Alexander Tarasov

The Anti-Matrix (Take the Blue Pill)[1]

The culture industry does not sublimate: it represses… Films…
hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous attrition,
the breaking of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno,

The Dialectic of Enlightenment

Almost everyone who has written anything about the “Watch” films — Night Watch and Day Watch — has mentioned the Wachowskis’ film The Matrix. Why they were reminded of The Matrix — that they cannot explain. This, in itself, speaks to the cognitive deterioration of the writing community in contemporary Russia. The Matrix spontaneously appeared in writers’ minds, and they reflexively responded to its “appearance.” And yet this was no accident: there is, in fact, a direct connection between The Matrix and the “Watches.”

The “Watches” are modeled after The Matrix as works of cinematic mass culture. But at the same time the “Watches” are made as a contradiction and counterweight to The Matrix. They are the anti-Matrix.

Of course, the Wachowskis’ film is of much higher quality than the “Watches.” After all, even in mass culture there is a hierarchy of quality, which defines each work as closer to or further from the standard of true art. The Matrix is at the highest level of “mass culture,” while the “Watches” are mediocre (if we measure according to international criteria, not through the blinders of Russian mass culture, which is derivative and provincial). But the difference in quality should not prevent us from drawing a comparison between the “Watches” and The Matrix.

What exactly is The Matrix? It is an attempt, using cinematic mass culture, elements of fantasy, mythological allusions, and heavy borrowing of images from high art and fundamental cultural symbols, to instill a certain ideology in the audience. One could venture to say that the entire film functions as propaganda for Jean-Paul Sartre’s social and political philosophy —adapted, naturally, for the consumer of mass culture. The Matrix reflects both of Sartre’s “hypostases”: existentialist and Marxist.

In precise accordance with Sartre’s existentialism, The Matrix teaches us that the familiar world surrounding us is unreal, and, just as Sartre demonstrates in Nausea, reality does not in any way resemble what bourgeois-controlled “civil society” (religious, educational, cultural institutions, mass media) offers to us. And just as in Sartre’s explication of Marxism, it presents the true face of reality: a world of cynical, merciless exploitation, where people are harvested for energy, while their minds are poisoned with lies and illusions to prevent them from realizing the truth and rebelling. You can say that the world of the Matrix is capitalism taken to its logical conclusion: after all, even in “normal” capitalism people are harvested for their energy (their lifeblood), their minds simultaneously poisoned with lies and illusions.

Really, who are the protagonists in The Matrix? The members of the Resistance. What are their goals? To free from slavery those who have been subjected to the Matrix’s merciless exploitation. What do they need to do to achieve that? Get as many people as possible to see the true state of affairs, make them stop being a part of the System. In the film, Morpheus precisely tells Neo that they are battling for people’s minds, which are still “a part of the system.”

Why does the Resistance need more fighters? To carry out a Revolution, destroy the System and put an end to the era of exploitation.

You have to admit: this is not mass culture’s usual ideology.

And who are the antagonists in The Matrix? First, the Matrix itself (meaning the System, both as an economic mechanism and as a system of illusions imposed on humanity), and second, the Matrix’s agents, meaning agents of the secret service, or, in Marxist terms, the government’s regulating institutions. After all, the Matrix is law and order; it may be an illusion, but it is normal modern bourgeois society, while reality is the ruinous aftermath of a civil war!

This is a classic assertion in Marxism: behind the “proper” and even attractive façade of “prosperous” bourgeois society, there is a hidden world of merciless exploitation, deception oppression, and death. Only Marxists speak of the exploitation of the proletariat, of the pillaging of “Third World” populations, of the prosperity of some at the expense of others, while the world of the Matrix, as we may recall, is capitalism taken to its logical conclusion, where practically everyone is among the exploited.

The specialist has no trouble recognizing that The Matrix is a cinematic representation of the infamous Experience Machine described by Robert Nozick in his well-known book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick asked whether a person would agree to be hooked up to a machine that replaced real life and real experience with an image of this life and experience by stimulating certain areas of the brain. The image would be a pleasant one, where the person would be rich, healthy, good-looking, loved, respected, and so on — in short, he would be happy. Nozick famously claimed that if the person really thought this through, he would not agree, but would instead prefer reality (with all its discomforts) to a beautiful illusion.

