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Trans Pedagogies of Perceptive Dissent: The Matrix Trilogy as Emblematic Cinema

Sun, November 12, 8:00 to 9:45am, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Field, Third Floor West Tower

Abstract

This paper intervenes in established academic analysis of The Matrix Trilogy to read the the film series as marking the emergence of “transgender” through a pedagogical aesthetic of dissent from imposed reality. The Matrix (1999) and its sequels have been much-theorized as threshold texts--films that visually defined the advent of the 21st century and expressed the approaching convergence of digital technologies with film production, Asian with western popular cultures, and the internet with daily life. Yet, scholarship on The Matrix series remains incomplete, containing no analysis of its production by the world's first transgender major motion picture directors, Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Rather than focusing on the films’ plot, which follows a recognizably transgender identity narrative, I redirect attention here to the films’ revolutionary digital imaging as an example of what Kristen Whissel in Spectacular Digital Effects (2014) terms “emblematic” cinema: cinema in which the visual effects “teach” the theme or content of the film. The Matrix Trilogy established the Wachowskis as masters of this cinematic style, but little critical energy has been spent investigating how the trilogy emblematizes transgender through a pedagogy of the image. Turning to the series’ radical break with formal film aesthetics, I explore how The Matrix and its sequels “teach” the audience what it might mean to perceive the world and body from a specifically Western transgender phenomenological stance.

To assert that The Matrix Trilogy aesthetically captures/invents “trans” is not to dismiss the multifarious interpretations of the series, but to highlight how transgender is an inextricable component of the conditions the films emblematize—late capitalism, postmodernity, biopolitics, virtuality, and the proliferation of sensorial realities. Transgender is a phenomenon inherently bound up in these millennial developments not merely as an effect, but simultaneously as a driver of how they are understood and represented culturally. The Matrix and its sequels illustrate how transgender modes of consciousness and digital imaging concatenate from a within mutually constitutive historical point at which sex, gender, and the processes of cinema production were transformed into information. Lana Wachowski describes this aesthetic turn as illustrating that “knowledge has an actual materiality” (Wachowski, Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award Speech, 10/20/12), how what goes unseen or is considered imaginary can nonetheless be invited into perception. Through brilliant combinations of coded effects such as bullet time, swarm animation, and the morph, The Matrix Trilogy made huge leaps in aesthetic design that brought the relativity of identity and embodiment, the traversal of defined spaces and times, and the futurist sensations of verticality and speed into new and spectacular perspective. The result, I argue, is the beginning of a distinctly trans cinematic pedagogy in Western cinema, through which new forms of dissent might be represented or imagined.

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