Now we see but a dim reflection as in a mirror
– 1 Corinthians 13
In the climactic scene of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 cyberpunk classic Ghost in the Shell, there occurs a narratively and thematically pivotal confrontation between the film’s two central opposing characters. On one side, we have protagonist Motoko Kusanagi – a female cyborg police commander working for Public Security Section 9 – and on the other we have antagonist the Puppet Master – a criminal super hacker and sentient artificial life form. The Puppet Master, having wanted to meet Motoko for a long time, explains to her that he seeks to obtain the one thing that, as he sees it, separates him from organic life: reproduction. In order to do so, he wants the two of them to “merge” and create a new life form, one that is comprised of information from both parties but is at the same time its own entity. As this act of merging both representationally and literally erases the line between organic and artificial life, it marks the culmination of the film’s and by extension the franchise’s philosophical topics regarding life and human evolution in the age of artificial intelligence and trans-humanism. But what it also constitutes is an answer to the issues of identity that particularly the film explores; issues that are comprised of various dualist conflicts within a high-tech-modernized, trans-humanist urban environment. That is what this study is going to focus on.
Man & Machine, Body & Mind
The most obvious, and perhaps also most central, of these dualist conflicts would be that between man and machine. Like so many other works within the cyberpunk canon, Ghost in the Shell mainly centers around exploring the increasing integration between humanity and technology, and the consequently ambiguous distinction between these two. The thing that particularly characterizes its approach to this exploration, is its fundamental emphasis on cyborgism. The Ghost in the Shell franchise takes place in a future world where cybernetic body augmentation has become the norm – where each and every person per definition has at least some amount of robotic material in them. Our protagonist Motoko embodies the most extreme version of this, being a cyborg to such an extent that her entire bodily self consists of cybernetic material, with the only thing remaining of her humanity being her “ghost”. This elaborate exploration of the cyborg concept thus indicates a distinct approach to the man-machine integration discourse; one that intimately focuses on the human body.
Interestingly enough though, Ghost in the Shell wasn’t the only fictional work to take this approach during its time. In July of 1989, only two months after Masamune Shirow’s original manga had began its weekly publication, a certain movie premiered in Japan called Tetsuo: The Iron Man. On a surface level, this short, rough and experimental low-budget indie film by now renowned cult filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto may look like a simple moral tale about a salaryman having to deal with the consequences of a hit-and-run-incident. But it is also a violent depiction of technology’s increasing intrusion into modern everyday society, executed through the distinct combination of two genres: cyberpunk and body horror. For those unfamiliar with the latter, it is a horror sub genre concerned with the fear of destructive and/or degenerative affects on the body, with infections, mutations and mutilations all being commonplace. By 1989, the genre was already no stranger to incorporating technology into this equation – with David Cronenberg’s Videodrome from 1983 being the most prominent example (which Tsukamoto also has cited as an inspiration) – but Tetsuo took it to a previously unseen level. The film’s very opening scene thoroughly establishes its graphic nature, featuring a man in a tight room filled with various metallic objects, who proceeds to cut his leg open and shove a big threaded steel rod into it. The later main narrative conflict revolves around a nameless salaryman who, due to a curse placed by the aforementioned man, gets infested by metallic material, gradually transforming him into a grotesque cyborg monster. Technology is here presented as a threatening force, violently consuming the everyday man in the most direct manner imaginable. By combining body horror with cyberpunk’s typically unpolished and gritty approach to sci-fi, and executing it through bold experimentation and a fiercely exploitative aesthetic, Tetsuo presents an extremely visceral and horrifying take on the bodily, cyborgian man-machine integration.
