All views expressed are that of the writer.

The Matrix has you. Follow the white rabbit. Knock, knock.

There are two famous party scenes in The Matrix movies. The first happens within the Matrix. It's where Neo meets Trinity, and the adventure begins. The second is in Zion, outside the Matrix, but still within The Matrix, within cinema. It might be one of the best rave scenes on screen, but it’s still on screen. Where do we go to get free? In the club, at the rave, maybe, but somehow the Matrix follows us everywhere. Free your body—but where, how?

That was the prompt I wrote for contributors as Editor in Residence here at Factory+, the online extension of Factory International. The opening programme for their new cultural venue this autumn features a dance adaptation of The Matrix called Free Your Mind. And so, alongside Free Your Mind (as embodied on stage), I thought I’d curate a collection of thoughtful texts (+images) on “free your body.” Together with some images discreetly captured from such moments of freedom as certain bodies can find.

The writers I’m inviting are trans (broadly defined). The Matrix films were embraced early on by trans people, even before the Wachowskis, who made them, both came out as trans women. Something about the formal and narrative elements of the films spoke to us. There’s now some serious writing on The Matrix as trans allegory, including books by Cael Keegan and Tilly Bridges. So while a lot of people connected to these films, The Matrix had, and has, a special resonance for those of us who are trans.

A person sits in the corner of a club

McKenzie Wark

I asked trans writers to write, not so much about the films, as the predicament with which they leave us. Where do we go to get free? If the key invocation of The Matrix is “free your mind,” where can we go to free our bodies? Follow the white rabbit: The Matrix has some clues as to where to look. The series borrows, among other things, from the visual and sonic aesthetics of nightlife, the club, the rave, and techno. In the fourth feature film in the series, The Matrix: Resurrections, this even gets a visual nod in the tattoos of one of the minor characters—which are based on the logo of legendary Berlin queer techno club Berghain.

Follow the white rabbit—but where? Our contributors will have their own ideas about that. I’m going to pop briefly into a few rabbit burrows of interest to me—a white, middle-aged late transitioning trans woman who lives in the borough of Brooklyn, New York, and who likes to go dancing at night, in the club, at the rave, in gay spaces and queer spaces, to techno and house music.

There’s some overlapping terms here whose connotations it might help to parse out a little bit. One is nightlife. For many trans people, the night is our time. Excluded from “real” jobs, daytime jobs, they work at night. And play at night. Sometimes that means in the club. There are many kinds of nightclub. In some we’re not welcome, in some we’re too welcome, in some we feel (relatively) safe. Then there’s the rave. Unlike clubs, raves are one-offs, in temporary spaces. Some of those are for us. It’s the custom with the better ones in Brooklyn that trans people get in free.

I asked trans writers to write, not so much about the films, as the predicament with which they leave us. Where do we go to get free?

Sometimes the spaces where some of us feel most free are gay spaces and queer spaces. These are not exactly the same thing. Here in Brooklyn, there’s a subtle difference between gay nightlife, which centers gay men, and queer nightlife, which doesn’t. There can be straight people in both, too. It’s more that in these spaces people interact according to gay or queer conventions. As often as not gay and queer spaces seem inviting to straight people, who come in such numbers that they end up becoming straight places. Which is why we’re a little quiet about where the good places are.

For a long time, the predominant musical genre for gay nightlife has been house music. In Brooklyn nightlife, queer spaces tend instead to center techno. Of course there’s many exceptions and variations. It’s boring to think too narrowly about genres, just as its boring to think too narrowly about genders.

Both house and techno, it must always be said, are Black music. This is less well known about techno, which is why DeForrest Brown Jr’s book on Black techno, Assembling a Black Counterculture, is so essential. My white ass is an uninvited guest in these sonic, social, cultural traditions, arts, technologies. It could have been a good thing that these Black arts have become transnational cultural forms, except that this diffusion has taken the form of appropriation or straight-out theft from which Black artists don’t much benefit.

This story has its nuances. Northern England has a special place in the history of collective dance experiences. It’s a region that shares a history of deindustrialisation with the centers of Black dance music in the United States such as Detroit (home of techno) and Chicago (home of house). There was a related, connected, spirit of experimenting with what industrial culture had left behind, from its abandoned factory spaces to its obsolete musical technologies.

It’s boring to think too narrowly about genres, just as its boring to think too narrowly about genders.

Contemporary dance music culture is a byproduct of the ruins of modern, industrial histories. In a way, trans people are too. What we now think of as transgender people have always existed. The form in which we exist depends on the social life of the times. Industrial society imposed and policed rigid norms of gender and sexuality. The role for men was to work to produce the goods; the role for women was to reproduce the workers. Modern, industrial life was supposed to go on forever, expand forever, producing things to consume, producing workers to make them and consumers to consume them. To be queer, or to be trans, was to break the mould of this relentless cycle of producing and reproducing sameness.

