Observing the Unobservable
“The Matrix is structured like a building. It rests atop a foundation that is built upon a substructure.”
In these two sentences, the Wachowskis summarise the central constructional principle of the Matrix trilogy, including all of its ramifications (=Matrix).
“The Matrix is structured like a building. It rests atop a foundation...”
The construction of a building begins with the laying of the foundation; it is the basis for that which comes later. Nothing can stand on it which it cannot support and nevertheless – it remains the invisible part of the entire construction. The form of the building constructed upon it – the visible part of the construction – depends on the form of the foundation.
“...that is built upon a substructure.”
The foundation in turn is built upon a ground, an even deeper layer, a substructure, buried beneath the foundation. The form of the building is determined by the form of the foundation, which is determined by the form of the substructure: The substructure forms the building.
The form of this building can be observed via the structure of its surface or via its construction; it is observable. On the other hand, the form of the substructure and the foundation built upon it remain invisible. However, in order to perceive the reality which constitutes the entirety of the building, it is necessary to perceive, along with the visible, the invisible as well. If the substructure forms the building, then conversely the surface of the building reflects the form of the substructure. The surface, through its form, points to the hidden. Via analysis of the construction of the building, one can reconstruct the substructure. Indirectly, the invisible becomes visible, the unobservable becomes observable.
“Reflections in general are a significant theme in the film. The ideas of worlds within worlds.”
The idea that invisible realities are reflected in visible ones and thus that the unobservable becomes observable is a defining characteristic of the trilogy, both at the level of form and at the level of content:
1. The entire construction of the films is based on this principle. Beneath the surface of the plot there is a further level of meaning hidden. This additional level, the sublevel, forms the surface and can thus be perceived indirectly through it. Through observation of the surface, the hidden sublevel becomes observable.
2. As far as content goes, the sublevel is concerned with the question whether the reality in which we live– our cosmos – can be described completely via its observable components or whether it contains aspects which move one to interpret it as a reflection of a further unobservable level of reality. Do we need, in order to understand our reality, only the observable, or is something unobservable reflected in it?
3. Structurally, the sublevel is constructed as the variation of a theme. Each scene of the trilogy reflects one or more other scenes. Only when taken together do they reveal their complete content. The entire picture emerges only when, along with the observable, the unobservable is taken into account.
1. The Construction of the Matrix
The term “building” refers to the surface of Matrix, the apparent contents: The chronological account of a conflict between man and machine. One would expect that the construction of this surface follows its own laws, namely those of consistent science fiction; instead, it is constructed on the needs of another, hidden level. Under the surface an additional level has moved in. This level contains a further content level which is told according to its own structure. In contrast to the picture painted above, in the following a distinction is made between contents and structure of the sublevel, between subtext and substructure. Together, these result in a further level of meaning.
This means that the entire surface, everything which seems to make up the matrix – the scenario, the locations, the characters, the plot, the structures, the dialogs, the images, the visual esthetic, the references to inside and outside, all the way to the music – isn’t meant primarily to reflect the chronology of a man-machine conflict; everything which one can observe in the film follows a different, hidden law. For example, when Neo finally defeats Smith in the crater, it seems to be about a fight between the human Neo and the out-of-control program Smith. One layer of meaning beneath, both symbolise quite different enemies, who are fighting a different battle in a different context. The entire staging of this fight in the pouring rain points to this symbolic sublevel. Seen from this perspective, every little detail fits into a well constructed total concept.
The sublevel forms the surface; it is the basis which determines everything and thus the core of the entire project. The hidden meaning of every detail is only recognisable from the perspective of this core; the core in turn results from the sum of the hidden meanings of the details. Knowledge of the one assumes knowledge of the other. The classic hermeneutic circle! Understanding in this case is thus possible only as a continuous process of approach from the outside in and from the inside out.
“The critics will be essetially interested in surfaces, and Philosophers will be interested in interiors.”
The more advanced this process is, the clearer the pictures of the sublevel become and the more details one has discovered, the easier it becomes. The actual hurdle is the start.
First, one must assume that there is something to be discovered in the films, that they are more than an empty shell. Also, one needs a direction which is worth focussing towards.
