In his book Freud and the Philosophers, the hermeneuticist Paul Ricoeur coined the phrase the school of suspicion to describe the method shared by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Their common intention, he claims, was the decision to look upon the whole of consciousness primarily as false consciousness [taking] up again, each in a different manner, the problem of Cartesian doubt, to carry it to the very heart of the Cartesian stronghold, (Ricoeur, 33) that is, applying doubts caustic and destructive epistemological impulse to the internal world. Their achievement lies in the introduction of a profoundly new process of interpretation. Contrary to any hermeneutics understood as the recollection of meaning, (Ricoeur, 35) that is, any idea of interpretation as a proper listening, the masters of suspicion saw the act of exegesis as one of deciphering, demystification. A message must be more than simply heard; reception is not equivalent to comprehension. Signification, by this logic, is a coded affair, and without the cipher it will be received but not understood. Ricoeur makes a point to draw a sharp line between suspicion and skepticism here; there is no question that symbols have a message to convey. Suspicion is a tearing off of masks, an interpretation that reduces disguises. (Ricoeur, 30) Where the skeptic allows the suspicious impulse to run unchecked, suspicion works to clear the horizon for a new reign of Truth. The radical skeptics childish destructiveness is untempered by a creative, inventive act: the invention of an art of interpreting (Ricoeur, 33).
How, then, could this hermeneutics be applied to film? It seems a strange realm for the school of suspicion to find converts. The suspension of disbelief would seem to be wholly at odds with the sharp and merciless blade of doubt. And yet, since The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, certain films, generally from the genre of science-fiction, have been whittling away at our naïve faith in the real and the reality of our neighbors. If these films were to be gathered together as a genre (and a recent spate of such movies indicates that Hollywood has begun to recognize the appeal of such a grouping), we might call it the cinema of suspicion. For the most part these movies, like Seconds or Total Recall, rarely lead us to question the very existence of reality. They almost never advocate quiescence in the face of the deceit of our senses. Instead, the goal of these movies, as of Ricoeurs masters, seems to be to engender a general dubiousness, a wariness regarding the obviousness of reality. Perhaps your mother has been possessed by a representative of an alien race intent on conquering your world best to watch her carefully for suspicious signs. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is usually read as a manifestation of 50s Cold War paranoia regarding internal dissension in the face of the Red Menace; thus from its very inception in the cinema, ideological conflict and uncertainty drives suspicion. How then The Matrix, The 13th Floor, eXistenZ? What significance is there to last years abundance of films whose chief plot hook forces the viewer to doubt, not her situation, but her senses?
I would argue that The Matrix is the best representative, if not the most potent of all the films of this sub-sub-genre: it combines literally senseless violence with references and allusions to contemporary critical theory, Judeo-Christian messianism, and pop-Zen Buddhism. This dialectical move works on many levels at once, acting to critique hodiernal life at the same time as it undermines its own critique. The meaningless violence, for instance, is shown to be the consequence of our heroes solipsism, offering difficult questions about the possible results of a critical theory that denies the reality or fundamental humanity of those we encounter. The theoretical critique itself takes the form of a primarily Foucauldean picture of our world, with a twist. The basic premise of the movie is that the world of 1999, of late capitalism, multinational corporations, transnational capital flows, and all the attendant modes of alienated labor, is a fiction, pulled over your eyes to blind you to the real world. The cameras-eye-view of our fictional world is full of cubicles and disciplinary management alongside impotent rebellions: computer hacking, mosh pits, piercing, tattooing, and cyberpunk style. The quote-unquote real world? Apparently that world is a (circa) 2199 in which hostile machines have taken over the planet and are powering themselves with the body heat of human beings. To distract us from this profound state of incarceration (and indeed, the scenes of Reeves awakening are quite powerful, reminiscent of H. G. Geigers Aliens with its abject mechanization of the biological), the machines have set up the Matrix, a computer simulation of the world we live in pumped directly into our brains.
With the basic plot one can already discern the lines of this cultural offensive. The false consciousness that we are led to suspect is unambiguously symbolized. Marx both blamed and celebrated industrialization and mechanization for inaugurating a new stage in history: capitalism. In The Matrix, machines are again responsible for capitalism and its evils, and though bringing the masses to consciousness may indeed have been a later assumption made by Lukacs regarding Marxs project, such consciousness is certainly the goal of The Matrix. In all these cases the general thrust is present: to clear the horizon, to dethrone some or another picture of the world and its mechanisms. The question that then arises is: to what end do we wipe the slate clean? The authors that Ricoeur places in the school of suspicion tear off a mask, whether it be the mask of the subject, of economic or religious life. What purpose does this unmasking serve? What, if anything, lies beneath the veil?