So what is Ghost in the Shell‘s take on this? With its equally central focus on cyborgism, could it in similar veins be seen as a body horror? Explicitly, no – but implicitly, yes. Both Tetsuo and Ghost in the Shell thoroughly examines the fears and anxieties resulting from the invasion of technology onto the human body – but the latter isn’t so much concerned with graphic affects on the body’s physicality, but rather with the issue of bodily identity. Questions about autonomy and authenticity quickly emerge when large or entire portions of one’s body are made up of mechanically produced materials instead of individual genes. If you are born with one set of physical components, of which a majority later gets replaced by mechanical counterparts, then how do you define your bodily identity? Would you perhaps be unable to accept your new body parts, thus finding yourself in a conflicting identity disorder? Or if you would be able to accept them, then do they turn you into a different person? In what way do you account for them as part of you own self when they’re artificial, mass-produced items? These questions are all relevant for anyone with a high degree of prosthetics and/or augmentations, but are of especial concern for Motoko, given her entirely cybernetic bodily self. While her body is one that comes with a lot of benefits – such as enhanced strength, hacking sufficiency and alcohol tolerance – the question is how many of these features she considers to be parts of her personal self, and how many she merely sees as being provided to her by her body’s manufacturer. Even her physical appearance, which is arguably the most essential factor to bodily self-identification, straddles this line, being a reproduced model design that’s non-unique to her. This is even something that she at one point gets confronted with, when she notices both a woman at a cafe and a mannequin at a display window having the same model as her. When not even the face you see in the mirror is your own property, then the issue of bodily identity becomes an extremely difficult one.
But perhaps the ultimate way of defining one’s body as one’s own, is through its connection to one’s consciousness. The philosophical topic of the relationship between body and mind is one that the Ghost in the Shell franchise is widely concerned with; after all, the title itself is named after Gilbert Ryle’s describing term for Cartesian dualism. This concept, developed by 17th century French philosopher René Descartes, suggests that the body and the mind are two separate entities; that the former is a physical and material being while the latter exists on a non-physical level, and that the two merely interact with each other without being fundamentally connected. Ghost in the Shell not only follows this idea, but presents an elaborate praxis of it; the mind has the ability to disconnect itself from the body with ease and travel through networks as data, and can therefore also move from body to body as if simply moving from residence to residence. The body, or the “shell”, appears to be nothing more than just that: a shell that the ghost inhabits. As such, it is rendered almost completely dispensable and arbitrary.
At a surface level, this is an attitude that Motoko seems to live by, as she appears of holding a rather distant relationship to her own body. She has no problem with being (semi-)naked during her job for practical efficiency, or casually undressing in front of her co-workers, or even physically exerting herself to the point that her arms and legs are ripped to shreds. It’s as if she sees her body as merely a tool, without having any personal or emotional affection towards it. And yet, she also expresses a certain amount of self-reflection around the relationship between her physical and mental self. Let’s just look at the brief scene in her apartment that concludes the opening credit sequence. Immediately after we’ve witnessed the process of her cyborg model being put together, the film cuts to a close-up of Motoko’s face as she wakes up in her bed. For a few seconds we see her contemplatively staring at her hand and subtly moving her fingers before she gets up. The act of moving one’s hand is perhaps the most fundamental exercise in examining the relationship between the body and the mind; the mind commands the body to move its hand, and the body obeys. In this brief yet effective shot, it’s as if Motoko is partly trying to affirm to herself that this manufactured body of hers is connected to her own individual consciousness, but at the same time reflecting upon what that connection actually is.
And this isn’t the only instance in the film that expresses this sort of attempt at affirmation. Another example occurs earlier on during the opening scene, when Batou remarks that there’s a lot of noise in her brain, to which she answers: “It’s that time of the month”, alluding to a case of premenstrual syndrome. Like the ability to move one’s hand, this is a typical circumstance that indicates a connection between body and mind, as it is a bodily feature that distinctly affects one’s mental state. However, since Motoko’s body is entirely cybernetic, menstruation isn’t likely a feature that she possesses. And even if she were to possess it, it’s even more unlikely that she would suffer from any premenstrual syndrome, considering that her body’s capabilities even prevent her from getting hangovers. She is in other words alluding to a connection that isn’t there.