Modernity kicked us to the curb, but it also gave us new tools. Wardrobe, make-up, hormones, surgery. We have always existed, but we got to exist in modern times in a modern way. In an extraordinary book, Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg wrote about how butch lesbians and trans men survived on the margins of Buffalo, New York’s industrial economy as factory workers and manual laborers, while living their real lives at night. Meanwhile the trans women, trans femmes and drag queens, worked as strippers. The compulsory norms of modern gender and sexuality, and their violent enforcement, creates as a side-effect curiosity and desire for those of us outside of it. Trans femininity is an object of fascination and derision all at the same time.

There’s a famous scene in The Matrix where Morpheus’ band of rebels against the Matrix extract Neo from the pod of goo in which Neo’s body has lain for a lifetime. Upon waking, Neo gets a glimpse of racks and rows of thousands of such pods, bodies plugged into the Matrix, unaware of where they are, what they are. You could see this as a moment of rupture with the dominant ideology of compulsory hetero-normative gender and sexuality. That’s how it reads to many trans people. It’s an image for our break from enforced genders that just won’t work for us. Follow the white rabbit—escape from the pod.

A cityscape at dawn

McKenzie Wark

The Matrix films endure because they can be read in many different ways. For instance, the rescue from the pod scene suggests to me that Neo is trying to break free also from labor, from having also to work for the Matrix. Morpheus explains it to Neo by holding up a battery: the Matrix runs on human energy, human labor. As did modern, industrial life. That aspect of the allegory of The Matrix hits a little different for trans people. Many of us are excluded from the formal workforce. Many do sex work, or work in nightlife. The Matrix never offered us its pretty delusions in exchange for our labour. Some of us were already outside of the main circuits of production and reproduction. And yet while outside of it, still not free.

Like a lot of trans people before coming out, Neo leads a double life. Neo the rebel hacker by night; Mr. Anderson the office worker by day. The Matrix as he perceives it is a world of office work, in the city. Neo is a white collar worker in a postindustrial city. The Matrix doesn’t just feed on the energy—manual labour—of human flesh. These days it feeds on the brains—so-called intellectual labour—as well.

One way to read this is as an allegory for the intellectual labour of the Wachowskis themselves versus the Matrix as the movie business. Like Neo, they struggled in and against the Matrix with an endless array of interchangeable white guys in suits who own and control it. They are heroines of creative, intellectual labour because they got big budgets and some degree of control to realise their vision, and walked away with a sizeable amount of money—even though the studio ends up owning it and made a ton of money more. In this reading, The Matrix movies themselves are Zion, which the Wachowskis struggled in and against the Matrix to make through the collective collaborative labour of cinema.

Northern England has a special place in the history of collective dance experiences. It’s a region that shares a history of deindustrialisation with the centres of Black dance music in the United States such as Detroit (home of techno) and Chicago (home of house).

It's tempting to think of the cinema as mind and image, and the rave as body and being, as if they were polar opposites as art forms, as the rational Apollo and emotional Dionysus, as Nietzsche said. (I’ll come back to him). The rave is also an experience of images, and cinema is an art one experiences also through the body. Cinema can free the trans body, sometimes. To be alone in the dark, to relax one’s body into the play of sound and image.

Or not alone. I went to the 20th anniversary re-release of The Matrix with a coven of other trans women and adjacent friends. The movie house we attended—it was one of the big chains—had a security camera in the foyer with a screen to remind us we are always under surveillance. I took a picture of us on the screen to take something back. The freedom to be alone with the play of images is circumscribed. There’s always something being extracted from us.

And on the other hand, sometimes dancing, moving one’s body, is to free the mind. Like a lot of trans people, I dissociate a lot. I’m not in my body the way I would like. Gender dysphoria kicks me out of it. Sometimes dancing brings me back to being in my body as if I belong there. Or better: as if there wasn’t really me and my body, but there’s one thing, flesh that moves, feels, thinks, all at once.

Then at other times, dancing makes me dissociate, but in a good way. A disability can be an ability, sometimes. In my book Raving, I wrote about several of these dissociated dancing states. It seems from the reception of the book that I’m not the only one who experiences these moment, of the mind-with-body, free, together, in all sorts of ways. We have barely begun to find language for these aesthetic experiences which might belong not to Apollo or Dionysus, but to the goddess Cybele.

A person's arm with a club wristband

McKenzie Wark

One could be forgiven for thinking that the “message” of The Matrix is to leave a world of illusion and emerge into the real world. “Welcome to the desert of the real,” as Morpheus says to Neo upon awakening. A desert, without images, where life is barely possible. A more interesting way to make use of the films is to think about them not as abandoning illusion altogether, but abandoning the particular matrix of illusions that form The Matrix. Maybe there are other matrices with more livable illusions.

The word matrix opens toward a tangled bunch of burrows in language. Matrix derives from mater, the mother. Mater is also the root of the word material, in the sense of substance, but also meaning the topic in discourse. A matrix is material, made of stuff, but also signifying. A matrix is also a mould, a form, that imprints its shape, or information, onto matter. A matrix is that from which something is born, but something different to that from which it comes.

