matrix descarteslookingfly

Cogito in the Matrix

This piece appears in the collection Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History (MIT Press, 2003)

Find what Descartes wanted, what it was possible for him to want, what he coveted, if only half consciously.
— Paul Valery

The only thing real is waking and rubbing your eyes.
— The Fall

Introduction: Techno Cogito

Of all the lumbering giants of the Western philosophical tradition, none resembles a punching bag more than René Descartes. He gets it from all sides: cognitive scientists and phenomenologists, post-structuralists and deep ecologists, lefty science critics and New Age holists. The main beef, of course, is the stark divide that Descartes drew between mind and body, a dualism that, by its very claim of rationality, now appears even more obscene than the religious dualisms that stretch back to Zarathustra. Nearly across the board, contemporary thought calls us to defend and affirm the body that Descartes rendered a machine, a soulless automata under our spiritual thumb. It doesn’t really matter that the body so affirmed is itself multiple and even contradictory: the materialist object of biology, the phenomenological bed of Being, a feminist site of anti-patriarchal critique, the New Age animal immersed in Gaia’s enchanted web. Regardless of the framework, the song remains the same: we are bodyminds deeply embedded in the world. For many thinkers now, the sort of abstract, disengaged soul-pilot pictured by Descartes — the “I” immortalized in the famous cogito ergo sum — is not only bad thinking, but, ideologically speaking, bad news.

In many ways I share this urge to trace the networks that embed consciousness in phenomenal reality, and to insist on the extraordinary (though not exclusive) value of causal explanations rooted in the history of matter. But I am no absolutist. The fact that Descartes keeps popping up like a Jack-in-the-box suggests that a splinter of the cogito remains in our minds, some fragmentary intuition or insightful glimpse that we cannot accommodate and so wall off in order to reject. I am not interested in philosophically defending the cogito, or at least the metaphysical cogito we are familiar with: the rational and disengaged instrumentalist manipulating the empty machinery of matter. But I am interesting in probing for that splinter, which I suspect is lodged somewhere in the apparently yawning gap between self-conscious awareness and the phenomenal world — a gap that, despite some hearty attacks from nondualists East and West, continues to inform subjectivity.

One zone that magnifies this gap is technoculture. Cyberspace and its allies (AI, VR, robotics) are shot through, on socio-cultural, methodological and philosophical planes, with a profound if often unconscious Cartesianism. First and foremost, this Cartesianism is what one might call “technical:” the operating assumption that the mathematical recoding of reality is the golden road to the mastery of nature. But this assumption has powerful and various socio-cultural ramifications as well. As we’ll see, some archetypal technopop fantasies — downloaded minds, manipulative technological demiurges, the breakdown between VR and real life — derive in part from the Cartesian imagination.

One field of technoculture particularly marked by Cartesian assumptions is Artificial Intelligence. Classical AI conceives the mind as a disembodied symbolic processor manipulating representations and information in order to reason about and influence the world. Perception, sensation, and behavior are seen as inputs and outputs of an essentially logical machine, a machine whose essential activity is, to take an example fetishized by the AI community, expressed in chess. Though starkly reductive when compared to humanist or existential conceptions of consciousness, classical AI has the peculiar characteristic of reinforcing the familiar “Christian” priority of mind over matter. [1] The ultimate fantasized outcome of this line of thought, famously characterized in chilling detail by the Carnegie Mellon roboticist Hans Moravec, is the ability to upload the mind into silicon — effectively immortalizing the subject. After all, since there is nothing magical about the processes that coax the mind from our neural flesh, then nothing in theory should prevent a computer from simulating an individual brain to such a degree that the self originally booted up by the physical brain couldn’t re-emerge inside the simulacrum.

In light of the pivotal role that absolute doubt plays in Descartes’ Meditations — the doubt that calls into question the existence of the world presented by our senses — it is important to underscore how thoroughly the uploading scenario depends on erasing the material distinction between reality and copy. In essence, the argument goes, we already live inside a virtual reality; sights, sounds, textures and flavors are all ghosts in the brain, woven out of pre-configured cognitive patterns and the incoming signals we receive from senses that shape those signals on the fly. These signals do not carry the things themselves, but only information about those things. In this view, I am not tied to the world. “I” am a kind of foam that forms atop a swirling stew of memory, perception, and various recursive loops staged in the virtual operations of the brain. However, the flipside of this rather contingent if not degrading view of subjectivity is that the self that might one day find itself a computer would be, for all intents and purposes, me. The difference between the material brain and the simulated brain does not effect the ontological status of the mind that arises from the formal operations of both organic and synthetic neural networks.

Unfortunately, classical AI hasn’t been able to make much practical headway over the decades , and this failure has created room for rival theories and strategies to arise. In the 1980s, the MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks helped revolutionize his field with ideas that challenged the symbolic and Cartesian assumptions of AI. Instead of the classical approach to automata, which attempts to program them with complex centralized symbolic representations of the world around them, Brooks imagined robots who learned about their environment by exploring it according to simple behaviors distributed throughout the mechanism. The results of these simple interactions are then subsumed into higher global behaviors — a “bottom up” rather than “top down” approach. Tellingly, the inspiration for Brooks’ first robots were not chess-playing automata, but insects.

Even from Brooks’ own pragmatic perspective, his ideas were always more than mere design strategies. Turning away from the Cartesian premises of classical AI, Brooks held that cognition emerges from the history and memory of the organism’s interactions with the world around it, interactions which are thoroughly distributed throughout the body. In human beings, the increasingly complex behaviors emerging from lower-order processes ultimately lead to consciousness, but at no point does some distinct, underlying, and potentially self-sustaining formal symbolic language of representation pop up. To be conscious is to be engaged in a world that embeds and defines the subject.

