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Walter Benjamin and the Matrix

Here's my final paper for my Benjamin Class.  The DVD rocks, sorry I cant put that up too...





The Art of Light and Fire:

Walter Benjamin knows kung fu too



Un éclair…puis la nuit!—Fugitive beauté

Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,

Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?

-Baudelaire, “A une passante[1]



Jason Helms

December 15, 2004

ENG 742, Dr. Kwok


While Walter Benjamin’s social critique has stood the test of time, his cinematic critique has not been systematized and is therefore rarely used.  This paper will be an attempt to trace Benjamin’s theories of film and photography as they integrate with his general views of history, culminating in a “Benjaminian” critique of The Matrix.  Throughout, the theories of Jean Baudrillard, an avid reader of Benjamin, will be brought in to connect Benjamin’s time to our own.


Out of Context

Some of Benjamin’s central theories of being and time have to do with continuity and semblance:  “It may be that the continuity of tradition is mere semblance.  But then precisely the persistence of this semblance of persistence provides it with continuity” (Arcades N19,1).  The interplay between semblance, continuity, and tradition make up modern experience.  Benjamin sees two undercurrents subtending continuity: true connection and false objectivity. 

The undercurrent of true connection flows beneath the entirety of the Arcades.  Seemingly disparate texts are joined seamlessly, and by “seamlessly” I mean that there is literally no seam, and possibly no connection other than the sheaves on which Benjamin’s quotes are printed.  His lack of seams allows the reader—forces the reader—to make his own connections, while at the same time assuring the reader that these “true” connections are never to be confused with objectivity.

While Benjamin’s style puts off most first-time readers, it provides his long-time fans a joy not unlike that of the bricoleur.  Forcing things together, forging paths where none had been before, making connections between antithetic concepts—these things give us joy, and a deeper insight into the disparate pile of refuse we call culture.  His

notion of intertextuality—which focuses, like that of schizophrenic language-disturbance, on language practices determined by unconscious rather than logical thought-processes—thus provides insight into the ways in which multiple fields converge in his texts.  (Roff 132)


These fields, such as architecture, prostitution, gambling, and technology—to name some of the more random subjects—fall together with a certain grace only Benjamin can provide.  It was his sincere belief that if the Zeitgeist had an unconscious, tapping it would provide therapy to the world. 

            In his archeological view of the nineteenth century, The Arcades Project, Benjamin finds,

a world of secret affinities open[ing] up within: palm tree and feather duster, hairdryer and Venus de Milo, prostheses and letter writing manuals…these items on display are a rebus: how one ought to read [them]…is right on the tip of one’s tongue. (Arcades R2,3)


This TOTS (Tip of the Tongue Syndrome—the acronym actually used within neurophysiology to describe that particular feeling) is the glue of the Arcades.  Each out-of-context quotation requires a certain poetic suspension of disbelief to connect it to the one following.  One of the more interesting by-products—and a purposeful one at that—of this form of writing is that certain quotes start to connect better with other quotes, for no apparent reason.  Furthermore the connections may differ from day to day depending upon the mood of the reader. 

Anyone who has immersed himself into the Arcades can appreciate the benign paranoia it instills.  These correspondences begin to break free of the plane of the page and apply themselves to their reader’s quotidian life.  Even after closing the text and taking a walk, the reader will often find that “every present day is determined by the images that are synchronic with it: each ‘now’ is the now of a particular recognizability” (Arcades N3,1).  Each pairing (or tripling, or more) presents a unique moment—a monad connecting monads.  As the couplings continue the connections get further and further fetched, reflecting Benjamin’s view of historiography: “in order for the past to be touched by the present instant, there must be no continuity between them” (Arcades N7,7).  This present instant becomes final arbiter of their “secret affinities.”

In his critique of Baudelaire’s “Correspondences,” Benjamin defines correspondences as, “an experience which seeks to establish itself in crisis-proof form” (“Motifs in Baudelaire,” SW IV.333).  This crisis-proof is difficult to describe but is recognized by any Arcades reader—the benign paranoia to which I earlier referred.  They are “the data of recollection” (334), not definable, objective connections, but emotional memories—synaesthesia.  In a note to this section, Benjamin elevates these connections to “the court of judgment before which the art object is found to be a faithful reproduction—which to be sure makes it entirely aporetic” (352 n.63).  The aporia to which he refers is that of the authentic replica.  The fact that art cannot be what it represents is inherent within its very definition: “‘semblance of beauty’ means that the identical object which admiration is courting cannot be found in the work” (ibid.).  Earlier Benjamin had written that “beautiful semblance should be clearly distinguished from other kinds of semblance.  Not only is it found in art, but all true beauty in art must be assigned to it (“On Semblance,” SW IV.224.  Emphasis author’s).  Beauty consists, then, in the correlation between the dissimilar. 

