The Long View 2004-04-19: Delusions of Utility

I never liked the second and third Matrix movies much, but I did appreciate that the movies were sufficiently high concept to introduce a lot of otherwise uninterested people to philosophy. My main objection is the that the idea so many people were introduced to is Gnosticism.

Now that the Wachowski brothers have turned into the Wachowski sisters, the Matrix reminds me of Steve Sailer's idea that for some science fiction enthusiasts, the idea of changing your gender is less about feeling like a little girl on the inside, and more about bending nature to your will.

Delusions of Utility


Considering the UN's record in administering the Oil for Food program in Iraq, the organization's chief officials should probably be grateful they cannot be prosecuted by the state and federal district attorneys for Manhattan. Actually, mere corruption may be the least of the UN's problems. Consider this expression of self-delusion that appeared in yesterday's New York Times, under the headline Recast in Key Iraq Role, U.N. Envoys Are Wary:

Edward Mortimer, a senior aide to Secretary General Kofi Annan...contrasted the recent calls for assistance from President Bush with the disparagement he said the United Nations had become used to from the administration. "It's quite nice when you've been generally dissed about your irrelevancy and then suddenly have people coming on bended knee and saying, 'We need you to come back,' " he said. "On the other hand, it's quite unnerving to feel you're being projected into a very violent and volatile situation where you might be regarded as an agent or faithful servant of a power that has incurred great hostility."

In the buildup to the Iraq War, President Bush did not simply declare the UN irrelevant. He did say that it risked irrelevance, if it did not participate in the liberation and reconstruction of Iraq. The UN seems determined to take the president at his word.

* * *

Meanwhile, on the Times editorial page, Thomas Friedman was having this epiphany about the Bush Administration's approach to foreign policy:


At first, I thought I'd write a column that just ripped President Bush ...[but] I decided what I really wanted to say was this: I'm fed up with the Middle East, or more accurately, I'm fed up with the stalemate in the Middle East. All it has produced is death, destruction and endless "he hit me first" debates on cable television. Arabs, Israelis, Americans -- everyone is sick of it.

So now President Bush has stepped in and thrown the whole frozen Middle East chessboard up in the air. I don't like his style, but it's done. The status quo was no better.

Friedman was speaking in particular about Bush's declaration that the Israelis would retain some large settlements as part of a general agreement with the Palestinians, but the assessment refers to the the Middle East in general. Note that the column was written before the assassination of Hamas leader

I think that Friedman misunderstands the Bush Administration. The Bush people are not the sort who "roll the dice" and hope for improvement. These folks are not adventurous. Both on foreign and domestic issues, they generally have quite specific goals. The decisions that look like gambles are really steps in a larger strategy, steps that they take even if the strategy does not seem to be going well at the time. They may drive into a brick wall. On the other hand, this is the only way to pursue controversial projects that take years to complete.

* * *

Speaking of projects that take years to complete, over the weekend I rented the DVD to see The Matrix Revolutions (Widescreen Edition).

Probably I would have to be more of a student of film to properly appreciate this movie. Given the state of my knowledge, however, I was reminded chiefly of the Woody Allen film, Annie Hall. As in Annie Hall, it seemed as if there was just one conversation running through all the Matrix films, which different characters picked up and passed along.

Matrix Revolutions had much better special effects than Annie Hall, of course. The Matrix animations, in fact, can be compared to Richard Wagner's music, which is said to be much better than it sounds. The animators and computer people who were interviewed in the special features on Disk 2 succeeded in communicating their enthusiasm to me. The problem was that their masterpiece, the 17-minute robot-versus-human battle called "The Siege," was too complicated to see.

Actually, the movie's credits seemed to me to hint at a whole new genre. The entire population of Australia east of Alice Springs seem to have been involved in making this film. Their names clumped in patterns that hovered at the edge of intelligibility as they rolled down the screen. The serial-music score swelled and diminished in harmony with the density of the names. It was genuinely eerie.

All three films were chock-a-block with theology and philosophy. The image I most remember was the interface that Neo spoke to in the robot city. It looked very much like a "monstrance," a roughly cruciform display case that holds a consecrated Host at the intersection of the arms. One could go on.

On a philosophical level, I was struck by the answer that Neo gave to Agent Smith in the watery crater, when Smith demanded to know why Neo continued to fight in a meaningless reality. Smith was the avatar of analytical nihilism; he was asking Neo for a metaphysical foundation. The answer Neo gave, "Because I will to," or words to that effect, was Kant's answer. Kant said that only in the act of willing does the noumenal meet the phenomenal, and we know we are not deceived. Also: Neo, like Kant, believed that radical freedom is not formless freedom; Neo was free for something, not just from something. Nietzsche pointed out that Kant's ideas about the logical constraints on freedom have no power to bind, but that's another movie.

An interesting point: in any other film in the history of science fiction, the robot civilization would either have won (Colossus: The Forbin Project) or been defeated (to make an unreliable estimate: about 15% of all Star Trek episodes). In Matrix Revolutions, the humans and machines made peace. Essentially, the machine world was accepted as a supernatural.

Frankly, I had wondered how all those millions of pod people were going to manage if they all woke up in their vats with tubes sticking into them. Now we see that "only those who want to" will leave the Matrix. This does smack of Gnosticism: and worse; a sequel. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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