pill pop culture

metaphors, the matrix, and your life

Written by graham

i have a love/hate relationship with pop culture.

on one hand, i am a pretentious elitist intellectualist.

that means by definition i must grit my teeth at the banality of such trivial tripe and scoff at those who find enjoyment in it for being stupid and inferior.

on the other hand, i find pop culture very interesting. not interesting as entertainment (though some of it suuure is!)...

i find it interesting because pop culture is a window into the human condition.

the human condition!

sounds like something a pretentious elitest intellectualist would say.

what i mean is, we create in pop culture our own image. it is our reflection.

unintentionally (some would say unconsciously), we pay attention to that which engages our values, beliefs, intentions, attitudes, delusions, fears, hopes, dreams, desires, etc. by paying attention to something, we elevate its popularity. once that popularity hits a certain peak on a massive scale, a star is born (as the saying goes).

a star!

a brilliant shining light in the sky? britney spears? something to gaze up at in awe?

same thing, apparently.

what we choose to elevate to this pop stardom is a reflection of our collective consciousness.

each of us is individually self-aware. through interactions with other self-aware individuals, we create collective systems. that is, parts working together to form a whole.*

(* this description can apply to any system of interaction: from the quantum level all the way up to the planets and stars. our own bodies are collective systems of individual parts that work together as a system to form "us".)

in our case, because the individual parts (that is, you and i) are said to be conscious, it follows logically that the whole it creates must be as well. this can be called our collective consciousness.

the values, beliefs, intentions, attitudes, delusions, fears, hopes, dreams, and desires something successfully taps into to become popular in the first place is exactly what describes the state of our collective consciousness.

this is nowhere close to a new idea. sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and other such academians have all been doing more or less exactly this for centuries.

the trouble is, most sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists and other such academians are pretentious elitest intellectualists.

when they state their findings, they do it in a pretentious elitest intellectualist kind of way known as "academic discourse".

in most cases, this means to write an incomprehensible, unnecessarily complex paper that is more concerned with asserting the awesome might of a thesaurus-fueled vocabulary than actually making a coherent point.

when a collection of these papers is published as a journal, it is placed in libraries across the world, where students or other scholars can make their own cross-references to articles they've never read let alone understood in a convincing act of making it seem like they have something very, very, very important to say, if only you could understand it.

evidentially, many in the academic world have forgotten the timeless expression of conciseness: K.I.S.S.*

(* you figure it out.)

a good point can be stated simply.

bullshit cannot.*

(* pardon my french.)

with the veneer of complexity removed, a weak point becomes utterly transparent for the substance it lacks.

hence all the big words.

in the case of journals, the big words mean only other pretentious elitest intellectualists actually bother reading the findings. any conclusions drawn from them-good or not-are lost to the popular majority.

that is, those of us who are the very inspiration for the point in the first place. we are the ones that most need to hear it.

the rest of pop culture chugs along, blissfully unaware and making the same mistakes.

sometimes, a bogus hack with a library card makes it on Oprah or something to lay personal claim for these ideas comprehended in the most narrowly-focused, superficially applicable interpretation possible as an effective way to market to schmucks looking for something to buy into.

it is much rarer that a true voice from the academic world is able to suppress the need to assert the size of his literary endowments and express such findings in clear, simple terms.

see alan watts, ken wilber, carl sagan, stephen hawking, gary zukav, or brain greene for example.

but this assumes people read books.

unfortunately, many don't .

but people sure watch movies!

a lot of movies.

one might go so far as to say that movies-being a primary vehicle for pop culture-might make a very good communication messenger for messages about pop culture (or, in other words, ourselves.)

recently, none have done a better job of this than The Matrix.

under that (very) thick schlock of glossy effects and guns blazin' rock 'em sock 'em action, here we have a very potent delivery of some rather compelling theological philosophy.

this is where the pretentious elitest intellectualists roll their eyes. pop culture as something important to learn from? that's not what one goes through seventeen years of post-secondary education and the gross national produce of a small kingdom for.