Like any liberal, Nozick simplifies the problem. In particular, he proposes that this is merely a thought experiment and that while existence in reality is not as perfect as in his illusion, it is not a complete nightmare (he’s a liberal professor from Harvard, what do you expect?).

According to Sartre, this kind of experiment is not an experiment at all, but an existential choice that every person must make, and not nearly everyone finds the strength to “take the red pill,” to choose unbearable, torturous reality over a beautiful and comforting illusion, to choose true existence (being). Furthermore, Sartre claims, the majority tries not to notice even the possibility of an existential choice. In The Matrix this is confirmed by Morpheus, who says that “most people are not ready to be unplugged” from the Matrix.

According to Sartre, there are social reasons underpinning the psychological reasons for our fear of existential choices: bourgeois society imposes certain social presets (“behavioral codes”!), which prevent spiritual rebellion, the escape from illusionary being into real existence.

The Wachowskis illustrate this through the character of Cypher, who cannot bear the weight of truth and a life of hiding, and chooses “blissful ignorance” in the form of a new life as a wealthy film star (on the condition that he is unable to remember anything of his life in reality). To put it a different way, Cypher acts as a consumerist: he refuses his human essence in favor of a commodity. Marx called this commodity fetishism and showed (in the first chapter of Volume One of Capital, in the section titled “The Fetishism of Commodity and Its Secret”) that in bourgeois society products are presented to each participant in the capitalist economic mechanism in the guise of commodities, the monetary cost makes the cost of consumption appear prohibitive to the average mind, the essence of objects is clouded by their monetary equivalent, people begin to perceive not only material objects but even themselves as commodities, and they perceive the image of social reality as its true nature.

Since the world of the Matrix is the ultima Thule of capitalist economy, in which it has reached reductio ad absurdum, then naturally commodity fetishism in it has also reached its ultima Thule and borders on reductio ad absurdum: the real product (nourishment provided to each human “battery” under exploitation) is replaced by its commodity form (the image of a steak, imposed on the mind from outside). The world of the Matrix is a world where mass media, PR, and commercials have completely defeated human reason and individual human experience, a world where fetish and form have replaced content. This is exactly what Herbert Marshall McLuhan was talking about in Understanding Media: “the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”

The Matrix is that burglar. The kind of burglar who steals a person’s life and covers up the theft with images of commodity fetishism.

According to Sartre and Marx, humans, as creatures endowed with reason, have full responsibility for themselves, for the meaning of their lives, and for the surrounding world. Someone who has freed himself from the fetters of illusion can no longer play a social role, because such a role presupposes no freedom of choice (or freedom at all). Responsibility for oneself, the meaning of one’s life, and the surrounding world, is the basis for conscious revolutionary action directed at changing social reality, because that reality is so horrific.

The Wachowskis insist on the unconditional value of reality (no matter what kind of reality it is) and on the fact that only reality has historical potential; this echoes Jean Baudrillard, who stated (in Simulacra and Science Fiction) that only reality can become a true utopia, an alternative project to modern society. They also unreservedly praise the revolutionary as one who, in Sartre’s words, “wants each person to realize his fate fully and freely” (Situations III).

Let us now turn to the “Watches.”

We’ll begin with a detail that illustrates their differences: the names. In the “Watches,” like in The Matrix, the characters have symbolic names. But not the main characters, just the highest-ranking ones. This means that The Matrix takes a revolutionary/democratic approach (the one who matters is the one who demonstrates why he is the hero), while the “Watches” take a secret service/bureaucratic approach (the one who matters is the one who has more stars on his uniform). And in The Matrix the names actually speak to the characters’ essence: Neo (i.e. Homo novus, or, as an anagram, One, i.e. the Chosen One); Trinity (i.e. the Holy Trinity); Morpheus (i.e. the Roman god, the only one who is capable of reaching the minds of human batteries put to sleep by the Matrix). In the “Watches,” on the other hand, the names simulate essence. Geser in theory fights demons, the forces of Evil, but in reality he is a trickster, a hunter of souls, Lord of the North, who is only required to battle with demons; Zavulon is one of the founders of the twelve Israelite Tribes (Zebulun), who was known to have been born of Leah, not Rachel, and he (and his tribe) “offered his life to death.” So these are pseudosymbolic, not symbolic names, corresponding to the authors’ view that the battle between the Light and the Dark is not the battle between Good and Evil, but something entirely different.