The Matrix alludes to an answer. Early in the movie, Keanu Reeves character, Neo, pulls out a copy of Baudrillards Simulacra and Simulations, and opens it to reveal that it has been hollowed to contain electronic contraband of some kind. This is more than just another unveiling. By this reference to the guerilla theorist and intellectual terrorist Jean Baudrillard, The Matrix invokes in an instant a corpus of work with definitive though gnawingly unsatisfying answers to these questions. By this clue, we are forced down a path one would likely not consider if it were missed. It calls us to consider Baudrillards work in earnest. How might we situate him in relation to Ricoeurs suspicion?
The film does not so much talk about Baudrillard as it gestures toward a reductive conception of his work. It wholly avoids asking the question that logically follows from a realization that the world of 1999 is an illusion: How are to we determine the truth or reality of any experience? This ought to be the first and most important question that occurs to anyone who experiences false sensory impressions. The moment we believe our senses have been untrue to us, even if but once, and in the most fleeting and trivial manner possible, we can never again trust them unquestioningly. This is best of Cartesian advice: it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once. (Descartes, 60) And for such a momentous lie as The Matrix would have us believe is being perpetrated, how could we ever accept the evidence of our senses again? The logical next question, never explored explicitly in the movie, is this: how are we to determine whether this real world is itself an illusion? If it is, or even if we cant be sure its not, we arrive smartly at Baudrillards doorstep.
Where Ricoeur describes two types of interpretation of a message, the recollective and the suspicious, Baudrillard sees successive phases of the image:
Just as we can view any exegetical project that claims to recollect a lost meaning from the perspective of suspicion and understand it to be naive, so Baudrillard would have it that such suspicion is naïve from the perspective of skepticism. For him, the new reign of Truth that suspicion inaugurates and the invention of an art of interpreting it engenders act to cover a void, to veil an emptiness. Moreover, the philosophical sophistication of such a realization has important political implications for Baudrillard.
He claims that everything that filters into the code, or that attempts to intervene in it, is disconnected from its own finalities, disintegrated and absorbed. This is the well known effect of recuperation . (Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 3-4) Resistance that has been theoretically recuperated will be co-opted, and this assimilation is exactly the point of theory. The solution he proposes? All dissent must be of a higher logical type than that to which it is opposed. (Wilden,. xxvii) Thus, suspicion, assuming as it does point to some basic reality for us to interpret, is an inferior mode of dissent to skepticism. This inferiority, however, is dependent on a progression that favors delinking the image from the real. This progression begins with the chief masters of intellectual sedition in our age: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. But their suspicion is insurrectionary only when the general theoretical understanding is of the first order. Thus Nietzsches critique of religion (that it masks the basic reality of power and power relations), as well as Marxs critique of capitalist exploitation (that industrialization provides new ways of separating the working man from the product of his labor), and Freuds critique of the subject (that rather than being self-present and ahistorical, it is constrained and motivated by unconscious and contingent forces) are all radical only when the institution it critiques is unable to reply with the same sophistication. Baudrillards assertion is that this strategy of creative interpretation has been disrupted by an overproliferation, a damaging superabundance: the accretion of exegetical strategies has invalidated any one interpretive method by providing a bevy of equally coherent and demanding others. Consequently, the school of suspicions unique and revolutionary readings of economics, culture, and the subject are lost in the confusion of bad, conservative, or simply contrary alternatives, as is the reality of subjugation, oppression, and exploitation. This is what he refers to as the loss of reference. (Symbolic Exchange and Death, 10) The next step for Baudrillard is to one-up the opposition by denying the existence of a text at all. The absence of a signified leaves us with nothing but signifiers, arranged in a code. Rather than contesting some reality assumed to underlie this code, Baudrillard focuses resistance on the structure of these signifiers itself. It is that structure that resistance aims to disrupt.
