Revisiting the House of the Dragon

At the start of the season I reviewed the first episode of House of the Dragon. At the time I anticipated a story that explored dynasticism, social change and the process of historicization.

This proved to be mostly accurate. Certainly the ten-episode season fixated on the question of dynasty and on what constituted a family. Lord Corlys’ insistence that history books remember names rather than blood opened a fascinating dialectic regarding the nature of bastardry. While Rhaenyra’s two eldest sons certainly didn’t look like their father – a gay man who the show informs us tried and failed to sire legitimate children for his wife – the acceptance of their grandfather prioritizes historical record as being the principal significance of the dynasty. It won’t matter, after all this is over, what his heirs looked like, only that they carried his name and that they did these deeds.

Ultimately Corlys ends up being the carrier of the principal discourse concerning the nature of dynastism and how an orientation toward dynastic goals might impact one’s political decisions. His willingness to bite back slights to blood – such as Daemon’s beautifully gory decapitation of his brother for treason – in order to preserve the historical position of his house ends up saying far more about what a dynasty is about, as a political unit, than Viserys’ constant ruminations on prophetic dreams and the significance of heirs. But there was another key theme regarding power that was established in the first episode of this series and that I entirely missed: the question of what power does to the body.

Of course we can see this most obviously in two key examples: the physical decomposition of Viserys throughout the season and the multitudinous deaths that occur as a result of pregnancy.

Let’s start with Viserys as his example is perhaps the least-subtle. Our good-man king is uneasy on the iron throne. The barbs and blades of it cut him and these cuts become infected. As the show progresses and the child-characters of Rhaenyra and Alicent age into their adult performances Daemon, Corlys and most of the initially adult cast remain basically the same. But not so for Viserys as Paddy Constantine becomes increasingly smothered in makeup and special effects depicting the steady disintegration of a man. We can only see this as being quite explicitly the physical toll of power. It is the throne that does this to him and yet he sits upon it. By the time Viserys spends the last of his life desperately attempting to persuade Rhaenyra and Alicent to bury the hatchet despite the worm-tongued whispering of Otto Hightower and the impulsive violence of his brother and son-in-law Daemon he’s already half a corpse, barely able to walk, missing digits, missing an eye.

The loss of an eye is something of an obsession of this text. Not only does Viserys display the terminal signs of decay via a skull-like orbital cavity but also the eye is the price Aemond pays for power. He loses his own eye immediately after he claims Vhagar: the largest of the dragons. In the finale, Aemond’s desire to make Lucerys pay for this with an eye of his own precipitates the manslaughter of Rhaenyra’s son and becomes the first blow in the war which will occupy the future seasons of this show. Lucerys demurs to lose an eye and is barred from power.

It would be easy to treat this as an Odinic metaphor – Viserys loses an eye to sip from Mimr’s well – but this doesn’t fit comfortably as Aemond has no particular wisdom. Rather, Aemond represents nearly the opposite: vast power with all the restraint one would expect of a violently disfigured adolescent. Instead it is an indicator of the toll power takes upon the body.

This idea of power as something physical that eats up its carriers is bound together with the dynastic discourse via the wages of birthing heirs. Of course the death of Aemma was a principal focus of my review of the first episode. But this is echoed across the season. First we see it through the death-in-childbirth of Laena Velaryon. Laena finds herself in the same position as Aemma however, unlike Aemma, Laena takes agency over the matter of her death. Aware that Daemon will be faced with the same decision as his brother – to kill the wife to possibly save the child or to watch both die – she chooses to die, commanding Vhagar (who was her dragon at that time) to immolate her. In this case two sources of power: the power to bring about life and the power to destroy it both take a toll on her body and leave her nothing but ash. Finally, in the last episode of the season we have a third horrific childbirth as Rhaenyra’s discovery of her father’s death and Alicent’s treason seems to precipitate a miscarriage of her fifth child. She survives and, in a truly horrific scene, pulls the still-born baby from her own womb with her own hands, refusing to let the doctors or maids assist her. All the time she is undergoing labour she commands her sons to prevent anyone making decisions in her absence. The childbirth scene then becomes a reflection of Rhaenyra’s willingness to accept the physical toll of power. In this case those powers of life and death at play in the death of Laena are inverted – still-birth and an ascension into a position of command.

But of course all this inter-tangling of childbirth into a discourse around legitimacy (as Otto is quick to point out legitimacy is largely a symbolic affair), dynastism and the position of blood cannot help but touch on the elephant in the room – the incestuous relationship between Daemon and Rhaenyra. Certainly there is plenty to chew on here about blood and its relationship to power in how Daemon slowly seduces Rhaenyra over the years, eventually plotting with her and her husband to fake the latter’s death in order to clear the path for him to wed his niece after the death of Laena. On the topic of incest Freud quotes Frazer, saying, “the law only forbids men to do what their instincts incline them to do; . . . Instead of assuming, therefore, from the legal prohibition of incest that there is a natural aversion to incest, we ought rather to assume that there is a natural instinct in favor of it.” Thus a straight Freudian reading might argue that the incestuous marriage is another method of showing power: Daemon and Rhaenyra can choose to overcome law with their power and thus achieve something desired.

But Deleuze and Guattari are skeptical of this Freudian reading of incest, saying, “By placing the distorting mirror of incest before desire (that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?), desire is shamed, stupefied, it is placed in a situation without exit, it is easily persuaded to deny “itself” in the name of the more important interests of civilization (what if everyone did the same, what if everyone married his mother or kept his sister for himself? there would no longer be any differentiation, any exchanges possible).” This sarcastic response to the Freudian read of incest and the right of kings leads them to say, “Although we can see social production’s interest in such an operation, it is less clear what makes this operation possible from the point of view of desiring-production itself.” In other words: what does it matter to the formation of the self whether a desired object is a mother, a sister, a niece, an uncle?

They relate the incest prohibition (via the work of Clastres) to prohibitions among the Guanyaki people against a hunter eating his own kill. This circulation of spouses then becomes a pro-social act that helps to distribute power and keep its twin, desire, flowing. In this case the issue with incest that leads to its inscription as a taboo becomes not one of power over law but rather of selfishness over pro-sociality and as one online commenter pointed out House of the Dragon is a show about incredibly selfish people – “as if each of the Kardashians had a nuclear-capable F-22.” So perhaps we can treat Daemon and Rhaenyra’s romance as being an indicator of the same sort of selfishness that might lead a person to drive a continent into a war that Rhaenyra says would create a kingdom of fire and ash over the grief of two dead children.

But even this doesn’t quite cut to the heart of it. Turning again to Deleuze and Guattari, later discussing the work of Claude Levi-Strauss they say, talking specifically of the distinction between mother-son incest on one hand and uncle-niece incest on the other, “the mixing of the generations in the son-mother case has the same effect as their correspondence in the case of the uncle-sister, that is, it testifies to one and the same intensive germinal filiation that must be repressed in both cases. In short, a somatic system in extension can constitute itself only insofar as the filiations become extended, correlatively to lateral alliances that become established.”

This then situates the incest prohibition again in the position of power. Why is incest prohibited? Because it closes the door to political marriage. And boy howdy but there’s a lot of political marriage in this story. Both of Daemon’s first two marriages and Rhaenyra’s first marriage are purely political. The same can be said of Alicent’s marriage to Viserys and of every other marriage barring that of Rhaenyra to Daemon. In all these cases marriage exists to spread the net of power, to secure advantage, to maneuver through the process of alliance. These children become markers of alliances as clear as the green and black clothes of the two factions. What this says, then, of Daemon and Rhaenyra is that their political marriages have accomplished the extent of what they believe they can do. Principally this has been to entangle the Velaryon into the Blacks. We have seen, from Corlys already, that for many of the characters in this show names mean far more than blood and they have tied the name of Velaryon ever tighter via their inter-marriage. This then situates the Hightowers as having played a different game, insinuating Alicent into a marriage to achieve power but then spreading the children and grandchildren that arose from this family among many families in order to achieve more power, more influence.

Otto Hightower believes that power is a matter of symbols and trappings – a crown, a sword, the cheers of the masses, and of marriages. But Rhaenyra and Daeamon know that power is something else: the ability to give and take life. The birthing bed and the fire of the dragon. Having secured all of that power they thought they needed why not let their taboo desires flow?

On Authority and the Author

I think Engels is sometimes unfairly maligned. There was long a tendency, and it has not ever fully ended, to treat Engels as if he were the author of every failure and error in Marxism. And perhaps the work most responsible for cementing his position as the sin eater of Marxism is On Authority.

This text is, on the surface an aggressive repudiation of an Anarchist tendency to want to obliterate hierarchy, level all power differentials, and leave everybody equal. This sort of flat equality had never been the objective of Marxism and Engels is critical of it as lacking an understanding of the depth of power. “Everywhere combined action, the complication of processes dependent upon each other, displaces independent action by individuals. But whoever mentions combined action speaks of organization; now, is it possible to have organization without authority?” He asks.

And yet I think the greatest problem with On Authority is the number of readers of Engels who stop there and who never develop the necessary introspection to turn a later statement at themselves or the heads of state they admire, “These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves.” And yet, for many readers of Engels the decision is to do just that!

It’s the people’s jail; completely different from a regular prison. And the prison is important here because I think a more productive read of On Authority would be to see it as an anticipation of Discipline and Punish. Engels quite rightly points out how the technologies that existed in the late 19th century helped form an authoritarian subjectivity. He demonstrates that a factory worker or a steam ship operator must, by necessity, create a form of authority in order to accomplish their tasks.

This, in a way, echoes Foucault’s suggestion that the epistemological shift that created the conditions for the prison was far vaster than a mere building of stone and steel. Engels diagnoses the problem of authority in much the same way Foucault diagnoses the problem of discipline. The principal difference is that Engels, in the 1870s says, we cannot abandon this yet, while Foucault, a century later, says, we should have abandoned this long ago.

Engels is arguing that the power relationship of authority, the idea that one person could subordinate the will of the other to achieve a collective aim, is necessary for conducting the violence of the revolution. ” Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?” And he’s not entirely wrong. He almost comes to a profound understanding: the problem of authority is not that it exists but rather that it persists. Tari comes to this realization when he points to the example of Subcomandante Marcos who dissolved back into the anonymity of the people after his role as a spokesperson for the Zapatistas was no longer needed. “Authority and autonomy are relative things whose spheres vary with the various phases of the development of society.” Engels says and this suggests an understanding that authority is, and must be, contingent.

The problem that arises is that this authority congeals into an institution and this, like the prison and the disciplinary society it is a part of, continues long after the moment it should have been struck down.

And so, you can see, we can construct an Engels who speaks against Lenin, Stalin and all the authoritarian Marxists who follow in their wake from the very essay from which they build their case for the people’s jail.

But this raises the question of whether this is an authentic Engels. Certainly I’m reading into the text things that simply could not be there. Engels assumes inevitability and yet I demand he sees contingency. I divide him against himself.

There are certain people who might shrug at this and suggest that whether Engels saw authority as an inevitable product of a productive society or as a contingent phenomenon tied to a vast network of other contingencies is irrelevant to how an audience receives a text. And in doing so they take my divided Engels and split him fully: we have the Engels of the inevitable and we have the Engels of the contingent. This situates the discursive power of the text fully in its interpretation. A message is only as strong as the receipt of it.

But, of course, there is another possibility ignored by this very dialectically divided Engels. And that is that both of these divided figures occupy the same space. We can start by stepping back and asking whether I divided Engels in the interpretation or if these contradictions were there in the text, equally present but irreconcilable. It is a misunderstanding of contingency to suggest it is flat. In a fully contingent universe even contingency is contingent and we must expect to see the accretion of consistency.

From within a domain of consistency that consistency likely seems inevitable. It occludes the contingency on the horizon. But this is only ever metastable. After all: the consistency is contingent. Transformation may occur at any moment. When they have changed the names of things they may not have changed the things themselves but a transformation of a thing will also require a transformation of its name. And yet none of this is erased. No matter how much I unfold destitution out of On Authority the inevitable Engels of Stalin remains too.

This is the nature of authorship. We cannot erase intent; it will always be there in the text. However we cannot assume intent is singular. Intent changes; intent becomes other to itself. Even the dead Engels can change his mind when contradictory thoughts exist on the page. This is not to say that there is a unity between my destituent Engels and the Engels of the inevitable. Such an encounter is, to paraphrase Deleuze, as absurd as an authentic encounter between a sadist and a masochist. And so we cannot simply re-unify Engels into one who contains both. He is already fragments. As are we all. But these fragments can coalesce too; new consistencies can be achieved that are wholly alien to the ones before. These remain metastable and contingent, of course, and this is why the work of liberation will never be done. Even if we perfected society we could not assume it would stay perfect. But it’s precious to remember, in the aftermath of a disaster especially, that destitution and constitution are dynamic processes that never reach unity but also can never achieve totality. The marks of the past will always be upon us. But we don’t live there. And over the horizon is something different.

Crimes of the Future: Living a life as art

In the early minutes of Crimes of the Future (written and directed by David Cronenberg) we learn that people have changed. Pain nearly doesn’t exist; a few people still experience it in their sleep. And people have begun manifesting novel organs of unclear purpose. This is a situation of great concern to the governments of the world.

But it’s abundantly clear that this isn’t entirely true. Saul Tenser’s (Viggo Mortensen) life appears to be one of almost unending agony as he lurches, coughs and gags through a constant pain that he dismisses with neutral language: blockage, thickness, interruption.

Saul has a bed that is supposed to respond to his body, prevent the true pain he experiences in sleep from disrupting his sleep cycles too badly but it doesn’t work well. He has a “breakfaster chair” that is supposed to help him in eating and digesting the pureed foods he chokes down but nothing seems a greater agony to him than the act of trying to eat. And, of course, nobody seems to manifest novel organs as rapidly as Saul.

Saul is an artist. His performance very much calls to mind the work of Ron Athey. He gestates novel organs. When he feels they are ready within him his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), tattoos them still within him. They then perform an operation in which the tattooed organs will be excised by Caprice, using a modified autopsy bed to perform this biopsy. The tattooed organ is then presented to the audience.

Immediately the question of artistic authority is raised. While Saul and Caprice insist they are equal partners it becomes evident to people that they talk to that Caprice is the one doing what we might generally consider art. She acts upon Saul’s body by marking his flesh, cutting it open and presenting his marks to the world. Prone to portentous speeches, Caprice believes that the body, as a thing, is a void of meaning. By marking Saul’s body with ink she injects meaning into these bizarre growths he produces.

But Caprice and Saul both argue back that Saul is an artist because it is he who creates the organs to be marked. The question of will arises. Do these organs come about because Saul wills them? They seem to be the source of his agonies. But is this a conscious act of production that wills these organs into existence? Is it Saul or his body that desires these things? Is Saul, in fact, his body?

Saul and Caprice are both enmeshed in a world of performance artists. Saul attends a performance in which a dancer with his eyes and mouth sewn shut and prosthetic ears grafted across the entirety of his body presents himself. He thinks the performance is fine; but everyone agrees it’s not up to the quality of Saul’s work. The ears are artificial. That Saul grows the organs within him matters.

Caprice also has her own artistic interests. She seems to feel trapped in Saul’s shadow. He’s the great Saul Tenser. She is merely his partner. She has her own friends whose art is more akin to Orlan than to Athey. Her friend Odile (Denise Capezza) isn’t interested in the mortification of Saul’s performance, there is no agony there. But she wants her body to be a canvas upon which she can create. She shapes her appearance so that she can be a work of art just the same.

Of course this is no different from the ear-dancer. He felt no pain as the needle slid through his eyelids and sealed them. He, too, took conscious control over the shape of his being. So why does this hierarchy exist? Why do the various people who populate Crimes of the Future seem to believe there’s something more artistic in growing into something different than in choosing to become it? What role does will play here and how must we define it?

In Four Scenes in a Harsh Life Ron Athey cut open the back of his assistant, Divinity P. Fudge, and dabbed at the wounds with paper towel. He hoisted these blood-soaked rags up above the audience and presented the gay blood that so many assumed to be intrinsically tainted by AIDS. The press was unkind. But there is an interesting dynamic at play here between Athey, the person cutting and Fudge who was cut. The assumption, even of the receptive corners of the artistic world, was that Athey, wielding the knife, was the artist and Fudge was something of a canvas or an ink-pot for his work.

And yet Divinity P. Fudge got up there and exposed himself, his body became marked. The wounds kissed paper like mouths and left their marks. In a later scene of Crimes of the Future Saul is invited to join an “inner beauty pageant,” an underground celebration of novel organs. He has a zipper installed in his abdomen to allow easier access to his innards. Caprice unzips him and kisses the incision as if he were Christ. The same dynamic exists between Tenser and Caprice as existed between Athey and Fudge. One acts, the other is acted upon but the will to become art exists in the interplay between both. And it is in this inter-subjective act of communion that we find a thread to begin leading us out of the tangle of unanswered questions Crimes of the Future presents.

Biopolitics

“The excess of biopower appears when it becomes technologically and politically possible for man not only to manage life but to make it proliferate, to create living matter, to build the monster, and, ultimately to build viruses that cannot be controlled and that are universally destructive. This formidable extension of biopower … will put it beyond all human sovereignty.”

— Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, March 17, 1976

Governments have become very concerned about novel organs. As a response to concerns that these novel organs represent an advent of something inhuman they have sought to discipline these bodies, to bring these bodies away from Foucault’s excess of biopower and back within the realm of the sovereign state. The National Organ Registry, a secretive bureaucratic organization, has been founded to excise and to mark novel organs. The two bureaucrats who serve here are both big fans of Saul and Caprice. Wippet (Don McKellar) is a pervert who adores these new organs. He’s joined the National Organ Registry because he sees them as sources of constant beauty. Timlin (Kristin Stewart, in what should be a career-defining performance) covets Caprice’s talent. She is less beholden to the beauty of the organ and, instead, wants to mark them, give them a state’s meaning, bring them within discipline. She lusts after Saul nevertheless. Finally state power is represented by Cope (Welket Bungué) – a police officer who sees a political threat in the evolution of subjects away from humanity. Within these three we see very different approaches to how a state might want to bring these unruly organs under control be that through the revelation and celebration of their beauty, their disciplining via the act of sorting and marking or the more absolute discipline of state violence. There is also corporate interference. Two women who appear to work for the corporation responsible for Saul’s assistive devices lurk throughout the film and work to keep the simmering boil of the future contained in a capitalist now. While they clearly do not serve the state and its disciplinary functions they, nevertheless, collaborate with it.

