From the editor: So far, the primary purpose of this site has been to serve as a “central point of information about anime and manga studies”, and a collection of resources that would be useful to the anime and manga studies community. However, I also gladly welcome new material, such as actual original commentary on anime/manga. If you would like to contribute an essay on any topic related to anime/manga, whether commentary or original research, please feel free to contact me.
The first such essay that I am happy to feature is “Towards a New Posthuman Ontology – The Anti-Anthropocentrism of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence“.
Yalun Li is the Co-founder of Dunes Workshop, an inter-disciplinary research and design organization. She is a candidate of Master of Architecture at Harvard University GSD and holds a Bachelor degree of Architecture at Syracuse University with a Philosophy minor. Her research interests include topics on Postmodernism theories in relation to media studies.
This essay is an attempt to understand Mamoru Oshii’s films of Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence as philosophical propositions. Oshii’s films offered a refreshing insight on the role of film where it can purpose, construct and present new theories instead of being only a representational accessory of philosophical thoughts. I am amazed by the sincerity of the films in constructing a genuine decentralized “posthuman” world. The complex system Oshii created and curated through the characters and the references resonates with Deleuze’s Rhizome and Hayles’s “Cognisphere.” Moreover, the films created a poetic and aesthetics atmosphere that made it more powerful than many philosophy texts.
“We need first to understand that the human form-including human desire and all its external representations-may be changing radically, and thus must be re-visioned. We need to understand that five hundred years of humanism may be coming to an end as humanism transforms itself into something that we must helplessly call post-humanism.”
– Ihab Hassan, “Prometheus as Performer: Towards a Posthumanist Culture?”
“There are no human beings in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.”
Science fiction works repeatedly depict the world of the future, and often, it is a world of “posthumans”, where the conception of “human” and “humanity” have both transformed so radically that they require redefinition. However, posthumanism is not just a redefinition of the human, but a proposition for anti-anthropocentrism, emphasizing nonhuman agents. Writers, directors, critics, and theorists strive to depict such a posthuman world, but often fall back into humanism and anthropocentrism, or “transhumanism” and “hyper-humanism,” which are different forms of humanism and anthropocentrism. The difficulties of portraying a genuine Posthuman world lies in the limitation of our own consciousness and imagination as human being. However, Mamoru Oshii’s film Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, is a reflection upon these limitations and offers a new proposition of Posthumanism theory. The 1995 film, Ghost in the Shell, engages and reflects posthumanism epistemological discussion of the boundary of humanity. Its 2004 sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, on the other hand, critiques its precedents in philosophical discourse and strives to propose a new theory of posthumanism as anti-anthropocentrism and an ontology based on diverse subjects beyond human.
I will begin with a brief introduction to the background of Ghost in the Shell franchise and the plot of the film Ghost in the Shell and its sequel. Then, I will draw upon theoretical propositions by N. Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway on posthumanism, along with references to Ghost in the Shell. Finally, I will dive into how the subjects and systems set in Ghost in the Shell 2 can be understood as a critical extension of the Hayles and Haraway’s theory which supports Cary Wolfe’s point of view in his 2010 book What is Posthumanism?.
I. General introduction to Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell is a media franchise originally published as a manga series by Masamune Shirow in 1989, in which the protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, a female cyborg, engaged in counter-cyberterroist operations with her organization, Public security Section 9. Anime film adaptation started with the 1995 film of the same name directed by Mamoru Oshii and followed in 2004 with a sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.
The 1995 film Ghost in the Shell follows the general setup of Shirow’s manga where Section 9 investigates a cybercriminal known as the Puppet Master who illegally hacked the minds of cyborg-human hybrids. As Major Kusanagi trails the Puppet Master, she finds out he is a computer program that became self-aware, and she begins to question her own “humanness” as a cyborg. At the end of Oshii’s first film, Major Kusanagi merges with the Puppet Master and disappears into cyberspace. Its sequel, sets three year after her disappearance, focuses on her former partner Batou, a male cyborg police officer, engaging in an investigation with his new partner, Togusa, a member of Section 9 with the minimum cybernetic replacement. The case is a series of crimes committed by malfunctioned gynoids (doll-like female sex robots) who murdered their owners and then self-destructed. The gynoids company Locus Solus duplicates the consciousnesses of abducted young girls into gynoids, giving them human “ghost” to make them more realistic. The murders are attempts to attract police attention to examine Locus Solus and thus save the young girls. Batou, with the help of Kusanagi, who now reembodies in one of the gynoids, saves the young girls. However, he also sympathizes with the gynoids, the empty “shells”, considering them as victims.
