Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Implications of Gender Critique In the film, The Matrix (transcript of a lecture delivered at Florida International University in March, 2001)

1.What is Feminism?
Good afternoon. We will begin by defining feminism.
Feminism is humanism. That is, feminism as a political and a social movement is a humanist movement. It is one of the more crucial strands within a collective history of liberation struggle here in America. Along with Unionism, the Amerindian and First Nation struggles, the Black liberation struggle, the anti-war movement, the ethnic rights struggle, the free speech movement, the sexual liberation struggle, the socialist movements, and the public rights movements, feminism in all its guises and ethnic permutations has sought to humanize modern western societies. Its influence has expressed itself by calling for and working toward the goal of liberating women from the domination they suffer at the hands of a western political economy, simply said.

The western political economy is built upon the exploitation of women's work, and upon the surveillance, domination and control of women's bodies--their sexuality and their autonomy--this is how patriarchy functions. Both politics and economics are realms of male dominance. Men seize and maintain power, privilege, and autonomy through their domination of these two realms and by denying women access to these two realms—the political and the economic realms. That denial of access serves to maintain gender segregation and gender slavery (the unstable gains of American, bourgeois feminists not withstanding).

As a project, then, to claim legal, political, social, and economic rights for women, feminism has struggled against this patriarchal arrangement in the west, and its influence has extended, in the past twenty five years, to 'non-western' and 'non-aligned' nations and societies such as those in Asia, Micronesia, Latin America, Afrika, and Eastern Europe.

2.What is Humanism?
Without resorting to a long winded historical analysis of the Hellenic, ancient Greek roots of ‘humanism’ as the rejection of theism-centered and monarchist or militarist social organization, we can say that humanism in the west has arisen, since the founding of America and again since modernism, and most recently since the formation of the United Nations Charter and the UN's "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," as a philosophy and a strategy devoted to creating public space, independent thought, individual and human rights, democracy (also a Hellenic construction), freedom of speech and of association, and legal protection from domination.

Under previously empowered theistic, monarchist, and militarist political systems and social powers, gods, kings, popes, and generals ruled human existence with their own arbitrary impunity. What democratically elected Archon, Themistocles (Θεμιστοκλῆς; c. 524–459 BC ) and the other rulers of Athens Greece conceived, and what Socrates had earlier sharpened through his relentless attack upon and critique of Athenian democracy, was a new way of looking at human social structures and human existence in the west: a system of social organization which would value every single individual human being rather than merely valuing religious dogma, power, and conquest.

Implicit in this concept is the invention of the civil society (not the idiotic, 'civil' society spoken of by reactionaries like Ronald Reagan or Newt Gingrich--as in, 'civility and good behavior,' but the 'civil' written of by Plato in his Republic). The civil society, by definition at least, forces religion, patriarchy and monarchy, and military and policing forces TO THE MARGINS of the culture. As Thomas Jefferson argued, when helping to frame the new national democracy of the American republic, the civil society upholds, protects and defends the citizenry--its rights, its health, its welfare and freedom. This it does, as John Adams argued in Philadelphia during the drafting of the declaration of independence, through public institutions, through public authority, and through the repression of private interests and of capitalist power blocs under the guiding and regulatory powers of democratically elected government. Benjamin Franklin expressed similar ideas claiming that all of this would be ordained, propagated and maintained through public literacy, journalism, and education. As he wrote in one of his satirical rhymes:

Whoever thinks a country can be,
both ignorant and free,
Wants what never was,
and never can be.

3.Feminst "Reading"
Feminism is humanism. It supplies one of the most illuminating and empowering ways (for women, and also for conscious men) of reading texts--one among a multiplicity of ways of reading, to be sure, but one which can be especially enlightening when applied to film-text. Texts are anything we can 'read' and through reading, theorize. Books are texts, films are texts, paintings, songs, symphonies and architectures are texts, this classroom is a text, the cityscape of Miami seen from ten miles overhead, is a text. Your body is a text. All these things can be read, and because all these things can be 'read', they can all be theorized.

Jonathan Culler, professor of literary theory in the English department at Cornell University writes that there are four main attributes of 'theory', and the reading of literature and literary texts:

1.Theory is interdiciplinary.
2.Theory is analytical and speculative.
3.Theory is a critique of 'common sense'--what is assumed to be 'natural.'
4.Theory is reflexive--it makes us think about HOW we think about things, and the categories and methods we employ when we think about things, such as texts.

"As a result," writes Culler, in his book, Literary Theory:

Theory is intimidating. One of the most dismaying features of theory today is that it is endless. It is not something that you could ever master. Not a particular group of texts you could learn so as to "know theory. (Culler, 15)

This implies an idea which is completely counter to what has become the dominant idea of universities in the 21st century--that the point of thinking is to discover 'answers.' That the point of education is to gain 'mastery,' which is reflected in bogus 'certification' of one's authority to say, 'I'm educated' simply because one has a degree; as if one had gone off to see the Wizard and upon confessing one's lack of a brain, were to have the Wizard hand one a 'diploma' and pronounce one to no longer be a scarecrow.

