Sunday, June 13, 2010

"Who Put These Fingerprints On My Imagination?"

adapted from an amazing book by St. David Dark:

"Who Put These Fingerprints
On My Imagination?"
Engaging the Matrix
Adapted from Everyday Apocalypse
David Dark

"Propaganda makes up our mind for us, but in such a way that it leaves us the sense of pride and satisfaction of men who have made up their own minds. And in the last analysis, propaganda achieves this effect because we want it to. This is one of the few real pleasures left to modern man: this illusion that he is thinking for himself when, in fact, someone else is doing his thinking for him."

--Thomas Merton

With the latest New York Times in one hand and a Bible (NRSV) in the other, we try to explain ourselves to ourselves. What compels me? How did these clichés manage to hijack my consciousness? What does it profit a person to gain all the homeland security in the world and forfeit his soul? What is the Matrix? Or, to borrow a line from Elvis Costello's "Green Shirt": "Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?" What man, mind, or monster did (is doing) this. When and how did our thoughts get to feeling like they're not entirely our own? And when did we agree to it? Who benefits from our sedation? Who colonized my brain space? How hard it is to prefer the pounding headache of looking hard at the world over the blissful, happy-ending incomprehensibility of Technicolor and the easy answer, simple explanation, sound-bite culture of Fox News Network.

As a high school English teacher in America, ever in desperate need of a difficult-to-contest analogy, I've found a very present help in the metaphorical value, maximum applicability, and effective citation afforded by The Matrix. While very few propositions go unchallenged in a good classroom discussion, the intense relevance of this film to the experience of your average American teenager is something of a no-brainer. My students often accuse me of madness, but they find nothing particularly controversial in my observation that The Matrix powerfully names and describes the forms of captivity into which we're born and within which we live and move and, by all appearances, have our being. They know that worlds have been constructed around them, physically and psychologically, as protection against many a perceived threat, and they understand that it is an effort oftentimes well-intentioned and always in progress. They also understand that they are a target market whose buying power sustains the economy and that enormous amounts of money, mind-power, and resources are expended anticipating and manipulating their desires.

They live with the notion that their speech and their way of looking at the worldthe  little red pill of reality are often the creation of television and market research. They are painfully familiar with the Trumanesque epiphany in which the words "I love you, man," whether spoken or heard, are part-joke, part-sincere, and part-conspiracy. They know what it means to be unsure as to whether your own laughter is genuine. When Lawrence Fishburne's Morpheus describes the Matrix as "a neural-interactive simulation," they don't have to stretch their imaginations to know what he's talking about. They know. It's obvious.

Although most of my students don't know what a metanarrative is, they have a pretty good idea after I suggest that The Matrix might be the most convincing metanarrative on offer in this present age of popular culture. They take personally the apocalyptic significance of films whose protagonists discover themselves in carefully scripted, immersive environments which create the illusion of freedom while using inhabitants to fuel their own death-dealing machinery. They know the joke's on them when a voice says, "Because we value you, our viewers/customers/clients...." And the bright colors, earnest-sounding voices, and lively music only serve to remind that someone (or something) is trying to create demand and move product. They don't like it particularly, but they don't see much in the way of available alternatives. As the popularity of the film suggests, any articulation of a spirit of resistance will have people lining up. As Dostoevsky observed, no one wants to want according to a little table, and the sense that they've been playing roles in a vast formula of market research, while occasionally consoling themselves with a packaged rebellion, isn't a realization anyone can sustain for long without becoming depressed. But there is something powerfully invigorating about imagining, especially in the company of young people, what it might mean to take the red pill of reality on a regular basis or to weather the storm to the limits of one's bubble and to break on through to the other side.

he Matrix has you.
What language shall we borrow to describe the length and breadth of our captivity? We can speak of the hegemony of multinational corporations over the human heart and mind, the preponderance of the Borg, or any of the many worlds of Philip K. Dick who never tired of employing fresh, outlandish articulations of how we go about lying to ourselves. But for sheer vastness and a monstrously effective borrowing from any number of available sources, little or nothing compares to The Matrix. Plato's allegory of the cave, for instance, certainly conveys the notion that we often warm ourselves by the fire of a cold delusion. But in The Matrix, we're conceived for the purpose of being plugged in. We're fuel for the prodigious machinery. The commodification knows no end. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Keanu Reeve' Neo is the Daysleeper ProtagonistKeanu Reeves' Neo is the daysleeper protagonist who, like many young (and increasingly not-so-young) people of the western world, has been raised on digital technology. By day, he sits in front of a computer screen in an office cubicle. By night, he's his own man, hacking legendarily into the early morning hours until he collapses at the computer beside his bed. The search is on, and it knows no satisfaction. It is unceasing. And while Neo wouldn't be able to tell you exactly what he's searching for, he has recently nailed it down to a specific, haunting question: "What is the Matrix?"

Something's in the air. Something's happening, and Neo possesses at least the beginnings of wisdom insofar as he knows that he doesn't know what it (the something) is. Everybody's looking for answers, we might say, but in Neo's world, it's perhaps better to admit that we don't even know the proper questions. Most of us are too busy grabbing and accumulating to even pause long enough to wonder or dream harder. We need a wake-up call, probably on a daily basis. Premeditated, protective stupidity or the non-conforming, ongoingly difficult path of being awake and alive. Choose.

"The Matrix has you." This message makes it through Neo by way of his computer. Its meaning will occupy the rest of the film alongside the apocalyptic discovery of what it can and must mean to wake up. When I first saw the film (on an Easter Sunday, appropriately enough), I couldn't help but think that our current, oft-discombobulated generation of Western culture was being given a sampling of language adequate to both its despair and its hope. When Neo is first introduced to Trinity, her words are tailor-made for the lone sojourner constantly found looking for answers (or less-than-edifying images) by way of the computer keyboard:

Please. Just listen. I know why you're here, Neo. I know what you've been doing. I know why you hardly sleep, why you live alone and why, night after night, you sit at the computer; you're looking for him...The answer is out there, Neo. It's looking for you and it will find you, if you want it to.

From here, it's back to the white-collar routine where he'll wait for something, anything, to happen. The Matrix does have him, for the time being, but he's about to be shaken by what is doubtless the fantastic daydream of many an employee in the workaday world of data entry. As he sits in his cubicle, he receives a call from the legendary hacker, Morpheus, who alerts him to the presence of "agents" who've come to take him away. For one glorious moment, Neo's office space is transformed into a playing field of real danger and cosmic significance. The interrogation that follows his capture is too fantastic, in Neo's view, to be accorded the name of reality. But as he will discover, his understanding of reality has been, to say the least, adulterated.

Copyright ©2003 by David Dark. Adapted from Everyday Apocalypse, published by Brazos Press


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