ZERO. That’s the ultimate philosophical symbol from Fight Club and The Matrix, two film futures which prophesied the two decades since 1999 and 2000, that once-magical year with three zeros. Though misunderstood by most film critics upon their release, the two films have long since saturated pop consciousness around the world. More than mere entertainment, Fight Club and The Matrix remain intellectual touchstones in contemporary culture. That’s why I use the films in my critical media theory courses and both are among the many films featured in my textbook, Media Environments (3rd edition 2019).
“The Future” in 1999
Fight Club and The Matrix appeared in 1999, in the moments before the arrival of 2000 and its three zeros signaling not just a new year, new decade, or new century—but an entirely new millennium with a new future (or so we hoped). The Cold War was over and the world breathed a massive sigh of relief. The Soviets were dead, but the fundamentalists had still had their go-to enemy—the future! As humanity approached the millennium, the internet was spreading, complemented by a deep fear of the future. Side-by-side: feelings of euphoria and fears of apocalypse. Silicon Valley meets Revelation.
Heading into 2000, the internet and dotcoms were proliferating and world stock markets were booming. Seeking sex and salvation for human consciousness, millions migrated to the internet and the dotcoms dreamed of massive online profits. Cyberspace was the new utopian territory to be colonized by human tribes. Laptops were futuristic, being digital was cool. At the same exact time, there was fear of the Y2K bug—the idea that computers (those using only two digits for dates) would record the new year as “00” and might conclude that the year 2000 was 1900. This could trigger all kinds of financial and monetary miscalculations, effecting a networked cascade that could spread through all the media and energy systems around the world. A global crisis was averted when governments and corporations poured billions of dollars into correcting the code to allow for computers to account for the year 2000. The future seemed saved, at least for the time being.
After all, the year 2000 was once symbolic of the “the future” — the world of tomorrow filled with utopian possibilities for art, science, and technology. That’s why Stanley Kubrick entitled his 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The future” was to arrive after 2000 and beyond. But, instead of glorious space stations in 2001, we got destroyed skyscrapers on September 11, 2001. With its collapsing skyscrapers, Fight Club foresaw September 11 while The Matrix points directly toward social media and Facebook. But both films say much more, as summarized in the following table.
The Zero of Fight Club
Based on the 1995 novel by Chuck Palahniuk, David Fincher’s Fight Club opened with Tyler Durden holding a gun in the mouth of Jack, accompanied by the following lines from Durden: “Three minutes. This is it. Ground zero.” The book and film depicted a violent rebellion against consumer society and the modern world, centered on brutal fistfights among gangs of GQ guys in an underground network of “fight clubs.” In so doing, the book and film offer clever and trenchant commentary about corporate life, consumer society, and evolving/devolving visions of masculinity. That much is obvious and has received ample commentary. No need to repeat all that, especially given the f*cked up “manliness” still on display everywhere, with advanced primates thumping their chests and claiming to make Russia and America great again. Perhaps that’s because there are broader and deeper philosophical issues on display in Fight Club.
The “fight club” movement was organized by an alienated corporate drone named Jack (Edward Norton), under the inspiration of his alter ago named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who took the form of a Luddite hipster-philosopher-terrorist attired in urban grunge anti-fashion fashions. Durden also sold soap (made in a most gruesome way), a metaphor for spiritual cleansing offered by the fight club movement. From fistfights, the movement expanded its scope and ambition to detonating corporate public sculpture and destroying the skyscrapers of credit card companies, all in the effort to fully erase credit card debt—to get us to go “back to zero.” Zero debt is a smart plan, but the zeroes in both films mean much more.
The Unabomber Manifesto
As the fight clubs expanded in membership and networks, we discovered that Durden’s utopia was a premodern world, an agrarian-oriented hunter-gatherer society where people were attired in all-leather clothes and grew food amidst abandoned skyscrapers and superhighways. Over the course of the film, it became apparent that Tyler Durden was an urban Unabomber, acting on a much larger scale in the metropolis.
