Ghost in the Shell, and the fluid self in body and mind; recapitulation.

I don't want to offend more than I absolutely have to, so I will conveniently hide most of this sleepy ramble behind a LJ cut.

1. It is not only the cyborg that is the idée fixe in Japanese animation, or Japanese art in general. It is the disintegrating body, disintegrating mind. It is body fused with machine and mind fused with other forms of consciousness.

opening sequence (making of Motoko):

The most interesting point, however, is not the idea, but the way it is approached. Without drama. Without a sense of tragedy. The ending of Ghost in the Shell is by no means a sad one. There is a sense of hope and future in the fusion of selves that is entirely absent from your average Western understanding of the same (best exemplified by the puzzled disgust at the Borg).

2. For whichever reason Western us find the idea of a fluid, unstable self repulsive, it completely soaks the philosophical response to something like Ghost in the Shell in theoretical misunderstanding. Western critics find all sorts of pessimism in the ending which simply isn't there.

My objective in this semi-scientific quest is not so much to shake our preconceptions of the gendered body á la Haraway, or mount any elaborate philosophical castle where it doesn't belong. In fact, Haraway's cyborg theory has been most unhelpful in my mini-research, blurring the eyes of too many cinema theoreticians, making them interpret Motoko as a feminist body rebelling from the observing men, sexualising a rather asexual problematics. Instead, I am simply interested in the plurality of ideas on the self. That something seemingly so simple would be subject to disagreement: I find that too interesting to let go of.

On the one hand, I don't need to explain too much that we the Western peoples – particularly the hyperindividualist, say, Australians – find the very idea of the fluid self immensely threatening. There is a crossing of borders involved that is too frightening. There is Christianity involved, the indivisible and unique soul as a gift from God, and a unique body to be cared for and preserved at any cost (suicide being a big taboo); Western bodies are precious souls, Western souls are precious souls. But is it all?

3. According to Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An essay in abjection, the dividing line between the unconscious and conscious mind is in itself blurred, and therefore our sense of self is never stable. The abject is anything that reminds us of this instability, anything that disturbs order, blurs boundaries, creates ambiguities.

While looking around, I've found a whole range of issues that induce this border anxiety in the Western theoretician: rubbish, illness, and physical mutilation of the body; demi-human elements such as zombies and ghosts; puppets, in puppet theatre and otherwise; the question of inanimate objects coming to life, appropriating life force they are not meant to possess and this being a sin, the proverbial 'playing God' (Frankenstein monster); internet and cyber-bodies, the fusion of man and machine; trans-sexuality; mutations, from radiation and as an element of SF; clones as copies of the unique snowflake self, and robots as either copies of the unique self or a unique human species. Kristeva notes that a great part of this spectrum of the abject makes regular appearance in horror films, being frightening for its own sake.

4. A common offline narrative indicating boundary anxiety holds that Western bodies are precariously porous and under attack from outside by “germs”. These germs or viruses are ubiquitous evils associated with matter out of place, or untoward contact. They come from other people and overpower us when our personal or social boundaries are not maintained. This narrative has expanded to include other boundary violators, such as carcinogens, radiation, chemical food additives, and genetic modification.

One of the best descriptions of this anxiety complex is given by Martin in her study of ideas about the immune system. She gives plenty of contemporary examples of boundary anxiety towards foreign substances, reflected also in recent advertising campaigns promoting wars on bacteria in the household. The latter focus on children ingesting germs if bacteria are not “wiped out”. This indicates that barrier models of defence are still strong, despite reports of such anti-bacterial agents helping the evolution of resistant bacteria and impeding the development of the immune system.

-from The Online Body Breaks Out? Asence, Ghosts, Cyborgs, Gender, Polarity and Politics by Jonathan Marshall

5. In discussing our anxiety over cyber-bodies, cyber-existence and the fluidity of presence and absence of clear-cut individuals, Marshall writes:

“Western” cultures already have a set of “virtual body” constructions, which are complementary to our constructions of the “physical body”; those of the “soul”, the “mind”, and the “ghost”, all of which blend together due to their status of being “not-physical” bodies. The polarity between mind/body, generates the parallel of “virtual” or online for “spiritual”, and offline for physical.

