Give an engaged social criticism of society using as an example the film ‘The Matrix’

Give an engaged social criticism of society using as an example the film ‘The Matrix’

Cinema and social criticism


Give an engaged social criticism of society using as an example the film ‘The Matrix’. Think

less of the plotline of the film, and more about the film’s ability of addressing the issue of what

is truly authentic in our social experience. Mainly use the psychoanalysis offered through

Zizek’s work and in general, the sociological discussion around reality and simulation (e.g

Baudrillard, Debord etc).

Key reading

Debord- society of the spectacles

Fisher – Capitalist Realism

Cremin – Capitalism’s New Clothes

Myers – Zizek

Zizek – Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Zizek – Violence

Zizek – Living in the End Times

Zizek – First as Tragedy, then as Farce

Baudrillard- Simulacra and Simulation

1. The Matrix

The Matrix has produced quite a bit of philosophical discussion. Much of this discussion

revolves around reality and its simulation. Lacan’s tripartite system, the Real, the

Symbolic and the Imaginary, is a useful means of addressing what is truly authentic in

our social experience.


The Matrix (and all of the sequels)

Manufacturing Consent – Noam Chomsky and the Media

The Corporation


Irwin, W. (ed) (2002) The Matrix and Philosophy, Chicago: Open Court

Zizek – The Matrix, or The Two Sides of Perversion (available for free on the internet)

Zizek, S. (2002), Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London: Verso

Zizek, S. (2009), Violence, London: Profile Books

Fisher, M (2009), Capitalist Realism, London: Zero

Debord, G. (1992) Society of the Spectacle, London: Rebel Press (also use other editions)

Module description

The films used in each session will, in most cases, be used to identify key issues in contemporary

culture and you are asked to view these films critically rather than passively, thinking less about

plotlines and more about the film’s ability to inform critical cultural analysis. For example, some

of the films we will look at act as a metaphor for recent cultural change; others offer us a

particular way of interpreting cultural production; others still are analogous of the shifting nature

of human subjectivity and our engagement with contemporary social life. This learning and

analytical format is partly indebted to the writing of Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher

greatly influenced by Marx and Lacan and certainly one of the most important public

intellectuals to emerge in recent years. Zizek’s work is unusual in as much as he steadfastly

refuses to engage directly with the pressing global issues that dominate contemporary culture,

politics and economy. Rather, his goal is to rethink the problem, to fully engage with the

problem’s development and context, rather than rush to judgement and hastily arrange new,

forward-looking proposals about how we might ‘solve’ the perpetual crises that are indicative of

contemporary social life. Zizek’s publications also display a willingness to ‘open up’ cultural

analysis to a wider audience and, in tone and structure, are very different to the abstract and often

turgid prose of other social theorists. This accessibility should not, however, be interpreted as an

unwillingness to engage in truly complex and illuminating cultural analysis, as Zizek has,

without question, already made a huge contribution to our understanding of the present. Much of

the module will draw upon Zizek’s work in some way, and we will spend a significant amount of

time analysing particular passages of text lifted from his more recent publications.

This module is essentially about cultural criticism. An engaged criticism of society and its

cultural and economic forms used to be integral to mainstream sociology, but has fallen from

favour in recent years as postmodernism issued an injunction that we suspend judgement and

acknowledge myriad interpretations. As such, this module may seem rather bleak, but given the

huge problems we face, this seems entirely fitting. Following the famous aphorism of Antonio

Gramsci, our approach is geared towards a ‘pessimism of the intellect, [and] optimism of the

will’: meaningful social change is only possible is we acknowledge the true extent of the

problems we face. For the critical sociologist the correct response is to rigorously and

relentlessly analyse and critique the contemporary and ask searching questions about how we got

here and what, if anything, we can do improve our collective future and the basic ethical

coordinates of our social, cultural and economic life. This approach is therefore an active and

engaged pessimism; definitely not a baseless pessimism which might prompt one to conclude

that ‘nothing can be done’ and that all attempts to rehabilitate or transform the order are bound to

fail. We will proceed on the basis that groundless optimism and a failure to engage critically with

global social injustice and the myriad mega-crises that hover over contemporary social life like a

cloud is both stupid and politically and intellectually irresponsible.


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