The following is a literature review to support an essay on how Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) engages with philosophical and religious themes underlying transhumanism and the cyberpunk genre.
“I teach to you the Overhuman. The human is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome it?
All beings so far have created something beyond themselves: and you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome the human?”
Nietzsche (2005, p.11)
With the rapid development of technologies such as bioengineering, nano-technology, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, radical changes to the human condition are taking place. Such changes are embraced by proponents of transhumanism (Bostrom, 2005) – sometimes interchangeable with ‘posthumanism’ (Terranova, 2001) – who encourage the utilisation of these technologies to free humanity from biological limitations (Fukuyama, 2004). Transhumanist advocates support the acceleration of human evolution by means of science and technology, free from religious creed and dogma (Terranova, op cit.).
The relationship between humans and technology has been dealt with extensively in science fiction, largely within the cyberpunk genre. However, as a genre characterised by its “combination of lowlife and high-tech” (Sterling, 1986, p. xiv.), representations of technology are often ambiguous, implying that we may be faced with less optimistic outcomes. The following will be a literature review leveraging primarily on academic analyses of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995), while also exploring writing on cyberpunk and transhumanism more generally. It will examine cyberpunk’s depiction of technological advancement, and its engagement with the philosophical issues underlying the transhumanist ideal. Additionally, within the following research is a recognition of the parallels between transhumanist thought and ancient religious philosophies, often seen manifested within cyberpunk texts. This occurs despite transhumanism allegedly operating within a paradigm of secular, scientific materialism, and serves to exacerbate its underlying philosophical problems.
Anxious Souls, Blurred Bodies & The Cyberpunk Paradox
Science fiction has been argued by Delgado et al. (2012) as the only genre which deals with the possible consequences of technological advancement, offering representations of the world we currently inhabit. Thus, ethical issues surrounding technology are embedded within these narratives. Bolton et al. (2007) notes science fiction’s engagement with real-world philosophical problems, and Japanese animé in particular is viewed by Matthews as representing a “multifaceted symbiosis” (2005, p.1) between society and the pervasiveness of modern technology. Ghost in the Shell (1995) (hereafter referred to as Ghost), directed by Mamoru Oshii and based on the manga by Masamune Shirow, is considered a benchmark of cyberpunk animé (Matthews, op cit.). Ghost offers grounds for exploring the philosophical problems which arise from moves towards a more technological society, and its popularity signifies that it touches upon something real in its depiction of a possible future for humanity (Komel, 2016).
While Matthew’s ‘symbiosis’ has been purported as evidence for Japanese social acceptance of technological advancement, he also acknowledges an ambivalence towards technology within Japanese animé. He puts this down to a reflection of trauma in post-World War II society in Japan, and the increased push for scientific and economic growth in this period (Matthews, ibid.). Napier (op cit.) maintains that Japanese attitudes towards technology are actually ambiguous at best, and contrasts this with more techno-celebratory attitudes found in the West. She similarly characterises this ambiguity as a direct reflection of cultural crisis and despair about human identity in relation to the machine – the machine which is increasingly impacting on the human.
In Ghost, Puntillo (2014) discusses ambiguity represented primarily by the presence of anxiety, which manifests in two forms. Initially, the film’s main protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi experiences anxiety about her identity, and regularly questions whether her ‘ghost’ – loosely synonymous with the mind, consciousness or soul – was ever really human. This “interrogation of the cyberbrain” (Puntillo, ibid, p.1) shows a mind in reflexive awareness of itself as ‘other’, frequently in conflict with its previous state of existence. Kusanagi’s uncertainty in her sense of being is characterised by Jacobs as the cyberpunk genre’s “inquisition of post-humanism’s interaction with technology” (2018, p.4). This manifestation of anxiety is, however, nested within the more central anxiety of wanting to revert back to organic, human consciousness. This is seen in the main antagonist’s yearning to merge with Kusanagi to enact the process of reproduction by creating a new, unique form of life (Puntillo, ibid.). Simultaneously, this act allows Kusanagi to confirm her own existence by reverting back to the “primordial base instinct of reproduction rather than replication” (Jacobs, op cit. p.8).
