10c. “Subjectivity” and Ghost in the [Shell]

If I were being honest with myself about my academic career, taking to heart the numerous times I have been criticized for being unresponsive to the work of other scholars, it would have to be characterized as a long history of resenting how the people who dominate (and thus control access to) the scholarly fields in which I would like to participate are not terribly bright or, to be more fair, woefully ignorant of larger intellectual traditions upon which they regularly seek to pontificate.  If I were, perhaps, a more cynical creature, I might simply keep my mouth shut and kiss the requisite posteriors, but being who I am, I’d rather fail for speaking my mind than succeed for staying quiet.

A book about stuff

A book about stuff

Over the years I have occasionally attended talks given and read books by none other than the illustrious (<–sarcasm) Susan Napier, after which I regularly found myself scratching my head.  In doing the research for this week’s post, I happened to pick up her highly regarded Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke (revised in 2005 to Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle) again only to swiftly put it back down, as I have in the past.  There was a time when I was quite impressed with this book, a scholarly work on an object of my fandom–what could be better!  Though over time, as I read more and more, it became clear to me just how unsophisticated this book really was, and how my admiration for it was largely a function of my own relative ignorance of the intellectual history of the West.  Consider, by way of example, the following morsel of meaningless drivel.

Ghost in the Shell [the Oshii film adaptation of Shirō Masamune’s manga] shares with other works discussed in the previous chapters a fundamental concern or even unease with the body and thus, implicitly, with identity itself.  Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and Evangelion all seem to be showing attempts to escape the body and thus the constraints of human identity.” (p. 115)

I know how you feel, Arthur...

I know how you feel, Arthur…

As I read this, it was unclear to me why Napier was equating the human body with human identity, especially when throughout Western intellectual history there have been numerous attempts to theoretically divorce an essential self or soul/psyche from the human body.  Often this has an underlying religious motivation, be it to justify the immortality promised in Orphism or Christianity or to make a clear distinction between human and other kinds of being, but even in more secular forms, an anxiety over the impermanence of the human body persists.  Oddly, Napier’s desire to see a “complex and philosophically sophisticated storyline” in Oshii’s film is not met with an explication of how it engages with any pre-existing philosophical discourse.  Sure, we have the obligatory reference to Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” and an epigraphic quote from Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine but nothing in the way of how those texts engage and critique a tradition following Descartes’ construction of an abstracted human subjectivity in the Discourse on MethodMeditations, and Principles of Philosophy.  The very title Ghost in the Shell is well known to be taken from Koestler’s extensive critique of behaviorism mentioned above, which is itself a response to Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind, which is an extensive critique of Descartes’ distinction between a self (characterized as res cogitans or “thing that thinks”) and not-self or “bodies” (res corporea/res extensa, “corporeal thing/extended thing”).  If anything, what I will try to demonstrate here is that Ghost in the Shell, both Shirō’s manga and Oshii’s film, is far from being anti-Cartesian, as I have regularly heard the not-too-brights claim, but rather a profoundly Cartesian fantasy of isolatable (and thus mobile) subjectivity.

The Body and/or Bodies

Ghost in the Shell p. 335, trans. Frederik Schodt

Ghost in the Shell p. 335, trans. Frederik Schodt

If we work our way back through these texts that appear to be reading/critiquing each other, we will come to discover that Descartes’ own attempt to discover the essential characteristics of an isolated self has been steadily reified within them, even, in some instances, when those texts claim to be rejecting, as Koestler says, “crass Cartesian dualism.” (Ghost in the Machine p. 204)  In order to see this, then, it is important to look closely at those texts, so I apologize, dear reader, if you soon find yourself hoping I’d just get back to talking about  manga already.

p. 34

p. 34

Regardless of what Wikipedia might think, Koestler’s book is actually a critique of Ryle’s Concept of Mind and the behaviorist movement in psychology with which he associates it.  Koestler notes how Ryle attacks what is referred to in GitM as “the customary distinction made between physical and mental events” by referring to the latter, disparagingly, as “the ghost in the machine,” as if, as Ryle says in a later interview, the motion of a horse on a train were categorically distinct from the motion of the train itself. (p. 202)  Behaviorism was itself an overt response to the disciplinary dominance of psychoanalysis and tried to posit that most, if not all, human behavior was the result of environmental conditioning.  Thus “mental” behavior and “physical” behavior was considered an arbitrary distinction at best.  As Koestler notes, though, behaviorism was far from being the final nail in the coffin of the concept of mind.