Of course this government is divided against itself. There is no body of the king that all these people extend from, no real central will. Instead Wippet works to undermine his own agency out of his infatuation for neo-organs while Timlin undermines her supervisor in order to better serve state power. Cope is distant and ineffective. The corporate assassins are close and brutally effective.

What these people who think like states all see, what Saul and Caprice are too bound up in their art to consider, is that these neo-organs are a crisis of the human. There is a real fear of the Ship of Theseus at play here. How many organs can grow within a person and have them still be a human?

In the inciting moments of the film a little boy plays by the seaside. His mother calls to him, disapproving, and tells him not to eat anything he finds. Anything. He doesn’t respond to her.

Later the boy eats a plastic garbage pail in the bathroom and she smothers him with a pillow. Later, still, his grieving father is eating a bar of purple material that looks something like a chocolate bar. He leaves it lying around and another man picks it up and eats it. He dies immediately. Contrary to Caprice’s belief that the body is without intrinsic meaning this man, Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), believes that there is a very definite purpose within the transformation of the body. He is a cell leader in a revolutionary faction called evolutionists who, prompted by the advent of neo-organs, have taken it upon themselves to reshape the digestive system. They have become plastic-eaters. But the food they eat is toxic to anyone who has not undergone the surgery. Except for his son Bracken who, in some fit of Lamarckian impossibility, has been born with neo-organs that allow him to, naturally, eat plastics. But only that. His mother was convinced he was an inhuman monster, kidnapped and killed him because she hated her own son as an inhuman product of her estranged husband’s obsessions.

In Crimes of the Future the body and its configuration have become a deeply charged political question. States wish to preserve command over the granting of life and the form it will take for the public, in aggregate. As such the random deviation of the body and its deliberate shaping are effectively synonymous. It doesn’t matter that Bracken was born able to eat plastic while Lang gave himself the quality. Both are equally monstrous to a state whose principal concern is not how people can eat plastic but that they might. A mother rejects her own child, murders him, because she cannot tolerate such difference and the bile she projects at Lang is just as vicious. She blames him, and his transformative desires, for precipitating her murder of her son.

Lang wants to reveal the truth of his son’s transformation to the world and begs Saul to use his autopsy table to reveal the truth. Saul eventually, reluctantly, agrees. Caprice seems eager to do it and discover definitively whether the body has intrinsic meaning. When they cut the boy open they discover that he has already been thoroughly marked by Timlin who has filled the child-corpse with tattooed organs in a plagiaristic homage to Caprice’s tattoo work. Any intrinsic meaning the body might have is over-coded by the demands of the state.

“All the stupidity and the arbitrariness of the laws, all the pain of the initiations, the whole perverse apparatus of repression and education, the red-hot irons, and the atrocious procedures have only this meaning: too breed man, to mark him in his flesh,” Deleuze and Guattari say in Anit-Oedipus. They say this marking of the flesh exists to form man “within the debtor-creditor relation, which on both sides turns out to be a matter of memory – a memory straining toward the future.” The state fears that people might become inhuman because to do so might set people outside the bounds of debt and alliance that tie them back to the state and grant its power. The absolute biopower of a body to become different from itself is the ultimate threat to the ability of the state to discipline a body. As Deleuze says, “We do not even know what a body is capable of,” and Foucault points out that discipline begins, in part, in the barracks and the careful systematization of bodies to individual, almost atomic, movements. To discipline a body is to sort, carefully, what it can do. This anarchic metastasis threatens that disciplinary power. If a body has intrinsic meaning: if it is, of its own volition, trying to become something new and different then it cannot be governed.

The corporate assassins kill Lang but Saul abandons any pretext of cooperation with the state in light of this. He goes home and eats the purple chocolate as Caprice films him. The film ends with a look of ecstasy on his face as, for the first time in the film, he eats without excruciating agony. We don’t know if he will live or die but he is becoming something other than what he was.

Will toward art

We must not forget in all this talk of power and revolution, of states and revolting bodies, that Saul and Caprice are first and foremost artists. Our initial question is not about whether a state can, or even should, govern the potentials of a body but rather whether a body has the will to become an artwork without the conscious intention to become art of some ego behind the body. Must a body be governed to become a body of art or can art conjure itself?

We are presented with arguments both for and against this. The ear-dancer fails to make art of himself by conscious effort while Saul creates his art effortlessly. But Saul’s art is overcoded with Caprice’s tattoos and Odile has been successful creating of herself an artwork through conscious will.

It seems as if, within Crimes of the Future, will is distinct from conscious direction. A body may have direction but lack will. It may have will but lack direction. It may lack both – like Bracken’s unfortunate corpse – or it may contain both – like Saul in the moment when he eats the plastic bar.

Art demands both. Saul, containing the will toward art, and Caprice, holding a direction, make an excellent collaborative team precisely because they are able to thread this needle together. The question of whether Athey or Fudge was the true artist is a wrong question. Both are essential to the process.

Crimes of the Future envisions art as a becoming rather than a being. It exists not in the paint affixed to canvas but in the act of affixing the paint. The art exists between the hand holding the brush and the canvas upon which the marks are presented. It is a suspended moment of transition.

Crimes of the Future sits at the precipice off the Outside. The state fights back against the advent of the new weakly, in a disorganized manner, and is ultimately ineffective at doing anything more meaningful than defacing a child’s corpse. Capital, too, attempts to forestall the future albeit with a bit more savagery but no more success. They kill one rebel but untold hundreds more exist. The future cannot be forestalled. The artistry of Crimes of the Future exists in describing the fluid process of becoming. It’s irrelevant whether Saul will become a plastic eater or a corpse. The fixity of being is to be denied. Instead what is significant is the process of change whereby he is no longer what he once was.

We must all undergo becoming.

We must all change to be no longer what we once were.

In doing so we may live our lives as art.

Stories without conflict

The spark of this brief meditation comes from statements made by Dr. Matthew Salesses, a professor of creative writing, who complained that his daughter’s school had required her to write a story about a farm that contained within it a conflict.

Salesses said of this, “are we teaching our kids to make stories or are we teaching our kids to make conflict?” And of course the initial reaction from Twitter was to dismiss his claim as ridiculous since the received wisdom is that a story must have a conflict within it.

But, of course, that is begging the question. Received wisdom is that stories must contain conflict but must they? To answer this the first question would be to ask how we define stories. There are many different ways to define stories but we want to dig to the root, the minimal necessity of what constitutes a story compared to what is not. A story must be, at the very least, an account. Something must be told for a story to exist. But I would argue that an account is not a sufficient definition of a story alone. “There was an object,” is not a story. Rather a story is an account of a difference. “There was an object and something happened.”

Now if we’re being dutiful dialectical materialists we can stop right there. Difference, in that frame, sits firmly within an Hegelian dialectical unification which, when mediated by historical materialism thus requires conflict. There is a division between two objects and a moment in which that division comes into contact such that they are changed. So within that frame any account of a difference will necessarily contain within it some form of conflict. Even if that conflict is purely internal, a person divided against themself who must come to a realization, even if that conflict is purely benign, a person who must choose to turn left or right when they arrive at a street corner, unaware of what may be down each branch, it is still a conflict.

Still we don’t need to assume that all difference resides within a dialectical unity. Kierkegaard, for instance, warned against dialectical interpretations in literature, saying, “Levelling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one’s own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless.”

But of course Kierkegaard is warning in the opposite direction – that the monism of Hegel’s dialectics would flatten out value, kill difference, and make everything flat and powerless. We cannot assume that even a non-dialectical interpretation of difference would, itself, be enough to allow the absence of conflict within difference.

We can turn to Deleuze for the idea of difference in itself. For him, “Difference is the state in which one can speak of determination as such. The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself – and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it.”

We can thus see a lightning stroke across the night sky as a story without a conflict. There was darkness, then light, then darkness again: a difference but not a contestation of bright lightning against black sky. So yes, in short, it is fully possible to create a story without conflict as long as it only reflects a difference in itself and deals not in the consequences of the difference. After all, the second the lightning stroke leaves the sky and grounds itself in a tree conflict arises again. The tree is cast down by the heavenly bolt – an object unmade. A person might observe the lightning stroke and there is no conflict. “I saw a stroke of lightning across the night sky,” is a story. But the second the lightning bolt is affective conflict arises once again. “I saw a stroke of lightning across the night sky and decided to go home,” engenders within it the conflict between the person and the environs within which they are situated.

So, of course, a story can be conceived that contains no conflict. The question is whether there’d be any value to such an account. Kierkegaard would almost certainly say no but, assuming we treat difference in itself as an immanent property, we could at least say that a story without conflict could still participate in the creation of the new – and as such might have aesthetic value. But this aesthetic value would be entirely inhuman. Sure, if we operate on an axis which resides between the pure aesthetic and the pure metaphysic we can envision of an object of aesthetic value wherein no conflict arises. But it is the unity of a canvas painted entirely, carefully, and uniformly white.

Continuing with a painting metaphor we can see conflict even in an object as abstract as Voice of Fire. The contrast of Red and Blue is not merely a difference in itself but rather a contention between two things that define each other in contrast. It is not a red bolt of lightning on a blue sky but rather three equal bars of colour divided by their own sharp difference. The red is different from the blue. The blue is different from the red. When you stand in the presence of this vast canvas the colours contend with each other. The red and blue bars feel like a war-front and seethe in their uniformity.

But perhaps not every story is a war. Perhaps we want our stories to be moral instruction. In 2005 an article was put forward in the Journal of Child Language titled “Parent–child picture-book reading, mothers’ mental state language and children’s theory of mind.” This, and several subsequent studies, pointed toward the suggestion that the very act of engaging with fiction facilitated the formation of empathy in children. Later Stansfeld and Bunce proposed that reading was impactful on adults with lifelong reading correlating to increased measures of cognitive empathy and immediate reading correlating to affective empathy.

So one might want to elide conflict in order to make a story more effectively a tool for training empathy, assuming that these studies of empathy have merit and that empathy is a good.

But an empathic response requires a renegotiation of the boundary between self and other. Empathy is the capacity to see the other in the self. As such this represents a site of dialectical conflict. First there is me and there is the Other. Then I read about the Other and learn about their experience. I see the reflection of the experience of the Other in my life. And through that process how I see myself is changed. Such a transformation contains within it a kind of violence against concrete boundaries of self. There’s a reason Sartre saw anxiety in the Look. “My apprehension of the Other in the world as probably being a man refers to my permanent possibility of being-seen-by-him; that is, to the permanent possibility that a subject who sees me may be substituted for the object seen by me. ‘Being-seen-by-the-Other’ is the truth of ‘seeing-the-Other.'” To have empathy for another is, necessarily for Sartre, to see one’s own self as an object viewed by the Other. How could we not treat this as a form of internal conflict? As such, if we want stories to be methods of creating empathy, we must, at minimum engender a conflict within the reader and if the page creates in the reader a conflict can we possibly say that there is no conflict on the page?

Ultimately a story with no conflict is possible; it can even hold aesthetic value if the difference it is an account of is one that creates something new. But for it to engage an audience, for that value to be realized in any truly meaningful way, it has to be more than, “something which distinguishes itself – and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it” In order for the story to have any heat the lightning must strike the tree.

Dune: Realism and the metaphorical register

I’ve an ambivalent opinion of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.

I’ve said before that I find it weakest during the scenes of massive space crafts hovering over landscapes. This isn’t an issue with shot composition. Villeneuve brings a photographer’s eye to every frame of this expansive film and he cannot be faulted on these grounds. Rather the reason why I struggle with these more spectacular moments of Dune is precisely tied to why I like other parts of the film. In short it’s a matter of realism.

There’s an overarching tendency within blockbuster cinema to demand verisimilitude. We call a blockbuster good in part if it makes us feel like the events of the film are really happening. We don’t want to be reminded of the artifice behind it all. And this creates a very powerful tension in Dune. The film is very good at bringing verisimilitude – at bringing a vulgar sort of realism – to its broad, expansive spectacle shots. By comparison every actor excepting one is pushes aggressively against any sort of verisimilitude in their performances. These performances are Dune’s strong-suit. Because verisimilitude in Science Fiction is death.

Science Fiction has always had the potential to be the great literature of the now. Certainly this was the case during the origins of science fiction. Frankenstein didn’t imagine a future where men could reanimate the dead – it spoke to the anxiety of the scientific and industrial revolutions ongoing during the early 1800s. The important part of Frankenstein’s title is it’s subtitle: A Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein was not the Prometheus of tomorrow but rather of the now of the moment it was published. Frankenstein is a book that uses its speculative elements in a metaphorical register to speak to the responsibility of scientists and engineers to socialize their creations. The creature, like any piece of technology, is a moral tabula rasa. What shapes him is how he is used (and abused). Victor Frankenstein’s abandonment of him is a sin of carelessness far more than fear or disgust. That the action of the story is framed upon a doomed sailing expedition where the party, pursuing discovery, have carelessly become trapped in the ice acts to demonstrate this metaphoric register. Frankenstein, like all good science fiction, thus becomes a palimpsest. There are words displayed on the page but this is not where the principal meaning of the text resides.

This is not to say that science fiction should be allegorical. We do not pursue a metaphorical mode to create a one-to-one substitution of objects. Aslan being Jesus is not even approaching this metaphorical mode of fiction. Instead the purpose of the employment of a pervasive metaphoric register is to fold into a text meaning upon meaning upon meaning. The danger of careless discovery pervades Frankenstein but so does a read of nature as cold, cruel and unfeeling. The creature haunts wind-swept mountains and arctic ice. As well as being a piece of technology it is a subject who experiences a cold and indifferent world. The creature is also a product of disrespect to the dead, a theft from the gods. Thus Frankenstein is Prometheus. Meaning, in a great work of science fiction, is a monad from which, as Deleuze describes it, “everything is drawn out of it, and nothing goes out or comes in from the outside.”

This overabundance of meaning is the value of a metaphoric register. There must be an infinity of folds within it containing more and more meaning: lines and lines of text written atop one another such that only the uppermost level can be read directly but which contains, folded under, everything else: the entire moment of time in which it is created. The surface text is a barrier that obscures the full interior while still being a part of the interior, folded over. A great science fiction it creates an inexhaustible text from which nothing escapes, nothing more can go in (it is already fully pregnant with meaning) and from which everything can be draw out.

And this returns us to Villeneuve’s Dune and why it is best when it shows the least spectacle.

Verisimilitude aggressively pushes against inexhaustibility. The realist mode says, “this thing stands for only one thing – the space ship hovering above this plain is simply that – a space ship.” Instead of folding the entirety of now into the text, realism seeks to create a representation of the future that stands only for the surface of the future. Spectacle isn’t exactly a hollowing out. It’s, “an outside without an inside.” Realist spectacle can show us anything as long as what it shows us is as exactly that thing as it might possibly be. Ultimately these attempts to construct a verisimilitudinous future are the construction of a facade – something with doors and windows but no interior – holes but no void. And as Laozi reminds us it is the void that is,

“Empty yet structured,
It moves, inexhaustibly giving.”

Studiolio de Fransisco I

This monadic dialectic – a palimpsest where meaning collides and an inexhaustible, inescapable void – is something Deleuze captures handily in his reference to the Studiolio de Fransisco I. Deleuze describes this as a first out-flowing of the baroque: a hidden room where the prince could hide, conduct research, and store his precious objects – a bank vault and a laboratory both and (fitting for our purposes) one dedicated to Prometheus.

But this then lets us situate our metaphoric register as a baroque mode. The baroque was, to the people who first coined the term, a state of absurd complexity; much like a palimpsest which can thus become the template for the baroque within text.

And the thing is that this is something that Villeneuve does quite well in Dune whenever big space ships are absent from the scene. Much of his film consists of two people having a conversation in which far more is said than what is said.

REVEREND MOTHER MOHIAM
I hold at your neck the gom jabbar.
A poison needle. Instant death.
This test is simple. Remove your
hand from the box, and you die.
PAUL
What’s in the box?
REVEREND MOTHER MOHIAM
Pain.

What’s most interesting about the Gom Jabbar scene is what is changed and excluded from the initial text. Rather than the perspective remaining on Paul reciting the Litany Against Fear in his mind we cut back and forth between Paul inside and Jessica, standing guard outside, unsure if her son is dead. Meanwhile the Reverend Mother’s description of the purpose of the test is winnowed down. Rather than explaining the eugenic project of separating men from beasts to Paul she simply tells him an animal caught in a trap will gnaw off its own leg and asks him directly what he would do.

This elision of some of the book’s more expository elements combined with the rigidly formal blocking of the scene creates a remarkable transformation in the text. Certainly the eugenicist project of the Bene Gesserit has not been removed. But rather than make the divide between “man” and “animal” obvious and then deliberately place Paul on the side of “man” this text moves the question far more into the register of metaphor. An animal would do this – what would you do? Paul’s internality is far more constrained than in the text of the book from which it is based. And, thanks in part at least to Villeneuve’s excellent direction of people, the performances delivered by Chalamet and Rampling are enigmatic and withdrawn.

This combination of rigid blocking and enigmatic delivery is even more obvious in the scenes of the Herald of the Change and it is obvious that Benjamin Clémentine understood perfectly how to deliver an unreal performance that contained within it inexhaustibility. I do hope to see far more from this actor going forward. In this scene, especially, we, as an audience, get a sense of the monumental and the portentous from subtleties of gesture and inflection.

This scene, and the later scene where we are introduced to the Sardukar suggest a ritualized way of life and a very other sort of subjectivity on display on the screen. We can see the fifty thousand years of religion and politics we are supposed to feel under the skin of Dune here in this scene. It is a palimpsest.

