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Modern Ghosts, Postmodern Shells:
Ghost in the Shell and the Crisis of the Human Subject

By S. A. Le, Master’s Candidate in Communication Development
Department of English, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, U.S.A.

Date of this draft: April 18, 2002


  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction: Modern Ghosts, Postmodern Shells
  3. Simulacra and the Hyperrealism of the Ghost Landscape
  4. Old Ghosts with New Shells
  5. Technophobia and the Anxiety Over the Death of the Modern Human Subject
  6. Eulogy for the Human Subject?
  7. References
  8. Footnotes


The rise of technology has changed the way that people act and interact with one another and with their environment in contemporary times.Arguably, these changes have been pushing our concept of identity farther from a modernist model—teleological, universal, objective, “authentic”—into a postmodern one—indeterminate, local, fragmented, subjective. This essay, a discursive analysis of the 1995 Japanese animated film Ghost in the Shell, uses the images and ideas of this cyberpunk drama to interrogate possible ways that people reconcile a sense of self that grew out of modernism and humanism with a postmodernist, posthumanist way of life. Primarily employing the poststructuralist philosophy of Jacques Derrida and the postmodernist perspectives of Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, and Donna Haraway, it is argued that Ghost in the Shell illustrates the anxiety over the potential loss—or death—of the unified, autonomous human subject as it touts the necessity of this loss in order to become a being capable of living a postmodern existence, free from the defining discourses that limit knowledge and experience.

Modern Ghosts, Postmodern Shells

Just as there are many parts needed to make a human a human, there are a remarkable number of things needed to make an individual what they are. A face to distinguish yourself from others. A voice you aren’t aware of yourself. The hand you see when you awaken.The memories of childhood, the feelings for the future. That’s not all. There’s the expanse of the data net my cyber-brain can access.All of that goes into making me what I am. Giving rise to the consciousness that I call “me.” And simultaneously confining “me” within its set limits.

Major Motoko Kusanagi
Ghost in the Shell

Technology, I believe, is one of the signifiers of a changing episteme, one that we both unconsciously embrace and fearfully analyze, all the while longing to go back to some sense of stability that comes from “what we had before.” With the rise of technology, society has been moving farther from a modernist perspective—teleological, universal, objective, “authentic”—into a postmodern way of knowing—indeterminate, local, fragmented, subjective. In many concentric circles of society, this crumbling of the solid rock foundation of modernism has been met with considerable resistance.

Since the rise of postmodernism in the 1950s and 1960s, media critics, literary theorists and philosophers, students of these theories, and indeed much of society at large has been living in (and for the critics—interrogating) the boundary land between the modern and the postmodern. Are we human or posthuman (and what is a posthuman, is it inhuman)? Where do we fit in with the contemporary world, one that is both homogenized by globalization and fragmented by the proliferation of information—images, texts, and sounds? How do we interface with the technologies that further our fragmentation and decentralization by integrating with our bodies, expanding the capacities of our communication, dispersing our vision, and doing away with a sense of community that is defined by location, and not by interest group? Furthermore, how do we live in a world where nothing is Real or reliable, a realm of unending imitations of imitations in the Platonic sense, spinning out into space, insisting on their potency in such a way as to make themselves real? And when that breaks down, how do we reconcile our nostalgia for the individual, autonomous human subject, forged in modernist-humanist ideologies/discourses, which manifests itself in our very way of speaking with the postmodern, posthuman fragmentation of our subjectivities? Overall, the question of identity: Does this mean that I am no longer me? That my unified I is an illusion?

This is a frightening thought, losing one’s identity. Nietzsche once said that once the metaphysics of life are broken down, and the real is shown to be nothing more than the differential relations of forces, fully investing oneself in this “non-distinction” could lead to madness. What other response to the apocalypse of the unified subject is possible?

The 1995 Japanese animated film Ghost in the Shell offers an image of a society on the cusp of “madness,” on the cusp of postmodern fragmentation, the eve of the death of the human subject. Ghost in the Shell invites us to entertain ideas of what it would be like to live in a world where the technology presented as still somewhat peripheral to human experience by the popular press of the present has become a fact of life: a world “made borderless by the Net,” where “augmented humans live in virtual environments, watched over by law enforcement that is able to download themselves into super-powered, crime busting mecha,” where life forms (or programs) can exist independent of “the body” (Manga Entertainment, 1996, ¶ 1). Like many cyberpunk or cyborg-related fiction, Ghost in the Shell focuses on the replacement of the biological with the mechanical (or virtual) in order to interrogate concepts like “the body,” “the mind,” “humanity,” and the quality of “being alive.”

Winner of the 1997 World Animation Celebration awards for Best Theatrical Feature Film and Best Director of a Theatrical Feature Film (to Mamoru Oshii), Ghost in the Shell is a high budget, high quality animated feature based on the manga (comic book) of the same name by Masamune Shirow. The film takes place in the near future (2029 CE), in a world in which the biological has been fused with the cybernetic in an attempt to perfect the human body and capacities. Specifically, it follows the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a former military agent and now leader of an intelligence operation, as she and her colleagues pursue the trail of an international computer-hacking cyber criminal (the “Puppet Master”).

