In the blockbuster 1999 movie The Matrix, released on the eve of the new millennium, Morpheus, the leader of a band of “freedom fighters” against an invisible totalitarian mind control system, offers the film’s young hero Neo a fateful choice.
Neo can swallow a red pill which will take him “down the rabbit hole” into seeing with his own eyes what actually lies behind the everyday reality of the brave, new digitized postmodern era. Or he can consume a blue one, which will leave him forever oblivious of the truth that our everyday experience of things is but a vicious scam and a fraud.
Neo of course chooses the red pill, and after undergoing what seems like a strange and surreal transformation he finds himself at the bottom of the “rabbit hole” where evil and vengeful machines are no longer the output of human intelligence, but instead are the designers, controllers, and merciless enforcers of our blissful social illusions, which mask the dark, dreadful, and desiccated world where even time itself has been altered.
As Neo’s newfound awareness adjusts to such a horrible backstage manipulation of our perception of all things around us, Morpheus wryly offers this famous consolation: “Welcome to the desert of the real!”
With all the press revelations and exploding scandals in the past two weeks concerning IRS political targeting, deliberate government rewriting of historical facts in the case of last fall’s Benghazi terrorist attacks, secret US Justice Department stalking of journalists, and now massive and incalculable spying by intelligence agencies on all and every aspect of the life of both American and British citizens, one can hear Morpheus’ voice in the background each time one turns on the television news.
The Matrix is Real?
What has been most damaged of course in this sudden “EF5 tornado” of news disclosures is the long and fondly held belief on the part of the Western intelligentsia that the current US administration, which railed throughout two election cycles about government abuse of power and promised to be different, has all along been pulling the wool over our eyes and turns out to be most likely an even much bigger abuser of civil liberties.
Conservatives of course are gloating over these most recent revelations. But they hardly play into any particular partisan sympathies in the long run, since the trend was started during previous regimes with contrary ideologies, and it is progressives as much as, and to a certain extent more than, right-wingers who are angrily denouncing the betrayal of trust and the outright deception that news about the massive government program of spying is bringing to light.
One of the basic lessons of The Matrix series is that it is not the evil controlling “machines” running our lives that are ultimately at fault, but we ourselves who happily prefer to be deluded. That has been the underlying theme of all “dystopian” literature since the publication of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four 64 years ago this month.
The dystopia itself rises from the plain of a derelict epistemology, a theory of knowledge and ethical response that, as Foucault long ago recognized, is propelled by the “nobler” impulses of a society accompanying the mobilization of all forms of capital – technological as well as financial and human capital – that marked the industrial revolution.
The dystopian principle itself is ensconced in the great moral principle of the Benthamites, the “felicific calculus” or the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.” It was first articulated brilliantly by Mustapha Mond, the “world controller of Western Europe” in Aldoux Huxley’s Brave New World: “The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age.”
Huxley’s dystopia was envisioned in the early 1930s and in an eerie manner becomes the guiding theme for so many similar artistic nightmares to follow, including not only the Wlliam Gibson novel Neuromancer (ironically released in 1984) which inspired The Matrix. Today we find that art seems to have become larger than life.
The “neuromancers” – those who know how to engineer politically avatars of what Nietzsche called our “highest values”, conjuring up vast virtual cloud cuckoo lands with vacuous slogans like “hope and change” replicated many times over and infected with a sense of stark indomitability in the narcissistic mirror play of so much social media – have become indistinguishable from our celebrities, academic and social role models, and of course our political “messiahs” about whom we no longer have any doubt whatsoever remaining.
Every now and then we experience a shock to the neuromantic system, as occurred of course almost twelve years ago with the events of September 11, 2001. We instantly project on to this la-la-like silver screen of hyperreality a new hero. George W. Bush actually fitted the bill for a while. He was simple and straightforward. He pledged to do battle like Batman with the new hypervillains, the Osamas, the Saddams, and other baddies from the Axis of Evil.
When news reaches NFL fans during a game that Bush has ordered a wholesale military invasion of Afghanistan in response to the attacks on the Wordl Trade Center, the entire stadium erupts in cheers, as if their team had just scored a touchdown in the final minutes.
Fast forward seven years later. Two endless and seemingly inconsequential wars as well as a sputtering national economy have shattered the mirror temporarily. The desert stretches out before our gaze. The big question: where is Superman?
Of course he’s changing in the phonebooth, waiting to step out and manufacture an entire Nickelodean of collective fantasies one more time. The millennials are now grown up. No more Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Change is no longer in the air. It’s blowin’ in the wind, and the wind is blowin’ hard.
The Voice calls to the best of us in all of us. We are pumped up. On Facebook we’ve all friended a future where terrorist threats and wars can be ended once and for all with soaring rhetoric that reaches global audiences, where “investing” in the economy with invented money can pull us out of an intractable recession, where Guantanamo can be closed down and our civil liberties, wrested from our proud heritage by the new, darksome, ballooning specter of the security state and handed over to the so-called “military industrial complex” can finally be restored.
This time it is not a latter day patriot named Paul Revere, but an enraged “redcoat” writing for the British newspaper The Guardian who wakes us from our familiar, self-satisfied, touchy-feely, “that can’t be true” type of slumber to warn us that Big Brother, the Matrix, the Evil Empire almost has us for good. Spells are hard to break unfortunately.
“We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom,” Slavoj Zizek wrote in his reflections on the destruction of the twin towers. We also feel hopeful, even in a time when all the indicators are negative, because we as postmodern intellectuals have lost any language to articulate our sense of desperation and hopelessness. What ever happened to Angst? It went the way of sin.
That is why we live in the age of political correctness. That is why we long for the “messianic,” even while we never learn the lesson Derrida told us that the “democracy to comes” depends vitally on our willingness, or even an enthusiasm, to embrace the Real.
The Lesson for Political Theologians
There is a profound lesson for us “political theologians” in everything that has happened the past few weeks. The lesson comes down to the tragic realization that our postmodern infatuation with “impossibility” (that is, our tendency to believe, like the Mad Hatter, that the impossible can actually be thought as possible, if only we dream enough) has fueled our rage against “the exception,” the singular.
No one is mediocre, for example, these days. That is what Helicopter Parents tell their children daily. Everyone is empowered and capable of everything, as everyone is happy in Brave New World.
But, as Paul Kahn reminds us, “a free order…is one in which the exception is possible. The exception represents the possibility of free choice, and choice requires a subject – the sovereign – who decides.” (Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Columbia University Press, 2011, Kindle edition, loc. 463). If one follows the logic of the exception, particularly in Lacan and Zizek, it comes down to the real, not the hyperreal, which allows anything imaginable.
We consider “exceptionalism” in politics to be the greatest sin against our Highest Values. Because we have become slaves in our own pseudo-simulacrated idealism to the hyperreal, we have surrendered our sovereignty to PRISM, the real counterpart to the Matrix, which supposedly cannot exist when we live in a “free society”, but which the monstrous machines in the NSA’s server plantations mining the data of every global internet provider are allegedly “protecting.”
Nineteen Eighty-Four? We’re more sophisticated than that.
Welcome to the Desert of the Real…once more.