So if the body is dispensable, and its connection to the mind is loose at best, then the last remaining basis for defining one’s identity seems to be the mind itself, or the “ghost”. This immediately becomes problematic however, since the “ghost” is probably the most vague concept out of all three. While a proper synonym would be “soul” or “consciousness”, it is never really concretely defined nor is there any scientific basis for its physical existence. Indeed, if we follow the Cartesian rhetoric, it seems to be metaphysical if anything, existing as an abstract entity beyond our physical grasp. And just like its definition is very hazy, so is its content. Throughout the film, we see several cases of ghost hacking, where people’s memories are altered to the point that their entire lives turn out to be illusions.
What then do we make of identity, when one’s entire mental self can so easily be replaced by a fake one, and when there’s no guarantee of knowing whether one’s memories are real or not? As the fully augmented cyborg that she is, this is something that Motoko naturally worries about.
Maybe all complete cyborgs like me start wondering this. That perhaps I died a long time ago, and I’m a replicant made with a cyborg body and computer brain. Or maybe there never was a real me in the first place.
After having witnessed all the ghost hacking cases throughout her police work, and especially after encountering what appears to be an artificial ghost, she starts to consider the possibility that her own ghost is a fake one. Since this is the only safe property she has to base her humanity and even her identity on, this possibility creates some immense existential concern. If even the ghost can be entirely constructed through artificial means, then the line between man and machine, between real and fake identity, becomes blurred to the point of almost complete extinguishment. And Motoko is stuck right in the middle of this uneasy ambivalence, in an anxious state of self-alienation and confusion.
So what solution is there to this fragile uneasiness of self-identity’s authenticity? We may find it by looking the other way around, towards the Puppet Master. During his introductory monologue, he proclaims himself as a “living, thinking entity that was created out of the sea of information.” This claim is backed up by the argument that life has yet to be scientifically defined, and that there’s no fundamental difference between how digital data and DNA exist and operate. Through his existential experience as an artificial sentient life form, the Puppet Master carries the philosophy that all forms of life and sentience, whether artificial or organic, are simply made up of information. Carrying this over to the concept of the ghost, we can see how memories likewise is only a form of information. As Batou points out during the interrogation scene, this also includes fake memories, making them, in the end, no different from real ones. In his analysis of the film, AnimeEveryday draws this to the Cartesian idea that there is no absolute truth, but only perception of truth, and therefore all kinds of perception are equally true. This, I would say, is the ultimate solution to the issue of identity in relation to not only the ghost, but also the shell; the idea that there’s no such thing as a ‘true’ self, and that identity is merely constructed.
This idea we can see being narratively culminated during the merging scene, when Motoko asks for a guarantee that she will remain herself after the merge, to which the Puppet Master answers: “There isn’t one. People change, and your longing to remain yourself will continue to restrict you.” According to the Puppet Master, nothing is constant; one is never the same person as one was even a minute ago, neither physically nor mentally. Personal identity is not a static entity but a process of continuous renewal, and so it is only limiting to try to maintain it within a static framework. This subsequently means that all forms of alteration of one’s personal identity are equally legitimate and acceptable. If one’s organs are replaced by cybernetics or one’s consciousness is implanted with fake memories, then that is no different from when one grows taller or gains new knowledge – because it’s all just information existing within a non-absolute, relative ’truth’. By accepting that the ghost, the shell, and the relationship between them are all equally arbitrary, one can also come to accept the position of one’s self within this arbitrariness; a position that isn’t a fixed, homogeneous state of being but a dynamic and fluid one. The hybrid life form born out of Motoko’s and the Puppet Master’s merge is the very culmination of this, being what Yuko Hasegawa calls a “third identity” that exists beyond any fixed identifications. It is not a human nor a machine, yet at the same time it’s both. By its mere existence, it erases the idea that organic and artificial life, and by extension authentic and artificial identity, are two separate categories. As such, it is able to freely move in and out of any positions, embracing a personal self that’s entirely dynamic and nonrestrictive.