Benjamin explicitly defines beauty as, “the object of experience [Erfahrung] in the state of resemblance” (“Motifs in Baudelaire,” SW IV. 352 n.63).  This resemblance, which separates the art from that which it represents, provides an opportunity for the unconscious to be ignited through Erfahrung.   Erfahrung entails continuous, rather than isolated [Erlibnis], experience.  It is the true experience, that which sees the secret affinities and their beauty.  Its memory [Gedachtnis] is involuntary and deeper than the voluntary reminiscence of Erinnerung.  Benjamin quotes Reik as distinguishing them by saying, “the function of Gedachtnis is to protect our impressions; Erinnerung aims at their dissolution.  Gedachtnis is essentially conservative; Erinnerung, destructive” (317).  The impressions which Gedachtnis protects are deep unconscious ones which we bring to the surface.  Erinnerung seeks to keep them penned up.  “Where there is Erfahrung…certain contents of the individual past combine in Gedachtnis with material from the collective past” (316).  The object of this experience, Erfahrung, of resemblance (connected within Gedachtnis to noncontiguous aspects of the collective past) provides us with beauty.  In light of this the Arcades Project becomes more than a collection of seemingly random quotes.  It is instead the quintessence of beauty: eternally connectable eternally connected.

We can now begin to address Benjamin’s concept of aura.  The aura of natural objects is “the unique apparition of distance, however near it may be” (“Work of Art,” SW IV.255).  Whether it is a mountain on the horizon or a leaf above my head, things in the natural world are removed from me.  They have an aura of separation, defined in their being other than me.  Once information becomes the order of the day, experience atrophies (“Motifs in Baudelaire,” SW IV.316).  Benjamin rests the “social basis of the aura’s present decay” upon “the desire of the present-day masses to ‘get closer’ to things spatially and humanly, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness by assimilating it as a reproduction” (“Work of Art,” SW IV.255).  When reproduction becomes digital, “all aura of sign, of significance itself is resolved in this determination; all is resolved in the inscription and decodage” (Baudrillard 105).  Baudrillard watches beauty fade into equivalence when “the simulacrum of distance…is only…a tactical hallucination” (117).  In our present era the aura has decayed nearly into nonexistence—a possible thesis for The Matrix.

In this “present that polarizes the event into fore- and after-history” (Arcades N7a,8), History’s Janus face (S1,1) steps into the judgment seat.  This false objectivity is “the enshrinement or apologia …meant to cover up the revolutionary moments in the occurrence of history.  At heart it seeks the establishment of a continuity” (N9a,5).  Once this continuity is established, historical events, moments, monads can only be seen within its frame.  As science usurps religion, its supposed objectivity becomes the new opiate of the masses: “the history that showed things ‘as they really were’ was the strongest narcotic of the century” (N3,4).  In blasting the historical object out of this illusory continuity (N10,3) we “explod[e] the homogeneity of the epoch, interspersing it with ruins—that is with the present” (N9a,6).  Whereas progress is always to be an assumed transit through “homogenous, empty time,” we see “history [a]s the subject of a construction whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by now-time” (“Concept of History,” SW IV.395); for “it is Erfahrung …that fills and articulates time” (“Motifs in Baudelaire,” SW IV.331).  When we insert our own present into the past, the seeming objectivity dissolves, becoming filled with our subjectivity. 

