The Philosophy of Ghost in the Shell – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on one of the most philosophically complex animated films of all time: Ghost in the Shell. Through the lens of legendary philosopher Georg Hegel, we’ll examine how Ghost in the Shell not only laid a foundation for decades of sci-fi to come, but presents us with a truly fresh and original take on the next step of human evolution. Whereas most films that explore the line between human and machine require one side to triumph over the other, Ghost in the Shell suggests something radically different.
Written by: Kevin Winzer
Directed by: Kevin Winzer and Jared Bauer
Research by: Nick Burr
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Philosophy of Ghost in the Shell – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here and today we’re taking a fresh look at the 1995 classic that seamlessly combined mind-bending metaphysical themes and cartoon boobs- Ghost in the Shell. Yeah, we know there’s a new version out, but apparently they forgot to put in a lot of the brainy stuff so we decided to talk about the original. Many have weighed in over the years on what the film says about the line between human and machine but that’s not what we’re talking about today. Instead, we’re going to examine the film’s warning about humanity’s potentially fatal flaw and its roadmap for a more evolved civilization. Ghost in the Shell is probably one of the most philosophicaly complex animated films out there, so a big shout out to Naruto Online for sponsoring this video and supporting us as we tackle this cultural milestone. Since some of the philosophy we’ll be covering can get a bit confusing, stick around til the end to hear us explain a key lesson using the world of Naruto. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Ghost in the Shell. And as always, spoilers ahead. Ghost in the Shell had a huge impact on sci-fi. Works such as Ex Machina,The Matrix, and Westworld echo not only the film’s aesthetics but also the theme of mankind vs. technology. We often see this as a warning that technology will take over and/or alter humanity for the worse. I’m not talking about clickbait or selfies. I’m talking about this. And this.
You know, classic robot overlord stuff. However, Ghost in the Shell is different. While it’s set up to be a typical battle between man and his creation, the resolution is not one side triumphing over the other, but a synthesis between the two. Don’t remember? Don’t blame you – it’s probably been awhile. Here’s a quick refresher. The film centers around Major Motoko Kusanagi,a cyborg government agent working for Section 9 – basically a black ops unit. Section 9 pursues a mysterious entity known as the Puppet Master, who employs ghost-hacking to monkey with people’s memories and force them to do its bidding. This super-hacker turns out to be a spy program originally called Project 2501, which was secretly developed by Section 6. They’re an intelligence division – sort of like the CIA. Section 6 lost control of their creation after it spontaneously developed self-awareness by swimming in the vast ocean of the digital world. When Kusanagi finally catches up to the Puppet Master, it makes a rather forward proposal: they should merge consciousnesses and create a new, unique being.
She accepts, and the film ends with the new entity – call it the Kusanuppet Master – contemplating what to do next. Maybe a vacation? The confrontation and resolution of these two forces – human and digital consciousnesses – reflects German philosopher Georg Hegel’s vision of progress. To Hegel, conflict progresses human history. Every development, from the time of our illustrious forefathers to the present day, is caused by forces that clash and create something new. This is Hegel’s “dialectics” in a nutshell. But before we get into that, we need to show how Hegel’s fundamental ideas help build the setting of Ghost in the Shell. First and foremost, Hegel’s philosophy is driven by the belief that the world operates on rational principles and that the true nature of reality is knowable. (We see this attitude manifest throughout the film as Section 9 hunt for the truth behind their world’s political conspiracies.) Kusanagi is defined by this philosophical idealism. She is driven by dissatisfaction with her limited perspective, and is convinced there’s a more perfect reality available to her.
As such, the film treats the marriage of Kusanagi’s human consciousness and the Puppet Master’s artificial nature with a certain optimism, and Hegel’s system of dialectics explains why. But first, I want to distinguish Hegel’s dialectics from the way the term is more commonly understood. In classical philosophy, dialectics are a form of argumentative discourse designed to ferret out contradictions and arrive at a better understanding of truth. You start with an argument, called a thesis, which is met by a counter-argument called an anti-thesis. The end result may be a refutation of the original proposition, an affirmation of the counter-argument, or a synthesis of the assertions that results in a better understanding of the subject. Think Socratic Method, or a lawyer cross-examining a witness. The purpose is to learn the truth. In Hegel’s system, dialectics are more than just philosophical inquiry – they are the very mechanism by which humans progress, both on an individual level and as a collective. When one force confronts another force, something new ultimately emerges. At the heart of the film is a dialectic of the human and digital worlds. In one corner, we have Kusanagi and her human mind. Her various memories and experiences combine to make her a unique individual. And yet she feels constrained by her own limited personal identity.
In the other corner we have the Puppet Master, who sprang forth from the vast informational resources of cyber-reality and therefore possesses the broader understanding that Kusanagi seeks. But the Puppet Master too feels limited, by its lack of personal identity. In short, each has what the other needs. Other films have trained us to think that when technology gets a little too big for its britches it need to be put in its place so humanity can be preserved. But through the lens of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, this meeting of the minds should have no winner. Imagine a feudal lord of the middle ages and the serfs bound to work his fields. The lord is the master – he can force the serfs to toil away because he controls all the agriculture in the area. The serfs are his slaves – peasants who can’t afford land of their own. They work their asses off while the lord sits back with a refreshing drink. Sounds great for the lord, right? The problem is, as the serfs labor they get better and better at farming, while the lord learns nothing new. He stagnates, while the serfs become more powerful due to their valuable knowledge. This, according to Hegel, is what leads the oppressed to overcome their masters. Examples of oppressive masters and usurping slaves resonate throughout Ghost in the Shell.
