“Knocking at the doors of human perception” is how Tim Adams describes the exploration of human selfhood in the form of transhumanism. As traditional notions of “human” have been challenged by postmodern thought, which questions universal modes of meaning and legitimation (New Keywords, 270), a complex discourse regarding “the human” has arisen thanks to increased technological abilities. Wolfe (and Heidegger) argue that while proper relations with technology may bring about edification, improper relationships may distance man from his essence (4-5). Popular culture mirrors the complex narratives revolving around these questions, particularly as artificial intelligence and human enhancement become viable. Written works, such as I, Robot by Asimov or 2312 by Robinson, and visual media, such as Space Odyssey 2001 and Akira, become spaces for exploration about the benefits and dangers of technological impact on the human identity. This year, with varying levels of success, Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner 2049 present autoethnographies for alternative human identity and explore human value, appropriation, and agency.
Before continuing, I would like to clarify a few concepts, both in definition and function. Firstly, by referring to both films as autoethnographies, I am drawing on Mary Louise Pratt’s definition: texts “in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them” (35). Although most autoethnographies are traditionally written in first person, I would argue that K’s (Blade Runner 2049) and the Major’s (Ghost in the Shell) perspectives are dominant within their respective films, providing biographical, if not autobiographical, accounts of their experiences as marginalized persons. Both stories provide subjective, post-modern quests for identity within modernist trappings of progressivism, materialism, and scientism. Secondly, there remains the challenge of how to read alternative human identity. K is artificially intelligent; the Major is the ultimate transhuman. Yet, beyond these literal readings, one can view K as a metaphor for the human condition within the framework of reductionist scientism, which is often linked to materialism and physicalism (Van Riel and Van Gulick, Nagel) or the Major as the exploited, yet evolutionarily-progressive human within a neo-Marxist framework. Reading K and the Major literally or metaphorically pushes us readers to question what “human” really is – and why that question is even important to us.
In Blade Runner 2049, the exploration of “human” is limited due to the very nature of its genre – dystopian, film noir science-fiction.
Humanity through the lens of A.I. personhood within the figure of K, is devalued, exploited, and limited. Society mistreats Replicants, keeping them firmly in their place, as shown by the derogatory term “skin job” applied to K on a number of occasions. Rachel’s baby, to the Replicants, is a symbol of hope, yet the viewer is not afforded any vision of that freedom. More telling is the conversation between K and his superior, Lt. Joshi:
“K: I’ve never retired something that was born.
Lt. Joshi: What does that mean?
K: To be born… means you have a soul, I guess. […]
Lt. Joshi: You’ve done good without one.”
Here, K implies that not having a soul suggests lack of value. Although he is acknowledged by Lt. Joshi, K is told that “the World is built in a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you’ve bought a war. Or a slaughter.” In the name of order, Lt. Joshi justifies the ongoing devalued status of the Replicants. Exploitation automatically results. Joi, K’s holographic lover, is a product which we are encouraged to see as unique and desirable, but later we are forcibly reminded of her less than free status as a program thanks to a highly sexualized ad. We can also see the blatant exploitation of AI personhood in the scenes where Wallace inspects and handles new “product”.
A link between exploitation and agency can also be found within the whole subplot of verifying memory. Uncertain if his memories are real – K’s journey to discover the truth swings from hope (Ana affirming the memory as real) to despair (all Replicants share the memory). Implanted memories, some may argue, are a form of exploitation, as identity is forced upon the subordinate. However, K’s identity nevertheless forms through limited agency as he responds to “truth”. K gains awareness and limited freedom as he names himself “Joe” and aids Deckard to reunite with his daughter. Freysa tells K that “dying for the right cause” is “the most human thing we can do”, but although “Joe” is successful, he ends up dying alone in the snow.
On the other hand, in Ghost in the Shell, the exploration of “human” is more optimistic due to the foundation upon which it rests – the acceptance and exploration of consciousness and the soul. As a result, the transhuman Major is valued, if temporarily exploited (and appropriated, literally), and she finds a larger degree of agency, working toward a more sustainable future.