As a being that is nearly 100% machine, Kusanagi struggles with the distinction between the “ghost” (which might be roughly correlated with “mind” or “spirit”) and the “shell” (which might be roughly correlated with “the body”) throughout the film. Particularly, she wonders about the nature of the “ghost”: what it is, how it is related to the body or shell, and how it is related to being “human.” Several times throughout the film, Kusanagi and the viewer are confronted by one half of this two-part “mode of being” and not the other, i.e. shells without ghosts (or people who have been “ghost-hacked”), and eventually, a ghost without a shell (the Puppet Master, who turns out to be a free-floating self-aware program on the Net). Eventually, Kusanagi must define for herself what it means to exist in the boundary land between the human and the posthuman (as a cyborg).

Addressing the anxiety on which the transition between a modernist and postmodernist (or humanist and posthumanist) sensibility hinges, the film proposes that a full integration with the postmodern is both risky and inevitable. Ghost in the Shell explores the anxiety of this critical juncture in its portrayal of a world on the verge of postmodern collapse, and in the trials of the characters who inhabit this world—specifically, the post-human cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi—as they come to grips with the inevitable postmodern, posthuman integration of the “essentially human” and the technological—a postmodern conjunction that in its paradoxical making-by-deconstructing implies the death of the unified, individual, autonomous, human subject.

The inevitability of a postmodern transition (and what this break between modernity and postmodernity entails) has been taken up by theorists such as Celeste Olalquiaga, Jean Baudrillard, and the contemporary Marxist Frederic Jameson. In the prologue to her book Megalopolis, Olalquiaga notes that “postmodernism is the only possible contemporary answer to a century worn out by the rise and fall of modern ideologies, the pervasion of capitalism, and an unprecedented sense of personal responsibility and individual impotence” (2001, p. 588). We are already living in an age of the proliferation of simulacra (in media objects, commodity fetishism), of the collapse of high into low culture, of fragmentation and variety, and of the production of alternative cultures. We are continuously surrounded by objects that testify to postmodernism--consider Jameson’s (2001) analysis of Warhol’s “Diamond Dust Shoes” and Munch’s “The Scream,” and Baudrillard’s (2001) analysis of TV verité. It is the current “evolutionary” progression of our society, a movement, in Foucault’s terminology, into a new episteme.

However the details of how the modern and postmodern are related (if at all) and how the transition from one to the other occurred are debatable, even among theorists of the postmodern. Though many theorists see an exaggerated break or watershed between two types of discourses,[1] others such as Frederic Jameson (and in the realm of post-structuralism, Jacques Derrida) emphasize the continuities between modernism and postmodernism, as well as the effects of postmodernism that take their roots from modernism. Whatever our intent to deconstruct language, Derrida notes, the language that we use to describe this deconstruction is still implicitly rooted in the language that precedes it:

The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside.They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures.Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not suspect it. (quoted in Badmington, 2000, p. 9)

In other words, whatever our intent to become postmodern, Derrida might say, the language that we use to describe our postmodernity is still implicitly rooted in modernist-humanism. Thus, postmodernism is not a “different kind of animal”; rather, it reflects from within a modernist perspective on the constitution of the subject of modernism (the unified, autonomous, individual human subject): the modern is continuously rewritten as the postmodern.[2] The postmodern does not in any broad sense negate modernism in its entirety, but rather builds on its history. From a genealogical perspective, Michel Foucault might say that without a concept of modernism, it would be impossible to have a concept of postmodernism.

Where does this leave the “human subject”? Where does this leave us? I argue that we are not subjects that have been fully integrated into this discourse of postmodernism. Rather, we continue to struggle with our language, our ideologies, and our sensibilities that have not been destroyed but rather carried over from modernism. We live postmodern lives, and carry modern baggage. This is perhaps the most important revelation in Ghost in the Shell.

We are caught, I argue, betwixt the longing for the freedom of multiplicity and the fear of the madness it might introduce to our psyches. It is as if the screamer in Munch’s painting is at the same time bemoaning the “paradox that when you constitute your individual subjectivity as a self-sufficient field and a closed realm in its own right, you thereby also shut yourself off from everything else and condemn yourself to the windless solitude of the monad” (Jameson, 2001, p. 560), an image of frustration, and also mourning the impossibility of imaginary reunification (in a Lacanian sense) of the individual.[3]The reason that we construct images of the past for ourselves can be taken as a function of nostalgia; Baudrillard acknowledges that “we require a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin, which reassures us about our end. Because finally we have never believed in them” (2001, p. 527). Though we are continuously being pushed toward postmodern though as a function of our endlessly evolving landscape, are we not still nostalgic for that (modernist) feeling of unity, of individuality, of “knowing who I am”?[4]

This is exactly the juncture that I argue is articulated in the film Ghost in the Shell. Though the embrace of the postmodern is eventually proposed as a sort of freedom, the cost of that freedom is the “death” of the unified, individual, humanist subject. The film makes visible our fear for the loss of individual subjectivity—manifested in technophobia—and yet insists that this fear is something that our society is inevitably bound to face.

Simulacra and the Hyperrealism of the Ghost Landscape

Inspired by modern-day Hong Kong,[5] the near-futuristic setting for Ghost in the Shell is an information-laden landscape of humans, cyborgs, and the machines (both metaphorical and literal) of politics and industry. Fragmented, dispersed, and yet uniformly polluted with signs—an airplane, a wall plastered with flyers stuck on flyers, a polluted waterway, a dog on a bridge, designer clothes in a display window, a stoplight, a flashing advertisement, a highway, armless mannequins in a store window—the linguistic blends with the imagistic in a symbolic soup that makes an odd non-sense. Only the interiors—the offices, the apartments—seem to have any form of normative order.

