Being Relieved of False Melancholy: Ghost in the Shell — Işık Barış Fidaner

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(There are spoilers in the text, so it’s better to watch the movie before reading it)

Ghost in the Shell (2017) is a sci-fi movie that deals with many of the philosophical concepts I’ve been discussing in my recent texts. It tells the story of a cyborg woman called Major Mira Killian. Major has a biological brain placed in a cybernetic body by Hanka Robotics. Her title indicates the “major” military-political purpose she was not only authorized to serve but was also built for. But the meaning of this title changes during the film: In the story, Major transitions from one kind of authorization to another kind of authorization.

To frame the central concepts, let us remember that “will grounds authorization” and “system grounds embodiment” [1]. The words “ghost” and “shell” in the film’s title respectively correspond to the “will” and “system” whose combination makes up the Major. Her authorization invokes the enigma of her “will”. The question of her will (ghost) hangs in the conflict between Mr Cutter of Hanka Robotics who sees her as a “weapon” that is the future of his company and thereby disavows her will, and Mr. Aramaki who wants her to see her “uniqueness” (her ghost) as a virtue and find peace. On the other hand, her cybernetic embodiment is supported by a “system” that can augment and repair her body. This system also refers to the organization that authorizes her, where both Mr Cutter and Mr Aramaki are in charge in the beginning.

The crucial turning point comes when Major discovers that the memory fragments in her mind and her knowledge that she had lost her parents in a sinking boat of refugees are false and they were artificially planted to motivate her to fight terrorists. Notice that the “falsity” she discovers refers to two things at once: (1) The memories are factually false. (2) The memories were artificially planted to motivate her. Since the external intention to motivate her (like a superego) is subjectively “false” for her, to find the truth, she decides to rely on her inner ghost as Mr Aramaki advises her. Thus she ceases to be a “weapon” as Mr Cutter imagines her, and becomes a danger: “Her ghost is what failed us. We cannot control her. She’s no longer a viable asset.” At this point, she ceases to be authorized by Hanka Robotics and transitions to a state of self-authorization.

Major’s turning point from external authorization to self-authorization is a transition from a fetish to a symptom. [2] From being a weapon, a viable asset in the hands of Mr Cutter, from being a fetish that is directly authorized by her embodiment by Hanka Robotics, she comes to embody the symptom of her desire, her will, her ghost, thereby separating her authorization from her embodiment.

In the beginning, when she was serving the purpose that she was “built for”, in her mind she was staging the loss of her refugee parents in a sinking boat. In other words, she was a melancholic, and she was unaware of this. [3] Her ghost was imprisoned in an artificial melancholy. The staged loss was externally planted. Unconscious mind is just like this staged loss, only that it’s inherently alien without being actively planted by an external agent.

How does she discover the falsity of her memories? Through a subject supposed to know, the embodiment of an analyst figure: Kuze is an experimental cyborg that was “terminated” before Major’s production. The officially disavowed failure in Kuze’s embodiment serves as the real evidence for the falsity of Major’s melancholy. Major can no longer disavow the failure of Kuze like Hanka Robotics, and this leads her to the truth about her. This is her work of mourning where she loses and sublates the staged loss of her melancholy. However, Major’s truth is unlike the unconscious truth of an analysand, because Ouelet (a dissenting employee of Hanka Robotics) gives her “truth” in the form of an object (a memory card).

It is crucial that she finds her truth in a place where she and Kuze took refuge as runaways who had “nothing but each other”. When the manifestation of a symptom drops all the fetishes, “nothing” remains, except the runaways’ recognition of each other. In other words, when authorization and embodiment are no longer confused but are separately recognizable, their intersection is the empty set. This is close to Marxian proletarian position of having “nothing but the chains” and what Žižek calls authentic fidelity to the void. [4] Since this “real mourning” is not a “symbolic mourning” that commemorates a loss like a grave, Major (whose real name is Motoko) tells her real mother: “You don’t have to come here anymore” (to Motoko’s grave). [5]

Ghost in the Shell is a movie about real mourning, except for a few points in the story that warrants some attention. Firstly, the staged loss of melancholy does not need to rely on an external intervention: A subject is perfectly capable of unconsciously staging a loss of origins by herself. So there is a kind of paranoid projection of the mechanical aspect of the unconscious to “Hanka Robotics” at work here. Secondly, the truth of a subject cannot be given in the form of information-data contained in a memory card. What really matters is the symbolic value of the exchanged objects. This means that the authorizing function of Name-of-the-Father is distinct from the biological father. Thirdly, the ghost is not really independent of the shell, i.e. will and system are related (through authorization and embodiment). What enables the exaggerated fiction of cyborg technology that accounts for the film’s sci-fi allure is the disavowal of this relation and dependency of the will and the system (in the unconscious). Fourth is the ending in which Major is re-authorized through the intervention of the “prime minister”, signaling a triumph of the state over the capital (Hanka Robotics). In the final scene, Mr Aramaki literally says that Major is now authorized to “engage targets”. This is a relapse from the work of mourning Major undergoes in her preceding search for truth. When the state authorizes her, she becomes an even more effective “weapon” by being relieved of her false melancholy. The enlightened proletarian becomes the perfect agent for the state.

Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler (Placeless Things) blog, Admin/Editor/Curator of Žižekian Analysis, and one of the admins of “Žižek and the Slovenian School” group on Facebook. Twitter: @BarisFidaner

Notes:

[1] See “The Separation of Authorization (Symbolic Suture) from Embodiment (Real Suture)”

[2] See “Symbolic Authorization of Fetishes and Real Authorization of Symptoms”

[3] See “Every desire is a melancholic desire”

[4] See “Authentic Fidelity is the Drive to Mourn”

[5] See “Symbolic Mourning and Real Mourning, Paranoia and Cynicism”

 

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