The anxious desire for reproduction is argued by Jacobs (op cit.) as an appeal to the Platonic idea of an innate, immaterial essence or soul, rooted in the human drive for self-preservation. However, that it is necessitated in Ghost by the death of both Kusunagi’s and the Puppet Master’s consciousnesses, poses a fundamental challenge to this conception of soul. For Jacobs, this is the main philosophical concern raised within Ghost’s depiction of human-machine interaction. With the “physical form inhabiting the state of immortality” (ibid. p.8) in the endless repairing of Kusanagi’s cyborg body, challenges to the idea of a Platonic, immaterial soul are compounded.
Jacobs considers the Platonic view of the soul as separate from the body to be naive, yet he recognises the difficulty in the opposite claim: if the self is the sum of bodily parts plus the soul, then the gradual replacement of those parts threatens the sum of the self, leading to a blurring of distinctions, and is a key philosophical concern in Ghost. Jacobs notes that this concept is not unique to Ghost or to cyberpunk, however, but is instead a reiteration of an old philosophical problem known as the paradox of Theseus’ ship, dealing with whether something is still ‘itself’ if its parts are gradually replaced. The Theseus Paradox is a common denominator in cyberpunk, with Komel re-dubbing it the “Cyberpunk Paradox” (op cit. p.921).
Distinction blurring tropes in cyberpunk constitute a deconstructionism intrinsic to the genre (Pyle, 2000). Depictions of the fusing of organic and inorganic blur boundaries between the material and metaphysical (Jacobs, op cit.). In Ghost, Kusanagi’s ability to show human characteristics despite her artificial body, dissolve distinctions between the human and machine (Puntillo, op cit.). Through this dissolution, cyberpunk “[makes], and on occasion, [unmakes] our conceptions of ourselves” (Pyle, op cit. p. 125). The cyborg or augmented human serves as a vehicle for this deconstruction, and McCarron argues that each time a cyborg is introduced, the question is being asked; “[w]hat aspect of humanity makes us human?” (McCarron, 1995, p.264).
McCarron (ibid.) draws parallels between cyberpunk texts and the mind-body theories of Descartes, considering how the presence of the cyborg challenges the separation of body and mind found in Cartesian dualism. However, he ultimately argues that the overall body of cyberpunk texts actually reaffirm the dualism that they attempt to deconstruct. Holland (1995) agrees, claiming that the cyborg film is both a reaction against, and a form of myth used to uphold dualism. Komel (op cit.) notes that even the original source material for Ghost – ArthurKoestler’s Ghost in the Machine (1967, cited in Komel, op cit.), itself an attempt to refute dualism, ends up reinforcing it by assuming the original conceptual distinction between mind and body.
McCarron (op cit.) pinpoints cyberpunk’s perpetuation of dualism in its common privileging of the mind over the body. He argues that the ultimate goal of the genre is to reach a state of pure mind, with the body seen in almost entirely negative terms – an accident, a site for cultural inscription, and an encumbrance “dragging the mind back from disembodied purity” (McCarron. op cit. p.262). Cyberpunk is thus celebratory of the Cartesian privileging of mind over matter. With its simultaneous placement of centrality on the body, further ambiguity and contradiction is generated (Holland op cit.).
