Past Artificial Limitations

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Identity is usually thought of as being an innately singular existence, perhaps the ultimate form of singularity achievable. The very word individuality contains the notion that identity precludes more than one contributor. A person is one single individual. The anime Ghost in the Shell explores the problems of identity which come from the possibility of a post-human world, using cyborgs as the subject which expresses humanity without limitations. Cyborgs represent a confluence of the organic and the mechanical, and to the extent that bodies are associated with identity, the cyborg presents a concept of identity in which the intermingling of otherwise separate types can achieve a unity of self which transcends singularity. This paper will discuss how Ghost in the Shell’s depictions of overcoming boundaries, especially bodily ones, conveys the idea that identity is not a singular phenomenon.

Through the film, Ghost in the Shell visually represents its various themes. Selfhood and singularity are portrayed aptly during a scene in which the film’s protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi, is diving into the ocean. At first, Motoko is quite alone; surrounded by nothing but water and darkness she is more isolated during this scene than during any other part of the film. The concept of singularity is thus established. As Motoko begins her ascent to the surface, however, the viewer sees a reflection of her on the surface. Motoko and her mirror image approach each other slowly, blue dominating one side of the screen and a fiery orange on the other side, symbolizing their separation. In the end, the two images of Motoko are conjoined, and the separation between them is dissolved as Motoko emerges into a world of extreme complexity, as signaled by the cityscape. The fact that Batou, her partner, is there to greet her should be interpreted as an emergence into a world of interaction after having broken through the barrier of perceived singularity. Motoko’s own words later in the scene indicate that crossing this barrier implies a change in identity: “When I float weightless back to the surface, I'm imagining I'm becoming someone else” (Ghost in the Shell).

Singularity cannot exist without definitive limitations between the one and everything outside of that one. Thus, if human identity is singular, then the components of that identity must be exclusive. That is, the human body and mind must be separate from the outside world so that they can be distinguished. According to cyborg theorist Sharalyn Orbaugh, however, “bodies are far from being self-contained, as in the modernist model—rather, they are permeable” (Orbaugh, 166). If the boundaries between the human body and the outside can be crossed then there exists the potential for a blurring of distinction, for qualities of one to impinge upon the other and thereby play a role in defining the character of both. This is quite problematic for the human body’s singularity, but surely the mind is exempt from such invasions, it would seem. Again, Orbaugh disagrees, stating that “Information here is figured as material and physical, effecting material, physical changes as it moves between one system (such as a body) and another” (166). Information, then, is sufficient as a boundary-breaker in bodies. The mind is much more prone to exchanging information; its barriers are much weaker. Neither the body nor the mind is absent from forms of invasion, and the plot of Ghost in the Shell hinges upon just such invasions, as the next scene up for discussion makes clear.

One of the last scenes in Ghost in the Shell involves Motoko gaining the opportunity to interface with an entity called the Puppet Master, so named because of its ability to hack the ‘ghosts’ of cybernetically enhanced thinking machines. The fact that the Puppet Master could alter the seat of a cyborg’s identity via digital interaction is significant by itself when in the context of singularity. The more fascinating interaction takes place in the scene itself, in which the Puppet Master requests that Motoko participate in a permanent merging of their conscious selves. Visual trappings such as the umbilical linkages between Motoko’s cyborg body and the Puppet Master’s borrowed body bridge the divide between them, literally and figuratively, allowing data to be exchanged and bodily eliminating their singular distinctiveness. Before merging, Motoko for a guarantee that her identity will remain, to which it responds “There isn't one. Why would you wish to? All things change in a dynamic environment. Your effort to remain what you are is what limits you” (Ghost in the Shell). Afterward, it is implied that their identities have become a single one, visually reinforced by Motoko acquiring a new body later on, as well as the destruction—via sniper bullets—of their former bodies. This two-in-one identity is expressly non-singular, as well as the culmination of the themes established in the diving scene earlier.

In the film, identity is ultimately figured as a product of interaction which can only take place after boundaries between the singular self, best symbolized by the body, and other persons are overcome. Choosing to give Motoko a cyborg body hints that her identity is a composite rather than a singular one. As evidenced by Orbaugh’s essay, the human body is in fact quite susceptible to invasion from the outside, and the mind is equally as susceptible. Information is the primary invader in Ghost in the Shell, usually exchanged through a physical cable that connects the cyberbrains of the various characters, a capability which during the climax of the film results in a direct representation of two beings becoming a unified identity, a true post-human. It states that the limitations of identity are artificial and that the post-human recognizes that identity is essentially derived from interaction rather than some innate source.

Works Cited

Ghost in the Shell. Dir. Mamoru Oshii. Manga Entertainment, 1996. DVD.

Orbaugh, Sharalyn . “Emotional Infectivity: Cyborg Affect and the Limits of the Human.”

Mechademia 3: Limits of the Human. Ed. Frenchy Lunning. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 150-172. Print.