Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Philosophy of Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell Manga, Volume 1

(Spoilers abound. If you haven't read it and want to read it cold, do so. It's been out in the West since 1995. Get on that. Actually, this will probably make little sense without first reading the book. Or you could read this wikipedia page and it might begin to make sense. This one might help too. But just read the comic book – that's the easiest way, and the most fun.)


Ghost in the Shell is both a movie and a manga. Well, technically two movies, two mangas, two video games, and three TV shows, but I'm only interested in the original manga, Volume 1 (1989-1990), on which the first movie (1995) is based. It became an important touchstone for cyberpunk and the anime boom. I argue that it should become an important touchstone for our cultural, philosophical history. Existing right at the rise of personal computers, the internet, and electronic gaming, this manga catalogs the philosophical influences during this changing period.


Masamune Shirow allows me to say something I've never understood before: Major Mutako Kusanagi is an existential hero in a post-modern world. Let me explain. The world itself, the technology, questions the primacy of the individual and individual experience through incidents like hacking into another human's brain and shared sensory inputs. Taking the individual experience and distilling it to information which can be shared questions a basic tenant of existentialism: that one's self exists before being distilled to an essence. This questioning of this existentialist tenant characterizes post-modernism still today. Post-modernism postulates that a togetherness, a community, a societal contract or construct gives subjective perspectives and experiences meaning, rather than existentialism's emphasis on the individual. Chief Daisuke Aramaki gives this post-modern tendency a voice in the manga. At the end of chapter three, when Kusanagi changes from the fun-loving girl to the brooding woman, the catalyst is Aramaki explaining: “Whether it is a simulated experience or a dream, the information that exists is all real... and an illusion at the same time.” Kusanagi responds with a question: “You mean in the same way novels and films change people?” Aramaki replies, “Most people will never know.” In this exposition, the idea that truth and illusion are distinguishable solely by perspective reveals the post-modern tendencies of Kusanagi's context, her world. To follow this up and ensure that the reader understands, Shirow begins chapter four with robots debating the difference between simulations and “real-time events”, concluding “no matter how we interpret the situation, it's the same.” In other words, situations don't give meaning – if they did we would all experience everything the same. Perspective and interpretation bring meaning to the table. This post-modernism underscores Kusanagi's experience. From “Ape Face” Aramaki's comments to Kusanagi's job as a mind hacker, her entire world shoves post-modernism down her throat.


Kusanagi doesn't really accept it though. She retains a belief in the primacy of the individual. And when Aramaki points out the sameness of simulations and dreams at the end of chapter three, Kusanagi falls into a classic existential angst. Shirow exposes Kusanagi's textbook reaction most blatantly in chapter five through her musing, “Sometimes I wonder if I've really already died, and what I think of as 'me' isn't really just an artificial personality comprised of a prosthetic body and cyberbrain.” After two chapters of Kusanagi obviously depressed, this musing illuminates the cause for her unrest. She maintains that she cannot be distilled to an essence, but that belief doesn't mesh with her world – especially as she questions even her existence. This disparity between belief and experience launches her into the existential angst that she experiences throughout the rest of the book. But she confronts her angst actively and head-on – a tactic which makes her an existential hero. She actively questions her own experiences, existence, and everybody around her. Her state identifies a common theme in the history of philosophy during this time period: neither post-modernism nor existentialism explain human experience. It seems that some people retreat to a syncretic dose of both.

But then Shirow pulls a masterful move and introduces the Puppeteer – a hyper-rational being. When the Puppeteer first appears in chapter nine, it espouses a commonly known Descartes quote: “What you witness here is my will as a self-aware life-form.” This paraphrase of “cogito ergo sum” immediately explains the Puppeteer's position as the rationalist. Like Descartes, it turns within itself to find the basis of knowledge: its self-awareness proves its existence independent of any sensory experience. However, it uses the experience of its will acting on the world to attempt to communicate its own knowledge of its existence to the people around it. This syncretic blending of rationalism and empiricism paraphrases what I think of as Kant's ideas. To further drive the point home, a bystander accuses the Puppeteer of being “only a program designed for self-preservation.” It responds with, “I cannot prove it to you. Modern science, after all, still cannot define life.” This comment enforces the Puppeteer's philosophy: it knows that it exists but because the other people do not have its own self-awareness they can doubt its existence. In other words, a being can only know its own existence, not that of anybody around it. However, the scientific process it alludes to allows theories of knowledge based on rigorous examination of experiences. The Puppeteer's initial words appeal to Kusanagi, who clings to her individuality while attempting to understand the world around her.


The stage is then set for the finale. The lines drawn between the proponents of the three major philosophies of the late twentieth century. Aramaki is the poster boy of post-modernism, Kusanagi the poster girl of existentialism, and the Puppeteer is the poster being of rationalism. The Puppeteer attempts to find a human to “fuse” with – to create a syncretic being between the two. It is the only one of its kind and needs diversity to both continue existing and to create more of its kind. This desire hearkens back to Aristotle's basis of humanity: “Humans, having the gift of speech and the sense of right and wrong, are by nature a political animal.” (Politics I.2) The word “political” here means two things: we need to be a part of a society larger than ourselves, and we need to have discourse. As the only one of its kind, the Puppeteer has neither, and realizes that it needs both to continue existing. To the Puppeteer, fusing consciousness with another being is the easiest way to attain discourse and a part in a society larger than itself.



Kusanagi agrees to its plan at the end. But she asks the Puppeteer, among other similar questions, “Any guarantee I could continue to be me?” She clings to her individuality in the face of fusing. It is based in a fear of the unknown for her – evident through another of her questions, “So what happens if I die?” Her incessant questioning since chapter three finds its match in the Puppeteer though. To every question Kusanagi poses, it responds with either rational approximations of “I don't know”, or actual answers. In the end, though, Kusanagi agrees for one simple reason: her existential angst is predicated on losing her identity in chapter three, and the offer to fuse is an offer of a new identity. In other words, when she began to question even her own experience, her experience offered two answers: post-modernism's understanding of “reality” as possible of illusion, or creating another existence for herself. The Puppeteer offered the easiest path to another existence for her, and she took it.


This melding of rationalism and existentialism creates a new type of being. Kusanagi explains it by saying, “This is the cosmic species – the seed.” The evolutionary step that Kusanagi takes allows her new identity to gain permanence, but she is changed. She is neither Kusanagi, nor the Puppeteer. Her evolution is based in rationalism and existentialism, while being permanent.


This is an allegorical manga through and through. Yes, there are boobs and guns and computer geekery, but Ghost in the Shell Volume 1 is Masamune Shirow attempting to find a path between these three philosophical ideas so important in the late twentieth century. It entertains and illuminates the specifics of our philosophical situation. As such, it should remain a cultural touchstone for generations – not because of the anime boom or cyberpunk, but because of its nature as an allegory of the philosophical quandary that resulted from the twentieth century.