Humanity in a Shell

Peter Peng '08, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Spring 2005)

While the original manga Ghost in the Shell contains a far larger story and several themes, the 1995 anime film version focuses on two main premises: what it means to be human and what it means to live. Both the manga and anime are set in a world where the distinction between humans and cyborgs has blurred nearly completely. The human soul or essence, called a "ghost," has been whittled down to a few brain cells trapped in a synthetic, cybernetic body (the "shell").

In an elevator scene, Major Motoko Kusanagi of Section 9, the Internal Bureau of Investigations, contemplates her human existence, saying to her fellow co-worker/companion Bateau the only thing that makes her feel human is the way she is treated (like a human). This conversion should make the audience wonder what defines a human and what defines life? For some, being human may mean having emotions, but this take begs the question of what constitutes true human emotions? Many other works have examined this hazy line. One particular notable work is Ridley Scott's cyberpunk film Bladerunner in which an analysis of Roy Batty's emotional transformation explores how emotions function as a definition of humanity. Ghost in the Shell also plays with the concept of memories much in the same way memories are presented in Bladerunner. In GitS, memories can be simulated experiences that a ghost-hacker can implant in a person's cybernetic brain. It becomes impossible to differentiate between the real and the simulated, an idea Jean Baudrillard discusses at length in his works. More discussion on Baudrillard can be found here.

The essential plotline of GitS begins when the Major receives the assignment to track down and eliminate the threat of the Puppet Master (official code name: Project 2501). A prototype virtual super agent created by Section 6, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to aid in espionage missions, the Puppet Master soon determines itself to be a true human life form and demands political asylum and physical existence. By the end of the film, the Major (who wonders if she’s really human at all for nearly her entire body is synthetic) merges into the same body with the Puppet Master (who feels human, but has been isolated in the vast and infinite "sea of information"). Could this merger be the true meaning of being human in all aspects? The 1980s TV series Max Headroom also incorporates a merger of sorts to delve into the human identity.


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Last modified 22 March 2005