“History,” Benjamin writes, “deals with connections and with arbitrarily elaborated causal chains…In this moment, time must be brought to a standstill” (403).  The elaboration of causal chains is what is arbitrary, not of course their causality (which would be a less than beautiful aporia).  In the ceaseless elaboration of these chains, the only solution is to freeze their movement.  The image we are left with is “dialectics at a standstill” (Arcades N2a,3), a dialectical image, “the methodological heart of the Arcades Project” (Pensky 178).  They are the only genuine images, and “the place where one encounters them is language” (N2a,3).  Language is crucial in understanding the dialectical image.  “The latter is identical with the historical object [which] justifies its [own] violent expulsion from the continuum of the historical process” (N10a,3).  Thus language must be the “monadological structure” inherent in the historical object (N10,3).  From many modern points of view (Lacan and Wittgenstein come to mind most readily)  language is our only mode of participation with the real.  Therefore to pretend that there is something beyond language—some objective continuity beneath the referent—is in many regards to delude ourselves, or at least to strive after the impossible.  In the same way that history cannot “attain a goal lying out of its own plain” (N13a,2) we cannot attain a goal lying outside the plain on which we live: language. 


Fiat Lux—Pereat Mundus

Baudrillard writes of Benjamin that he was the first to, “underst[and] technique not as a ‘productive force’…but as a medium, as form and principle of a whole new generation of sense” (99).  Film for Benjamin takes on the structure of language.  It becomes the medium of the modern era, and brings with it an inherent breakdown of the aura.  Why this would be so has been a matter of much speculation.This section will attempt to explore the disintegration of the aura within photography and film.

Baudrillard compares Benjamin’s view of technique to McLuhan’s famous “The Medium is the Message” (123).  Benjamin saw that ideological force subtends every technological breakthrough.  Yet rather than the stodgy old technophobe many see him as, Benjamin viewed the cinematic theories he propounds as “useful for revolutionary demands in the politics of art,” whereas these same concepts are also, from his point of view, “completely useless for the purposes of fascism” (“Work of Art,” SW IV.252).  Benjamin’s goal, then, is revolution through art.  This is the communist politicizing of art with which he closes his “Work of Art” essay, echoing Brecht’s “art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”  The true evil for Benjamin is the fascist aestheticization of  politics. 

Any effort to “launch a systematic confrontation between art and photography was destined to founder at the outset” (Arcades Y2a,6).  It is rather a “moment in the confrontation between art and technology—a confrontation brought about by history” (ibid. Emphasis mine).  This moment becomes the object of Benjamin’s ire.  Tracing the aura of images to mémoire involuntaire, he finds that “photography is decisively implicated in the phenomenon of a ‘decline of the aura’” (“Motifs in Baudelaire,” SW IV.338).  The experience of the aura of an object meant “to invest it with the ability to look back at us,” whereas “the camera records our likenesses without returning our gaze,” resulting in a “crisis in perception itself” (ibid.). 

The camera is assumed by modern man to be objective—the “lens which cuts through reality” (Baudrillard 51), resulting in a pure gaze.  Yet, “the ‘purity’ of this gaze is not just difficult but impossible to attain” (Arcades N7,5).  With the camera, “a touch of the finger sufficed to fix an event for an unlimited period of time” (“Motifs in Baudelaire,” SW IV.328).  Surprisingly that moment is not of arbitrary or unknown length, but correlates exactly to the shutter speed: the length of time the shutter took in—perceived (perceptus, to take thoroughly)—light from the real.  Therefore, “the photograph, in contrast to the painting, can and must be correlated with a well-defined and continuous segment of time (exposure time)” (Arcades Y10,2), and we are thus given a “mirror that remembers” (Y8a,7).  Photography is situated comfortably within the realm of reproduction, which “differs unmistakably from the image.  Uniqueness and permanence are as closely entwined in the latter as are transitoriness and repeatability in the former” (“Work of Art,” SW IV.255). 

Sarah Roff’s insightful essay on “Benjamin and Psychoanalysis” proposes that “psychoanalysis had in fact become a model for his conceptualization of film” (129).  Benjamin saw the camera as the way in which “we first discover the optical unconscious” (“Work of Art,” SW IV.266), thereby linking his cinematic critique to psychoanalysis.  Likewise,

the social significance of film, even—and especially—in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic side: the liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage. (254)


To do a Benjaminian critique of film, then, involves combining psychoanalysis and Marxism revealing the social effects of film’s technique and content.