II. Disembodiment- Human ontology in the Post human world
Continuous cyberization allows an extreme level of biological disembodiment of human consciousness that fundamentally alters our definition of the human. For Hayles and Haraway, this removal of the importance of the biological body has been the foundation of Posthumanism. Hayles frames this view in her theory of posthumanism and critiques of Dick’s novels, while Haraway focuses on cyborg and how cyborg provides emancipation of our own being. Ghost in the Shell both illustrates such disembodiment but provides an even broader picture.
Hayles (2010, p. 1) begins Chapter one of her book How We Became Posthuman with the classic dualism question of the mind and body, referring to Moravec’s computer download human consciousness and Star Trek’s Transporter. This mind-body dualism is clearly one of the major themes of Ghost in the Shell, as its title suggests “Ghost” the mind, human consciousness, and the “Shell”, the body or a form of embodiment. This essential thread lead Hayles’ research into posthumanism and she identifies the disembodiment of biological substrate as one element of the posthuman. Hayles suggests that the post-humanists view “the body as the original prosthesis” (2010, p. 2) thus extending or replacing it with other prostheses is natural. In this case, cyborgs are the perfect example of this view of the posthuman. In “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Haraway defines cyborgs as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (2004, p. 158). Haraway considers “cyborg imagery” as “a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves” (2004, p. 164). This emphasis on “imagery” seems to suggest Haraway’s notion of “cyborg” is one that is more abstract or metaphorical. For Haraway, the disembodiment, or the image of disembodiment, is the liberating force of humanity to reach an ideal social and political situation.
Similar to Phillip K. Dick, Oshii is interested in “epistemological questions and their relation to the cybernetic paradigm” (Hayles, 2010, p. 24) in this 1995 film. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ghost in the Shell, the world of advanced cybernetics “radically destabilizes the ontological foundations of what counts as human” (Hayles, 2010, p. 24). In this future world, human bodies are replaced and enhanced with cybernetic parts. All characters in Ghost in the Shell are cybernetically altered at different degrees, at the very minimum with a cyberbrain, a mechanical casing for the human brain that allows internet access. Secretaries have cyborg hands where the joints dislodge, and the fingers split into more tips to type faster during work. Batou, the protagonist’s partner, has cyborg implants for his eyes and the protagonist, Major Kusanagi, is a female cyborg with only a biological brain. These characters are portrayed by Oshii to be perceived as human, very much the same to us. They illustrate the consideration of body as prosthesis that can be changed, replaced or enhanced without changing the identity. Setting this view as a premise of the film, Oshii strategically provides characters and plots that negotiate with this premise and reiterate the question of human identity. The film uses its characters, the cyborg protagonist, her collages and the antagonist, to provide different degrees of disembodiment. Togusa represents a resistance to cyber-enhancement and a persistence of a traditional definition of human and our social relationships. Being the least cybernetically altered character, he illustrates a view that considers our biological body as identity defining. Also, he is married and has a young daughter. This kinship-based family construct makes him a representation of our traditional social construct which pushes back on the entire “posthuman” setup. On the other hand, the antagonist, the puppet master, as a computer program that gains consciousness pushes further in the direction of disembodiment to complete immateriality. The fact that the puppet master has never had a body to gain consciousness not only supports the disembodiment of human consciousness but also begins to illustrate that consciousness is not limited to “humans”. He provides a new story of the birth of consciousness, one that is purely virtual without any physical or biological embodiment.
Parallel to Kusanagi’s question of her own “humanness” in comparison to the puppet master, the movie is a search into how we define human in terms of materiality and individuality. The protagonist and the antagonist represent two extremes: the cyborg born as an individual human but completely transformed into cyber prosthesis which merged into the system and the individual consciousness born out of an ocean of information. The merge of the two at the end of the movie is a prelude to the radical proposition made in Ghost in the Shell 2.