And that is how it is with everything else. While The Matrix claims that there is reality and pseudoreality, true existence and illusion, the “Watches” say something completely different: the reality perceived by average minds is, of course, reality, but it’s not all of reality, not a complete reality. In addition to this first level of reality accessible to the masses (meaning us average movie-goers), there is supposedly another, higher level — a level exclusively for internal use, a level of constant behind-the-scenes action by the agents of Light and Dark, the “Gloom,” the “second level.” It’s not hard to guess with whom (or what) the Light and Dark are associated with: the secret service.

It is thus perfectly logical that The Matrix’s role model is the conscious activity of average citizens resisting a soulless machine, battling with it in the name of their own (and humanity’s) future, while the “Watches,” on the contrary, spread civil apathy and support faith in the omnipotence of government and governmental secret services, which apparently are supposed to decide the fate of citizens in place of the citizens themselves.

The Matrix claims that anyone can see reality. The “Watches” say: no, to see a higher level of reality you have to have been endowed with that ability at birth (the Others). This is social Darwinism, plain and simple, propaganda for social exclusivity. That is, we have the right to command and control because we are the superior race.

The Matrix promotes existential choice, while the “Watches” deny it in favor of middle-class values, to the extent that the “happy ending” of Day Watch depicts how Anton Gorodetsky loses his essence as an Other and becomes a typical, average person. The Matrix praises the political (revolutionary) action of average citizens. That makes it revolutionary/democratic. The “Watches,” on the other hand, praise the actions of official institutions (the secret service). That makes them governmental/bureaucratic.

The protagonists of The Matrix are no philistines. They’re rebels, revolutionaries. They lead an underground life, in danger every second, thrown down to the lowest levels (literally) of society — they chose this life themselves, when they could probably have sat out the fight in Zion. Instead, they infiltrate the enemy, risk their lives, continue the fight, suffer constant hardship — in short, they live for an idea. The heroes of Night Watch and Day Watch (the agents of Light) are on the job. In terms of psychology and lifestyle, these are typical middle class citizens who work for the government. They are the next step up from the guys in beer commercials: they watch hockey and soccer nonstop (and to catch the soccer match on TV they might forget their work altogether), they drink heavily, and so on.

As Goblin[2] appropriately says, they’re just “operatives.” Or as Valeria Novodvorskaya[3] would have it, “bloody KGBists” (in this case, by the way, literally bloody!).

As strange as it may sound, The Matrix affirms the cult of Reason: the main force in the film is reason itself, reason that has freed itself from illusion and rejected the pseudoreality imposed by the Matrix. The fights and shootouts are secondary since they don’t happen in the real world. Strength and weapons turn out to be useless if you can dodge bullets or stop them mid-flight. Reason triumphs over irrationality, over illusion. The “Watches,” on the other hand, affirm the cult of strength and magic. In fact, magic turns out to be more important than conventional, material strength. In the “Watches,” the irrational triumphs over reason; irrationality and mysticism are championed.

It is worth noting that The Matrix really does show the battle between Good and Evil: Evil is the Matrix, the machine of oppression, capitalism taken to the extreme, while the forces of the Resistance are Good. The “Watches,” though, have neither Good nor Evil: what is shown is the struggle between two forces of essentially the same type — the Light (our secret service) and the Dark (i.e. whoever the secret service is out to get). The Matrix assumes the existence of morality (social ethics), the “Watches” assume immorality. To be honest, if the Light and the Dark have an agreement about their respective spheres of influence, if the agents of Light are the ones who give the agents of Dark licenses to kill, what kind of morality can there be? Only class morality, which bases itself on the premise that you only have responsibilities to your own kind (in this case, the Others); moral responsibilities do not apply to the masses, that “inferior race.”

