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The Matrix is Not the Cultural Metaphor We Need
There are no supervillains above the surface. There is just us.
Have you noticed how The Matrix has become an existential metaphor for certain folks? Andrew Tate, the repugnant but extremely popular influencer who targets young men, tells his audience that “the matrix” is why they feel frustrated, alone, ineffective, and adrift. For Tate, the matrix seems to be the ambient society of capitalism and feminism. Like the humans in the movie, you and I, according to Tate, are unconscious captives of a system designed to oppress us. Only with the kind of knowledge (and lifestyle) of someone like Tate can we escape the matrix and the discover the “real world” of realized potential and felt meaning.
This isn’t just Tate’s chosen metaphor. The Matrix movies have supplied Internet culture with something close to a cultural language. To be “red-pilled” is to be awakened to some long-obscure reality, and be changed by it. In a recent series of posts, Rod Dreher asks whether younger Westerners would be able to resist being eternally plugged in to an “experience machine” that manipulated their brain to feel like they were having all their desires met. As one of Rod’s readers points out, this is similar to the premise of The Matrix: malignant AI that plugs human beings into a dreamworld so they do not know their actual, enslaved state.
I think I understand why The Matrix would be an appealing mythos for people trying to articulate the times. We do live in a time of tyrannical technology, where the average Western person is obliged to spend a majority of their time (and much personal information) navigating a digital economy that feels oppressive and exhausting. There’s also an ascendant anti-elitism in our politics that reflects genuine suspicion, and often resentment, of existing institutions and leadership structures. Fascinatingly, it seems like people on both the Right and the Left feel as if they are being purposefully used and abused like cogs in a machine. The Matrix is a movie designed to appeal to a sense of alienation, and a lot of people today feel alienated.
What’s most interesting about The Matrix-as-cultural-metaphor, though, is that it assiduously avoids suggesting any kind of self-accountability. The Matrix is fundamentally a myth about a nearly omnipotent villain with almost limitless ability to control its victims (in fact, the original film’s two sequels gesture toward this being truer than even the heroes know). When Andrew Tate invites his paid subscribers to escape the matrix, or when a political writer urges his readers to be “red-pilled,” there’s an undercurrent of victimization. The human characters in The Matrix are unconscious cadavers who began their existence with a tube in their brain; they possess no agency or power over their world, except the power to happen to run into someone who can free them. This isn’t just a fascinating tip to a kind of philosophical determinism (or perhaps even a very American expression of Calvinism), it’s a paradox of a modern cultural moment that possesses nearly every resource imaginable to change, but feels completely unable to do so.
The current context of Western liberalism is one in which a person can declare they are an entirely different gender in the course of realizing their true self. At the same time, political, artistic, and even much religious language is shot through with defeatism: climate apocalypticism, the displacement of romance by raw sexual consumption, the reduction of all human aspiration to a kind of pointless writhing against various collective -isms. Andrew Tate has built a self-help empire that millions around the world can access at any time of day, and the message he delivers is that you are powerless before the matrix. Given the relative wealth, autonomy, and technological capacity of even the working-class teenage male, it seems very strange that the sermon that resonates more than most others is the helplessness of the self before the all-powerful machine.
This chronic feeling of disempowerment seems to haunt the emerging generation. Whether it’s the generational stress of marriage-averse millennials and their divorced parents, or the economic immobility of so many college graduates, it’s no wonder why many feel as if the deck is stacked against them. Charles Fain Lehman’s observation that young Americans are defined by risk-aversion seems to resonate with the picture of imprisonment inside a hostile system. Yet The Matrix is not a story about human pathologies. It’s a science-fiction war film, impossible to deeply resonate with unless you really do see the mass of humanity around you as part of an unspoken conspiracy to keep you miserable.
Christopher Nolan’s film Inception offers what I think is a better metaphor for reading the room on this. Whereas The Matrix is a film about a god-like villain who literally scorches the sky*, Inception is a parable of human weakness. Inception’s premise is not that there are enemies that utterly rob us of agency; it’s that our desires, particularly to escape the given world and construct our own, are what really oppress us. I’ve used Inception before as an example of a film that seems to understand our technological age better than most, but it’s just as true that Nolan gets people right, too. The dream-sharing of Inception is not something foisted on people by a malevolent dictator. It is craved. The primary oppression in this movie is self-oppression: being held hostage by one’s own trauma, or nostalgia, or ambition.
Inception offers a compelling dramatic reflection on why people might choose to hook up to (to circle back to Rod Dreher’s post) an “experience machine.” The experience machine is a device not of assault but of surrender. To describe the desire that some may have to escape into an experience machine in terms of red-pill vs blue-pill, or urging them to “escape” the matrix that the Elites have trapped them in, is to misunderstand that there will always be a demand for frictionless joys and ephemeral pleasure. And this is why both contemporary self-help and reactionary politics, whether it be mass-market friendly (Girl, Wash Your Face) or edgy (Andrew Tate), are doomed to eventual failure. There really is no villain above the surface. There’s no dark lord in a seat of power pressing a button labeled, “Make Samuel James Despair.” There is sin. There is unbelief. There is the world, the flesh (my flesh), and the devil.
The heroes in The Matrix free themselves and look cool doing it. Their adventures reverberate their own greatness back at them, and in the end they are granted the rewards of their suffering. But it’s a scripted greatness and a choreographed suffering. In the real world, we awaken from spiritual slumber to find ourselves not just slaves, but willing slaves. And until this point is driven home, no amount of red-pilling will make us the people we want to be.
*Edit: Readers have pointed out that in The Matrix, it is the humans who scorch the sky. Apologies for the error!