One can overplay the conflict between symbolic and behaviorist AI — the “society of mind” model championed by Marvin Minksy, a towering figure in classical AI, shares a number of important characteristics with many of the more “bottom up” theories of human consciousness. But for most cultural theorists who have waded into the field, the distinction is key. For many critics, the rationalist Enlightenment ideals that undergird classical AI are just as ripe for attack as the rest of the Enlightenment project, whereas the behaviorist AI model can be seen to affirm pet concepts like contingency, relativity, and situated embodiment. In How We Became Posthuman, for example, N. Katherine Hayles has offered, in the name of a sophisticated account of embodiment, a historically rich critique of the rhetoric of disembodiment found in much AI and cybernetics. She shows how the apparent incorporeality of information — an incorporeality which is essential for the uploading model — is itself the product of ideological forces and institutional practices which serve to obscure the social and material bases that circulate and produce information. In this latest transform of historical materialism, then, the tension between Brooks and Minksy involved a distinctly moral dimension. As noted by Michael Mateas, a creator of a number of AI-based artworks, “[behaviorist AI] is associated with freedom and human rights and [classical AI] with oppression and subjugation.” [2]

Readers of cultural theory should be familiar with the various associations and lines of thought that would lead to the denigration of symbolic AI, as the science is so clearly open to critiques of patriarchy, logocentricity and the white privilege of disembodiment. It may also be the case that the Cartesian project will contribute little to the task of constructing mobile machine minds (the jury is still out). But the philosophical and even psychological underpinnings of Cartesianism are not so easily written off, let alone banished. As Slajov Zizek notes, academia continues to be haunted by the specter of the Cartesian cogito. In other words, we have by no means sealed up the mad void out of which the cogito first arose — a void which in some sense founds modernity. So whatever happens to the vast edifice of rationalist procedures derived from Cartesian science and mathematics, the splinter of Descartes’ true cross — the cogito — will continue to puncture the increasingly posthuman spaces of technoculture. In fact, I take Zizek at his cryptic word when he claims that Cartesian subjectivity is not only alive and kicking, but that only now, in the age of the Internet, are we truly arriving at it.

I. The Evil Genie

With his otherworldly skepticism, Descartes cracked open the ontologically consistent universe of the premodern mind. He split the “great chain of being,” and that split became the subject, a creature he came to identify as a rational and individual soul fundamentally divorced from the world of extension. How did Descartes, through his own philosophical unfolding, open up this revolutionary split? As he explains in the Meditations, he begins by undermining his conventional habits of thought and perception through the operation of hyperbolic doubt. Sitting robed at his fire, holding a piece of paper not so different than the one you’re now reading, Descartes subjects himself to a series of “what if?” scenarios, soberly swallowing the conceivable possibility that he might be insane, or dreaming, or that an evil genie, “exceedingly potent and deceitful,” might be conjuring up the illusions that he takes to be reality.

The next stage of the story is well-known: having plumbed the pit of doubt, Descartes realizes that even if reality is an elaborate deception engineered by an evil demon, there remains someone who is being deceived. To put it another way, even as Descartes strives to think everything false, “he” is still there, a something that thinks, and which therefore participates in existence. With this move, Descartes chiseled his keystone, reifying the subject who doubts into a metaphysical foundation. And though the cogito itself winds up resting on the even more fundamental foundation of God — a story which we will leave by the wayside — the subject remains the first move in Descartes’ pivotal game. “Observing that this truth ‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’ was so solid and secure that the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics could not overthrow it, I judged that I need not scruple to accept it as the first principle of philosophy that I was seeking.” [3]

Despite the likelihood that few readers find the cogito mantra very solid and secure at this stage of the history of thought, I cannot resist taking a few pot shots. Turning within and recognizing that thinking is going on gives one no warrant to assume that an “I” exists whose predicate is thought. There is simply thinking. Admittedly, this move only shifts the problem, because there is still the “one” who recognizes that thinking is going on, the one who is tempted to assume the mantle of an “I who thinks.” But even if we grant that this “one” and “I” truly exist, we have not healed the gap. The one who is aware that thinking is going on does not become transparent to itself by positing an I that thinks, because there is no reason, except for habits of speech, to identify the I that thinks with the one who is aware. In other words, I am not (the) one. Or, if you prefer, one does not think. Rather, as Zizek characterizes the situation, it is the “Thing that thinks.” [4] To this a philosopher stung by the Buddhist bug might add that there is no compelling intuitive reason to move from “Thinking is going on” to “some thing is thinking.” Why reify the process in the first place? The whole shadow-play of substance and identity may be nothing more than conceptual imputation, a whirlpool of linguistic reflexivity arising in the foundationless stream of mental activity, boundless and unclear. The one who is aware may not be a one at all. There is simply the mind’s intrinsic mirror-like capacity to reflect phenomena that arise.

I mention these concerns because a great deal of Buddhist philosophy and practice is explicitly designed to undermine the precise act of introspective reification which founds the cogito — the act of hardening James’ “stream of consciousness” into a substantial self. But the invocation of Buddhism also lets us recognize an aspect of Descartes’ method that is generally overlooked. His first meditation, wherein he imagines the evil genie, is not simply a skeptical argument; it is also a procedure, an introspective experiment that erodes the cognitive ground that Descartes (thinks he) stands upon. In this sense, his meditation is a meditation, one not altogether unlike the more analytic meditations found in, say, the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Throughout their careers, Gelugpa monks will engage in contemplative practices which take the explicit form of dialectically interrogating the conceptual assumptions which structure their own consciousness. Winging it without a lama, Descartes found his own way of pulling the rug out from under his mundane convictions, a practice he clearly hopes the reader will indeed try at home. The recipe: seriously take on the possibility of the evil genie, and see what remains. Don’t slip back into your familiar habits. Risk the dark.

The distinction between the Meditations as the record of a conceptual experiment and the Meditations as a philosophical system is mirrored in the fact that Descartes is really talking about two cogitos. On the one hand, there is the epistemological void of doubt that conditions and expresses the first “I think.” On the other hand, there is the res cogitans that Descartes subsequently constructs: a substantial and rational locus of thought and will, a self-transparent representation in a series of representations ultimately and necessarily established by God. Derrida and Zizek have both drawn attention to the cleft between these two cogitos. Derrida makes a distinction between Descartes’ initial ahistorical passage through the madness of hyperbolic doubt, and the subsequent shelter the philosopher takes inside the historical structure of reasons and representations. [5] Zizek in turn brings up the Lacanian distinction between the subject of the enunciation and the subject that is enunciated. As we will see in more detail later, the former is an empty, logical variable devoid of the fantasies and representations that materialize personality, whereas the latter, in this case the res cogitans, is the conceptual “stuff” that fills in that void.