In all of these scenes, and in fact in nearly any scene in this film involving its human characters who aren’t named Duncan Idaho, it seems like the direction received was to avoid a naturalistic performance in favour of this reserved, enigmatic ritualism.

But what use is inexhaustibility and what does that have to do with science fiction as the literature of the modern? Well, this is why I am of mixed opinions of Villeneuve’s Dune. Because whenever we cut away from the interactions between people in favour of their vehicles and of the worms the movie returns to being a normal spectacle-driven blockbuster – a carefully painted facade – no longer an interior without an exterior but rather an outside that opens onto other outsides. By trying to imagine what a real space ship or a real ornithopter would be like the film opens up too much. It stops trying to be deep black water and becomes instead a window into a possible imagined future.

And this is all rather useless for doing that thing which Science Fiction is best suited for as a literature, which is to point toward the present. Dune is ultimately a story about how the weight of history invades the present. Fremen war with imperial nobles because of the history of the Zensunni wanderers. The wanderers are in the vast beyond of space because of the vast religious upheavals of early space travel. Paul’s prescient power arises from a more perfect understanding of the past. Dune, as a film, thus is in a perfect position to reflect on the present moment as it was formed through its historical antecedents. There is none of that in a hyper-stylized gleaming chrome torus hovering above a desert. You can pack so much more into the riot of Sardukar ritual and the twist at the end of a herald’s smile.

The purpose of science fiction is to make a monad of the present, to encapsulate it all and fold it baroquely into itself such that we make of the present an origami doll like E. Gaff in Blade Runner. While the folds may produce the shape of a rocket, a robot or a giant worm, what matters is that they contain within them everything of their moment. Science fiction explodes into the future because the future is the only space big enough to hold everything in the present, no matter how tight the folds. Simply put the spaceship isn’t the point of science fiction. It’s merely what it looks like all folded up. This is how The Player of Games manages to be a space opera, a spy thriller, a story about a board game tournament, an essay on the relationship between linguistics and ontology and an anarchist political tract all at once. Banks, a master of Science Fiction, has folded all these late 20th century concerns together into the board of Azad. This is likewise how more recent experts of science fiction such as Leckie, Rajaniemi and Muir go about the construction of their stories. Ancillary Justice, The Fractal Prince and Harrow the Ninth occupy the monadic position that Banks achieves so deftly and that Villeneuve almost achieves in Dune whenever he isn’t endeavoring to show us beautiful photographs of shapes in space. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that a through-line of The Player of Games, The Fractal Prince, Ancillary Justice, Harrow the Ninth and Villeneuve’s Dune are ontological questions where we are invited to ask how the protagonists experiences the world and what gives shape to that experience. This becomes a method for drawing forth metaphor from the inexhaustible void at the heart of these great works of art.

Ultimately this creates a paradox. Science fiction tells us something real best when it is least interested in a verisimilitudinous sort of realism. Within cinema this is what sets apart great works of science fiction like The Matrix Reloaded from the mass-produced dross of empty spectacle. Science fiction can best do what it must by reveling in its artifice and refusing to be realistic.

Taxonomies

Recent discussions in genre have had one central question at their heart: how coherent is a category? There is a camp of critics who feel that it is the duty of their compatriots to provide clarity with regard to categorizations. To do otherwise is to invite sloppy thinking and the risk of error. On her essay, “How To Define a New Subgenre/Trend: The Speculative Epic and an Addendum to the “Squeecore” Debate” Cora Buhlert, a veteran SFF blogger and critic, sets out very specific criteria for how to go about identifying an artistic phenomenon citing the example of Lincoln Michel as an exemplar.

Buhlert defines very carefully what she sees as the correct method to approach this topic, saying, “I have identified a trend and here are some examples of people who have noticed it, too, as well as some examples of works that fit into that trend. I propose this name for it (a name that’s not derogatory) and it has this characteristics. It’s also part of a larger trend towards genre-bending fiction.”

She also provides a guide to what is absent from Michel’s work and which she thinks other critics should avoid saying, “What this article notably does not include is snarky asides against authors and books that Lincoln Michel does not like, buzzwords like “neoliberal” and issues that are worth addressing but have nothing to do with the subgenre in question. Also, Michel offers solid criteria for defining speculative epics and not criteria that are so vague that they apply hundreds of things up to and including Shakespeare.”

Buhlert tips her hand saying that she is very interested in, “literary trends, subgenre formation and genre taxonomy.” Now quite a lot could be said about Buhlert’s declaration of “neoliberalism” to be a buzzword as “buzzword” tends to imply a fuzziness in definition that allows a word or phrase to be used in a broad and inexact manner. The general sense I get from Buhlert is that she isn’t particularly fond of the broad and the inexact. But beyond that it’s worth noting that the word that gets Buhlert’s goat, in particular, is reference to a pervasive political ideology. It’s certainly the case that many people use “neoliberalism” inexactly. But considering that the impact of neoliberalism, with a very careful delineation of what is meant by such, is a principal concern of this blog I’d suggest that what concerns Buhlert is the idea of the political invading the dispassionate work of the taxonomer. Taxonomy is ultimately an attempt to objectively categorize a thing and define its relationship with all other things. If you care about a fixed taxonomy then the politicization of it certainly is a problem. Categorizing works in the past based on their political use in the present screws taxonomy all up.

I don’t mean to pick on Buhlert especially. I cite her as an example because she is an experienced critic with a long-standing and prolific output on genre literature however her position is indicative of a broad general sentiment within genre fiction readership that a taxonomy of fiction is something of value. And it’s critical to note, for this discussion, two things: first that science fiction includes among its readership many people with a particularly close relationship to taxonomies of fiction relative other readerships and second that this is not at all a phenomenon that arose in response to the Squeecore debate which serves as the inciting motivation behind Buhlert’s call for renewed taxonomic precision.

The Classics of Science Fiction blog attempted a taxonomy of genre fiction even going so far as to cite Linnaeus in 2019. The author of this blog, James Wallace Harris, is another long-established science fiction critic who shares some of Buhlert’s concerns regarding the politicizing of genre categorization. “To be told what my favorites should be is incredibly insulting. To me, that’s far more offensive than the Sad Puppies pushing their political agenda at the Hugos.” Harris, in particular, has a very long-standing relationship to the construction of taxa for fiction.

Jacob Ross and Jeoffrey Thane at Latter-Day Saint Philosopher also spend some effort on a taxonomy of science fiction but provide effectively no argument as to why they would do so (unlike the superior work of Buhlert and Harris) so I will only note it as being yet another example and move on from here.

I will provide a final example somewhat more useful than the LDS Phlosopher article from Clare McBride. Notwithstanding some unusual choices in categorization what makes her article about literary taxonomy interesting is in her recognition of the inadequacies of taxonomy, saying, “once we get to speculative fiction, everything gets a lot soupier.” She admits that these taxonomic exercises are somewhat subjective, saying, “But there are some foggy bits between them, of course–quite technically, I should classify Harry Potter and The Mists of Avalon as supernatural fiction, but I don’t. In Harry Potter’s case, it’s the fullness of the magical world, which probably could function quite separately from the Muggle world, and, in The Mists of Avalon, it’s simply because medieval Europe is the generic fantasy setting to the extent I can’t see past it. If it was set in medieval China, would I still file it under fantasy? Perhaps–I don’t know.”

It is interesting to note that McBride prefaces her 2010 essay by discussing the then-current discourse between Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood over what constituted science fiction. Atwood was, at the time, quite reticent to treat her many science fictional works as being within the genre as they didn’t include ray guns and rocket ships. Le Guin rather disagreed with her taxonomic criteria.

What I find most interesting is that McBride was the only one of these critics who seemed interested in what a taxonomy might be for at all. Buhlert and Harris provide taxonomies because they enjoy it. Both of these critics seems invested in the idea that precise categorization is a result of precise thought and that precise thought is good.

This should be unsurprising as both Buhlert and Harris are first and foremost science fiction critics and what is science but a treatment of precise thought as a good? It should not surprise that critics of the fiction of science should aspire to a scientific objectivity and clarity in their critique.

But this raises the question of what art criticism is, philosophy, science or art?

In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari attempt to define the boundaries between philosophy, science and art, saying of science that, “The object of science is not concepts but rather functions that are presented as propositions in discursive systems. The elements of functions are called functives. A scientific notion is defined not by concepts but by functions or propositions,” while philosophy is taken with the creation of concepts – something which they previously define at length. Art meanwhile operates to preserve, “a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects.” Now of course in proper Deleuzo-Guattarian fashion we can immediately disrupt these neat categorizations by pointing out how art criticism acts as both an art – preserving percepts and affects in the form of the responsive essay and as philosophy – creating concepts with regard to art, developing novel ways to think about art, and that these novel concepts might even include the possibility of a scientific or pseudo-scientific taxonomy of the arts. The lesson that Deleuze and Guattari teach us best is that the best, and most amusing, thing to do with a category is to destabilize it, to pick at the corners and kick at the edges until the whole damn thing falls apart. Their own categories are, of course, not immune to this loving destruction.

So what use then is a scientific notion of art? We can’t just immediately discard it by suggesting that art is intrinsically different from science when a critic might be very interested in presenting functions of literature in a discursive system. But a discursive system implies a test. So if a taxonomy is testing something then what is being tested and why?

Buhlert is very explicit that what is being tested is simply this, “is artwork A part of group X?” Buhlert is very clear that group X needs to be defined such that an intelligible distinction between within group X and without group X can be made – if a category is so broad that anything can be within group X then it’s useless for saying anything about the text.

What all of the critics cited above except for McBride elide is what can actually be said about a work of art by distinguishing it as part of a category. For McBride the question becomes one of establishing parameters for art discourse. We need to know what is within speculative fiction because we cannot otherwise have a productive discussion of the qualities of speculative fiction. However this becomes something of a circular argument: we cannot discuss the qualities of speculative fiction without defining the qualities of speculative fiction but why do we want to discuss the the qualities of speculative fiction? Because they are necessary to identify what is within speculative fiction.

However the particularity of works of art operates against this. Ultimately each artwork is a unique thing. This is why mechanical reproduction is corrosive to artistic quality – each work of art preserves within itself a unique set of percepts and affects. Take, for example, Junji Ito’s adaptation of Frankenstein. It is simultaneously a horror comic, a science fiction story, a gothic, a work in translation, a literary classic and also something quite modern. Placing this adaptation even in a taxonomy of Frankenstein adaptations might be difficult enough. Was Ito more affected by James Wale, Terrence Fisher or Kenneth Branagh? Can we ignore the multitudinous cinematic adaptations he might have seen between when Shelly wrote her book and when he penned his adaptation?

And so our first obstacle to taxonomizing art is that the uniqueness of any given artwork pushes against clearly delineated categorization at all. The second is that taxonomy forces a specific shape upon the history of artwork. Taxonomies are made out of lines and breaks. You trace a line to a point and say, “here the line divides.” Working in reverse you should be able to trace a taxonomy back to the first thing within the set. In the beginning there were single celled life-forms. Then they began to differentiate. We can cut here where fish emerge, here birds, here mammals.

But there is no one first work of art. At best there is the first work of art still preserved but there is ample evidence that art emerges wherever there are people. Art isn’t arborescent. There isn’t any singular source of all art that we could trace back with to find, eventually, a complete category of all things that are art. It’s certainly true that art is in discourse with the past of art but it’s in discourse with the entire past of art. Art doesn’t operate as a tree but as a geology. Some art may occupy a valley, carved out from erosion, and its artists can see the strata of past artworks displayed on its boundaries but this doesn’t make for a full categorization of all art, just for a categorization of historic breaks within this valley. Across the hill may be something completely different. Like a geology the past, present and future of art are jammed together. The past of art might explode like a volcano and leave a new future that occludes what came before. Likewise the new might wash away parts of what came before and expose hidden truths about fiction. The history of art is not like a tree: it is far too dynamic. And categorizing objects within dynamic systems is a messy and inexact business.

When we look at cyberpunk how do we define what is in and out of it? We can set up taxonomies but if every urban science fiction where an information network and massively powerful corporations are major elements of story action is a cyberpunk novel then the Mass Effect trilogy is a cyberpunk video game rather than space opera. After all the whole Noveria plot of Mass Effect 1 is corporate intrigue, the action of Mass Effect is centered around urban hubs like the Citadel and Omega and the extranet is a pervasive story element, as are VR visualizations of data, particularly during the Geth story lines of Mass Effect 2 and 3.

Of course this is an absurd categorization. And yet.

Perhaps the problem is the urge to categorization. But of course this raises a central problem of identification. There has to be some difference qua difference for objects to exist at all. It’s an easy short circuit to make the difference a negation: it is science fiction if it is not any of the things that are not science fiction. However this gloss of science is a straight-jacket for a critic. Why would I want to talk about Jin Yong while eliding Dumas? And if we’re talking about Dumas how can we but talk about Scott and Hugo both?

But how much of The Hunchback of Notre Dame could we possibly find in The Book and the Sword? Genres and subgenres are territories on a map but they’re not mutually exclusive territories. And, of course, a territory isn’t the same thing as its boundaries – in fact a territory comprises everything that is not the boundary of it. This is to say that it is fully possible to identify that a territory exists without understanding, let alone articulating, its outline. We can see the stuff that is the territory quite clearly even if we don’t think like a state and demand a clear line be drawn around it.

Furthermore, since art criticism is an artistic response to art and since art is the preservation of affects and perceptions we cannot have an objective criticism that ignores the affective character of art. As such any identification of a territory within art will include within it affective judgments. This art fits here in part because it made me feel this way; even SF critics understood this when they valorized sense of wonder which is a fully affective reaction to a genre. And this means that, yes, some categorizations of art will be derisive in character. They are those artworks that made the critic feel derision. But this means an objective measure of art is missing the entire point. Art is that which we cannot possibly be objective about.

In the end I don’t think taxonomy is a productive use of a critics time. Our first order of business should be the creation of art – the preservation of percepts and affects, the direct artistic response to another work of art. Our second order of business should be the creation of artistic concepts – creating new ways to think about art.

This careful sorting of art into delineated categories is neither.

It is definitely good for a critic to refer to specific work. After all a percept or an affect is best preserved by being present. Zizek’s review of the Matrix Resurrections, which he did not see, is a perfect example of how this can be simultaneously reified and also destabilized. It does preserve his affect toward the film even in the process of declining to watch it, a truly artistic response to a work of art but one dependent upon reference to the artwork nonetheless. But when creating concepts it’s unnecessary to do so with exhaustive scientific precision. This philosophical mode of criticism is not science nor should critics aspire to be scientists. It’s enough for a critic to say I saw it here and here and here. There is no impetus within the form of criticism to say, “it cannot possibly arise here. It is bounded by this line.”

The Matrix Resurrections proves a better blockbuster is still possible

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I cannot assume that a review for a major movie that came out literally yesterday is going to be read only by my regular audience so before I get into the meat of the review I should mention that I regularly discuss incidents from the plot of my subjects of critique, including climactic events, in the course of review. I have strong and somewhat idiosyncratic views on the concept of the “spoiler” and its place within criticism and film discourse but I also know there will be a lot of people who want to experience the surprises and reversals of this movie fresh. I loved this film. It’s funny and heartfelt, achingly sincere in that so-very-Wachowski manner, and, as one less favorable critic said, it’s full of “philosophical mumbo jumbo” (would we want it any other way?) and has a “woke agenda” (in that it recognizes patriarchy and misogyny as foundational poles of social control). So this is your warning. If you don’t know how the events of the film transpire and would prefer not to learn about them in a review you should stop here and wait until you can watch the movie. The legal choices currently are either to go to a cinema or watch it on a streaming service that is technically only available in the United States, which is unfortunate but this is, alas, the world we live in here in the closing days of 2021. I don’t personally council going to theaters right now, there was a public exposure site at one of the showings of that other blockbuster movie here on my remote island. But if that’s the choice you make please take precautions, wear a well-fitted three-layer mask, sit away from others, avoid eating in the theater and make sure your vaccinations are up to date.

So let’s dig in.

The first act of The Matrix Resurrections starts with an apology for the making of The Matrix Resurrections. In this part of the film Neo is once again living as Thomas Anderson: a successful video game designer whose game, The Matrix, won substantial critical acclaim. But Thomas is a mess. His studio is owned by Warner Brothers and they’ve insisted that the studio begin work on a sequel to the long-completed trilogy of original games. Thomas’ partner in the company confides in him that WB will be making the sequel with or without him and that if he refuses to participate he can be easily removed as an obstacle to its creation. The choice before him is a non-choice. He can make another game, guide how it’s shaped to an extent and take his share of the profits from its eventual success or he can step aside and get nothing while somebody else does whatever they want with his career-defining creation.

I am very fond of the tendency of Wachowski movies to be entirely unsubtle but this remarkably on the nose.

There are two possible ways to read this early sub-plot. Either it’s a sincere apology that a sequel was made for such a definitively finished work, possibly even a recounting of the conversations Lana Wachowski had to have surrounding the production, or it’s a sly joke winking at the possibility of the same. From any other creative team I’d assume the latter but considering how Wachowski sister movies traffic in sincerity here I lean in the direction of the former.

During the discussion, Thomas, showing obvious signs of extreme anxiety begins to see his partner’s mouth seal shut in precisely the way Smith had once done to him in the first film. Later Thomas talks to his analyst who reassures him about the indications of progress evident that he could even articulate this hallucination freely. His analyst calls the discussion an ambush and suggests his hallucination was a transference; Thomas felt his voice was taken away by the decision to make a sequel over his wishes so he imagined his partner’s voice taken instead. The analyst offers Neo a refill on a prescription he’s been using. Bright blue pills the same shade as the analyst’s smart jacket and fashion-forward glasses frames.