Such a material/immaterial split is not essential, and many Western traditions have proposed more elaborate divisions of the mind, including the sources of mainstream religion. The Hebrew Scriptures distinguish nephesh from ruach, and the Greek Testament distinguishes psyche from pneuma. Both of these divisions are often translated as “soul” and “spirit”. Lullian alchemy makes the distinction between spirit and matter one of degree; matter could be etherealised and spirit concentrated. Mid Seventeenth Century philosophers such as Joseph Glanville and Henry More used examples of ghosts and witches to make arguments about the complexity of the multi-part soul’s interaction with the world. Such arguments seem to have become incomprehensible in the Eighteenth Century and later.

Other cultures can become more elaborate. The people of Zinancantan in Mexico have a 13 part soul. The Banyang claimed that humans are individually connected to animals or other natural phenomenon (babu) into which they can transform, or send out as an extension of themselves. The babu moves in a parallel ‘shadow’ world, the ‘forest of babu’, with effects in this world – making humans sick or destroying crops for example.

The point of this reference is not just exoticism but to illustrate a schema which could easily be applied to online experience, but which seems unavailable to Westerners. There are separate but parallel worlds, one is a ‘shadow’ of the other, part of oneself goes into the other world and behaves differently (perhaps more socially “irresponsibly”), yet we are connected to this other self. Tensions in one world spill into the other.

Despite such traditions, we tend to polarise body and mind, often while criticising other people for doing so. … A recent tendency is to represent minds as software, with the result that the distinction between computers and minds blurs. Computers become host to the realm of spirits.

-from The Online Body Breaks Out? Asence, Ghosts, Cyborgs, Gender, Polarity and Politics by Jonathan Marshall

6. Now compare the nonchalance with which the makers of Ghost in the Shell discuss this blurring of the one with the many, and the many with the panorama, in their oeuvre:

Ghost in the Shell does not have a definite chosen set, but in terms of street scenes and general atmosphere, it is obvious that Hong Kong is the model. Such a choice has, of course, something to do with the theme: on the streets there flows an excess or a flood of information, along with everything this excess brings out. The modern city is swamped with billboards, neon lights and symbols…. As people live [unaware?] in this information deluge, the streets will have to be depicted accordingly as being flooded…. There is a sharp contrast between old streets and new ones on which skyscrapers are built. My feeling is that these two, originally very different, are now in a situation where one is invading the other. Maybe it is the tension or pressure that is brought about by so-called modernization! It's a situation in which two entities are kept in a strange neighboring relationship. Perhaps it is what the future is.

In the midst of the profusion of signs and the heat of the messy urban space, the streets are remarkably chaotic. Passers-by, shouts, cars, all kinds of mechanical noises and human “sound pollution,” all merging into one, forcing itself into humans' central nervous systems through their ears. But why do people succumb to this “destructive” environment? Now that the artificial has replaced the natural, humans are like animals in the past, deprived of the characteristics of being human as a whole. Pulled directly into the whirlpool of information through the stimulation of visual and auditory senses, their feelings are henceforth numbed. On the other hand, countless mutually interfering and uncertain data pass through cables at light speed. This is the way informatics continues to expand its domain. Are people then like tiny insects caught in an enormous spider web? No, it cannot be. Humans are not tiny insects trying to escape from the web. It's not like that. In fact humans have willy-nilly become part and parcel of the spider web. Humans now have no idea of what their destination might be; they are like one of the silky-threads of the spider web. [emphasis mine]

Nozaki, Tohru et. al. The Analysis of Ghost in the Shell . Tokyo: Kodansha Young Magazine, 1995; from on the edge of spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Hong Kong's Cityscape by Wong Kin Yuen

The interesting side-note is that the fused, unclean landscape becomes in itself an illustration of the unclean, contaminated future. The atmospheric L.A. in Blade Runner was threatening by virtue of incorporating an overt Asianness into a city that was still collectively imagined as uniformly white-bred. This may be an aesthetic side-note, but there is a long history of urban 'regeneration', 'slum clearance', et cetera, in perfectly fine and functional districts of unfortunately colonial cities, due to this semiotic contamination. What we consider as exciting and vibrant now can, through the same set of lens, easily become threatening and dangerous. In both cases, there is a sense of leakage between worlds, of contamination.

