Living Ghosts: Politics and Identity in the Posthuman World of Ghost In The Shell


The Ghost In The Shell anime franchise is well known for its philosophical musings, alongside intricate plot lines, futuristic technology, and a focus on political and structural forces of a very possible tomorrow. The anime is based off manga written by Shirow Masamune, who published the first Ghost In The Shell (kokaku kidotai) in 1989. Much of the series’ philosophical content focuses on issues of being human; that fine line which we draw separating us from the animal kingdom and, increasingly, our own inventions. Through the series’ use of cyborgs, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and realistic humanoid robots, we are continually confronted with the fragmentation and dissonance of the human form—non-human machines superficially identical to our own selves, our own bodies. We wonder whether they are similar in their minds, too, whether we can distinguish ourselves ontologically from beings of programmed mimicry. Technology allows us to create human-like machines, while simultaneously requiring humans to adapt themselves to become more machine-like.1

A definition for posthumanism in contemporary academic discourse is nearly impossible to obtain. But while the term is popular among tech-enthusiasts who seek to improve human bodies through advanced prosthesis and computers, the academic literature is largely philosophical. Posthumanism is the interrogation of what it means to be human among manufactured objects that look, act, or claim to be human. The thinking of Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto greatly informed the perspective of this paper, as did Steven T. Brown’s Tokyo Cyberpunk and Austin Corbett’s Beyond Ghost in the (human) Shell.

A notion of “naturalness” is inherent in posthuman thinking, as it is this assumed naturalness that posthumanism claims to disrupt—human beings giving birth to human beings is natural, human beings decanted from genetically engineered cow wombs are not. Posthumanism is the re-drawing of lines between human and non-human, and a challenge to the hegemonic linear tale of human development and our singular claim to intelligence.

The process of mechanization, transgressions upon the boundaries of being human, occur in Ghost In The Shell Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG (GITS) not only between human and machine, but human and organization, bureaucracy, society, and systems of identification which create, focus, and shape the individual in tandem with being created by the individual. Additionally the series presents avenues for exploration into political, social, and technological phenomena in the modern age. To paraphrase Samuel Delany, “science-fiction offers a distortion of the present.”

Stand Alone Complex 2nd GiG follows Public Security Section 9, a counter-cyberterrorism group in mid-twenty-first century Japan, on their missions against terrorism from abroad, political and industrial corruption at home, and data retrieval or “hacking.” The main arc of the season has the team investigating a group called the “Individual Eleven,” a group of copy-cat terrorists without an original (hence the “stand alone”) whose collective actions nonetheless support a larger aim of bringing down the Japanese government. The Individual Eleven argues that Japan has unfairly treated the “Asian refugees” displaced by non-nuclear World War Four, using them as cheap labor while keeping them second-class citizens. After their public mass-suicide, only one member of the Individual Eleven is left standing: Hideo Kuze, whose lack of history mirrors that of main character Section 9 Major Motoko Kusanagi. Kuze emerges later on as a near messiah figure for the refugees, allowing them all to link to his cyberbrain and share “live” in his experiences. When a nuclear strike, requested by rogue elements of the Japanese government itself, masterminded by Kazunoto Goda, and launched by the American Empire, threatens to kill the millions of refugees on Deijima (and the members of Section 9), Kuze proposes uploading the memories and ghosts of all the refugees to the net. The series ends with an American Empire ICBM being intercepted by the Tachikoma’s sacrificed satellite, a decision by the AIs to end their own lives in sacrifice for the humans of Deijima.2

“[…] but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.” —— Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto

The issue of cyborgs as covered by Donna Haraway is the process of conscious editing of boundaries between the human and the non-human: which is to say, boundaries of meaning that we take to be natural. Transgressing these boundaries, those of gender or sexuality, age, race, class, through artificial means displays in turn the artificiality of those borders of being. It is a chance to subvert the classical regimentation of hierarchical ordering. The multiple identities provided within Ghost In The Shell for even the single character of the Major challenge the body = identity in much the same way as non-gender-conforming individuals do.3 We assume that bodies must carry significance, that they are the total signifier of a person. But within a posthuman world, bodies have no guarantee as to identity. Cyborgs, beings of manufacture, androids and the like have identical appearances. Even in our present world, as individuals surgically alter their appearance to appear more alike a common ideal, we have reason to mistrust the body as a reliable indicator of identity.4

