I have always loved the 1999 American movie “The Matrix“. I don’t know if I was mainly captured by the plot, the actors, the effects all combined with my teenage angst at the time that it became popular. The whole idea of a dreamworld that we exist only to feed machines may sound crazy to many, and even quite extravagant. The keypoint of “The Matrix” is life: learning to accept it, understand it, live it as Derrida would imply.
It may be such a coincidence that today I was scanning several new books at St. Peter’s College library, and one of them was an English translation of Derrida’s last interview in the French newspaper “Le Monde”. Jacques Derrida was a philosopher of life and death who influenced many theorists in the fields of media studies, philosophy, anthropology, and the humanities list goes on. I really value this publication as it is in all fairness Derrida’s last words spoken (you can read an English/French version online here).
And it may be another coincidence the fact that “The Matrix” was on TV tonight, and of course, that I happened to be at home to watch it. Neo, the “hero” of the film is “At war with himself”, exactly as Derrida puts it. He tries to understand life, himself, and at the same time accept it and finally, learn to live in and out of the fake projected world, the Matrix. In the exact words of Derrida, “to learn to live is to mature, and educate too”. Through a digital educational process conducted mainly by Morpheus, his “tutor”, Neo tries to accept responsibility for his purpose: he is “The One” that will save the real world (aka the last remaining human city, Zion) by ending the war with the machines. In his path of acceptance there are several allies such as Trinity (the love of his life), fellow Zionites, the Oracle, but also, there are enemies like the machines and the quite controversial Agent Smith, which mainly acts as Neo’s alter ego – which in the end he manages to defeat at a face-to-face war when he becomes the Other.
As Derrida continues, “learning to live ought to mean learning to die – to acknowledge, to accept, an absolute mortality – without positive out- come, or resurrection, or redemption, for oneself or for anyone else”. And this is also true about the Matrix. If Neo dies digitally while in the Matrix, then his natural body dies too as “it cannot survive without the mind” (Morpheus). Before I elaborate on this, let me explain few things about embodiment in the Matrix.
Following the binary natural/virtual space, Neo has a natural body in the real world – the one that is at war with the machines – and a digital body in the 3-D cyberspace context of the Matrix. To find out what the bodily representation in the Matrix is, we need to define the Matrix per se. As explained in the film, the Matrix is a code, a program constructed to support a virtual reality. Everything in it does not exist ontologically, however, it all matters for the ones that learn to live and accept it without questioning it. I will not analyse the materiality of Matrix, I think it is too obvious, everyone in the Matrix relates to it in many different ways (working, eating, sleeping, just even existing). Neo has an Avatar in the Matrix that acts upon his will. This Avatar is made by Matrix code, and Neo knows that “the spoon doesn’t exist”, hence, everything in the Matrix can be bent, hacked, and changed.
Only when Neo accepts that he is in fact part of the Matrix, he stops being afraid that he will die. After dying once by Agent Smith’s bullets, he resurrects with Trinity’s help (after she confessed that she is in love with him and he must be the One because the Oracle had told her that she will fall for him) and he manages to learn how to live by accepting life and death. He defeats Agents’ bullets, finally sees them as part of the Matrix and hacks into them, and eventually convincing his colleagues that “he is the one” (see video).
My point with this post is not to make a cocky comparison of Derrida’s work and the pop culture; it is way beyond this. If we, humans, cannot learn how to live in our everyday lives, would it be possible that we learn to live in virtual spaces? Can someone, like Neo did, overcome any of their fears in cyberspace, since they know that “it is not real”? And does this realisation make us (the researchers) responsible and mature in relation to our search in the cyberfield? We cannot agree that the cyberspace is not real and moreover cannot do us any harm, on the contrary, if we ignore it we lack a missing piece of the ethnographic puzzle and if we just focus on it, we just see the tree but not the forest. Once more, the key to a successful ethnography is understanding the importance of the Self in natural and digital space, but carefully addressing to the issues that it raises appropriately with the rules of the context that it exists.