In my feedback for A4 was asked to look at Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and watch The Matrix and compare.
The Allegory is a short section in Plato’s republic, which we are told is perhaps one of his most famous fables (Kleiner, 2014). In it some people are chained inside a cave where they must spend their whole lives. The allegory is written as a conversation between Plato and Socrates, Plato’s teacher who was put to death for practising philosophy. They discuss how the people in the cave face away from the opening towards the wall. Behind them is a fire near the entrance, and just outside of the cave is a short wall, behind which people walk by with shadow puppets shaped like real things from the world. The people in the cave see only shadows on their wall, and since they are tethered in position they can’t turn around, so they name the shadows and believe them to be real things. They hear mumbles from outside and think they are the shadows’ voices. One of the prisoners is released and ‘compelled’ to leave the cave. He is dragged outside and his eyes suffer because the light of the fire at first, followed by the sun which is too much for him, being used to only looking at shadows all his life. But in time he becomes used to the light and realises he has not been looking at reality until now. He can look right at the sun eventually. He is delighted to learn new things and recognise them for what they really are, comprehending that until then he had only been looking at reflections and shadows. Not real things at all. He also begins to feel that sorry for people who cannot see as he does or have yet to go through the process of seeing. He recognises that going from darkness to light or back is a confusing time and has empathy for anyone who must do either. Plato and Socrates discuss how a person must turn towards the light with their entire self; mind, desire, body, spirit in order to learn. And a person can achieve this transformation fully through good habits and practise. People who might have been damaged in childhood can be transformed and instead of doing evil might focus on higher things if they become enlightened. But anyone who becomes enlightened must be sent to live in the cave again. They cannot live an idle life just enjoying themselves. It is their duty to go and share their wisdom with their fellows back in the cave. Even though they will not be believed, or laughed at and perhaps even killed for their enlightened ideas, thy must find a way to share their wisdom as wisely as they can.
There are several animations on this online but here is the best one (I think so anyway – it’s lovely): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6LUptADIww
The Matrix, I am told by my son, is considered one of the best films ever made. I am not sure about the hyperbole but it is certainly an exciting film and the narrative is drawn from the cave story and Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. In fact the central character, Neo, takes his illegal software out of a fake book of that name. You can see the philosophical references throughout the film as Neo is taken from the non-real real world, into the real world which is not a simulation and more like some sort of hellish never land. He and others he meets there are engaged in a violent battle with a group of nefarious super beings intent on maintaining the illusion throughout the film.
One of the main things that stuck out for me is constant referencing to “The One”. Is Neo the one or isn’t he? There is a distinct flavour of proto-Christian orthodoxy; that there is A One at all echoes the story of Jesus and I suppose other religions (but I am most familiar with Christianity so that is what I see over and over again). Because of that and other aspects, although the film looks on the surface like it is rebellious, it is actually conservative. It ostensibly explores the idea that reality isn’t real, and we’re all controlled by evil baddies who consciously hoodwink us into believing it is, and ends with “I’m gonna show them the world. Without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world… where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I’ll leave to you” (Matrix, 1999) But in fact it is a film that actually reinforces the status quo. As such there is a fairy tale ending, in which the hero and the pretty girl kiss which brings Neo back to life. And although the film refers to humans as a virus, it does in fact argue against itself by using all the tricks of cinema, and a few new ones too for which it won many awards, by making us love the good characters, have enormous empathy for them in fact and draws on typical Hollywood caricature traits for the evil ones. And then there is the product placement. I believe Nokia did rather well out of its part in the film.
The other thing that struck me as I watched it, especially towards the end, is that is perpetuates the notion that nothing really matters. Since nothing is real, then why would anything have any value? I don’t think Plato’s fable does this though, since he wants the prisoner to return to the cave to share his wisdom with this fellow prisoners, even though it is dangerous and may end in death. No-one in the film is compelled to go and enlighten the population (except perhaps the clue is in the very last line, which makes way for Matrix II and Matrix III – I’ve not seen them, so perhaps I am being unfair). What does occur is a ludicrous shootout at the end of the film, which it seemed, might be the ideal thing for deeply disturbed and alienated American teenagers to emulate when they carry out their crazed fantasies of mass shootings in schools. What’s to stop them when nothing matters because nothing is real, and The One is a Hollywood superstar, so just another shadow, far from their own realities and may as well be on another planet in another time zone?
