Symptomatic reading of Kenji Kamiyama’s Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

The Laughing Man has become a symbol for many activists worldwide
This essay will examine the problematic identified by the latent texts of the Japanese animation ‘Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex’, directed and written by Kenji Kamiyama. ‘Ghost in the shell’ (GitS) is set in the year 2030 in a fictional Japanese city called Niihama, and follows Motoko Kusanagi (Major), leader of Public Security Section 9, a special operations task force that investigates various (usually ‘cyber’) crimes. In this future, the creation of cybernetic bodies, prosthetics and advanced artificial intelligence has changed the whole world, enhancing the lives of many people, however there is an underlying conflict throughout the series, made apparent by various latent references and ideas. According to Althusser, one way in which the problematic in a text is revealed is through the answering of questions that were never formally posed (Storey, 2008, p.72). I would argue that the underlying ideas seem to offer answers that reveal the structuring problematic: ‘In a world of increasing technological advancement, humanity is becoming displaced.’ In this essay I want to examine the latent texts throughout this series that identify this problematic; first looking at the development of individualism in the robotic characters and the ethics of artificial intelligence. Then I would like to look at how the director uses cybernetics to engage with the dilemma of body and soul in an age of increasing digital advancement, and finally I would like to examine how ‘the Laughing Man incident’ is used to identify the effects of worldwide media exposure on identities and the distortion of reality through virtual exposure.

First I would like to examine the Tachikomas, a group of robotic tanks that possess artificial intelligence (AIs). They are designed to act as support for Section 9, and on the surface seem to provide an element of comic relief for the otherwise serious anime. However, as the story develops, it is possible to argue that the Tachikomas are in fact a device used to discuss the issues and ethics of artificial intelligence. Even though they look identical, the Tachikoma have developed a seeming variety of individual personalities and traits (For example, Batou, another member of Section 9, exclusively identifies one specific Tachikoma as his favourite), which leads to debates among the robots that explore the various problems that have been identified by real scientists as to the ethics of artificial intelligence. For example Bostrom and Yudkowsky (2014, pp.319-24) explain that there are two components that would be shared by (only) humans and AIs; which are sentience (the capacity for phenomenal experience or qualia, such as the capacity to feel pain and suffer) and sapience (capacities associated with higher intelligence such as self-awareness). These two attributes would mean that AIs would have to hold the same level of moral status as a human being, and thus would require equal treatment. The viewer would then be expected to show emotional response during series one, episode 15, when then Tachikomas are sent to be decommissioned for fear that their increasing awareness would interfere with the team’s operations; it leads to questions about the boundaries of humanity (‘Machines Désirantes’, 2006). 

Some of the Tachikomas’ conversation topics could also be addressing the similarities between artificial intelligence and humanity. For example, there is a scene, also in ‘Machines Désirantes’ (2006) in which a Tachikoma explains to Batou that they are beginning to understand more about the world, and presents their theory of God. They explain that God could be translated into mathematics as the concept of zero, a symbol that represents the absence of meaning and whose meaning is necessitated by the delineation of systems from each other (in this case positive and negative). They then make the comparison that this is the same both in analogue (in this case humans) and the Tachikomas’ own digital construction. This addresses a running theme throughout the series that refers to the ‘ghost’ as the vital essence and defining characteristic of humans, and which isn’t (supposedly) possessed by AIs. However, after the Tachikomas’ individuality is accepted by the Major, this view is challenged during series 2, episode 26, when they sacrifice themselves to save the refugees under threat of nuclear attack (‘Endless∞Gig’ 2006). As they sacrifice themselves, they are heard singing:

“It’s because we’re all alive that we are sad. When we raise our hands and let the sunlight filter through, we can see our blood coursing through them a vivid red.”

Therefore the viewer could perceive the humans and AIs as parallel entities, thus encouraging them to question the validity of our own human experience in a future alongside artificial intelligence. The underlying ideas presented through the Tachikoma thus answer the questions posed about the ethics of AIs that were never asked; in this case stating that our attitude towards machines would have to change in the event of the creation of true artificial intelligence, lest we lose our humanity.