This is why in The Matrix your average Agent Smith and your average revolutionary are fighting to the death, while in the “Watches” we observe, to borrow Ladislas Farago’s expression, a classic “game of the foxes”: the juxtaposition of two secret services, with mutual agreements, “double dealing,” and complicated plots.

Even the challenges thrown down by the “opposition,” like the destruction of the Ostankino teletower, can’t fool anyone. Let us concede for a moment that television really is an “Empire of Deception.” But what does the tower have to do with it? It’s just equipment. Simple logic suggests that the leaders of this empire are the ones who deserve to be punished, not the equipment — equipment should instead be handed over into the right hands. This episode faithfully duplicates the long-running political debate in which one side confronts those who control the mass media about why they serve the public such utter crap, while those in control respond in the words of Minister Shvydkoy,[4] “it’s not our fault, it just happens, you know, naturally.” The Matrix protests against constant surveillance and total control, advocating struggle against the system. The “Watches,” instead, praise constant surveillance and total control of the population, saying: “calm down, get used to it, don’t get upset, otherwise the Light won’t be able to protect you from the Dark.”

Back in 1971 one of the first theorists of “mass culture,” Ernest van den Haag, wrote in A Dissent from the Consensual Society that products of mass culture must follow two principles: everything is clear, and everything can be fixed. The Matrix is an improper mass culture product, because neither principle is followed: not everything is clear to the average audience, and not everything can be fixed. Imitating The Matrix, the “Watches” deviate from the first principle: not everything in these films is clear. This (as in The Matrix) is intentional. Another founding father of mass culture theory, Barbey d’Aurevilly, wrote: “What influences the human imagination more powerfully than mystery?” The creators of Night Watch and Day Watch, relying on the effects of mystery, catch their audience with the same bait that self-proclaimed “gurus” or “yogis” do.

But everything is fixable in the “Watches”! A global catastrophe is underway: look, Anton and Geser have messed everything up. And then everything is okay again, no catastrophe after all. If The Matrix aims towards the example set by true art, the “Watches,” in contrast, essentially rehash one of the most unsuccessful, unabashedly mass-cultural films, Fritz Lang’s Spies, which came out back in 1928! There, too, spies and secret service agents are presented as equals, two identical forms of organized crime, battling each other in a world of chaos. There, too, is the suggestion that in addition to normal life there is a higher level hidden from the masses. There, too, spies operate under the guise of certain “higher powers” and “unknown truths.” There, too, a massive catastrophe seems to be in the making.

So while The Matrix tells the viewer, “Open your eyes and rebel!” the “Watches” say, “Sit tight and have faith in your government.” While The Matrix extol revolution, the “Watches” extol conformity and submission to one’s fate. While The Matrix asserts “knowledge is power,” the “Watches” counter: “ignorance is bliss.”

Both films openly (even too openly) impress an ideology upon their viewers. But their ideologies are different.

Translated by Eugenia Sokolskaya

[1] Translated from: Aleksandr Tarasov, “Anti-‘Matritsa’: Vyberi siniuiu tabletku,” Dozor kak simptom. Eds. B. Kupriianov and M. Surkov. Moscow: Falanster, 2006. p. 324-36.

[2] Goblin is the nickname of the film and video game translator Dmitrii Puchkov, who was propelled to fame for dubbing Western films with alternative, and highly profane, versions of their dialogue. He also created an alternative voice-over soundtrack for the Russian blockbuster film Bumer, in effect creating a postmodern re-make.

[3] Valeriia Novodvorskaya, dissident, political activist, and journalist. A founder of the oldest liberal party The Democratic Union, an outspoken critic of the KGB/FSB as the foundation of both the communist and Putin regimes.

[4]Russia’s Minister of Culture from 2000-2004.