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.

Art, qualification and risk

When I talk about art, I think it’s important to understand first that I think art is a fundamentally proletarian thing to do. By this, I mean that art is something that all people have the capacity to do, that all people can intrinsically participate in. There is no barrier to entry to be an artist, there are no qualifications required.

Qualification and scholarship

Like any activity that can be undertaken, art has associated skills that can be trained. Art schools, writer’s workshops and such are important for developing those skills, but we should always remain alert to Gramsci‘s warning that the formalization of intellectual life into schools and narrow disciplines serves only hegemony. As artists are schooled and formalized they become intellectuals who, “are the dominant group’s ‘deputies’ exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government.”

Of particular interest to Gramsci is the way in which formal education into hegemonic systems allows for the arising of a false sort of, “spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.”

Or, as Assata Shakur said much more plainly, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.”

As such, while formal schooling in art can lead to the improvement of technical skill and intellectual study which can, in turn, allow an artist to create better art, this is neither a guaranteed path nor one without its dangers. After all, channeling artistic impulses down specific canals cuts off other possible avenues of exploration.

Gramsci and Shakur both believed it was necessary, in a revolutionary context, for the oppressed classes to bring about, within themselves, a specifically proletarian intellectualism that spoke with the voice of the oppressed. This would arise through auto-didacticism, study groups and other forms of mutual and shared communities of study and critique. Within art, this speaks to the necessity of oppressed people to speak in their voice about their struggles. Authors like Barker are critical within queer spaces because their art arises from the dark places of oppression that are the shared understanding of the non-straight to what we now call cisheteronormatvity – the hegemony of desire within the anglosphere that predominated in the late-20th century, when he began writing.

The arising of such queer voices is a necessary and critical thing. And it has been instrumental for weakening the hegemonic power of dominant institutions. However it does not follow that an artist must only speak with their own voice to create good art. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a good work of art. It is thoughtful, thorough and has interesting things to say. Its characters are voiced in a sincere manner that treats them first as realized people rather than tropes. It achieves the principal artistic objective of communicating something novel about the world.

But its credited creators are a pair of white men, despite the subjects of the story being people of colour and mostly girls. There’s no talk of license here. There’s no talk of qualification. It’s not that Barker and his ilk have an exclusive qualification to speak to the queer experience, it’s that those voices that come from within oppressed groups are necessary and deserving of critical and audience attention.

The failure to put own-voice authors forward does not come from artists creating art outside of their lane. It comes from editors, publishers, and critics failing to give them the attention they are due, and it must be viewed as a systemic problem rather than one of an individual, personal, failure. As such, it’s very frustrating to see advice given to artists that they should see themselves as unqualified to create this work or that on the basis of an intrinsic lack. This misses the point of organic scholarship, it, in fact, inverts the relationship and seeks to exclude people from creating art rather than seeking to break down the hegemonic systems that create that exclusion.

The exclusion is, in fact, the problem. Just as factory workers and their experience was excluded from the intellectual games of the bourgeois, so too are the experiences of queer people, women, people of colour, disabled people and people who suffer under systemic oppression excluded from the hegemonic understanding of art on the basis of the superstructure of art. As such, a library administrator who caves to public pressure and cancels drag queen story events and an algorithm trained on a dataset that assumes queer media is intrinsically more adult than heterosexual media are far more pressing problems than a straight artist writing about the gays.

The liberal response is to try and make a bigger tent – to identify those ways in which the existing superstructure can be modified in order to allow the inclusion of previously excluded subjects. This is toward the good as far as it goes. However, these modular adjustments to the superstructure ultimately fail to address the presence of a base condition which will reproduce hegemonic exclusion in new and novel forms. Or which will only allow the inclusion of oppressed voices by taming them and slotting them into a worldview that will not disrupt hegemony.