A former math professor, Ted Kaczynski was an American terrorist who took the name the “Unabomber” and mail-bombed scientists and technologists at universities and corporations in the 1980s and 1990s. Writing under the pen name FC, he authored The Unabomber Manifesto (1995), which argued that industrialization leads to apocalyptic doom for society and the environment. In a stunning move of intellectual blackmail, he forced the New York Times and Washington Post to publish the entire manifesto in the Sunday edition of their newspapers—in exchange for him to cease his mail-bombings. The newspaper publications led to Kaczynski’s brother identifying his writing style and alerting the FBI, who soon arrested Kaczynski living in a tiny cabin in the woods of remote Washington. Kaczynski was placed on trial and sentenced to life in prison, where he remains today.
The Unabomber’s proposed planetary eco-solution was to destroy all industrial technology, blow up all factories and burn the technology books, making possible the irreversible return to a hunter-gather society. Durden’s description of the future reflected the vision of the Unabomber:
“You’ll hunt elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center, and dig clams next to the skeleton of the Space Needle leaning at a forty-five- degree angle. . . .” (…) You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life, and you’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. Jack and the beanstalk, you’ll climb up through the dripping forest canopy and the air will be so clean you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison to dry in the empty car pool lane of an abandoned superhighway stretching eight-lanes-wide and August-hot for a thousand miles.”
This was the goal of Project Mayhem, Durden said, the complete and utter destruction of civilization. In the conclusion to the film, we return to “ground zero” and view the implosion of several skyscrapers in cinematic imagery very similar to the collapse of the Twin Towers two years later at Ground Zero.
Copies Masking Nothingness
In the film Fight Club, Jack offers the above lament while standing at a copy machine, on top of which is a Starbucks coffee cup. The copy machine methodically cranks out the copies, in a room full of identical workers also sipping Starbucks and making copies. Managerial drones making copies, converting skyscrapers into 100-story file cabinets. A thousand feet high, stacks of papers and computers, filled with data, managed by drones.
Jack expresses angst over the loss of authenticity and individuality in a world of malls, packed with mass-produced goods, and a mass media that never sleep, running 24/7, with an explosion of image and information. The real and authentic seem ever farther away, disappearing beyond the horizons of the mediated and artificial. The idea that “everything’s far away” also echoes the fate of the Big Bang universe expanding across the vast voids of billions of light years. That’s the great fear of Fight Club, that our mass-produced consumer society is concealing meaninglessness in a universe of expanding nothingness, dotted with galaxies and stars.
The Zero in The Matrix
The Matrix tapped into the same zero imagery. The film began with vertical columns of ever-changing green numbers, glowing and cascading down against a black background. The title — THE MATRIX — emerged from the glowing numbers. There followed more columns of cascading green numbers. Slowly zooming in on a single digit — 0 — moviegoers were propelled through the zero, through the void, the vanishing point, the mediated realm of nothingness, the virtuality of “the Matrix.” The Matrix is another retelling of Plato’s Cave, where prisoners are chained in a cave of illusory shadows they mistakenly believe represent the real world. In The Matrix version of the Cave, humans are enslaved to a global computer network, where the mediated world has become the “real world” for everyone—except Morpheus and his band of rebel hackers.
Outside the Matrix is “Zion,” the supposedly real world populated by real people. But Zion seems rather banal and boring, with everyone acting tough in drab gray clothes, making most moviegoers prefer the life inside the Matrix, with all the stylin’ fashions of the future—as displayed by Morpheus, Trinity, Switch, and Neo. A future without fashion is a dead future, precisely because fashion is primally connected to human identity in the universe.
In The Matrix trilogy, there is only one book shown and it is in Neo’s apartment. Early in the The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) opens a dark green book called Simulacra and Simulation; the book is a hollowed shell containing computer disks and other items. In that scene, the Wachowskis are referencing the most famous book of media philosopher Jean Baudrillard, the main theorist of “hyperreality.” In fact, Baudrillard is sort of hyperreal himself, kind of like Plato and Marshall McLuhan on steroids, with some occasional Jean-Paul Sartre as his energy drink to wash it down. That helps explain why Baudrillard is a controversial and complex thinker, whose explanations of the hyperreal are often vague or obscure.
