English 738T, Spring 2015
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Man, Machine,

Posted by Justin Thompson on Thursday, April 2nd, 2015 at 11:46 am

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 …

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2 Responses

  • Sara Lyons says:

    If we take the bare bones definition of Cyborg – part mechanism, part organism – then I would say that Neo is indeed a cyborg. Haraway, for all the other points she makes in the manifesto, provides a simple definition of cyborg, saying “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” I think looking at this definition in the context of the Matrix, and given the points you make here, reveals something about the nature of false/true reality and mechanized/biological bodies. Obviously a “hybrid of machine and organism” would be considered a cyborg, but the presence of a conflation of social reality and fiction is particularly important when it comes to the Matrix, which has both. Indeed, Neo serves as the ultimate conflation of a social reality and fiction as he’s able to transcend the fiction of the Matrix and maneuver between this fiction and the reality of Zion. Yet, as you mention here, he transforms from pure human into a human/machine hybrid in order to be able to do so. Thus, given the definition above, Neo is the epitome of cyborg.

    I’m interested in discussing this further with regard to how Neo has to become this cyborg in order to transcend the virtual reality and cause peace between the virtual/real and the machine/human. Does this suggest that in order to live in a real space – which acknowledges the fictional real as well as the real real – we all must become cyborgs, like Neo?

  • Manon Soulet says:

    Although I really like your post, I don’t how if I agree about the absolute separation of men and machines at the end of the third movie. Yes, they do live in separate “spheres” – the real and the virtual – but those spheres are now permeable as individuals can pretty much come and go at will (individuals inside the matrix will be free to leave and those in the real often come back into it in order to attend various businesses). But isn’t this permeability between the real and the virtual what we ourselves are trying to achieve? What we aspire to? Isn’t that flexibility (or mobility) freeing us in a sense?

    Second point, I think I agree with Sara that Neo could be a cyborg if we consider Haraway’s definition, regardless of his symbolic position in the Christian myth of creation. He absolutely corresponds to a poststructuralist subject embedded in a network of codes and texts. Besides, even though he is indeed assimilated with “the one”, “the savior”… it is worth noting that his own origin/birth is certainly problematic. What is his origin? Does he really have an origin? If so, which one?

    I want to complicate this a little and extend the question of human/machine to the rest of the humans in the movie, the ones in the real to argue that, maybe, this synthesis or fusion between men and machines applies to them all and not just Neo.
    Take Morpheus for instance, as Tank explained to Neo about what the agents were doing to him: “They are breaking into his mind. It is like hacking a computer.” The machines are changing the patterns of Morpheus’ mind, which implies that the mind is a structure, a system of connections or wires that can therefore be hacked, that is, methodically de-structured or deconstructed, like a machine. And I want to assume that the same would go for Trinity or any other human. In short, a human’s internal organization is no different than that of a cyborg + they all have problematic origins.
    Also, the humans are not the only one to aspire to freedom; after all, Agent Smith needs the codes of Zion in order to eventually break free from the matrix himself! He wants to be born and separate from his mother. As he says: “I must get out of here. I must get free.”

    The final point I want to throw out there is this: what if this fusion between men and machines, and the removal of the binary between the real and the virtual did not make them cyborgs, but instead, posthumans? What do you guys think?

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