Trinity’s comment to the Analyst in “The Matrix Resurrections” and how the sequels correct the original (spoiler alert)

I’ve written about the new film The Matrix Resurrections already (see “Lana Wachowski, The Matrix Resurrections, and our hypocrisy?”). But I’ve been inspired to write more. My friend and former colleague, Nate Bostain, compiled an excellent series of thoughts about/insights into Resurrections: “Resurrecting the Matrix: An Ideological Review”. And while I agree with the bulk of what he wrote, I have one soft- contention. Nate writes about Resurrections, “I loved it almost as much as the first one. It is the true sequel to Matrix 1. Matrix 2 and 3 are largely non-necessary for the story arc (although I love them too in their own peculiar and awkward way).” I must respectfully disagree that The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are unnecessary. In fact, it was rewatching the whole trilogy that made The Matrix Resurrections the film that it is for me. I don’t think it would’ve had the same impact without Reloaded and Revolutions. Let me see if I can explain my rationale.

While I wouldn’t say that Lana Wachowski has denounced the original film, I do see in the subsequent films a concern being expressed by her and her sister: a concern that people will take the original premise—that of freeing your mind and liberating yourself from the falsehoods of this reality in favor of the real “real”—too seriously. If you google something like “right-wing red pill meme,” you’ll see dozens on articles, including a recent one by Derek Robertson for Politico that attempts to explain how the new film is trying to undo some of the damage of the original: “‘The Matrix Resurrections’ Tries to Un-Red Pill America”. I won’t go down that rabbit hole but do check out some of those articles if this interpretation of the Matrix is new to you.

In Resurrections, Neo is skeptical of this concept of “the real”. He says, “‘Real.’ There’s that word again.” I sense that this is Wachowski talking to us. And this makes many viewers, especially those used to the clean-heroism of the Marvel Universe with its good v. bad binary, uneasy. (Note: that “binary” is a theme in this film, and I don’t think its message is limited to the fluidity of gender.) Bugs, an embodiment of Matrix-fandom, says, “That’s it, isn’t it? If we don’t know what’s real, we can’t resist.” And in Resurrections, the once clear enemy—the machines—aren’t clearly the enemy anymore. As Nate noted, even Agent Smith can have a heroic role now.

This is the great contribution of Reloaded and Revolutions: the sequels took us out of the seat of the hero and implicated us. They humbled anyone who thought they were enlightened, who thought they had escaped Plato’s cave, who thought they achieved special gnosis, and made us recognize that the story may be more complicated. We’re all a part of the Matrix, even Neo. Whether that Matrix is rogue-capitalism, the military-industrial complex, or something else that can be interpreted as dehumanizing, we’re not free from it, even if we criticize it, or fight against it. But that means that if old rivalries between Neo and Agent Smith can become tentative alliances, and if the humans and the machines can find peace, then any of us can be the hero given the context (and any of us can become a villain, I presume). And it means our best path forward might be a bit of epistemological skepticism. The definite non-solution seems to be having a savior complex (unless like Neo in Revolutions there’s some “cruciformity” and self-sacrifice involved.)

There’s a sense in Resurrections that something has gone wrong in the reception history of the Matrix franchise. What went wrong is that the corrective that the sequels attempted has failed—and part of this is because many people, myself included for a time, brushed aside the second and third films because they didn’t shock our brains like the original. People still ooh-and-aah at the “originality” of the first film. During what I found to be a brilliant several minutes of Resurrections, where Neo begins to have an existential crisis as “Matix IV” is being planned, one character says of the original “video game,” i.e. the original film, “What made Matrix different? It F’d with your head!” This is what we missed. I remember, after watching The Matrix for the first time, spending several days in a philosophical spiral trying to understand what “reality” was. This is what many wanted from Resurrections, and they’ve been disappointed. As the now humbled Merovingian says, meta-critiquing the critics by being their frazzled voice: “Art, films, books were all better! Originally mattered!” But the Wachowskis didn’t want the message to end with the original. They didn’t want to just “F” with our brains. They didn’t want us to see ourselves as the Neo of the original film. That’s why they spent two films deconstructing the first and why Resurrections continues this project, even if it irritates much of their fanbase.