The final thought that kept coming back to me as I watched it was how when I learned the Alexander Technique, it was not about doing anything. If anything it was about inhibiting habitual responses and behaviour, and believing. The idea is that you can affect physical change by thinking it, which the film is all about, but only Neo and his supporters can do that. But when anyone, not just chosen ones, lie down in the Alexander semi-prone position, and they think about their bones softening and loosening and becoming grounded, they will do, provided one allows it to happen. By practising regularly over time a person can change the way they are physically and therefore the whole of them will change too because in Alexander technique, as is being discovered mind and body are the same. There were quite a lot of references to this type of philosophy especially towards the end when Neo started flying about the subway. In the cave story, anyone can be enlightened. There is no chosen-one philosophy, although there is a smattering of possible martyrdom towards the end of the story. There is reference to constant practise though and employing the entire self, as discussed earlier.
The Society of the Spectacle explores and expands the themes in the Cave story far more intelligently and seriously, in that the spectacle is ‘the heart of the unrealism of the real society’. (Debord, 1999; 96) And the cave is so much about unrealism vs. realism. Although the The Matrix looks at powerful and complex ideas, for me, the ideas were rendered adolescent and possibly frivolous, even belittling of something quite profoundly worrying in our world. The idea that people determined to wreak havoc and chaos in our world is a genuine concern, as discussed in The Guardian yesterday. In it Carol Cadwalladr quotes “…Jonathan Albright, an assistant professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina,” as he describes an alternative rightwing web: “They have created a web that is bleeding through on to our web. This isn’t a conspiracy. There isn’t one person who’s created this. It’s a vast system of hundreds of different sites that are using all the same tricks that all websites use. They’re sending out thousands of links to other sites and together this has created a vast satellite system of rightwing news and propaganda that has completely surrounded the mainstream media system.” (2016) The article is really worth reading.
Finally, although the cave story can be interpreted to be about education and the value of being thoroughly educated with one’s whole self (not just one’s mind), at its heart is the relationship we have with the things in the world and language, rather than about baddies taking over the world and a Hollywood star saving the day. We name things because we see an approximation of what they are. Words represent things but they are not things. They might not even be representations of things but representations of representations of things. And yet language structures our world, online with code, and off-line in law, education, and storytelling, with the words we speak and write. To quote one of Reeves’ other famous characters, The Matrix is an ‘excellent’ Hollywood film that shows a great deal of prescience about the possible power of the internet in its early days . But it glorifies violence, perpeuates Christian ideology which is, it might be argued, responsible in some way for quite a lot of chaos over the centuries, and ends like a children’s fairy tale. It is a story which explores Plato’s shadows, criticising society for not being more aware, and manages to be and propogate those shadows at the same time. Keanu Reeves is very pretty in it.
Image, a colour map from TAOP Colour Assignment (c)SJField 2014
Shorey, P. (2016). Plato Allegory of the Cave. [online] http://www.rowan.edu. Available at: http://www.rowan.edu/open/philosop/clowney/Aesthetics/scans/Plato/PlatoCave.pdf [Accessed 5 Dec. 2016].
Kleiner, H. (2014). Allegory of the Cave. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBPd7getIcM&t=5s&list=PLU5GwnUXO_Yzn7KOo84NCKOpyg7yUbwQ3&index=3 [Accessed 5 Dec. 2016].
Debord, G. (1999). Seperation perfected. In: J. Evans and S. Hall, ed., Visual Culture A Reader, 1st ed. London: SAGE Publications, pp.95 – 98.
The Matrix. (1999). [film] Hollywood: The Wachowski Brothers.
Weis, S. (2016). PLATO – Allegory of the Cave(animated). [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6LUptADIww [Accessed 5 Dec. 2016].