“Regardless of the verbal acrobatics of Behaviourists and their allies, the fundamental problems of mind and matter, of free will versus determinism, are still very much with us, and have acquired a new urgency… [b]y the very act of denying the existence of the ghost in the machine–of mind dependent on, but also responsible for, the actions of the body–we incur the risk of turning it into a very nasty, malevolent ghost.” (ibid.)

p. 277

p. 277

In rejecting the deterministic features of behaviorist psychology, Koestler is also wary of simply repeating what he calls “simple two-tiered Cartesian dualism.” (p. 208)  However, in referring explicitly only to Ryle in his critique–though Cartesianism is invoked again and again, oddly Descartes’ own essays are not–Koestler misses several salient features of Descartes’ proof and hypothetical construction of the self.  Many are likely familiar with the famous maxim from the Discourse on Method, “cogito ergo sum/je pense donc je suis” (“I think therefore I am”) but less so with how that fits into Descartes’ construction of three types of being: self, God, and bodies.  Now, I say “bodies” and not, as is often the case, “the body,” because the human body (you know limbs, organs, and what not) is just one example of what for Descartes is a distinction between self and world, or, as I would prefer, self and other-than-self.  In the latter category, we find both God and stuff, both of whose existence is demonstrated only after the ego or “I.”  Moreover, it should be noted, quite loudly, that both self and stuff in Descartes are abstract and not material.  In fact, when it comes in the Meditations to explaining what “bodies” are, Descartes systematically eliminates all sensual traits of objects (hardness, smell, weight, etc.) and settles on the completely abstract, but to his mind essential, quality of extension (in height, width, depth).  Thus the customary mind/matter distinction, which Koestler would have us revisit, for Descartes would be an erroneous claim for what is truly at issue in terms of the essential “substance” (i.e. substantia) of being.

p. 106

p. 106

Koestler’s limited reading of Descartes (i.e. only through Ryle) is very much analogous to Napier’s incredibly limited reading of the philosophical tradition of theorizing subjectivity.  Contra Koestler, Descartes’ distinction between self and other-than-self is anything but two tiered.  As he notes in Discourse 6.34 (trans. Lafleur), “[t]o derive [the idea of perfection] from nothingness was manifestly impossible, and it is no less repugnant to good sense to assume that something comes from nothing, so that I could not assume it came from myself [since he is imperfect].  Thus the only hypothesis left was that this idea was put in my mind by a nature that was really more perfect than I was, which has all the perfections that I could imagine, and which was, in a word, God.”  For Descartes, the essential nature of the self looks in two directions, both as something more perfect than bodies but less perfect than God.  I want to make clear that while the idea of Cartesian mind-body dualism is seductive, because he does make this distinction in the sixth meditation, it can only be understood in the context of a much larger thought experiment and process of first doubting and then constructing his concepts of self and other-than, one that sets him at the tale end of an archaic tradition of what Foucault calls, in the lectures collected in Hermeneutics of the Subject, “techniques of the self,” that is one’s self understood not as an isolated (or isolatable) state (something that Descartes stands at the precipice of) but as conditioned by and subject to experience and thus thoroughly malleable.  As a result Descartes might be understood both as the progenitor of a theory of an isolatable psyche and as another in a line of introspective thinkers that includes Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, St. Augustine, and St. Ignatius, just to name a few.

Cogitatio vs. Thinking

To see both Descartes’ Discourse and Meditations as a process of subjective reconstruction, rather than a mere syllogism of interrelated claims about subjectivity, is key to understanding how a tradition stemming from Descartes is actually preserved in Shirō’s manga and Oshii’s film.  Descartes’ method in both texts begins from a form of radical skepticism, to doubt everything and affirm only that which he might comprehend beyond a shadow of a doubt.  This rampant form of speculative suspicion is made possible by Descartes’ first isolating himself from all social contact.  From there, his reason is isolated from his senses.  Ultimately, he even manages to isolate the cogitation that constitutes the “I” from what we might consider a variety of mental faculties.  For, despite what Koestler might say about Descartes’ identifying “mind” solely with “conscious thinking” (p. 205), the cogitation in the res cogitans that “I am” is far more general that by which one works through logic puzzles.  “What is a thinking being? It is a being which doubts, which understands, which conceives, which affirms, which denies, which wills, which rejects, which imagines also, and which perceives ” (Meditations 2.22[28]).  Later, though, in the sixth meditation, Descartes actually makes a distinction between these faculties and the cogitatio that underlies them.  It becomes clear that what “I am” is something common to yet isolatable from the aspects of thinking by which Descartes earlier established that the “I” exists at all.