The exterior landscape is decidedly postmodern, an anxious, uncomfortable, mechanistic environment, one that is based in culture and not in nature (the closest image of “nature” that we receive in the film is that of a dog looking down from an overpass, and even then, it is a domestic, collared dog), one that is in a constant state of construction and deconstruction, a mash of pieces, fragments, all tied together by the boundless but physically invisible uniformity of the Net.

The Net is pervasive: cybernetic implants allow one to be constantly connected in an almost “telepathic” fashion, giving access to a practically unlimited amount of information, as well as the power to communicate nearly effortlessly through its channels. The Net is something that mirrors or parallels the physical world in its virtual construction: the first image of the Net that we get in the film is a glowing green digital map with 3-D cylinders of data that resemble skyscrapers. Voiceovers establish the data environment: “To all patrolling areas, a 208 is in progress. Airspace over the C-13 district of Newport City will be closed.” The green polygons melt away into a darkened cityscape of the same proportions, a pair of black helicopters circling over the buildings. The Net appears to bring order to (or reveal the order in) this chaos—as in the case of the superimposed map, acting as a filter that scrubs out unnecessary information. It is decidedly more organized and comfortable, and yet also invisible—the Net is something that can only be perceived with the mind, not with the eyes.

The uniform chaos of the exterior landscape is an implicit threat to humanity—one of losing the self, losing the individual, of giving up the human to the machine amidst the chaos—as subjects struggle for a “place” in the computerized world. In Baudrillard’s terms, the exterior architecture of Ghost is as a never-ending precession of simulacra, and a type of simulacra in which its artificiality is keenly felt. The contrast between the hyper-extended simulations, that heady, almost mad proliferation of signs present in the exterior landscape only performs (for lack of a better term) a “Disneyland” function: in presenting itself in all this ridiculous magnitude, the interior spaces of carpeted rooms, plush chairs ordered around coffee tables, polished aquariums, even messy desks make a strange sort of sense to us now, as one collective image, are only made to appear more real in comparison. As Baudrillard notes, “It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle” (2001, p. 529). The surreal chaos of the exterior conceals the latent modernist assumption of the Real that is symbolized by ordered interiors, by organization, by those “human touches” like a potted plant or a coffee table, an assumption that as Baudrillard argues, is based in nothing more than imagination, for the Real and the Imaginary are always already imploded into a never ending precession of simulacra.

Furthermore, the presence of the Net has a double implication: as it is presented in the beginning of the film (and several times throughout with the green graphic), the Net is an ordered map of the exterior landscape, a way of “making sense” of the disorderly exterior. In one way, the Net can be viewed as a metaphor for a “grand narrative” that orders, describes, and structures existence for the characters in the film. Yet, while the Net totalizes, it also fragments by turning individuals into voices and the voices into “noise,” by stylizing, adding, and eliminating information in the display, by calling up only the information that is requested at any particular moment. Furthermore, while the map metaphor might be read as a metaphor for an overarching totality, it might also be read as the ultimate simulation of the real: an artificial representation of the “real” world which is more real than real. Thus, the “reality” of the exterior landscape collapses into the surreality of the Net—neither one more pertinent than the other, they are both equally real. It is helpful to employ Baudrillard’s fitting example of the map in relation to territory in order to describe how the simulation constitutes hyperreality:

Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance.It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders that territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself. (2001, p. 521)

Perhaps the only challenge to this concealment in the film is emptiness: the only interior that we as viewers are privy to that does not promote order or disorder is a brief glimpse of Motoko Kusanagi’s sleeping quarters. Visually, the Major’s bedroom is a dark square, the central feature, a bed or futon (but it is difficult to distinguish which in the visual presentation) that lies directly beneath a rectangular window of the same length. When we are first introduced to the room, the window is not apparent, as the shades are closed, and we have a vision of Kusanagi lying in womb-like darkness (an interesting leap from earlier footage which showed her implicitly inert cyborg body, curled in fetal position in a tank of fluids). As she opens the shades (which in opening disappear), a disorganized cityscape is revealed, all framed within the rectangle above the bed. Though the light from the window is rather bright (washing out all colors in its wake) and would certainly have made me flinch, it does not seem to bother the Major’s cybernetic eyes. It is as if in this empty space that is neither the ordered modernism we see in other spaces nor overloaded with simulacra, only a posthuman cyborg could be comfortable—there is no reassurance of the “real” on any side, just a black void, and a window onto the surreal.

Old Ghosts with New Shells

If the world of Ghost is made of postmodern exteriors with modern interiors—organized, comfortable totalities—it is not unlike the people who live within it. Though humans (and I use this term loosely, as many are not fully biologically human) are everywhere in this landscape, they live like parasites on the great mecha that is technological progress, that is the strange mechanical architecture of the world. The practices and modes of communication in the film—the ways in which the characters of the film live out their lives—is decidedly postmodern. Their lives are broken into visual and conceptual fragments, partially on the Net, partially in the open air, partially with others, partly alone. The Net links these beings together into a uniform mass of selected voices, of disembodied ghosts. The characters seem to always have one foot in the Net and the other in that hyperreal landscape that has become their home (which I have already argued are very much the same thing). However many of these characters cling rigidly to modernist essentialism in order to define their place in this endlessly differentiated landscape.