In contrast to the standard objection that the Wachowskis leave their fans alone with understanding of their confused work, they give many hints. In the written and oral statements which are available to the public, one can find many summarising statements which point one in the right direction. Of special note is the “Ultimate Matrix Collection”. The accompanying text and the bibliography direct one toward several topics which play a role in the films. The basic direction and thus the thematic focus for the analysis stems from the audio commentary by Ken Wilber. The deciding factor is that due to conversations with Larry Wachowski, Wilber knows what goals the Wachowskis were pursuing with the trilogy.
“I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes”.
It is too easy to quote good old Morpheus here, but it passes just too well. If one descends into the depths of the Matrix trilogy, then one begins something which can occupy one for a long, long time. It took me an eternity to discover what I have found up until now. Whenever I thought that I had grasped the main points, new and deeper chasms appeared which needed to be explored. Further details honed my understanding of the principles which determined them. Clearly detailed images of the principles allowed me to discover further corresponding details.
Through this long process I had enough time for a deconstruction of the trilogy, i.e. for a destruction of all previous schemes of interpretation and for a renewed construction from a different point of view. It was necessary to completely rethink Matrix. If I had previously had read the following summary of that which I deem to be the core of the trilogy, I (too) would probably not have believed a word. But I can make a promise to the furrowed-brow reader: Everything claimed will be later demonstrated in the course of this work.
2. Contents of the sublevel: the subtext
“A singular consciousness...”
"It's the question that drives us mad."
"The Matrix is an exploration of consciousness."
The films present themselves as modern mythology: as an attempt to present something which cannot be observed from without and thus remains puzzling in the form of an epic-mythical story. Matrix tells the story of a single human consciousness – viewed from within. The entire story is a metaphor for internal processes of consciousness! A story is told of a consciousness which is in turmoil; it is battling with the answer to a question. More precisely, it is motivated by the basic question, the question of the definition of self, which can only be asked by a self-reflective life form: How is it possible that all the processes in the brain, these 100 billion connected neurons, can lead to a subjective internal life of the consciousness, to the perspective of the first person?
More simply: What is consciousness?
How is it connected to matter? Is there an immaterial world beyond the material world? Where does it come from? Will it continue to exist without its material substrate? Is it a pure stimulus-reaction machine or is there a free will? Why does it have feelings?
Matrix offers two competing interpretations of reality as answers:
The world is a clockwork
"There is only one constant, one universal, it is the only real truth: causality. Action. Reaction. Cause and effect."
"I can see the chain reaction - the chemical precursors that signal the oneset of an emotion, designed specifically to overwhelm logic and reason."
"Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose."
All phenomena of nature are due to the motions of material bodies. These motions follow the laws of physics and are thus causally determined. The cosmos functions like clockwork; the future is simply a function of the current state. Man within this cosmos is just a machine, an automaton, a slave to the eternal process of cause and effect. Consciousness is reduced to a side-effect of material processes, of the accidental ability of matter to be organised into complex forms. Free will, the belief in the meaning of it all, love? All illusions: Attempts of consciousness to avoid addressing the question of the meaninglessness of it all. Without conscious decisions there can be no guidelines which control these decisions. An overarching justification of values doesn’t exist, nihilism is the only logical consequence.
If all phenomena of this existence can be adequately explained via their surface properties, then this existence is material; an immaterial existence of this level does not exist. Or, expressed in terms of perception theory: Reality is completely describable via the observable. It doesn’t point to anything beyond; it is not a reflection of an unobservable level of existence.
The origin of the cosmos is the self-development of absolute spirit
“You can't be dead. You can't be, because I love you.”
"The answer is simple. I love my daughter very much. ... You do not understand.”
“I just never ...“
”... heard a program speak of love?”
“It's a human emotion.”
"No, it is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies.“
Rama-Kandra & Neo
“But I believed. I believed.”
At the beginning of things is not the creation of matter and its laws. Everything begins with the self-development of the spirit. The material and immaterial components of the cosmos are formed during this creation process: The immaterial, the spirit forms the material. Human consciousness is a puzzling combination of the material and immaterial.
The existence of a conscious intellect which ponders its reality - feelings which resist being reduced to their biochemical components - the need for and belief in an all-encompassing meaning: all of these are aspects of our existence which cannot be sufficiently explained by a purely mathematical interpretation. The point beyond the material surface, beyond the observable in this world to the existence of a further, unobservable plane. The unobservable is reflected in the observable.