Arrayed in opposition to this resistance are the chains of language
and the violence of signification itself. Thus, in The Matrix:
And though the skeptical step is never explored explicitly in The Matrix, there is a nagging sign that serves as our implicit entry into the world of simulation: psychedelica. Between a half dozen references to Alice and Wonderland, a few lines of dialog about mescaline, and many more about nightmares, dreams, and wakefulness, we are prepared for Neos awakening, initiated by his consumption of a red pill. This pill shows you the truth; the real world is inaugurated by an act of conscious consumption of an unknown drug. Even though we are made to understand that the drug is only a symbolic act (offered to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall: he refuses because, as he says to the man who offers it, If this is a dream, then why are you sweating? Then, of course, he blows the mans head off), it is interesting to read the remainder of the film as dream/hallucination/fantasy. This reading becomes even more attractive for the telltale lack of references to dreams, hallucinogens, and fantasy from that scene onward. Why is it that from the moment the protagonist takes what to all appearances and contextual clues is probably mescaline, the viewer is never again led to suspect reality? After that scene, the dichotomy between our Matrix lives and the real world is absolutely distinct and lucid. Either we are meant to understand that such suspicion is the consequence of the unreal world in which we live, that it is a manifestation of our unconscious knowledge of the illusion to which we are beholden, or we are forced by this silence to begin to suspect anew and on our own. Or perhaps both; perhaps the real world behind the Matrix is meant to be understood ironically, as a sign which negates itself. The skepticism engendered by the red pill is identical to that spawned from this blasé reiteration of the real after the real has been annihilated, just as we might be dubious about the fact that Marxists are stubbornly insistent on the reflex theory, that Nietzsche contradicts himself in dogmatizing about the perspectivism of the will to power, that Freud mythologizes with his censorship, watchmen, and disguises . (Ricoeur, 34)
With this proliferation of worlds like layers of an onion, the object of our mistrust, the real, becomes indistinguishable from illusion. This is the answer to that rhetorically obnoxious question, What is the Matrix? The word matrix comes from the Latin for womb, which derives from the mater, mother. The Oxford English Dictionary charts the progression of meanings from uterus or womb through place or point of origin to copy of an original disc recording in the making of other copies; [specifically] one used as a stamper. (OED, 476-7) Thus a matrix is like a map, except that it has the added connotation of being generative of the thing that it represents, as in a blueprint that a building is constructed to match. While the map may not ever quite mirror the territory, the matrix is prior to them both. Unlike the territorys relationship to the map, where the territory fails to match the matrix, the territory is at fault. As Baudrillard explains: the model is more real than the real (being the quintessence of the significant aspects of a situation) (Fatal Strategies, Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, pg. 186).
In The Matrix, the inevitability of power and exploitation is expressed by an agent of the machines as an innate genetic failure of the human race:
This version of exploitation is profoundly structuralist, however. Baudrillards code is synonymous with the social structure the sixties generation of intellectuals was reacting against. The code, then, becomes the focus of the offensive, but like a tar-baby it quickly absorbs and redirects such aggression. As Derrida points out, even in aggressions and transgressions, we are consorting with a code to which metaphysics is tied irreducibly, such that every transgression reencloses us within this enclosure. (Derrida, 12) Insurrection (without hope of revolution), subversion (inevitably subsumed), dissension, contention, recalcitrance, and resistance are all that remain. And thus an ethics of antagonism emerges.
One way of reading the cinema of suspicion is as an attempt to make films that take this ethics seriously. They constantly attempt to alienate the viewer, using techniques perhaps originally suggested by Freud for the purpose. Freud was quite cognizant of the effects of epistemological uncertainty: an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolizes, and so on. (Freud, 221) This is a logic of psychic assault, and it is the key technique of the cinema of suspicion. The goal, shared by zen koans, avant garde art, and television commercials, is to shatter the viewers sense of comfort, to wound their placid acceptance. As the image of the wounded psychic body indicates, however, the vulnerable victim of the narrative-provoked estrangement quickly toughens. This scarring, the epistemological equivalent of cynicism, requires ever more jarring confusions of the real to effect the same alienation. The question remains, however: of what use is this vulnerability? The insurrectionary potential of anxiety is cliched but not clear, just as the sort of unheimlichkeit that suspicion entails provides no obvious outlet for its nervous energy. That outlet is necessarily idiosyncratic, and we might demand suggestions from movies like The Matrix, The 13th Floor, and eXistenZ if they are to rightfully lay claim to spearheading a genre of seditious suspicion. The Matrixs solutions, at least, are finally troublesome. Neos ultimate radical and revolutionary act is one of physical transcendence; he flies, transgressing the laws of physics in a truly revolutionary act that is not available to us. There is no suggestion of other forms of resistance that might be available. All our actions, political, violent, and intellectual, are already trapped by the system and model that is the matrix. By positing an outside, an exterior to our reality, by suggesting the possibility of an escape, a solution does emerge, but it is one that we must finally face as fictional.