Individual & Collective, Past & Future
If we for a second return to the Puppet Master’s self-proclamation as a “living, thinking entity that was created out of the sea of information”, it is worth underscoring what this “sea of information” actually implies. Concretely, it refers to the vast amount of information contained within the net, which is Ghost in the Shell‘s equivalent to what we know as the internet, and also the Puppet Master’s primary residence. In other words, his very existence is a result of the collective network that he exists within. The quote thus indicates a fundamental correlation between individual autonomy, and subsequently identity, and the collective environment that surrounds it. And since the net exists as a form of metaphysical interconnectedness that dominates all aspects of life and society, this correlation doesn’t just apply to digitally based life forms such as the Puppet Master, but to organic ones as well. Granted, the correlation isn’t as literal as in the Puppet Master’s case – but individual agency is nevertheless always affected and shaped by its collective surroundings in an interconnected society.
This is an element that’s far from exclusive to the metaphysical network within Ghost in the Shell‘s cyberpunk society. It is an inherent part of any urban space, whether that be in the physical-spatial sense or the sociological sense. The former has already been discussed elsewhere in relation to the film, namely by youtube essayist Nerdwriter:
[S]paces, like identities, are constructed. Though space often feels neutral or given, like we could move anywhere within it, our movements, our activities, our life, is always limited by the way space is produced. In most places, but especially in big cities that production is controlled, not by the people, but by gigantic moneyed interests, state governments or both. And the same is true for identity. Spaces and identities are constructed and not always by ourselves.
The form of corporeal production that Nerdwriter here describes isn’t limited to the spaces through which bodies move however, but it also includes the bodies themselves. As we know, Ghost in the Shell takes place in a vastly cyborg-dominated society, and the cybernetic augmentations that largely occupy these cyborgs are, just like the city, produced by governments and corporations. This means that people’s agencies over their own bodies are, if not entirely then at least to some extent, incomplete. Not least is this true for Motoko and her co-workers, whose cybernetics are provided to them through the police force, making them juridically tied to their profession. As she states during a conversation with Batou; if they were to leave Section 9 they would have to return all their cybernetic parts behind, which in her own case includes everything, even her entire brain. In the cyborg future, bodies themselves thus become commodities within the corporeal and governmental apparatus. As Veronica Hollinger has argued, this aspect showcases a peak example of the Foucauldian term ’biopower’, which refers to the various techniques of power that achieve “the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations” within modern capitalist society. Hollinger recognizes specifically Motoko as “the exemplary subject of biopower”, given that her fully augmented cyborg body is produced and subjugated by the state with the sole purpose of serving as law enforcement.
But of course, even though people’s lives and movements are to a large degree governed by the production of the spaces and bodies through which they move, there still exists a noteworthy amount of self-government within the equation. As Michel de Certeau points out in his text “Walking in the City”, it’s neither the producers of the urban space nor its inhabitants, but the interaction between them that forms the city. The producers, consisting of various institutional agents such as governments and corporations, map out the city from a God-like overview using “strategies” which form it as a unified whole. The inhabitants, as diverse individuals, then move through the city using “tactics”, which may or may not follow what the strategies had originally intended. The tactics can align with the strategies, but can also break away from them by for example using shortcuts. This shows how, while people’s movements are partly limited by how space is produced, they also have the power to repurpose and reform that space using their own agency. There is thus a balance between individuality and collectivity and how the two operate.
