Candid thoughts between you, me, and the world’s intelligence services #1

The Bitter Pill #6

Hard-headed woman/Ghost in the Shell

You may know me as that guy who writes bitchy letters to editors of Eugene’s Weekly and Register Guard. From this, you may have gathered that I’m a frustrated artist. If so, I commend you on your perceptiveness, and thank you for taking the time to notice.

You may additionally remember me as that guy who fantasizes about having an AI that will act as a virtual assistant, sorting and recalling all the fragments of understanding that occur to him, and then also as a virtual taskmaster, ordering him to follow through on connecting the dots thus collected.

Odds are, I’m just another name passing briefly across your virtual wall. And as that is the most likely case, I’ll identify myself as someone who really shares in Cat Stevens’ search for a hard-headed woman, one who will make me do my best. Cat chose Islam. I’ve taken it a bit more literally, and found myself in that vast audience of people fantasizing about a robot.

Speaking of which, a couple nights ago I watched the 2017 Hollywood remake of the 90’s anime classic Ghost in the Shell.

I’m tempted to go research what happened to Midas, in the old versions of the story. If I remember correctly, he starves, because his touch turns food into gold before he can eat it. It strikes me that Hollywood is like that; at least, the Hollywood that’s mining the cult and pulp classics of the past in search of a blockbuster. This Hollywood subjects the raw material to its process, and in so doing deprives it of any nutritional value.

Ghost in the Shell provides an interesting example, as the original anime is way too sexist to survive the Hollywood treatment, where sentimental girl-positive multiculturalism amounts to a virtually necessary subtext of all superhero type movies. Where this goes wrong, I suspect, is in the irreconciliability of the the gross profit motive and the spirit of the ethos. Of course on the overt level of the plot, the villain is the corporate white male. Problem is, this is the dude who, in effect, is bankrolling the movie.

My hypothesis is that this hidden conflict is the reason the movie sucks, as art. Not the mere existence of the conflict, but the way the conflict distorts the process, being completely dominant behind the scenes, while reviled in the fictional narrative.

You might not have noticed in the last slew of superhero movies – from at least Deadpool, to X-Men: Apocalypse, to Star Trek: Beyond (which was really just a code for Beyond Star Trek), to Logan – that they are all relentless in their symbolic championing of girl-positive multiculturalism. Personally, I find the scrupulously rehearsed sanctimony of it all tedious. At the same time, it is fascinating to witness the way this ethic plays out in the stories.

Since at least the original Star Trek, sci-fi has had a popular reputation as a sort of moral teacher of the masses. Maybe it goes all the way back to Thomas More’s Utopia. Whatever the case, the gist of it is that some advancement in technology offers a mirror within which people might see the ethical demons and divinities played out within the context of the very form and pressures of the age.

Sci-fi used to be pulp, and as such mostly a vehicle for the culturally marginal. The more it has been mainstreamed, the more its ethical message has been consciously contrived to mirror and sentimentally aggrandize the current emotional/ethical norm – or at least the norm as it is supposed to be. Thus the very transgressive quality that can make sci-fi such a compelling mirror is lost. This Ghost in the Shell remake provides a case in point.

X-Men (gendered moniker aside) makes for a much better vehicle for today’s formula for ideological virtue. The idea of a group of biological outsiders getting together to both resist bigotry and protect the established order is perfectly amenable to the trope update that is widely regarded as the most brilliant upgrade ever.

Regardless of that, I find it sufficient to say that Ghost in the Shell does not run within the new operating system.

Beyond the specifics of the case, I find the general idea of cultural value sets as operating systems and stories as programs illuminating. Again, I’m saying that Ghost in the Shell doesn’t run properly on the current cultural OS, because the gross sexism of the original anime is essential to the core of the story. It is the the polarity around which that world revolves.

Of course the remake is based on that sexism in practice. It is another movie in which Scarlett Johansson walks around in a catsuit or less, a hyper-sexualized Black Widow. But the actual filming and direction of the movie barely touches on the level of exploitation native to the original.