Film seeks to “induce heightened attention” in its viewer through a train of images continuously interrupted by new images, giving way to a “shock effect” (267).  The result, as Baudrillard saw, is that

no contemplation is possible.  The images fragment perception into successive sequences, into stimuli toward which there can be only instantaneous response, yes or no—the limit of an abbreviated reaction.  Film no longer allows you to question.  It questions you, and directly.  (119)


Concordantly there is a breakdown between perception and cognition.  Stimuli can no longer be “taken thoroughly” into the unconscious where they can in turn be mined for the impressions Reik spoke of earlier: Video ergo sum.  The film then functions in the same way as all tests: “as a fundamental form of control” (Baudrillard 116).  Film forces its viewers into a medium plentiful of reproduc(ed)ible “images” and devoid of cognition.

These images have only ironic correspondence to Benjamin’s dialectical image in that the former are always a transition and the latter is a purposeful freeze frame—dialectics at a standstill.  Cinematic frames are always seen within an implied continuity, “where the way in which each single image is understood appears prescribed by the sequence of all the preceding images” (“Work of Art,” SW IV.258).  This effect is due to the principle of persistence of retinal images” (Arcades Y7a,1 quoting Villiers).  The eye is continually updating itself, only taking in images at a speed of about 10 fps (frames per second).  The images are then combined by the brain into a seeming continuity.  For this reason, “a movement decomposed, and presented in a rhythm of ten images or more per second is perceived by the eye as a perfectly continuous movement” (ibid.).  The standard speed of film (as opposed to video) is 24 fps, well above the 10 necessary trick the eye into imposing continuity. 

Before a continuity can be reached, however, the actual movement must be decomposed, “the refuse- and decay phenomena [are] precursors, in some degree mirages, of the great synthesis that follow…film, their center” (Y1,4).  Film, then, is a “fermenter,” or “catalytic agen[t] which provoke[s] or accelerate[s] the decomposition … of other organic substances” (Y1a,2 quoting Meyer), the substances in question being aspects of the real itself—for what could be more organic than the real?  Benjamin also quotes Meyer as calling film one of the three “achievements of modern technology…the art of light and fire” (ibid.).

The real’s continuity is further broken and seemingly reinforced through the editing process.  The film we see, “is by no means a unified whole, but is assembled” (“Work of Art,” SW IV.261), so as to create a false continuity, the same which the apologia sought to enshrine (Arcades N9a,5).  Therefore film’s “illusory nature … is the result of editing” (“Work of Art,” SW IV.263), leading to the sense of false objectivity inherent in all cinema.  It is this aspect that makes film

the most significant [presentation of reality] for people today, since it provides the equipment-free aspect of reality…precisely on the basis of the most intensive interpenetration of reality with equipment.  (264)


Ironically we treat this “interpenetration of reality with equipment” as though we had finally achieved a pure view of reality—an impossibly hubristic undertaking.

            The present day appears as an audience member in the theatre of historicism.  Watching the film, historical materialism refuses to let “the true image of the past fli[t] by,” seizing it instead, seeing it as “an irretrievable image of the past which threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intended in that image” (“Concept of History,” SW IV.390-1).  “The seer’s gaze,” of the historical materialist, “is kindled by the rapidly receding past,” of historicism’s film (“Paralipomena,” SW IV.407).  It is this kindling that leads Benjamin to seek a universal history whose “structural principle…allows it to be represented in partial history…in other words, a monadological principle” (404).  His blasting leads then to partial glimpses of this universal history, which “in the present-day sense is never more than a kind of Esperanto,” the ideal universal language which was never achieved (ibid.).  Universal history, like the ironically named Esperanto, is not only to be hoped for, but, as it is inherently impossible, to be waited for without hope. 

We may juxtapose this ideal history with the false history of historicism, which is nothing but “a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin to reassure us of our ends, since ultimately we never believed in them” (Baudrillard 19), serving to elucidate the present social significance of film: “the imaginary as a means to regenerate a reality principle in distress” (27).  Ritualistic cult art gave way to science, which “accounts for things previously encircled and formalized so as to be sure to obey it.  ‘Objectivity’ is nothing else than that” (115).  All objective views of reality—science, the news-media, the cinematic “studio system” et al.—“have already tested ‘reality,’ and have asked only questions that ‘answered back’ to them (120).  Objectivity is then nothing more than systematized consensus terrorism whereby the masses are made to conform to society’s standards.

A rebellion against Historicism “carr[ies] over the principle of montage into history…grasp[ing] the construction of history as…the structure of commentary” (Arcades N2,6).  Montage allows Benjamin to use the decomposing refuse of history (N1a,8) by “citing without quotes” (N1,10).  By not forcing a false continuity he allows his readers to form their own commentary, and therefore to realize that the commentary provided them by the predominating view of reality is nothing but a false objectivity. 

