April 28, 2010

Holy Ghost in the Shell

A few weeks ago I noted that the recent CGI animated version of Astro Boy had made it to cable TV and decided to watch it. I did so largely out of nostalgia for the lo-res black and white (at least as far as I was concerned, given my family’s TV at the time) version from my childhood. I was in for a surprise on many counts. For although my childish capacity may have missed them in those early viewings, the recent film had many rewards to offer an adult. The film was both funnier and far more serious than I remember the old animés being, and it is the serious part upon which I would like to reflect.

Among the serious themes were the conflict between fathers and sons, class consciousness and stratification, ecology, good and evil (no surprise there!), the use of power, and above all the question, “What does it mean to be human?” For Astro is a robot, something made not born —by the will of man but not of flesh and blood— taking his stand along with David from A.I. and their mutual progenitor Pinocchio, and their elder cousin Star Trek’s Data. All of them share the desire to be “real” — to be human, and you will pardon me if I say it is far more poignant in a child, even a CGI or animated child, than in an adult, though Data had his share of poignancy and wistful longing in pursuit of that enterprise.

Science fiction lends itself to this kind of speculation, which sometimes goes even farther afield. At a far step removed we have the fleshly efforts at anthropoesis, such as Dr. Frankenstein’s cut-and-paste Job, or his predecessor the Golem, animated to protect the ghetto. Neither of these is particularly childlike, nor successful at gaining, of even perhaps desirous of obtaining full humanity. As Dr. F’s benighted creature observes, "You live. We belong dead"; and it took only the elimination of the initial Aleph to move the Golem from animate emet (truth) to met (dead).

But even further from human likeness, I think of the tachikoma of the Japanese animé Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. These spider-like and ungainly though surprisingly agile tanks would appear to be unlikely candidates for becoming human — so they press the envelope and force the question: can these bones live? They do have the voices of children, however, which begins to suggest their kinship with their brothers Astro, David, and Pinocchio. They also give us a clue that humanity is not necessarily about the form of the body but the content of the heart, and the ability not only to reason, but to love.

For as a subplot of the series, the tachikoma appear to be developing what the author calls “a ghost” — that is, what we might call “a soul.” And in an astounding episode, three of these “machines” choose to sacrifice themselves to save one of their human co-workers (himself a partly mechanical man). The sound of those three childlike voices embodied in dangerous and weapon-wielding tanks shouting out, “We have to save Mr. Batou!” as they rush to their own destruction still brings tears to my eyes. Yeah, I’m an old softy when it comes to this humanity stuff and “greater love hath no tachikoma...” And the same sort of thing happens to Astro, with similar poignancy, in his case as part of his effort to win back his “father’s” love. Bring a hanky.

So what does it mean to be human? We all trace our lives back to that first artificial human — you know, the one God made from clay. We all sense that we are called to be more than we are, and that we are not quite finished, not quite real yet. Perhaps this is more poignant when portrayed in a child because we recognize the connection between growing up to the full stature of humanity and simply growing up. We all have growing up to do.

May we all grow up into our full reality, as children of God.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


MarkBrunson said...

If you haven't read it, Tobias, let me recommend Terry Pratchett's Feet of Clay. It's humorous and action-filled, but I also read it - though it's written by an avowed atheist - as being about soul-building and, obviously, about what makes a human a human, and to whom we give a "voice" and allow to be human. It concerns golems, though in an alternate reality to ours.

Marshall Scott said...

Tobias, I have also been interested in the "Ghost in the Shell" series, all of which really turns on what it means to be human, and (in the movie, at least) whether being human requires physical presence at all. Certainly, most of the "humans" in the "Ghost" world are significantly altered, most of all the central character herself. On the other hand, there is passing reference in one episode of just why the team has one member who is (almost) unaltered.

It returns us to the discussions in our own culture of whether we are embodied spirits or an incarnate whole.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Mark. I will have to add that to my list; sadly my "shelf of shame" (i.e., unread books) is toppling!

Marshall, so true! I came to the series late (mid first-season) and haven't seen the film. But I do like those thought-provoking questions, primarily, "can there be a ghost without a shell?" Clearly and really our "shell" is in constant flux -- I am not the body I was when I was born, at the "fleshly" level. So the question is "how does a self perdure the change?" Personally I think process theology gives an answer, better suited to our times than the old philosophical notions of substance and essence. Is thought the brain, or the pattern of synaptic signals running through the brain? I think some of the "disembodied" ghosts in GitS are actually such patterns moving through the cyber world -- but that cyber world is hardware at base after all. Process thought would say there is no spirit without body, nor body without spirit, for it is spirit (prehension?) that leads to the concrescence of a mere collection of particles as a unity. Something holds the ever-changing collection of material that makes "me" up together as "me."

