Updated: Oct 30
This essay is from my 3rd film theory essay assigned in my Cinema Media Historiography class, based on parsing out possible/impossible problems in theory. Basically, a possible problem is one that is easy to think about - there is an anser available. An impossible problem is one where the answer is that there is no answer, however instead of using the "there is no answer" as a means of saying "welp, guess that's all we can do!", you can continue to complicate the problem, not as a way of finding an answer, but as a way to encourage thinking. Leaving impossible problems alone and accepting impossibility as "all we can do" is too comfortable! Make yourself uncomfortable! Think, even if it feels bad sometimes!
We all are familiar with the concept of evolution – whether it be in an uncomfortable seventh grade science class or in those dicey evangelical debates. The idea of evolution is largely groundbreaking in terms of what would come to be known as Darwinism, and the eventual basis of so-called “modern” medicine. There is a problem here, in that the purported understanding of evolution is a linear one which, when the logic is oversimplified, explains plainly that we were once single-celled organisms, and then we were various stages of mammal – protohominid, hominid, homo erectus, and then homo sapien. This line of logic says that, regardless of that unknowing, we will always start at Point A and evolve to Point B. The films Ghost in the Shell (1995) and its remake in 2017 exemplify the problematic Point A-to-Point B understanding of evolution with the idea of geneaology considered as an empirical way to trace origin. There is no search for origins, no birth or truth to be found (Nietszche, 79-80). The concept of a future world populated by varying degrees of cyborgs is the underlying setting of Ghost in the Shell (1995/2017), a setting which dually presents a historiographic impossible problem of the future, and largely surrounds race theory.
Before delving into an analysis of the films, an understanding of race theory as it pertains to robotics is a necessary tool to first identify this trouble with evolution. The late Gregory Jerome Hampton, an Africana studies theorist and comparative literature professor at Howard University, synthesized the idea of the robot as a slave by applying Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to those of slaves. His laws are as followed: “1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws,” (Hampton 6). These laws are similar to the four cardinal virtues of womanhood, piety, purity, submission and domesticity, which Yale professor Hazel Carby explains as the governing stasis of white patriarchy in times of slavery (Carby 23). The condition of slaves is dependent on whether the mother is a slave, or has been freed – hence is the idea of the “born free” slave; it is a status derived from matrilineage (Hampton 7). This idea can also be applied to instances of slave rape, and the ways in which Black mixed-race children’s’ freedom was determined by their being born to a white or a Black mother. Asimov’s laws take on a new form here, in that they become the governing body of robots as a metaphor from the ways the four cardinal virtues work toward the oppression of women and slaves as Carby posits. A key flaw in this metaphor, however, is the idea of consciousness: assuming robots can be slaves by comparing the very human event of American slavery implies that there is a human consciousness in robots, that would determine their ability to feel their slave condition. The logic of this argument turns this problem into a debate about the idea of a conscious robot to avoid the impossible – if robots share similar experience to slaves, what does that do to our idea of evolution, considering that robots are a symbol of the future and slaves are considered a relic of the past? Additionally, how do we assume region to evolution, where the understanding of African slaves, as past figures removed from their continent and displaced to another, places Africa as the local which we evolve from? If the future doesn’t exist in Africa, where does it go?
Ghost in the Shell (1995) locates this future, while adding another problem to these developing questions of evolution. The plot is centered around Motoko Kusanagi, a crime-fighting cyborg public security major in the fictional New Port City in Japan. New Port City is set in 2029, where cybernetic technological advancement makes it possible for humans to modify themselves with robotics. The most marked achievement here is the cyberbrain, which is a mechanical casing around the human brain allowing any person Internet access from their brain. People with this technology are referenced as ghosts in the shell, hence the title. Major Kusanagi, as a team leader for her task force, is continually mystified by an elusive villain called the Puppet Master hacking into innocent citizens’ cyberbrains. Kusanagi catches the Puppet Master, who is a full robot with a level of sentience that presents a je ne sais quois of the cybernetic system of New Port City. The moment when the Puppet Master reveals his plan to Kusanagi is interesting to look at – he hacks the ghosts in the shell because he wants to have a human brain that dies. This is almost Aristotelian, in the sense that the one who knows most knows that they cannot know anything at all – the Puppet Master doesn’t want to be a sentient robot. He wants the best of both worlds, to speak; to be an augmented human. The Puppet Master explains all of this to Kusanagi in a dramatic monologue that conveys an anguish with being a robot with a conscience – to him, the highest evolved being is that with the perspective of a human yet the selective abilities of a machine.
Evolution would lead to the oversimplification of: we were once primitive, we were slaves/had slaves, and in the future, we will be full robots. Applying race theory, this oversimplification becomes “we were once African, and in the future we will all be Asiatic robots.” The problem with assigning these Point A-to-Point B arguments is that it doesn’t account for the space in between, and moreover, assumes that in every state between those points, there is a always a push, a progress of sorts, to reach Point B. Ghost in the Shell (1995) both locates a future in East Asia, and problematizes the Point B idea of the future. The Puppet Master, for all intents and purposes, is the highest evolved, he is the robot with supreme knowledge and yet, he wants to be human? He wants to move backward?
This disruption continues into Ghost in the Shell (2017), an American live action version of the same story. There was a lot of controversy surrounding this movie, namely for the fact that Scarlett Johansson, a white woman, was cast as ‘Major,’ the new name for Motoko Kusanagi’s original animated character. There was big press storm surrounding the cultural appropriation present in how a white woman was cast to play a uniquely Japanese character in a uniquely Japanese story, which affected both viewership and ratings for the movie. To challenge this argument of cultural appropriation, were people upset because of the moral argument attached to cultural appropriation, or was the movie itself undigestible? Are we mad that the narrative of evolution being subverted by a racial argument in a fantastic, future world where we’re all un-raced robots? Are we mad that the possibility of this was made impossible by Scarlett Johansson’s casting, that the evolutionary model has been disrupted?
Both versions of Ghost in the Shell exemplify how the later doesn’t contextualize the earlier, it brings it into existence (Dyer 133). Effectively, the future robot part of the evolutionary model reminds us that robots can be slaves, that the future is the present, because they are both considered property, without the magic sentience of a robot like the Puppet Master. The idea of progression as advancement is detrimental to the understanding of film, in that before it encourages exploration, it confines a set of rules: things happen consecutively, story begets story, genre begets genre, in which the version that came first is the “original.” Understanding this impossibility is “feeling the historicity of our feelings,” (Dyer 130).
Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: the Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. Oxford University Press, 1995.
IMAGINING SLAVES AND ROBOTS IN LITERATURE, FILM, AND POPULAR CULTURE: Reinventing Yesterday's ... Slave with Tomorrow's Robot, by GREGORY JEROME.
HAMPTON, LEXINGTON Books, 2017, pp. 1–17.
“Nietzche, Genealogy, History.” The Foucault Reader, by Michel Foucault and Paul Rabinow, Vintage Books; Random House, 2010, pp. 76–100.
Pastiche, by Richard Dyer, Routledge, 2007, pp. 93–136.