The Marxist suggestion is to, instead, create a rival superstructure. Gramsci was a university drop-out. He was also deeply and fundamentally committed to working class people making contributions to explicitly working class bodies of knowledge. Gramsci believed we could create an epistemological rupture by operating within these processes of organic scholarship which required, as part of their basis, systems of dissemination, communication, critique and response that had to operate explicitly within the interests of the class of people it served.

To return it to the art world, it was essential not just that there be queer authors but also queer agents, editors, publishers, distributors, booksellers, and in fact queer understandings of the nature of literature and its communication.

Art and quality

Of course although we champion difference within art we cannot reject quality. For this, I want to turn to Kierkegaard. And, especially as this essay is principally situating itself within discussion of queer representation, I do want to start by mentioning that I use Kierkegaard for value here particularly because he represents one of the key antecedents to what we understand as queer theory.

There’s a small body of historicism suggesting that Kierkegaard was, himself, not straight. But he’d caution us away from making any declarative statements about his identity. And this is part of the thing. Kierkegaard saw identity as a matter of deep personal anxiety. Authenticity was a goal but even a person living an authentic life could not be certain they were, in fact, being authentic. Nor could they communicate a state of authenticity to any outside party. Instead, a person had to live with the anxiety and doubt intrinsic to being and to leap over the leveling scythe of (dialectical) reason toward authenticity.

Kierkegaard was worried that dialectics destroyed value. So let’s back up once again to describe what dialectics, and particularly the Hegelian dialectics that informs the Marxists I discussed above, is. The common-repeated mantra of thesis-antithesis-synthesis does not derive from Hegel. Instead it was the work of a contemporary German idealist, Fichte. This error, attributing Fichte’s dialectic to Hegel and via him to Marx and the Marxists has given rise to the hilariously misinformed “problem-reaction-solution” interpretation of dialectics put forward mostly by David Icke. I bring up these mistakes in dialectics because in understanding why Kierkegaard criticized dialectics specifically on the quality of value it is first necessary to understand what the predominant Hegelian dialectic was.

The simplest way to describe the Hegelian dialectic is to imagine a magnet. It has a left pole and a right pole. But it is one magnet. If you cut the magnet in half you get two magnets each with a left and a right pole and not two magnetic monopoles. Hegelian dialectics was in fact a manner of observing how phenomena contain their own negation or opposite such that everything can sort of fold-upward to oneness: a singular universal phenomenon which contains everything and thus is everything.

But if everything is just one then nothing has value. Art, to be valuable within a dialectical model, must also be worthless. This worried Kierkegaard greatly. And it should worry artists too because once we reject that formal artistic training is the source of value in art, as we must if we are to adopt a position that favours organic scholarship, we have to reject that the value of art comes from the labour of formal education. We could decide to assign art a value based on market forces. But I have detailed elsewhere how dependence on a market to define artistic value is corrosive. The challenge before us is to devise an artistic value that allows for difference and that allows for the many.

In the introduction to Difference and Repetition, Deleuze proposes a solution in Kierkegaard that might suffice us here:

Furthermore, if repetition concerns the most interior element of the will, this is because everything changes around the will,
 in accordance with the law of nature. According to the law of nature, repetition is impossible. For this reason, Kierkegaard condemns as aesthetic repetition every attempt to obtain repetition from the laws of nature by identifying with the legislative principle, whether in the Epicurean or the Stoic manner.

Deleuze has a great deal more to say on the topics of difference, and I’ve already alluded to that somewhat through my references to Bataille and Deleuze in previous essays. However for the purpose of establishing a sense that art can have value discrete from market value it is enough to propose a rough draft for a method of assessing good art:

  1. Does it overcome its antinomies sufficiently to communicate a message?
  2. Is the communicated message aesthetically pleasing?
  3. Is the communication novel?
  4. Is the communication authentic?