p. 151

p. 151

This relationship between self as “thinking thing” and body as “extended thing” is useful for understanding the pilot suit/robot relationship so common in mecha texts.  Now, Napier would have it that Ghost in the Shell is somehow outside this tradition of pilot and machine, but even if you disagree with Ueno Toshiya that the cyborg body itself is a kind of suit, then certainly this pilot and suit relationship is present in the GtiS text Napier pays little mind to, Shirō’s original manga.  Completely absent from Oshii’s film are the fuchikoma “tanks” that Section 9 agents regularly employ in the manga’s narrative.  Now, the Japanese text renders the word fuchikoma (フチコマ) phonetically, but if I were a guessing man, I would think that word means something like “connected/linked pony/steed,” as if written 縁駒.  “Steed,” because, well, the agents ride in the fuchikoma, and “linked,” because, well, that’s more complicated.  Certainly, the agents have a network link to their tank’s A.I., but they are also linked in the sense of, say, a knight and his horse.  A horse, like the fuchikoma, is possessed of a will and “mind” of its own, but that will is considered to be categorically distinct from the cogitation that constitutes human subjectivity.  At the risk of mixing terminology, for the knight, a horse is no less an extension of his self than his lance, shield, or armor.  In fact, though Schodt has “suit” above, Kusanagi reminds the fuchikoma of its role as her fuku, i.e. a mere article of clothing.  The fuchikomathen, is like the horse, so, while it may be possessed of intelligence (and an, admittedly, very funny personality) that alone is not enough to constitute the ghost/psyche/soul that continues to distinguish human beings from it.

p. 343

p. 343

Just as the self-stuff relationship in Descartes’ Discourse and Meditations is analogous to the relationship between God and self, the pilot-suit relationship between Kusanagi and the fuchikoma is mirrored later in that between Kusanagi and the Puppet Master.  When the Puppet Master says that it and the major were brought together because of “en” (縁, the same character as fuchi in fuchikoma above) or engi, the Buddhist concept of dependent origination, it seems to be invoking something similar to the Cartesian dependence of self upon God.  In fact, in the climax of Oshii’s film, when Kusanagi and the Puppet Master merge, the major has a vision of feathers and something like an angel, as if this fusion were more an ascension or apotheosis of the soul than the mere escape from the “constraints of human identity” that Napier claims in the quote above.  If anything, this moment of ascension reifies, rather than antagonizes, the isolatable psyche or self that is the focus of Descartes’ thought experiment, a fact that only becomes apparent when you give up the enforced ignorance of a reading in (relative) isolation.

Next week: anime and/or manga, more Ghost in the Shell, and more bagging on respected scholars!

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. Just a librarian quibble. Your link to Wikipedia is useless since it could have already been changed since it was posted last night. If there is a specific goal to the Wikipedia quote, you’ll have to capture somewhere what it said. Yeah…history exists…blah blah, but that’s too hard for a simple comparison link. Notes? What would be a solution for that? Any ideas?

    1. The third statement of the intro on that page makes it seem as if Koestler and Ryle are in agreement, when, in fact, Koestler has nothing but contempt for Ryle’s position. That’s all. If it does get changed, I don’t think it will matter much. It was just another swipe at people not reading things carefully.


  3. deleuzean · · Reply

    A bit of a heavy read, this one. Thanks for the hard work on your end, though.

    Toward the end, the threads you draw from Shirow to Oshii start to sound like some valuable (to me) support for an idea that emerged as I was doing research for a presentation last month at Anime Central on Hideaki Anno and Evangelion.

    There is an interesting feature of anime and manga whereby, let’s see if I can say this concisely, vigorous intertextual referencing (including reliance on and play with genre conventions) extracts and drags meaning from (sometimes even barely similar) past works forward into present ones such that, as the history of manga and anime progresses, there is a way (perhaps unique to these forms?) in which the meanings of individual works are greatly enhanced (more so than in many other forms) when one investigates the threads of such referencing.

    For example, certain threads of meaning – particularly ones about the hard life choices involved in achieving goals of significance – in Toppu o Nerae: Gunbuster (and again later in Evangelion) are brought out more clearly when one also watches, among others, Dezaki Osamu’s 1974 anime Aim for the Ace (Esu o Nerae), which is heavily referenced in Gunbuster, and then less heavily so in Evangelion.

    It’s my contention that the emergence of otaku culture alongside the rise of modern anime and manga drives this kind of “aggregate” (or maybe “conglomerate” is a better word) meaning making, and that readings of anime and manga (like Napier’s?) that disregard researching, at least in some part, from within the “otaku mindset” will inevitably misapprehend – or miss entirely – important levels of meaning and complexity within carefully created works.

    Whether or not this kind of “by otaku – for otaku” creation of works is a “good thing” or not is another discussion entirely, but I think scholars of anime ignore this concern at the peril of being seen as ignorant or irrelevant, particularly by those of us who come to scholarship of anime by way of first having been (voracious) fans.

