Mimetic Desire and Sacrifice in The Matrix

A scene from The Matrix (1999)

I recently rewatched The Matrix (1999), and since I also happened to be reading through the work of René Girard, I couldn’t help but notice a number of Girardian themes running throughout the film. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that what in the film is called “the Matrix” serves as a barely metaphorical reference to what Girard calls “the mimetic mechanism,” or at least something very much like it. The mimetic mechanism is what Girard takes to be the underlying historical dynamic behind much of human history, and he distinguishes three phases or aspects of it: mimetic desire, mimetic rivalry and sacrifice. In what follows, I will attempt to illustrate each of these aspects with reference to the film.

Mimetic Desire

For Girard, all human desire is mimetic in the sense that it involves mimicking the desire of others, specifically those one takes as models for thinking and acting. Advertising often exploits this aspect of human psychology. It is why, for example, the endorsement of products by celebrities is so highly sought after. But the role of imitation as a basic feature of human behaviour is also a well studied phenomenon in sociology, developmental psychology, education, and even neuroscience (with the discovery of “mirror neurons”).

The theme of desire is present from the very opening lines of The Matrix, and it is almost always presented as being mimetic in nature. Neo captures the attention of Morpheus and Trinity only because the Oracle has told them that he is “the one”. Neo is motivated to attend a party after he has been told to “follow the white rabbit” (a reference to Alice in Wonderland, which also highlights the mimetic role that stories play in our lives). Mouse, the character who designs the “woman in red” that distracts Neo during a training exercise, is later seen ogling a picture of the very same woman in a magazine. And late in the film, Trinity will express the authenticity of her love for Neo with explicit reference to its mimetic aspect.

The mimetic pull of desire is particularly powerful in the world of the Matrix, because it is a simulated world lacking in material substance. At one point, Mouse asks how the AI which designed the Matrix could have known what chicken tastes like in order for them to simulate it for humans. The question goes unanswered; but perhaps the point is that its desirability as a dish stems less from its taste than the fact that others desire it too.

Girard talks about “metaphysical desire” in relation to things like honour and prestige, which are not physical but which exist as objects of desire because others desire them and indeed compete for them. In the virtual world of the film, the metaphysical nature of mimetic desire seems to be expanded to include everything which exists. The noodles and steaks which can be enjoyed in the Matrix are contrasted with the basic, unappetising staples of the “real world”. The former are objects of genuine desire, despite their virtual nature; while the latter satisfy only basic biological needs. This difference between needs and desires is more or less openly acknowledged by Cypher, and it plays a decisive role in determining his actions late in the film, as well as the fate of the others.

Even the Matrix’s “code”, the stream of symbols which serves as a visual metonym for the virtual world of the Matrix as a whole, is associated with desire. When Neo asks Cypher about the code, Cypher tells him that one soon learns to interpret it without the help of software, and then goes on to point out the “blonde, brunette and redhead” presumably represented by the code in front of him.

The matrix is not just a metaphor for mimetic desire, however; it involves the entire mimetic mechanism. This point is suggested by one of the two origin stories about the Matrix related in the film. Agent Smith tells Morpheus that the simulated world of the Matrix is actually a second attempt to create a virtual world. The first attempt, which simulated a kind of Utopia which gave humans everything they could want, failed because it was rejected by its subjects. Smith speculates that this was because humans need to experience misery and suffering as features of their reality. Another plausible explanation, one much more in keeping mimetic theory, is that mimetic desire is imbricated in social conflict and cannot exist without it.

Mimetic rivalry

Mimetic rivalry is the flip-side of mimetic desire. If my model possesses or desires some object, then I will come to desire it too. It is this acquisitive dimension of mimesis which gives rise to conflict. But while a specific object may be the initial spark, is not the ultimate motivation for such rivalries. The subject’s desire is ultimately to become more like the model; while the model, in turn, will mimic the desire of the subject in seeking to retain possession of the object, in effect taking the subject as their model. This reciprocal desire for the “being” of the other, what Girard calls metaphysical desire, and which may be symbolically denoted as prestige, honour and so on, eventually comes to displace the desire for the material object as the conflict takes on a life of its own and the antagonists increasingly come to resemble one another.

Consider that in the film, the human protagonists and the agents are at once both deadly rivals and also serve as models for one another. While the conflict in the film is ostensibly over the MacGuffin of Zion’s access codes, what each side really desires is to become more like the other. The humans aspire to become like the agents in terms of their strength and dexterity, while the agents (or at least their leader, Agent Smith) wants to be free like the humans to leave the Matrix. The tendency of these characters to mimic one another even in rivalry is visually highlighted during their fight scenes, which invariably take the form of highly choreographed “Kung fu” sequences in which each action is met with a reciprocal and immediate reaction.

