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.
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)
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 Method, Meditations, 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
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.
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.)
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.
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). 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.
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 fuchikoma, then, 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.
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!
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