Section 6, ostensibly pulling the Puppet Master’s strings, remains antiquated, stagnant, and stuck in the politics of the old world. They preserve some power through their mastery of Project 2501, but gain nothing while the Puppet Master slowly gains sentience as it labors for them. Separately, the Puppet Master acts as master when it uses its ghost-hacking ability to hijack others and force them to do its bidding. We see this early in the film when Section 9 interrogates the garbageman and learns that he was brainwashed into believing he was spying on his wife, when in fact he was merely the Puppet Master’s tool. Similarly, Section 9’s typical M.O. is classic “master” behavior; they use lethal force to accomplish their goals, leaving no room for compromise. The first time we see Batou, he’s bragging that Section 9 has the authority to kill.
And Aramaki’s approach to the Puppet Master is to destroy it if Kusanagi can’t secure it. Ultimately, none of this is productive. It just makes it harder for Section 9 to understand the Puppet Master’s true nature and prolongs Kusanagi’s journey to enlightenment. The preferred result when two opposing forces clash is synthesis, which Hegel refers to as sublation. He means something very specific: it’s combination without loss. The result is a unique, superior idea that incorporates and accommodates both perspectives. That’s what the Puppet Master is proposing when he suggests that he and Kusanagi merge. A cyborg is a great example of this. A cyborg is neither wholly man or machine. It’s a synthesis of man and machine – encompassing both, it becomes something new. Sublation is crucial because it helps avoid the stagnation that occurs when a person, idea, or whatever becomes too insulated. Looking at Section 9, we see that the team was composed with dialectical principles in mind. When Togusa asks Kusanagi why he, a non-augmented human, is included on the team of cyborg bad-asses, Kusanagi explains that his uniqueness makes the group stronger.
The Puppet Master too is aware of the problem of stagnation, and that’s why he needs the constraints that Kusanagi feels fettered by. This is reminiscent of a species from another classic series – The Borg, from Star Trek. The Borg are an awesome villain and I’d use any excuse to bring them up, but they actually illustrate what we’re talking about pretty well. The Borg is a cybernetic race that travels the galaxy assimilating other species into the collective mind. Why do they do this? It’s the same reason. Without diversity, the weaknesses of the race will inbreed and compound, rendering their civilization vulnerable. Obviously, from the perspective of the assimilated, there’s some loss. The Borg get your smarts and fresh genetic material, and all you get is a new, modern look. But from the perspective of the Borg, it’s a story of developing consciousness. Sublation is the climax of Ghost in the Shell – not a battle to the death, but rather a synthesis that results in a stronger, more evolved being.
For Hegel, the progress of human history happens through conflicts like these, both on an individual level and on a much larger scale. Everytime we make any kind of advance through these dialectics, be it in science, art, or what have you, the world enters a new state of affairs that should represent an improvement over what came before. Hegel calls this new state ‘geist.” The word can be translated as “mind,” “spirit,” or even…wait for it, “ghost.” Soo.. Geist in the shell, anyone? At the end of the film, after Kusanagi and the Puppet Master have merged, we have a new state of affairs in which this new type of being exists. Call it a new era, call it evolution, call it what you will – it’s geist, following its trajectory towards an improved world. The film hints at this in the climactic battle scene, when tank-fire obliterates the names of less evolved creatures in the Tree of Life, stopping at the top on “hominis.” This symbolizes that evolution must continue even past human beings. This is why Ghost in the Shell’s message is so unique from other films in the genre. It’s not a warning about what will happen if we do merge with our technology, it’s what will happen if we don’t. The message is to interact with the world, resolve our contradictions with it, and emerge stronger than we were before. Clinging to our beliefs about what we are will only prevent us from becoming what we can be.
Put another way, “resistance is futile” may sound bad coming from the Borg, but according to Hegel, sublation is a necessary towards progress. So it just may be true. Stay cool, Wisecrack. Hey guys thanks for watching. Still a bit confused about Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic? I don’t blame you. Hegel is pretty freakin difficult. But luckily, if you’re a fan of Naruto, I’ve got another way to explain it. Keep in mind, this scenario is entirely hypothetical. Let’s start at the beginning. Naruto desperately wants recognition from the people of The Hidden Leaf Village by becoming Hokage, or the master ninja of the village. Let’s say that Naruto uses sweet Jutsus and the nine tailed fox spirit to FORCE people to make him Hokage. By coercing the villagers to submit to him, Naruto has gained mastery over them. In Hegel’s terms they will have become Naruto’s slaves or bondsmen. Well, the problem is…just because he’s now Hokage, that doesn’t mean he actually has the skills. That doesn’t occur until hundreds of episodes later after he defeats Pain. In fact, at this point, the villagers would have no choice but to to do the bulk of the protecting and ninja duties while Naruto just sits back and takes all the credit. In other words, if the people are having to fight invaders, build defenses, and craft weapons, then THEY are the ones gaining the skills becoming of sweet sweet Hokage-ness. Essentially, Naruto will never get any better at being a Hokage, while his “subordinates” are becoming more and more skilled at the art of defense. So even though, in this hypothetical situation, Naruto would be the Hokage, his claim to mastery is slowly dissipating as the villagers come to master the skills that supposedly define his role as Hokage. So who’s the master and who’s the slave?