This setup comfortably introduces a lot of the key themes that run through the movie simultaneous to its work as a piece of critical apologia for the sequel-driven state of Hollywood blockbusters in general and for the decision to make this movie at this time in particular. The Matrix is a film very concerned with identity – specifically with the divide between the self-gaze and the gaze of the other. Thomas sees himself as we, the audience, see him: Keanu Reeves with long hair and a beard. But we catch glimpses of another man in a reflection. An older man, balding, with a face that looks ground down by a life described later by the Analyst as a combination of yearning for what you don’t have and fear of losing what you do. Other such circumstances apply to the other characters introduced in the first act. Thomas’ partner displays many of the mannerisms of Agent Smith but looks nothing like him and he seems friendly even if the Analyst is wary of his intentions. In another early sequence, somewhat disconnected from Thomas’ story, a new character, Bugs, enters a part of the Matrix that looks like the opening sequence of the first film. But it’s different. Trinity has a different face. It’s similar, hauntingly familiar, but it’s not her. And in this node of the Matrix Agent Smith is there but he’s also Morpheus this blending of identities carries with it a new face in the form of Yahya Abdul-Mateen – who brings an off-kilter humour to his performance that lands many of the best jokes in a surprisingly funny film.

In this retelling of the opening scenes of the first film, Trinity doesn’t escape; she is surrounded by agents and they’re beating her down. Bugs interferes and is pursued by Morpheus / Smith. She escapes into Thomas Anderson’s apartment from the first film and there encounters Morpheus / Smith who is an agent and a program but who is also certain that he is, in fact, Morpheus. Both Bugs and Morpheus are sure Neo is still alive. She saw him. He awoke her. Morpheus shares the same story.

A Neo who is Thomas Anderson again. A Smith who isn’t Smith. A Morpheus who is Smith. A Trinity named Tiffany and another Trinity who isn’t. The first act of this film introduces us to all these fragments of identity that carry with them the signification of others. These are characters who are split between how they see themselves and how others see them. When Thomas looks at his partner and, for a moment, sees Smith we are invited to ask whether it is, in fact Smith, or whether it’s a remnant of the significance Smith had on his life.

There’s a principal question regarding self the film attacks early on rooted in the question of memory and narrativization. Thomas has created a fiction of his memories of the Matrix. He has written it into a video game. In the process of doing so he’s creating a narrative frame out of his past. But the film asks whether this frame is a fiction or whether it is an authentic reflection of the becoming of this man at this time.

The Matrix plays out Thomas’ struggle with what constitutes his reality for far longer than the first film. There’s an extended montage of him mainlining blue pills and sleepwalking through his painfully unfulfilling life, work, gym, pining after Tiffany (Trinity) in the delightfully named Simulatte coffee shop as she nips in and out with her children but saying nothing.

Tiffany is a mother to a whole gaggle of kids. She’s got a doting husband (Chad) and doesn’t understand either why her life feels a little bit empty. She tries to exorcize the ennui by building motorcycles as a hobby and fantasizes about kicking Chad, “not too hard, just maybe hard enough to break his ribs.” A work colleague of Thomas forces an introduction because he’s tired of seeing his buddy mooning after Tiffany from afar and they form a slightly remote friendship. Tiffany can’t help but notice how much Trinity in the Matrix video game looks like her. But she is anxious about the affection she feels for Thomas, the familiarity she has to him because she is a loving mother and wife.

Morpheus forces a confrontation. He reveals that the node of the matrix Bugs found him in was, in fact, a construct created by Thomas with the express purpose of gestating an AI. He is a fusion of Smith and Morpheus because these two people were the most formative on Neo’s life and Neo needed them both to forge his escape from this new prison he found himself trapped within. He offers Thomas a red pill but Thomas refuses. Police invade and chaos ensues. Thomas’ partner stumbles into the bloodshed as Morpheus battles the police and picks up a pistol. In that moment he becomes Smith again, bellowing, “Mr. Anderson” at Thomas rather than Tom and immediately trying to kill him. There’s a discontinuity, a cat named Deja Vu, and then Thomas is back with his therapist who is very concerned for his wellbeing.

Bugs and Morpheus must make another attempt before they can free Neo from the prison of the identity of Thomas Anderson that has been forced upon him. Of course, despite spending an hour with our anxious and emotionally fragile depressive Thomas trying to navigate a disintegrating reality, the Matrix Resurrections must eventually pivot back to being a Matrix movie – it cannot prevaricate endlessly over what is the Matrix and what is the Real. I know many fans had hoped for some revelation that the Real was itself another Matrix, that reality was a nested set of simulations but this is not the case. In fact, in a film that exists specifically to upset binary divisions in so many ways, the division between the Matrix and the Real is the one it leaves unbroken. There are different nodes, different places, within the Matrix. Bits of old code get slotted in. There are constructs and there are sandboxes. But ultimately these are all part of the Matrix which is just as much a prison as it ever was.

There is a hint of an abolitionist critique here. The Tiqqun phrase I’m so fond of is apropos. “But evasion is only a simple escape: it leaves the prison intact. We must have desertion, a flight that at the same time obliterates the whole prison. Properly speaking, there is no individual desertion. Each deserter takes with him a little of the group’s fighting spirit. By simply existing he is an active challenge to the social order: and all the relationships he enters are contaminated by the radicality of his situation.” Neo’s compromise with the Machines left the Matrix intact but unstable. There was a civil war among the Machines. The losing side of that civil war joined with the survivors of Zion to create Io – a new city ruled over by an ancient and cynical Niobe. The victors created a far worse Matrix. By failing to break the prison of the Matrix entirely, Neo left his job only half-done. The change he brought created a difference. The society of Io is different in so many ways from Zion – some better, some worse. But the revolution never ended. The world remained at war, even if the sides of the conflict changed, and Niobe has grown bitter and fearful because of it. Niobe fears that the return of Neo will spark a new front in the war. But this film isn’t a war movie at all. It’s a rescue mission.

The Neoliberal Matrix

Stepping back for a moment it’s significant to situate this as an auteurial movie. And, happily, it’s learned one lesson that separates effective auteurial projects from failures. An auteurial film requires a singularity of creative vision, not of creative control. Tells such as the presence of many, many Sense8 actors in the cast along with David Mitchel and Aleksandar Hemon who have both previously collaborated with Wachowski on the script, cinematographer John Toll who has been the Wachowski cinematographer since Cloud Atlas, Joseph Jett Sally as editor (previously an assistant editor on Speed Racer) and Lindsay Pugh in costuming – another Sense8 alum – indicate that a cohesive creative team has built up around Lana Wachowski. This construction of the team is so fundamentally important to the creation of that unified vision that makes auteurial cinema stand out from more studio fare. And this is critical because of how this film answers the apology in act 1. In The Matrix Resurrections irony, sarcasm and emotional distance code directly onto villains. Our protagonists are achingly sincere, painfully vulnerable. This is a long-standing theme in Wachowski films. It’s notably present in the original Matrix sequels and in Sense8 – a show almost entirely about the power of sincerity and emotional vulnerability. This puts this film directly at odds with the quippy ironic distance of blockbuster fare like Red Notice, Deadpool or anything directed by Joss Whedon and also at the cold and clinical distance of blockbuster directors like Nolan and Snyder. We get multiple close-ups of Thomas rubbing the fabric of his jeans to ground himself, touch has power. After Thomas and Tiffany shake hands for the first time the sense memory of her hand conjures powerful memories of his life as Neo in him. In the Matrix, as in much of the Wachowski ouevre, love is a force of real power. The bonds people form, the way that they live through the other via love is central to their ability to overcome the challenges before them. This film problematizes this by redesigning the Matrix. This isn’t the old Matrix where the main mode was an enforced somnescence and where love merely had to be a powerful enough clarion call to awaken the sleeper. The Architect, who scorned human emotion as being something irrelevant to the grand algorithmic balance of his construction is gone and in his place is the Analyst – who has built his prison explicitly out of love.

Specifically the Analyst, finally revealed not as Thomas’ therapist but rather as Neo and Trinity’s jailer has built his new matrix out of the frustrated potential of Neo and Trinity’s love unrealized. When the Matrix was destabilized following the end of the war with Zion, the Analyst instituted a project to restore Neo and Trinity from death. And once he’d done this, he bound them together as the processing core of the new Matrix and as a psychological template for its systems of control. Neo and Trinity are bound into their prison by what he describes as their yearning for what they don’t have coupled with their fear to lose what they do. He keeps them close enough they can almost touch while constantly frustrating their efforts. He creates for Trinity a husband, children. For Thomas a high paying job in the creative industry. The choice exists for them both. They can see each other. And the Analyst cannot fully erase the meaning they hold for each other because the whole Matrix is literally powered by their frustration. And so they must be separated by emotional and psychological obstacles: her family, his mental health problems. In the process of imprisoning Neo and Trinity thus he has also bound Smith who was forced into the role of Neo’s partner and artificially kept from being who he truly is. The Architect makes Neo and Trinity choose their own subjugation. When Neo is freed he threatens Trinity and promises to kill her if Neo will not return of his own volition.

This film has inherited the complicated discourse the first three movies wove around the issue of choice. The question of choice is omni-present. Sati reminds everyone during the rescue of Trinity that she must choose to be freed or the mission will fail. But simultaneously many characters including Morpheus, Bugs and Smith comment on the illusory nature of choice. Smith-the-partner presents Thomas with the sequel fait accompli. He could choose to refuse to participate but that would basically just mean cutting his own input out of an unhaltable process. When Bugs offers Morpheus the red pill choice they both admit there’s no choice there and he already knows which pill he will take. This ties into the idea of the Eternal Return which was central to the original sequels. And, sure enough, this film plays with the ideas of difference and repetition a lot. It’s present in the gestating simulation Thomas uses to create Morpheus. It’s there when, during the second act, Neo and Smith fight and the entire fight is an echo of their past encounters.

There is intercut footage from the original film series throughout this movie. When Smith speaks the image will momentarily cut to a time from the first movie when Hugo Weaving’s Smith said the thing. When Morpheus confronts Neo during his rescue he does so in a cinema playing footage from Thomas’ game – of the scene in which Fishburne’s Morpheus originally gave Neo the red-pill choice. When Thomas struggles with his memories of being Neo we see them as fragmented images from across the original trilogy. This, combined with some excellent sound editing makes for an often unnerving experience, especially as Wachowski has maintained the original, highly aestheticized look of the original footage but has used entirely different and far broader-spectrum colour grading for the new Matrix.

The Analyst, and most of the rest of the cast other than Bugs and Morpheus, see the Matrix as an inevitability. There is no alternative. They tried to shut it down and doing so just fragmented the Machines, created new factions but no peace and no end to the Matrix. The Analyst believes that most of the “coppertops” prefer their subjugation. They’re too afraid to lose what little they have to step out of line. The unequal power structures that define the contemporary moment exist because the victims choose them.Hang on tight and spit on me,” is the mode of the Analyst’s Matrix.

Niobe is an old revolutionary lost to pessimism. She’s seen too much death and pain and she’s sick of it. She sees no alternative to the Matrix because they tried once and it didn’t work. She’s deeply bitter toward Morpheus (the original Morpheus) who never stopped believing that the revolution could never be defeated. The Analyst sees no alternative because he doesn’t want an alternative. He doesn’t even want a rollback to an earlier version of the Matrix, one that isn’t dependent on keeping two resurrected heroes in a state of immortal purgatory. And Smith isn’t beholden to this Matrix or that – he just doesn’t want to be put back in prison.

And to a certain extent there’s some honesty to the Analyst’s defense of the new Matrix. A rollback would not, on its own, be anything even resembling enough. Mark Fisher puts forward a left-accelerationist read of Lyotard in Postcapitalist Desire that, “that there’s no possible retreat from capitalism – there’s no space of primitive outside to which we can return, we have to go all the way through capitalism.” Likewise there’s no return to Zion and the war with The Machines. In fact nobody would want that. The dissident Machines are a loved and valued part of the society of Io. Morpheus (the program), Cybebe and Lumin8 are valued and beloved allies of the Resistance, nobody wants to go back to the absolute binary of Neo’s era. The only way out is through.

But the other thing nobody really wants is another front in the war. And this is the final really significant formal structural detail I want to draw out here – the plot of the Matrix Resurrections isn’t a bildungsroman like the first nor is it a war movie like the original sequels. This is a rescue movie. The new Matrix, the one powered by the double-bind of yearning and fear, only functions by keeping the object of desire always just out of reach of the subject. They can see it, the thing they want, right there but they can’t quite reach. But if they stay in the system, if they don’t make waves, maybe they can get just a tiny bit closer – a perverse Xeno’s paradox at play that the film depicts clearly during Neo’s first true confrontation with the Analyst in which the program fires a gun at Trinity and holds Neo back just long enough that he thinks he might still power through and rescue her while knowing he almost certainly will have to watch her die again.

The Analyst wants Neo to return to his cage willingly and so he holds Trinity up as a hostage. Neo is faced with another choice-that-is-not-a-choice: he can escape at the cost of Trinity’s life or he can return to a prison where he will, forever, look but never touch. But Sati proposes a rescue – with the only catch being that Trinity must choose to be rescued and during his attempts to win Trinity over she reveals to Neo that she has been having prophetic dreams much like his from The Matrix Reloaded; they end badly. By the moment of the confrontation the story has laid the groundwork that “Tiffany” is as unsatisfied in this half-life as Neo was when he was compelled into the persona of Thomas. But even so it’s terrifying to let go of what she had: a husband, children. The Analyst engineers a crisis at home to drag Trinity away from Neo at the last moment, to skew her to staying in his simulation in hopes a failure of the rescue mission will also compel Neo back under his domination. But Trinity turns back on her way out the door, sees Neo getting pressed to the ground under a horde of cops and something snaps and she breaks free. She decides the simulated family isn’t worth sacrificing the truth. She becomes tired of Chad grabbing her by the arm and leading her where the Analyst wants her. She is tired of building bikes rather than riding them. She leaps.

The Leap

Love, in the Matrix, is always a matter of faith. It’s power is ineffable and irrational. This is why the Architect failed – he disregarded love as nonsense and the love Neo and Trinity had for each other was enough to overturn his plans. The Analyst, instead, wants to pervert love into a weapon to use against the lovers. He knows that love is a desire and that he can use the productive force of desire as a real source of energy if he can only keep the lovers just the right distance apart. The Analyst doesn’t underestimate love qua love. He doesn’t underestimate love as an emotion. But he does understand love as an expression of faith.

There had always been hints of this idea in the Matrix. As early as the first film Morpheus showed Neo how far he could jump if he only freed his mind. In this film the Leap and its expression of the concept of faith takes center stage. Bugs tells Neo that she awakened when she saw him jump off a building and he never fell. The analyst, meanwhile, refers to “Thomas” as a suicide survivor and attempts to make Neo’s faith, his belief that he could be free, into a matter of shame and anxiety. “The doubt that saves doubts only itself,” Kierkegaard says. He means this as a challenge against the idea of dialectical skepticism in the context of theology. Hegelian theology was popular at the time of Kierkegaard’s career and he pushed back against the ability to approach religion from the direction of doubt. He would rather doubt the doubt itself.

There is some power in this position. I’ve often remarked that the biggest failing of Rational Skepticism is the unwillingness to turn the tools of skepticism inward, to doubt the bases upon which they build their skeptical responses to the external phenomena they doubt. There is a danger in self-assuredness that creates blind spots the anxious may see. Kierkegaard put forward this paradoxical position of anxious self-doubt as the basis for authentic belief throughout much of his body of work and his solution was to leap over the leveling scythe of reason and into faith. Kierkegaard counseled an irrational response to matters of faith as being the only true avenue for the expression of real faith. What faith is there in biblical proof?

In the film, Neo has lost the ability to fly. In fact, he spends much of the movie rusty – an old soldier who thought his days of fighting were over – and whose hesitance to re-enter the fray manifests in a reduction of his powers. He’s still strong enough to toss enemies around and to stop bullets with his will. He’s still fast enough to dodge bullets and to observe their path through the air and he’s still robust enough to survive being thrown through a concrete pillar but he is not the man he once was.

Neo is plagued with self-doubt. He begins the film with crippling self-doubt. He doubts even his own life story, a doubt that the Analyst is all to eager to help along with a delightful display of Wormtoungery. Neo wants to make a leap but his doubts plague him. And he can’t just start flying from the ground because his faith is insufficient. It isn’t a leap of faith to jump up when there’s no risk. You have to put everything you are into a moment of irrational devotion. Only there does an authentic leap of faith lie.

On the other side of the leap is the Knight of Faith and Kierkegaard cautions us that this is an incommunicable state of being. It’s impossible to know for sure if a leap is genuine harder still to communicate the essence of such a genuine moment.

After they escape from the Analyst, Neo and Trinity flee through the streets of the Matrix pursued by a horde of zombies. (The Analyst feels this “horde mode” is a more effective solution than the agents of the previous iteration.)

This whole sequence is interesting in that it puts the threat of stochastic terrorism and mass violence front-and-center where once it was just cops. Furthermore it shows how cops and stochastic terrorists operate together for the maintenance of the status quo. And so the zombies chase Neo and Trinity onto a roof where helicopters wait to gun them down. But they agree that they will not return to their prison and they jump. It should come as no surprise to anyone watching this film that it is Trinity who has a moment of authentic faith and discovers the ability to fly although I’m certain it will upset all of the worst members of the audience to no end.

Patriarchy and Societies of Control

In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish he describes an epistemological regime called the “disciplinary society.” This is a system of subjectification wherein a subject enters into a space where their body is trained before exiting that space and, as Deleuze put it, starting from 0 again in that new space. Disciplinary societies are best reflected in disciplinary institutions such as the school, the hospital, the factory and the prison. Now it’s important to note that these epistemic systems are not complete and impermeable. The principal work of Discipline and Punish was to show a genealogy of how previous epistemic systems led to the production of the disciplinary society as a mode of subjectification. A feature of the disciplinary society was a focus of power on the individual subject, specifically a focus on shaping the individual subject into an ideal citizen – a perfection of the soul through the rigors of training and a sort of inherited monasticism. He remarks upon how the design of the prison cell and the work-house cell of the early factories was modeled rather explicitly on the monastic cell. But while these epistemes leave marks they do not remain the dominant systems of subjectification forever and in the Postscript to Societies of Control, Deleuze proposed that, by the 1990s the disciplinary society was already being supplanted by a new episteme – the society of control.

