Memory and Corporeality in the Age of Informatics: Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell and Elizabeth Grosz’s Refiguring Bodies

December 7, 2010 at 11:25 pm (Uncategorized)


“If memory cannot be defined but it defines man, the advent of computers and incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought” (3:42-5:00). Presumably, memory that can be defined and that is tangible doesn’t define man; however, memory becomes tangible and definable in the age of informatics. Thus, there is no longer an answer to the question of what defines man/what it means to be human in the age of informatics.

Memory and Corporeality in the Age of Informatics: Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell and Elizabeth Grosz’s Refiguring Bodies

Elizabeth Grosz states that “the virtuality of the space of computing, and of inscription more generally, is transforming at least in part how we understand what it is to be in space (and time),” (Cyberspace,Virtuality, and the Real: Some Architectural Reflections by Elizabeth Grosz, 87). Space and time are essential components in understanding the world and our place in it. The advent of cyberspace and cyber-time has challenged previous notions of communication by inventing new methods of storing data, maximizing time, and transgressing physicality. As society transformed from a letter writing society to an email society, we witnessed the near obliteration of cursive writing. Now, as we inhabit an “informatics society”, what is lost or forgotten? How has society’s understanding of space, time, and memory adapted to suit rapid transformations in informatics? Since virtuality is futuristic, there seems to be something at stake in always looking forward and never backwards. What happens to memory in the age of informatics?

Major Motoko Kusanagi

“Ghost in the Shell” tells the story of a society of cyborgs and humans who coexist in the age of informatics and state of the art technological advancement. The society has a regular police force as well as special security forces, divided into sections, responsible for governing the society. Section 9, (cyborgs), and Section 6, (humans), investigate crimes that affect cyborg and human safety, respectively. The movie begins with the government’s search for a criminal, the puppet master, who steals both cyborg and human “ghosts” or consciousness by using HA3 technology. Major Kusanagi and her team of Section 9 agents must find the puppet master and save society from becoming ghost-less entities. After Section 9 discovers the perpetrators behind the engineering of the puppet master, (human Section 6), Section 9 and Major Kusanagi are met with the obstacle of reclaiming the puppet master, after the puppetmaster infiltrates a would-be cyborg woman. The movie culminates as Major Kusanagi merges with the puppet master. After her cyborg body is destroyed, Major Kusanagi is given a new body and voice and also a new reflection on what it means to be human in the age of the net/informatics.

The net/informatics is considered both a blessing and a curse throughout the film. Set in Tokyo, the mecca of informatics, the movie is technology overload. Cyborgs, entities with human like bodies made from titanium, and a brain with a few human brain cells, also have “ghosts” or consciousness. Their bodies are not subject to the frailties that humans encounter, but they are endowed with human consciousness. Major Kusanagi is a perfect cyborg, yet she longs to understand what it means to be human and to possess a human body not made from titanium. She speaks enviously of her fellow agent, Togusa, who possesses more human qualities. Bateau, another Section 9 agent, also speaks disdainfully about the influence of technology and informatics, and considers himself bound by a force of technological engineering. The net/ informatics in “Ghost in the Shell” control every aspect of cyborg and human life through data storage, tracking, and intelligence. When speaking to Major Kusanagi, the puppet master claims that “All things change in a dynamic environment, your effort to remain what you are limits you… ” (11:50-13:35). Informatics undoubtedly creates a “dynamic environment,” with technology that could possibly supersede human understanding. There are many implications for the puppet master’s words “…your effort to remain what you are limits you…” considering how a rejection of informatics, (within present day society), can socially handicap an individual.

Who/What you are, or rather how you perceive who/what you are is difficult in the age of informatics. The movie defines memory as what cannot be defined but what “defines man” and “the advent of computers and incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought.” Presumably, memory that can be defined and that is tangible doesn’t define man; however, memory becomes tangible and definable in the age of informatics, (this is evident through data storage). Thus, there is no longer an answer to the question of what defines man/what it means to be human in the age of informatics.

The puppet master operates by stealing his victims’ “ghosts”, which signifies consciousness and memory.In the movie, a garbage truck driver believes that he has a wife and daughter, when he is really a bachelor and his memory is manipulated by the puppet master. The puppet master is able to treat memory as a malleable tangible object, similar to the form of memory in informatics. Memory as a tangible object, which is also articulated/defined is almost unfathomable. In order to “define” memory, one must reiterate the very words “memory” or “remembrance.” No language encapsulates memory, and to reduce it to a mere cognitive function or a mere collection of information would not adequately define it. Memory is more complex, because it shapes perception and reality for the individual; as in the case of the garbage truck driver, whose loss of memory separates him from reality.

Major Kusanagi questions the extent to which human corporeality affects perceptions of reality. Like memory, which affects perceptions of reality, the human body is also essential to understanding reality versus fantasy. During one of her routine dives into the sea, Major Kusanagi emerges with thoughts about her own corporeality.

What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror. Then we shall see face to face.

Bateau questions why Kusanagi would endanger herself by diving into a sea with a titanium body. Kusanagi responds that she feels fear and hope when she is in the water, human emotions, which connect her to her desire to be completely human (00:20-3:25). While floating to the surface, she imagines that she has a human body, unguarded, subject to frailty: Perfectly human. Still, the water, an element of nature, is contrasted with her culturally engineered titanium body. Kusanagi can never realize herself as human outside of the water. Kusanagi’s self-consciousness during this scene, suggests that the puppet master and the agency that engineered Kusanagi’s body are the same. Both the puppet master and the agency have taken away their subjects’ ability to clearly perceive who/what they are; both have taken away memory.

Elizabeth Grosz’ interpretation that “The body is neither-while also being both-the private or the public, the self or other, natural or cultural, psychical or social, instinctive or learned, genetically or environmentally determined,” is insightful here (Grosz, Refiguring Bodies, 23). In her discussion of the various philosophical and scientific histories of the body and mind which have influenced and yet limit feminist thought, Grosz concludes that the body should not be considered in any strict terms such as dualism and monism. The cyborgs and the humans in “The Ghost in the Shell” exemplify this point. The relationship between the humans and the cyborgs consists of this clash between natural or cultural, genetically or environmentally determined. For a cyborg such as Kusanagi who has human brain cells and a titanium outer shell, the clash is quite evident. The puppet master was initially bodiless, but in order to transcend the barriers placed against him by Section 6, (since the puppet master is referred to as a man), he has to infiltrate the body of an incomplete female cyborg. This action has many implications, two among them- the male puppet master is able to maintain his masculine gender even though he inhabits a female cyborg, suggesting that gender transcends sex, and the puppet master must inhabit a body in order to control the minds of cyborgs and humans. The puppet master is nothing without a material body, suggesting that the mind is always co-dependent with the body.

When her body is destroyed after merging with the puppet master, Kusanagi is given a new body and voice, that of a young female. Looking outside across the city, Kusanagi references a Bible verse, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (Corinthians 13:11-13). Her reference speaks of her ignorance as a child or as a cyborg in the age of informatics. Kusanagi appears renewed, with a fresh perspective on her body. Throughout the movie, Kusanagi anguishes the fact that she is not a complete human. However, after she merges with the puppet master and receives a new body, she understands who/what she is. Even though her new body is still titanium, Kusanagi has transcended the body and she becomes fully mind, a conclusion which seems to settle the dispute between the body and mind throughout the movie. Mind, (consciousness), and memory intact, Kusanagi becomes human.


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