Descartes himself papered over this difference, believing that the “I think” ineluctably implied a rational person transparently aware of his own status as a thinking thing. In a sense, though, Descartes simply displaced the split between the two cogitos onto the grosser division between mind and body, a division that, in the Discourse anyway, is the first conclusion that follows the discovery of the solid and secure cogito: “From this [the cogito] I recognized that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is to be conscious and whose being requires no place and depends on no material thing. Thus this self…is entirely distinct from the body…and even if the body were not there at all, the soul would be just what it is.” [6]

Today this line of thinking smells like religion. Descartes, of course, remained a believing Catholic throughout his life: there is no Cartesianism without God, because God guarantees the order of representations that vanquishes the evil genie. At the same time, we would be amiss to lay Descartes’ rhetoric of disembodiment at the feet of Christianity, for though Descartes was convinced that his account of the cogito supported Church doctrine, theologians in Descartes’ day were by no means settled on the issue of whether we would eventually get our bodies back in the afterlife. Cartesian disembodiment seems to arise at least as much from the “gnostic” tendencies inherent in the reification of rational interiority as from the structures of 17th century belief.

Nonetheless, the Christian life certainly carried with it a tradition of disciplinary detachment, if not outright loathing, of the body. This basic distrust of carnal reality can be largely chalked up to Augustine, who, perhaps under the lingering influence of the Manicheaen dualism he imbibed as a youth, reconceived the body as a perverse and untrustworthy product of Adam’s sin. In his eyes we are torn between the “two loves” of body and soul. For Augustine, the desires and dispositions of the flesh are no longer natural expressions of an ordered world but our own inner demons, idiotically and destructively repeating their endless fall away from God.

This is harsh stuff, bemoaned by everyone today from hedonic New Agers to critical historians of thought. But Augustine’s rejection of the body also went hand-in-hand with his revolutionary interiority, an intensification of inwardness that, as Charles Taylor explains in Sources of the Self, was transformed by Descartes into the cogito, the seed of modern subjectivity. Augustine did not look to God primarily as the ordering principle of the cosmos that surrounds us — a view you could characterize, risking a certain simplicity, as the Platonic legacy. Instead, Augustine turned away from the world and conceived of God as the basis for our own knowing activity. By shifting the location of what Taylor calls “moral sources,” Augustine thereby pried open a space of radical reflexivity within awareness. Suddenly our own experience of ourselves as subjects peels back from embodied experience, becoming the separate space of an internal order illuminated with an inner light. “Do not go outward; return within yourself. In the inward man dwells truth.” [7]

Descartes rationalized this spiritual withdrawal into the skeptical questioning that opens the Meditations. Descartes also transformed Augustine’s two loves into two substances, one of which he neatly renders void. In other words, once Descartes identifies the soul as an immaterial consciousness, he reduces the remaining material world, including the body, into a hollow coordinate space of extension utterly devoid of the occult forces that animated premodern matter. But he does so not simply to render the material world a fit object for mathematical analysis. As Taylor astutely argues, the striking withdrawal of spirit from the material world enables Descartes to maintain the adamantine form of the rational soul he had crystallized as the res cogitans. Compared to the Platonic soul, which realizes its eternal nature by becoming absorbed in the supersensible, “the Cartesian discovers and affirms his immaterial nature by objectifying the bodily.” [8]

This of course is what mechanism is all about. By reconceiving the world of bodies and nature under the sign of the machine, one also constructs a new picture of man as an instrumental agent of his own incorporeal will. But where to draw the line in the bodymind? For Descartes, the human being is basically an automata that moves according to the disposition of its limbs and organs — a doll with advanced plumbing. Given his lingering commitment to the soul, which he lodged in the ajna chakra (aka, the pineal gland), Descartes’ radical mechanism was not yet absolute — that would have to wait a century, until La Mettrei’s L’homme-Machine. Nonetheless, as John Cottingham notes, Descartes characterized many activities that we would consider “psychological” as blind functions of the animal machine. Memory, internal passions, the imprinting of sensation on the imagination — none of these demand the intervention of the soul. However, where mental attention is needed, Descartes posits a separate rational agent, a conscious spirit capable of diverting the flows of the body into various channels.

Descartes avoided a lot of grief by simply identifying agency with consciousness (which I will generally refer to as the phenomenal field of awareness, both concentrated and diffuse.) In the world of making dinner and paying cable bills, we also adopt this identification: we become aware of a need or desire, and seemingly choose to act and plan accordingly. But what happens when there is a split between awareness and agency, at least in theory? What happens when I take on board the consideration that I am not actually thinking and doing, but that “the Thing” is thinking and doing? In some sense, this split between awareness and agency defines the anxiety of post-Romantic, increasingly cybernetic subjectivity. The mechanistic philosophy that Descartes birthed is now thoroughly undermining — at least in scientific terms — the notion of a single incorporeal point of awareness, rationality, and control. Today, we are anxious because we do not and cannot know who or what is pulling the strings of the subject. Throughout elite and mass culture, we argue and wonder about where the pivot of control lies: with corporate cabals or strands of DNA, with brainwashing advertisers or karmic forces, with historical forces or the structure of language, with the unconscious or the market’s invisible hand. We wonder if our own sense of agency is actually blind causation in disguise, nothing more than a negative feedback loop in a cyborganic system of memes and genes. We wonder to what degree we are “programmed” — by media or social regimes, introjected concepts or neural pathways laid down in infancy. Or we project the anxiety into the technological field: Are machines becoming conscious, are they going to run the show, are they already running the show?

These doubts reach their most audacious limit in the techno-fantasies of paranoid schizophrenics, but they also lurk in cultural phenomena like conspiracy theory and X-Files fandom. They even exist to some degree in the popular discourse surrounding evolutionary psychology, which finds Cro-Magnon subroutines lurking beneath every sorrow and lust. The paradox is that these doubts place us back in front of Descartes’ fire, with a bathrobe on and a book in our hands, pulling the rug out from under the world. Today the void is not epistemological — we no longer care particularly about how it is we seem to know things. The void we face is the self — how or why (or even if) we perceive ourselves as conscious agents in the first place. This, I believe, is why it is only now that we arrive at the cogito.