These are the reasons why in Reloaded and Revolutions we discover that Neo isn’t “the One,” at least in the sense that the original implied. There’s no outside-the-system messiah to save us. We learn in the sequels that the Matrix had gone through several renditions already, each with “the One,” planned by the Architect as a way of managing an anomaly. Neo is necessary, as “the One,” to keep the system functioning. The system planned for him. And Resurrections even hints that the Matrix gains even more power from his angst and frustration.

We’ve learned from the past three films that the messianism of the original isn’t enlightening at all. Instead, these forms of messianism are fed to us as a way of, paradoxically, maintaining the status quo. When Neo escapes the Matrix in the original it’s just a matter of time until he realizes he’s still under its control and always will be. Likewise, many self-proclaimed messiahs, and even basic fans who see themselves as Neo in some way, are just as much a part of the system that they hope to overthrow.

So, if Wachowski has deconstructed our romantic visions of heroes and enlightenment, where do we go next? Are we being told to just be satisfied with our own individual matrixes because “escape” isn’t really an option? Maybe all we have are the stories we tell ourselves to make us feel better. As Agent Smith says, “That’s the thing about stories. They never really end, do they? We’re still telling the same stories we’ve always told, just with different names, different faces.” I don’t know where this franchise goes from here. I imagine Lana Wachowski would enjoy mic dropping at this point, letting the series end here (though Warner Bros won’t allow that, guaranteed). But if it continues, as it likely will, the ending of Resurrections opened the door for a new and more expansive interpretation, though it comes from a cryptic statement toward the end.

At the end, when Trinity and Neo are talking to the Analyst, something caught my attention. The Analyst says to Trinity and Neo:

“Here’s the thing: the ‘sheeple’ aren’t going anywhere. They like my world. They don’t want this sentimentality. They don’t want freedom or empowerment. They want to be controlled. They crave the comfort of certainty.”

Neo and Trinity respond in a way that shows that they accept this premise but then they tell the Analyst that they’re in the Matrix to “remake your world”. So, they concede that they may not be able to “free” everyone from the Matrix but maybe that isn’t the goal. Maybe the red pill isn’t as important as Morpheus made it to be. Maybe Trinity and Neo will stay in the Matrix themselves, reshaping it. What’s the subtext here? I don’t know. Maybe Lana Wachowski doesn’t know either. But one thing we do know is this: the past three films have partially renounced the first, so if we’re to appreciate the genius of these stories we must accept that the first film got us in the door to hear the message that the Wachowskis really wanted to deliver—a message you can’t understand without the sequels.


Defining ‘religion’: four options

In Units 1.3, ‘Family Resemblance v. Suprahuman Essentialism’, and 1.6, ‘The Three B’s: Belief, Behavior, and Belonging’, I’ll be introducing a handful of definitions of religion to my students who are taking ‘Religion in Global Context’ this year. Unit 1.3’s first draft is finished. Unit 1.6 will be complete next week, probably. I’ll share them in due time. For now, I’m writing out some of my thoughts on these definitions as part of my thinking-process.

Family Resemblance

The first theory, and the one that probably resonates the most with me personally, is the ‘Family Resemblance’ theory. This way of defining religion is inspired by the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on the definition of words. Wittgenstein challenges the idea that there can be a definition of the word ‘game’, as one example, that actually represents all the things we call ‘games’.

In his book, Philosophical Investigations (§ 66), Wittgenstein asks these questions:

“Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. – Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared!”

As we can see, there are board, card, and ball games. There are games we play without an opponent. There are games without a winner/loser. There are games like ‘ring-a-ring-a-roses’ played by kids that are for pure fun/amusement. We might say that this game has a goal (fun! falling!) and rules (sing this song until you fall down). But does it have a feedback system? If someone doesn’t fall, can they still have fun? Do they ‘lose’? You get the idea.

In an excellent summary of Wittgenstein’s thinking, ‘Wittgenstein: Family Resemblance’ (very much worth reading in its entirety), FEEST.IO says this:

‘The ‘family’ that constitute games may share various features between them, but need not all share any one feature, like in the following sets:

{A,B,C} {B,C,D} {C,D,E} {D,E,F}

‘We see here that ‘C’ is common to the first three sets but not the fourth just as balls may be common to rugby, golf and tennis but not chess. However, golf, tennis and chess share the feature of being non-contact whereas rugby does not. We would call all of these activities games, however, even if they are not united by any singular property.’