The central dichotomy that is set up by the film and from which it takes its title, a Cartesian distinction between the “ghost” and the “shell” is also built on the conspicuous concealing of a modernist assumption—the essence of the ghost—by a postmodernist configuration—the cyborg shell. Nowhere in the film is this paradox more apparent than in the character Kusanagi. The Major is a hotbed of contradictions, the embodiment of organic-artificial integration on the verge of collapse that gives form to the relationship I have articulated thus far between modernism and postmodernism, or on the scale of “being,” between humanism and posthumanism. This is displayed on both the level of image and of dialogue.

Our first view of Kusanagi shows the woman/cyborg crouched on the roof of a tall building. The plugs in the back of her neck spark with static when she disconnects the wires that she uses to tap into the Net. The viewer is at once made keenly aware both of her artificiality—the electronic voices in her head, the plugs in the back of her neck, the sparks—and also of her human female sexuality[6] as she takes off her long trench coat, standing what seems to be naked (but what actually is her covered in thermoptic camouflage) on the edge of the roof. Her naked human femininity[7] is juxtaposed with these mechanical elements, further confused by her complete lack of inhibition about her cyber body—which in itself cuts a shapely, womanly figure—and her lack of fear of death: the apparent heaviness of her mechanical weight as the pipe to which she is tethered bends under the quick tightening of the cord around her waist—a force that might have killed or seriously injured a “normal” human. Her strength, agility, and invulnerability are contrasted most clearly with the soft vulnerability of the humans on which she makes her strategic attack (who, incidentally, are meeting in one of those well-ordered interiors), in which one of the participants is shot and “blown up,” literally displaying his organic components for a second on screen. Rather than being the subject of a counter attack, Kusanagi falls back into the safety of her thermoptic camouflage, appearing to descend and meld with the geometric landscape outside the building, which looks coincidentally like the map of a futuristic computer network.

If there is any doubt as to whether or not Kusanagi is a mechanical being, it is resolved by the opening credits scenes, which shows the assembly of her cyborg body from the inside out. The fragments of the doll-like mechanical shell—starting with only the head, its parts internal (such as the brain, the skull structure) and external (the face plating) opened and fragmented; later the body with fibrous “muscles” and plating exposed, then covered over with another, still fragmented layer of what looks like thin sheet metal; come together into a complete and seamless body as the outer-most layer is applied, a dripping, gooey substance that is treated to appear like skin—all one color, almost fetal in appearance. The figure becomes more recognizably human, with human (female) features like breasts, the suggestion of hair and facial features.

The positioning of the body seems to mirror this progression toward the “organic seeming”: First, a shot of just the head, then a slumped, incomplete, lifeless doll-like figure, a rigid, prostrate sheet-metal covered robot sliding through a tube of fluid, then a fetal, dormant, almost organic “thing,” before it is finally revealed as a woman who seems to be in a deep sleep, with eyes closed, unaware of her surroundings.

While her body may seem like a mirror-image of the aforementioned description of the landscape—her “human” appearance is literally concealing an “inhuman” body—she remains most pointedly in the realm of simulation. The appearance of her body is literally a simulation of the human, which happens to look just as “real” as an organic human (at least, on the surface), and once again can be used as a metaphor for the collapse of the “real” and the “imitation” into “the real as simulation.”

Rather than remain unconscious of her status as a “facsimile human,” Kusanagi is keenly aware that she does not physically embody those common biological characteristics—at least in terms of the shell, the body, minus perhaps some “brain matter” that was mentioned later in the film—that are required to mark her as “human.” For Kusanagi in particular, the knowledge that she herself is only an imitation of the “human” is both a source of strength and a source of anxiety: for the majority of the film, she is perpetually suspended between the freedom of not having to bow to the limitations of the organic human body (the sensation of pain, limited physical strength and agility, limited acuity of the senses) and the anxiety over whether or not she still is human—manifested in her anxiety over her “ghost.”

The film describes the “ghost” as all the data a person accumulates in a lifetime, a “core essence.” It is the one thing that tells us that we are human, and through which our experience as humans is filtered. The ghost is associated with a sense of ethics, intuition, memory, dreams, feelings, and free will. It is unique and irreparable, comprised of memories of individual experience that tell us who we are. The general assumption of the film is that at this point in time, ghosts come from and are unique to humans. A ghost can be recorded and transferred into a cybernetic brain (the traditional locus for the “ghost,” hence its correlation with the mind), but it cannot yet (though it is intimated in the film that this is a future possibility) be purposely or spontaneously “spawned” from technology.

Because Kusanagi is a being that is almost fully mechanical, she begins to doubt the presence of her own ghost, especially after the discovery of a cyborg body that appears to have anomalously generated its own ghost of inhuman origin (the Puppet Master). The Puppet Master becomes a symbol both in the scope of the film and for the character Kusanagi for the possibility that the ghost, her central (and perhaps only) qualification for calling herself “human,” might actually be an imitation of a human ghost. This spurns anxiety within Kusanagi and the other (at least partially) “humanist” characters in the film. The following dialogue between Kusanagi and her colleague, Batou, makes visible her anxiety over the ghost, as well as Batou’s retreat into a modernist reliance on “essences” in order to alleviate her anxiety:

Kusanagi: Maybe all full-replacement cyborgs like me start wondering this.That perhaps the real me died a long time ago, and I’m a replicant made with a cyborg body and a computer brain. Or maybe there never was a real “me” to begin with.
Batou: You’ve got real brain matter in that titanium skull of yours. And you get treated like a real person, don’t you?
Kusanagi: There’s no person who’s ever seen their own brain. I believe I exist based only on what my environment tells me.
Batou: Don’t you believe in your own ghost?
Kusanagi: And what if a computer brain could generate a ghost and harbor a soul? On what basis then do I believe in myself?
Batou: Bullshit! I’ll see for myself what’s in that body, with my own ghost.