    1. There seem to be three threads here, obviously intertwined, but I’d like to tease them out so I can treat each in some detail.

      1) Allusion – or reference or whatever you want to call it. When it comes to “reading” a particular media text, the reference is really only salient if you have some expectation that this reference will be immediately or immanently available to, if not a vast preponderance, then some cross-section of your audience. For someone who draws from a number of widely varied sources, and I would put both Oshii and Anno, to his credit, in this camp, it’s hard to imagine some ideal audience that would “get” all of it. I’m hard pressed to believe that getting all of it is even the point, since one can always watch and re-watch or read and re-read to her heart’s content (the obvious limit being death). There is also the lateral problem of an entire ouevre revising itself over time, and Oshii is a good example of this. All put together the Kerberos films, Assault Girls, Sky Crawlers, the two Ghost in the Shell films, Avalon, and sundry little films don’t really have a cohesive message, and I think this is because many of these films revisit and reinterpret each other (Assault Girls revising Avalon, Innocence revising GitS, Sky Crawlers revising Red Glasses). As a result, even “what the director is saying” with all these intermedia allusions fails to remain stable and thus perfectly referential outside patterns of reading and interpretation, patterns the films themselves often perform.

      2) Which brings me to the more focused problem of audience, and whether the otaku framing is an appropriate one. Certainly EVA from one perspective appears to be very otaku-y or fannish, made by a self-described fan for others of his ilk. The problem with this is EVA was a phenomenon far larger than otaku themselves and led to any number of antagonistic interpretations, some fannish some not. I scarcely need mention the way Anno antagonized his own most diehard fans and even worked their critiques into later iterations of the EVA mythos. If I were being fair to Anno, something I am not inclined to do, mind you, I would say that the EVA series and its various feature film descendants in fact plays with (and often against) this idea of anime fandom as an otaku-y domain, especially given how wildly popular even the most recent films have been.

      3) Academics – because I’m not sure you can properly locate many anime texts within even a broadly circumscribed otaku framing, I wouldn’t invalidate a particular critique solely on the grounds that it fails to make reference to the conventions of tokusatsu or limited animation techniques or ballistic tracking shots or rocket punches or whatever. In fact, I think one of the major faults with LaMarre’s Anime Machine is that it tries to be everything to everyone. I’d like to think that there’s room for readings that emphasize media history or emphasize theoretical concerns (assuming, of course, one gets the theory right…) that fail to touch on the other’s purview. That said, academics rarely ever have fans in mind as their audience (much to my chagrin), and should their work ever speak to fans, it is most commonly a happy accident. Add to that the fact that otaku especially have been historically resistant to interpretations of the objects of their fandom that come from without (due in no small part to how those interpretations have been used historically to characterize otaku as degenerate), and you have a perfect storm of people talking past each other.

  4. deleuzean · · Reply

    I wonder if you’ve read Saito Tamaki’s “Beautiful Fighting Girl”? I’m just getting through it right now, and I’m very much enjoying it in part because it makes substantial effort to address otaku culture without the BS of, as you say, characterizing “otaku as degenerate.”

    As someone who is, let’s say, a big fan of taking anime and manga seriously, I appreciate your framing it as a *problem* when people either try to be all things to all people, or just talk past each other.

    My own effort is to try to somehow bridge the voracious and fannish media consumption that characterizes otaku culture with an analysis of meaning based in a kind of hybrid formalist criticism that I developed years ago while writing a film column grandly titled “Movies Change Our Lives” for a local city newspaper. In conflict with a major feature of otaku culture, though, I’m not in the least enamored of stuff like fanfic that actively bends works to the desires of fans who may otherwise be unfulfilled by the original texts themselves.

    I don’t begrudge others their otaku strivings in this area, I’m just a “primacy of the text” kind of guy.

    My goal then as now (and I sense a commonality here as I read more of your writing) is to promote deeper understanding of meaning and value in visual media by applying critique as an illuminating “set of tools” that can ultimately bind the works of creative artists into the interested consumer’s daily lived experience. So I am persistently disappointed by both “I loved it / I hated it, and here’s why you should too” popular criticism, and “these grandiose, esoteric, and possibly unsubstantiated claims are very important!!” academic criticism.

    Anyway, it’s nice to find another researcher on the edge of the academy who wants to take this stuff seriously, even if you don’t adore Anno the way I do 😛

  5. […] since today’s kerfuffle involves a manga concerning which I have expressed a number of opinions in the past as well as the problems of racial discourse in Japanese I regularly concern myself with, I have […]

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