I wish to dedicate my second blog post to the part of our presentation on The Matrix and Baudrillard that we did not have time to cover, that is, the problematization of the system of the sign. I will try to answer our own question, which goes: how does the movie reinterpret and play with the system of the sign (referent, signifier, signified) previously discussed in Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation?
In order to start thinking about this, I want to bring up the part of the movie we intended to show to the class, which was the “Tastee Wheat” scene, initiated by Mouse:
“(Mouse to Neo) Did you ever eat Tastee Wheat?
(Switch) No but technically neither did you.
(Mouse) That’s exactly my point! Exactly! Because you have to wonder: how did the machines really know what Tastee Wheat tasted like, uh? Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe what I think Tastee Wheat tasted like actually tasted like oatmeal or tuna fish. That makes you wonder about a lot of things. You take chicken for example. Maybe they could not figure out what to make chicken taste like, which is why chicken tastes like everything!”
Interestingly, what appears, at first, to be a trivial conversation about everyday food is in fact highly significant and hides another level of meaning; the way I understand it is that, given the configuration of the world featured in the movie (Matrix/desert of the real), the machines have no way to know the original taste of food (like Tastee Wheat) for the very reason that, since they have no origin in the Western civilization. As Donna Haraway explained:
“…the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense… an origin story in the… humanist sense [that] depends on the myth of original unity, fullness, bliss and terror, represented by the phallic mother from whom all humans must separate, the task of individual development and of history.” (292)
Therefore, the machines – or cyborgs – have no original reality to base their knowledge on. The way it complicates the system of the sign is that in a world where simulacra have replaced originals, where representations have replaced reality, there are no referents anymore, just signifieds and signifiers, void of their referents. Significantly, Agent Smith himself points out later in the film in reference that the first matrix failed because “we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world”. Although Smith refers to human needs here, he nevertheless unveils a crucial element: there is indeed a problem with language, and this linguistic disruption is at the source of everything. The machines have no access to the referent because there is none. The signifier, on the contrary, is stable for the very reason that it is the only element – or code – the machines understand. As for the signified, without referent, there is an endless multitude of interchangeable possibilities (which is why Tastee Wheat can taste like tuna fish for example). In the matrix, only symbols – brand names – exist and they hide the fact that there is no corresponding reality behind it. There is no Tastee Wheat in the real. What is left of food has no taste, it is a “desert of food” (the “snoot” they are eating during the scene) – so I want to argue that, even though they are eating something real, there is no food in the original sense anymore, just a form of fuel. In the end, their conversation about senses (taste – Tastee) is just a way to show that human experience is merely a simulation of reality in The Matrix, as Baudrillard suggests. The machines can only provide a simulation of taste, albeit a deficient one.
Even though the movie does misinterpret Simulacra and Simulation in the sense that the Wachowski Bros feature a “real” outside of the matrix, I want to defend the dexterity with which they manipulated and illustrated such slippery concepts as the ones developped by Baudrillard. To finish this blog post, I want to extrapolate a little and put another question on the table in the light of this discussion: considering Baudrillard’s initial argument is that there is no reality and that we are living in a hyper-reality, how do we know that the food we eat tastes like what it originally tastes like (especially if we consider that most of the food we eat has been processed many times…)? Have we ourselves ever had Tastee Wheat? Or put differently, are we in a hyper-reality?