Benjamin advocates what Baudrillard called “severe interrogation of [the real’s] scattered fragments—neither metaphor nor metonymy: successive immanence under the policing structure of the look” (143).  Presently,

the cool world of digitality has absorbed the world of metaphor and metonymy.  The principle of simulation wins out over the reality principle just as over the principle of pleasure.  (152)


The breakdown of metaphor/metonymy leads to Benjamin’s untraditional critical standpoint: history and technology bleed together in literary and cinematic criticism.  The Matrix provides a key text in investigating these themes.


Into the Matrix[2]

In 1999, the Wachowski brothers revolutionized film making with The Matrix, which became the first in a series of three films depicting a post-apocalyptic dystopia where nothing is but what seems.  This section will attempt to carry over some of Benjamin’s theories of art, society, philosophy and technology into a critique of The Matrix’s form and function.

The introductory chapter (B.1) presents an adaptation of Benjamin’s introductory entry in convolute N: “knowledge comes only in lightning flashes.  The text is the long roll of thunder that follows” (Arcades N1,1).  Baudelaire’s recounting of the passing woman illustrates beautifully the philosopher’s love of truth.

The Matrix trilogy is full of scenes that remind the viewer of earlier movies—scenes that “cite without quotes,”—but two influences are prevalent: Hitchcock and Dark City.  Hitchcock’s opening scene of Vertigo (B.2) becomes one of the first scenes in The Matrix (B.3).  Whether the brothers Wachowski intended this as homage or plagiarism is irrelevant.  It provides a method to the perceived madness of their style.  Just as the survivors of the machine wars live in a world built on and of refuse and decay, so The Matrix is built upon and out of the debris of previous films.

Whereas Hitchcock gives The Matrix its techniques, Dark City provides much of the content of the films.  Dark City deals with the issues of memory and reality in a much deeper level than The Matrix.  Its inhabitants have been abducted by aliens who want to psychoanalyze humans in order to save their own society.  The aliens have placed the humans in a false city, “Dark City,” with false memories, and then proceed to switch those people around and give them new memories, observing the changes.  One of the main characters is a detective whose predecessor, Wallinski, seems to have gone insane.  The truth is, Wallinski—having woken up without having his memory erased—is actually the only one who knows what is really happening.  The detective interviews Wallinski (B.4), who tells him that there “is no case.”  The characters of Dark City have been overdosed with Erinnerung in order to displace whatever Gedachtnis they may have.

Looking at The Matrix itself we see a preponderance of extra-cinematic refuse adopted as well.  The first is Simulacra and Simulation (B.6), which appears early on and in an altered form.  The book Neo opens labeled Simulacra and Simulation is not an actual copy of that book.  It is much larger and older, and he opens it to reveal a hidden storage space cut out of the prop-book at a chapter entitled, “On Nihilism”—which does not appear in Baudrillard’s book.  When Neo exits the computerized matrix within which he was incarcerated, he does so by placing his hand through a mirror, a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass—one of many references to Carroll, actually.  On another level the scene works as an embodiment of Benjamin’s conception of

The film actor’s feeling of estrangement in the face of the apparatus … is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s appearance in a mirror.  But now the mirror image has become detachable from the person mirrored and is transportable. (“Work of Art,” SW IV.323)


Rather than going through the mirror, the mirror goes through him.  Neo’s world had been replaced by information—sensory information he perceived as reality.  Leaving the matrix brings him face to face with Erfahrung for the first time.  Neo’s entrance into the real world, his “second birth” complete with amniotic fluid, reveals the continuity of tradition as mere semblance—prior to awakening, “the persistence of this semblance of persistence provide[d] it with continuity” (Arcades N19,1).  Neo then comes face to face with the masses, discovering that they are nothing but a source of power for the dominant ideology.