If now is the time, then where is the place? According to the Lacanian from Ljubljana, the answer is cyberspace, the supreme techno-fantastic implementation of illusion and control. “Only in cyberspace do we approach what Cartesian subjectivity is all about,” Zizek claims, noting that virtual space is simply the materialization of the evil genie’s deceptive powers. We all wonder about reality now, how it is constructed, the claims of space and time. So it is hard to avoid occasionally slipping into giddy cyber-doubt: “What if everything is just digitally constructed, what if there is no reality to begin with?” [9] These are obvious questions, of course, the kind of thing that intrigues drug users or 14-year-olds. But the “naivete” of these questions is simply a sign of their universality, and it shouldn’t prevent one from taking them seriously. As adults, we learn to not ask “What is reality?” or “Who am I?” because we know there are no answers, and so either develop more complex questions or drop the whole line of inquiry. But these interrogations aren’t only questions; they are also devices. If you sit with them without trying to find an answer, they can eat away at certainty and resistance, taking you to the point of bafflement, disassociation, insight. And somewhere, a stage along this path, lies the pure cogito, the void of the subject that is “our” homeless home.


In Neuromancer, the Odyssey of cyberlit, William Gibson delineated the Cartesian fantasy of cyberspace with the precision of a nanotechnologist. With its “lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind,” Gibsonian cyberspace unfolds as an abstract, disembodied realm of geometry in motion, splayed across a three-dimensional coordinate system devoid of all secondary qualities but color.[10] In essence, the fantasy-reality of cyberspace, of virtual reality, is an analog of Descartes’s view of matter: a zone of spatial extension under the rule of causality and essentially identical “to what the geometers call quantity.” [11] Even today’s budding 3D Internet and game consoles achieve, or at least suggest, Descartes’ abstract virtualization of the material world into infinite mechanized extension.

Gibson also hit the Cartesian nail on the head when he characterized his hero Case’s banishment from cyberspace as a fall into “the prison of his flesh.” The dualistic deferral of the body encouraged by virtual technologies is so often lamented today that neither it nor its supposed Cartesian origins need repeating. Obviously, virtual technologies encourage a distinct shift of identification away from our phenomenal embeddedness in the material world where we eat, defecate, and die. In How We Became Posthuman, Hayles characterizes this shift in epochal terms: a movement away from the embodied dialectic of presence and absence, and towards an informational dialectic of pattern and randomness. Given this it’s not surprising that the embrace of pattern has enabled some computer scientists to reconstellate dualism in the name of mechanistic monism — a paradox that, I would argue, has always been implicit in the Cartesian foundations of the modern engineer.

Cyberspace is Cartesian in an epistemological sense as well, because the growth of the Internet as a medium of knowledge raises deeply Cartesian questions about the status of the external world — say, for example, the snoozing hippos or bubbling coffee pots we see through supposedly “live” webcams. In his article “Telepistemology: Descartes’ Last Stand,” Hubert Dreyfus argues that Descartes’ original skeptical turn was itself partly inspired by the appearance of new perceptual media. The telescope and microscope both extended perception while simultaneously opening up doubts about the reliability of those perceptions. At the same time, sense organs were also increasingly imagined as transducers bringing information to the brain — senses that, as in Descartes’ example of the phantom limb, could not always be trusted. Similarly, today’s new media, as well as the new models of the nervous system they breed, have re-invoked the evil genie. “New tele-technologies such as cellular phones, teleconferencing, telecommuting, home shopping, telerobotics, and Internet web cameras are resurrecting Descartes’ epistemological doubts.” [12]

Dreyfus notes ironically that most professional philosophers are no longer very interested in these epistemological questions. The problem is that the sophomores who slouch into today’s philosophy classes (or ignore them altogether) increasingly live in a world defined by virtual technologies, cyborg entertainments, and the popular fictions — sonic as well as narrative — that construct those emerging technocultural spaces and the shifting subjectivities they imply. These kids are already down with the evil genie. At the very least, they’ve seen The Matrix, the phenomenally successful 1999 Wachowski brothers film that imagined a vast simulation lorded over by evil computers and populated by hundreds of thousands of duped human beings.

The claim that so-called “consensus reality” is an elaborate construct that enslaves perception and occludes our “true” condition is hardly original. A staple of science fiction, where it was deployed with greatest sublimity by Philip K. Dick, the “false reality” set-up has become an increasingly common theme in Hollywood, from The Truman Show to Dark City. But I would also like to suggest that the “False Reality” set-up attempts to narrate a fundamental split in consciousness between consensus reality — or in Lacanian terms, the Symbolic — and the capacity of the human mind to disengage from the immediate claims of that reality. Skepticism can open up such doubts of course, but so will the ancient, non-philosophical evidence of dreams, drugs, or altered states of consciousness. This is why we find false realities popping up everywhere, from Indian dream fables to Gnostic myths of cosmic prisons to Zhuangzi’s famous question: “How do I know I am a man dreaming he was a butterfly, and not a butterfly dreaming he is a man?” The fundamental accessibility of the False Reality scenario also accounts for its cheesy, adolescent character, a comic-book quality that makes sophisticated intellects cringe. And yet, if Descartes’s meditations did indeed help spawn the modern subject, then that subject — who is, in some sense, “us” — emerges from the shadow of such pulp musings.

Besides being a rite of passage for any budding cogito, the “false reality” question becomes especially unavoidable in the age of virtual technologies. These technologies constantly narrate their own totalizing dreams of “building worlds” and “providing experience,” and produce — consciously or not — the corresponding “gnostic” desire to escape the prison of manufactured dreams. I’d like to think both these factors help explain the immense popularity of The Matrix, especially among younger viewers. Alongside the video-game fight scenes and the nifty FX, The Matrix presented a narrative that articulated the seductive disassociation one feels as a subject of the popular digital spectacle, as well as the yearning for the cracks in the symbolic surface that offer the possibility of escape — an ultimately spiritual transcendence that, in one of the film’s more interesting twists, is actually embodiment.

So we too are in that decrepit hotel room with Lawrence Fishburn’s Morpheus, who is really speaking to us when he addresses Neo, the ever-wooden Keanu Reeves:

You know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your whole life, felt that something is wrong with the world. You don’t know what, but it’s there like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.

