The Matrix: A Barthesian Analysis

MCM0230 Assignment 1



Small, indistinguishable, units of computer code recede to reveal themselves as the virtual atomic construction of text: “Searching…” The short clip is created virtually to simulate an impossible dolly shot inside Neo’s monitor.


Immediately, the computer screen and the product of the coded image, a two-dimensional surface, are pre-established as spatial. The sequence applies perspectival codes – familiar visual representations of receding objects in space, distance as represented by size and positioning – to account for an imaginary and metaphorical representation of virtual reality as parallel and similarly three-dimensional to RL. This short segment of simulated movement also activates a kind of proairetic code (ACT) as the movement works towards the revelations of the object’s actual flatness.

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The use of this Barthesian code, which has associations with the development of narrative, suggests a chronology and develops the expectation of revealing action/space for viewers. The motion also develops a temporal dimension for cyber operations that works in line with the film’s narrative.

This initial computerized environment, its use of perspective and movement, develops the idea of cyberspace – what Marcos Novak defined as, “a completely spatialized visualization of all information in global information processing systems.” The persistence of the metaphor (a code in itself) of space, and its origins, is discussed in Manovich’s analysis of the video games Doom and Myst. He relays that the creators of the Virtual Reality Modelling Language saw it (and its construction of space for computer code) as: “a natural stage in the evolution of the Net from an abstract data network towards a ‘perceptualized Internet where the data has been sensualized’, that is represented in three dimensions.”

The notion of a sensory experience of computer space, which we have derived from the .gif above, is particularly relevant to the concept of the Matrix as a whole which itself represents a false computer-generated reality.

Multiplicity of Surfaces

The information on Neo’s screen originally appears to be a series of superimposed newspaper headlines. The multiplicity of surfaces (the newspaper front page/the monitor screen/the surface of the whole frame in the film) work as a code to develop cross-medium associations, and comment on the ‘borrowing’ from print media conventions and the evolution of computer formats from a history of representation. The newspaper surface viewed on a computer screen points to the persistence of metaphors in the design  of web interfaces. The close up (below), by fully committing the frame to the computer screen, works to flatten the image and, in a way present the chronology of media platforms simultaneously. The visual texture of the man’s profile onscreen reveals a residual manifestation of the imperfections of the print medium. It develops a sense of nostalgia, and acts a signal in the mediums trajectory towards obsolescence.

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 9.02.18 PMA wider shot reveals more clearly their superposition. It suggests also different kinds of ‘windows‘ to frame the consumption of information. Even within the computer screen, the various news articles are superimposed to distinguish between the content. This direct reference to an interface also makes the audience of the film aware of their own positioning with respect to the image.

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What is Green?

The text/the screen/the space is green – #00FF00. Color acts as a visual code to develop a parallel association between the simulated reality of the Matrix, what Neo (in this scenes) just recognizes as RL, and the computer code used to create it. The green can be considered a semantic code (SEM) with its particular denotation being derived from the additional context of the scene (it’s interaction with the layering of screens and computer code as space). It is a reference (REF) also to the color of text on the black screens of 90s computers before “the advent of Windows and word-processing processing programs that used black-on-white color schemes to make the computer world look more like the ‘real’ world of paper and ink.” The coloring of the entire scene (either through the use of green lighting or in post-production) develops a seamless transition between the screen and the ‘‘‘‘real’’’. It infiltrates the images from wide-angles to extreme close-ups,

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those inside Neo’s apartment and those outside his door.

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The space, like the inside of the computer is green. Green is the code.


Baudrillard and the White Rabbit

“Cultural codes are references to a science or a body of knowledge; in drawing attention to them, we we merely indicate the type of knowledge (physical, physiological , medical, psychological, literary, historical, etc.) referred to, without going so far as to construct (or reconstruct) the culture they express.” — Barthes, S/Z.

1.Follow the white rabbit. The reference to Alice in Wonderland operates a literary cultural code developing an association between the unknown in the computer simulation and in the socialized narrative of Lewis Carroll’s ‘wonderland’. The drawn parallel places a familiar queue to help navigate the new notion of a computer generated reality and to situate Neo’s journey throughout the film. The revelatory in stance of

To retrieve the disk, Neo opens a hollowed copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. 