A Tachikoma
Another theme that hints at the problematic is the concept of cyberisation; in the future in which GitS is set, cybernetics that drastically improve life expectancy and (supposedly) quality have become commonplace and only the poor are without prosthetic enhancements. On the surface, this seems to be a way to allow the characters to perform actions that would be impossible for normal people, giving the director freedom to create extraordinary and exciting action sequences. The issue with cybernetics in GitS is the seeming detachment of body and soul, and a running theme is the concept of a ‘ghost’, in other words the spirit or vital essence that defines the individual. Unlike the AIs, it is argued that no matter how many parts of his body are replaced by prosthetics, his ‘ghost’ will always remain the same, which is related to the philosophical concept of Theseus’ Paradox (Scaltsas, 1980). However there seems to be a constant doubt in the cyberised characters’ minds as to whether they are actually real or just a fabricated entity, which is hinted at by small seemingly illogical actions that they perform. For example, Batou continues to buy weight training equipment, even though it is pointless to do so as a full cyborg, almost as if there is a conscious need for affirmation of his very being. This points to the dilemmas of body that humans are facing with increasing frequency, as Poster (2002, p.15) explains that what it means for a human being to have a body is now challenged by bio-engineering, medical transplants and reproduction technologies. 

However, as Storey explains (2008, p.74), Pierre Macherey builds on Althusser’s method of symptomatic reading; a text is not an expression of a singular hidden message, but an amalgam of meaning. With this in mind, I believe that there is also a confrontation of the concept of separation of body and mind as a possible forward step for humanity. Appleby (2002, p.101-) argues that in fact the body is now obsolete, referring often to the work of Stelarc who challenges outmoded Platonic and Cartesian metaphysics in an attempt to re-evaluate the body. However I disagree with Stelarc’s assumption that humanity’s development is a teleological process that pursues a primal desire to fight gravity and leads to humanity’s eventual cyberisation in order to survive away from earth. Instead of this outcome, the answer that GitS seems to provide is that humanity is instead destined to inhabit the digital realm rather than a physical one. We could argue that the decision of the full cyborg leader of the refugee rebellion Kuze Hideo to upload his consciousness to the net and exist as a non-corporeal entity could be seen as an active engagement with this idea (‘The Side of Justice’, 2006), however this could be challenged as this event doesn’t end up coming to fruition thanks to the sacrifice of the Tachikomas. Instead this possibility for the future of humanity is left unexplored by the director and by its absence hints to the viewer that the future of humanity is not so easily predicted.

Building on the underlying theme of human integration with technology, I would like to examine the ‘Laughing Man’ incident, from series one. ‘The Laughing Man’ is an expert hacker who (six years prior to the series) publicly assaulted head of Serano Genomics (a micromachine company) for withholding a cyberbrain illness cure. He hacked the eye implants of all the spectators, replacing his face with a stylised logo (see fig.1), and this lead to a series of copycat crimes all under the name of ‘The Laughing Man’ using this logo (‘Meme’, 2006). The problematic is addressed by  references to J.D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’, especially Holden Caulfield’s constant criticism of phonies, which refer to not only the copycat crimes, but also seems to provide an answer to how people live their  (online) lives in a digital future. The implication of this is that people constantly connected to the net are subject to total media saturation, and in a cybernetic context where the net may be accessed anywhere from within one’s own mind, this could result in a fusing of the real and digital worlds. Heim (1995, p.65) argues that through the development of ‘virtual reality’ “Life’s body is becoming indistinguishable from its computer prosthesis.” The difficulty of escaping this media saturation is shown during the last episode of series one (‘Stand Alone Complex’, 2006), as the Major runs her hand over the words “Fuck You” on the wall of the library where she meets the ‘original Laughing Man’ who stays there to be away from the world. This is a reference again to ‘Catcher in the Rye’, where Holden states: 

“You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write 'Fuck you' right under your nose.” (Salinger, 1951, p.204)

Therefore the ‘Laughing Man’ incident points to the problematic of human displacement in future society, attributing media saturation as the factor that blurs the boundary between the physical identity and virtual representation.

