Thursday, January 25, 2007

Just say no to The Matrix

I'm writing to declare a moratorium on scholarly books and essays on The Matrix.

Why? First, it seems as if every other journal and book catalog I receive these days contains some new screed on one or more installments of the film trilogy. After I pointed out this phenomenon, a friend of mine in rhetoric aptly commented, "It's as if The Matrix were becoming to the humanities what Abraham Lincoln's 'Gettysburg Address' has long been to studies of public address in the United States"--which is to say, groundbreaking at one time, but at this point, overdone. Indeed, the shear volume of Matrix scholarship seems to be transforming the film into something of a trite object, so much so that the phrase, "the Matrix has you," is becoming our scholarly reality.

Beyond that, though, a good deal--though certainly not all--of this scholarship tends to be rather boring anyway. Part of this has to do with the fact that The Matrix wears much of its potential scholarly insight on its sleeve. "Oh my! Is that Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulations? The film must be saying something about postmodernism!" "Is that Cornel West I see? There must be something philosophical going on here!" " real is our so-called waking life? Maybe the films are about epistemology!" "Cause and effect, is it? Aha! Etiology at work!" "So I've already made all my choices in life, and now all that's left to do is to find their meaning. Perhaps the films are about ontology after all!" And so on. This isn't to say The Matrix trilogy isn't valuable for, say, teaching purposes, and this isn't to say that there aren't good questions to be asked of and through the films even today. But at this point, scholars interested in writing still another book, essay, or what have you on The Matrix would do well to proceed cautiously...very cautiously.

Lest you think I'm just a tired old crank, I will say that my favorite piece on The Matrix is Jennifer Daryl Slack's "Everyday Matrix," which is included in her edited collection, Animations [of Deleuze and Guattari]. It's a wonderful look at the mobilization of affect in, through, and beyond the first film, and in this respect it differs from many of the more textual "readings" or straightforward "philosophical" ruminations that tend to dominate the burgeoning field of Matrix scholarship.

And yes, indeed, it's fast becoming a field--or maybe even an industry. Heck--if you need a quick publication, something on The Matrix would be a safe bet.


Jeff Motter said...

And all Ted's people said: AMEN!

Greg said...

The Matrix has replaced Blade Runner, which served a similar function for critical scholars in the 80s and early 90s as a screen for postmodern theory (I say this having written about Blade Runner myself).

Ted Striphas said...

Hi Jeff & Greg,

Jeff: I had the feeling that I wasn't the only person who felt this way about The Matrix, so thanks for the affirmation. Now if I could only find the rest of Ted's people......

Greg: I hear you about Blade Runner, though I'd say yours is one of the more interesting takes on the film I've seen. And I guess that's part of the dilemma here: how to go about writing about a popular object that's been, as it were, "done to death." Most of the time, I find, people are just content to continue doing what's been done to death until its even more done to death.

To both: so far nobody's flamed me for this post. I figured it would insight a lot of anger. So maybe I've got my finger on the pulse of something here....

Jonathan said...

Actually, I was thinking of both Blade Runner and Madonna, both of which began their academic careers as interesting objects and were subsequently analyzed to death at the expense of other cultural phenomena in their respective neighborhoods.

You could throw in Orange County in the critical geography literature and kd lang in queer theory, just to round it out.

Ted Striphas said...'re right on the mark, Jonathan. Perhaps we should begin compiling a list of "don't do it!" scholarly objects that have become trite due to overuse.