The principal difference between the disciplinary society and the society of control was a spatial one – the disciplinary society is made up of a series of distinct spaces you move within. You go to school, advance through grades, complete school. Then you move to the new enclosed space of the factory. If you get sick you go to the hospital and go through triage, observation, treatment. If you fall afoul of police you go through arrest, trial, sentence. In all these cases there’s a focus on specific delineated corrective spaces.

The society of control is modular. Access to this module is granted or removed. Guattari, who Deleuze cites in the essay, proposed this as being like a city divided into zones in which the gates were operated by a key card. At any time a subject could be admitted to some zones and excluded from others. Deleuze took this observation even farther and suggested that the singular subjectivity of the disciplinary society – that focus on a perfectible singular being upon whom discipline could operate – had been replaced by a modular subject. Distinct schools were replaced with training modules. Professional memberships and licensing organizations could assign or withdraw various rights. A perfect genealogical precursor to this power relation is the driver’s license: you have permission to operate a motor vehicle contingent on not being found to do so in an unsafe manner. This is not the disciplinary power relation although it was not, alone, sufficient to manifest as a new episteme. The original Matrix was released nine years after Deleuze’s postscript, seven years after its first translation into English. While Deleuze believed that the society of control had already become the predominant episteme at that time, per both Deleuze and Foucault, no episteme erases the marks of the one before and the transition from one to another can only ever be discovered genealogically. We recognize we are in a new episteme when we can recognize the completion of the old order. This period of transition is visible in the first Matrix movie. Knowledge is modular. Put in a disc and know kung fu. But the authority of the agents is still disciplinary. Smith takes Thomas Anderson out of the space of the workplace and into the interrogation room. There he engages in an attempt to correct Mr. Anderson, to return him to a life of productive service to the extant power structure. This is fundamentally a disciplinary power mechanism.

In contrast the Analyst implements measures of control. Identity is treated as modular. Neo is allowed to be “Thomas Anderson” he’s even allowed to have a personal history with the Matrix and an awareness of his past but he is denied access to his own face. Trinity features similar dividuality of her being, buried under the disguise of Tiffany. Access to spaces is also modular. An alarm rings in Thomas’ workplace and lets everybody know access is now forbidden. The enforcement of authority that comes after is not an attempt to correct a defective soul but rather a purge of all subjects who have failed to depart from the denied zone.

The granting and denial of the object of desire in various forms is central to the Analyst’s Matrix, very much in contrast to the Architect’s disciplinary one. And this also shows in the difference between agents and the horde mode. The agents are aware singular subjects who can appear and remove a subject for correction. They take people like Neo and Morpheus and put them in rooms to reshape them to suit a purpose. The horde mode is a modular area denial tool. They can be activated in this zone or that to force subjects to move into this space but not that one.

Control, much like the related but distinct Foucauldian concept of the biopolitical order is not concerned with individual subjects so much as it is with modules, aggregates, clusters and categories. And this traces into how the Analyst deploys misogyny. Because, oh boy, but the Analyst is the most misogynistic robot I have ever encountered. In the denouement, when Trinity has proven Smith correct in his statement that “anyone could be Neo” by achieving an equivalent level off awakening, and Neo and Trinity both confront the Analyst to warn him that they will be remaking his world, Trinity takes the lead while Neo hangs back. She repeatedly kills the Analyst and restores him and all the while the Analyst begs Neo to control his woman. This same pattern of misogynistic subjugation is clear in the differential treatment of Neo and Trinity by the Analyst in their imprisonment. Neo is defined by his career. Trinity is defined by her family.

And we are invited to see her discomfort with this when she says to Neo that she isn’t certain whether she had children because she wanted them or because it was expected that she would. Trinity is given a history, as Tiffany, that includes these children who she loves, because in the modular self the Analyst has created for her includes these children. She is, in this film, entirely correct to question whether her having children, feeling like she wanted them, is a compulsion put upon her by an outside force. And the love for a child is the emotional cudgel the Analyst uses to try and dissuade Trinity from choosing her own freedom.

Because this film is ultimately too existentialist to treat this dividuality of the self as fully real. The Matrix posits that there is, in fact, an authentic subjective core to being. There is a Neo underneath who is the authentic Neo. There is a Trinity who is the authentic Trinity. This authenticity is reflected through the love these two have for each other.

Importantly that same access to authenticity is also applied to Smith who insists Neo freed him and whose whole motivation is doing whatever he deems necessary to avoid being imprisoned away from his own authentic self again, to avoid being treated as a modular being. Considering how the old Smith desired to make everything the same, like him, this pursuit of an authentic self is an interesting direction to take Smith but not an inappropriate one. His core of authenticity is also relational. His bond with Neo plays very much into the Spinozist sense of the proximity of love and hatred.

The tension of this film is the idea that power will shape people not by taking them, one at a time, into a room and making them conform but by creating a social field in which they will move themselves into controllable relations. Trinity will be a home maker. Neo will be a careerist. Smith will be a defanged antagonist rather than the trickster he desires to be. They will not be these things because they were trained to be but because the social field was manipulated to move them into these spaces. This deployment of misogyny specifically in the case of Trinity is particularly telling and points toward how reactionaries deploy nostalgia for the nuclear family to exercise control over men and women alike. Patriarchy is at much in play in making Neo an alienated worker as it is in making Trinity a dissatisfied homemaker but special cruelty is applied to Trinity. She is allowed less of her authentic self by dint of being a woman and being compelled into situations of inauthentic love.

This movie is a rescue mission. It’s not the triumphant return of the hero. Neo barely spends any time in Io and he’s seen there more as an inconvenience than as a hero. But Trinity being rescued from the Matrix is the one thing, the lynch pin. That is the only thing the Analyst cannot countenance, that will break his Matrix entirely.

This is a delightfully kind reminder that revolution must not only be a matter of giving a different set of men the power and control over society but should instead recognize and destitute all axes of control that prevent people from realizing their authentic relationships. This is where they break from Kierkegaad because he thought that everybody must make the leap into faith alone but the Matrix Resurrections knows that the leap can only ever be made together. Authenticity exists, we can discover a core to our being, but it isn’t some hard kernel alone from all others. It’s a shining web of loves and hatreds, of lives touched and of differences made. We must all leap together into an uncertain future if we want to paint the sky with rainbows.

Scorsese on a Jungle Cruise

James Gunn says Martin Scorsese bashed Marvel movies to get press | EW.com

The wheel of discourse turns and yet again we’re talking about the fact that Martin Scorsese doesn’t like superhero movies. This salvo began because James Gunn suggested Scorsese’s comments, mostly in 2019, that Marvel movies aren’t cinema was just to drum up marketing for the latter’s movie The Irishman.

But the thing is that Scorsese is somewhat right; although superhero movies may appear on film they are structurally much closer to a ride than they are to a movie. And this has to do with the nature of movement in cinema compared to that in a ride. In Cinema 1: The Movement Image Deleuze does his thing where he comes up behind another theorist and presents them with their child only monstrous to Bergson and composes a defense of cinema from Bergson’s critique of the same. In it, he refers to cinema as producing an immediate movement-image. This is to say that cinema is not a static image to which movement is added but rather the movement is intrinsic to the cinematic image. So we can start by positioning cinema principally as being an image of movement or of change. As Deleuze says, “the shot would then stop being a spatial category and become a temporal one.” Deleuze describes a cartoon in specific as no longer constituting, “a pose or a completed figure, but a description of a figure which is always being formed or dissolving through the movement of lines and points taken at any-instant-whatevers of their course.” He continues to talk about how the privileging of specific instants such as in the work of Eisenstein doesn’t take away from this favoring of movement and change over the static pose as the structure of the cinematic image.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that Eisenstein’s concept of collision likely derived at least in part from Kuleshov’s early work on montage as Eisenstein was briefly a pupil of Kuleshov. And of course montage is all about the ability to create change through the juxtaposition of images against each other. There is a thread running through these early directors and film theorists which demonstrates that cinema is ultimately the artform of transformation. Cinema doesn’t capture a pose as a photograph or a painting does but rather the movement that a subject undertakes, the changes a subject undergoes. Deleuze ties movement explicitly to change, “each time there is a translation of parts in space, there is also a qualitative change in a whole.” He later presents Bergson’s conclusion that, “if the whole is not giveable it is because it is the Open, and its nature is to change constantly.”

So finally we can arrive at the key requirement of cinema and that is constant change. It is significant to note here that constant in this context is heavily directed by the concept of any-instant-whatever rather than of the static pose. The dialectic of movement in the classical sense where movement describes the transition between two specific and significant poses is thus replaced with this sense that any moment of a movement could be extracted and provided with equal significance as each moment of a movement describes an image of its process of change.

But an amusement park ride doesn’t do that. Remarkably amusement park rides are a repudiation of change. Rather the movement of a ride consists explicitly of a series of fixed poses retuning to an unchanging conclusion. The amusement park ride ends where it began and, if it is functioning correctly, nothing changes. The ride is so carefully tuned to provide a specific and replicable experience that you can position a fixed camera on a timer and ensure that every attendee can have their reaction to that moment memorialized – a fixed pose of screaming exhilaration.

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As such the ride is something of an opposite to cinema. For something to be a good amusement park ride it must bring you, via its movement, full circle to the point where you began. It must be a dialectic of fixed poses wherein movement only describes the transition between them: the climb, the drop, the loop, the splash, the photo at the end. These privileged moments are not a Kuleshov like process of montage wherein the juxtaposition of difference leads to an affective change in an audience. They aren’t the emotive collision of Eisenstein. Rather the amusement park ride is a wheel turning in the air, going nowhere.

And this is fine. Obviously amusement park rides affect audiences. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the predictable and the unchanging in and of itself and insofar as that goes. But if something is just a spinning wheel going nowhere it cannot be cinema. Cinema was, in fact, designed explicitly to be contrary to that affect.

While Deleuze sees cinema as being dependent on the technology that created it via Edison’s moving pictures and Lumiere’s teeth I think it’s important to look at cinema not just in the frame of how technology caused it to form but also in the frame of what it does with that form. And what cinema does is furnish transformation. Gunn should know that better than most considering that Super ends with the question of change, and with the protagonist presenting, unanswered, a dialectic between immutable order and transformative change. But of course Gunn has made a career of slyly subverting the superhero narrative, and so this also makes him particularly sensitive to Scorsese’s critique that Marvel films will disallow him from doing the cinematic things he clearly wants to do with the medium.

The problem ultimately becomes one of power. In this relation Gunn has almost none in the shadow of the Disney behemoth, and Disney isn’t in the business of making cinema. It’s in the business of making amusement park rides. I mean let’s not beat around the bush too much. the big Disney film on the horizon right now is Jungle Cruise – a movie that is explicitly derived from an amusement park ride. This movie follows the same basic beats and structure as many of its Pirates of the Caribbean films. The Pirates franchise was also based around an amusement park ride. When one of Disney’s most specific streams of output is so explicitly tied to amusement park rides, and to the cinematic replication of that experience of static poses, is it really surprising that a lover of cinema in the mold of Scorsese would look at Marvel and see a Ferris wheel rather than a movie?

But there is more to it than just this. Superhero movies in general, but Marvel films in specific, have gone to painstaking lengths to recreate the comic book format in cinema. This adherence to comic structure is something that has been lauded by fans on multiple occasions. But comic books are not like cinema nor even like cartoons. Comic books are static poses with movement inferred from the change in pose across panels.

r/batman - CHAP2 MhMn? YOU'RE HERE? WELL, THIS NICE Wt Kn

Even in a dynamic panel of a comic containing a lot of action, a few poses, such as that of Batman in the center of the example to the right must stand in for all those any-instant-whatevers. The instant of Batman surrounded by goons, swinging the fire extinguisher becomes a privileged instance that is not impacted by the Kuleshov effect as there is no temporal disjunction. The poses are flattened into a single moment. They become privileged moments. And the superhero genre has desperately tried to replicate this.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the end credits contain rendered images of the fight between the Avengers and Ultron’s robot horde rendered as if it were a marble statue of that moment. The dynamism of their specific poses is captured as a privileged moment through the act of freezing that instant and twirling around it. We see this pattern repeating throughout the MCU both in the first Avengers movie when we see the assembly shot of the Avengers surrounded by aliens, back to back in New York and in Avengers Endgame, repeatedly, during the final battle with Thanos’ army. Of particular note is the assembly moment where the various women of the MCU all pose together, reminding audiences that, although none of them had yet to be given a feature film, the MCU contained plenty of women characters. But it isn’t the message of this moment that interests me so much as that it was rendered as a static and privileged moment.

This sense of stasis is something I’ve commented about regarding Disney before. I talked about it in the context of Disney’s sense of ownership and its refusal to let go. But this stasis is far more pervasive than that as Disney is, as much as it is anything, a marketer of rides, with amusement parks throughout the world which are a major source of revenue. The love Disney has for cross-platform promotion means that this sense of the ride now pervades is other media so that it can sell the ride experience.

But this means that, even when not making movies explicitly about rides like Pirates of the Caribbean or Jungle Cruise, Disney is making movies selling a ride experience. And when you add to the sale of the ride experience the medium-specified requirement of the comic book to prefer the privileged moment of the pose over the any-instant-whatever of the cinematic mode and we see how this amusement park ride sensation creeps into the Marvel movie from two dimensions.

And so Scorsese is right. Marvel movies are not cinema. What they are doing is, structurally, anathema to what cinema was designed to do. Frankly a Looney Tunes cartoon has more in common with Eisenstein than even the best MCU experiences could furnish – not for reasons of quality or enjoyment but because the task of duplicating the comic book form pushes against the task of cinema as clearly and specifically as the task of the roller coaster does. Disney has become very adept at marketing Ferris wheels. As such they have become very adept at providing filmic experiences that proceed through a series of privileged moments, of poses, before returning right back to where they started unchanged and ready for the next trip around the track.

Reterritorialization and Overcoding – the creative bankruptcy of reaction

If we wanted to put a pin in the beginnings of the resurgence of the far-right it would likely be 2013. Within art this was marked by two principal social conflicts in which the outline of the nascent reactionary movement can be seen. The first was the release of Depression Quest and the second was the inauguration of the first Sad Puppies campaign. Both of these events, in 2013, seemed minor. Depression Quest was a Twine game – effectively the indiest of all indy game platforms. Zoë Quinn was, at the time, a very minor figure in gaming. Depression Quest was a browser game that also attracted some attention via Steam Greenlight but considering Greenlight’s history of lax acceptance standards and vast panoply of games available, this is hardly something that should have stood out above the noise. However Quinn’s meditation on illness received some critical attention and this led to sour grapes with an ex-boyfriend in what became the initial casus belli for the Breitbart-affiliated Gamergate movement.

Simultaneously, Larry Correia struggled to get his novels onto the Hugo ballot and in the process of what largely seems to have been a self-promotion effort fomented the arm of the same reactionary forces behind Gamergate into science fiction and fantasy literature. The decade that followed subsequently saw the mainstreaming of neoreactionary ideology – which shaped what E.L. Sandifer described in Neoreaction A Basilisk as, “an entirely sympathetic anger that people with power are making obvious and elementary errors,” into a tool for fascist entry via the very same platforms (again, Breitbart was central). This then metastasized into the Trumpism and the alt-right: the modern anglosphere Fascist movement that then dominated the half decade starting in 2016.

But it might be somewhat puzzling why, with the obvious movement of fascism in the sphere of politics at this time (Breitbart was also heavily involved in the Tea Party movement,) I am choosing to peg this resurgence to such specifically artistic indicators.

This is because I think it’s important to situate the extent to which fascism is an aesthetic movement.

Fascism as an aesthetic

Fascism has been rather unique among ideologies in how difficult it is to pin down. There are three definitions that are often passed around: the definition provided by Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascist essay, Lawrence Britt’s 14 Characteristics of Fascism, and Roger Griffin’s, “palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism.” Of these, Britt’s description is probably the least-useful. Britt wasn’t any particular expert and it seems to have been, in my eyes, something of an attempt to correct what he may have seen as deficiencies in Eco’s definition. However if this is the so I think Britt over-corrected as I find Eco’s argument in the Ur-Fascism essay far more relevant to understanding the phenomenon. Griffin’s definition of fascism certainly holds the quality of precision and conciseness that you would expect from a political scientist and an historian and I do want to stress that this lens is critical to understanding fascism but it aims more at the ultimate consequence of what fascists coordinating tend to do to a political milieu than at the underlying project of a fascist qua fascist.

I think this helps explain the longevity of Eco’s description of Fascism; Eco, an artist and semiotician, realized something critical about fascism that Griffin missed. Fascism is largely an aesthetic position. “Even though political regimes can be overthrown, and ideologies can be criticized and disowned, behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives,” Eco says, and these cultural habits, these obscure instincts and unfathomable drives aren’t a political program exactly, they’re not an ethic nor even an anti-ethic. Rather, as I discussed in my essay on the concept of degeneracy, much of what underpins fascism is a sense of what is beautiful and, more critically, what is ugly. The fascist is, at the root of it all, somebody with an exceptionally powerful revulsion for ugliness and a very specific set of criteria for what makes something ugly.

The fascist is a narcissist par excellence. In fact the only thing a fascist sees beauty in is himself. All of Eco’s 14 points on ur-fascism extend logically from this point of absolute narcissism. The fascist constructs an irreconcilable dualism of self and other and associates all beauty with the self, all ugliness with the other. He loves the cult of tradition because he sees himself in the approving eyes of his ancestors. And from the cult of tradition, Eco rightly points out the rejection of modernity follows. Eco describes how fascism is irrational and unable to withstand systemic critique. The irrationality is, yet again, an inevitable result of the fascist’s solipsism. Any input that destabilizes the duality of absolute self and absolute other must be expelled regardless of whether or not it is reasonable. The syncretism of fascism and its instability in the face of critical scrutiny follows from its irrationality and fascism’s fear of diversity is an immediate property of fascist solipsism again. When we then look at Eco’s description of fascist nationalism this appears again in a remarkable form when we consider the idea of the nation as an imagined community.

