the function of every symbolic Matrix is to conceal this inconsistency — one of the ways to effectuate this concealment is precisely to claim that, behind the incomplete/inconsistent reality we know, there is another reality with no deadlock of impossibility structuring it.

The film gains its power not from showing us that reality is simply artifice, but in the moment of awakening. People realize that there is not a beautiful pristine world outside of Plato’s cave of shadows, but rather a dimly lit claustrophobic space. Zizek notes several inconsistencies within The Matrix, one of which is that such a powerful machine could have easily used a different form of energy than humans. Further, why not give each individual their own reality rather than a shared one? His response is that “the Matrix feeds on the human's jouissance.” Rather than acting as an anonymous machine the big Other requires this constant flow of enjoyment to sustain itself. The scene of awakening produces its opposite, which is “the very fundamental fantasy that sustains our being.” The enlightenment belief in the autonomous subject is maintained as a fantasy through positing paranoid stories of control and our ability to free ourselves from them. Zizek sums up his argument as:

Therein resides the correct insight of The Matrix: in its juxtaposition of the two aspects of perversion — on the one hand, reduction of reality to a virtual domain regulated by arbitrary rules that can be suspended; on the other hand, the concealed truth of this freedom, the reduction of the subject to an utter instrumentalized passivity. In other words, The Matrix gets it right, but in a wrong (inverted) way, i.e., we just have to turn around the terms in order to get at the true state of things. What the film renders as the scene of our awakening into our true situation, is effectively its exact opposite, the very fundamental fantasy that sustains our being. We are not dreaming in VR that we are free agents in our everyday common reality, while we are actually passive prisoners in the prenatal fluid exploited by the Matrix; it is rather that our reality is that of the free agents in the social world we know, but in order to sustain this situation, we have to supplement it with the disavowed, terrible, impending fantasy of being passive prisoners in the prenatal fluid exploited by the Matrix. The mystery of the human condition, of course, is why the subject needs this obscene fantasmatic support of his/her existence.  

The inversion of the terms of The Matrix, provokes an interesting intersection with the work on affective economics. Products like SNS’s produce the fantasy of an enlightened subject that masters their own virtual world. They control the impressions other people have of them and manage their appearance meticulously. The virtual subject feels empowered and active at the helm of their virtual vessel. But what does not become obvious to them is the ways in which they are prey to the whims of their news feed and comments. Or how their daily life becomes penetrated by the anxiety of checking what they and their ‘friends’ are up to, how the conception of what your attention should be dedicated to has been slowly structured by your investment in a website. Or how people freely give up their labor to a site that profits off them. What appears as an off the cuff comment about an event or a product becomes aggregated for generating knowledge about consumer preferences. The realm of sensibility and feeling has now become so integrated into corporate strategies that people can no longer just ignore the material effects of affect. The only option is not cede the sphere to the right, but rather to cultivate ways to learn to be affected by that which seemed imperceptible before. 

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At January 31, 2011 at 10:26 PM , Blogger Anthony F. said...

You've addressed one of the biggest concerns I have with the social media trend. People talk as though this new media allows freedom of contribution and a breaking-down of barriers to communications, but its effect seems to be the opposite. People, as you claim, become slaves to Twitter feeds and status updates while rarely bothering to express themselves in more than 140 characters or through their own status updates. I think a purely-positive interpretation of the effects of convergence culture is too naive.

Additionally, I liked the point you made that the Matrix is almost a metaphor for the trend towards culture convergence. I didn't catch that in reading the chapter but I think it's a fair comparison.

At February 1, 2011 at 10:24 AM , Blogger Ishaq said...

The interpretation of The Matrix that Zizek offers is a really interesting and thought-provoking one; the inversion of terms develops an intriguing idea. You pick up on this and its relationship with SNS's, and I definitely agree with the validity of that comparison. SNS's offer the same narrative that the Wachowski brothers manufactured (according to Zizek) that puts people "in control" of their own story. However, taking that one step further, it seems as though the transmedia experience of The Matrix could fit that pattern as well. The Matrix franchise features a multifaceted world that consumers can actively engage in and, through the exploration of the different media that the Wachowski brothers work on producing, can expand and redefine. It's true that the Wachowski brothers have the ultimate say in the development of this world: maybe this example works best to explain their relationship with the franchise? Regardless, you bring up a great point about our engagement with SNS's, and I think there are some similar qualities in the Wachowski brothers' world as well.


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