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 7.17.36 PMThis reference, though perhaps less recognizable, points to the film’s structural foundation in Baudrillard’s notion of a simulation, a copy without an original, the desert of the realThe way the reference is delivered, deliberately, with lighting precisely illuminating the title and nothing else, and the cinematography centring it within the frame also becomes a code worthy of examination. It recognizes the significance of the undisclosed body of knowledge, without it’s content.

“Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation of models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it…It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.”
— Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 7.43.41 PMThe book is hollow – itself a simulation.



The interactions between the computer (which, in this scene, reveals the existence of the Matrix) and Neo apply a series of codes that could only be combined in conversation through the cinematic medium. While the computer communicates with Neo through text, Neo reacts verbally and through a series of keyboard shortcuts.

COMP(text): Wake up, Neo…
NEO(spoken): What?
COMP(text): The Matrix has you…
NEO(spoken): What the hell?
NEO(touch): CTRL + X
COMP(text): Follow the white rabbit…
NEO(spoken): Follow the white rabbit?
NEO(touch): ESC + ESC
COMP(text): Knock, knock, Neo.
[Sound: Knock, knock.]

The screen, in this case, becomes a physical barrier that requires mediation between the human and the programmed. It is the computer ‘typing’

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 3.22.32 AMand perhaps specifically the slight clicking sound produced as text appears on the monitor, that causes Neo to rouse from his sleep. Although it is may be unlikely that such slight noise would wake up the protagonist, the text (and its accompanying sound effects) is posed, not merely as such, but also as the closest thing to having a conversation on screen. It’s symbolic status asks the audience to suspend their perhaps instinctive disbelief.

Neo responds verbally: “What? What the hell?” It is a queue not for the computer (the supposed object of his disbelief, and the other entity in dialogue), but more likely for the audience. It emphasizes the limits of computer screens in interacting with humans and distances the two.

Another code is applied to facilitate two-sided communication. An extreme close-up of Neo’s keyboard shows him enter: CTRL+X (cut). Although it seems to not have any effect, the use of distinct computer language in an attempt to enact programmed responses demonstrates the adoption by humans of new codes to account for the technological proliferation. He continues this code, attempting to ‘escape’ the dialogue with: ESC+ESC. This interaction also makes reference to the early stages of Nigel Thrift’s account of the role of touch in interacting with technology: “In a qualculative world the hand will take on some different styles of haptic inquiry: it will reach out and touch in different ways…” In this case, through the typed code interactions, touch serves as talk.

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Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 3.04.34 PMThe punctuation of the text also applies Barthesian codes. The persistent use of the ellipsis ‘…’ in the text produced by the machine applies the proairetic code (ACT) by pointing at the continuation of the action and in developing expectancy in the viewer. The unknown nature of the entity behind the text, and their explicit knowledge of Neo’s situation, develops a hermeneutic code (HER) – a sense of mystery that drives the narrative of the film. Who is behind the computer? How do they know? How is their timing immediate?

[Knock, knock]

The sound immediately following the onomatopoeia draws a strong connection between the knowledge of the computer and Neo’s reality within the diegesis. The semantic code in the use of onomatopoeia also develops a short-lived mystery (HER) and points towards the sensory extension of technological influence. Beyond touch, the computer is able to relate and participate in the sound experience of reality.

The specificity of the conversation, their knowledge of Neo’s immediate situation – “Wake up, Neo” – also suggests surveillance. It points to a conflation between the public and the private, the screen as a window into the inner life of the protagonist. Keenan on ‘windows’:

“The window implies a theory of the human subject as a theory of politics, and the subject’s variable status as public or private individual is defined by its position relative to this window.  Behind it, in the privacy of home or office, the subject observes that public framed for it by the window’s rectangle, looks out and understands prior to passing across the line it marks; the window is this possibility of permeability into the public.  Behind it, the individual is a knowing—that is, seeing, theorizing—subject.”