“The Matrix is Everywhere”
When the fashionably sleek Morpheus says the “the Matrix is everywhere,” he is drawing from McLuhan and Baudrillard. McLuhan famous showed that the “medium is the message,” meaning that media technologies massage our consciousness into accepting the world as seen and made possible by that media. The message of each medium is the conditioning effect it has on our view of the world and what it is and/or should be. Baudrillard took that idea and transformed it into “the map is the territory.”
In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard argued that the “real world” has largely disappeared from consciousness, having been displaced by media, models, copies, and simulations — what Baudrillard termed the “hyperreality” now indistinguishable from the original reality being displaced. Drawing from McLuhan, but pushing the effect of media technologies much further, Baudrillard wrote:
“Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless that map that precedes the territory. . . . . It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.”
Electronic media have departed on their own trajectory of reprogramming or reproducing the world, as embodied in the worlds of Disneyland, Las Vegas, Times Square, Dallas Cowboys Stadium, etc. Rather than represent reality, the media and their technologies anticipate and generate reality. For Baudrillard, what we call “reality” is really the global system of hyperreality, a hollowed existence of screens and surfaces—an artificial world of 1s, 0s, clones, copies, celebrities, fakes, facades, replicas, reproductions, substitutes, spectacles, social media, staged events, and endless simulacra (copies in which the original is no longer needed, desirable, or exists).
Media and technology have ended the distinctions between the fictional and the authentic — between the symbol and what it stands for. We live in a world where the signs and symbols of the real have largely replaced the real. It’s a 24/7 planetary system, never shutting down, never turning down the bright lights, always aglow, always creating more copies of copies of copies. To paraphrase Baudrillard, hyperreality is more real than real, more true than true, more beautiful than beautiful. The maps have replaced the territory, the maps are the territory. That’s how we get a reality-TV star as president.
Space Monkeys Do Not Talk About Fight Club
That the rank-and-file members of Project Mayhem are called “space monkeys” is suggestive. When the term was first used by NASA in the early days of space exploration, the space monkeys were trained to push certain buttons and pull certain levers in the command module, thus allowing scientists to test the conditions for the future astronauts. Of course, the space monkeys did not understand the purpose of what they were doing, which was serving as test subjects in the quest for outer space. Similarly, the space monkeys in Fight Club are the drones trained to execute Project Mayhem, while having no grasp of the overall purpose or meaning of their actions.
In one sense, the fights symbolize the reality we all inhabit, the ultimate intimate reality—our bodies. In an age of fast food and fad diets, all existing in a metrosexual media landscape of six-pack abs, hair transplants, cosmetic surgery, and Viagra, there is ever-more cultural pressure to improve the male body, to lose weight, grow hair, get ripped, and stay hard — just like Tyler Durden in the film version of Fight Club. Yet, ultimately, the fights ultimately aren’t about improved toughness, living more fully, or being more authentic. They are brutal battles aimed at the destruction of reality, of self, of improvement, and of the future.
“Self-improvement is masturbation; now self-destruction, that’s improvement,” says Tyler, in response to Jack’s comment about a Calvin Klein underwear ad and guys in gyms trying to look like guys in ads. In the end, the fights are about burying the cultural body and resurrecting the brainless body, the vessels of the unthinking true believer, the follower, the conformist, the drone, the space monkey. After all, Tyler’s space monkeys obey the first rule of Fight Club: “You do not talk about Fight Club.”
Fight Club and The Matrix are among a long-line of attempts to counter modern consumer society with the quest for authenticity, autonomy, and existential meaning. Beginning with the “Beatniks” of the 1950s, there have been continual efforts to resist mass pop culture, to create a revolutionary counterculture. These include:
- hippies and leftists
- punks and fundamentalists
- goths and gangstas
- Luddites and anti-globalization protestors
- trolls and internet tough guys
- Alt-Right and Alt-Fact, and so on.
The new struggle is less a war on poverty than it is a war on homogeneity, where the rebels are:
- seeking authenticity in a culture of mass production
- seeking identity in a culture of mass mediation
- seeking roots in a culture of rapid acceleration
- seeking “truth” amid the proliferation of information
- and seeking meaning on a tiny planet in an expanding universe.