Yet The Matrixs representation of the problem is the most appealing of all the films in this genre. Resistance is understood to be opposed to the discipline, management, and institutional structures of suffering, that we are at once controlled by and complicit with. This is by far the most critical of this sample of enemies. If Foucault screams too loudly from the subtext of this film, it is only so that non-Foucauldeans will hear. In contrast, the epistemological onslaught of eXistenZ is probably creates the most powerful uncanny feelings, but it is also the most basic: the focal point is the real itself, and the embattled lines of conflict are drawn on a traditional field between materialists (realists) and (neo-)idealists. In this film we are attacked with a proliferation of layers of reality, as if in ironic tribute to Baudrillards stages of simulation. The narrative takes us in and out of game world after game world, until the distinctions become blurred, confused. Events and situations from one level of reality begin to bleed through to others, until it is not longer possible to distinguish the real from simulation. eXistenZs reality bleed-through effect provides a potent assault on the firm grounding of the viewerss relation to the world but it fails to direct the subjects response. This profusion of simulations nonetheless manages to explicitly enact a situation in which basic reality is shown to be absent or indeterminate, succeeding where The Matrix failed. Yet though it adds an extra jolt of anxiety, Cronenbergs film seems to do nothing more than take sadistic pleasure in the audiences dissatisfaction.
Perhaps there is something amoral and anti-ethical about a truly radical skepticism. Perhaps this is the result of the attempt to be done with metaphysics and to affirm the ungrounded nature of existence. Without some basic reality to align the true with the right, perhaps it is impossible to suggest ethical opposition to a certain position when there is no firm place to stand on which such opposition might be grounded. Is denunciation of injustice dependent upon affirmation of an absolute Good? There is certainly anecdotal evidence in these films, which tend to use Hollywood action as a buffer to the audiences epistemological vulnerability, that without an absolute good, such denunciations cause more pain than they alleviate. In The 13th Floor, our own world is again a computer simulation, which people from the real world visit to enjoy the experience of killing without remorse or fear of reprisal. In this film it is exactly all this violence and suffering that the hyperreality of simulation cause us to question; the unheimlich feelings it engenders aim at having the audience acknowledge the Others subjectivity. Without their Kantian transcendence, people are reduced to mere signs: objects of desire and bodies for abuse. The 13th Floor, however, suggest that this mentality is harmful to the doubting subject herself. Regardless of the reality of the object of her fury, the violence she enacts creates its own sort of psychic damage with the attendant scarring, leaving the subject callous and ever more violent. This is the logic of anti-pornography and anti-video-game activists: violence begets violence, and the violence we do in one world will lead to violence in others. It is not, however, an indictment of simulation as such. Rather, The 13th Floor acts in the cinematic dialog of suspicion to call for an ethics of subjectivity. Our acts, whether revolutionary or complicit, must avoid violence at all costs, and since dichotomies like real/symbolic or material/discursive have already been dissolved, this pacifism extends to our scholarship, our writing, and our art; basically, it is an indictment of violence in all its forms. The confusion of boundaries serves only to give this denunciation rhetorical strength by eliminating the disparity between spectacle and actual.
How then, resistance? Though it may serve some purpose for the internal logic of these movies, we perpetually return to this question: what value can skepticism have for the viewer? Within the cinematic logic, it often provides fantastic and supernatural powers; witness Dark Citys kyuning or Keanu Reeves ability to hack The Matrix. In Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzeneggers decision to accept the dream world for reality is what enables the liberation of the rebellious Martian underclass, and this logic of liberation seems to be the essential and constitutive motive of the skeptical impulse. Yet, barring skeptical sorcery, the liberation that results must be an internal freedom. There will be no egress from the real for most of us; the best we can do is understand that the real has already been subverted by our skepticism, and reach the transcendence of the ancient skeptics: indifference.
From its inception through Hegel, skepticisms corollary has been
a transcendental apathy. Pathos, suffering, is eliminated by recognizing
its unreality; all of existence is negated and then recapitulated on
an as if basis. The skeptic lives as if there is a basic reality, save
one difference: she no longer allows it to buffet her inner self. This
apathy is something other than a quietist dropout philosophy; it is
a launch point for radical activity that hopes to do anything other
than bolster the status quo. It is important to note, however, that
it neither provides nor serves as a direction for such activity. Such
direction can only be found in some positive hermeneutic. And this,
unfortunately, requires a leap of faith.
Baudrillard, Jean. Mark Poster, ed. Selected Writings. Stanford: Stanford UP. 1988.
Baudrillard, Jean. Iain Hamilton Grant, trans. Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage. 1993
Baudrillard, Jean. Sheila Faria Glaser, trans. Simulacra and Simulations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. 1994.
Derrida, Jacques. Alan Bass, trans. Positions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1981.
Descartes, René. Donald A. Cress, trans. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Third Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. 1993.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny from Writings on Art and Literature. Stanford: Stanford UP. 1997.
Ricoeur, Paul. Denis Savage, trans. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Haven: Yale UP. 1970.
Wilden, Anthony. System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange. London: Tavistock, 1977.