A similar pattern can be seen in the sociological approach to the topic. The question of dynamism between social structure and individual agency – that is, to what degree people’s lives are shaped by their social environments, and to what degree they’re shaped by free will – has been a debated topic in sociology since its inception. Traditionally, these two viewpoints have been in opposition with each other. Either people’s practices are principally determined by their socialization into the structures of society, with all the normative, economic and institutional factors that they contain – or they have the power to form their own lives through individual choices, of which social structures are merely products. In the more recent stages of sociology however, several theorists have posed the idea that there isn’t a case of one or the other, but that the two viewpoints both exist in a dynamic relationship. One of these theorists have been Anthony Giddens, who through the concept of structuration posits that individuals are under the influence of social structures, but that these structures at the same time are maintained and accustomed by the individuals within them. Social structure and individual agency thus exist – similar to strategies and tactics – in a give-and-take-relationship, being continually shaped and reshaped by each other.
So how does one navigate the personal self within this dynamism between individuality and collectivity? In a brief monologue during the boat scene, Motoko makes an attempt at self-identification by listing various components that help shape her individuality; she includes both physical attributes – “A face and voice to distinguish oneself from others, the hand you see when you wake up” – and mental ones – “your childhood memories and feelings about your future…”. Following this, she also brings up her ability to access the net and the vast amounts of information that it contains. She concludes the monologue by saying that she, despite all this, feels “continually confined within boundaries.” What we can see Motoko expressing here is partly an acknowledgement of her individuality, but also a displeasure regarding the limitations that this acknowledgement entails. On one hand, she defines herself through various physical and mental properties that she sees as separating her from others, but on the other hand, she also accounts her access to the vast collective environment that is the net as part of her identity. She thus recognizes her inherent connection to her collective surroundings, but is ultimately isolated from them due to her insistent desire to hold onto an individual agency. Furthermore, many of the individually defining attributes that she lists are throughout the film shown to be not only widely inauthentic, but also widely influenced by the collective. Her face is not a unique but a corporeally manufactured one, and her memories run the possibility of being artificially constructed. So by a later point in the film, this has led her to expressing an almost opposite attitude than before: “Has anyone actually seen their own brain? I believe I exist based only on what my environment tells me.” Here, she appears to have let go of any sense of individual agency, instead believing that her existence is entirely shaped by her environment.
As is apparent, none of these two mindsets are very favorable. The former causes isolation and alienates you from your environment, whereas the latter alienates you from yourself and your own autonomy. They are two sides of the same issue, deriving from the idea that agency/tactics and structure/strategies exist separate and in opposition with one another. To solve this issue, one must instead embrace a de Certeau/Giddens-esque viewpoint, acknowledging the interactive coexistence between individuality and collectivity. In Motoko’s case, this viewpoint gets introduced through the Puppet Master. As an entity that was created out of a vast information network, he’s always seen this interaction as being inherent, and evidently poses the importance of both sides during their conversation. On one hand, he views the limitless connection to the vastness of the net as something transcendental that will “bring our functions to a higher level.” On the other hand, he also highly values the diversity and individuality that comes with reproduction, seeing it as a vital feature for life and evolution. And so as they merge, not only does it give rise to an entity that’s entirely unique and individual, but one whose access and connection to the vast collective network is entirely unrestricted and boundless.
Interestingly enough, the attitude that individuality and collectivity are fundamentally connected is one that’s traditionally been inherent within Japanese thought and philosophy. As Günter Nitschke explains in his article “Ma – Place, Space, Void”, the literal translation for nin-gen, the word for ’human being’, is ’person-place’ or ’person-in-relationship’. In other words, people are by definition seen as being in direct relation to a larger whole. This is in polar opposite to the Western tradition, wherein personal identity is defined through the idea of the self-contained individual, separate and unique from other people. In Japan, it is defined through its relation to spatial and social surroundings, separated from the idea of an individual ego. In fact, the very word for ’individual’, kojin, didn’t exist in the Japanese language until recently as a result of Western influence. In this sense, Motoko’s struggle of trying to define her personal identity within the individuality-collectivity-conundrum is in parallel with a clash between Japanese and Western notions. As such, the identity issue also involves the dilemma of orienting oneself in an environment influenced by vastly disparate cultures.