This wasn't the set of questions I was after... but they are very interesting nonetheless!

Marshall Scott said...

It is axiomatic that students in health care professions (medicine, nursing, and chaplaincy included) find themselves assessing their varying physical feelings in light of newly learned symptoms. We all end up worrying at one point or another whether we have the disease that's new to us.

I recall the seminary equivalent. Having been brought in the class "History of Christian Thought," to nominalism, I heard Hume comment that "When I look back of the collected moments of my history, I see no 'I' there," and went into a depression. That lasted a week or so until we got to Kant. His recognition that this is all the world we have, so just get on with it, made me feel so much better!

MarkBrunson said...



You're getting dangerously close that "B" word that rhymes with "nudism," and the Christian police will get you - you might even be detained in Arizona! :D

I've only seen a few episodes of Ghost in the Shell when Adult Swim was yet unafraid of anime. It looked fascinating, but it would require a great deal of catching up.

This is why I get frustrated when people laugh at me about "watching cartoons." My favorite anime deals with really deep issues - Bleach with life and death, and if there's worse than death, and to what ends and means do we go to preserve order. Naruto deals with issues of power and it's use/misuse, responsibility, both individual and communal, selfish and selfless love, redemption, sacrifice. Paranoia Agent with our creation of our own reality, and how much of it is done by repression and denial, unresolved anger and arrogance, and, again, the individual's relationship to the wider community in creating a better or worse world.

wv: barier - what we had to put up after someone stole one of our "r's."

Placed alongside the current batch of sitcoms, dramas and "reality" shows - I think I'm the one watching the adult fare!

Marshall Scott said...

Mark (and this will show you just what a geek I am), Adult Swim still runs episodes of "Ghost in the Shell" (as well as "Big O" - think about sins of memory - and "Cowboy Bebop" - love the music!) in the wee hours of Sunday morning. You'll just need to pull out the appropriate recording device. Me, I'm still using VHS.

The Japanese proclivity for exploring interesting philosophical and moral issues in anime is interesting. It's not all like that, by any means; but it's certainly there.

WV: "presses;" as in a still important but, sadly, fading means of communication.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Mark, and Marshall. An animé that touches on both your comments is Ikkyusan: a mid-70s cartoon about a Zen Buddhist boy-monk who is always having adventures and solving his problems with zazen (instead of Spinach!). I think it is the Japanese equivalent of "Davey and Goliath." Sort of... if you catch my drift. Definitely a children's show (though with story lines more serious than most US kids' fare -- I remember one about a child drowning...). But it seems to me that the really adult animés like GitS (which, with its long expository scenes with almost no action, is really not kids' stuff.)

Then, of course, there's "Samurai Jack" -- which I always thought brilliant in its graphic "look." Kind of a grown-up Ikkyu.

Anyway, this strays from the main topic, as to what constitutes (or incarnates) humanity -- and I still think SF serves as a source of parables for out time to examine such questions. (Babylon 5, anyone? -- Heavy Jesuit influence there, but spectacular reflections on ethics, morality, and humanity, imho!)

MarkBrunson said...


I have no cable at home, so I only see Adult Swim Mon-Fri in the wee hours when I'm not actually having to concentrate on work, so my following of a lot of it is spotty, at best. One of the few episodes of GitS I saw, and which grabbed my attention, was with a group of (autistic?)young people in a sort of hospital were being directly hooked into the web for some nefarious purpose, and what grabbed my attention was the clearly intentional resemblance of the doctor/director to Nurse Ratched as played by Louise Fletcher!


SF, definitely. Also, some of the comics extant - Hellboy is wonderful, in that regard. Western cartoons are starting to go there - you have Avatar: The Last Airbender which is certainly not your standard kids' cartoon fare, dealing fairly forthrightly with Eastern religion and the conflict of biological family as opposed to family-building.

JCF said...

their elder cousin Star Trek’s Data. All of them share the desire to be “real” — to be human . . . Data had his share of poignancy and wistful longing in pursuit of that enterprise.

As your basic ST:TNG geek, I appreciated this reference.

I still believe that the TNG (S2) ep "The Measure of a Man" is one of the best meditations-through-fiction EVER on the parameters of humanity (as exemplified by Data, of course!) In attempting to discuss the EVER-thorny issue of {eek} abortion, I still make frequent reference to it.