The new Matrix movie: Actually interesting!

I watched the new Matrix movie last night and it completely changed how I felt about the entire franchise: I used to think it was somewhere between boring and annoying, but the new film reframes the originals in a way that highlights an interesting, original philosophical claim.

I started teaching philosophy to undergraduates around the turn of the millennium. Back then it seemed like everyone was using the first Matrix film to teach Descartes’ Meditations or some other version of the “are we living in a simulation created by some malevolent overlord?” question that philosophers seem to love. Both philosophy profs and the general public interpreted the films as an iteration of this longstanding theme in Western philosophy. 

As evergreen as this question may be among philosophers, it’s completely uninteresting and unhelpful. Only white cis nondisabled men need to speculate about whether or not they’re being deceived by a(n invented) malevolent overlord into misperceiving a fake or simulated reality as actual reality. For the rest of us, it’s not uncommon for us to have our very real experiences of oppression or discrimination dismissed as we are accused of seeing things that aren’t there, being too sensitive, and so on. In other words, oppressed people are frequently gaslighted by privileged people and powerful institutions, as they tell us the world as we experience it, full of sexism, misogyny, racism, anti-Blackness, settler colonialism, ableism, capitalism, and the like, isn’t really real. For people who have to regularly struggle to get powerful elites to accept the reality of our own experiences, it’s…not fun to speculate about whether or not a powerful ruler is deceiving us into misperceiving reality. The people in power over us already live in a reality significantly different from ours, and for this reason they don’t accept the reality of our experiences. When you have to fight for the credibility and reality of your own experiences, it’s pretty evident that the people misperceiving reality are those in positions of power and privilege, and this apparently ontological question about what is real is actually a political question about whose experiences count as ‘reality.’

That’s what Charles Mills gets at in his concept of an epistemology of ignorance. As he explains in his 1997 book The Racial Contract, “part of what it requires to achieve Whiteness…is a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities. To a significant extent, then, white signatories [to the racial contract] live in an invented delusional world, a racial fantasyland, a ‘consensual hallucination,’ to quote William Gibson’s famous characterization of cyberspace” (18). According to Mills, white people take their experience of white supremacy and the privileges it accords white people as the universal baseline for human experience–they misperceive a political status as a universal ontological reality. For example, the view that everyone really is formally equal before the law is a white epistemology of ignorance because it takes white people’s un-criminalization as the baseline norm for all human experience and ignores the fact that Black and brown people are routinely criminalized. In order for a fundamentally unjust reality to appear just and equal, people in power have to misperceive that reality as something it’s not. The issue here is ultimately a political one, because the ontological question about what is real depends upon an underlying political question about power, status, and privilege.

The “woah, are we living in a simulation?” question is boring and uninteresting (I’m being generous here! It’s also violent and oppressive) because it elides the political question in favor of the more vanilla ontological one and reproduces the same dynamic Mills identifies in the quote above. 

The thing I like about the new Matrix movie is that it mocks the standard ontology-focused interpretation of the original trilogy and clarifies that those films were actually posing the question in political, not ontological, terms. For example, Jonah Hill’s character has a not very flattering scene in the cafe with Neo/Thomas where he rehearses those interpretations for the audience that clearly shows what Lana Wachowski thinks of those takes. Also, the red-pill-as-estrogen/this is a trans narrative came through much, MUCH more clearly this time, both because of things Wachowski did in the film and because that interpretive context is way more readily available to the audience. So, The Matrix films aren’t doing a Descartes, they’re doing a Mills–they’re asking a fundamentally political question about whose reality counts. It will be interesting to see whether philosophers take up this new interpretation, especially given Mills’s influence in the profession.