Grounding art in difference requires us to concede that all art contains within it antinomies that must be reconciled in some way. In Cabal, Lori is the subject who desires. As the book centers around the idea of being monstrous, this situates Lori in the fundamentally queer position of desiring monstrosity, of (if we do away with the metaphor) wanting to be queer. However, in the film adaptation, the scene where Lori tours Midian, which in the book is central for showing us her desire for monstrosity, sits more external and Lori is presented as an intruding outsider, a metaphor for the gentrifying gaze of the hets in love with this strange community, wanting to save it, and damning it in the process. The intertextual relationship between the film and the book are such that this becomes like a magic-eye picture. Once seen her intrusion is there in the book too. Once seen her desire to be a monster is there in the film too.

These different reads of Lori must coexist within the text. And they are at odds with each other but they are not each other’s negation. In both cases, Lori’s desire is central. The difference arises in whether her desire represents a homecoming or an intrusion. And these two are not opposites that negate into unity. If we affirm difference is we must accept that any text will contain such dialectically incomplete contradictions. As such, the irreconcilable and irreducible differences of a text will act as a form of semiotic interference. If the interference is so great that nothing is communicated by the art, it is not good art.

Aesthetic pleasure is a more challenging question as it is bound so closely to subjectivity. I previously touched on the difficulty of assigning beauty in my moral case for spoilers, and I think that using a position of moral judgment may be useful for ascertaining what an aesthetically pleasing communication might resemble. If we deny that there is a clear and delineated boundary between the good and the beautiful we eventually concede that at least some moral arguments are sufficiently aesthetic for them to hold some weight in assigning value to art. However morality, like aesthetics, remains a subjective concern. I might find it morally repugnant to euthanize stray cats. Someone else might find it morally repugnant to keep them alive when they predate local bird populations. We might situate De Beauvoir’s demand that we serve a movement toward an open future as an ethical absolute, especially since it also serves our rejection of the One in favour of difference well; but beyond these highly abstract ethical requirements the ambiguity of the situation interferes and leaves this an area up to the interpretation of the critic to respond and call this or that work good through their ability to articulate their aesthetic response to it.

Squaring the circle of novelty and repetition remains one of my central aesthetic concerns. The truth is that the repetitive and parodic character of art is inescapable. Bataille went so far as to say, “the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another,” and if the whole world is a sequence of parodies then art can hardly escape. So where do we find novelty but in those things that transform within the process of iteration. This is why it is so essential to grasp the loving destruction of the artistic mode of engaging with art. Each artwork is a parody of other art it is, as Bataille said, “the same thing in a deceptive form.” Each artwork however introduces differences, and in the pattern of these differences arises novelty. An artwork must be a transformation and not just a repetition back of precisely the same thing it was before. There is no artistry in disassembling a chair, laying all the pieces out and then reassembling again the precise same chair. Nothing was transformed, it merely underwent a change and then was restored. And so we begin to see a definition of good art accrete out of these definitions: good art creates an aesthetically pleasing pattern of difference from that which came before, and this pattern encodes a message powerful enough to overcome the contradictions that are intrinsic to any system that rejects the One.

But then there is the final question of authenticity – and as you may recall from when I touched on this before – Kierkegaard believes authenticity to be incommunicable and ultimately a vector of self-doubt that can only be overcome through irrational faith. A personal example: as one reading these essays can likely tell I care a great deal about queer representation in art. I am myself openly bisexual and find great significance in exploring those aspects of who I am. However I was closeted for a long time, and being closeted is easy. I married a woman. This isn’t at all uncommon for bisexual men. Many of us are monogamous or at least indifferent enough to the question of monogamy and polyamory to find comfort in a monogamous relationship. And based on simple demography the likelihood that a monogamously-inclined bisexual is to end up in a long-term relationship with a heterosexual partner or with a partner with whom the relationship maintains the veneer of het-passing (IE: with partners who are trans or non-binary but present enough like cis members of the opposite sex to pass and bisexual partners of the opposite sex) is approximately eight times greater than for such a person to end up in a non-het-passing long term relationship assuming the subject has no preferences regarding partner sex or gender whatsoever. Frankly, there’s simply a lot more heterosexuals than there are us queers. While closeted there were occasions when I wanted to submit art to queer calls for work and did not because I didn’t feel my bisexuality was authentic-enough. The truth is that I could have been a member of a sense8 cluster and still probably have reason to doubt if I was queer enough to be in queer spaces because bisexuality is a liminal condition that thrives and sustains itself on the same ambiguity that leaves space for doubt to undermine authenticity.