No, in fact (and it is a fact upon which all of democratic, civil and humanist society is built, in fact) THINKING IS ITSELF AN END IN ITSELF--the point of thinking is thinking. Without this simple precept, we would even now be transported back to medievalism; to feudalism. I would be "nigger," there would be no women here on the campus of Florida International University, and there might well be a national guard division stationed on campus to repel public access by the poor and working class citizens of nearby Sweetwater, if those citizens are unable to pay the entrance fee of tuition.

In short, strategies for reading literary and cinematic texts, for reading cinema as text, are part of a long American tradition, since modernism, of democratic thinking. Thinking politically, thinking economically, thinking historically. Feminist reading seeks to give us tools to think about the political, economic and historical experience, roles and possibilities of women as subjects of texts. By implication then, it also gives us tools to think about the place and possibilities of masculinity in all that. It offers a radical gender critique.

4.Reading Ideas of Gender in The Matrix
Feminist strategies for reading texts such as films, suggest that The Matrix is a deeply questioning film. It questions:

(1)Our most fundamental assumptions about our own economic reality through symbolizing capitalism as an endless dream of ignorant and contented slavery;

(2)Our assumptions about and our conception of, the patriarchal social order;

(3)Our uncritical acceptance of the reductive ideology of 'naturalism,' of 'so-called, 'human nature' and of the retro-Newtonian concept of mechanistic, manifest social organization (which is the idea that all human beings 'naturally' organize themselves according to a 'manifest destiny' of inborn compulsions such as the will toward greed, competition, and aggression--the will toward patriarchy and domination of the female body);

(4)Our assumptions about gender (and race) as a category which defines essence, identity and possibility, through the radical reversal of sexist/racist hierarchies (The Oracle and Morpheus are the top of a hierarchy despite the fact that as a Black woman and Black man, characters in an American film narrative, their usual position would be a servile and a dehumanized one. Meanwhile, they both represent an even more radical reversal of our ideas of domination and our assumptions that domination is or ought to be contained within patriarchy and matriarchy as hierarchical modes of human relation;

And finally,

(5)Our assumptions about masculinity and its place in the social order. The relation between masculinity and the social order is exposed as one of slavery. The film achieves this exposure through its exploration and reversal of American assumptions about masculinity in bourgeois human relations such as the middle-class utilitarian family structure, friendship, and love. The film achieves this exposure also through a discreet reversal of role play in the interaction between Trinity and Neo.

For Further Thought:

The Razor's Edge
-demonstrates the deeper levels of meaning and identity in the history of the European working class (the origins of socialism and of unionism).

Marlon Brando’s role as Vito Corleogne
-demonstrates the classical, American Fuedalist/Calvinist/Puritain conception of the function of masculinity.

The Sopranos
-demonstrates the idea (a racist idea) of Italian (ethnic) masculinity, although the Sopranos is doing a very close-to-the-chest CRITIQUE of it as socially constructed by isolationism, and a larger culture of brutality and masculinity (how much of this is 'traditional' and how much of it is constructed by Capitalism and by Catholicism??)

The Thin Red Line
-demonstrates the richness of the world surrounding the social order and the symbolic order, as well as offering the idea of escape from them, transgression of them, and exposes the severe pain and unease that even assimilated men feel outside of it.
-Issues of NATURE, the FEMALE and of CHAOS and CORPORATE CAPITAL as James Jones presented them in his original novel and Terrence Malick explores them in his film adaptation, are crucial to confronting patriarchy and to constructing a feminist analysis of gender.

The Matrix
-Trinity as 'action hero' displaces male aggression and dominance of the social order she struggles against.
-Neo's dissatisfaction with his place in the social order, indeed, with the very reality of the social order, makes it possible for him to escape from that social order once he discovers the world that lies outside of his own simulacrum.
-What lies outside the simulacrum is the real world (‘the desert of the real’, as Morpheus says, after Baudrillard).
-Trinity reverses masculine/feminine assumptions
-The alternative to patriarchy is genuine fatherhood (unconditional love, mentorship, protection of the innocent and guardian of freedom) symbolized by Morpheus
-The scene in “The Thin Red Line” in which Captain Staros is rebuked and threatened by Cornel Tall, is co-relative to the scene in The Matrix in which Neo is interrogated by the LITERAL symbolic order (once he is arrested by Agent Smith)!
-The climactic 'fight scene' in The Matrix displaces race, gender, and power—it replaces patriarchy, aggression and libido with the THINKING and PHILOSOPHY of liberation.

1 comment:

Michael said...

The interesting motivations by some encompass the weak minded. The Reagan era implies the reversal of most realistic qualities in our natural surroundings. The Bush era represents a failure by the populace to recongnize the very traditions of feminism and who is to say that the world interconnected by us, and the future that the human race will undoubtedly have is richer and more wealthier than any monetary gain can buy. The artisans of the past as well as the alchemists have discovered nature and it's unweilding power can and will show us the true power of the universe. I know that science and the men and women who have gathered around the world to interept and hypothesize the very true nature of what makes us who we are inevitable. The story Gene Rodenberry has some merit only to a story. But one can only imagine. That the power of thought and the power to imagine. I refering to star trek. The story represents the possibilities of traveling through our universe past light speed. Liberating ourselves from the world from which we are will take alot out of what you might call the capitalist and all it's exploitation. I can only imagine through science fiction. But seeing is believing. I keep trying but for those in the world who wish to think in a box, I must protest that your lack of visions of progress make the world more a dangerous place. This is Michael Franco and I approve this message.