We see a virtual Johansonn’s body being synthetically constructed, and so of course nude. A pure sexual object. But the way we see it has nothing of the erotic overdose of anime, which is itself a mirror of the culture that created it. In the original, we don’t see just one hyper sexualized female body being constructed, but a production line of bodies. This production line expresses the realization of an erotic desire to transcend the limits of material reality, and thereby obtain a constant supply of erotic stimulation, just as industrial manufacture has provided us a vast wealth of other goods.

The sexualized, youthful, female is the holy grail of industrial production, from the erotic perspective of what we commonly call the ‘white male’. It helps to understand that the Japanese are way more white than your average white American. It’s no coincidence that fascists in Italy and Germany made common cause with the Imperial Japanese. There is a supremacist culture, or it was until recently.

Of additional interest is the way this supremacist culture developed and flourished and transformed in relative isolation.

Long story short, Ghost in the Shell was written from the perspective of that operating system. The comic was adult anime. The Major wasn’t just implicitly a sex-object, but was shown explicitly having sex. The film version weeded out the explicit pornography, but it kept the erotic ideal.

Mass manufacture of robot sex objects is the pornographic ideal; and the film version made this clear, in its long, eery, meditations on the manufacturing process.

Consider, as another example of the shift, the character of the geisha robot. In the anime version, the geisha is perfectly human in appearance. The geisha bot looks like a blond pornstar. In the Hollywood remake, the geisha is obviously mechanical, dressed up in a robe, wooden shoes, and a mask of makeup. Can anyone really imagine a world in which men seek out such geishas?

And there is the rub. By blunting the pornographic ethos of the original, so that it conforms to the ethically correct Hollywood morality, the stories essential tension is lost. The axis of conscience around which the story revolves, in other words, does not survive the translation to the current OS. That Ghost won’t properly run in this Shell.

It might help here to remember that a “shell” is, in coding terms, an interface construct within which some set of commands might be run. In the movie, “shell” has a dual meaning: it is both the body and this user interface.

Stories likewise run within a shell construct, that being the culture of the moment. To repeat, the Hollywood shell won’t run this Ghost properly. The fact that they made a whole movie notwithstanding, it might be that this shell can’t run this ghost at all.

Of course, that depends on what the meaning of is is.

I first saw the anime Ghost in the Shell back in 1999. I watched it in the original Japanese, with two trans friends who were tech geek enough to watch it either way. Being stoned, I thought it would be best to see the original, without subtitles. More than that, I got so intensely involved in the story by means of the proto-pornagraphic images that by the time of a key conversation between the two main characters in an elevator, I knew, in essence, what the conversation was about. My occasional genius in reading archetypes is insufficient to explain that fact. Were the story not archetypally clear, I couldn’t have followed along.

It is exactly this clarity that is missing from the remake. This lack is not, I think, a result of poor writing choices, but because the story had to be hacked apart in order to run on the new, foreign, OS.

That powerful, essential, conversation, which I was able to understand even though I don’t speak a word of Japanese, becomes a single, essential throw-away, line in the remake, spilled out in the very first conversation these two characters have.

Here, though, we depart the failings of this one film, or of the industry as a whole, and return to the more important question of whether or not our real personalities can run within our cultural OS.

Though that brings us right back to the story, at least the Hollywood version, as the Major is given drugs every day in order – unbeknownst to her – suppress memories of her actual life. Those drugs are a metaphor, as the Major is a metaphor of us all.

And the movie takes up this central metaphor. Problem is the self-consciously constructed ‘real life’ of the Major makes no real sense. It is, rather, the image of real life that runs best within the construct of the social OS. As such, it’s a hodgepodge of cultural images. The scene is still sort of Japan-esque, except the bad guy is white and so is the robot body they made for the Major, though IRL her mother was Japanese.

We make fun of people like Rachel Dolenzol who actually LARP their transracial fantasies of redemption, but play those same fantasies out implicitly in stories like this GitS remake.

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