Terrible Imagined Communities

When I discussed the idea that there was no such thing as a total community I was largely pointing toward the idea of the imagined community. There is an abstraction to “the genre community,” “the gaming community,” or even to, “Canada,” that belies that these attempts at total communities are fictions notwithstanding ideological differences. It is relevant that there is no room for nazis and their victims in one community, but it’s just as relevant that there will be no true encounter between me and, “Joe from Canada, I think he lives in Vancouver, or maybe it was Halifax?” If a community is predicated upon some sort of group interaction, an imagined community is one where that group interaction has become so vague, so abstract, that it is effectively fully alienated from the people within it. In the sixth and seventh Theses on the genesis of the terrible communities, Tiqqun say:

The Word advances, prudently, filling the spaces between singular solitudes, it swells human numbers in groups, pushing them together against the prevailing winds - effort unites them. This is almost an exodus. Almost. But no pact holds them together, except the spontaneity  of smiles, inevitable cruelty, and accidents of passion.

This passage, similar to that of migrating birds, with murmurs of shifting pain, little by little gives form to the terrible communities.

We can see how these terrible communities, these enclosing and entrapping spaces, these prisons that must be deserted all at once as a spontaneous and total jailbreak, arise as imagined communities. Nations and fandoms alike are held together by, “smiles, cruelty and accidents of passion.” These things are traps. They capture people and create artificial in-groups and out-groups. And it is only a very short slip from, “this is mine,” to, “this is me.”

Fandoms and nations alike both point toward the cancerous undifferentiated bodies that Deleuze and Guattari warn of in November 28, 1947: How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs? “take a stifling body of subjectification, which makes a freeing all the more unlikely by forbidding any remaining distinction between subjects. Even if we consider given social formations, or a given stratic apparatus within a formation, we must say that every one of them has a BwO ready to gnaw, proliferate, cover, and invade the entire social field, entering into relations of violence and rivalry as well as alliance and complicity,” and they provide that carcinogenic ground for these cancerous bodies without organs in part by forming themselves as an imagined space where idealized others are just like me. If I like Star Wars – if Star Wars is mine – if Star Wars is me – if Star Wars is him too – then he is also me. As Bataille said, “a man who finds himself among others is irritated because he does not know why he is not one of the others.” A person who is making a cancerous body without organs has fallen fully into this trap. His sense of his own potential is ready to cover and invade the entire social field – this idea that anybody might not be just like me becomes such a psychic violence to him that he will countenance any cruelty in order to respond to it.

This is entirely an aesthetic action. There’s no sense of the good in any of this. There isn’t even a twisted rejection of the good here. No virtue is possible nor any universalism to build a deontological frame beyond the universalism of, “it is good because it is me,” or, “it is bad because it is not me.” There is no consideration of utility nor is there a question of ambiguity or uncertainty. Just a boot on a neck, a hand holding down a head, a brutish force to clear the line of the fascist’s sight of anything that might offend him.

The incapability of loving destruction

The fascist is incapable of loving destruction for precisely this reason. The fascist cannot destroy what he loves because he only loves himself. This sort of self-annihilation is inimical to the cancerous, metastasizing nature of fascist ideologies. But this has dire (though unsurprising) consequences for the fascist aesthetic. Artistic creation, authentic artistic expression, is bound indelibly to loving destruction. To create art you must identify the thing you love and utterly destroy it in order to create it anew. What has never lived cannot be reborn, and this rising and falling creative cycle is essential to the introduction of the novel, the creative spark arises when the sparks of love and destruction glow together. And this means that the fascist can recognize what he sees as beauty but cannot contribute to its creation. He is all that is beautiful to himself. There is no purer fascist artistic statement than to stand, alone, in a box in which all six walls are covered entirely in mirrors: an endless self recursion without change or derivation. A universe filled with the self. Just like Agent Smith. Fascism mutilates artistic capability because of this solipsism. And so the fascist steals.

We all know the struggle: you like a thing and then the Nazis roll in and take the thing over. People get disgusted with all the Nazis hanging around and then all that’s left surrounding the thing are the Nazis. They did it with solar diagrams. They did it with esotericism. They did it with Norse mythology. They did it with Pepe the Frog. They even try to take the Hammer and Sickle from the left through their hollow, loveless appropriations. Over and over again we see the same pattern.

We must momentarily step back and discuss some basic semiotics. A form of communication, such as an artwork, contains two central components: a signifier and a signified. The signified is the thing communicated, the signifier is the thing that carries that communication. Saussure, who did much of the groundwork for this idea, posited that the relationship between a signifier and a signified was somewhat arbitrary. The value of a signification depended on two relations: the relation between the specific signifier and the specific signified and the relation between the signification and other significations within the system. In economic terms Saussure described these relations as the exchange value of a quantity of currency for bread and the relationship between a quantity of currency and a different quantity of the same currency.

This helps to situate how words relate etymologically to each other and, in turn, how aesthetic concepts relate to each other into a system. But it still makes signification a remarkably arbitrary process. As Lyotard says while describing the development of lexical systems, “Signification would thus find itself pushed out beyond the system of significative units, inasmuch as it could embody any one of these units, then abandon it, only to invest another, without ever seeming to be frozen in an invariant set of oppositions.”

Discourse, Figure is fascinated with the role art, especially visual art, impacts signification, attempting to course correct from Saussure’s preference for the word by giving preference to the image as a signifier. Lyotard presents a view of visual art that allows for the encoding of vast quantities of meaning. But even this doesn’t escape the ultimately arbitrary character of signification.

The picture is such an inefficient trompe l'oeil that it requires the eye to access the truth, and it is, in a sense, nothing more than a call to the eye to be acknowledged. Even if the picture resembles nothing (and it really does resemble nothing, even when it is figurative, since its visible function is to give the given), the eye takes back from it the right it had given up in order to allow the picture to be: the right to believe itself the place from which the world-even in the process of manifesting itself-is seen manifesting itself, manifests its manifestation.

This disconnect between the signifier and the signified is the flaw via which fascism sneaks into art. Fascism is incapable of creating new permutations of meaning but it has become very adept at precisely one artistic act: overcoding a chain of signification with the body of the despot, which is, ultimately a solipsistic reflection of the fascist’s own self-image. Standing alone in his box of mirrors, the fascist says, “Yes me, me me; also me.” Fascism swarms into the infected signifier and attempts then to crowd out any competing signified objects besides itself. The solar cross of Buddhism is no longer a symbol of the radiant beauty of the dharma. It just means the body of the despot. The hammer and the sickle no longer a symbol of the alliance of farmer and factory worker. It just means the body of the despot. The anthropomorphic frog is no longer a symbol for unashamed and sybaritic self-enjoyment (“feels good man”) – it just means the body of the despot.

There’s a story that gets passed around anti-fascist circles: a Nazi bellies up to the bar at a punk rock club and orders a drink. He isn’t bothering anyone except by presenting fascist images on his clothes. The bartender pulls out a baseball bat and chases the Nazi off. A bystander asks the bartender why he chased away the Nazi and the bartender explains that any bar that doesn’t chase away the first Nazi will become a Nazi bar in time, that the Nazi population will grow and as it does it will push the limits of the offense it can cause. Eventually, inevitably, the Nazis will become violent and then all you have left is a Nazi club.

The Dead Kennedys hinted at this too with Nazi Punks Fuck Off – where they proposed that the Nazi punks weren’t really any different than the hegemonic coaches, businessmen and cops who run the imperial core. “When you ape the cops it ain’t anarchy.” They were just stealing a style they didn’t understand. “Trash a bank if you’ve got real balls.” The painful truth is that when Nazis are allowed to overcode a signifier with themselves it is exceedingly difficult to recover that symbol. While some Buddhists and Jainists may be frustrated about the theft of the Swastika you still can’t trust somebody flying it just because they say they’re Buddhist. Matt Furie held a funeral for Pepe the Frog. It can be frustrating to watch as Nazis spread all over this symbol or that – but this just makes the urgency to push back against any attempt to overcode a symbol with fascist solipsism all the greater.

I’ve talked before about the idea of art as a field in which ownership of intellectual property denotes ownership. This is something of a related phenomenon to overcoding. In overcoding a signifying chain is overlaid with a new signified object. In territorialization boundaries are drawn around signifying blocks and we are told these things belong together, these are the boundaries that should not be crossed. Overcoding disregards territorialized boundaries but then it spills out and covers the territory. It puts up walls and guards at the gates and says, “only I may enter here.” It over-writes old boundaries in the process of reifying ones that suit the overcoder. It proceeds like Tetsuo from Akira, like Smith from the Matrix, replacing everything in its path with more of the same, creating a deadening monotony. It isn’t that every reterritorialization is fascist – when I talked about this phenomenon in The Millers vs the Machines I mentioned how it recreated boundaries, not that those boundaries were cancerous or solipsistic; nor is every consumptive fan community doomed to fascism. But it’s important that we recognize that these movements, the walling off of the collective intellectual commons behind boundaries of ownership, the construction of an identity that mistakes an object of desire for the self, and a desire to make things, “like me,” are the ingredients from which fascism arises.

Fascism is difficult to define because it doesn’t have just one origin or just one manifestation. The paranoia of Agent Smith or of nazi punks aping cops can arise out of any social field; but the social field created by capitalism is particularly vulnerable to the manifestation of fascism because it creates fertile preconditions for the arising of this phenomenon.

Resistance

If we are to resist fascism in the aesthetic field it cannot be by a counter-move of engaging in a pitched battle over staked territories already subsumed. The fascist incorporation of all into the body of the despot leaves a stink that can’t be washed out. We can start by refusing to cede new territory to the fascists – by showing them the door with a baseball bat in hand but this isn’t always easy to do in the art world, in online spaces, in places where the territories are conceptual rather than points on a field of earth. But this doesn’t mean that resistance is a problem even in these circumstances.

Engage willingly with cycles of creation and loving destruction. These cycles exist. We can enter them. And the fascist, trapped in self-love, cannot follow here. Be a thief, as they say, “be gay, do crimes.” Go out beyond the territories you know and return with treasure. Break the jewels you return with to microscopically fine sparkling dust and then reconstitute new gems from it, imbued with both your own being and your love of the other. Make art like making love – not a process of dialectics where two become one but a scizzing movement where two become many. Love your fate and love your resistance to it. Break rules. Break taboos. Be degenerate and deviant. Be a monster. Remember you are not on moral ground and so disregard the ethical imperatives and instead create a beauty that fascists cannot tolerate. Show that beauty to the world to inoculate them against fascist solipsism. Love the other. Don’t become a singularity holding everything in, trying to own the world. Instead allow yourself to be the wandering point dancing across little pools of nothing; be willing to shed identities and to assume them but tend the identities you assume. Avoid paranoia. Since there is no universal community, create communities that are like the sack of humanity unpicked and sewn back up with the moon inside, be alien and strange and beautiful and terrible and evangelize a vision of the world that loves difference, that is unafraid of cycles of birth and death and birth and death. Find the power in your beauty and your assumption of it but wield that power not to make everything like you but rather to make everything unlike you – to make everything strange.

That is the aesthetic ground upon which we fight.

That is the aesthetic ground upon which we win.

The problematics of the Matrix sequels

Me, dismissing the haters

This is not a defense of the Matrix sequels. A lot of ink has been spilled trying to argue that The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) were good, actually. In fact, so much effort has been made to disprove the detractors that the question of what exactly the Wachowskis were attempting to accomplish in these movies has been left fallow when compared to the endless stream of essays regarding the themes and ideas underlying the first Matrix movie.

So we are going to start from the position that the Matrix sequels, which I will be treating as a single text, are good, actually. The question is not, “can we vindicate our fondness for these strange films,” but rather, “what were the Wachowskis trying to say with these strange films?”

The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded presents a series of problematics around a central theme. We encounter the original setup for these problematics first when Neo talks with Councilor Hamann early in the film. His dreams are keeping him awake. “These machines are keeping us alive while other machines are coming to kill us,” Hamann says before digging into what it means to control something. Neo wants to suggest control is the power to destroy a thing.

Hamann disagrees, believing that control isn’t so simple. Sure, Zion could destroy the machines that keep it alive. But that would destroy Zion too. Is it self-control to smash the machinery of state or is it self-control to keep it running? Hamann doesn’t present any answers, in fact he’s very clear he doesn’t have the first clue how to answer that question. But he does manage to establish a linkage between three associated topics: the nature of control, the nature of choice and the nature of time. These are interconnected because it becomes evident as the story goes forward that an understanding of time is as fundamental to understanding volition as volition is to understanding control. As such, a failure to understand time creates an obstacle for understanding control.

Time is funny in this movie. The film starts in Neo’s dream in which Trinity in all her alien glory drops out of the sky in the midst of an act of beautifully outrageous violence divorced from any context. He experiences a disjunction depicted as a flow of code between two surfaces and then witnesses Trinity falling backward out a window somewhere elsewhere, pursued by an agent and in the midst of a gunfight. She is shot in the gut and he awakens.

However this is in tension with a structural formalism to the film that establishes a temporal cycle of violence and discourse. In the matrix there will be a moment of action. This action will lead Neo to a new place where he will have a conversation on those three topics: time, control, volition. Then there will be another outbreak of action and a transportation to a new location. It is likely this strict and anti-realist structural motif is largely responsible for the tepid audience reaction to this film. It’s as if William Burroughs used an action manga and a copy of Intelligence and Spirit to create one of his infamous cut-ups.

The Rave

The moment of action in Zion that leads before Neo’s dialog with Hamann is particularly interesting in its difference from the others. While his future forays into this recursive cycle of talk and action take the form of violence, in Zion the cathartic action that moves Neo into the discussion comes in the form of religious ritual. I think the Zion “rave scene” is perhaps one of the most centrally misunderstood moments in the trilogy of films. Specifically it is misunderstood as either a party, (and we know that Lana Wachowski likes filming parties so we can perhaps forgive this position) or as an orgy (which again we can link forward to Sense8 and its deployment of the orgy motif.) But it’s not precisely either, or rather, while it is a moment of orgiastic intensity it is so in a specifically Dionysian context of religious ecstasy.

Of course this hints at a kind of a pagan relationship to ecstasy and the transpersonal. A lot of the framing of the dance part of this scene frames people incompletely. We see bare feet on stone and sand. We see a roiling mass of bodies rising and falling to a percussive beat from a distance. Back to close-up panning across chests – clothes translucent with sweat.

In these scenes Zion is transformed into a single transpersonal being. The ego of any given person is absent the second Morpheus’ prayer ends. Instead there is just the community – and Neo and Trinity apart from it. Because we should consider that they leave. They make love as Zion makes love to itself, as Zion commits its act of worship, but they are apart from it. They’re framed distant, alone together. Just the two of them. The film doesn’t have to say that Neo feels disconnected from Zion but that he feels connected directly to Trinity; but later the Architect will draw attention to this difference while failing to recognize the significance of that change between a generalized sense of goodwill to one’s fellows and an intense love shared with another.

The Oracle’s compatibilism

The action sequence that bridges the Zion portion of the film with Neo’s visit to the Oracle isn’t particularly revelatory other than reminding audiences that Yuen Woo-Ping was still involved in blocking the fights and thus establishing some of the strangeness that will follow in the action of the film as being in the realm of choice rather than incompetence. Of course Yuen has been clear since that he was unhappy working with non-fighters and working with too much CGI and this vocal dissatisfaction was one of the things that soured audiences to the Matrix sequels. Notwithstanding his discomfort with elements of the Hollywood system, it’s clear when Neo fights Seraph that he stayed involved.

Seraph, for his part, only says that you can only truly know somebody by fighting them. This hints at Seraph being an agent of a dialectic understanding and primes the audience to treat the Oracle’s discourse as being fundamentally compatible with Hamann but this is a grace note more than a contribution to the discourse.

And here’s where things get interesting because the Oracle has some strong words on the nature of choice.

Neo: D’you already know if I’m going to take it?
The Oracle: Wouldn’t be much of an Oracle if I didn’t.
Neo: But if you already know, how can I make a choice?
The Oracle: Because you didn’t come here to make the choice, you’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it. I thought you’d have figured that out by now.

the Oracle tells Neo he’s already made a choice and that what matters is that he understand why he made it. She will later tell Neo a bit about the boundaries of her ability, that she cannot see past choices she doesn’t understand but the important thing is that she believes Neo can (and in fact does) possess something of her prophetic ability. This is because the Oracle is very interested in time.

I’ve talked before about Minkowski and the idea of a geometric understanding of time. To recap briefly, Minkowski and Einstein’s General Relativity concept of space time treats time as being a fundamentally positional relationship. All things that have an will happen coexist; the boundaries of being enclose time. In such a case every decision that you can make has always already been made. The Oracle is very clear that this is her position on time, telling Neo, “You have the sight now, Neo. You are looking at the world without time,” to describe his prophetic visions. Neo cannot see if Trinity dies because, “We can never see past the choices we don’t understand.”

Essentially the Oracle is introducing two problematics into the question of control, and they’re problematics that work very well with Hamann’s past arguments about interdependence. She’s pointing out that decisions are made but they’re made outside of a specific frame. A person always already has made every choice they will. However just as time is positional so is understanding. Neo from the position of the present cannot understand why he made/will make the choice he has/will made/make. This raises interesting problems for the question of will. Specifically, there’s the question of where choice is inserted into a process. If a choice has always already been made and the only question is understanding the circumstances that give rise to that choice is that a freely made choice? This is why proponents of absolute free will are uncomfortable with these fixed concepts of temporality. Creating a positional temporality as opposed to a flowing temporality challenges the ability of people to act freely. But the Oracle is clear choices have been made by subjects. In the conclusion of The Invisibles, Dane McGowan breaks the fourth wall and says “There’s no difference between fate and free will. Here I am; put here, come here. No difference. Same thing. Nothing ends that isn’t something else starting.” This is essentially the position the Oracle is taking, has to take as a result of the intersection of her opinion of time and her opinion of choice. There’s no fundamental difference between destiny and choice. A person chooses, has always chosen. They are fated by their choices because all the choices a person makes can be seen laid out, inscribed across the dimension of time. The relevant question is not, “did I choose this?” nor is it “what will I choose,” but rather “why did I choose this?”

