Culture Decoder

The Matrix

Image for The Matrix

The DECODER series — to which SEMIOVOX has invited our semiotician colleagues from around the world to contribute — explores fictional semiotician-esque action as depicted in books, movies, TV shows, etc.

Apart from the many layers of pop culture comprising this kaleidoscopic piece of art (a movie that we might categorize as “cyberpunk / postmodern / technodystopia / religous reflection”), The Matrix (1999, written and directed by The Wachowskis) offers us an incisive semiotic perspective on culture generally speaking. Yuri Lotman, cofounder of the Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics, describes culture as a “mechanism” — that is to say, a sophisticated program of sorts — and this is precisely what the character Neo (Keanu Reeves) discovers to be the case.

Each of us is immersed in the cultural system in which we reside; Neo is a metaphor for that immersion. Unlike most of us, however, Neo becomes capable of viewing the system with suspicion, from the side. Although he can’t change the system, not at first, he at least discovers how to see the patterns of thought and behavior influencing each of us. Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and the movie’s other Agents, Neo’s ardent adversaries, represent the stereotypes, prejudices, institutionalized social regulations, and thought patterns we all use to fit in — the matrix of meaning via which we “make sense.” In Lotman’s theory, too, culture has a “grammar” that must be policed constantly to prevent systemic change.

These days, cultural analysis often comes down to numbers. Google Trends can tell is where the thoughts of the inhabitants of a certain culture went during a specific time period (which can be very temporary and/or superficial). Geert Hofstede uses a rigorous structure derived from statistically derived indices (which some find overly thorough) to demonstrate the effects of any society’s culture on the values of its members. In Lev Manovich’s work on art and digital humanities, we immediately discover that “culture” includes also behavioral data. In 1999, however, a movie that imagined that culture — reality as we know it — is a matter of zeroes and ones was visionary, and very compelling.

I find The Matrix convenient as a way to explain — to potential clients — the value of the semiotic approach in marketing and especially communications research. (Explaining where our hypotheses come from, and how our methods lead to conclusions and propositions, is famously difficult for practitioners of applied and commercial semiotics.) And for my own thinking about our practice, Neo helps to remind me of what anthropologists long ago established: A cultural analyst cannot easily (if at all) detach him- or herself from their subject of analysis; objectivity in interpretation is always elusive. Which is no doubt what Hofstede means when he describes culture as “the software of the mind” — and suggests that changing this software requires “shock.”

Neo’s ability is a semiotic one; for him, truth — deep meaning — cannot be revealed without decoding. What The Matrix does so well is to dramatize the painful shock that is required before a would-be decoder finally becomes capable of seeing through their cultural system’s programming.

DECODER: Adelina Vaca (Mexico) on ARRIVAL | William Liu (China) on A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE | Tim Spencer (England) on VURT | Ramona Lyons (USA) on BABEL-17 | Rachel Lawes (England) on NICE WORK | Alfredo Troncoso (Mexico) on THE ODYSSEY | Gabriela Pedranti (Spain) on MUSIC BOX | Charles Leech (Canada) on PATTERN RECOGNITION | Lucia Laurent-Neva (England) on LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY | Whitney Dunlap-Fowler (USA) on THE GIVER | Colette Sensier (England / Portugal) on PRIESTDADDY | Jamin Pelkey (Canada) on THE WONDER | Maciej Biedziński (Poland) on KOSMOS | Josh Glenn (USA) on LE GARAGE HERMÉTIQUE | Antje Weißenborn (Germany) on BABYLON BERLIN | Ximena Tobi (Argentina) on SIX FEET UNDER | Mariane Cara (Brazil) on ROPE | Maria Papanthymou (Greece) on MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS | Chirag Mediratta (India) on BLEACH | Dimitar Trendafilov (Bulgaria) on THE MATRIX | Martha Arango (Sweden) on ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE | Becks Collins (England) on THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY | Ivan Islas (Mexico) on THE NAME OF THE ROSE | Paulina Goch-Kenawy (Poland) on THE SENSE OF AN ENDING | Eugene Gorny (Thailand) on TBD.

Also see these international semio series: COVID CODES | SEMIO OBJECTS | MAKING SENSE WITH… | COLOR CODEX | DECODER

Tags: Decoder, Movies, Science Fiction