Though Kusanagi entertains the possibility that she is not actually human, but just deluded into thinking that she is (which is a very postmodern thought), Batou immediately recalls her to the more comfortable realm of unique, self-evident essences that is strongly associated with modernism. The tendency to rely on the ghost as an innate feature of humanity covers the fact that the human-generated ghost is no more real than the ghost that is generated by a computer brain, thus making an attempt to crawl back into the warm space of modernism where everything fits in its place, and we all know who and what we really are.

Technophobia and the Anxiety Over the Death of the Modern Human Subject

The crisis of the ghost—the loss of individuality, the anxiety over essences, knowing who and what we are—is rearticulated several times throughout the film. This is where the aspect of technophobia sets in most strongly, in that the characters and audience confront the possibility that technology (which, as I argued in the beginning, is an agent for the furthering of postmodernism) could do violence to the human spirit.

This violence is introduced in the form of a “ghost-hack,” a process by which through the Net a hacker is able to get into the cybernetic brain of another connected Net user and erase or change the data that comprises his or her ghost. The Puppet Master (as I will later argue, the embodiment of the madness of postmodernity) is called such because he/she/it performs a series of ghost-hacks on unsuspecting individuals, creating “fake” identities for them and erasing their “original essence.”[8] The effects of this hack are, for all intents and purposes, purported to be permanent, irreversible. Once the individual is “deprogrammed,” he or she becomes a ghostless shell, losing his or her sense of identity. The loss of the original essence is mourned: in the words of Batou: “There’s nothing sadder than a puppet without a ghost. Especially the kind with red blood running through them.”

Though the loss of the unique, irreplaceable essence is, for a modernist, a loss of the self that deserves mourning, this “essence” is at the same time acknowledged as part of a greater stream of undifferentiated data. Thus, many of the characters in the film (for instance, Batou) embody both modern and postmodern perspectives (one could say that he is more postmodern than not, as postmodern implies “both and more”). When the ghost-hacked individual is demystified (shown that his experiences were generated by the Puppet Master, and are not the actual memories of his life), what he does remember (the Puppet Master’s insertion) is explained to be a “virtual experience”. Batou further analyzes what it means to have a virtual experience, and how this is typical of all experiences, whether they are “real” or “simulated”: “Virtual data, dreams. All data that exists is both reality and fantasy. Whichever it is, the data a person collects in a lifetime is a tiny bit compared to the whole.” Once again, we encounter the collapse of the “real” and the “illusion” into “simulation.” Furthermore, we encounter the collapse of the particular, the unique into the network of multiplicity. An individual’s ghost (as collected data, it reminds me of computer RAM) is still just a drop in a sea of information, and as such, virtually indistinguishable from other forms of data.

A second underlying point of tension in the film revolves around the binary distinction between continuity and overspecialization versus variation, evolution, and change. Though change is explicitly presented in the film as a human characteristic (in terms of evolution, procreation, variation), it is, curiously, humans who resist change in favor of rooting themselves in notions of authenticity, perfecting that which is given through specialization.

If there is a single figure in the film that most embodies the postmodern and the posthuman, it is the Puppet Master, or Project 2501. The Puppet Master (who is referred to as “he” in the film for the sake of simplicity, though the android body he eventually takes is distinctly “female”[9]) is a “life form that was born in the sea of information,” or what can be described in modernist terms as a computer program that became self aware and “escaped,” committing various criminal acts in its attempts not to be recaptured by its creators. The Puppet Master illuminates the film’s concern with change in discussion with Kusanagi during the merging:

A copy is merely a copy. There’s the possibility that a single virus could utterly destroy me. A mere copy doesn’t offer variety or individuality. To exist, to reach equilibrium, life seeks to multiply and vary constantly, at times giving up its life. Cells continue the process of death and regeneration, being constantly reborn as they age. When it comes time to die, all the data it possesses is lost, leaving behind only its genes and its offspring. All defense against catastrophic failure of an inflexible system.

The Puppet Master insists that change is not only desirable, but also necessary in order to ensure survival. Overspecialization, it is said several times in the film, leads to death. This also further reinforces the notion that a transition into postmodern thought is inevitable: the world around us is changing, and so, too, must the way in which we live in it, the way in which we interpret it, and the way in which we see ourselves in it.