The films tell the story of a fighting consciousness. It struggles with the question of the truth of its own existence and the problem of how to recognise it. The conflict takes place between the two reality constructions mentioned above – between a materialistic interpretation of our reality and one which recognises transcendence. At the end, consciousness makes a decision which radically changes its own reality.
3. The Form of the subplane: The substructure
“(…) to us, a chop-socky flick that comments on the Hegelian dialectic while having a guy who can fly and stop bullets is something that we are, well, damn proud of.“
"It's happening exactly as before."
“Well, not exactly.”
Smith & Smith
“The strange thing is, I see these patterns all the time.”
The most important structural principle for the story told on the surface – the conflict between man and machine – is the chronology. Neo is freed, he fights against the machines, he dies: beginning, middle, end. The subtext is concerned with the questions: What determines our reality? How can it be recognised? In order to relate the subtext the Wachowskis make use of a substructure; this lies hidden beneath the chronology and could be summarised as a pattern variation.
For this structural principle, the Wachowskis were inspired by Hegel’s dialectic, a theory of the evolution of perception. Methodically, this states that reality constitutes itself through time through the process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Each thesis already contains its opposite, its negative. The antithesis is the complete formulation of the contradiction and thus the negation of the initial thesis. The synthesis moves the contradiction between thesis and antithesis to another, a higher plane, a plane of deep understanding. Seen from this larger perspective of higher order, the contradictions balance out: thesis and antithesis are brought together in a synthesis. Also, the synthesis is just a new thesis, but represents an increased perception compared to the original thesis.
Hagel’s dialectic is concerned with examining the same problem from opposite perspectives, one after the other, and correspondingly interpreting it differently. The Wachowskis have transformed this methodical structural principle of perception into the basic structural concept of their films. Organised in a chronological before and after, the same thing always takes place in their films: Not in the form of simple repetitions, but rather seen from opposite perspectives – as a negative reflection – and thus as a different interpretation of the same events.
The Wachowskian concept of pattern variation integrates the Hegelian concept of dialectic, but is based on a further idea, that of the observation of the unobservable: A single scene can be analysed in all its aspects; per se it doesn’t reveal its complete meaning; it points beyond it. The parallels form and reflect each other, so that only taking the unobservable variants into account explains the observable scene in all of its aspects.
This structural concept of pattern variation runs through Matrix on all levels. From the microlevel of individual pictures to entire scenes, from sequences to the macrolevel of entire films: there is continuous variation, contrasting, parallelisation, reflection, reinterpretation, creation of antitheses and construction of syntheses. In this manner, the Wachowskis constitute their own vocabulary of interpretation, which taken together results in a complex internal frame of reference.
Whoever looks for patterns and analyses the entire trilogy on that basis will notice that the Wachowskis have treated this aspect of the film with an extremely large portion of diligence, attention to details, creativity and surprisingly much humour and self-irony. The films appear to tell a chronological story, but that is just camouflage; in principle, they are just pattern variations!
Matrix is a pattern variation. The first goal of these pages is to prove this claim via comparison of screenshots, dialogs and motifs. The second is to show that the analyses and interpretation of this substructure leads to the subtext described above.
The didactic problem of this attempt was already described above: The details become understandable from the perspective of the core; the core results from the sum of the details. The whole is extremely complex and thus difficult to present and probably not easy to follow as well.
Nevertheless, I think that it could be worth it to consider these pages. Why?
The Wachowskis have often been accused of not having left us with a consistent body of work and not giving any help with regard to interpretation to the puzzling fans. Both accusations are false. The brothers don’t deliver a complete interpretation to the viewer, but inside and outside of their work they have laid many trails. If one wants to know what intent they are pursuing with their films, then it is enough to systematically follow these trails. If done as a hobby, this process can easily last half a decade, but one finally comes to a point at which everything, and I truly mean everything, without exception, which can be observed in these films is brought together and a complete opus becomes visible which is unique, and that to a much greater degree than is already generally recognised. The images remain the same but their actual intention only becomes visible when one views them from the proper perspective. When one considers them together with their corresponding variations and recognises the patterns and symbols contained within, the same images acquire another quality and another meaning. And they begin to tell another story!