But identity has many components, appearance and exterior are only the most superficial and easily categorized. Identity is a characteristic ascribed to an individual, not an inherent property. A person trapped on a theoretical island alone has no “in-group” identity, belongs to no race, no religion, no social class. Identities are constructs, dependent on the perception and actions of extrinsic actors to exist. Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Identity is produced by some form of memetic interaction, a presence defined and surrounded by its non-, by its absence. As it is a property of groups, identity is inherently political; of politics in the sense of regulated action among human beings, bureaucracy. (Wong)

It is this political form of identity that posthumanism most concerns itself with—the challenges to power as it is currently construed posed by technological obsolescence of the very notion of gender, class, and race. The posthuman, as a Harawayan cyborg, is anti-hegemonic, requiring and enabling the “disordered polyphony” of voices and identities that removes the posthuman from the bounds of previous political identifiers. That is to say, technological advancements in both communication and individual ability to manufacture a multiple identity both online and off complicates traditional (identity) politics. Identities proliferate and subdivide as groups arise and split along ever finer lines. The cyborg age is the age of the over-labeled, where labels gain power to explain and position even as they lose power to delineate and define. The groups and terms employed by individuals, the variety of identity increases, even while the proliferation and sheer availability diminish the totalizing power of traditional categories. (Haraway) As names appear for individuals along the gender spectrum, for example (after the spectrum has been adopted as basis), the previous binary of male:female disappears into a myriad of terms and become relatively powerless. The implications for politics are not far behind: setting up an ‘in-’ and ‘out-group’ becomes both easier and less determining than was previously the case. As groups splinter, out-groups become everyone not part of the hyper-specific grouping; but the similarities between separate groups may be far less than at any point before. Reactionary elements (conservative movements against such proliferation) emerge, seeking to maintain the old orders. Conservation at its core has the goal of stability, a stable system is easier to predict and manage, two main functions of any bureaucracy that seeks to perpetuate itself.

In early 2007, the Japanese Health Minister Yanagisawa Hakuo publicly called on women, as “birthing machines,” to aid the state in addressing the nation’s looming demographic crisis. (Robertson) The push by the Japanese state towards biotechnology and robotics, suggest Robertson, is spurred by Japan’s commitment to “willful amnesia” of Imperial expansionism. Rather than importing labor into the country and having to confront the painful link between Japan and Asia, the state would seek to replace the need for human workers with their cultural and personal baggage with history-less humanoids of ceramic and silicon. (Robertson) As Japan’s population ages and the available workforce shrinks, the state’s response has been to view the issue of labor shortage not as an economic or social problem but as a biotechnological problem which must then have a technological solution. (Robertson)

The Japan of Ghost In The Shell is a nation where the cyberization of the workforce has failed to prevent the influx of “Asian refugees” into the country. The series allows basic remedial tasks like serving tea, nursing assistants, and telephone operators be fulfilled by androids (“gynoids” as they are all female). The opening episode references to public discontent about refugees “taking their [the public’s] jobs and living off their [public] taxes,” and we are treated to the occasional comment about manipulating public anger towards the refugees from Goda. The cyberized nation still finds itself in need of support in jobs too costly to automate with expensive cyborgs, even the state makes use of refugee labor for illegal work in a secret nuclear laboratory in an act which undermines the original motive behind cyberization.

Even with strong cultural bias against fellow humans, the Japan of today and Ghost In The Shell is more than willing to adopt humanoid machines into society. The robots of the present and the possible fall on either side of Mori Masahiro’s “uncanny valley,” as hominids but not realistically human in the present, or fully realistic in the anime and manga. (Robertson) Mori proposed that the unpleasantness of a machine is determined by its animation and its human likeness. (see inset Fig. 1A, provided by Robertson) A car manufacturing robot is not at all unsettling, as it looks neither human nor alive. A fully human-looking arm, however, would disturb onlookers if not attached to an equally-realistic human robot. To view an arm moving on its own that is too reminiscent of a real limb is uncanny, much like a real yet unmoving limb.

The body as a location for political power, even taken in the sense of Foucault’s biopolitics, can be read into the series both visually and discursively (that is, through dialogue). The body of the Major is exaggeratedly female, and while it may in part be due to “fan-service,”5 we can read the sexualized presentation of her body in contrast with the de-sexualized presentation of her character as symbolic of this division and displacement of the body. (Brown; Silvio) The Major is a fully-cyberized individual, possessing no natural human parts aside from her ‘brain-case’ artificial skull containing her human brain. Her prosthetic body is state-of-the-art and hence very expensive, beyond the reach of the public who must do with standardized units produced by powerful corporations and long since abandoned by the military-industrial elite. An ideal example, taken to the extreme, of our modern obsession with plastic surgery.