Depicted in a dismembered body (just torso and head), the Puppet Master is the ultimate simulation of the human ghost, which throughout so much of the film has been an aspect that is absolutely central to a modernist humanist definition of identity, essence. The characters in the film have a difficult time wrestling with the notion that the Puppet Master is “an autonomous life-form,” attempting to categorize him/her/it in prefabricated distinctions: a human ghost that “escaped” its shell, a self-preserving program, artificial intelligence. The Puppet Master represents a threat to humanity, not only in his/her/its ghost-hacking activities, but also insofar as he/she/it is the most radical challenge in the film to modernist notions of the human subject. Like human ghosts, the Puppet Master is said to have free will and memories. By categorizing the Puppet Master as a “self-preserving program,” the human characters in the film are attempting to neutralize the threat of symbolic violence on their modernist sense of self. Yet, the Puppet Master prevents such distinctions from being made:

By that argument, I submit the DNA you carry is nothing more than a self-preserving program itself. Life is like a node which is born within the flow of information. As a species of life that carries DNA as its memory system, man gains his individuality from the memories he carries. While memories may as well be the same as fantasy, it is by these memories that mankind exists. When computers made it possible to externalize memory, you should have considered all the implications that held.

The Puppet Master blasphemously (for a modernist) asserts that his/her/its mode of being, is no different than a human/biological mode of being. Furthermore, when asked to prove whether or not he/she/it is a life form, the Puppet Master responds: “It is impossible to prove such a thing. Especially since modern science cannot define what life is.”

Because the Puppet Master is such an “aberration,” an affront to the notion that we each have a unique, distinctly human core essence, he/she/it represents a threat to any person who believes in this essence (which applies to all of the characters in the film besides the Puppet Master, at least to a certain extent). By simply existing, it is as if the Puppet Master is telling each character who firmly believes in the authenticity of his or her ghost that there is no authenticity, that ghosts are no more a function of humanity than they are of a machine, that they are not tied to individual subjectivities, and finally, that they (the personae in the film) are not what they think they are.

Thus, the inevitable conclusion of this dilemma: In order for one of the beliefs to go on living—either the modernist assumptions about core essences, or the postmodernist deconstruction of the “essence” in favor of “existence”—the other must be contained and/or destroyed. Hence, the police chief orders the capture of the Puppet Master, and in the event that he/she/it cannot be captured, his/her/its absolute destruction. Yet, in the schema given by the film (going back to the pervasiveness of postmodern architectures and thus the inevitability of a shift in thought that is more “postmodern”), the Puppet Master manages to elude both capture and death by embracing change.

It takes the Puppet Master and a cyborg, Kusanagi, to put this change into effect—the merging of the human-generated and machine-generated (each indistinguishable simulacra), which eventually results in the creation of something new. The Puppet Master even correlates himself with Kusanagi, both ghosts living in machine bodies, but one which is assumed to be qualitatively human, and one which is assumed to be purely computer: “In you I see myself. As a body sees its reflection within a mirror.” For the Puppet Master, the reflector and its reflection are indistinguishable: the “real” body is as good as its reflection (just as symbolically, the mechanical bodies of Kusanagi and the Puppet Master are reflections of the human). However Kusanagi, who still clings tentatively to her humanist values, must give up the distinction between her self and her reflection in order to become something new/other. In order to accomplish this merging (in which the “human” becomes something other than what it started out to be), the representation of the human subject—the body—as well as the authentic, unified sense of individuality—the human ghost—must be destroyed.

In her attempt to find the Puppet Master after his/her/its body (parts) is stolen from the police station, Kusanagi must face several physical trials that eventually end up destroying her body, not the least of which is an encounter with a huge tank with a lot of firepower. In her attempts to destroy the tank (which is poised strategically over the Puppet Master’s body), Kusanagi rips her cybernetic arms from their sockets, overpowering her synthetic (and as I have established earlier, “human looking”) flesh with the strength of her own mechanical body. When the tank has been destroyed (incidentally, by Batou, and not by Kusanagi), Kusanagi is little more than a broken shell with an active ghost. Her body, the physical representation of the human subject, is literally destroyed in her attempt to get to the Puppet Master’s body so that she may establish a network link between their positronic brains—so that she might find out for herself what is the nature of his/her/its ghost. Furthermore, in the actual merging between Kusanagi and the Puppet Master, the body itself is transfigured. While Kusanagi and the Puppet Master are mentally linked, the Puppet Master speaks using Kusanagi’s body’s mouth, while Kusanagi sees out of the Puppet Master’s eyes. The body is no longer the property of an individual, but moreover a tool for mobility, communication, or a façade to cover over the ghost. The connection between the body and authentic humanism is severed.

For Kusanagi, the Puppet Master is both a symbol of her anxiety or fear for the loss of self and the thing (object, fear) that she must embrace to overcome that anxiety. The Puppet Master proposes the ultimate destruction to the unified, individual human subject, a merging of the human and mechanical ghost: “A complete joining. We will both be slightly changed, but neither will lose anything. Afterwards, it should be impossible to distinguish one from the other.” Merging destroys the false distinction between the “genuine” human ghost and the “simulated” machine ghost, imploding one into the other so that they are indistinguishable. It is neither the loss nor the addition of one to the other, but rather a synthesis that produces something new.

But then what is this “new thing”? In many ways, this synthesis defies categorization in the terms that are available to us. The vocabulary that the Puppet Master uses to describe the merging and his/her/its purposes for merging is, curiously enough, a humanist one. He/she/it almost seems to desire the experience of humanity, to “bear offspring,” to “achieve death.” Yet, though these terms connote humanity (it may make the Puppet Master seem as if he/she/it wants to be human or even more than human), as pure signifiers there is nothing inherent in the terms that connects them to the specifically human. A program may “die”; even in our contemporary vocabulary we often talk of machines that “die” or cease to function. Though the words used to describe this “new thing” are humanist in origin, they are partially uprooted from their moorings in service of a description of something not traditionally associated with them.