7. On the other hand: But it is not just on this large scale of global cultural flows (particularly of technoscape, mediascape, and ideoscape) that fractal aesthetics are relevant to Ghost in the Shell. On a smaller level — namely, that of the body — the idea of the fractured body of the humanoid hybrid has been popular in cyborg films … Corporeality, as we remember, is one of the four Cs listed by Frances Bonner to delineate a general pattern of plotting in cyberpunk films, which emphasize the wetware of mutable bodies. For Baudrillard, the body is now an infinite set of surfaces — a fractal subject — an object among objects. In cyberpunk's hyper-techno culture, “the centrality of body” is paradoxically represented by “the fragmentation of the body into organs, fluids and 'bodily state,'” and “fractured body parts are taken up as elements in the constitution of cultural identities”. The cyborg woman warrior in Ghost in the Shell, following in this tradition, speaks also to the “emergence of cyborg identities” that is predicated on “the fractured, plural, decentered condition of contemporary subjectivity”. …

… And throughout the film, from the opening ritual of birth (or manufacture) in a feast of visuals dominated by images of numerals and water or fluid, to the later horror of the mutilated torso and limbs registering the monstrosity of cybernetic organisms, corporeality is closely linked first to the sea of information and then to the human-machine interface, both of which are firmly grounded in and contrasted with the background of a future Hong Kong cityscape.

… The monstrous, mutilated and deviant body, shattered by violence, comes close to Donna Haraway's notion of “regeneration after injury” for salamanders, though the “regrown limb can be monstrous, duplicated, potent”. … In a sense, the final scene of horror of mutation and the attempt by the “Ghost” of Puppet Master to merge with the “Shell” of our heroine is symbolic of the entanglement of “self and other within monstrosity and the parasitical relationship between the two”.

-from on the edge of spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Hong Kong's Cityscape by Wong Kin Yuen

This, I think, is where Wong goes astray, seeing horror where there isn't necessarily any. The ending of Ghost in the Shell is, if not quite serene, then certainly hopeful and buzzing with excitement.

8. Now compare the following notes on bunraku. Keep in mind that Barthes, Claudel et al. were exposed to bunraku without understanding the language of the text, or its cultural context. Empire of Signs is well-known for Barthes's declaration that the Japan in its pages is “a fictive nation”, “a reserve of features whose manipulation… allows me to 'entertain' the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system.” What this collection of quotes shares with the analyses of Ghost in the Shell above is the cloudedness of eyes: they say more about Christian understanding of mind&body than the relationships explored in the artwork analysed. What they do is depict the confusion:

Barthes’s reading of the puppet theater comes in “A Lesson in Writing” [“Leçon d’écriture”] (1968), later revised and incorporated into The Empire of Signs [L’empire des signes]. His interpretation of Bunraku (the nineteenth-century descendant of Chikamatsu’s ningyô jôruri that is still preserved and performed today) hinges on a feature of the performance that has fascinated a number of Western critics: the fact that the puppet is manipulated by three human puppeteers who remain visible onstage, while the voices of all the puppets are performed by a single chanter.

For Barthes, this visible separation of the puppet’s body both from its voice and its motive force shatters the illusions of the Western theater and the Western subject, laying bare the layers of the theatrical sign. The dispersed subjects of the puppets undermine the Western notion of a unified, whole subject. The Western dichotomies that constitute the self as this unified whole—dichotomies such as inside and outside, body and soul, and God and human—are now replaced with new articulations of body, voice, and will that expose the layers of signification and self. Speaking of this dissociation as a kind of Brechtian alienation or “distance,” Barthes says that distance is made explicable by Bunraku, which allows us to see how it can function: by the discontinuity of the codes, by this caesura imposed on the various features of representation, so that the copy elaborated on the stage is not destroyed but somehow broken, striated, withdrawn from that metonymic contagion of voice and gesture, body and soul, which entraps our actors. [emphases now&upcoming mine]

… Paul Claudel expresses the soul of the puppet as something dispersed among the performers, the audience, and the language of the text. He notes that while a Western operator stands above his or her puppet and pulls its strings, the Japanese puppet replaces this vertical geometry with several manipulators and a reciter surrounding the puppet. From Barrault’s image of a “heart to heart” union, we move to an idea of the puppet as the bright center of a communal consciousness.