Pure Minds & The God Left Out of the Machine
Cyberpunk’s dualistic privileging of the mind may be a reflection of a dualism within the transhumanist ideal itself. In its attempt to liberate humanity from biological constraints, and despite claims of being free from religious dogma (Terranova, op cit.), Pugh (2017) argues that transhumanism mirrors a fundamental belief of ancient Gnosticism – that we are spiritual beings imprisoned in material bodies and world. Interestingly, contempt for the body within cyberpunk is often expressed in religious terms (Bitarello, op cit.). Pioneering cyberpunk text Neuromancer (1984) written by William Gibson, includes phrases borrowed from religious language (Bittarello, ibid.). McCarron similarly notes the usage of theological language in Neuromancer to express the irrelevancy and accidental nature of the flesh. This “Puritanical [sic] dismissal of the body” (McCarron, op cit. p.262) shares the eschatological vision of Gnosticism – that the “end of all things leads to escaping the body” (Pugh, op cit. p.2) and essentially constitutes a modern form of “techno-gnosticism” (Pugh, ibid.). The body is seen as a prison which can be left behind through the use of drugs or by entering ‘cyberspace’, with the recurring suggestion that cyberspace is god (McCarron, op cit.). Cyberspace, then, ultimately becomes a “space for / of religion” (Bitarello, op cit. p.217). Further, technological-themed animé commonly has a spiritual or messianic dimension (Napier, op cit.), and cyberpunk films like Existenz and The Matrix contain many religious metaphors and references (Bittarello, op cit.).
Pugh (op cit.) argues that transhumanism must be understood in religious terms, and that the core animating concept of religion – transcendence of the mundane, death and finitude – is the primary drive behind the transhumanist ideal. In this vein, Brazal (2014) has examined the cyborg through the lens of East Asian animistic spiritual beliefs. Animistic philosophy holds that the world is animated by ancestral and environmental spirits which are not disembodied beings, but an intrinsic part of the material world, leaving no separation between the human and non-human. Such beliefs have been argued as underlying the social acceptance of robotics in Japan and animé’s common technological themes. Kitano (2007) and Matthews (op cit.) both argue that, despite Japanese science working within a Western framework, this traditional world-view is still operational. Matthews (ibid.) claims that the tendency to separate out definitions of the human and non-human is a result of Western influence, in direct conflict with these more holistic beliefs. Indeed, a more holistic interpretation of Ghost has been put forward by Komel (op cit.), who argues that it has been wrongly understood in dualistic terms. Moreover, Masamune Shirow, author of the original manga, has likened themes in his work to animistic beliefs, and suggested that despite not being intentional, these themes may reflect an increasing convergence of “sci-tech and religion” (Schodt, 1998).
Evaluation – Ambiguous Gnosis
Overall, it is unclear whether Ghost or the cyberpunk genre make a conscious statement regarding transhumanism. The anxieties represented may be that of the author, the director, the audience, or due to a conflict inherent within the cyborg identity itself (Puntillo op cit.). McCarron (op cit.) argues that human-machine interaction is depicted negatively in cyberpunk, often showing humans at war with machines. In Neuromancer, the body is dismissed, but there is a price to pay for this dismissal (McCarron, op cit.). Haney (2006) believes that Gibson’s work actually suggests the price humans may have to pay for becoming more like machines will be a heavy one. McCarron (op cit.) goes further in saying that cyberpunk is inherently conservative and anti-technology, privileging the mind for the purpose of giving the viewer a sense of supremacy over the machine. Thus, despite having a fascination with transhumanist themes, and an aesthetic fetishisation of augmented bodies, cyberpunk does appear to address the dangers of technological advancement.
It is similarly unclear whether the cyberpunk genre engages with the philosophical problems underlying transhumanism consciously, or if this occurs merely as a result of its engagement with technological advancement. Existential issues are more consciously addressed in Ghost, but Puntillo (op cit.) notes that it leaves many of the questions it raises unanswered. This surely reveals cyberpunk’s inherently ambiguous nature. Cyberpunk texts contain not only a deep ambivalence in their representation of attitudes towards technology, but the framework under which they are analysed and understood is murky as well. Critics seem to applaud the genre’s ability to deconstruct oppositions between the human and machine, yet they simultaneously charge it with upholding and reaffirming these very oppositions. Almost every analysis ends with an open conclusion, leaving more questions to be asked.
