Ghost in the Shell

by Beauchamp Art

“There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.”

Major Motoko Kusanagi

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese anime film by the Manga production company, directed by Mamoru Oshii, which revolves around a police investigation into a mysterious anonymous antagonistic computer hacker called ‘The Puppet Master’. The film is set in a not-too-distant future city, where developments in technology have lead to the integration, replacement and augmentation of electronic and cybernetic elements into the human body.

This combining of man and machine has resulted in the ambiguous scenario in which the definition of ‘being human’ is called into question. In an age when ‘the self’ is essentially just data, why is DNA and genetic coding to be considered different from, or more valid than, binary computer code?

The climax of the film centres around two beings: a cyborg with a partially human brain, Motoko Kusangi – the protagonist, and “a living, thinking entity that was created in the sea of information” – the aforementioned Puppet Master, as they fuse together. The network profile of one being combined with the other, becoming one – simultaneously destroyed and having to be re-born in a synthetic child’s body [bought from the black market, a potential comment on the future sex industry, the objectification of the sex works, and paedophilia; which is addressed more directly, along with the importance of free will in the sequel; Ghost in the Shell: Innocence]. A symbolic union a newfangled means of reproduction.

Kusangi is then left with the residual effects of this merging, such as a more direct and controlling access to the network of computer systems – which include the mind of her colleague, Batou; whom is also cybernetic, but less so. This results in almost telepathic-like abilities that serves as an effective comment and metaphor for the growing relationship one has with one’s online, digital, self, and the interactions between these digital personas – whether these are more or less real/authentic than the physical/flesh ‘self’ is questionable. Which identity is the truer one, or are they both one in the same; two sides of the same face. In the film, this contrast is tackled by the descriptions of machines as having no ‘Ghost’ or ‘soul’, and proposing a situation in which the ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (rather than the ‘ghost in the machine’ – which take the from of the whispers Kusangi hears in her ‘Ghost’) is able to generate itself. One can also ask the question of whether the ‘shell’, which is in haunted; inhabited; embodied, is in fact the body, the machine, or is this differentiation irrelevant?

This is a prime example of the use of science fiction to create a narrative that can present, tackle, and challenges a situation that is [relatively/currently] impossible in order to understand, and begin to deconstruct a theoretical or philosophical paradigm. Much as one uses a metaphor to better describe a scene, or a theoretical physicist may construct a purely abstract mathematical environment in order to resolve a problem that may not be otherwise testable [such as String Theory], or that cannot be represented literally in a comprehensible way; in order to find a solution that can be presented in an adequately interpretable way.

Ghost in the Shell deals with humanity and identity in a situation where it is becoming decreasingly less relevant, when the digitisation of personal information, and the connection one makes between thoughts become increasingly less dependant o n an organic template. The electrical impulses sent via the synapses of the brain are combined, supplemented, and ultimately replaced, by the passing of electricity along silicon circuits; between the conductors born of man’s creativity, becoming the man itself.

Artificial: reality, man: machine, digital: DNA – Ghost in the Shell presents the question; what if these are not opposites, but come be one in the same.

The communication between the physical self and digital realities; personalities and so forth, is often ambivalent, but to contemporary man can feel a natural progression in discourse, and therefore goes by unquestioned, become more integrated in humanities’ socialisation and interaction with one another. As Jan van Dijk observer in ‘The Network Society’:

“People consider contact with a computer to be a dialogue, and technically mediated interaction with and through other media to be full human communication. This anthropomorphization of computers and media is very understandable.” [Dijk, 1999: 214]

As social animals, how we communicate is as much as a part of the self as the body in which we inhabit; and since our exchanges are become more technologically dependant, then the supplementation of verbal discourse for digital dialogue could be argued as being the beginning of our cybernetic future.

In Plato’s Cave the shadows on the wall were the world to those men who only knew these dark shapes, but how did those men identify themselves? The digitisation of humanity – its society into networks, its people into profiles – is like wandering past this cave, seeing the flickering shapes and one’s own silhouette, then choosing to step in, sit down in awe of this world, and to accept it as the true reality; the artificial, phantasmagorical existence becoming more familiar and believable than the life of physically, which slips into memory like a forgettable dream. Ghost in the Shell takes the confusion between humanity and synthetic [mechanical] self-identity to an extreme, thereby highlighting how contemporary society is progressing technology, and what this could potentially mean for the role of the individual and individuality in a hyper-networked society; where personality becomes ubiquity, and the self becomes obsolete.

In the words of the Puppet Master:

“It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory… and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.”

One can see parallels with the live action Matrix film trilogy – not only in terms of subject matter; the fusion of man and machine [robot ≠ slave, but also in the filmic style and certain visual cues that seem directly borrowed from Ghost in the Shell, such as the cable inputs on the back of neck, below the base of the skull, which are use in order to drop-in to the network – the machine world. A physical connection signifying the logging-in that one is becoming rapidly more familiar with in this current, expanding, computer age; for the time being, there is still a clear distinction between the self (ghost/soul) embodied in the organic brain, and the digital personal/façade/profile one can create online.

 “New media blur the distinctions not only between the media themselves but between social spheres of living as well, especially the public-private distinction.” [Dijk, 1999: 126]

However, it is this control over the online self by the physical self that keeps this separation more concrete. It is when the digital identity is created, not just alongside or even simultaneously with the physical being, but as part of one living individual, then one must seriously question the value of the body [shell] when electronic technologies have the potential to supersede the organic being.

Ghost in the Shell not only raises issues of humanity, but also of communication, when the Puppet Master first speaks, there is a great awe surround it; as it appears to alive, and asserts that it is alive, then how can one contest its life “…fail to define”. This theme and line of questioning is highlighted by Jamer Hunt in ‘Talk to Me’:

“What happens when a complex engineered infrastructure speaks to you? What does it feel like to communicate at a fundamental level with a network? Not just to listen but to actually communicate – to understand the internationality of its discourse?” [Antonelli/Hunt, 2012: 48]

I do not often watch anime, but I have being meaning to watch Ghost in the Shell for a number of years, having encountered it in passing in my youth, however, I am glad to have waited until now, for I believe that I have been able to appreciate some of the issues raised more effectively, not just as a form of entertainment, but as intellectual stimulation, fed by my reading into networking and society. Though not wholly academic [there is only so much that can be read into an fiction, especially one that features the line “Your standard issue big gun”], it is paramount to examine fictitious works and worlds in order to better understand one’s own reality: whether literary, filmic, musical, or otherwise artistic. To make sense of the world, one must not only see the world through one’s own eyes, but to hear it told through another’s stories.

Bibliography

  • Ghost in the Shell, 1995. [DVD] Mamoru Oshii, Japan: Manga Entertainment.
  • Paola Antonelli, 2011. Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  • Jan A G M van Dijk, 1999. Network Society, Social Aspects of the New Media. SAGE Publications Ltd.
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