English 738T, Spring 2015
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Author Archives: Justin Thompson

Man, Machine,

Posted by Justin Thompson in Spring 2015 - (2 Comments)

By the end of the third Matrix movie, as Neo is held aloft — Christ-like — by the mechanical tendrils of the machine consciousness, it is clear that, if he were once human, he has now ascended to something greater. He has fused man and machine to become the salvation of both. The question of the boundaries between man and machine are complicated throughout the series (including the fantastic series of shorts, “The Animatrix”) but are, ultimately, lost in the final film’s heady brew of theology, resistance, war, and a drawn-out fight between Neo and Agent Smith that would fit better in a Superman film.

The first film flirts with these ideas. Tank calls Neo “a machine” during his training, and Trinity tells him, after one of the many rooftop fights, that Neo “dodged bullets like them” — “them” referring to the agents, the software entities programmed to protect the Matrix from those who would subvert and destroy it. Neo begins to act more and more like the agents as his abilities within the matrix progress, to the point where he is able to enter another entity. This is a relatively confusing moment, and one that receives surprisingly little attention in the sequels. One of the more dangerous capabilities that the Agents possess is their ability to enter (and thereafter control) any mind that is plugged into the Matrix. It happens again and again, whether they inhabit the body of a helicopter pilot or a homeless man. This omnipresence makes them incredibly dangerous. At the end of the movie, however, we see Neo jump into the “body” of Agent Smith (I use “body” because it is unclear what relationship a purely digital being like Agent Smith has to a simulated corporeal body). Neo enters and implodes the body and, as we learn later, “infects” Agent Smith with some of his power. This is all in addition to the very physical manifestations of Neo’s growth under the machines: the plugs and holes in his arms and back and at the base of his skull.

Once Agent Smith, infected and empowered by his contact with Neo, has overtaken the Matrix, it is Neo who offers himself as a sacrifice that “balances” the program and ends the fighting between the Machines and Zion. Metaphorically, then, the binary opposition between man and machine is solved only through synthesis, a point the films could have asserted more strongly or emphasized through a more literal synthesis between Neo and the machines. Instead, Neo’s martyrdom leads to a ceasefire and an agreement (between the Architect and the Oracle) that those who do not assent to the simulation will be freed. The logical extension to this solution, then, is the creation of two different “races” of human: those willing to continue to live blithely in the Machine’s simulation and those who occupy Zion. It is a world where a figure like Morpheus would no longer have any role to play. But such a world reinscribes the opposition between man and machine and posits a future where those groups will remain separate, discrete civilizations. This new dynamic will actually decrease the amount of interaction, as the freedom fighter/ Agent battles will no longer be necessary.

I’m not sure how to interpret this ending (of the final film). Are the filmmakers purposefully avoiding the creation of a cyborg? Is Neo a cyborg? Donna Harroway would not agree, as Neo is recreating salvation history and does nothing to disrupt that cycle. Always more questions …

Matrix and Baudrillard Questions

Posted by Justin Thompson in Spring 2015 - (0 Comments)
    1. Explain, in your own words, Baudrillard’s concept of the simulation and the simulacrum. Give an example (and feel free to take one of the examples from the book).

    2. What is the real? What is the hyperreal? What does it mean to no longer have referents?

    3. Based on this week’s reading, how do you understand the distinction between real and digital in The Matrix? What role does the gaze or the eyes play in this negotiation?

    4. In his stages of the real (see handout for clarification), is Baudrillard saying that we had access to the real during an earlier historical moment?

    5. What about capitalism (and the industrial revolution before) caused us to lose access to the real?

    6. Baudrillard says that the real no longer exists. Do we agree? What are the implications for philosophy, for art, for technology if Baudrillard is right?

    7. The Matrix goes so far as to name the area where liberated humans are introduced to the idea of the matrix as the “desert of the real.

    8. How does the film interpret Baudrillard? Is the Matrix a simulation? Does that mean Zion (and the machine world) are the real?

    9. What does it mean that “naturally” born characters, like Tank, do not have access to the simulation? Are they more human? Is this possible?

    10. References to religion are numerous in The Matrix. How does the Matrix complicate the concepts of (pro)creation, origin, and finally femininity?

    11. Are the humans in the Matrix actually machines? Where is this line drawn in the movie? What characters transgress these boundaries and what does this mean?

    12. What, ultimately, are the humans defending?

    13. How does the movie reinterpret and play with the system of the sign (referent, signifier, signified) previously discussed in Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation?

    14. How does the Matrix utilize the affordances of the digital environment, as outlined by Murray?

    15. What about the separation between mind and body? How does it affect the notion of the self?

    16. In the world of the Matrix, only the “mind” can enter the simulation, even though choices made in the simulation can affect the body in the real. Is the film endorsing a mind/ body dualism or is it rejecting such philosophy? Or is the discussion more nuanced?

    17. Would Baudrillard take the red pill or the blue pill?

    18. Who was Neo speaking to at the end of the film?

The Human Touch

Posted by Justin Thompson in Spring 2015 - (3 Comments)

When we talk about digital archives and the grand potential of digital media, a part of me cries out in protest. I love books. I love reading books. And I love buying books. There is something about the materiality of books that speaks to me. Two Christmases ago, my family purchased a Kindle for me, expecting that this device would allow me to continue my voracious reading without spending as much money or taking up as much space. Instead, I gave the Kindle to my Mother for Christmas this past year, having finally admitted that I could not abide by its digital demands.
I keep coming back to Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library.” It’s a beautiful work by a true bibliophile. In it, he writes, “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” When I hold a printed book, I am reminded of my younger self (if I have read it before) or am tempted to dream about the potential owners and path this item has taken to reach me. I own several books that are more than 100 years old, and I treasure them, less because of their contents (there are easier ways to access Kipling’s The Jungle Book, for instance) but because of the material history involved. How many hands have held this book? How many owners have lent it to friends or relatives? I know this all sounds a bit idealistic, but this is the mindset I had when class began a few weeks ago. A digital archive was a last resort, a place to find information you could not find in your well-worn copy of whatever volume you were investigating.
Now, after having some experience with archives — The William Blake Archive, the archival function of Romantic Circles, and a short exploration of the Shelley-Godwin Archive — my opinion has changed, albeit only slightly. The William Blake archive, in particular, serves one of the more important functions I envision for any digital trove: that of aggregation. As Neil pointed out, it was rare for Blake scholars to be able to view more than one print of Marriage of Heaven and Hell or The Book of Urizen in a lifetime. With this website, they can view nine extant copies of the same page. There are improvements to be made, of course. The aesthetic of the site, for instance, seems ill-suited to honor a man who so thoroughly combined his artistic and poetic abilities. The prints, or at least how we see them on the website, are flattened. The involved process that Blake employed (and invented) created plates with depth and, ultimately, prints with varying textures and thickness. This flatness robs the prints of some of their beauty and seems to simplify them. We are left with JPEGs of scans of books, several steps removed from the “true” article, as I see it. The Shelley-Godwin Archive then is an improvement on this method. By providing the manuscripts (of Mary Shelley, for example) and then matching those with clearer digital transcriptions, allows us to view the “true” article, the piece that most bears the imprint of a human touch. And, perhaps, that is what I most fear losing as we transition into digital archives.