Establishing the itch — which I suppose most of us share, however we interpret it — Morpheus offers to scratch. He will give Neo “nothing more” than knowledge of the truth (ie, no solution to the problems posed by the truth). Moreover, this knowledge comes wrapped in the package of immediate experience. “No one can be told what the Matrix is,” says Morpheus. “You have to see it for yourself.” This lends it an explicitly gnostic character — not only did the Gnostics of antiquity believe that we were immortal sparks slumbering in an illusory cosmos manufactured by an evil or ignorant demiurge, but they also held that escape occurs through knowledge of our condition, a knowledge that is necessarily non-ordinary and experiential.

So like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, which the Nag Hammadi codex “The Secret Book of John” claims was a liberating Christ in disguise, Morpheus offers Neo a pill. Neo, of course, swallows the molecular package, which is really the most heroic act in the film. For Neo must then face his own Cartesian “passage through madness,” melting into a mirror that alludes not only to Lewis Carroll but to the mystic-psychotic collapse and disappearance of the externalized ego that stabilizes our inner void. As Neo phases out of the Matrix, he opens up, however briefly, the fractured bardo that is the secret thrill of every fan of the “false reality” genre: the moment when baseline reality dissolves but no new world has yet emerged in its pixelating wake. This is the most radical moment of the cogito, but it’s tough to sustain. In The Matrix , the flux quickly crystallizes into what Morpheus, sampling Baudrillard, calls the “desert of the real”: a ruined planet dominated by evil AIs who keep humanity mentally imprisoned inside the computer-generated Matrix. At this point, The Matrix stages an orthodox reversal of gnosticism’s dualistic undermining of the world. Just as Irenaeus affirmed the reality of Christ’s material body against the docetist claim that God merely simulated human flesh, so do Morpheus and crew affirm the reality of the suffering material body against the mundane dream of the Matrix. Moreover, they do so in the name of the One who will come, a One that organizes the reality of their struggle the way that God provides the ultimate foundation for Descartes’ metaphysical vertigo. [13]

The body is an understandable object of nostalgia in virtual fiction, though rarely in a pop film is the real we are rooting for so grimly depicted. At the same time, The Matrix subtly undermines the apparently “solid and secure” foundation of the flesh. Consider two intercut scenes focused on food. While the crew of Morpheus’ ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, eat yucky nutritious slop (“everything the body needs”) in a parody of communion, the Judas-like Cypher dines on steak inside the Matrix. Cypher agrees to betray Morpheus in exchange for blissful ignorance: to wake up rich and happy in the Matrix, with all memories of the desert of the real removed. Meanwhile, back on the ship, the young Mouse brags about having designed a sexy virtual character that Neo had earlier encountered in a training simulation. Mouse offers to arrange a sexual (pornographic?) encounter with the woman for Neo; when the other crew members give him grief, Mouse calls them hypocrites: “To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.” Here Mouse recognizes one paradox of desire — that the body’s carnal impulses are fused with “virtual” fantasy — but he mis-states the case: what makes us human is the gap between impulses and the alienated awareness that both the object of those impulses and the body that wants them is in some sense virtual.

The Matrix also undercuts any simple valorization of carnality in its portrayal of the “virtual bodies” which play such an important role in the guerrilla war Morpheus wages within the Matrix, where he struggles against the all-powerful evil agents (sentient programs disguised as human beings). In this struggle, the knowledge that the Matrix is unreal is not sufficient to bend its rules; the freedom fighters must train their false Matrix bodies in order to leap through the air, bend spoons, and, ultimately, slow time. In other words, “the body” becomes a virtual field of affect and extension that resists what they already know, a resistance that gives way not through further knowledge but though practice. Here the film is even more “Eastern” than the debt its fight scenes owe to Hong Kong cinema and Japanese video games would suggest. As in yoga, T’ai chi, and other martial arts, the mind awakens through the disciplined and devotional unfolding of the capacities and energies of the body. Of course, the bodies trained for the Matrix are composed of code, no more fleshy than the brutes and ninjas in Mortal Kombat. But that misses the point: the “magical” body — a body immortalized in Chinese and Japanese popular cinema, as well as the half-Hollywood hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — arises through a practice that constructs a liminal phenomenological vehicle between body and mind, a vehicle which is simultaneously virtual and carnal. [14] Similarly, though the “bodies” that players of first-person computer games like Quake and Doom control are not actual, they are certainly phenomenological. [15]

Manex, the company behind The Matrix‘s excellent special FX, placed a strong emphasis on the phenomenological or subjective dimension of such virtual bodies. In popular film, most digital FX depict the “objective” world of extension — either new macroscopic worlds (The Phantom Menace), natural or supernatural phenomenon (Twister, Spawn), or microscopic scales of perception (Heavenly Creatures). These images present a publicly accessible “real” space. But verisimilitude, fantasized or otherwise, ultimately limits FX, which have nothing intrinsically to do with representation or reality and everything to do with mobilizing new phenomenological openings and synesthetic becomings. FX are not really about what we see; in fact, they are not “about” anything at all. They reconfigure how we see, and how that subjective seeing mutates into often ambiguous and explosive feelings and relations. That’s what makes them so hard to talk about — “pure” effects are much more like roller-coasters or the space-time distortions of drugs then they are like signs or icons. [16]

What makes the The Matrix such a great FX movie is that the film maps its “false reality” theme onto the objective/subjective divide that underpins the visual rhetoric of Hollywood FX. The Matrix as such characterizes the imprisonment of FX by verisimilitude — FX as illusion, as secular Fairyland, as the seamless artificial product of what Disney calls “imagineering.” But when Neo reaches the peaks of his power, FX become an expression of his own subjective mastery of speeds and slownesses. The most notable FX device here is the bullet-time photography featured, most memorably, in the scene where the leather-clad Neo confronts an agent on the roof of a building and manages to slow down time enough to lean away from the agent’s oncoming bullets. Using an array of multiple still cameras whose images are subsequently treated like animation cells, the technique creates the effect of a single camera sweeping in a long arc around a static or very brief slice in time. Time appears to slow, and yet the movement of the (virtual) camera keeps things up to speed. So Trinity, who watches Neo dodge the gunfire, comments on how fast he moved, as fast as an agent. But for the viewer, as, significantly, for Neo, the action moves like molasses.