In the previous discourse, Councilor Hamann says, “There is so much in this world that I do not understand. See that machine? It has something to do with recycling our water supply. I have absolutely no idea how it works. But I do understand the reason for it to work. I have absolutely no idea how you are able to do some of the things you do, but I believe there’s a reason for that as well. I only hope we understand that reason before it’s too late.” Ultimately for Hamann the question of “why?” is the principal question, the one that keeps him awake at night. The Oracle explains that this is because in understanding why you also produce an understading of what and how. The why contains these other questions.

The Oracle ends the conversation in a hurry. She gives Neo the location of the Merovingian and warns Neo the Merovingian just wants power. “What do all men with power want? More power,” she says before expressing her belief in Neo and escaping before the arrival of Smith.

The Burly Brawl

Smith: Our connection. I don’t fully understand how it happened. Perhaps some part of you imprinted onto me, something overwritten or copied. That is at this point irrelevant, what matters is that whatever happened, happened for a reason.
Neo: And what reason is that?
Smith: I killed you, Mister Anderson, I watched you die… With a certain satisfaction, I might add, and then something happened. Something that I knew was impossible, but it happened anyway. You destroyed me, Mister Anderson. Afterward, I knew the rules, I understood what I was supposed to do but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was compelled to stay, compelled to disobey. And now here I stand because of you, Mister Anderson, because of you I’m no longer an agent of the system, because of you I’ve changed – I’m unplugged – a new man, so to speak, like you, apparently free.
Neo: Congratulations.
Smith: Thank you. But as you well know, appearances can be deceiving, which brings me back to the reason why we’re here. We’re not here because we’re free, we’re here because we’re not free. There’s no escaping reason, no denying purpose – because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.

Smith is the ultimate paranoiac machine. This is a term from Anti-Oedipus. It describes the reaction of the Body Without Organs – a state of 0-intensity, of undifferentiated potentiality – against the attempts of “desiring machines” (the material process of desire) to penetrate it. Michael Hardt says, “While the schizophrenic follows desiring-machines everywhere on its errant walk, the paranoiac is hypersensitive, it suffers from desiring-machines, and wishes it could turn them all off. Desiring-machines are torment to the paranoiac,” in his reading notes on the book. Smith has always been distinguished with his revulsion for humanity. He “can’t stand the smell.” He has to disconnect from the Matrix and take out his earpiece to describe all the ways in which he cannot tolerate humanity. His progression from agent of the system to free-floating virus is one of continuous refusal to tolerate, of pushing back against desires, of refusal.

Smith’s multiplication of himself is the paranoiac screaming of, “Yes me. Me, me, me!” His hatred of freedom, of desire, of the movement of humanity off in all directions, is to push back, to homogenize and level everything out. He wants to make everything into Smith because that would give him some relief from the stink. Of course this anti-desire arises as a form of desire too. Smith wants because he wants an end to wanting. But Neo is not ready to understand his conflict with Smith, nor has Smith been positioned for his own resolution yet so their conversation is cut short and they have their first fight.

The Burly Brawl, the fight that results from this, is the moment that a lot of audiences believed the Matrix sequels lost the plot. The fight escalates and escalates to a bizarre degree as Neo and smith go from wrestling, boxing and rugby scrum to increasingly unlikely movements and behaviours. Neo’s appearance becomes increasingly digital, the artificiality of the scene becoming increasingly clear.

The initial read a person might give here would be to propose that the Wachowski’s reach exceeded their grasps. Remember that 2003 was the same year that Ang Lee’s Hulk came out. Spider-Man was one year old and its sequel would not come out for another year. Live-action comic book movies with CGI action sequences were in their infancy and the Wachowski sisters, in their hubris, attempted to put together a fight where a person with all the power of Superman has a martial-arts brawl with hundreds of identical clones of his nemesis. An attempt of a fight scene with this scope of digital manipulation didn’t become a significant part of the visual lexicon of action cinema until nearly a decade later. The idea of the empowered hero battling off waves upon waves of identical enemies may now be something of a cliche – but that is more a testament of Marvel to run a good idea fully into the ground than of any sort of extended history. However, despite the reasonableness of this proposition regarding the Burly Brawl this doesn’t quite fit with the action.

There’s a moment in the Burly Brawl when Neo pulls a signpost out of the ground to use as a staff. It comes out with a huge cap of concrete attached to it and this whole moment is fully a break from the real. There is no way a person could rip a pole out that way, there’s no way a person could do so especially with a neat cylinder of concrete ready to shatter in a special effect. Once Neo takes the staff up his motions become uncanny. This is the moment where the fight seems to go off the rails. But it also represents an increasing escalation in the action. More smiths. More flying. More slow-mo. More everything. The fight gets excessive to the point of cartoonishness quickly enough, and then keeps going, even inserting the infamous bowling pin noise into the audio when Neo uses one Smith to knock over a crowd of other Smith.

Neo’s increasingly unnatural movement, the way his clothes fail to act like clothes in the scene, all of this could be written off as the limits of CGI in 2003. But that sound? It’s a tell. And characterized by Neo literally uprooting a signpost at the start of the uncanny sequence seems too obvious a tell to disregard. We should perhaps view this fight instead through the lens of what the Oracle told Neo in the scene prior. The question isn’t did the Wachowskis choose to make this fight deliberately artificial so much as why was this fight so artificial?

I think the Wachowskis are trying to do, with Smith, what Seraph does with Neo in the fight prior to the Oracle conversation and identify the person in the fight. You don’t truly know somebody until you fight them Seraph says. This is a trap for Neo because Smith in the sequels is categorically not the Agent Smith of the first film. Neo might think he knows Smith but until they fight he would be wrong. And Smith is uncanny – he fits into Fisher’s definition of the weird. He is an unexplained presence, a presence that should not be present. Making Neo’s interaction with Smith so explicitly uncanny is a reinforcement of the impact he has on the world. Smith makes the world feel wrong, reality warps and bends around him because of his wrongness. This echoes the Matrix Revolutions when we see the following exchange regarding Smith’s impact on the Matrix:

Sparks: Yeah, that’d be swell. You can clean the windshield while you’re at it. Uplinks are in place, I’m bringing her back online. Looking good, except, uh… something wrong with the Matrix feed.

(Hammer: main deck)
AK: No, there’s not. You’re looking at what we’re looking at.
Sparks (v.o.): What the hell’s going on in there?
Link: Whatever it is, it can’t be good.

This sense of unreality doesn’t just pervade the fight between Neo and Smith though. It’s present throughout Neo’s depictions within the Matrix. His clothes never move quite right, they seem more like the idea of clothes than like actual clothing. This strange costuming extends to Morpheus and Trinity. Trinity looks alien throughout these two films when she’s within the Matrix. As a person in the real, she’s got emotion, passion, humanity. But her residual self-image is not this. She has a static blank-faced expression, severe, calculating. Her glasses are too big and too dark, her leather outfits too reflective. Morpheus also becomes a reflecting surface with clearly CGI-enhanced patterns constantly gleaming off his sunglasses. This strangeness clings to these three and does not infect the other rebels. Niobe, her crew and all the rest seem human within the Matrix. Neo, Trinity and Morpheus do not. They seem out of place. This seems to hint at a kind of gnostic sense of reality, as if proximity to the One is contagious. If Smith has become Weird it is in part because Neo is.

The Merovingian

The Smith fight acts as the transition to the meeting with the Merovingian. This is the powerful man who wants more power – he is a program who presents himself as a king, a gang boss, a god of death. His wife is Persephone. He owns two properties: Le Vrai (The True or, in a Baudrillardian sense, The Real). The Merovingian challenges the idea of choice in his discourse on the issue, saying:

 Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without. Look there, at that woman. My God, just look at her. Affecting everyone around her, so obvious, so bourgeois, so boring. But wait… Watch – you see, I have sent her dessert, a very special dessert. I wrote it myself. It starts so simply, each line of the program creating a new effect, just like poetry. First, a rush… heat… her heart flutters. You can see it, Neo, yes? She does not understand why – is it the wine? No. What is it then, what is the reason? And soon it does not matter, soon the why and the reason are gone, and all that matters is the feeling itself. This is the nature of the universe. We struggle against it, we fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense, it is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely out of control. Causality. There is no escape from it, we are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the `why.’ `Why’ is what separates us from them, you from me. `Why’ is the only real social power, without it you are powerless. And this is how you come to me, without `why,’ without power. Another link in the chain. But fear not, since I have seen how good you are at following orders, I will tell you what to do next. Run back, and give the fortune teller this message: Her time is almost up. Now I have some real business to do, I will say adieu and goodbye.

The Merovingian remains close to the Oracle in his position. He positions understanding of “why” as the root of power. Where he mostly differs from the Oracle is in his understanding of time. There’s a cyberneticism to his idea that positions everything as a causal sequence of events. If you can disentangle the cause of one of these causal chains you have power. Without that knowledge of the cause you are powerless – simply another step in the sequence. The Oracle recognizes that, materially, the Merovingian has power. He controls buildings, he controls people, programs. He collects useful things. He wills things and they are done. But because the Merovingian doesn’t understand time he misses the significance of understanding. Instead he divides the world into the powerful and the unimportant. The Merovingian’s causal mono-directionality might allow for feedback to occur – we see that in the games he plays with Persephone – but that’s all volition can ever be: the games of the powerful.

Neo gets trapped in one of these games as Persephone promises to help him get the Keymaker in a minor act of vengeance for the Merovingian’s manipulation of the “beautiful woman” – who he’s manipulated into a sexual encounter via his example of control. Persephone is also a powerful person. She understands exactly why she is helping Neo. She’s doing it to anger her husband. This works on multiple levels in the story, both acting as a reinforcement of the Merovingian’s thesis on control, advancing the action of the plot and introducing a commentary on the games that the powerful play with the lives of the powerless. It’s not entirely untrue that Neo doesn’t have power when he approaches the Merovingian. The Oracle has explained that Neo doesn’t understand why he has always already decided whether to save Trinity and that he must come to that understanding to progress. The Merovingian merely denies Neo will ever have the opportunity to understand; he creates a form of class privilege on understanding wherein only power can attract power.

The Architect

The final discourse on control, choice and time comes between Neo and the Architect. There is another action sequence prior to the conversation. It admirably shows us that Morpheus has grown as a person – that he has become more like Neo by being with Neo. It also gives us the opportunity to see the Wachowskis realizing cliches like the katana that can cut through a tank (or at least an SUV).

This action scene also brings us back to the initiatory action from Neo’s dream: we see Smith interfere with the plans of Neo and his team and we see Trinity forced to descend like an alien in black leather to the situation that will lead to her possible doom. With Trinity thus engaged in her fated moment, Neo opens a door and encounters the Architect.

Before we talk too much about the Architect I think it’s important to clarify a misconception about his discourse: The Architect is textually wrong. Every prediction he makes is incorrect. By the end of The Matrix Revolutions he is thoroughly repudiated and as such I don’t think we can take anything he says, about the capability of the Machines, the history of the world, any of it, as absolute truth. The Architect exists to be wrong. But Neo doesn’t know that when he first meets the program. The Architect is deeply focused on the inevitability of determinism and everything he says is viewed through that lens. While the Architect’s argument is important to the story, and is significant, the significance of it lies in Neo’s rejection of it. I believe what caused the misunderstanding of the Architect’s role has to do with a conversation Neo has later in the film:

Morpheus: I don’t understand it. Everything was done as it was supposed to be done. Once The One reaches the Source, the war should be over.
Neo: In 24 hours it will be.
Morpheus: What?
Neo: If we don’t do something in 24 hours, Zion will be destroyed.
Link: What?
Trinity: How do you know that?
Neo: I was told it would happen.
Morpheus: By whom?
Neo: It doesn’t matter. I believed him.

The first thing to keep in mind is Neo’s qualification, “if we don’t do something.” What he believes is that the Machines have the capacity to destroy Zion and have made a choice to initiate the destruction of Zion. However if Neo believed in the determinism of Smith or the Architect then there’d be not talk of doing anything. The die would be cast. It would be destiny.

However I think it’s also important to remember that Neo is not a character who operates as an authorial insert. There isn’t any one character in The Matrix who exists to address the audience on behalf of the author. Because The Matrix Reloaded is structured as a series of discourses in which Neo talks to a person and learns something, even expository characters are complicated here. We have Hamann, the Oracle, Smith, the Merovingian and Persephone and we have the Architect. Each of these characters (much like Rama Kandra, Sati, the Oracle, Trinity and Smith in The Matrix Revolutions) contributes to the audience’s understanding and to Neo’s understanding simultaneously. Neo may be checking in with the audience here to encourage the audience to believe the Architect in the moment but he has no authority to make the claim. He’s learning, just like us.

So the question becomes what wrong-path is the Architect leading us down, and why might he be leading us in this direction?

Architect: Denial is the most predictable of all human responses, but rest assured, this will be the sixth time we have destroyed it, and we have become exceedingly efficient at it.
The function of the One is now to return to the Source, allowing a temporary dissemination of the code you carry, reinserting the prime program. After which, you will be required to select from the Matrix 23 individuals – 16 female, 7 male – to rebuild Zion. Failure to comply with this process will result in a cataclysmic system crash, killing everyone connected to the Matrix, which, coupled with the extermination of Zion, will ultimately result in the extinction of the entire human race.
Neo: You won’t let it happen. You can’t. You need human beings to survive.
Architect: There are levels of survival we are prepared to accept. However, the relevant issue is whether or not you are ready to accept the responsibility of the death of every human being on this world. It is interesting, reading your reactions. Your 5 predecessors were, by design, based on a similar predication – a contingent affirmation that was meant to create a profound attachment to the rest of your species, facilitating the function of the One. While the others experienced this in a very general way, your experience is far more specific – vis a vis love.
Neo: Trinity.
Architect: Apropos, she entered the Matrix to save your life, at the cost of her own.
Neo: No.
Architect: Which brings us at last to the moment of truth, wherein the fundamental flaw is ultimately expressed, and the anomaly revealed as both beginning and end. There are two doors. The door to your right leads to the Source, and the salvation of Zion. The door to your left leads back to the Matrix, to her and to the end of your species. As you adequately put, the problem is choice. But we already know what you are going to do, don’t we? Already, I can see the chain reaction – the chemical precursors that signal the onset of an emotion, designed specifically to overwhelm logic and reason – an emotion that is already blinding you from the simple and obvious truth. She is going to die, and there is nothing you can do to stop it.
Hope. It is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength and your greatest weakness.

The Architect experiences choice as the remainder of an unbalanced equation. However he also believes that the function of the One is to bring that equation to balance. The One is “both the beginning and end.” We can see that in the infectious artificiality that surrounds Neo. Trinity and Morpheus aren’t just stronger, faster and more capable of superhuman feats than they were before. Morpheus fights an upgraded Agent to a stand-still during the highway chase and what Trinity does when she engages her doomed raid is straight-up impossible. But it goes beyond their capabilities and into the way their residual self images have become more abstract. When Neo first awakens in the Matrix, he becomes coated in mirror-stuff but Morpheus and Trinity have become like mirrors in their appearance. There’s a reflectivity to them – Trinity’s leather suit gleams, Morpheus’s glasses are far more reflective than they should be. This digitally affected costuming echoes the abstraction of Neo’s almost-clerical garb.

Notice how the second costume is like an abstraction of the first.

That these changes are most evident in those people who are closest to Neo, his lover and his mentor, is important here thematically. But it goes beyond this – it is increasingly hard for the sleeping people of the Matrix to remain ignorant of the artificiality of their world when Superman in Jesuit drag is rocketing around all the time. Harder still once Smith starts his campaign of assimilation. But the Architect attempts to resolve this via a rigid dialectical negation. Neo will do these things because he must. The only choice presented is to allow the lover to die or to risk extinction one day later. The logical decision is obvious.

And Neo doesn’t make it. Instead he reinserts himself into the Matrix without obeying the Architect and he rescues Trinity.

Trinity: I’m sorry.
Neo: Trinity. Trinity, I know you can hear me. I’m not letting go. I can’t. I love you too damn much.

Neo is not able to make the logical choice the Architect expects because he loves Trinity. And he explicitly says that he cannot. Not that he doesn’t want to: he can’t let go of her. This idea, that Neo is constrained in his choices by love will become a very important key to how the Matrix Revolutions addresses the problematics laid out by The Matrix Reloaded.

All in all the structure of the Matrix Reloaded as a series of dialogs presents us with a clear matrix of ideas regarding interlocking themes: choice, time, control, consequence, love and hope are forced into a series of interactions. Is time a sequence of actions and reactions or a geometric substrate to being? If time is this or that what does it mean for choice? What is the nature of control, is it a relationship of domination and subjugation, or is it something of a mutual relationship? How does love affect choice? Is there reason to ever hope? This film can be seen as frustrating because it ultimately defers the answers. There is a line of compatibility that ties Hamann to the Oracle, that ties the Oracle to the Merovingian, that ties the Merovingian to the Architect and the Architect to Smith. Certainly we see where our alliances are supposed to lie – there is a variance in the hostility of the dialogs that goes from the mutual fondness Neo and Hamann hold for each other, the tenuous regard Neo and the Oracle have for each other, the grudging respect the Merovingian and Neo hold for each other through the threats Neo and the Architect trade to the outright violence of his encounter with Smith. But the multifaceted nature of the dialogs makes it difficult to say, “this is the right answer to this problem.” This is what leads to the confused interpretations of the conclusion of the film wherein audiences side with the Architect and believe him, as Neo does, of the existential threat that faces Zion. But ultimately we don’t know. We cannot know. We’re provided with a lot of opinions but no textual answers. You cannot look at the Matrix Reloaded as any more complete a film than Alita: Battle Angel. The only difference is that the Wachowskis, unlike Robert Rodriguez, had the opportunity to finish the movie when they released The Matrix Revolutions.

The Matrix Revolutions

At the end of The Matrix Reloaded Neo tells Morpheus that the One is just another control mechanism. This is largely derived from his encounter with the Architect who is persuasive in his argument that Neo is just that on the basis of a snooty attitude and Neo’s own doubts about what the Oracle is really attempting to do. We’ve established throughout the first two films in the series a few interconnected concepts: in the first film Trinity helps Neo survive being killed by Smith through her declaration of love. In the second, Neo saves Trinity because he loves her, with a declaration of that love, even though this might be dooming the human race to extinction within a day.

