Ghost in the Shell (1995)- Metaphysics, Essence, and Hegel
Ghost in the Shell is the 1995 Japanese animated film directed by Mamoru Oshii. Based on a manga of the same name, Oshii manifests this cyberpunk science fiction story with vivid philosophical provocation. Set in 2029, a fictional Japanese city is under attack by an obscure hacker named the Puppet Master. The story follows Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg Section 9 public-security agent, who is pursuing to track down the Puppet Master to prevent further hacking into “ghost” consciousnesses.
The story is a lot more complex than just hackers, guns, and robots. In tracking the Puppet Master, the film explores questions of identity, consciousness, and the metaphysical. I’m not well versed in these areas of philosophy, so I’ll be asking a lot of questions more than responding to them. From the getgo, we listen to Motoko contemplate her humanity or more precisely, her lack of. She operates in an artificial body with a brain was constructed by scanning a human brain. Her very nature already poses a lot of questions on what constitutes identity, a consciousness, a soul, or for the purposes of this film, a ‘ghost.’ She has no memories of her previous life and is tense at the thought that she might not be who she really is. How would you know yourself if your body is manufactured? Can we classify artificial intelligence with consciousness as human?
Motoko’s partner, Batou eases her worries with the explication of the Descartesian principle. “I think, therefore I am.” Because Motoko has the ability to experience the world through her senses and observe her own feelings and thoughts, it is enough to affirm her existence as a unique conscious being. But is that enough to constitute personhood and existence when your body is artificial? How does she know that someone else is not thinking for her, someone independent of her body? The Puppet Master is able to hack into other cyborg bodies and act through them without their knowledge. Simultaneously, he has the ability to wipe out life-long memories and formulate a new identity for his pawns. This challenges the Descartesian model because while they still can think, how do they know they are the person they believe they are? How can one differentiate whether they had an idea or the idea came to them from an external source?
And here’s a good one for the Hegel haters! Hegel’s dialectic shines through this film so well that it should be incorporated into the class syllabus. Thanks to Wisecrack’s Youtube video, I now have a *slightly* better grasp of the movie and Hegel material. If you want a clearer explanation of Hegel’s dialectic in the film instead of my struggled one, check out the video.
First, let’s identify the lord and bondsman. Towards the middle of the film, we find out the Puppet Master is actually a project created by Section 6, a different security district. It was generated as a digital resource intended to be used for political purposes but essentially was able to surveil everyone in Section 6’s network. It seems to me that the government of Section 6 mastered the entity that should become the Puppetmaster, as they had it do their bidding. The public officials were not evolving with the project, rather they were just consuming the information their slaved digital entity was presenting them. While the government believed they were in domination and oversaw control, the digital entity gained consciousness and became a sentient force. The Puppet Master can’t escape his bondage as he is locked within the Section 6 networks, but he grows smarter by the day and utilizes his resources towards freedom.
Puppet Master identifies an essence to the existence, that of mortality and reproduction. If I’m understanding Hegel correctly, and I might not be, essence divides from merely being. It is the categorical shift from the everyday identifications of your existence, to a more abstracted and posited recognition of an object or objective. It is the logic of being, rather than the spirit of being that may reside in consciousness, ethics, and art. So for the Puppetmaster, human existence can be essentialized to reproductivity and mortality. It’s a fair statement to make since that is the foundation of all things living. The trouble is that he’s a digital entity and he can only create copies of himself. This is a static procedure, void of any mutability and evolution. While he can create copies of himself, humans still possess the power to destroy his being since they are the ones that manufactured it, and they hold the keys to his bondage. He wants his spirit, or his soul, to attain the human essence. He wants to be integrated into the natural world, the determinate existence.
The Puppetmaster devises a plan to merge consciousness with Motoko. This will relieve the Puppetmaster of the static system he exists in and allow him to reproduce something entirely original. Motoko, unsure about her identity in the first place, agrees and joins forces with the Puppetmaster. In the Hegelian dialectic, this procedure is called synthesis. It unites the conflicting forces of human nature and technology, signaling progress and evolution of the natural and antinatural.
Does evolution need to continue past human nature? In the accelerated growth we’ve seen in the past decade and Western society’s obsession with ‘progress,’ are we going to cross the anthropoid line and create a new sentient being? At what point do humans cease to be humans in the digital world? Can DNA schemes and binary codes be considered one and the same?
So if we apply the master and slave dichotomy between humans and technology, we consider ourselves the master of our cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices. However, we grew so dependent on technology that the bondage line is a bit blurry. I feel as if humans reached a level of synthesis where we must live together co-dependently with digital technology, and it’s a defining marker of today’s progress. Our phones are becoming our second brain and memory, a more reliable one in fact. Kids who have grown up with cellphones and tablets around them are having a much easier time adapting to technology, while older generations, that grew up separate from the antithesis of technology, may be staggered by these advancements. How will we be able to separate natural reality and digital reality? How does our identity change under this synthesized process? That being said, I am utterly terrified of the metaverse. No more technological progress for right now it’s getting too weird… Please stop, Mark Zuckerberg. Pls.
I also found an album that is inspired by Ghost in the Shell. I haven’t listened, but I figured I’d link it.
Oshii, Mamoru. Ghost in the Shell (1995).
Hegel. “The Philosophy of Nature.” Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/na/nature.htm.
“Hegel’s Conception of Essence.” Larval Subjects ., 13 Dec. 2006, larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2006/12/13/hegels-conception-of-essence/.
Wisecrack. The Philosophy of Ghost in the Shell- Wisecrack Edition, 2017. https://youtu.be/5Y2yHDBaPsk