The affirmation of slowness is remarkable enough, especially given the usual strategy of overwhelming the audience at a peak moment with quick cuts and superfast images. Slowness is the phenomenological effect that Neo must master in order to detach himself from the logic of the Matrix while remaining inside its narrative framework — a slowness that is manifested in both mind (this is Keanu Reeves after all) and body. In the final action sequence, Neo is apparently killed by an agent inside the Matrix. Then a kiss from Trinity, monitoring Neo on the Nebuchadnezzar, revives the hero in the material world. With this carnal affirmation, Neo returns to the Matrix, where he stops a barrage of bullets in mid-air, slowing down time to the point of stasis. It is only then, when he fully inhabits the gap he has opened in virtual time, that he “sees into” the Matrix. The hallway before him melts into rushing streams of green computer code — the “Real” beneath the Matrix’s symbolic fantasy. When the head agent subsequently engages him in hand-to-hand combat, Neo’s movements are cool, slow, meditative, almost bored. He has seen through the fantasy in the midst of the fantasy, a seeing which is the equivalent of dying. He becomes the One.

But this gnostic-Christian resolution is not for us, or most of us anyway, for we have no access to such singular foundations, Cartesian or otherwise. For us there is no One, no deus ex machina who can found the order of true representations that describe the mechanisms driving the production of the phenomenal world (including its proliferating pockets of digital simulation). The digital figures that Neo glimpses, after all, are representations of electrons flip-flopping through material circuitry, and at that point, neither the pattern of bits nor the electro-dynamic substrate can claim ontological priority. The moment of subjective transformation that interests us is much earlier, before Neo even hears that Morpheus thinks he’s the One. It is the moment when Neo swallows a pill in a seedy room, and becomes, for a spell, no-one at all.

III. A Crack in the Sky

In the great eighth chapter of the Confessions, Augustine describes his endless difficulties cleaving to God, at one point comparing his situation to a sleeping man. Though he knows that Jesus Christ is for him, the call of the world and the lusts of the body weigh on him like slumber, and he feels like a fellow who, though he knows that it is time to get out of bed, keeps hitting the snooze button. “Just a little bit longer,” he keeps telling God, “let me sleep a little more.” Though he partly blames the body, Augustine identifies sleep less with carnal lust than with “the force of habit, by which the mind is swept along and held fast even against its own will.” [17]

Besides underscoring how fundamental the natural analogy of awakening is to both religious and philosophical discourse, this passage provides an angle on the somewhat peculiar paragraph that closes Descartes’ first meditation. Earlier, Descartes had convinced himself that only by embracing hyperbolic doubt — hypostasized as the evil genie — could he undermine the habitual force of his “old and customary opinions.” As he closes the meditation, however, Descartes admits how difficult it is to keep these habits at bay, acknowledging that “a certain indolence” continually creeps in, drawing him back to his ordinary perceptions of life. Taking Augustine’s analogy a step further, Descartes compares his state to a prisoner dreaming of his liberty, a captive who, when sensing that the moment of awakening is at hand, “conspires with the agreeable illusions that the deception may be prolonged.” [18] Descartes then admits a fear that does not trouble Augustine: that even if he does awaken, he will not be able to see his way out of the darkness unleashed by the genie.

Here we taste something of the frightening vertigo opened up on the way to the cogito. Despite the rational and theological foundations that soon come, Descartes’ initial movement has nothing intrinsically to do with philosophical concepts — the evil genie as a “possible world” — and everything to do with the phenomenological process of emptying oneself by turning that self inside-out through doubt. Descartes decoupled his internal awareness as much as possible from the contents of consciousness, effectively declaring “I am not in this dressing gown, not before this fire, not holding a piece of paper.” Like a shaman offering his body to the ferocious spirits of the underworld, Descartes submitted himself to the genie, who tore away the certainties that stabilize the ordinary non-skeptical self in its sleep of habit. But Descartes did not even have the ontological stability of the shaman’s premodern cosmos to rely on, for the void that he opened up was precisely the void that separates the modern mind from the great chain of being.

For Descartes, this was a passage through madness, a madness that subsequently founds the modern sense of disjunction from tradition and the enchanted world. The paradox is that even the acknowledgment of such madness affirms the certainty that, for Descartes, grounds the cogito. As Derrida explains, “the Cogito escapes madness only because at its own moment, under its own authority, it is valid even if I am mad, even if my thoughts are completely mad.” [19] In other words, the cogito stabilizes itself in the gap that opens up between the madness of thought and the I whose thoughts are mad. One might even say that the cogito is on the far side of madness, a cool and impersonal witness, utterly untethered from the objects that arise in thought and perception. “This is why it is not human,” says Derrida, “but rather metaphysical and demonic.” Descartes then draws back from this “zero point” into factual historical structures of thought, and it is these structures — at least the metaphysical ones — that are now almost ritualistically vilified. The Descartes we love to hate knows where he stands. But as Derrida states, “Nothing is less reassuring than the Cogito at its proper and inaugural moment.”[20]

Even the conceptual condensation of the cogito that follows Descartes’ passage through madness is none too comfy. In mapping his dualistic divide between mind and body, Descartes separates the pure modes of consciousness that characterize the incorporeal res cogitans, such as intellection and volition, from those mixed modes that also depend upon the body, such as imagination and sensation. As John Cottingham notes, this division leads to a rather creepy state of affairs: after death, “the soul will be devoid of all particularity,” condemned to an eternity of chewing over abstract and general ideas. [21] Later Christian Cartesians had to jump through hoops explaining how any sort of personality could survive this distillation — indeed, how such impersonal souls could even be distinguished from one another at all. In other words, the cogito is essentially inhuman, at least in the sense that it does not participate in the order of habits, memories, images, and symbolic identifications that structure embodied personality and the perceptual stream of ordinary life.