-from From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater by Christopher A. Bolton

9. However, it soon gets interesting again, as Bolton dives into the actual history of bunraku, building on Chikamatsu Monzaemon's writings and the narrative conventions of nineteenth-century Japanese drama:

The most interesting kind of transformation in the puppet theater and the one that speaks most directly to the violence of Ghost in the Shell is the transformation brought about through death. A pessimistic interpretation might see violence and death as the inevitable tragic outcome of these social conflicts. But in the puppet theater, death is not only a consequence of these social pressures but also in some sense a willing transformation that reconciles individual volition with these social roles and expectations. For Jihei and Koharu, suicide releases Jihei from his obligations and atones for his failures, while it also represents a final consummation of the two figures’ love. They die in an attempt to respect or escape these obligations but also in the hope that they will be reborn together.

And so, at the end of Ghost in the shell: … She is neither Kusanagi nor the Puppet Master, but some combination of the two, alive both in body and on the net. This plural but embodied existence is figured in her voice. Barthes and others saw the puppets’ shared voice as a sign of the decentered self; but Kusanagi is able to regain her old voice, seeming to gather it up again from across the net. … But the voice more than anything signals a retention of her old self and a bodily wholeness, while the power to change voices also shows she can find herself in new places or transform herself in new ways. In this new (old) voice, she recites more of the passage from I Corinthians that was heard earlier in the film: “When I was a child, I spake as a child . . . but when I grew up, I put away childish things” [Warabe no toki wa kataru kotomowarabe no gotoku . . . narishi ga, hito to narite wa warabe no koto o sutetari]. In this passage that equates selfhood with speech, the Japanese translation of Paul is inclusive; where most English Bibles have “when I became a man,” Kusanagi says hito to narite: “when I became an adult,” or even “when I became human.” … If Kusanagi is a kind of puppet whose voice, weight, and story reflect a division between unified and decentered subjectivity, or freedom and fate, then this final scene also represents her as an independent subject. She is independent in the sense both of being self-sufficient and of being free. She is whole, but she retains an openness that allows her to define herself. Not closed, she is nevertheless complete.

-from From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater by Christopher A. Bolton

10. Tiny side-note here should get some attention on the generous acceptance of communal living, action and harmony in a great deal of Asian countries, and the liberal perception of the same as a kind of Borg in the West (saying “in the West” here is probably the most problematic thing I have done so far in this text, and I am not putting myself 100% behind it). What came first, racist chauvinism or the fear of bodily de-individualisation is the proverbial chook&egg problem.

11. In an interesting piece on social acceptance of household robots in Japan, Robertson observes:

The cute and catchy names of many humanoids — such as PaPeRo, Wakamaru, Posy, Pino, Robovie—also create an affinity to the “cute characters” who have inhabited Japanese popular culture long before “real” humanoid robots appeared.

The Japanese use the word “character” (kyarakutμ) as a categorical term for endearing cartoon or toy mascots—like Hello Kitty (recently reincarnated as a robot)—almost all of whom have distinctive and individualistic personalities. The ifbot (sic) robot, for example, is packaged with… information about its past, hobbies, personality, and so forth. … The term “character” has several meanings: a fictional or imaginary person or entity; a quality or aspect that defines the apparent individual nature of a person or a thing; and the inherent complex of attributes that determines the nature of a person’s actions and reactions. In Japan, humanoid robots like ifbot not only have character, but they are regarded as and referred to as “persons”—not “as if ” they were persons, but as persons. This is readily evident in the use of certain suffixes, such as kun (for boys) and chan (for girls and boys), which indicate endearment, familiarity, cuteness, and/or child or diminutive status. Thus, Wakamaru is also referred to on Mitsubishi’s website as Wakamaru-kun.

-from Robertson, Jennifer (2007): 'Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family', Critical Asian Studies, 39:3, 369 – 398.