When Kusanagi and the Puppet Master merge, the result is neither a “human” ghost (if one can still call it a ghost) nor an “artificial” ghost generated by a computer program. The body destroyed and abandoned completely after the merging, but for Kusanagi’s positronic brain (which is the “container” for the merged ghosts of the Puppet Master and Kusanagi), and the new product is redeposited into an arbitrary cyborg body: that of a pre-adolescent girl, which Batou supposedly purchased on the black market (he explains to the Major that it was all he could find, and thus was not a careful choice based on what would best fit her “subjectivity”). “Here before you is neither the program called the Puppet Master, nor the woman that was called the Major,” the child tells Batou, in Kusanagi’s voice. The apotheosis of the merging of the human and the program is both and neither of the components from which it was spawned. In the merging, the human and program’s subjectivities are both destroyed or killed and recreated or reborn into something that is both a mixture of its parents as well as qualitatively different from them. Akin to Donna Haraway’s cyborg, the being produced by the Puppet Master and Kusanagi’s merging “has no origin story in the Western sense,” “monstrous and illegitimate,” with the capacity for transcending naturalizing discourses, allowing it “to recognise ‘oneself’ as fully implicated in the world,” which “frees [it] of the need to root politics in identification, vanguard parties, purity, and mothering” (2001, p. 71-81).

The focus on liberation that Haraway’s cyborg represents is reiterated in Ghost in the Shell: the merger is presented as a liberating solution to the problem of postmodernity. The Puppet Master invokes the notion of “slipping our bonds”—the bonds that confine us within our set limits, the categories of human and machine—and the shift to a “higher structure”—a structure that is “higher” than humanity, and “higher” than programming. The word “higher” connotes superiority, both superior value and evolutionary superiority. And thus is the “offspring” that is produced from the merging: a being that is, it is implied, more capable of living in and coping with a postmodern existence and a posthuman self. It no longer clings to notions of individuality, authenticity, and essence, but rather is able to move between, before and among the nodal points that give “shape” to the postmodern society. “A cyborg body is not innocent,” writes Haraway, “it was not born in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualisms without end (or until the world ends); it takes irony for granted” (2001, p. 83). Freed from the call back to an origin—the nostalgia of which I wrote earlier—the cyborg does not struggle with the contradictions everywhere in a postmodern, posthuman environment, but rather embraces them as a sort of freedom. Thus, the last words spoken in the film by the cyborg: “And where shall I go now? The net is vast and limitless.”

Eulogy for the Human Subject?

The inevitable apotheosis: humans must change in order to survive or evolve. We must embrace postmodernity, and in doing so kill our affective ties to the “human.” It is the final collapse of the “real” into the “imitation”: the marriage of the human and inhuman ghost, both of which are simulated, and neither of which is any more or less “real” than the other. The final synthesis of human and computer program is both and neither human, machine, and/or program, but a new concept of existence that is at once threatening to the “purity” of humanity, and a liberating solution to the anxiety of resolving a modernist humanist sensibility and postmodernist, posthumanist environment: the distinction inevitably collapses on itself.

The film is at the same time a celebration of becoming multiple and a lament over the loss of wholeness. The viewer is perpetually caught between these two seemingly incompatible domains, just as are the characters in the film. Modernist and postmodernist assumptions perpetually coexist and collide in an unending interrogation of identity.

Postmodernism, as a re-writing of the discourse of modernism, is what we “exercise” every time we critically engage those assumptions that are associated with modernist humanism: who or what defines who or what I am? Is what I call “me” a constituted by my environment? Do I have a core essence? The characters, landscape, and ideas of Ghost in the Shell are not making a transition into postmodernism: they are always already postmodern in that they challenge discourses that inform modernist notions of our subjectivity. Though perhaps a longing to return to an imaginary (in both the Lacanian sense and in the sense of “imagining”) unified, authentic human wholeness constitutes a sort of emotional resistance to the postmodern “mode,” it is nonetheless something that is beyond the control of any single individual (who in him or herself is a fragmented collectivity); a return to that unfragmented wholeness (Lacan and Freud would argue, in any environment) is impossible, especially considering the way that the environment is structured and how the people in it conduct their lives.

To a certain extent, Ghost reaffirms Baudrillard’s hypothesis of simulacra—we are living in a world of simulations, where no “thing” is more or less Real than another. The film implodes the Platonic distinction between the “form” and the “imitation” into Baudrillard’s simulacra. Simulacra are present everywhere—it is that which makes up the postmodern landscape of the film. As implied by Olalquiaga’s injunction, we cannot escape postmodernism. Indeed, we are already living in an environment that is at once symptomatic of and perpetuating its influences. Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra, as applied to the proliferation of media texts—simulations—in both contemporary US culture and the landscape of the film, makes this painfully apparent.

However, as much as the film reaffirms the collapse of the real into the simulated and vice-versa, even to the point where the two supposed representative elements (Kusanagi and the Puppet Master) are collapsed into one another (the merging) it nonetheless acknowledges a pre-postmodern (that is to say, a modernist-humanist) inclination toward naming, finding, or keeping the Real, and explores the anxiety—and madness—that revolves around giving up a sense of the Real, particularly as it pertains to a stable, fixed identity.