The first time that Neo returns to the Matrix after joining Morpheus’ crew, he passes one of his favorite restaurants. “They have really good noodles,” he recalls, his words trailing off as he realizes that the dispositions and memories that structured his personality are, at least from the perspective of his new reality, utterly false. Realizing that he can no longer sustain, or desire, his normal round of identifications, he asks Trinity what it all means. “That the matrix cannot tell you who you are,” she responds. If you hit the pause button right there, before the film fills in this space of not-knowing with Neo’s emerging identity as a Christ hero, then you are at the empty heart of the subject.

This picture of the cogito differs significantly from the now-classic postmodern portrait of the “decentered subject”. That vision essentially claims that the crusty old idea of the individual — the self-aware “Cartesian” locus of will and understanding — has been decentered in the light of its fundamental multiplicity and the myriad elements that make up the construction of identity — floating signifiers, ideological forces, historically constituted forms. But as Zizek explains, what really decenters the subject is the fact that the subject that enunciates is not the subject of the enunciation. The subject that enunciates is a logical void, a kind of empty place holder — $ in Lacanese — for the material that, loosely speaking, congeals into the personality, ie, the subject of the enunciation. This material is largely determined by the already established network of the Symbolic (aka, the Matrix). The fact that the symbolic identifications that attempt to found the subject of the enunciation are themselves constructed and drifting without foundation is almost beside the point; what is decentered is the point of speaking (or knowing) itself; ie, the cogito.

In this account, the cogito does not arise from the Symbolic. Instead, it emerges “at the very moment when the individual loses its support in the network of tradition; it coincides with the void that remains after the framework of symbolic memory is suspended.” [22] Zizek’s most forcefully futuristic account of this void appears in his discussion of the paradox posed by Blade Runner: the subject who knows she is a replicant. “Where is the cogito, the place of my self-consciousness, when everything that I actually am is an artifact — not only my body, my eyes, but even my most intimate memories and fantasies?” [23] Here Zizek takes one of Descartes’ more paranoid musings to its logical conclusion. In the second Meditation, Descartes asks himself, observing a street below, “What do I see from the window beyond hats and cloaks that might cover artificial machines, whose motions might be determined by springs?” [24] This is not simply a mercilessly skeptical spin on the perennial problem of “other minds;” it is also, mutatis mutandis, an inquiry into the (replicant) self within. How deep does your automata go? Zizek’s paradoxical and beautiful conclusion is that Blade Runner’s replicants become, in recognizing their own artificial nature, “pure subjects.” As far as the subject of the enunciation goes, they know they are replicants, not human beings, which is why Rachel weeps when Deckard (Descartes?) tells her the truth. But it is precisely at that moment, when her confusion over whether she is human or not melts into nostalgia for a lost humanity, that Rachel is most like us — that is, most human.

Zizek concludes that “I am a replicant” is the statement of the subject at its purest. But we might just as easily say “I am an avatar,” or simply “I am online.” For as The Matrix suggests, cyberspace — the technologized space of virtuality, which is simultaneously an actual informational matrix and that various narratives that shape and underpin that matrix — increasingly constitutes the Symbolic as such, and thus begins to infect and dominate the material of subjectivity. As Zizek explains, cyberspace externalizes us, translating the contents of subjectivity into an objective space of technical operations. So on the one hand we have the endless play of virtual identity, in which we lend “reality” to stray fragments of the psyche by externalizing them into a field of technologically sustained symbolic intersubjectivity. On the other hand, we enter a paranoid dystopia, where our every move is tracked, controlled, and manipulated by an increasingly intelligent virtual environment. In either case, there is a deprivation of sorts, although this deprivation comes with a twist. “What you are deprived of are only your positive properties, your personality in the sense of your personal features, your psychological properties. But only when you are deprived of all your positive content, can one truly see what remains, namely the Cartesian subject.” [25]

The ferocity of this deprivation will only increase as e-commerce intensifies its marketing technologies. The dream of e-commerce could be dubbed “molecular marketing:” the thoroughly targeted individual whose unique desires and dispositions have been data-mined, tracked, extrapolated, commodified, and, most importantly, fed back to the target in a personalized, even obscenely intimate form. In this process, the statistical generalities that govern demographics are brought down to the scale of the individual without losing their abstract and utterly impersonal instrumentality. The new goal is to anticipate and nudge the precise and singular unfolding of subjectivity in its encounter with information and commodities. Perhaps in the future, our own shifting moods, interests, and needs will be so sensitively monitored that, just as we are able to glean useful sociological data from the fantasies generated by the demographic “science” of marketing, we will be able to read our own state of mind by the variations in the incoming streams of newsfeeds, ads, and animated spiels. Say that we mention our anxiety about a forthcoming corporate review in a post to an apparently open but corporate-sponsored elist on modern business practices. The next morning we may find a pop-up adbot offering the latest anti-anxiety neuro-cocktails, specifically designed to generate the proper degree of subservient enthusiasm. One day we may reach the point when our needs and desires are fully externalized as semi-autonomous avatars, so that we hardly need to intervene in order to “satisfy” the identifications that structure the subject of the enunciation.

Similar problems arise with the great dream of virtual reality, which, in its fantasized image at least, at once fulfills the contents of consciousness and subtly alienates the subject from those contents. In the standard account, VR and other designer realities create a plastic playground of the self, allowing us to explore and experience the hidden “real me” lurking beneath that mask of socially constrained subject positions and the ever-present resistance of the Real. But even if we accept this naive account of the self, the very engine of virtual production undermines the “fullness” of the simulated experience. McLuhan described the evolution of technologies as a progressive amputation of human capabilities; with virtual reality, or the similar plasticity of material reality achieved through nanotechnology, we amputate the drives and desires that structure the subject by fully externalizing them and feeding them back to the subject. It’s the problem of the hedonist: the self that manipulates and refines techniques of pleasure is not the same self that luxuriates in those experiences, and this anxious gap yawns ever wider the more rounds we make on the technical pleasure circuit. (The appeal of S&M partly derives from apparently splitting these two functions between two individuals).