Uncanny Valley: The “creepy” factor of humanoid forms, with or without what we generally expect from humans.

The Major and her team are indebted to their powerful government backers for providing their bodies and maintenance, a fact sometimes held over team members who don’t toe the line. In this, the human members of the team are no different than the Tachikoma AIs, or more sinisterly no different from the bodies of citizens who owe allegiance to the state. As the state guarantees the security and continuity of the structure an individual inhabits, the individual owes their physical being to service of the state, a view present in the logics of nationalism, militarism, and fascism to varying degrees.

The Harawayan cyborg attempts to relinquish from this kind of power the individual and group through transgression of once-meaningful boundaries—that the machinery of politics can be subsumed and melded with the technology of liberation. A technologically posthuman world may not embody the high-theoretical break Haraway envisioned and articulated, but the pursuit of manufactured bodies, the replacement of labor by machines is most certainly underway in our world; a classic Marxist tension.

In Kuze’s plan to save the refugees from death by nuclear strike, he will “upload their ghosts and memories to the net where they will undergo a forced evolution,” making the cyberized amalgamation of the refugees’ human consciousness a Marxist superstructure, that will “continually inform the base of those left behind.” (“Ghost In The Shell” 19:10) Employing specifically this language, we are invited to see technology first as part of the Marxist superstructure, as Kuze himself obviously does, akin to the “gods and spirit powers” of folklore.

The realm of the posthuman, overlapping the uncanny with the familiar, the human with the humanoid, extends through Ghost In The Shell to Japan’s present, discourses of nationalism, duty, and body-biopolitic. A Harawayan reading of the series, focused mainly on the lines of identity and politics, reveals connections beyond the material to our current world. It is useful to remember Ghost In The Shell as a produced work, made by and for people who inhabit not the universe of the anime, but our own. Fiction offers a distortion of the present, allowing us to eschew that which is superfluous and focus on something specific, freedom to twist and warp a mirror, so that we may more clearly see the shape and state of our present.

Works Consulted6

Bottinelli, Giorgia. “Hans Bellmer: The Doll c 1936.” Tate. Tate University. Sept. 2004. Web. 2016 May.

Brown, Steven. “Machinic Desires: Hans Bellmer’s Dolls and the Technological Uncanny in Ghost In The Shell 2.0.” Mechademia. 3 (2008): 222-253. Web.

Tokyo Cyberpunk: Posthumanism in Japanese Visual Culture. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010. Print.

Corbett, Austin. “Beyond Ghost In The (Human) Shell. Journal of Evolution and Technology 20.1 (2009): 43-50. Web.

Ghost In The Shell SAC 2nd GiG Episode 25 English Dubbed.”, 2004. Web. 2016 May 20. <Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. (1991): 149-181. Web.

MacWilliams, Mark, ed. Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime. London: M.E. Sharpe, 2008. Print.

Robertson, Jennifer. “Robo Sapiens Japinacus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family.” Critical Asian Studies 39.3 (2007): 368-398. Web.

Silvio, Carl. “Refiguring the Radical Cyborg in Mamoru Oshii’s “ghost in the Shell””. Science Fiction Studies 26.1 (1999): 54–72. Web.

Wong, Kin Yuen. “’Blade Runner’ , ‘Ghost In The Shell’ , and Hong Kong’s Cityscape.” Science Fiction Studies 27.1 (2000): 1-21. Web.

[1] Think of typing, our hands banging out mechanical patterns on rows of buttons, the same motion repeated, determined not by our wish to express ourselves, but by the layout of the keyboard, by its very form.

[2] Deijima is the fictional island where the refugees are kept in the series; if maps within the anime are to be trusted, it is somewhere off the coast of Kagoshima.

[3] Indeed, one of the influences on posthuman thought at large seems to be what is now known as Queer Theory. Intellectual history not being the focus of this paper, however, we leave this aside.

[4] Plastic surgery in pursuit of an idealized look—looking like a supermodel looks alike.

[5] That is, provided for the benefit and pleasure of readers of the Manga (as was an explicit sex-scene provided in the original Ghost In The Shell from 1989, removed in the American version and later re-instated in the Dark Horse edition).

[6] Not all sources are directly cited, but all informed the writing of this essay.