Nobody but the artist can know whether an artistic expression is authentic and even the artist will have cause to doubt. “Perhaps I only painted it that way because I was watching a video about Matisse, that day. Maybe it’s not really what I meant to make.” And yet, authenticity is necessary for good art.

A critic, called upon to judge a work may very well instead attempt to apply an heuristic. One is to substitute this last question for a reiteration of the second: but did this communication please me? Did I, the audience, have an authentic reaction to it? This is probably the correct approach. The second is to deny that an artist might possibly be authentic. This dismissive attitude says, well it’s just a parody of something better after all. Or it says, this artist couldn’t possibly have made this art. This sort of a priori assumption about authenticity should be avoided by a good critic as the critical moment only arises after exposure to the text.

Risk and the hostile critic

So far this might seem like a defense of problematic art. And it is insofar as my personal aesthetic sentiment is such that art which problematizes nothing is generally boring. Remember to problematize something is to force additional questions, to dig deeper to get to the roots, the mycelia and rhizomatic stems, that undergird the phenomena of the world. However this must not be taken as a defense of bad art nor of systems that allow for the creation of bad art. Frankly most colloquial uses of, “problematic,” could easily be replaced with, “bad,” and would be better arguments for their clarity.

Rather it is a matter of addressing the apportionment of blame. A bad artist is not to blame for failing to realize his art communicates ugly ideas, or communicates in such a muddled way that it communicates nothing, or is just an inferior copy of a better work. A bad artist is even not to be blamed for failing to realize that his work is hollow because, well, we all might be hollow. But presentation of art includes an implicit contract: the artist must be willing to expose their work to the critic and, more horrifying still, to other artists. An artist, who has put out a work of art, has nobody to blame but themselves if critics engage with the art and say cruel things about it. They have nobody to blame but themselves if other artists make cruel transformations. Critics owe art their attention. They owe artists nothing. Art is built upon the violence of transformation and the art community is rarely nice. Although these cruelties and schisms are often decried as being a wrong thing, they are in fact part of what art is. In Desert Islands and Other Texts, Deleuze said, “Good destruction requires love,” and that’s true. Love is as indivisible from art as cruelty, but there is cruelty in these destructive acts, and it, too is indivisible from art.

And now we should return to the idea of a rival superstructure because what we are doing here is effectively an artistic project. The creation of a queer artistic superstructure includes within it the loving destruction of the straight one. And that loving destruction will look like appropriating their queer coded villains, it will look like excluding straights from anthologies and it will look like the sort of critical action that led to Laura Mixon’s wrong-headed and mean-spirited Hugo award winning complaint. It will look like a disregard for copyright law and it will look like a refusal on the part of oppressed artists, critics and fans to accept the demand we behave in accordance with the decorum necessary to be allowed to remain in the big tent.

This, therefore is the artistic gamble:

To move art toward the open future we must deny no artist the right to create art. There is no qualification to be set. There is no barrier to entry. But when hegemony silences oppressed artists, it is right for them to create structures hostile to the hegemonic. As a critic we have a duty to grapple with art before we review and not to pre-judge it. But we likewise have a duty to be cruel when we must. As artists we must love art. And we must destroy it. There is no artistic unity. All that there is, is difference. But herein lies the path to us creating a value for art aside from the market or the demands of formality. By recognizing that some differences please us and others do not, we affirm that art has significance, has meaning, has value that goes beyond numbers in a ledger.