According to Girard, most myths begin with some reference to a plague, drought or flood which stands in for the catastrophic social effects of mimetic violence. Such violence is contagious and leads to the breakdown of differences between individuals and social classes as everyone is sucked into the vortex mimetic conflict. The first origin story as told by Morpheus refers to one such crisis: a war between humans and AI that escalated to the point of laying waste to the entire planet. Morpheus describes the world outside the Matrix as “the desert of the real”, which like the cataclysms of mythical stories invokes a state of undifferentiation.

Within the virtual world of the Matrix the threat of mimetic conflict is ever present, as the boundaries between objects and between people proves to be porous, and the agents are able to take over the bodies of others at will. Weapons and ammunition seem to be available in infinite supply, and the police are powerless to stop either the human rebels or the agents. Metaphors of mimetic contagion which have traditionally been the subject of superstitions, such as doubles and mirrors, are everywhere in the Matrix. The contagious nature of mimetic violence is also hinted at when Agent Smith compares human beings to a virus that replicates itself without constraints.

Mimetic rivalry poses such a serious and ubiquitous threat to social existence that Girard claims the earliest human societies could not have survived without finding a way to resolve it. The horrible but effective solution which humanity hit upon was the sacrifice of a scapegoat. Sacrifice represents the final phase of the mimetic mechanism, and it too plays an important role in the film.

Sacrifice

In the opening scenes of the film, Trinity is seated at a computer while police officers form a semi-circle behind her. Although they are there to arrest her rather than kill her, the scene reminded me of Girard’s description of human sacrifice in which the victim is taken to the edge of the cliff and a crowd forms behind her, slowly pressing in on her to force her over the edge. Sure enough, the film’s possible allusion to human sacrifice was strengthened when Trinity starts leaping across building tops in order to escape her pursuers.

Girard claims that human and animal sacrifices were traditionally used to resolve mimetic conflicts because they are the ritual reenactment of a scapegoating phenomenon that can bring out-of-control violence to an end. Mimetic violence of all against all is also capable of uniting all against one. This one is the scapegoat. The scapegoat may be an individual or group, and need not be guilty of anything in reality but is nevertheless held by the community to be responsible for the outbreak of violence and disorder. On Girard’s account, the feeling of solidarity and the restoration of calm that follows the murder of the scapegoat is held to be nothing short of miraculous, and it results in the sacralization of the victim, eventually giving rise to sacrificial rituals, religion and myth.

I’ve already mentioned Trinity’s leaping across building tops as a possible allusion to the sacrificial ritual of leaping to one’s death. It is a motif that returns much more explicitly as an initiation ritual which Neo is required to undergo as part of his training. We are told that no one ever succeeds in making the jump from a tall building on their first try, and indeed Neo fails to do so and falls to the ground below. This disappoints Trinity, who is led to doubt that Neo is in fact “the one”. But in the context of mimetic theory, talk about the one is ambiguous. It could mean that Neo is the sacrificial victim who will be killed in order to resolve an outbreak of mimetic violence. This is what the Oracle seems to imply when she tells Neo that he will have to decide whether to sacrifice himself in order to save Morpheus.

There is another interpretation, however, which the film forces upon us with its many references to the Judeo-Christian tradition (e.g. Zion, Nebuchadnezzar, Trinity). In this case, “the one” stands for the Messiah, a Christ-like figure who promises to bring the entire cycle of mimetic violence and sacrifice to an end. Girard actually offers a sophisticated account of how the Judeo-Christian tradition reveals the mimetic mechanism at the heart of archaic religions and myths; and through Christ‘s teachings in particular, puts forward an ethos capable of overcoming the cycle of violence and sacrifice. I won’t go into this aspect of Girard’s work here; suffice to point out that there is clearly something like this idea at work in the case of Neo. He is taken by many of his colleagues to presage a final victory over the Matrix, and he achieves a miraculous level of mastery over the virtual world that is unmatched even by the agents. Like Christ, he dies and is resurrected. [I originally claimed here that Girard downplays the role of the Resurrection in favour of the Passion. That’s not quite right — see here.] Also like Christ, Neo says at the end of the film that he will reveal the truth to others so that they will be in a position to liberate themselves from the grip of the mimetic mechanism.

I have attempted to show the many points of contact between Girard’s mimetic theory and the ideas in The Matrix. Whether the screenwriters drew on Girard’s work, or simply followed out the logic of various myths and religions in a way which seems to confirm Girard’s reading of them, I do not know. I should add that the film also draws on many other ideas to do with determinism, epistemology and individualism, not all of them entirely compatible the central insight of the Matrix as a metaphor for the mimetic mechanism. Nevertheless, Girard’s ideas seem to me a particularly coherent way of organising the themes of the film, and in a way which makes sense of its significance to many who have watched it as suggestive of deep wisdom.

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