so now that they've all gone home, let's continue.

the Matrix does more than write philosophy into its script. as a visual medium, it vividly illustrates some useful metaphors to bring up around the dinner table when the difference between phenomenology and existentialism comes up again.

as much of the scripted philosophy is rather rudimentary and occasionally blatantly flawed, i'll skip it. the movie's philosophic implication as a working pop cultural metaphor is much more valuable.

there's plenty to read on the scripted bits online already anyway.

a metaphor is a concept of one thing used to represent another.

metaphors are extremely useful. they allow something that has no known description to be described in terms of something else that does.

think about that for a second.

how else could you describe something that has no existing description?

every description, every label, every name, every word is a metaphor. langauge itself is a metaphor. all communication is a metaphor.

a "dog" is not a dog. it is not the thing that runs around on the ground smelling its bum and growling at me every time i walk by it. it is a metaphor: one thing (a word) referencing something else (a barking creature).

if i have never seen a dog, your word "dog" has very little meaning to me. i don't understand the reference of your metaphor.

to explain "dog" to me, you would have to make a reference to something else i have experienced and compare it. doing so invokes another metaphor.

back and forth we go, swapping metaphors. we call it "talking".

the Matrix is a useful tool because it is a powerful source of visual and conceptual metaphors. because it is a huge success within pop culture, a lot of people have seen the references.

the Greeks had their gods to make references to in daily life. we have the Matrix.

if you want your point to be understood, express it in terms of the Matrix and you have a large audience who can get your point.

what's even more interesting is what the Matrix (as a story) represents. loosely speaking - all the techno-jumbo about machines and human slaves aside - it is a story about waking up.

it is a story about certain figures within a present day-like culture that become dissatisfied with that culture and-one way or another-are woken up and turned on to the truth of their reality.

"wake up"? "turn on"?

haven't we heard these ideas before somewhere?

coincidentally (ahem), the translation of "Buddha" means "awakened one". here's a story about that.

the relationship between Buddhism and the Matrix is so obvious it is almost comical. see for yourself.

there's also a lot of appropriate metaphor for Christianity and many other mythologies within the Matrix, as well as classic philosophic constructs like plato's cave. i suggest the following recommended reading.

the point is that the Matrix, for a pop entity produced by a culture that largely has trouble believing in anything, provides a platform for some rather profound ideas about religion and spirituality.

how taboo!

given the platform of a sci-fi fantasy movie, we have no trouble in accepting the things we are shown for honest consideration.

however, most of us tend to cease that consideration when it comes to our own lives. especially about how the solutions presented in the movie version apply to our own choices and presumptions.

now we come to the downside of pop culture as a messenger.

while the Matrix may be a powerful tool for presenting accessible metaphor for otherwise typically inaccessible philosophical considerations, it carries with it the shortcomings of pop culture's lacking understanding of these topics.

nowhere is this more evident in the Matrix than "the pills" scene.

our hero, Neo, is offered the choice between a red pill and a blue pill.

our buddy Morpheus explains the consequence of each:

"you take the blue pill, the story ends...you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. you take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and i'll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."

metaphorically, this is gold!

two pills! one choice! wonderland... rabbit holes...

it's all so poetically profound.

the choice between two pills is a very powerful way of representing "dilemma", the classical Greek dichotomy between two diametrically opposed options. what a great start...

but there's a problem with this particular way of representing it.

drug metaphor.

on the surface, it makes sense. we know how pills work. we use a lot of them.

a pill for headaches, a pill for depression, a pill for pregnancy, a pill for erections. pop culture has stepped in to colour this classic dramatic construct with a metaphor we can relate to.

we can relate to pills because we live in a drug culture.

that is, a culture that promotes "easy fix" solutions.

magic pills.

take the magic blue pill, everything is normal again. take the magic red pill, and suddenly you can fly, dodge bullets, do kung-fu and fly helicopters.