Unlike the space monkeys of NASA, the space monkeys of Project Mayhem were not used for increasing scientific knowledge of the universe, rather they are used for destroying science and technology precisely because of the universe it revealed and the gods it destroyed.
Tyler’s space monkeys are the spiritual twin of fundamentalists, religious terrorists, racial supremacists, internet tough guys, and anti-science zealots, those anti-enlightenment tribes who champion premodern superstitions as a guide for hypermodern societies. War and tribalism remain central to a meaningful life for space monkeys. In a universe of two trillion galaxies and human insignifance, what’s more real and meaningful than two ripped and tatted up brutes battling it out on ESPN in the TV cage fights of Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fight Championships. NASA science barely stands a chance against ESPN sports.
This is the future idealized in Fight Club, a premodern culture roaming amidst the ruins of the modern world. The space monkeys are the noble savages of the non-information age, the next humans of the non-future. In this cultural reversal, the skyscraper metropolis is replaced by the urban rain forest, the metrosexual by the space monkey, the superhighway by the walking trail, the fast-food burger by the drying venison, the five-star restaurant by the camp-fire cookout, the joy stick by the bare fist, and the Enlightenment is replaced by the Fight Club. That’s a ground zero!
“Welcome to the Desert of the Real”
The hollowed-out world of the hyperreality, that’s the zero for Baudrillard and The Matrix. In his more nihilistic texts, Baudrillard suggests that the real or authentic reality is no longer accessible, no longer knowable outside our mediated perceptions and technologies, perhaps existing only somewhere beyond the zeros. The remaining “real” realities, if they exist, reside in “the desert of the real,” those natural deserts that exist far outside the metropolises, or maybe in the cultural deserts existing in the fissures within the metropolises. This was imperfectly illustrated when Morpheus says to Neo, “Welcome to the desert of the real,” and both are situated next to a rocky landscape, near a smoldering metropolis, all inside a TV hyperreality. The only exit, if there is one, is outside technology. And that’s the same take as the Unabomber and Durden.
A life outside technology means the end of civilization, the end of the enlightened future, with humans dying off big-time, by the billions. A life in the hyperreal means endless replays of histories and futures blurring together into permanent todays. And we now are witness to endless reruns of zombie philosophies, worldviews that should be dead but are still stalking human brains on planet Earth. Superstition, paranormalism, and pseudoscience are proliferating, from flat-earthers to anti-vaxxers to Bigfoot trackers to ghost hunters to evolution deniers to Apollo 11 conspiracy theorists. Should we be surprised Ancient Aliens is becoming a new planetary religion? Space monkeys unite, your alien leader is coming soon!
Fight Club and The Matrix foreshadowed the fact that secular philosophy has yet to generate a meaningful narrative for the 21st century, beyond consumerism and an endless parade of techno-gadgets and transient-tribal enthusiasms (World Cups, Super Bowls, Academy Awards, etc). In both Fight Club and The Matrix, there is no serious role for art, science, nature, wilderness, or the starry skies above—or for a secular philosophy to unite the human species and connect us to nature and the night skies. Of course, this secular narrative exists in cosmology, but there has been little effort to connect this to a meaningful daily existence. Kubrick’s 2001 and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos pointed the way, but with little effect on secular philosophy.
“Look up into the stars and you’re gone”—Jack
Jack’s cosmic angst reflects the state of secular philosophy, at least one informed by science and our place in NASA’s universe of two trillion galaxies. It’s no wonder Jack wanted to fight William Shatner, the infamous actor who played Captain Kirk in Star Trek (1966–1969) at the peak of secular optimism about our place in the universe. First broadcast during the height of the Apollo program, Star Trek provided hope that humans might set aside tribal warfare and unite as a single species to explore the universe in peace and in search of enlightenment. By 1999, Star Wars prevailed and whatever hopes for peace and enlightenment in space were gone. All that was left was to punch out Captain Kirk, just for the hell of it.
Five decades after the original Star Trek, we face the paradox of our greatest intellectual achievement — we have discovered a vast, majestic, and awe-inspiring cosmos, a universe in which we are utterly insignificant and perhaps meaningless. What is “gone” is our pre-Copernican cosmic centrality, our vane and tribal pretenses to existential importance in the universe. Jack’s lament that “everything’s far away” also echoes the fate of the Big Bang universe.