Both Nerdwriter and Wong Kin Yuen have pointed out how this gets reflected in Ghost in the Shell‘s Hong Kong city design. Few urban places embody the difficulties of postcolonial identity quite like Hong Kong does, being starkly imprinted by a long and complicated history of sociocultural ambiguity. For a very long time, and as Nerdwriter also explains, it was under British colonial ownership, and was at the time of Ghost in the Shell‘s release only two years away from being handed back to China after a 99 year lease. This naturally created great tension in terms of cultural identity, as the city was preparing for a radical transition from capitalist to communist rule, and all that came with it. Hong Kong is thus a typical example of a common issue regarding identity within cultures affected by colonial subjugation, namely the existential limbo between imperialist influence and indigenous tradition. Nerdwriter:
Indeed, how to define identity was and is a vital question in the post-colonial world as the old empires faded but left their centuries of subjugation and influence in the very streets and minds of multicultural cities like Hong Kong and its inhabitants. You don’t want to maintain the often racist identities imposed on you by the colonizers, but you really can’t go back to what you were before either.
Using Hong Kong as the backdrop for its urban space, Ghost in the Shell manages to effectively incorporate the same form of confusion and disorientation in its collective identity, as it finds itself in an ambivalence between tradition and modernization. This ambivalence however isn’t thematically oriented around a postcolonial discourse per se, but instead a technological one. We see human civilization at an absolute peak in terms of technological advancements, yet the general space that people inhabit is far from futuristic, but is with its cheap, decaying buildings, polluted environment and muted color palette closer to a dim, mundane realism. There thus exists a very distinct dichotomy between technology as such and how it interacts with urban life. This dichotomy is perhaps nowhere as thoroughly depicted as in the film’s interluding city montage – which is also the focus of Nerdwriter’s essay – wherein the technological advancements of the present and the future are contrastingly presented side by side with traditional ways of living and the ruins of the past. A big, shadowed airplane ominously stroking over the city; rusting pieces of debris floating in the polluted water; a gathering of clean, newly built skyscrapers shown behind a small, run-down residential area; a state-of-the-art commercial display moving through the dim water alleys; a desolate construction site of unfinished buildings, reminiscent of what Robert Smithson has called “ruins in reverse”, which indicate a “Utopia minus a bottom” where the nativity of the historical past is overthrown by a constant process of renewal – these are all striking showcases of the inner conflict between tradition and modernity, between past and future, present within this distressed city environment.
What is also worth considering is how these imageries are presented. In the context of the film at large, this is a sequence that doesn’t add anything of narrative significance, instead working as an interlude between two acts. As such, it doesn’t contain any distinct narrative in and of itself either; while an evident temporal continuity is present, the focus doesn’t lie on any type of progression so much as a contemplative (descriptive, if you will) depiction of an environment. Nerdwriter draws this quality of the sequence to the aspect-to-aspect technique of manga panels wherein a movement through space is depicted, as opposed to the action-to-action technique found in western comics which depicts a temporal progression. While this is a comparison that creates a lot of interesting connotations, I would argue that the scene is equally as applicable to the Tarkovskian film image.
Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky had a very distinct theory and philosophy regarding the nature of the filmic medium. To him, the quality that made film unique as an art form was its ability to depict the passage of time. Through its recording of a temporal sequence, a piece of film manages to capture a fragment of time which is then expressed to the audience through the frame. Each individual filmmaker subsequently carries a perception of time which gets expressed in their work through a unique rhythm. You can see this theory come into practice in each and everyone of Tarkovsky’s movies, which with their long takes and slow pacing not only have a very distinct and consistent rhythm to them, but one that lays emphasis on the passage of time itself as opposed to just depicting the different narrative events that result from this passage. By doing so, Tarkovsky wanted to reflect life and the human soul in their purest and truest forms. Contrary to popular belief, he was not one to use symbolic motifs and imageries, and has explicitly expressed a dislike for non-literal forms of narrative. Instead, he sought to make art which, like a haiku poem, contained an innocent realism, capturing life as it is.