The need for separation from the mother to achieve autonomous selfhood is a well-known Freudian theme. Neo has no parents. An all-enclosing media matrix made him, and his autonomy depends on separation from it. The most difficult path to selfhood in the modern world is this other separation. Separation from family can be a traumatic subject for trans people. Often they abandoned us, rather than us separating from them. But then we have to separate ourselves also from the pod in the gendered order that was assigned to us. Zion for many of us is trans community. The special knowledge shared by those who all took the red pill. But besides trans community, our other home, our other Zion, the rabbit holes into which we scurry—is media. Media of our own making, or interpretations of media not of our own making, such as the way we made the Matrix films our own. To be trans is to elaborate an aesthetic that enables one to live.

Sometimes one has to start with an illusion, interposed between an insufferable world and a suffering people, that a people might find the image and make of it what they want or need.

In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche contrasts two aesthetic practices, those of Apollo and Dionysus. The art of Apollo is one of brightly lit dream images. The Greeks dreamt their gods into existence to interpose between themselves and the horror of the world. With their powerful, pleasurable illusions of epic poetry and monumental sculpture, they could imagine themselves as living their fullest lives in order to amuse the Gods. Apollonian art made men of them, its illusions made it possible to live, and taught them mastery of the self, moderation ad self-knowledge.

Underneath the “rigid mastery” of Apollonian architecture and sculpture, buried at its root, the beating drums of Dionysus: “The muses of the arts of ‘illusion’ blanched before an art that voiced the truth in its intoxication.” The art of Dionysus is a drunken forgetting of the self, of singing and dancing, which merges not only humans with each other but the human with the world. In the rolling dance of Dionysus, the dancer is not just artist, but becomes the art. The dance is where the women and slaves gets free.

Nietszche thought Greek art at its peak combined these two aesthetic practices, with the Dionysian coming through the chorus of Greek tragedy. This was already a tempered view of the Dionysian. He dismissed its “barbarian” version, that “witches’ brew of lust and cruelty,” with its “extravagant lack of sexual discipline, whose waves engulfed all the venerable rules of family life.” Where “the most savage beasts of nature were here unleashed.” Against which “the figure of Apollo rose up in all its pride and held aloft the Gorgon’s head to the grotesque, barbaric Dionysians.”

In contemporary times, the tension between Apollo and Dionysus is that between the shiny illusions of cinema and the sonic intoxication of the rave. The Dionysian that really matters is the one Nietzsche could not fathom, outside the enclosing norms of self and city, masculinity and family. To really think about culture is to think across its differences, beyond its boundaries; to think culture is to think trans-culturally, and as we’ll see, trans-sexually.

Nietzsche never broke free from the matrix of whiteness. Dionysus Gentrified might be a better title for that book. The second rave in The Matrix films, the rave in Zion, decenters whiteness. What we see is a pair of white film makers who gesture to an outside that isn’t theirs (or mine). It’s a brilliant dream of a desire for the other that the Matrix, as a figure of whiteness, suppresses. Leadership within The Matrix films is Black, but the leadership of the film’s making was not. Sometimes one has to start with an illusion, interposed between an insufferable world and a suffering people, that a people might find the image and make of it what they want or need.

Sometimes dancing brings me back to being in my body as if I belong there. Or better: as if there wasn’t really me and my body, but there’s one thing, flesh that moves, feels, thinks, all at once.

Perhaps we could propose another god for another aesthetic, neither Apollo nor Dionysus. In my book Love and Money, Sex and Death, I propose Cybele, the mother of the gods. Her celebrants were the Galli, who it would be anachronistic to call trans women but I’m going to anyway. The Galli were “foreign” in the eyes of both Greeks and Romans. Their cultural and sexual otherness appeared inside classical culture as the sign of what stood outside. They so extravagantly lacked “sexual discipline” that they made for themselves another sex.

It would be anarchonistic to call the festivals of the Galli a rave but I’m going to anyway. They would dance and sing in public, under the sun, to flutes and cymbals, tambourines and drums. Their dress was gorgeous, extravant, their hair and bodies perfumed. Their “witches brew” was an intoxicating transgression of the order of sex and culture. They caused many a fevered dream to upstanding classical authors, for whom the Galli and Cybele were all too, too much. Cybele might then be a figure of both bright illusion and sonic intoxication, the synthesis Nietzsche sought, but one that always points away from the matrix of a orderly art towards crossings, passings, chasing white rabbits wherever they might lead.

The white rabbit who appears as a tattoo on a woman’s shoulder at the start of The Matrix is of course a nod to Lewis Carroll. The world Alice finds down the rabbit hole is one of endless mutability, delightful but also sometimes terrifying. So terrifying that adults prefer to hand those books off to children. Follow the white rabbit, and soon you find the labyrinth of byways, an underground wonderland of all the possible ways of making meaning out of a work of art that helps you get free. With any interesting work of art, those possibilities are always knocking at the door.

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