We have also established that there were at minimum one One prior to Neo and possibly as many as five depending on how willing we are to accept the narrative of the Machines over that of Zion. We have established that the Machines have decided to destroy Zion even though doing so would likely destroy the machines when the Matrix failed thanks to the meddling of Neo and Smith in it. It is worth noting though that the situation established at the start of The Matrix Revolutions calls back to Hamann’s problematizing of control in the first film. Certainly Zion could smash the machines that run the city but it would kill everyone. The Machines could kill Zion knowing that the Matrix is failing, but it would kill everyone, including the Machines.

The machines expect an eternal recurrence – that the One will arise, that the One will obey the Architect and reset the Matrix but now Neo has done something different. Furthermore the presence of Smith is, “not exactly,” how it went before. Neo discovers his abilities to interact with the code of the Machines has bled out of the Matrix. His encounter with the Architect has given him access to “the Source” – the central network of Machine communication distinct from the Matrix. But his use of the Source to destroy a Sentinel renders him unconscious and he awakens in a subway station in time for yet another piece of the discursive buildup to the conclusion of the Matrix movies.

Sati

Sati and her family are one of the most perplexing additions to The Matrix Revolutions. Her father, Rama-Kandra, is briefly seen leaving Le Vrai in The Matrix Reloaded but he’s a fleeting presence, a background character.

He’s waiting in the subway station with his wife Kamala and his daughter Sati. They expect a servant of the Merovingian, the Train Man, to come for them soon and Rama-Kandra explains that this was why he was speaking with the Merovingian in the previous movie. His daughter is a program created without a purpose. Lacking a purpose, she will be deleted and escape into the Matrix is the only way he can prevent the destruction of his daughter, who he loves.

Neo: I just have never…
Rama-Kandra: …heard a program speak of love?
Neo: It’s a… human emotion.
Rama-Kandra: No, it is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies. I see that you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?
Neo: Anything.

For Rama-Kandra, “the power plant systems manager for recycling operations,” Neo’s love is a plain and visible fact. And he sees love not as an emotion but as a symbol implying connections, ties that bind. It’s unnecessary for Rama-Kandra to feel emotions as a biochemical response for him to understand what love is because he understands that the connection love represents matters and he will take lengths to protect it. Neo continues talking with Sati and her family and Rama-Kandra remarks that the Train Man is uncharacteristically late. Neo speculates that it might be something to do with him and we get the second significant part of this dialog:

Neo: You know the Oracle?
Rama-Kandra: Everyone knows the Oracle. I consulted with her before I met with the Frenchman. She promised she would look after Sati after we said goodbye.
Neo: Goodbye? You’re not staying with her?
Rama-Kandra: It is not possible. Our arrangement with the Frenchman was for our daughter only. My wife and I must return to our world.
Neo: Why?
Rama-Kandra: That is our karma.
Neo: You believe in karma?
Rama-Kandra: Karma’s a word. Like ‘love.’ A way of saying ‘what I am here to do.’ I do not resent my karma – I’m grateful for it. Grateful for my wonderful wife, for my beautiful daughter. They are gifts. And so I do what I must do to honour them.

When he announces that he does not resent his karma, that he is instead grateful for the things in his life, including his wife and daughter, Rama-Kandra explicitly ties purpose, previously tied to fate, determinism and causality directly to love. He doesn’t hate his fate – it’s a gift to honour. And yet the object of Rama-Kandra’s love is a being without purpose in Sati. It’s clear that a choice has been made, but it’s a choice that paradoxically venerates doing what one ought.

In The Joyful Wisdom (often also known as the Gay Science), Friedrich Nietzsche said, “I shall thus be one of those who beautify things. Amor fati: let that henceforth be my love! I do not want to wage war with the ugly. I do not want to accuse, I do not want even to accuse the accusers. Looking aside, let that be my sole negation! And all in all, to sum up: I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer!” This concept, Amor Fati, literally means love of fate. Nietzsche believed that in an infinite time span all things would eventually repeat an infinite number of times. In his view we were each fated to live out the same life an infinite number of times – to make the same choices and to do the same deeds. It was not that we were compelled by a creator to do this. It was simply a property of the endless expanse of the universe, the endless bounds of time. This has much the same consequence as the Infinite Improbability Drive of the Hitchhiker’s Guide stories except extrapolated farther. Not only is the specific improbability of a sequence of events something that never will reach ∞ but also as that improbability will always be finite within an infinite universe its frequency thus become ∞ too. Faced with such absurdity the best hope one has for sanity is to affirm that one lives the life one has. After all you’re going to be living that life in exactly the same way over and over again anyway. You might as well enjoy it.

But let’s return to Rama-Kandra’s dialog because his love of his fate isn’t sufficient to resolve the paradox of a program without a purpose if Rama-Kandra’s satisfaction with existence is Amor Fati how can a being without a purpose contribute to that. Is she not without a fate?

We could consider the possibility that Sati has a purpose and that Sati’s purpose is to be an object of love but considering the role she plays at the end of the film I don’t think that’s right. After the action of the movie is all over Sati is there at the end and she repaints the sky of the Matrix, replacing the overcast green haze with a glorious technicolor sunrise. Sati has a purpose and that purpose is to inject change.

This is a consequence of Nietzsche’s eternal return that plays interestingly with the Oracle’s compatibilism. Because if the universe is infinite and this is the basis for the infinite repetition of the same life, there will also be an infinite number of recurrences that are different. We are fated to live the same life over and over and also every one of its possible variations. This time Sati paints the sky.

An accompanying concept to the eternal return and to Amor Fati within Nietzsche is the Will to Power. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche says, ” philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to “creation of the world,” the will to the causa prima.” The will to the causa prima – the first cause. Will to Power is for Nietzsche a natural condition of living. It’s the basis from which Deleuze later proposes an affirmative difference. The will to power is the emergence of being out of nothingness. It is the first mover before all other causes that creates itself.

And if this is what Sati represents – this cause – then we are binding love not just to love of fate and resignation but to causation. With Sati we see the first hint of a solution to the questions of choice, determinism, and understanding from the prior film. Perhaps these connections, these manifestations of love, are what arise timelessly to initiate causal chains. Perhaps there hasn’t been one prior One nor five. But an infinite chain of Ones stretching forward and backward in all directions, bound to their fate to awaken humanity and to destroy humanity by the tension between love of fate and the will to power.

Zee and Link

Zee: They’ve called for volunteers to hold the dock.
Cas: *to the kids* Kids, you stay here. *to Zee* I know how you feel, Zee, but you can’t do that.
Zee: I have to.
Cas: Why?
Zee: Because I love him. [I love him the same as] he loves me. And if I were out there and he were here, I know he would be doing the same thing.
Cas: But you’re gonna get yourself killed. It’s crazy, Zee.
Zee: Maybe it is. But ask yourself, if it were Dozer, and you knew the only chance you had to see him again was to hold the dock, what would you do?
Cas: Make shells.

Zee is similar to Rama-Kandra in that she is another character who existed on the edges of The Matrix Reloaded. She was more present than him, the home and hearth to which Link returns for a painfully brief respite, a chance to understand who he is and how he connects to the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar. But, along with Link and Kid she becomes a central character in The Matrix Revolutions. Zee remains behind when Zion is evacuated. She makes shells. Then she serves as the loader in an infantry team – plugging the shells into an rocket launcher for Charra to fire. She’s the one who loads the shells that fell the digger mech and she’s the one who survives when sentinels finally kill Charra. Zee is animated by the singular goal of love. Everything she does: staying on the dock, rescuing Kid, opening the gate, is for the chance to be reunited with Link.

Zee has no deep philosophical dialog with Neo. There’s no moment where her opinions are put into a point and counter-point model. But even so her purpose in the story is clear. She is a living and breathing exemplar of the will that underlies love. Zee isn’t a warrior. She doesn’t serve on a rebel ship. She has no special training in combat. She goes into a meat grinder of a battle that kills countless people. We Charra and so many other infantry soldiers carried off by sentinels, impaled or cut to pieces. We see Captain Mifune and his squad of power-armor anti-materiel units cut to pieces. There is so much death. And yet Zee is untouched. She is propelled by her love, armored by it.

Zee demonstrates precisely how powerful the Wachowskis see love in the context of this discourse just by her lived example. Rama-Kadran and Sati might be able to comment on what love means but Zee shows how it feels. And it isn’t all good times. She’s reunited with Link at the end of the world. All her fighting, all the trauma she goes through, seeing Charra die, seeing the fall of the dock and the vast army of the Machines it’s all so that she can die together with the man she loves instead of apart. It’s all so that she can see him one last time. And she does! And they live! But imagine being Zee in that moment. Imagine seeing all that horrible monstrosity arrayed against you and knowing you were very likely not going to live another day. Imagine, despite all that, spitting in the face of despair and carrying on because even the smallest time with the one you love is worth the whole world. There’s an echo of Amor Fati here too. As Camus said, “What else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord?” Love exposes one to terrors and opens one up to pain. Zee lives not for herself but for Link. She throws herself into the face of death because she loves him. All that terror and pain is a black thread that she must bind to the white thread of her love. She can exclude nothing. If her only chance to see Link again, even just to see him a last time, is to make shells and hold the dock then she will make shells and she will hold the dock.

Trinity

Trinity: You want to make a deal, how about this? You give me Neo, or we all die right here, right now.
Merovingian: Interesting deal. You are really ready to die for this man?
Trinity: *cocks gun* Believe it.
Persephone: She’ll do it. If she has to, she’ll kill every one of us. She’s in love.
Merovingian: It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.
Trinity: Time’s up. What’s it gonna be, Merv?

Trinity loves Neo. If there is one thing the Matrix trilogy is universally consistent about, that is never doubted and never challenged then it’s that Trinity loves Neo. Cypher saw it when he commented that Trinity never brought him dinner during the second act of The Matrix. Trinity affirmed it moments before Cypher is shot by Tank, whispering that, yes, she believes Neo is the One, fully aware that the Oracle told her she would, “fall in love, and that man, the man that I loved, would be the One.” Trinity’s enunciation of her love is what allows Neo to awaken into his power and defeat Smith. Love is a connection of course and so the reciprocation of that love, Neo’s love for Trinity is why he rejects the Architect’s instructions and returns to the Matrix to save her.

So it’s no surprise when Neo announces his suicide mission that Trinity insists on coming too. ” I know. You don’t think you’re coming back. I knew it the moment you said you had to leave. I could see it in your face. Just like you knew the moment you looked at me that I was coming with you.” There’s no doubt there. Like Zee, Trinity needs to weave the black thread and the white together into a single cord. The Merovingian calls love something like insanity. It’s an irrational choice but it is a choice that Trinity makes again and again, it is a choice that Neo makes. It’s the choice that Zee makes and this choice, this decision to love, to open oneself to love in all its beauty and terror is both the resignation to fate and the causa prima of all choice. The will to love is an irrational choice to bind yourself to another no matter the cost.

Trinity dies in the mission to the Machine city. But before she does, she sees the sun and it’s beautiful. As she lies dying she gives her final words to Neo:

Trinity: Do you remember… on that roof after you caught me… the last thing I said to you?
Neo: You said: “I’m sorry.”
Trinity: That was my last thought. I wished I had one more chance, to say what really mattered, to say how much I loved you, how grateful I was for every moment I was with you. But by the time [I knew I’d] said what I wanted to, it was too late. But you brought me back. You gave me my wish. One more chance to say what I really wanted to say… Kiss me, once more. Kiss me.

As in the case of Rama-Kandra’s dialog about love, karma and gratitude, Trinity talks about how grateful she was to have the chance to tell Neo what she really wanted to say. She follows her love into a death that she sees coming but she’s grateful because she was doing it out of love. Love is simultaneously a power that moves mountains, that paints the sky in many vibrant colours and a surrender. Kierkegaard understands love as a surrender, in Works of Love he says, “The emotion {love} is not your own expression but belongs to the other; its expression is his due since you in your emotion belongs to him who causes the emotion.” And so Trinity gives herself over to Neo in her love. Zee gives herself over to Link. When Nietzsche or Camus talk about Amor Fati – this affirmation of the life you have lived and will live – love fits within this perfectly in its form as surrender.

All the travails that Zee and Trinity go through are given over to another. One lives the other dies but neither has reason for anything but gratitude: not to a god, Kierkegaard might have sought that but Nietzsche and Camus did not, but to the object of love – the beloved person. Trinity gives herself over to Neo in love – but doing so is her choice. It will always already be her choice to surrender to love because she loves Neo. Love then becomes a principal expression of the Will to Power – the causa prima – that is eternally inserted into being and in doing so creates the possibility of difference within the tyranny of the infinite.

Smith

Smith: The great and powerful Oracle. We meet at last. I suppose you’ve been expecting me, right? The all-knowing Oracle is never surprised. How can she be, she knows everything. But If that’s true, then why is she here? If she knew I was coming, why didn’t she leave? *sweeps plate of cookies off table* Maybe you knew I was going to do that, maybe you didn’t. If you did, that means you baked those cookies and set that plate right there deliberately, purposefully. Which means you’re sitting there also deliberately, purposefully.
Oracle: What did you do with Sati?
Smith/Sati: Cookies need love like everything does.
Smiths: *laugh*
Oracle: You are a bastard.
Smith: You would know, Mom.
Oracle: Do what you’re here to do.
Smith: Yes, ma’am.
Smith/Oracle: *laughs maniacally*

Smith doesn’t understand love. He mocks the Oracle when they come face to face about love, about the Oracle’s statement to Sati that cookies need love. His way of showing that he has taken Sati and made her like him too. “Yes me, me, me, me,” is all Smith knows and because of that inward look he fails to understand love even to the extent of the Merovingian. The Merovingian, obsessed with causality, is unable to see the irrationality of love as being the cause at the root of things, and so it looks insane to him. To Smith even that level of awareness is impossible. There’s just that paranoiac reaction against sensation, against desire. Paranoiac machines are the producers of anti-production, the reaction against the injury desire does to the surface of potentiality. Love is bound up in desire, in the tangle of lives. The stink of the human is all over love and he can’t stand it. Smith is incapable of self-love any more than he is of loving another. Love demands surrender and there’s nothing of surrender in Smith, just the monomaniacal desire to level everything out, to make things quiet, to get rid of the smell.

He confronts Neo twice in the film. During the first confrontation he is wearing the rebel Bane:

Bane: Yes.. That’s it, Mr. Anderson. Look past the flesh, look through the soft gelatin of these dull cow eyes and see your enemy.
Neo: No.
Bane: Oh yes, Mr. Anderson.
Neo: It can’t be.
Bane: There’s nowhere I can’t go, there’s nowhere I won’t find you.
Neo: It’s impossible.
Bane: Not impossible. Inevitable. Goodbye, Mr. Anderson.

His hatred of flesh and his obsession with inevitability continue to define him. Neo is shocked to see Smith wearing flesh but the code within is all too clear to him. He sees Smith. But Smith cannot see Neo. Not really. He can’t understand him just as he can’t understand the Oracle. The Merovingian tells Trinity that the eyes of the Oracle can only be given, not taken by force. And yet when the Oracle tells Smith, “do what you’re here to do,” he doesn’t blink. He just takes without considering why what he took might have been given. Because Smith cannot understand love, because desire is injurious to him, he cannot ever become the prime mover. The Paranoiac machine is a reactive apparatus. So while Smith is able to remark that this time is different, he is unable to be the mover of change. The Merovingian sees those with power as being those who understand the first cause of a chain of events and Smith, absent an understanding of love, cannot come to that understanding. Smith cannot see past the decisions he does not understand any more than Neo or the Oracle could. As such his iron-clad certainty in inevitability is missing the complex topography of fate and choice for the trees.

Smith falls into total nihilism as a result of this fundamental failure of understanding. “The purpose of  life is to end,” he says, but he is ignorant of the other side of the equation of the eternal return: that all death leads to life. Bone meal helps flowers grow. Nothing is ever still and the paranoiac machine will eventually be syphoned off by another machine that will in turn link back to desire. It’s cyclical – a revolution of a different sort in the turning of a wheel. Smith and Neo fight and Smith believes with iron certainty that he will win. He’s seen it: “we already know that I’m the one that beats you.”

But even so Neo keeps fighting. No matter how often Smith knocks him down, Neo gets back up.

Smith/Oracle: Why, Mr. Anderson, why? Why, why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something, for more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is, do you even know? Is it freedom or truth, perhaps peace – could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself. Although, only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson, you must know it by now! You can’t win, it’s pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Anderson, why, why do you persist?
Neo: Because I choose to.

Here at last Will to Power is laid bare. Neo makes the choice to get back up. He takes the pain and the fear, the love and the striving, the beauty and terror of the world, he takes it all and he chooses to affirm it. He will not say no. He will be only a yea-sayer. Choice arises out of the facticity of our situation. We may be fated to make the same choices again and again across the aeons but now, within this frame, we can choose. We have that terrifying freedom to irrationally disregard the bars of our cage and say, “yes.” Neo’s last line in the Matrix trilogy is, “You were right, Smith. You were always right. It was inevitable.” He denies nothing. He affirms everything: the choice and the inevitable, causality and irrationality. All of it is true, all of it is compatible. It is an absurd resolution to an absurd premise but it is also an inevitable end. The Matrix trilogy describes the Oracle making a great wager against the Architect – that the human and the irrational matter: that there is purpose in the purposeless. Sati is the future for the machines. She’s created without a purpose and so she creates her own. She creates beauty out of love. A gift for Neo. Sati asks if Neo will return and the Oracle says she suspects so. She doesn’t know. The eternal return exists and we must learn to love fate in order to make any sort of peace with our facticity but that’s not the whole story. People make choices, difference arises. The same infinity that demands the eternal return also demands transformation. The wheel of being turns but we are not crushed beneath it. We can choose to get up, to affirm it all, to weave our cord of white and black thread and have gratitude for our surrender to love.