This however, as Kristen Kreider and James O’Leary have pointed out in their article “Time, place and empathy”, contains a seemingly inherent contradiction in relation to Tarkovsky’s filmmaking practice. His movies are of an extreme technical ilk, being meticulously crafted on a highly advanced level. This goes not just for the difficult planning and execution of his many long takes, but also for the creation of his sets, which a lot of times were artificially altered for an increased naturalistic effect (for his last movie The Sacrifice for example, they not only built the house that the majority of the movie takes place in from the ground up – twice! – but also painted the surrounding grass green to get the right color on film). As such, they don’t capture a documentary realism, but an entirely constructed one. Frederic Jameson has criticized Tarkovsky on this very basis, meaning that his movies express a “valorisation of nature without human technology achieved by the highest technology of the photographic apparatus itself.” Kreider and O’Leary associate this critique to Svetlana Boym’s term “restorative nostalgia”, as it indicates a longing to recreate, rebuild and restore a mythical past. Tarkovsky’s film image, his true-to-life capturing of time, thus seems to contain a fundamentally conservative and backward-longing quality, which in turn is hypocritical due to its practical methods.
One can see a lot of similarities between these sentiments and Ghost in the Shell‘s city montage. Not only does it as a whole follow a slow, consistent rhythm that very much puts emphasis on the passing of time itself, but several shots even use the long-take-tracking-shot-combination that’s a trademark for Tarkovsky. Above all though, the sequence likewise appears to express a nostalgic longing for the past. The big difference is that it doesn’t do this through an exclusion of technology, but a melancholic confrontation of it. As the camera contemplatively explores the city environment, it depicts the passage of time through which old life is slowly decaying and giving way for the increasing impositions of technological modernity. The purity of naturalism is replaced by a grim realism, but which nonetheless seems to hold a rather unfavorable stance towards technology.
However, Kreider’s and O’Leary’s discussion doesn’t end there, as they immediately thereafter bring up Tarkovsky scholar Robert Bird’s direct response to Jameson’s critique. Bird says that Tarkovsky’s film image shouldn’t be interpreted as an attempt at recapturing a past moment in time, but rather as a way of capturing the immediacy within the image itself. Kreider and O’Leary write that “[t]his allows us to appreciate Tarkovsky’s film image … less in terms of a restoration of time past than … an experience of time passing in the present moment.” Instead of a restorative nostalgia, it is what Boym calls “reflective nostalgia”; a form of nostalgia that doesn’t try to restore time past, but reflects upon time’s passing. If restorative nostalgia stresses the unreachable object of its longing, the so-called “home”, then reflective nostalgia stresses the longing itself, thus offering a nuanced and flexible perspective onto one’s existential and experiential situation.
The one of Tarkovsky’s works that is the main subject for Kreider’s and O’Leary’s article is his 1983 film Nostalghia. It is a very useful case study for their argument, since it not only has nostalgia as its core theme, but also conveys a narrative transition from restorative to reflective. The film follows Russian poet Andrei Gorchakov who together with his translator Eugenia travels to Italy to research the life of an 18th century Russian composer. Quickly upon arriving however, Andrei is struck by a displacement and longing for his home and family back in Russia. With a lacking Italian and a disconnect towards everything around him, he finds himself in an alienated and anxious state of inner exile. The only thing he can resort to in an attempt to find some form of peace is his nostalgic home-longing, which only further isolates him from his current environment. Being ultimately unable to reach either Russia or Italy, he is stuck in a limbo between the two without any form of inner settlement. That is until he resides in a hotel in Bagno Vignoni where he encounters Domenico, a former mathematician and notorious madman among the local townspeople. Having once lived in a mental asylum, he later got thrown out and left on the streets along with his fellow patients when the asylum was closing down. Like Andrei, Domenico is in complete disconnect from the world around him, belonging to a social group that more than any other is positioned on the periphery of society. Recognizing a sense of connection towards him due to their similar alienations, Andrei visits Domenico in his home, and learns about his numerous attempts to cross the hotel’s pool with a candle of light in order to save the world. Every time he steps into the water however, he gets pulled up again by the locals. Domenico therefore assigns this task to Andrei.