What does this imply about our sense of the world? To make a comparison in terms of Haraway’s cyborg theory, we are living in a cyborg world, but we’re not yet living as cyborgs. We sometimes (it could be argued, all the time) cannot remember to forget that we are no more real, alive, or human than the Puppet Master. We are our own puppet masters when we call our relationship to ourselves “authentic,” when we let these modernist assumptions guide our activities and sense of life, for giving into the fear of losing our subjectivity is what stops us (blocks us) from becoming something other than what we are.

To go back to the idea borrowed from Derrida in the beginning of this essay, one cannot begin to think in postmodern, posthuman, post-anything terms without presupposing a previous manifestation of thought (modernism, humanism, etc.). Though the endlessly dialectical relationships between the words we use to describe our philosophies, ourselves are in constant flux, we are still using the same vocabulary to outline new positions—a vocabulary that is laden with ideological/discursive assumptions about “the way things are,” a vocabulary that alludes to a distinction between Reality and illusion. This vocabulary, and cultural baggage it carries, is what constitutes our subjectivity: we cannot ever completely “slip our bonds,” as the Puppet Master suggests; we can only become different in degree and not different in kind.


Badmington, N. (2000). Introduction: Approaching posthumanism. In N. Badmington (Ed.), Posthumanism (p. 1-10). New York: Palgrave.

Baudrillard, J. (2001). The precession of simulacra. In M.G. Durham & D.M. Kellner (Eds.), Media and cultural studies: KeyWorks (p. 521-549). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble. New York: Routledge.

Durham, M.G. & Kellner, D.M. Introduction to part V. In M.G. Durham & D.M. Kellner (Eds.), Media and cultural studies: KeyWorks (pp 513-519). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Haraway, Donna. (2000). A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. In N. Badmington (Ed.), Posthumanism (p. 69-84). New York: Palgrave.

Jameson, F. (2001). Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. In M.G. Durham and D.M. Kellner (Eds.), Media and cultural studies: KeyWorks (p. 550-587). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Miyahara, T., Watanabe, S. & Frain, A. (Producers), & Oshii, M. (Director). (1995). Ghost in the shell [Motion Picture]. Japan: Kodansha, Bandai Visual & Manga Entertainment.

Manga Entertainment. (1996). MANGA: Ghost in the shell. Retrieved March 3, 2002, from

Olalquiaga, C. (2001).Prologue from Megalopolis. In M.G. Durham and D.M. Kellner (Eds.), Media and cultural studies: KeyWorks (p. 588-597). Malden, MA: Blackwell.


[1] This was explored in Introduction to Part V of KeyWorks (Durham & Kellner, 2001, p. 516): “Many postmodern theorists, such as Baudrillard and Poster, arguably exaggerate the rupture with the past, failing to note both the continuities and the ways that the novelties they evoke are rooted in the dynamics of modernity.”

[2] This comes from Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 8: “Perhaps there is an opportunity at this juncture of cultural politics, a period that some would call ‘postfeminist,’ to reflect from within a feminist perspective on the injunction to construct a subject of feminism.” Though this particular quotation is in reference to feminism, I believe that the sentiment of the “post-“ aspect—the reflection from within a particular perspective—resonates for both Butler’s sense of postfeminism and my sense of posthumanism. Furthermore, the latter half of this expression is from Neil Badmington’s edited collection Posthumanism, from his “Introduction” (2001, p. 9): “An approach informed by poststructuralism testifies to endless opposition from within the traditional account of what it means to be human. Humanism never manages to constitute itself; it forever rewrites itself as posthumanism.”

[3] Furthermore, might it also be symbolic of the madness of trying to situate oneself in this field of discourse(s)? Conceptualizing this schizophrenic insistence on origins with the thrust into postmodern ways of knowing, doing and being as madness might be a further avenue of study.

[4] This took me back to Jameson’s exploration of the ‘nostalgia film’ in a register that I believe diverges from Jameson’s original intent—our reassembly of the “feeling” of the past, via pastiche, which problematically conveys not the past but a feeling of past-ness is postmodern (Jameson, 2001, p. 562-3). But that we have a need to reassemble/reconstruct/revisit the past via our postmodern methods at all is my point in this instance.

[5] From the interview with Mamoru Oshii, on the Ghost in the Shell DVD set.

[6] I thought it was particularly interesting that when Kusanagi is asked why there was so much static in her brain, her reply is, “It’s that time of the month.” This would necessarily be impossible, since she has a machine for a body, and yet she still chooses to identify with that very human, female part of biological existence.

[7] I could say all kinds of interesting things about the “male gaze” and voyeurism here, but in the interests of maintaining my focus on the modern/postmodern condition, I’ll refrain from lapsing into psychoanalysis.

[8] “Puppet Master” is the English translation. I think the Japanese translation is more metaphorically accurate: “Ningyo Tsukai” is literally translated as “Doll User.”

[9] It would be interesting to do further analysis on why the pronoun/voice for the Puppet Master is male, despite the chosen “body” of the Puppet Master being female (and later, a disfigured female). Why did they not choose a female voice/pronoun, or an androgynous body that is not even anthropomorphic? I believe though the film attempts to deconstruct the boundary between the modern and postmodern, and the human and the posthuman, it still relies heavily on normative discourses of sexual difference, i.e. the union between Kusanagi and the Puppet Master can only be a fruitful one if one party is male and the other female. Furthermore, what does it mean that Kusanagi is eventually the one that “gives birth” to this new form?