Aug 05

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What is the Matrix?

“The unreal is more powerful than the real.

Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it.

Because it's only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last.

Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die.

But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.“

— Chuck Palahniuk

Stories really do have a lot in common with each other—whether they are in books, films, or spoken: they all have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

But the similarities don’t end there; they also have something else in common with each other: an x-factor.

Or, at least the stories that we can connect with do—the ones that we don’t just hear; the ones that actually speak to us.  The ones that have characters we care about.  The books that we can’t put down.  The movies we cringe at; when we yell at the screen, well aware of what is about to happen, and yet, are still surprised none-the-less when it does…

These movies, books, and stories might not look like creatures that could in anyway be related—and yet, pull back the skin; rip out the tendons and muscles; you’ll eventually make a surprising discovery…

They all have the exact same skeleton: the monomyth.

DVD Extra from the Warner Brothers Film “The Matrix“


The Call to Adventure

The message received by Neo
Image © Warner Brothers, The Matrix

Follow the white rabbit down the hole, and into another world.  One hidden deep inside the core of humanities’ collective subconscious.  One that is strange and frightening, and yet simultaneously familiar and comforting.

Free yourself from the fictional prisons that the corporate elite, and political aristocracy have caged your imaginations in, and escape to an ancient world where our ancestors quested to find the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

Imagine that right after you read the spinach green text above on your browser, you really did hear two knocks…

How would you feel?

What would be going through your mind?

Suddenly, that fictional world that was once a safe and entertaining refuge, has transformed into a gateway to another realm.  One filled with unsettling possibilities…

What if it wasn’t just a story?  What if it wasn’t just fiction?

This is the primary element that makes transmedia such an exciting development in storytelling.  The third wall separating the participant from the story can now be knocked down.  Instead of reading, listening, or watching the story unfold, they actually become a part of it.

This interaction is a key element missing from most commercial projects that have been mistakenly labeled “transmedia.”


Red vs. Blue

Image © Warner Brothers, The Matrix

“I imagine you feel a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole…you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind…take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes…”

— Morpheus, The Matrix

That rabbit hole?  It’s deep.  Really deep.  Tens of thousands of years before the first ancient cave paintings were just figments in their creators heads, the capacity to tell stories—and the need to hear them—was hardwired into our DNA. 

That’s the untapped power of myth.  A power humanity long ago tossed aside as a relic.  It’s not that surprising.

After all, who needs candles when you have a flash light?


But candles don’t need batteries; they don’t need to be recharged.

And while the light they shine isn’t as revealing—or as bright—very few couples I know, would like to sit down for a flashlight-lit dinner for two.

Yes, as an analogy, that was a bit more like a rubber band than a paperclip.  But sometimes you need something that can stretch.  In our modern age, with our rigid world views, we can try to categorize everything in neat little piles.  But it won’t always work…

Kyle MacDonald on a paperclip
Image via Wikipedia 
(CC Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license)


Eventually, when the piles get too big, a paperclip will either have to bend, or snap.  Rolling up the universe in a tube of myth might be a little less organized, even a little messy; but it can get the job done, when a paperclip can’t.

Am I suggesting that we throw away the paper clips of science, math, and physics, and replace them with stories?

No, of course not…

That would be just a silly as throwing out all the rubber bands in our desks; after all, you never know when you might need one—ask McGuyver

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what most people have done by the time they reach adulthood.  They’ve tossed out the rubber bands of myth—or the few that they desperately cling to have snapped long ago, and no longer serve a purpose.

When we‘re told by society to “grow up,” to put the myths we've carried with us since childhood into the trash—it leaves us ill equipped to deal with reality.

You heard right…

Parent’s often lament that children don’t come with instruction manuals.  But they do…

Myth, Legends, Folklore, and Oral Narratives were the cultural transmission devices of our ancestors.  These “stories” gave children their worldview, linked them to the other members of their society, taught them laws and cultural taboos, and gave them a map with several paths to follow into adulthood.

Today, myth may feel like a forgotten and lifeless tuber, dissected in high school English classes, or studied under microscopes of intellect in universities—but, if it’s planted, watered, and given time to grow, you will find that ancient myths are seeds.  Seeds that massive trees of unlimited creative potential can grow from.

Image via Wikipedia 
(CC Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license)

Today, most people dismiss myths as quaint and ancient bedtime stories.  Fictional night lights that humanity conjured up in our infancy to help cope with the harsh, unforgiving, and unfathomable world we lived in.

Today, when someone says something is a myth, they mean it is fantastical, untrue, and unimportant. 

But there are some people who refuse to let myth fade into mediocrity. The founder of the Modern Mythology website, James Curcio is one of those people.  His recently published study, The Immanence of Myth makes it abundantly clear that myth wasn’t just important to our ancestors, but still serves a vital role in the modern world.  He explains that myth hasn’t disappeared: it’s just hiding in plain sight.

While traditional scholars are busy trying to find the “tree“ of modern mythology, they are completely oblivious to the fact that they are standing in the middle of a forest of them.  Mr. Curcio’s study collects works from a number of scholars, artists, and self-styled social “misfits” that have seen the forest, and the trees, and have taken it upon themselves to explore this newly discovered world of contemporary myths:

“If myth is something long dead, a corpse exhumed with philosophical disinterest, then please consider this work an attempt at necromancy. But if myth is considered something dangerous; full of falsities, dead ends and mazes luring the unwary into a fugue of superstition, then consider it a whispered pass-phrase into another world: the world beyond the wallpaper. A world that recognizes the real is in the effect rendered, rather than in the thing symbolized. Conflicting fictions drive Holy wars. How is a history born of spilled blood unreal? How is it meaningless, even if all the Gods are just shadows cast on the wall by finger-puppets? Myth is not dead, nor is it false; it is living, and misunderstood…”

            — James Curcio, The Immanence of Myth

The monomyth isn’t obvious unless you are actually looking for it.  Even Marguerite Labbe, author, and scholar of comparative mythology and folklore, was not always aware of its existence.  She explained for me the moment when she first realized that a very similar story was being told throughout many different cultures:

“I first started noticing it (monomyth) in college…because before, I always read for pleasure and I didn’t really read looking for any kinds of motifs.  But I found it very fascinating that most cultures had it—some kind of great flood story.  That was completely fascinating to me.  What you might have always thought was a story in the Bible growing up, suddenly took on a whole new meaning, because how was it that all these other different cultures came up with the same story?  It brings a certain element of truth that you think might not have been there before.”

Though some may debate if the great flood actually occurred, the fact that knowledge of this natural (or fictional) disaster was passed down for hundreds or even thousands of years without any written record, is a testament to the power of myth.

From Action Philosophers, by Ryan Dunlavey

But the truly amazing thing about myth is how the same plot elements and motifs keep showing up in so many different places and times.  This was one of the first things that Mrs. Labbe commented on:

“Seeing these similarities is really fascinating.  Especially in cultures that are so diverse…the Navajo, the Finnish…the Celtic…the Aztec—completely different cultures, completely different parts of the world.  They were all very different in tone and feel, and the types of stories they come up with, but there were also many similarities as well.

This is but the first on many posts exploring the monomyth, and it’s modern manifestations.  Make sure you check back, or subscribe to my RSS feed for the additional updates…



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Permanent link to this article: http://peterusagi.com/2011/08/05/what-is-the-matrix/

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