12. The meaning of the word “person” does not automatically include “human.” Generally, “person,” in both English and Japanese* (hito, jin, nin) means a human being. Legally, however, a “person” may statutorily include a corporation, partnership, trustee, or legal representative. A hðjin, for instance, is a juridical person. Moreover, “person” is also a grammatical category of pronouns and verb forms, such as the “third person” (daisansha — sha or mono is another Japanese word for “person”). To reiterate then: the issue here is not about personification, but about the person-ness of, or personhood attributed to, robots.

In addition, two key cultural factors influence the way in which Japanese perceive robots. First and foremost is Shinto, the native animistic beliefs about life and death. Monotheism has never had a home in Japan, and unlike the three major monotheisms, Shinto lacks complex metaphysical and theological theories and is primarily concerned with notions of purity and pollution. Shinto holds that vital energies or forces called kami are present in all aspects of the world and universe. Some kami are cosmic and others infuse trees, streams, rocks, insects, animals, and humans, as well as human creations, like dolls, cars, and robots.

The second factor concerns the meanings of life and living—life and fertility are especially celebrated in Shinto. Inochi, the Japanese word for “life,” encompasses three basic, seemingly contradictory but interarticulated meanings: a power that infuses sentient beings from generation to generation; a period between birth and death; and, the most essential quality of something whether a living thing or a made object, such as a puppet. Thus robots, humanoid and otherwise, are “living” things within the Shinto universe, and in that sense, are very much a part of the natural world. By the same token, the creation of humanoids— or artificial life—is not at all imagined as a matter of “playing God.”

-from Robertson, Jennifer (2007): 'Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family', Critical Asian Studies, 39:3, 369 – 398.

Two side-notes: the famous mourning ceremony for broken knitting needles; and the Zen dissertation on life, in which the common definition of life is dissected and shredded to non-existence, like an artichoke, finally ending on this note: all living things grow, but so do crystals. Finally, the pronoun mono (the same of mono no aware), which can be used interchangeably for animate and inanimate things, including people. This in itself would confuse a Western logician out of its mind, as it effectively puts in the same basket subjects and objects.

13. Although “platform” is a generic term in robotics, it has a specific resonance in Japan in connection with the theory of ba, or place or topos. The concept and theory of ba (which is often used interchangeably with basho) is closely associated with the work of Nishida Kitarð (1870–1945), generally regarded as the founder of modern Japanese philosophy. According to Nishida, ba — he uses basho—encompasses a non-dualistic concrete logic meant to overcome the inadequacy of the subject-object distinction. He proposes instead a dynamic tension of opposites that, contrary to Hegel, never resolves in a synthesis. This notion of ba is also concomitant with self-determination: as Nishida declares, “a self-determining entity cannot be located in something other than itself.” Moreover, the place (ba) of dynamic tension and the self-determined self are always in an incomplete or emergent state. Nishida’s theory of ba and self-determination stand in stark contrast to the logic of “Western” rationality (and perhaps monotheistic thinking more generally), which is based on a separated self (subject), where an object is observed as definitely separate by the subject who occupies the position of observer. The theory of ba proposes instead that a living system lives and maintains self-consistency by the contingent convergence of the separated self and the non-separated self.

Nearly twenty years ago, Donna Haraway envisioned a posthuman future— the “cyborg path”—as liberating, especially with regard to overcoming a Western philosophical history of excessively dualistic thinking. Haraway’s cyborg is an individual who is neither entirely technological nor totally biological, and neither male nor female in any absolute sense. However, as I discussed in the context of Nishida Kitarý’s theory of ba, “excessively dualistic thinking” has never been an issue in non-monotheistic Japan.

-from Robertson, Jennifer (2007): 'Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family', Critical Asian Studies, 39:3, 369 – 398.

14. I suppose the main reason why I've been doing this has been because I've been finding the idea of human mergers, in body or mind, not only suddenly plausible, but also quite attractive. That is, I would now argue that there are definite moments when a human being is not one and alone, but merging with the environment: when in love, of course, but also when listening to music, swimming in the sea, eating, feeling overwhelming emotions, not to mention crowd dynamics. I would also argue that there is, in a sense, that urge to blend ourselves in every attempt at interaction. There is, quite simply, a human merger in every friendship. In the hermetic solitude of our minds, we would simply go insane.

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