            On board Morpheus’ ship Neo is brought up to speed on his current situation (B.7).  Morpheus’ reaction to Neo’s “Where am I?” is exactly wrong.  “Where” is the most important thing: without being outside of the matrix none of the rest of this would matter.  Yet simultaneously, “when” gives Neo the most pertinent information: that his world is a reproduction of the past.  Neo is then “shown” the matrix by entering into a computer front-end tool: “the construct.”  Morpheus defines empirical reality as “electrical signals interpreted by your brain,” leading the viewer to wonder if there is a non-empirical reality.  Before the viewer can form any impressions though, we are whisked off into a retelling of human history (or “futurity,” depending on our perspective).  Morpheus utilizes video-montage to show rather than say what the matrix is.  The camera moves through the television screen into Baudrillard’s “desert of the real,” and pans down onto the characters whose points of view were just imitated by the camera a moment ago.  One cannot tell whether Neo’s shock is in finding himself in a hellish future, or in having his empathy with the camera (see “Work of Art,” SW IV.260) betrayed.  What follows in Morpheus’ description is a montage of Baudrillardian philosophy made physical. 

            Baudrillard’s Ecclesiastical epigraph, “the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none,” (1) is reflected twice in The Matrix.  Most obviously it lies behind the mantra which undercuts all the action in the matrix: “there is no spoon” (B.8).  To a lesser degree it is also referenced in the misquoting of Baudrillard’s book mentioned earlier.  By misquoting Baudrillard (whimsically inserting “On Nihilism), they quote him on a deeper level: his own misquoting of Ecclesiastes.  It is through Baudrillard that Benjamin’s influence enters The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers having read the latter through the former.

Neo uses the spoon mantra as a way in which to “read the real like a text” (Arcades N4,2); thus enabling him to perform superhuman feats.  Neo is later reminded of the spoon by an orphan in the “real world” of Zion.  Instead of realizing that this spoon in Zion is no more “real” than one in the matrix, he takes it as a way to reinstill his world with a feeling of reality and continuity.  While the orphan, “said [Neo] would understand,” Neo’s response betrays his lack of understanding.  Rather than investigating the metaphysical implications of the spoon, he reminisces on his first awakening.

            In his initial description of the matrix (B.9), Morpheus gives Neo a “choice:” between a red pill and a blue pill.  Ironically, the shot in which Neo is presented with this “choice” is an illusion.  It had to be computer generated.  There is no way to have the sunglasses reflect both pills, Neo’s hands, and not the camera without using a computer to seal the illusion.  The Merovingian’s paraphrase of Michel Foucault in the second film reveals this “choice” for what it is: “an illusion created between those with power and those without.”

            The major technological innovation of the Matrix was a cinematic technique termed “bullet-time.”  Bullet-time (B.11) is a method whereby the director can seemingly freeze, or almost freeze, time and move the camera around the subject at will.  It creates the illusion of omnipotent objectivity by its initial illusion of continuity.  What actually occurs is that the subject is surrounded by a multitude of cameras—video and still (see Appendix C, Figure 1).  A semi-circle is created with the two video cameras on the ends and all the still cameras in between.  The first video camera is set at whatever speed the director was filming at previously in the scene.  While the actor stands in the middle of the semi-circle, the still cameras each take one picture of the action, but in rapid sequence, beginning with the camera closest to the first video camera and moving around the circle (Figure 2) until it reaches the second video camera, which catches the end of the action and transitions into the next shot.  A green screen stands between the actor and camera, so that it is never actually photographed by the other cameras.  Later, a background is superimposed on that screen by a computer.  We are thus introduced to a new level of false objectivity in film.  Rather than one camera with a multitude of frames, we are now faced with a multitude of cameras.  The supposed objectivity of a single omnipotent camera is actually a multitude of shots taken by subjective cameras (Figure 3) and edited into a false continuity.  Nothing moves around the actor but the idea of the omnipotent camera.  All the actual cameras remain motionless.

            The Matrix yields much philosophical fruit if we allow the breakdown between metaphor and metonymy, while retaining the synthomic idea that none of this is real, but may still be useful.  The final scenes in the provided DVD (B.12), provide ample opportunity to develop ideas about Benjamin’s theories of reproduction and art coupled with Baudrillard’s views of hyperreality and simulation.  Any analysis of the trilogy must fall short of absolute knowledge, and this paper is not exempt.  While I have addressed many of the major technological and thematic trends in the first film, and a few from the second, much more remains to be done.


