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Kapell and Doty's Jacking In to the Matrix Franchise

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Jacking In to the Matrix Franchise.

Eds. Matthew Kapell and William G. Doty. NY: Continuum, 2004. 215 pp., $19.95, softcover. ISBN: 826415881.

Jacking In to the Matrix Franchise is the red pill that makes us understand the world of the Matrix in ways we could not while we were immersed in it, since the volume's essays serve as a comprehensive look into the Matrix franchise, not just the film trilogy composed by The Matrix, The Matrix: Reloaded, and The Matrix: Revolutions. For the Matrix directors, Andy and Larry Wachowski, orchestrated an array of artistic endeavors, including a collection of short anime stories entitled The Animatrix, the video game Enter The Matrix and the The Matrix comics as alternative texts that provide background or side narratives to Reloaded and Revolutions. In the fall of 2004, the Matrix saga will continue in the form of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, The Matrix Online.

As co-editor William G. Doty claims in the introduction, Jacking In situates the franchise in the context of "the history of thought" -- from Romanticism to Postmodernism and the posthuman -- and in the context of cinema (3). Accordingly, the volume is multidisciplinary in scope, though it remains firmly set in the humanities and social sciences, as shown by the authors' credentials: Religion and Culture, Comparative Ethnic Studies, English, Philosophy, History, Anthropology…

Besides Doty's introduction, other highlights of Jacking In include John Shelton Lawrence's reading of the film trilogy as a fascist narrative, and Frances Flannery-Dailey and Rachel L. Wagner's analysis of the franchise's problematic connection of violence and religious themes. (For short summaries of the essays with occasional brief evaluations, see below).

Jacking In also includes a useful appendix with a glossary of names and terms used in the franchise, plus a collection of Internet sites by theme and a short bibliography of recommended readings.


William G. Doty ("The Deeper We Go, the More Complex and Sophisticated the Franchise Seems, and the Dizzier We Feel") discusses the Matrix phenomenon as franchise, noting how its "rich polysemy" created by the prequels, games, chat rooms, and comics is unified by the directors' "intensely focused cinematography" (6) -- the Matrix "look." Overall, Doty's point is that the Matrix's cinematic concept expanded into a type of Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Artwork; a comprehensive integration of art forms) that would have made composer Richard Wagner (the originator of the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk) turn pale with envy -- and he is probably right.

Martina Lipp ("Welcome to the Sexual Spectacle") develops a feminist reading of female heroes in the Matrix, focusing extensively on what these female heroes could or should be instead of discussing what is meritorious about them. For example, Lipp's subsection "Kung Fu, Guns, and 'Dodge This!'" concentrates on the "empowerment" of women by guns, while omitting to mention that the "Dodge This!" sequence posits the female warrior Trinity as the first one to kill an Agent, a feat that was deemed impossible in the first Matrix film.

C. Richard King and David J. Leonard ("Is Neo White?") share Lipp's negative view of the Matrix, though they analyze racial representations in the franchise. Again, important "positive" elements of characterization are omitted. I was particularly frustrated by King and Leonard's reduction of the character of Morpheus in the first film to a "modern incarnation" of Uncle Tom (39), as their reading ignores the sequence where Morpheus -- a black man who in the first film represents the Real and, by extension, the human -- breaks his shackles and meets Neo half-way in an incredible mid-air fraternal embrace that spells freedom, hope, caring, and courage all in one moment. More obviously, King and Leonard also ignore that Morpheus is Neo's sensei, his master rather than his servant!

Richard Jones ("Religion, Community, and Revitalization") writes on the religious symbolism in the films and how watching them "unites the viewers into one moral community by giving them myths and cosmological explanations to which they can relate" (60).

Bruce Isaacs and Theodore Louis Trost ("Story, Product, Franchise") read the Matrix as image-consumption cinema full of "residual mythic images" that require postmodern textual criticism to be decoded.

John Shelton Lawrence ("Fascist Redemption or Democratic Hope?") reveals "the parallels between [the films'] heroic values and the ideals of European Fascism" (91). He first presents the Matrix trilogy as an example of the American monomyth, which emphasizes community salvation by one hero who then retreats into anonymity (82-84). Lawrence then connects the American monomyth to fascism through its belief in providential leadership. He dwells, in particular, on the fascist overtones of Morpheus' (and The Kid's) "belief" in the infallibility of the One and in their "spirit of surrender to the leader's heroic will" (88).

Frances Flannery-Dailey and Rachel L. Wagner ("Stopping Bullets") review the syncretism of religious ideas in the Matrix and how the extreme focus on violence overturn the main doctrines of each religion mentioned (Christianity, Gnosticism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism) to call for a "conscious critique" that will "reclaim the non-violent core of these religious traditions" (111).

Michael Sexson ("The Déjà vu Glitch in the Matrix Trilogy") discusses how the Matrix trilogy, very much like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, helps us understand how the human imagination constructs reality and illusion.

Stephanie J. Wilhelm and Matthew Kapell ("Visions of Hope, Freedom of Choice, and the Alleviation of Social Misery") analyze the franchise's classic, modern, and postmodern elements, and conclude that the franchise is best read in terms of what Cornel West has termed "prophetic pragmatism" (136).

Gray Kochar-Lindgren ("Biomorph") introduces the simulated world of the Matrix as "the liminal space of the ancient enmity between flesh and metal" in an attempt to examine what happens when "the human" and "the thing" move towards each other (141-2). Kochar-Lindgren's examination of "person" and "thing" then takes us through Kant, Descartes, Marx, Heidegger, Lacan, Žižek, and some other of the usual suspects, to conclude that, though the trilogy fails to deliver a posthuman future, it still points the way of things to come.

Timothy Mizelle and Elizabeth Baker ("Strange Volutions") argue that the franchise as a whole (films, anime, comics, games and "even the soundtracks") serve as a "post-human memento mori" (160) of the destructive choices that humans make, a lesson best learned by the Matrix's protagonist, Neo, and, hopefully, by the viewer herself.

Russell Blackford ("Try the Blue Pill") explains how the scenarios of The Matrix trilogy favor choosing "the Real" instead of the simulated world of the Matrix. After comparisons with Brave New World and an in-depth discussion of Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia, Blackford concludes that there is nothing inherently inferior about living life in a simulation.

Matthew Kapell ("At the Edge of the World, Again"), co-editor of the volume, examines how the franchise's use of multimedia has brought a new aesthetic and a new sense of narrative to the entertainment industry.

Ximena Gallardo C.