Further, the claim that technological themes in animé are evidence of a positive social acceptance are somewhat unconvincing, due to the presence of ambivalence and anxiety. Additionally, this ambivalence weakens the claim that animistic beliefs have led to such acceptance, leading one to wonder what role these beliefs actually play in modern, technological Japan. It is possible that such ambivalence occurs due to clashes between animism and the dualistic influence of the West, as argued by Matthews (op cit.). Regardless of its source, the existence of this ambiguity challenges the idea that Japan has more positive and accepting attitudes towards technology. Moreover, the argument of social acceptance conflicts with arguments made by Napier (op cit.) that animé’s techno-ambivalence contrasts with more techno-celebratory attitudes found in the West.
Through my research, it appears that the paradoxical nature of cyberpunk may be a reflection of an underlying paradox within transhumanism itself. Advancement of science and technology has developed under a paradigm of mechanistic materialism for the last few centuries, constituting a shift away from Cartesian and Platonic conceptions of the mind and soul (Barrett, 1986) (incidentally, further challenging Matthews’ depiction of a dualistic West). Yet, the transhumanist idea that we can escape the body, achieve pure mind or even upload the mind to computers (White, 2009) relies heavily upon the dualistic separation of body and mind. Pugh’s (op cit.) recognition of the parallels between transhumanism and Gnosticism shed extra light on this, and probe questions about the recurring, often cryptic, religious themes within cyberpunk texts.
Moreover, despite its attempts at deconstructionism, there is the inevitable reconstruction of oppositions within cyberpunk, illuminating the paradoxical nature of defining the human being. This suggests that we cannot escape the problem of understanding what defines us. In the transhumanist promise of liberation in deconstructing binaries, and likewise, in taking a more holistic or animistic world-view, the threat to human identity by bodily augmentation and replacement still remains. This is primarily what Ghost seems to address.
To conclude, Ghost in the Shell (1995)and the cyberpunk genre clearly highlight the ambiguous nature of the human relationship to technology and address the potentially devastating consequences to human identity which may result from our merging with machines. Anxieties about what constitute the human being’s soul, body and mind are reflected through a technological re-telling of historically insoluble problems in philosophy. These are not merely a re-telling, however, and appear to be the result of a real-world cultural context of rapid technological advancement and conflict between opposing world-views.
It is reasonable to infer, then, that the genre engages directly with fundamental philosophical problems, which underlie the technological advances to humanity advocated under the transhumanist ideal. It does so, however, without giving definitive answers. Additionally, while transhumanist philosophy operates within a paradigm of scientific materialism and is, on the surface, bereft of notions of the Divine, it promotes a kind of deification of the mind and contains distinct parallels with the extra-physical aspirations of Gnostic religious philosophy. Animistic world-views may also play a role in the spiritual dimension of Ghost and other Japanese texts, indicating further religious influence. Religious themes intersect with the philosophical problems concerning the mind and body, resulting in further complications for the genre’s engagement with technological advancement. It all causes one to wonder; has the God really been left out of the machine? Or are we just having trouble finding Him?
My subsequent analysis of Ghost in the Shell (1995) will aim at a further understanding of the film’s engagement with transhumanism and its intrinsic philosophical concerns. Through this process I will also tie these threads together with any religious themes in the film. I will aim to shed further light on cyberpunk’s recurring engagement with religious themes, and how this may be rooted within transhumanism itself. I will endeavour to achieve this through the following steps: 1) identify and analyse further examples of the above philosophical problems regarding mind, body and soul in the film, while illustrating how these reflect or engage with transhumanism; 2) based on Pugh’s (2017) analysis of transhumanism and that it must be understood in religious terms, identify and analyse any religious themes, metaphors or symbolism within the film; 3) based on my own evaluation of the above literature, illustrate how 1 and 2 may be related – e.g. consider how these philosophical problems may be nested within a religious framework; 4) drawing from arguments made by Matthews (2005), Napier (2002) and Kitano (2007), consider the cultural context – particularly how Eastern and Western concepts of philosophy and religion have influenced Ghost, and determine whether cultural, spiritual or scientific paradigm shifts and conflicts are evident within the film.
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