Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Chicken or the Egg?

The first time I saw Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, I didn't know what to think. Saying that I hated it seems too strong, but that's the best word I can summon. I thought it was another example of Mamoru Oshii being dense, slow and boring. Now that I'm several years wiser, I'm of the exact opposite opinion: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is an insanely pleasurable movie. Yes, pleasurable, as in I fell madly in love with it and had inappropriate thoughts about fornicating with the myriad gynoids. Innocence requires an entirely different set of sensibilities than most anime demands, and Oshii's uncompromisingly brutal methodology ensures that those who actually sit through the film will either adore or despise him. Trying to please everyone is impossible; Oshii doesn't even try. 

Innocence is largely a philosophical treatise on the liminalities separating people from objects and animals, explored through Batou and Togusa's investigation of a recent sex doll rampage that always results in a dead customer and the 'suicide' of the robot gynoids. Suicide, of course, is committed by people with consciousness, or this is what Togusa would naturally conclude, ever the stabilizing force in the Ghost in the Shell universe. While the rest of the film's characters incessantly ponder the nature of life and whether or not human minds are responsible for bringing imperfection to a perfect world, Togusa serves as the existential realist to everyone's metaphysical philosophy. Togusa's significance as the voice of reason is enhanced by his being hand picked for Section 9 by Motoko Kusanagi, the protagonist of the first film who chooses to exist as a digital consciousness within the Net.

Batou, the lead for Innocence, is Togusa's foil. Being extensively cyberized himself, Batou has an easier time questioning the nature of life and what constitutes as a soul or "ghost." Whether or not Batou is as suicidal as the gynoids he's searching for is an interesting question; he does whatever needs doing when on duty, and shit gets blown up as a result. His behavior, from shooting up a Yakuza hideout to diving underwater despite the likelihood of drowning due to his machine chassis, mirrors the recklessness Motoko had in the first film. Of course, she wasn't sure if she was even a real consciousness or a "ghost in a shell," so the idea of 'living' lacked the intrinsic values and assumptions the average person takes for granted. Batou's excuse for being reckless? He's Batou, 'nuff said.

There's a goldmine of information to be extrapolated from Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence; in a previous essay, I discussed various forms of female cyborg commodification via prostitution in cyberpunk, starting as far back as Neuromancer and stretching to present day's Mardock Scramble. Of particular interest to me this time is a line uttered by Batou while he and Togusa are in Dr. Haraway's (Haraway, get it?) crime lab:

"You see, Descartes didn't differentiate man from machine, animate from inanimate. He lost his beloved five year old daughter, then named a look-alike doll after her, and doted on the doll. The doll became a surrogate."

Among Descartes' famous contributions to Western philosophy is the phrase, "Cogito ergo sum," translated commonly as, "I think, therefore I am," or even more to the point, "I am a thinking being." Batou's statement about Descartes not differentiating man from machine is consistent with "Cogito ergo sum" because the phrase doesn't specify what kind of being is doing the thinking. Indeed, proponents of artificial intelligence research revel in the idea that consciousness is not specific to organic life, an idea so profound that the impact of the first Ghost in the Shell film hinges entirely upon it. 

In what can only be described as an act of divine providence, I've recently been introduced to Heidegger in one of my classes, who adamantly resisted the metaphysical philosophies that have driven Western thought for the past several centuries. His basis for understanding the essence of being is largely experiential, i.e. the traditional philosophical method of explaining the physical world as a distillation of pre-existing Platonic ideals is wrong. Explaining life, consciousness and the essence of being must arise from everyday experiences, which makes artificial intelligence quite elusive. How can a computer ever comprehend the heuristic experiences that make a human being intelligent? Is there a binary code that can ever encompass the basic fact that mankind's self hood largely arises from the things we live through?

The Ghost in the Shell franchise has clearly chosen to side with Plato and Descartes as far as I can tell.   In fact, it's difficult to imagine cyberpunk can exist without a belief that life extends beyond the material world. If cyberpunk can be considered a primary example of posthumanist discourse, then the perception of consciousness and the soul as reducible to digital code is the ultimate goal, for with such power man can finally claim to have transcended Darwinian evolution much like Motoko Kusanagi does in the 1995 Ghost in the Shell film. 

Alas, those of us who are sober will realize that the world isn't as digitized as our imaginations would lead us to believe. Togusa, a Heidegger of sorts in Innocence, will continue to find meaning in life by waking beside his wife, getting his child to school and going to work as he always does. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman uses the notion of virtuality to demonstrate mankind is already posthuman without having had to abandon our bodies, and that much Heidegger and Togusa should be able to agree with. The fact that Motoko Kusanagi, who for all practical purposes is beyond human, fixated on Togusa at all is perhaps expressive of the relevance "old-school" minds like his still have in practical life. Even if Togusa is construed as short sighted, naive or stubborn, he at least knows that the world doesn't need more fantastical philosophers, but people who wake to a less than perfect reality and deal with it.


  1. An interesting post that makes me conceptualize cyberpunk--not only in anime--in a different light. I think, though, if you're going to rely on the Descartes argument, you may want to expand to some of his other works, as I think relying on his Cogito mantra a bit too...well, oversimplified.

    Specifically, any discussion of knowledge in Descartes necessitates a parsing of the mind/body split, as that binary motivates his epistemology and Method. While his cogito statement is generally perceived as meaning that the locus of knowledge resides in the mind, that's not necessarily correct as the body provides its own sensory data--the problem is that sensory perception arising from the body is suspect for Descartes. This can be seen in the Optics.

    It's not that one is better than the other (see his 7th discourse), but unfortunately this has been overlooked to disastrous consequences. Essentially the ind/body split has become code for gendered epistemology. I think this is particularly interesting in the context of cyberpunk cyborgs and robots considering your observation about prostitution in the genre, but it also raises concerns about the role of the body in knowledge production, especially if these cyborgs are not programmed to feel. And that's the rub: programming.

    I wonder what your thoughts are on epistemological capacity, considering that free-will is inherent in Descartes's Method. I am reminded of a similar problem to what you pose in the 1980's (and later remade in 1990's) anime Bubblegum Crisis. These robots and cyborgs pose no problem until they gain awareness, much to the destruction of Tokyo.

    1. At this point I'm trending towards a synthesis of sorts, a reconciliation between Descartes' humanist stance and Heidegger's hardline existentialism. We are both brains within bodies and bodies possessing brains, and until one can download the mind into a computer as Hans Moravec suggests, it isn't within the realm of scientific inquiry to say otherwise. Heidegger's emphasis on "being" complicates the issue of programming and whether or not embodiment is key towards attaining knowledge, and if "feelings" can be programmed at all. Conversely, as you mention, Descartes is suspect of the body's own perceptions but sees the mind as rational and glimpsing the light of truth. I think both views are a bit too simplified and stand to benefit from each other.