The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images…Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production….it is the very heart of society’s real unreality.
The Society of Spectacle, Guy Debord
Thomas Anderson in The Matrix is a worker bee for an anonymous economic production company where his job is recognizable—we don’t know what he does exactly, but we do recognize its familiar form—he is the exchange and the exchangeable of production’s labor force. He is a commodity—a product and a service.
At the onset we think he is a “real” man, working a real job, in a real company. And he is unhappy when he gets a dressing-down from a boss whom we also recognize as being in a hierarchal position of power. Both then are commodities.
In a world where market economy rules, it is that product that unifies mankind’s faith in a material world. The ones who work in the market (that is, all of us) must believe in the enterprise. That belief unifies the workers with what becomes the totalitarian market bureaucracy. Rene Debord called that unity of workers “Homo Spectator” (man as watcher and watched) and the culture and “Society of Spectacle” (society as producer and product).
Thomas Anderson lives in an image-generated world as one of billions of cells providing energy for the machinery of the Spectacle. Seemingly the intention of the Grand Illusion was to perpetuate itself and its production forever. Production then was its objective and its end and, at its heart, the unreality of life itself. That is, a dream, a reflection of the real, images of a material world and its choices would be the celebration of that production as the most “real” meaning of life and its purpose—a virtual reality.
The irony, of course, is that the “choice” was already made: they—Thomas Anderson (Thomas as Doubting Thomas and Anderson as Son of Man) and all humanity—are both the producers and the product. And they (we) don’t know it.
Not only does T. Anderson work for a producer, for whom he helps produce, but when he leaves work, production “places” is where he goes for food and entertainment. All consumption of any kind, including his cluttered apartment with computer paraphernalia, tracks him as product.
In other words, he is unfree to choose. It (his enslavement) has already been chosen, and he, too, is the product for whom all that is produced is working to make unfree—to depend on the “images” of consumption in thought and word and deed as news, propaganda, advertising, and entertainment to determine his social life, his political life, and his working life. The civility of ignorance is the totality of enslavement, combined with societal agreement. To doubt, to question, to wonder about the individual’s conditions is to inquire about conditions of the societal contract. That could lead to revolt and change. Educating the masses has led to revolutions, some say.
To keep order, the directives in a wealth-based capitalistic society, beneath what is promoted as a pluralistic democracy that looks like equality-for-all is a system of image-making—Society as Spectacle—one that governs the production process itself.
Is T. Anderson’s mind free then? Not at all.
Because in the material world, the hierarchy of material images become reality’s construct, and the material goods are its production. Lived reality incorporates the produced images as desired mechanisms of thought, lending unreality to the real and its opposite—the images themselves of the material world becoming the acquirable Good. Alienating one’s self on both sides, the human becomes matter, machinery in a system of production, and the matter becomes human, concepts of aspiration and adoration, replacing the ideals and ideas (truth, beauty, justice) humans have always esteemed and privileged.
How do you rebel against the Machine when you are the Machine? And the double irony is you are the product of the machine, and if you are not, you don’t eat!
T. Anderson can never be free—that is the beginning and end of the story. If he thinks he is freeing others, he is wrong. He is not.
How do the humans live in Zion without the machinery of their producers that keeps them alive? And for what?
The Matrix is not the hoax. T. Anderson’s vision of freedom as well as his troop—Morpheus, Trinity, and all the hopefuls—are still cogs and increasingly predictable in the machinery. Except perhaps for Cypher, who sees the “captivity” as an inviting delusion. His is the only hope of revitalization he understands with his body, one he recognizes and fathoms deeply enough. His soul is his body.
There are two ways, then, it feels free in the machinery: one is Cypher (the last part of the name of Lucifer) and the other is Neo (the New, the One/anagram): Cypher by returning to the machine without a memory of awakening to a false hope and Neo by fighting the machine. But the third way is the role of the martyr—and that is T. Anderson. All three ways do not destroy the machine. Each way—fighting, forgetting, and dying for a higher ideal—frees the character of the enslavement to the machinery of a deviant cultural consequence. The choice is up to the individual’s capacity to know the “real” effects of the divine knowledge of matter or “see” the real effects of matter itself. Neo, the One, knows the machinery and knows that fighting it will bring the incorporeal to Life in a lifeless world. The other, Cypher, doesn’t want to know…ever…
All literature asks for forgiveness for its inability to say what is unsayable—the unsayable are the words our minds cannot master—divinity the language that circles our being, the earth we can never fully speak: the unspeakable name of God, the names of mysterious forces whose voices repeat in eternal repetition, ones that create a new world of silence that itself has a language—a logos—the mystery of the sacred—a secret we hold within us, one we do not “know” but understand.
So that like Christ on the Cross, shamed up there and grieving, his flesh like water, his feeling anchored in a deep pool, unintelligible and beyond belief, returns to the mystery where the unsayable and the unknowable would be clearly known: becoming the God-Particle for and ever in humans himself.
Then God is not only in the machinery that is possible in every culture throughout history looking for a material miracle, but it is the God-particle internalized in our every thought and act to have an aspect of Self in an ever-absorbing mystery.
He wanted each of us
And all the things we touched
And are touched by,
To have a tiny piece of Him
Though we are unqualified
For even a crumb of a crumb.
Tom Lux, God Particle
In the end, the movie The Matrix becomes a spiritual journey for another disbelieving culture with their eyes on another prize. In the end, we need to have “faith” that “fills us as a woman fills a pitcher” (Jean Valentine) to be receptive to the divine within our own hidden depths, trying to fill that pitcher with the answer to our thirst for “Who am I?” and “Where does my attention belong?”
Sarah Odishoo teaches Mythology and Literature at Columbia College Chicago; her work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly, Stirring, The Chariton Review, and others.