Julia Sushytska writes that Andrei’s exile ultimately derives from an either/or-logic – that is, the belief that he would need to choose between Russia and Italy. The solution instead lies in creating a hybrid between the two. During his visit at Domenico’s home, Domenico drips wine into his hand, letting two drops fall and then explaining: “One drop plus one drop makes a bigger drop, not two”. What Domenico means to say is that one thing plus another doesn’t necessarily equal two things, but can create an entirely new entity resulting from their sum; a hybrid. The crux for Andrei is that he must turn his nostalgia around from a diminishing to a strengthening quality, from restorative to reflective, and thus transforming his existential limbo into a state of belonging. This gets culminated in the film’s finale, when Andrei fulfills his promise to Domenico. As he enters the pool however, it has been drained of water, and so he has to fulfill the task by walking across its bottom. In a nine minute sequence consisting of one uninterrupted take, Andrei tries time and again to cross the pool, but each time the candle blows out and he has to start over. When he finally manages to reach the other side, he gently places the burning candle on the edge of the pool before collapsing from a heart attack. In the following and final scene, we see him sitting in front of his house in Russia looking into the camera, which, as it slowly zooms out, reveals that the place is surrounded by a giant Italian chapel. This is the resulting hybrid from Andrei’s action, and his new inner home.
What we thus can see through Nostalghia, is how the existential limbo of an inner exile may be resolved through a hybridization of the two sides – the two states of belonging – that said limbo is positioned between. By doing so, one may find peace in that very in-between. This is also the conclusion that Wong Kin Yuen reaches at the end of his article. As a solution to Hong Kong’s postcolonial identity crisis, he turns to, in the vein of theorist Homi Bhabha, a form of cultural hybridity, comprised not so much of multicultural diversity as an inter-culture:
As a postmodern city par excellence, a mega-pastiche, Hong Kong has the potential to transform itself into an international culture based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on “the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity.” Instead of being dissolved “in a universal melting pot or a pluralist jumble of equals” … in the name of the international city, Homi Bhabha teaches that we should take it upon ourselves to choose “the ‘inter’ – the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space.”
Returning to Ghost in the Shell, we can see how its climactic scene, and in particular the merge itself, quite literally executes this type of hybridization. As Motoko represents the indigenous human past, and the Puppet Master represents the subjugating technological future, their hybrid offspring exists interspaced between the two as a congruous unity. And so what Domenico does for Andrei, the Puppet Master does for Motoko; helping her transform her alienation and ambivalent exile into a state of belonging.
Throughout this study, we have explored a number of dualist conflicts present within the issue of identity in Ghost in the Shell, and what we can recognize as a recurring motif is the idea of hybridity as a solution to these conflicts. We have seen how Motoko throughout the course of the film struggles to orient her identity within an ambivalent position between seemingly clashing dichotomies. But through the Puppet Master, she is able to recognize that these aren’t clashes in the first place, but interconnected pieces that constantly interact and integrate with each other in an ever-changing, heterogenous environment. And so by the end of her journey, she embraces and finds belonging in the very in-between that originally disoriented her, by being reborn as a hybrid that fully diminishes the dichotomist boundaries. As such, the merge doesn’t just resolve Motoko’s identity crisis and everything it represents. It also marks a new stage for defining identities entirely that goes beyond predisposed positions and categorizations, by giving rise to a third identity that seamlessly moves within a dynamic transboundary openness. As this third identity looks out over the city landscape during the film’s closing scene, he/she utters one final line: “Well, where shall I go? The net is vast and infinite.” All limitations have been diminished, all possibilities are open.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I set aside childish ways. Now we see but a dim reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
– 1 Corinthians 13
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