Matrix / 1:1 Map
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Del Rigor en la Ciencia
“On Exactitude in Science" is a one-paragraph short story written in 1946 by Jorge Luis Borges, about the map–territory relation, written in the form of a literary forgery. The Borges story, credited fictionally as a quotation from "Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658," imagines an empire where the science of cartography becomes so exact that only a map on the same scale as the empire itself will suffice.
In that Empire, the Cartographer’s art achieved such a degree of perfection that the Map of a single Province occupied an entire City, and the Map of the Empire, an entire Province. In time, these vast Maps were no longer sufficient. The Guild of Cartographers created a Map of the Empire, which perfectly coincided with the Empire itself. But Succeeding Generations, with diminished interest in the Study of Cartography, believed that this immense Map was of no use, and not Impiously, they abandoned it to the Inclemency of the Sun and of numerous Winters. In the Deserts of the West ruined Fragments of the Map survive, inhabited by Animals and Beggars…
It was a favorite conceit of some 20th century writers to discuss the limits of representation by describing representations which overwhelmed the thing being represented. Lewis Carroll was the first to present as an absurdity the idea of “a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile:”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr. “The farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”
The idea of a 1:1 map (a map on the same scale, in the same size, as the place being mapped) not only bemused Borges but encouraged Umberto Eco to write his absurdist essay On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1:1. In that essay, Eco decides that such a map is an impossibility:
When the map is installed over all the territory (whether suspended or not), the territory of the empire has the characteristic of being a territory entirely covered by a map. The map does not take into account this characteristic, which would have to be presented on another map that depicted the territory plus the lower map. But such a process would be infinite. Two corollaries follow:
- Every 1:1 map always reproduces the territory unfaithfully.
- At the moment the map is realized, the empire becomes unreproducible.
Jean Baudrillard cites the Borges short story as the "finest allegory of simulation" in his treatise Simulacra and Simulation, describing how "an aging double ends up being confused with the real thing," covering the very thing it was meant to represent. In this way the story contributed to developing the semiotic concept of the hyperreal.
As William Gibson notes, the idea of cyberspace as a separate, distinct realm of being is a failed prediction. Instead, what’s happened is that the physical world has eaten, or been eaten by, the digital. We live inside the digital, now, and the digital is increasingly focused on physicality and presence. If there is a map, if there is a model, we increasingly experience it from within.
The Desert of the Real
Zizek's 2002 book's title comes from a quote delivered by the character Morpheus in the 1999 film The Matrix: "Welcome to the desert of the real." Both Žižek's title and the line from The Matrix refer to a phrase in Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. Part of this phrase appears in the following context of the book:
“If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly, this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacrum. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.”
Simulacra and Simulation
At its most basic, virtual reality uses computers to produce powerful simulations of the experience of those who are plugged into its sensory devices. Baudrillard's theory offered a way to imagine the creation of a simulation so powerful that those who inhabit it would take it for reality. And that's the premise of the film "The Matrix" by the Wachowski siblings.
Simulacra and Simulation was the book where Baudrillard most clearly–if clearly is a word that should ever be used in a sentence about French postmodern philosophy–articulated his theory.
Baudrillard escalates Borges to argue that today it is the map–the process of the materialization of a programmed, preceding model of the real–that precedes and produces the territory, making the distinction impossible. With this "precession of the simulacra" we are left with "the desert of the real", as "it is the real and not the map whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts."
The philosopher was ambivalent about his influence on The Matrix. He claimed to have declined an offer to help write the sequels, and apparently he felt that Disneyland was actually the perfect illustration of his theory about the simulated nature of contemporary reality.
The Matrix succeeds in illustrating many aspects of his media theory, explicitly linking them to developments in new media technologies and their possible future path, using Baudrillard to draw out the epistemological implications of developments in the simulation of experience and consciousness. However the film moves beyond a merely illustrative function; its use of Baudrillard opened up an important arena to discuss contemporary developments in virtual reality, virtuality, and simulation, as well as in cinema and technology, “in this neural interactive simulation that we call 'the matrix'.”
Perhaps a better source to understand this journey might be Descartes' attempts in his Meditations to achieve epistemological certainty. For Descartes sensory evidence is inadequate for this task as we might at any point be dreaming, hence, he argues, "there are no conclusive signs by means of which one can distinguish clearly between being awake and being asleep." It is precisely this central Cartesian question of dreaming that is posed in The Matrix as all Neo's early scenes open with him waking, wondering if he is, or was, dreaming.
Descartes himself soon moved beyond the question of dreaming, however, to a more interesting realization: even if we are awake, all of our senses may be being manipulated by some external maleficent force. Our whole "reality," therefore, may be a deliberately illusory product of some mal genie–an "evil demon" of images whose reality and reference cannot be proven, an idea The Matrix explicitly repeats in its picture of this world as a digital simulation and magic illusion created by the intelligent and evil force of the super-evolved machines.
Although this idea of electronic simulation draws upon both virtual reality and the work of Baudrillard, it needs to be understood, along with Descartes' Meditations, as part of a longer history of images: of concern about the image and about its epistemological foundation and possible deception.
Looking at this history of images and their reception it becomes apparent that images have always been seen as efficacious -- as having the power not merely to represent reality but also to present themselves as what they represent, in assuming for us the force of the real.
But the simulacrum has one last trick to play on us here. As Deleuze says, the simulacrum is no mere copy, rather it "contains a positive power which negates both original and copy, both model and reproduction," constituting "the act by which the very idea of a model or privileged position is challenged or overturned." This power cannot be abolished, returning to undermine all foundations raised against it, he argues, quoting Nietzsche's critique of Plato: "Behind every cave... there is, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world behind every bottom, beneath every foundation.”
Thus The Matrix plays with the simulacrum as a plot device but domesticates it again beneath a higher and true reality: not once does Neo consider whether this "real world" he is shown might not be just another level of virtual reality–perhaps this "reality" is one created for the machines by another intelligence to keep the machines themselves in happy slavery? However, a mainstream, blockbuster film needs truths to deliver and neither the film nor the audience could withstand this logical extrapolation of the central premise, for, as Deleuze admits, the simulacrum sets up an "internal reverberation" and "resonance" that overflows into madness.