The observable universe has been expanding for 13.7 billion years, with the galaxies moving away in all directions, thrust apart by expanding voids of dark-energy and nothingness—apparently destined to accelerate beyond all horizons. This is the cosmic and existential angst of Fight Club. As Jack says: “It’s all so beyond us .… the miles of night between the stars and the Earth.” The Matrix trilogy draws the same conclusion. The opening graphics to the two sequels to The Matrix both suggest that the spiral galaxies of the artificial mediated universe is all we will ever really know.
For those clinging to cosmic centrality, all that’s left are the screens, populated with tribalism, nationalism, and the narcissism/exhibitionism that dominate social media—personified by the presidential primates occupying the White House and the Kremlin. After all, Trump and Putin want to further militarize space and ramp up the nuclear weapons that could destroy civilization. In the Tyler-Trump-Putin future, living alongside real monkeys will be the space monkeys, the rulers of a real-life Planet of the Apes.
Two Minutes to Ground Zero
In Fight Club, we were three minutes to ground zero. Twenty years later, we are a mere two minutes. On January 25, 2018, atomic scientists moved the hand on the Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight. In 2019, the clock remained at two minutes. Since the demise of the Cold War, the Doomsday Clock has gone from 17 minutes to two minutes before midnight. That’s not progress, that’s the clock ticking on a massive devolution triggered by increasing fears of nuclear war, climate disruption, species extinction, and the Anthropocene. All that’s left are Hollywood superheroes to save us because we know we can’t do it ourselves.
21st Century Philosophy: Hacking the Matrix?
The 21st century needs a new philosophy for human existence. Religious non-belief is at its highest ever in the United States (23–25% of the population), yet non-belief alone is not enough. Neither is being a groovy hipster in the urban metropolis, plugged into social media and cool restaurants precisely as the Anthropocene transforms the surface and living systems of Earth. Humanity is a species that needs hope and meaning in a larger narrative.
Our media technologies tell us two stories, depending on the direction of the gaze—upon humans or away from humans. Televisions, smart phones, and social media are really ego-media, technologies which almost exclusively gaze upon human activity, effecting a narrative with the human species at the center of all meaning, value, and purpose in the universe. That’s the world of The Matrix and Fight Club. The end result is climate disruption and the Anthropocene.
In contrast, exo-media technologies like telescopes and space probes cast their gaze away from Earth and humanity, thus effecting a narrative in which the human species is the center of nothing and a tiny part of a much larger story. That’s the hopeful world of 2001 and Interstellar. Social media empower narcissism and tribalism, while telescopes appeal to the universal in humanity.
We know all humans share 99.5% of the same DNA and our bodies are made of the most common elements of the cosmos (hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, etc.) — which means we are one species sharing one planet with millions of other species in a vast cosmos. We need a planetary civilization that:
- recognizes both the diversity and universality of the human species
- defends universal human rights
- reduces and eliminates warfare
- protects biodiversity and the ecosystems
- expands wildernesses and dark skies
- accepts its evolutionary place on Earth and insignificance in the universe
- that deploys long-term thinking for key decisions
- embraces the arts and sciences as guideposts to finding meaning in the vast and majestic universe.
Of course, these are broad brushstrokes and the details are complex. Yet, if there is a way out of “the Matrix,” the exit might appear in a new philosophy based in the awe and wonder of existence. The distance between us and the stars is the key to our braininess and tininess as a species.
The hope for cosmic meaning begins with the idea that we are one way the universe is aware of itself, is aware of the majesty of existence and the vast universe(s) it contains. Awesomeness amid nothingness, that’s the starting point for hacking The Matrix in its many forms. And unlike Fight Club, there is no first rule for this philosophy, except a mind open to the universe.
Barry Vacker is editor of Media Environments (2019) and co-editor of Black Mirror and Critical Media Theory (2018), the first media/technology studies book about the series Black Mirror. Other recent books include Specter of the Monolith (2017), which presents a radical new philosophy inspired by 2001.