how Hollywood!


and that's the problem with using pop culture as a vehicle for important messages. pop culture inevitably presses its own image onto the message. the choice of metaphor is one way it does this.

silly as it might seem, the Matrix sends a very clear message: magic pills can change everything. red or blue. take the pill and it's all good, for better or worse.

pills are easy. you put them in your mouth and swallow. that's it.

instant turnaround. instant gratification. down it goes and off you go.

blast off.

there's no reference to the challenges and discipline required for lasting self-development.

at best, it's skipped over. at worst, it's forgotten, and assumed not to be necessary.

why work do hard work when you have a pill to do the same thing?

the effects of all drugs are temporarily. they may burn hot, but like all fires, they eventually run out of fuel and fade away.

fat pills, happy pills, sad pills, trippy pills, red pills, blue pills...

all may have definite effects, but only for the duration of the intoxication. the pill wears off and you are back to where you started.

or sometimes worse.

however, in this Hollywood version, the assertion is there's no going back. by this, the Matrix implies that this magic pill is a lasting one.

that's the magic part. take it once and bam, your life is changed forever.

no need to keep taking the pill. no need to dedicate your life to intense training. no need to develop concentration, cultivate patience, strengthen diligence. no need to even actually understand the process itself whatsoever.

just take the pill there it is, rabbit hole and all.

the rabbit hole exists.

getting into it may be as easy as pill-popping. (i have some friends you can ask if you really want to know about that.)

but staying in the hole, let alone having the self-discipline and sufficient control of your consciousness to be able to manage it, is a very different matter.

no pill can get you that. no pill can keep the fat off forever with just one dose. especially without consequences.

to do that, you need to do your own homework. there's no cheating, this time.

the Matrix exists.

maybe not as computer code with suit-wearing, sunglasses-clad agents running around, but our culture represents a bubble that is cut off from a world outside of it. a world that has been verified many times in many places, if only we'd take the time to look.

in a certain sense, we may be as virtual in our current perception of existence as the unaware population inhabiting the computer generated Matrix.

we have the same choice as Neo.

we can go back to watching tv even though there's nothing good on and we've seen every episode twice already anyway.

we can continue buying things other people tell us will make us happy or make people like us or fear us or need us or want to be us.

we can continue to wake up each day before we want to after going to bed later than we had to and get stuck in traffic going to the job we hate to work to make other people rich while we sit and question why we are even alive if this is all there is, until we get home again exhausted even though we just sat all day and try to relax amongst all the nice things we're surrounded with to drastic ourselves enough from this constant irritating question that we don't have a satisfactory answer for but are so tired of hearing because we are frustrated with not being able to think of one that doesn't suck or is fake or wants money or is foolish or a waste of time or is for crazy people that we just simply don't want to hear it anymore.

we can drown it out by drowning ourselves in alcohol or tweaking out on amphetamines and coke, ritzy clothes and badass cars, wooing and whoring in loud clubs, sucking on pacifiers and stimulating our senses until they are numb in the hopes that maybe for once we'll feel something that'll stick around longer than the buzz.

we can sit around and smoke ourselves stoned to pretend we don't care, or just go ahead and shoot some smack until we really don't need to worry about that anymore.

we can even munch a handful of magic mushrooms or drop some acid and visit the rabbit hole, marvel at the intensity, the way our world has just been pried open for real, for really really real, being shown things we can't possibly understand, only to wake up the next morning thinking, "what the HELL was that?"

we can shout about the ways we'd change the world if only and write papers about it that no one can understand.

we can climb the corporate ladder, build our portfolios, shovel our driveways, buy a new suit, get fat, play video games, divorce our wife, sleep with yours, bomb a country, bomb our own country, get pierced, discuss survivor, rape a child, see a movie, mock a popstar, be a pornstar, sell a time-share, sell our soul, praise God, burn a cross, proclaim our indifference, defend our honour, never question anything or question it all and just never do a thing about it.

or we can do just one thing.