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  • Performing the Matrix: Mediating Cultural Performances
  • Sarah Bay-Cheng
Performing the Matrix: Mediating Cultural Performances. Edited by Meike Wagner and Wolf-Dieter Ernst. INTERVISION—Texts on Theatre and Other Arts Series, no. 8. Munich: ePodium, 2008; pp. 357. €29.00, $37.00 paper.

There are few popular films in recent memory that have received as much scholarly attention as Andy and Larry Wachowski's The Matrix (1999). Since the release of the film (and two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions, both 2003), numerous books have emerged linking the film's futuristic vision of a computer-controlled humanity to contemporary culture. Books such as The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real and Exploring the Matrix: Visions of the Cyber Present, as well as dozens of articles on religion, philosophy, cybernetics, new media, and cinema have turned to the digital world of Neo (aka Thomas Anderson, played by Keanu Reeves) and his fellow hackers as a metaphor for the evolving relations among new media forms and society.

Now comes a book—the first to my knowledge—to adopt the metaphor of The Matrix for the study of theatre and performance. Although editors Meike Wagner and Wolf-Dieter Ernst begin with dialogue from the film, their introduction to Performing the Matrix quickly moves beyond the film proper, and more broadly defines the matrix as a system of communication that itself "communicates, i.e., it engenders that which it is also a part of" (15). Including theatre, performance, and political activism within an understanding of a cultural performance that is "always already mediatized," Wagner and Ernst argue that new media forms, particularly digital technologies, are "fundamentally reshaping modern culture" (11). How, they ask, might this reshaping of mediatized culture influence performance? Or, more precisely, how might these new media technologies (for which the matrix serves as a metaphor) redirect methodologies within theatre and performance studies?

Wagner and Ernst's answer takes many forms in this collection, both in their own introduction and in the individual essays edited from the International Postgraduate Programme, "Performance and Media Studies," at the University of Mainz in 2005. Like many such collections, the range of material is diverse, with some essays inevitably digressing from the book's central themes and others retaining too much of their original form as conference papers. Nevertheless, there is much to recommend this book, both for the diversity of subjects and for perspectives on individual artists, writers, and performances not often noted in North American theatre studies.

The collection is introduced by Wagner and Ernst's conception of the matrix, which they define as a complex and contradictory structure inherently related to performance. This structure is expressed as "queer performativity," a concept adapted from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and encompasses multidisciplinary instances of the matrix such as "the social matrix" (Gregory Bateson), a "heterosexual matrix" (Judith Butler), and a "disciplinary matrix" (Thomas S. Kuhn). Wagner and Ernst connect these varied matrix metaphors to illustrate the indeterminacies of contemporary cultural performances and to suggest a critical model to analyze the paradoxes, dilemmas, and "messy embodiment" (18) of performance in digital culture. It's an intriguing idea, one that could have been further explored (and perhaps will be) in a longer essay. Here, it functions mainly as an attempt to frame the very different essays engaging cultural performances through the key aspects of the matrix that constitute the four sections of the book: "The Power of the Matrix" (identity and social theory), "Looking through the Matrix" (visualizations and perceptual modes), "Writing the Matrix" (text as perfor media in graphics and performance), and "Subverting the Matrix" (political performances). [End Page 335]

What follows in these sections is a range of essays considering the intersection of culture and performance, broadly defined. Most of the essays are quite good individually, although some strain the overall conceptual themes. Section 2, "Looking through the Matrix," adheres relatively closely to the introduction's aims and has much else to recommend it. Series editor Christopher Balme's essay on visuality in contemporary opera, "Seeing Sound: Visuality in Contemporary Music Theatre," engages image and sound theory to articulate new dynamics of these components in performance. Ernst's...


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