5 min read

Ghosts Politics & Neoliberal Identity

Motoko resists neoliberal identity politics by accepting the Puppet Master's wager and rejecting Cartesian mind-body dualism.
Ghosts Politics & Neoliberal Identity

In Masamune Shirow’s manga Kōkaku Kidōtai / Ghost in the Shell (1989), multinational corporations use technology to build cyborgs. In what follows, I present Motoko Kusanagi as a radical Cartesian cyborg. Her eventual rejection of Cartesian dualism in Mamoru Oshii's 1995 film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell got me thinking about neoliberal identity.  

Motoko is a detective working for Public Security Section 9, she is pursuing a cyber-terrorist known as the “Puppet Master.” In the various adaptations of Shirow's manga, Section 9 reveals the corrupt contradictions of Japan's anarcho-capitalist state.

Motoko becomes uncertain about the existence of her ghost (soul, identity) after she comes across someone ghost-hacked by the Puppet Master. Ghost-hacking involves bypassing a person's mental defense barriers and overwriting their original memories with manufactured simulations. This act annihilates agency/identity and creates the delusion of freedom.

Near the beginning of Oshii's film, we get a close look at the construction of Motoko's cybernetic shell. This sequence is paired with Kenji Kawai's haunting song, "Making of Cyborg."

Knowing that her ghost isn't secure from external manipulation, Motoko fears that she may have been ghost-hacked when she was nine. This is when she escaped death with only her brain, spinal cord, and wristwatch. What if someone implanted false memories to make her think that her original body and family perished in a plane crash? Ghost-hacking destroy's Motoko's ontological foundation. Now, Motoko is infected with a philosophical disease and fears her identity is simulacrum.

As a full-body cyborg, Motoko is uniquely vulnerable to doubts about her origins. She posits, “maybe I died a long time ago, and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body.” This possibility suggests that all of Motoko’s traumatic childhood memories are in fact manufactured fakes meant to control her. This possibility suggests the meaninglessness of Motoko's cherished wristwatch, which she holds onto as a sentimental signifier of her lost future as a normal person.

Motoko’s existential searching echoes Rene Descartes’s philosophical meditations. Descartes aimed to annihilate all dogmatic delusions. He closely examined each of his beliefs until he identified a singular belief he could never doubt. Namely, he could never doubt the belief in his own existence. So, even if everything and everyone around him was fake/artificial, he could sleep at night believing with certainty that he (and only he) exists. Descartes's definition of the self is a violent tool in the hands of modern western civilization as the world drowns in the deluge of late capitalism.  

At the start of Oshii’s film, Motoko doubts the existence of her soul and views her body as a limiting cage. By the end of the film, Motoko becomes a radical Cartesian cyborg. She no longer doubts herself and is in awe of the world, like a newborn child. Motoko transcends Cartesian dualism. Her transcendence got me thinking about neoliberal identity. I wondered at the effects of corporate media on culture and identity.    

Motoko cannot transcend her current form until she reckons with her self-understanding. 

After watching Oshii's film five times (while also thinking about the anti-authoritarianism origins of cyberpunk), I started to see Motoko's decision at the end of the film as resistance against the cognitive logic of neoliberal identity. The radical Cartesian cyborg is skeptical of neoliberal assertions that dignity is a matter of what one has/can have, and not a matter of social relations.    

The cognitive logic of corporate media encourages hedonistic individualism. Constant indulgent consumption is the norm (paired with the emergent desire to also be consumed). The neoliberal illusion encourages individuals to view themselves as "start-ups" competing against other businesses for market success. So, it is more accurate to say that the cognitive logic of neoliberal identity produces competitive hedonistic individualism. This Ego-driven mode of identification emphasizes scarcity and inherently views all human interaction as a means to the end of personal gratification.

Neoliberal identity has its philosophical antecedent in Cartesian dualism. In Descartes efforts to build his philosophical perspective, he defined his soul as the singular certain entity. This definition of identity requires one to distrust the external world due to its fundamental uncertainty. Validly proving that reality is not a simulation is a arduous task, so I see the plausibility of Descartes's initial position. The problem is that his definition of identity removes the individual from the context of community because community exists in the untrustworthy realm of external reality.

Yet an anti-community position if laughable. It is only through community that Descartes's philosophical project gets off the ground. His methodological skepticism is mediated through a public language and a set of abstract ideas/concepts which originate from an already existing community. Descartes is not a "self-made-man", not even metaphysically speaking.

At the end of Oshii's film, it is precisely at the moment when Motoko rejects Cartesian dualism that she moves beyond neoliberal identity. No longer does she obsessively gaze within herself searching for complete certainty. Instead, she defines her identity in the context of the uncertain vast and infinite sea of information.

Motoko and the Puppet Master lay together as they discuss death, identity, and transcendence.

At the end of Oshii’s film, as Motoko contemplates the Puppet Master’s wager, she says to him, “You’re talking about redefining my identity. I want a guarantee that I can still be myself.” The Puppet Master sagely responds, “All things change in a dynamic environment. Your effort to remain what you are is what limits you.”

He evokes the Buddhist notion of identity as something in constant motion, undergoing development and erosion. After Motoko accepts the Puppet Master's wager, she understands that her initial status as a Cartesian cyborg is like Wittgenstein's ladder, which vanishes when it is no longer needed. Only the memory remains.

Ghost in the Shell
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The complete film is available on YouTube. 

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