The same might be true of religion. Maybe four religions have divine beings but the fifth doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it’s not a religion. It just means that not all religions share the exact same features.

To see this idea applied to religion, I recommend Andrew Mark Henry’s ‘What is Religion?’:

Suprahuman Essentialism

Of course, what bothers some philosophers is that Wittgenstein’s family resemblance approach seems to leave the door open for all sorts of things to be considered a ‘religion’ including sports, Wall Street, and even Coca-Cola. Yes, Coca-Cola. See Henry’s view on that idea here:

So, while I don’t know of anyone who would argue in a Platonic/Augustinian sense that the word ‘religion’ has some essential meaning—some ‘form’ if you will—there are scholars like the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith who advocate for definitions that at least include some sort of suprahuman being. This isn’t a ‘superhuman’, per se, but something above human. Let me share Smith’s definition from his book,  Religion: What it Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, p. 22 (emphasis mine):

Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on premises about the existence and nature of superhuman powers, whether personal or impersonal, which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate or align with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad.

Smith’s definition covers a lot of ground. It can include more ‘personal’ gods like those common to forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It can include the dynamic found in Hinduism which has both a monoid (Brahman) and various gods. It can include ‘the Dao’ of Daoism, which is impersonal, and sort of like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars mythology. It can include ancestors and their veneration, as we find in all sorts of cultures. But it rejects all non-theistic ‘religions’, whether that be a form of Buddhism, Confucianism, Satanism, Dudeism, whatever.

The Albanese Definition

Catherine Albanese of UC Santa Barbara has a definition of religion known popularly as the ‘4 C’s’ listed in her book, America: Religion and Religions (the summary of which I’m drawing from Joseph P. Laycock’s Speak of the Devil, pp. 118-119):

  1. Creed: ‘an explanation about the meaning of human life’;
  2. Code: ‘rules than govern human behavior’;
  3. Cultus: ‘rituals that perform the creed and codes’;
  4. Communities: ‘that are bound together by the other three elements’.

The Bostian Definition

My colleague, Nate Bostian, has one more C. His definition of religion that’s he taught students is this. Religion is:

A Religion is a shared CONSCIOUSNESS of Ultimate Reality, Supreme Value, or Collective Identity, which is bounded by a shared CREED of beliefs about the world and humanity, a shared CODE of moral values and standards, and a shared CULT of sacred rituals and events, – all of which unify and bind together an identifiable COMMUNITY of persons.

In essence, this definition is an agreement between Smith and Albanese.

I won’t push my students to choose one. In fact, I hope that the course continues to complicate their understanding. They’ll learn about a variety of religions with Hinduism and Judaism receiving the most attention. Confucianism will be highlighted toward the end to complicate matters further. They’ll encounter Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Pastafarianism, and Dudeism, at least. As you can see from that list, some of these aren’t religions by one definition but are religions by another.

Educating in the Era of COVID-19: Week 1

The first week of digital/online learning is coming to an end. Monday was a day of preparation and the releasing of some online assignments. Tuesday‘s highlight was meeting with my advisees on Google Meet and posting more assignments. Wednesday was my first opportunity to check-in with my students as each class session became a Google Meet and a good percentage of my students made an appearance. Thursday including posting more assignments and using Google Meet to host our first online Philosophy Club meeting. Today, I did the bulk of my grading for the assignments from earlier in the week and participated in a faculty and staff meeting via Zoom.

I want to return to Thursday. Ten or so students joined our Philosophy Club meeting and they talked about COVID1-9, love, and capitalism (yes, it bounced a bit) for an entire hour. Most importantly, they did the talking. My colleague, Fr. Nate Bostian, and I were the adults in the online room, but they were the ones doing the philosophizing! The students enjoyed it so much that they want to do two meetings each week! Of course, I support this.

I hope all you students, parents, educators, and administrators are doing well after this week. I hope we’re being patient with one another and supportive. I’m sure we’re all trying to do our best during these difficult times.