English 738T, Spring 2015
Header image

Tastee Wheat

Posted by Manon Soulet on Sunday, May 3rd, 2015 at 3:41 pm

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?

(Neo) No.

(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?


You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 You can leave a response, or trackback.

5 Responses

  • Kayla Harr says:

    I appreciate your entire analysis of Tastee Wheat and the lack of referents in The Matrix, but I am especially interested in your final questions. Mouse’s point about the lack of an accessible referent for Tastee Wheat in the film’s world seems directly applicable to our own experience. In our world, a product’s particular taste, quality, and authenticity is essentially determined through brands, labels, and advertising. A particular set of signifiers is all we have to determine our understanding of the signified, but in reality, there is no real signified to access independently that can confirm to us the characteristics of the authentic product. We don’t know what’s real, we only know what we are told, and in a consumerist society, it seems that the external signifiers of brand and packaging do the telling.

    In the film, Mouse is able to theorize about the real taste of Tastee Wheat because he’s imagining the machines trying to simulate something that once existed in the real. But what does it mean for Tastee Wheat to be real? Can it ever be real, or does the very specificity of its role as a particular brand-name product that is representative of taste and wheat disclose its inherent position as simulation? In a way, the name Tastee Wheat owns up to the fact that it’s a simulation, an alteration of something that is presumably real (wheat). The name itself tells us how the wheat is supposed to taste, and indeed the way food products are represented in general instills in us our only understanding of how they should taste, creating a set of expectations, purporting to belong to the real but based on the simulation, that we use to assess the authenticity of other products. We can observe how this functions in the comparison between brand-name and generic products, marked by a simulation of difference that makes us prefer the brand-name and convince ourselves that physical (real) differences exist that allow us to distinguish between the two.

  • Collin Lam says:

    I have always loved the “Tastee Wheat” moment in the Matrix. For the characters in the movie, they have lost all potential, original referent for taste or any sensory experience. The distinct lack of agriculture in the “desert of the real” is supplanted by the agricultural endeavor of the machines to “grow” people. The sources of object sensation, such as Tastee Wheat, chicken, the sun, or what-have-you, can only be imagined as objects of language-based source code by the machines, who can only approximate the experience of those objects. Hence, why “chicken tastes like everything.” Taste and sensory experience become a purely cognitive experience based on approximations of a reality that is not there. But, the question then remains: is taste and sensory experience something more than a purely cognitive experience? Like Morpheus says to Neo:

    What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

    What marks “real” sensation, if sensation is an always already cognitive event? Like Kayla points out, we only know what to expect of “wheat” from its juxtaposition against “Tastee Wheat.” Our understanding of our own sensory experience comes from the realization of difference. The feeling of the sun on your skin is no different in the “real” world than it is in the Matrix, but it is different from standing under a light bulb. We know through something being what it is not. It is turtles all the way down. I think the question that always arises for me is: if our experience of the world is indistinguishable from simulated experiences, why are we so fascinated with the “real” experience? Is festishization of the “real” or “real” experience only a way to generate a system of power between those who have and those who have not?

  • Collin Lam says:

    Also, this is great. It’s the article that I mentioned about pumpkin spice lattes and Baudrillard’s simulation/simulacra.


  • Ruth says:

    So, part of the problem of defining a real is that it depends on individual perceptions of what the real is. When we talked about Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell part of our debate considered how much individual perceptions affected our relationship with the reality surrounding us. I am skeptical of how far attributing individual perceptions to definitions of reality can go, like the endless debates that occur when asked if we all see the same color blue, since it creates an impossibility of ‘knowing’ and limits experiences to the individual. It is obvious to say that limiting reality (or the absence thereof) to the individual takes away from the experience of the collective, but I’m wondering if this is part of why the matrix (or any border between reality and hyper-reality)broke down.
    The matrix operates on the collective minds of the people who inhabit it. similarly, outside the matrix also operates on the collective community found in Zion, but even in a smaller scale, on the inside of the Nebuchadnezzar. Part of what builds the community is their collective experience of being ‘outside’ the matrix and a collective assumption that they have escaped, But, as Morpheus and Cypher both point out, in different ways, their experience of the ‘real’ and the ‘alternate’ real is still reliant on their perceptions. The enforced collectivity within the matrix has only been traded for a social collective that for some, Cypher, is still unsatisfactory.
    When the conversation of Tastee Wheat happens it brings up the issues of what is real and what isn’t and if a ‘real’ even exists, but also, how ‘reality’ is a mix of individual and collective experience. Like Kayla points out, we have individual tastes based on brands and ideas of how things should taste, but those brands also involve a collective. Brands might advertise towards certain groups of people, different regions have different ideas of what food is good and markets change from place to place. That, way the collective comes to understand the brand as a group and have expectations about it. The individual’s experience with the product/object is still separate but heavily influenced and affected by it.
    Reality becomes questionable when the individual and the collective come to odds against each other, but like trying to escape the matrix, escaping the collective mind is impossible. Even though the individual might be aware of the influence of the collective it still influences their perceptions even as a negative sort of experience, being driven to do something because it is the opposite of the group is still being influenced by the group. I am tempted to argue, after this very long exposition, that Tastee Wheat tastes like whatever you want it to, but your experience of tasting will always be infected by a collective understanding of what Tastee Wheat should taste like. In the same way, reality is whatever you perceive it to be, but that perception is always experienced through the lens of the collective experience. We question reality because we see different versions of it all the time going on around us. Hyper-reality, or alternate reality, hides a hope that somewhere, there is a space where the individual can experience a real without the infiltration of the collective, or, within a collective with the same perceptions and experiences as the individual.

  • Kyle Bickoff says:

    Hi Manon,
    That’s a really great prompt and set of questions. I think your question about Tastee Wheat is a smart one. While the idea of ‘taste,’ is an interesting one, it’s similar to questions like, “is the red I see actually the blue you see” and vice-versa. While there are suggestions that varying amounts of color rods and cones in the eyes (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120209-do-we-all-see-the-same-colours) actually can affect the way we perceive colors, there have been similar sort of notes on taste as well. BUT, the most interesting answer to these questsions doesn’t speak to the biological, but rather the hypothetical, as you suggest. Tastee Wheat, while it tastes like slop is meant to be ‘objectively real’ in the context of the film, while the brands, and the steak, and the wine, in the film might taste pretty good, they’re false. Within the matrix, there is no ‘original’ steak, and the taste of steak is just a copy with no original (Baudrillard’s third level of the sign-order). And the collection of these abstractions are what Cypher chooses to embrace. Although the hyperreality of the matrix is a false, constructed reality, it seems ‘more real’ than ‘reality’ to Cypher, and thus he accepts it. In the context of the film this is not noble, by any means–particularly since he betrays and murders his colleagues in order to acquire it–but given the circumstances, like Leonard Shelby, he prefers to believe in this hyperreality.

Leave a Reply