III. Alternative Ontology of Posthumanism
Ghost in the Shell 2 further detaches itself from the franchise and engages deeply in posthumanism discourse. The film does not elaborate on narrating the story or portraying its protagonist, but rather is packed with quotes, citations and references to philosophers and theorists of humanism and posthumanism, such as Haraway, Gilles Deleuze and Roland Barthes. Moving beyond redefining humanity, Oshii’s ambition with this film is to deconstruct the anthropocentric mystification; as Nietzche posited “the human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself in its own perspectives” (Brown, 2012, p. 50). Most of “posthuman” sci-fi works imagine new form of consciousness based on the one that human has, therefore are still limited to a humanistic view. Although as human, we could never avoid such paradox that hindered us to imagine an autonomous intelligence or consciousness truly different from human, I believe Ghost in the Shell 2 acknowledged this limitation of imagination and embraced all diversity of human and nonhuman forms equally. It honestly presents a poetic and aesthetic world of the posthuman rather than using it as a tool to manipulate our understanding of human and human related issues. Perhaps Cary Wolfe’s theoretical framework, six years after the film, comes close in its theoretical critique of posthumanism towards a decentralized ontology.
In his book What is Posthumanism?, Wolfe is concerned with the inevitable humanist ideas of autonomy and superiority in posthumanism discourse. He claims that the “ground tone” of Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman is “to associate the posthuman with a kind of triumphant disembodiment.” Wolfe criticizes these “fantasies of disembodiment and autonomy” as “inherited from humanism itself” and thus proposes the “decentering of the human.” (2011, p. xv) “To be truly posthumanist, the concept of subjectivity itself needs to be undermined and transformed in a way that does not privilege the human. It is only by giving up notions of personhood that speciesism can be destabilized,” he argues, “so that we can become posthumanists.” Wolfe (2011, p. xxii) tries to reimagine subjectivity as something not exclusively human in order to answer what posthumanism is. Rather than focus on what it has been historically, he imagines what it could be if anthropologically, we were no longer invested in maintaining human superiority.
To escape the human trappings, Steven Brown (2010, pp. 49-50) in Tokyo Cyberpunk argues that Oshii “suggests a way outside of ourselves” not focusing on our own “transcendence” or disembodiment, but framed around relations of “innocence,” a spectrum of relationships between human and the nonhuman. Brown cites the example of Batou and his dog, Gabriel, and Miller (2011, p. 77) generally describes that Oshii “portray[s] intensely intimate “joint kinships” between humans, animals, and machines.” This method echoes with Wolfe’s critique of using disembodiment as the foundation of posthumanism. If Hayles and Haraway’s approach to posthumanism is seen as a singular transcendence of human that cannot go beyond humanism, Ghost in the Shell 2 pursues an alternative way to define posthumanism by the exploration of typical and atypical social relations. The typical social relations of Togusa’s love and care for his family is equally treated as Batou’s love for his basset hound and Kim’s fixation with dolls. The most atypical relation emerges towards the end of the film when Batou became sympathetic with the gynoids as pure “shells.” After saving the “ghosts” of young girls in the gynoids, he questioned the saved girl, “Don’t you realize what kind of chaos you have caused? I’m not talking just about the humans… Didn’t you think about the dolls who were forced to have malicious ghosts dubbed into them?!” This moment can be interpreted as a counter point of disembodiment. Oshii seems to provide an understanding of an unconscious body as an entity that is equal to human and nonhuman consciousness.
This dynamic system is generated by both the diverse array of subjects but also the tone of the relations. The subjects, animal (Batou’s basset hound), human (Togusa), offspring (Togusa’s daughter), cyborg (Batou and Kusanagi), gynoid, dolls generate a complicated web of relations of companionship, kinship, care, desire, lust, ambivalence, hate, fear, resistant, respect, hope, and love.