Plato’s Theatre

I find the central image of Benjamin’s theory of film in his quote from Luigi Pirandello: “the little apparatus will play with his shadow before the audience, and he himself must be content to play before the apparatus” (“Work of Art,” SW IV.260).  The ambiguity that arises between camera and projector betrays the desire to have a true continuity where none exists.  The thoughts expressed are echoed by Jack Johnson’s Inaudible Melodies,

Frame-lines tell me what to see
Chopping like an axe
Or maybe Eisenstein

Should just relax

Slow down everyone
You're moving too fast
Frames can't catch you when
You're moving like that

Well Plato's cave is full of freaks
Demanding refunds for the things they've seen
I wish they could believe
In all the things that never made the screen


The theatre becomes a reincarnation of Plato’s cave allegory.[3]  Caged within the cave we take the shadows of cinema for reality—to us, “the truth [is] literally nothing but the shadows of the images” (Plato 266).  We assimilate the false objectivity of the camera as our own, and think we have a “true” view of the real, when we are further from it than ever before.

In the facsimile of the aura that is film, we have witnessed the complete disintegration of the aura.  By Benjamin’s definition of art, film cannot be beautiful because it represents nothing but itself.  Yet it can still be both useful and enjoyable.  We must remember however, that Benjamin’s view was influenced heavily both by his position in history (the 1930’s), and the position of his object: the nineteenth century.  In addressing the postmodern age of the hyperreal, we must take Benjamin’s theories into account without letting him have the last word.  Benjamin opened doors that have yet to be thoroughly investigated, and cinematic critique provides an excellent starting point for further exploration.


Appendix A: DVD Table of Contents

1.      Un éclair

2.      Vertigo

3.      Citing without Quotes,

4.      Dark City on Memory

5.      Dark City on Class Struggle

6.      Simulations and Through the Looking Glass

7.      What is the Matrix?

8.      Spoonman

9.      “Choice”

10.  Symbiosis

11.  Bullet-time

12.  Smith Duplicitous

Appendix C: Figures


Figure 1
Figure 2                                                                        Figure 3
Works Cited


Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Phillip Beitchman, New York: Semiotext[e], 1983.


Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, London: Harvard University Press, Volume IV, 1999.


---.  “On the Concept of History.”  Selected Works. Trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. Ed. Michael Jennings. Volume 4.  London: Harvard University Press, 2002.  389-400.


---.  “On Semblance.”  Selected Works. Trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. Ed. Michael Jennings. Volume 1.  London: Harvard University Press, 1996.  223-225.


---.  “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.”  Selected Works. Trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. Ed. Michael Jennings. Volume 4.  London: Harvard University Press, 2002.  313-355.


---.  “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History.’”  Selected Works. Trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. Ed. Michael Jennings. Volume 4.  London: Harvard University Press, 2002.  401-411.


---.  “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.”  Selected Works. Trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. Ed. Michael Jennings. Volume 4.  London: Harvard University Press, 2002.  251-283.


Dark City.  Dir. Alex Proyas.  New Line, 1998.


Johnson, Jack.  “Inaudible Melodies.”  Brushfire Fairytales.  Universal, 2002.  Track 1.


The Matrix.  Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski.  Warner Brothers, 1999.


The Matrix Reloaded.  Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski.  Warner Brothers, 2003.


The Matrix Revolutions.  Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski.  Warner Brothers, 2003.


Pensky, Max.  “Method and Time: Benjamin’s Dialectical Images.”  The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin.  Ed. David S. Ferris.  New York: Cambridge, 2004.  177-198.


Plato. “The Republic.”  The Essential Plato.  Trans. Benjamin Jowett.  New York: Quality Paperback, 1999.


Roff, Sara Ley.  “Benjamin and Psychoanalysis.” The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin.  Ed. David S. Ferris.  New York: Cambridge, 2004.  115-133.


Vertigo.  Dir. Alfred Hitchcock.  Universal, 1958.

[1] “A lightning-flash…then night!—O fleeting beauty

Whose glance suddenly gave me new life,

Shall I see you again only in eternity?” (“Motifs in Baudelaire,” SW IV.323)

[2] The DVD that accompanies this paper will be referred to as “Appendix B” in the following sections on The Matrix.  Reference will be to appendix and chapter numbers e.g. “B.1” for the first chapter of the DVD.  Appendix A provides a Table of Contents for the DVD, which may be helpful for reference. 

[3] “Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.” (Plato 265)


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Copyright (c) 2004 Jason Helms.
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