So as designer realities radically fulfill the contents of fantasy, the existential remainder Ð that modern spark which voids or demythologizes all fantasy — becomes ever more refined and impossible to avoid. Then it will be even more obvious that we are not our avatars — that the Matrix cannot tell us who we are. We still won’t know who we are, of course, because that quest for equivelence itself is a mode of the symbolic, a way to “resolve” the ambivalent emptiness of the pure subject by injecting it back into the round of identifications. But we will know that, like the sages in the Upanishads or Descartes before the genie’s fire, we are Neti, neti — not that, not that. We are not just contingent historical agents embedded in a finite horizon of meaning, but nor are we the solid and secure foundation of the res cogitans. And though we emerge from the process of embodiment, we are not “the body,” if by the body we mean a fixed chunk of space-time or a founding representation or a neurobiological object of science. In this sense, the supposed plenitude of the oncoming world of designer reality disguises a great renunciation-machine: an engine of the pure subject.

Though I have no room to explore my argument here, I believe the kind of via negativa suggested here describes the “native” spirituality of the post-Romantic modern subject. In his 1928 essay, “Freedom Without Hope,” René Daumal — Gurdjieffean pataphysician, Sanskrit scholar, and author of Mount Analogue, one of the 20th century’s few masterworks of spiritual literature — described this rather astringent path in terms reminiscent at once of surrealist manifestos and the Traditionalist rants of René Guénon:

The essence of renunciation is to accept everything while denying everything. Nothing that has a form is me; but the determining factors of my individuality are thrown back on the world….The soul refuses to model itself on the image of the body, of desires, of reason; actions become natural phenomena; and man acts the way lightning strikes. In whatever form I find myself, I must say: that is not me. By this negation, I throw all form back to created Nature [or cyberspace], and make it appear as object. I want to leave whatever tends to limit me — body, temperament, desires, beliefs, memories — to the sprawling world, and at the same time to the past, for this act of negation creates both consciousness and the present; it is a single and eternal act of the instant. Consciousness is perpetual suicide. [26]

Authentic consciousness, for Daumal, is simply the pure subject constantly re-awakening to itself. And in an utterly un-Cartesian move, this vast impersonal awareness is reached only through the negation of individual autonomy. Freedom — for this is what Daumal is talking about — has nothing to do with the Cartesian image of an operator lodged in the theater of the mind. That supposedly free agent is just an avatar roving around, slurping noodles, getting and spending, running on auto-pilot.

Zizek seems to waver on whether this pure subject is accessible to us through the ascesis of dis-identification, or whether it remains the subject of the unconscious alone, available only in theory or the cracks of language. In his essay on Daniel Dennett, he asks “What if the ultimate paradox of consciousness is that consciousness–the very organ of ‘awareness’– can only occur insofar as it is unaware of its own conditions?” [27] But this implies that the site of consciousness is fixed. In other words, even if the paradox Zizek describes holds, the site of consciousness could nonetheless shift as more and more of its structuring conditions are brought into the circuit of consciousness. This is one way of characterizing the sort of psychological self-observation and self-programming whose various permutations infest the cybernetic world of self-help. Here the claim is that certain conditions that structure consciousnes can be known, recognized, and managed. At the same time, this process shifts the seat of consciousness into another frame, maintained by another set of unknown structures.

The pure subject is a void, a not-knowing, a suicide. But this void moves, an empty roaring stream we enter without resolution or understanding. For just as we cannot know what a body can do, neither can we know what consciousness can do — especially when it is becoming-empty, which if the Nyingmapas are right is equivalent with becoming-radiant. So I’ll leave you with the challenge the Sixth Ch’an Patriarch threw at his students: Show me your original face. What original face? The face you had before your parents were born. That is, before you tried to find yourself in the symbolic matrix of identification and signification, a “before” that does not lie in some foundational past but in the bottomless pit of the passing present.


[1] Elsewhere, I have argued that this dualism is really more gnostic than Christian. See Techgnosis, Harmony, New York, 1998, 121 – 128.
[2] Michael Mateas, “Expressive AI,” in Electronic Art and Animation Catalog,SIGGRAPH 2000, New Orleans, LA.
[3] Descartes, Philosophical Writings, trans. and ed. Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Thomas Gear, London University Paperbacks, 1975, p 32.
[4] See “I of He or It (the Thing) Which Thinks,” in Slajov Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative, Duke University Press, 1993, pp. 9-44.
[5]See “Cogito and the History of Madness,” in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago University Press, 1978, especially pp. 45-63.
[6] Descartes, Philosophical Writings, p 32.
[7] Cited in Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, Harvard University Press, 1989, p. 129.
[8] Ibid, 146.
[10] William Gibson, Neuromancer. (Bantam, NY, 1984), 51.
[11] Cited by John Cottingham, “Introduction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, ed. John Cottingham, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 14.
[12] Hubert Dreyfus, “Telepistemology: Descartes’ Last Stand,” in The Robot in the Garden, ed. Ken Goldberg, MIT Press, 2000, p.54.
[13] Thanks to Carlos Seligo, PhD., for this point.
[14] Perhaps the “energetic” body diagrams found in Taoistm and Tantra, with their chakras, nadis and miridian lines, depict traditional formuations of this liminal bodymind.
[15] See John Canny and Eric Paulos, “Tele-Embodiment and Shattered Presence,” in The Robot in the Garden, ed. Ken Goldberg, MIT Press, 2000, p277-294.
[16] This probing of nameless affects and desire explains why the subjective rhetoric of speeds and slownesses, including the bullet-time photography mentioned below, more often appear in advertisements for SUVs and McDonalds than in mainstream cinema.
[17] Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin, Penguin, 1961, p.165.
[18] Descartes, Meditations, in The Philosophy of the 16th and 17th Centuries, ed. Richard Popkin, Free Press, 1966, p.133.
[19] “Cogito and the History of Madness,” 55.
[20] Ibid, 56.
[21] John Cottingham, “Cartesian Dualism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, p. 241.
[22]Slajov Zizek, “I of He or It (the Thing) Which Thinks,” in Slajov Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative, Duke University Press, 1993, p.42.
[23] Ibid, 40.
[24] Descartes, Meditations, 139.
[26] RenŽ Daumal, The Powers of the Word, ed. and trans. Mark Polizzotti, City Lights, 1991, 4.
[27] Slavoj Zizek, “Cartesian Subject Versus Cartesian Theater,” in Cogito and the Unconscious, ed. Slavoj Zizek, Duke University Press, 1998, 269.
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