By using the ‘Laughing Man’ and its associated implications, the media creates an entire phenomenon based on the heroics and mystery of the hacker. As people become more and more obsessed with this logo and the ‘heroic’ act it symbolised, they become copycats who commit similar crimes under the name of the ‘Laughing Man’. This is supposed to highlight the fact that media saturation has the effect of causing mass duplication under the guise of pursuing individuality, for example today we see people all watching the same TV shows, being exposed to the same ideals and concepts. This is taken to the next level in GitS, as people themselves are linked directly into the net, and shows us the effects of media exposure through the creation of ‘Laughing Man’ copycats. The underlying idea related to this is that it will become dangerous for people to experience such exposure. The fact that the people who become copycats truly believe that they are the ‘real Laughing Man’ reveals that the world of virtual reality could be extremely harmful. Their reality is becoming distorted, which is hinted to as the laughing man logo is seen on the face of the hacker in real life, as he hacks into the eyes of the viewers. This is linked to the idea that the virtual would become more real than reality, and is a concept that is uncomfortable but also attractive to many, as the possibility to live our fantasies battles with the worry that we would lose ourselves entirely. This is confirmed by Poster (1995, p.94) who explains that “technology has evolved to mime and to multiply, to multiplex and to improve upon the real”. 

In conclusion a symptomatic reading of GitS reveals that behind a manifest text that shows an amazing, technologically advanced future populated by equally fantastic cyborgs, there is a latent text and underlying problematic that challenge us to think about the place of humanity in such a digitally advanced future. By facing this problem, we are shown that there are strong ethical implications attached to the creation of artificial intelligence; that we must retain a sense of ourselves as the concept of ‘body’ evolves; and the future of human integration with the digital world is uncertain and could be extremely dangerous.   I believe that the ideas and answers we receive from the underlying text all indicate a need to be wary of our future and above all to retain our humanity in the face of the biggest challenges to our existence.

Appleby, J. (2002). Planned Obsolescence: Flying into the Future with Stelarc. Ch.6 in: Zylinska, J. (ed.) The Cyborg Experiments: The Experiments of the Body in the Media Age. London: Continuum, pp.101-113.

Bostrom, N. & Yudkowsky, E. (2014). The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, Ch.15 in The Cambridge Handbook of Artificial Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

‘Endless∞Gig’ (2006). Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Series 2, episode 26. Directed and written by Kenji Kamiyama. First Broadcast 2005 [DVD]. Los Angeles: Manga Entertainment.

Heim, M. (1995). The Design of Virtual Reality. Ch.4 in: Featherstone, M. & Burrows, R. (eds.) Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment. London: Sage, pp.65-77.

‘Machines Désirantes’ (2006). Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Series 1, episode 15. Directed and written by Kenji Kamiyama. First Broadcast 2003 [DVD]. Los Angeles: Manga Entertainment.

‘Meme’ (2006). Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Series 1, episode 6. Directed and written by Kenji Kamiyama. First Broadcast 2002 [DVD]. Los Angeles: Manga Entertainment.

Poster, M. (2002). High-Tech Frankenstein, or Heideggar Meets Stelarc. Ch. 1 in: Zylinska, J. (ed.) The Cyborg Experiments: The Experiments of the Body in the Media Age. London: Continuum, pp.15-32.

Poster, M. (1995). Postmodern Virtualities. Ch.5 in: Featherstone, M. & Burrows, R. (eds.) Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment. London: Sage, pp.79-95.

Salinger, J.D. (1951). The Catcher in the Rye. New York : Little, Brown and Company.

Scaltsas, T. (1980). The Ship of Theseus. Analysis, 40(3), pp.152-157.

‘Stand Alone Complex’ (2006). Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Series 1, episode 26. Directed and written by Kenji Kamiyama. First Broadcast 2003 [DVD]. Los Angeles: Manga Entertainment.

Storey, J. (2008). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. 5th ed. Harlow: Pearson Education.

‘The Side of Justice’ (2006). Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Series 2, episode 25. Directed and written by Kenji Kamiyama. First Broadcast 2005 [DVD]. Los Angeles: Manga Entertainment.

Image Attribution:
Image 1 - By tangi bertin from Rennes, France (Ghost in the Shell #stopacta  Uploaded by Paris 17) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2 - Ghost in the shell SAC - Tachikoma 6  2013> (IMG_4641.CR2) | Flickr - Photo Sharing! : taken from - Rod-20

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