In the final scene, Batou reunites with his dog, Togusa embraces his daughter, who, in turn, is holding the doll she just received from her father. In “The Cult Film as Affective Technology: Anime and Oshii Mamoru’s Innocence”, Orbaugh (2006, p. 94) notes how this scene underscores “a critical question” that Oshii posed and deconstructed throughout the movie that addresses “what is it that loves what?” Oshii investigates whether affect and affection are limited only to humans and organic beings or whether they are also present in artificial bodies. Oshii does not merely put the posthuman subject into question, but also posthuman objects and their relations.
The posthuman world is a world of systems instead of individuals. Hayles (2006) proposed in her more recent work “Unfinished Work: From Cyborg to Cognisphere” a scenario beyond the world of cyborgs. “No longer bound in a binary with the goddess but rather emblem and instantiation of dynamic cognitive flows between human, animal and machine, the cognisphere, like the world itself, is not binary but multiple, not a split creature but a co-evolving and densely interconnected complex system.” Its posthuman subjects are embedded within the cognisphere, the information system.
Ghost in the Shell 2 not only portrays this cognisphere in its characters and relations as I pointed out before, but also produces a cultural “cognisphere” through its citation and references approach. According to Brown, by relying on citationality, the movie works in service of a ventriloquist act conducted by Oshii with a philosophical intention to create a transnational cultural production. In other words, as Brown (2010, p. 228) so aptly puts it: “the subject becomes a tissue of citations.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is perhaps more justified to the nonhuman than any other literary visual or even philosophical works in the discourse of posthumanism. The film has constructed a revolutionary imagery of the posthuman world where sentient and insentient individual entities, dispersed in an ocean of information, are linked together by self-formed or cultural, social, political implied relations. Although the cognisphere encompasses its subjects and their relations, they all are posthuman entities. The boundary between humans and cyborgs, “ghosts” and “shells”, individual and collective disappears. Its generous and indistinguishable appreciation for the non-humans and human alike is not arguing for emancipation or empowerment of any particular kinds, but rather is an effort to create a balanced yet dynamic system where an array of its subjects exists, communicate, connect, transform and transcend freely and equally.
Brown, Steven T. Tokyo Cyberpunk: Posthumanism in Japanese Visual Culture. 1st ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Ghost in the Shell. Dir. Oshii, Mamoru. Bandai Entertainment, 1995. Film.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Dir. Oshii, Mamoru. Bandai Entertainment, 2004. Film.
Gardner, William O. 2009. “The Cyber Sublime and The Virtual Mirror: Information and Media in the Works of Oshii Mamoru and Kon Satoshi.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 18 (1) (Spring): 44-70. https://doi.org/10.3138/cjfs.18.1.44.
Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader. London: Wallflower, 2004. 158-167.
Hayles, Nancy Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010.
Hayles, Nancy Katherine. “Unfinished Work: From Cyborg to Cognisphere.” Theory, Culture & Society 23, no. 7-8 (2006): 159-66. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0263276406069229
Heidegger, Martin, John Macquarrie, and Edward Robinson. 1962. Being and time. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Hourigan, Daniel. 2013. “Ghost in the Shell 2, Technicity and the Subject.” Film-Philosophy 17 (1): 51–67. https://doi.org/10.3366/film.2013.0003
Kovacic, Mateja. “The Many Faces of Popular Culture and Contemporary Processes: Questioning Identity, Humanity and Culture through Japanese Anime.” The IAFOR Journal of Arts and Humanities, 2, 1, Fall 2014, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.22492/ijah.2.1.02
Miller, Jr., Gerald Alva. Exploring the Limits of the Human through Science Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Orbaugh, Sharalyn “Frankenstein and the Cyborg Metropolis: The Evolution of Body and City in Science Fiction Narratives.” Cinema Anime, Ed. by Steven T. Brown. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 61-112.
Okuyama, Yoshiko. Japanese Mythology in Film. A Semiotic Approach to Reading Japanese Film and Anime. Lexington Books, 2015.
Tembo, Kwasu D. “Death, Innocence, and the Cyborg: Theorizing the Gynoid Double-Bind in Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence”, American, British and Canadian Studies 29, 1: 103-125. https://doi.org/10.1515/abcsj-2017-0021
Wolfe, Cary. What Is Posthumanism? Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2011.