To begin with, as opposed to K, the Major is a highly valued, cutting-edge scientific experiment who shares a complex almost mother-daughter relationship with the lead scientist Dr. Ouelet. Dr. Ouelet constantly refers to the Major as a miracle, and reminds the Major that her ‘ghost’ (soul) is still present and valued. Dr Ouelet’s self-sacrifice for the Major’s freedom upholds the doctor’s belief that the Major is a valuable step in humanity’s evolution. Batou reminds the Major that she is not a robot, despite her entirely robotic body, and Aramaki, the Major’s superior on the task force, has even stronger opinions on the Major’s intrinsic value, stating:
“You are more than just a weapon. You have a soul… a ghost. When we see our uniqueness as a virtue, only then will we find peace.”
However, symbolized by the Hanka Robotics Corporation, a system of exploitation exists, in which Dr. Ouelet’s character is implicated. Not only does Hanka Robotics forcibly kidnap young “rebels”, but they experiment on the teens – putting Motoko’s brain into a robotic shell, wiping her memory, renaming her, and placing her on an anti-terrorist task force.
Like K, Motoko (now the Major) goes on a quest of self-identity. Yet, unlike K, she not recovers only her memories, but rediscovers her family, her memories and her ability to act for herself. No longer is consent in name only, but her agency is legitimized as she enacts justice through Aramaki’s gun.
Aramaki: Major? I’m with Cutter. Is there anything you’d like to say to him?
Major: Tell him this is justice. It is what I am built for.
Aramaki: So… Do I have your consent?
Major: My name is Major, and I give my consent.
[Aramaki shoots Cutter three times, killing him.]
Here, the story appears to suggest that in terms of navigating alternative technologies, the uniqueness of personhood and the agency to enact one’s will are important for sustaining identity. She ends the film stating:
“My mind is human. My body is manufactured. I’m the first of my kind, but… I won’t be the last. We cling to memories as if they define us. But what we do defines us. My ghost survived to remind the next of us… that humanity is our virtue. I know who I am… and what I am here to do.”
The Major’s assertion that she is the first, but not the last is echoed in Adams’s article and Stephen Lilley’s book Transhumanism and Society: The Social Debate over Human Enhancement, regarding inevitability claims (61-71). Over the past century, the mythos of human progression linked to technology has been perpetuated as normative. However, human anxiety regarding artificial intelligence and human enhancement lingers, resulting in films such as Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost in the Shell. These films, utilizing the medium of science fiction, subverts the traditional ethos of progressivism and scientism to mobilize concepts of value, appropriation, and agency. Both films explore how technology may undercut or exploit the “human” figure. However, I would argue that Ghost in the Shell in particular offers a more optimistic view which links the essence of human (the “ghost”) and relationships (her task force) to a sustainable future with a promise of agency, one we are more likely to hope for.
Figure 1. Smog and mountains of garbage paint a bleak picture of humanity’s future.
Figure 2. A dying tree symbolizes the death of nature, but the flower represents hope?
Figure 3 – The uniqueness and intimacy of Joi is removed by the overt sexualization of her program later in the film, creating a sense of meaninglessness regarding the relationship between her and K.
Figure 4 – Replicant creation disturbs as we view the “human” as products.
Figure 5 – With her brain implanted in an entirely
robotic body, the Major is the ultimate transhuman.
Figure 6 – Is the Major an example of an unhealthy link between human and technology? As she loses touch with her body, she begins to question her human essence.
Figure 7- Faced with a hacked robot, the Major
begins to question her selfhood.
Figure 8 – Batou sees the Major as human, and
ultimately must accept enhancement himself due to an accident.
Figure 9 – In the face of termination, the Major does not give her consent.
Figure 10 – Memories of her kidnapping return, but they remain “glitchy”. This visualization of her disintegrating and disintegrated memories call into question the infallible power of memory – and the uncertain knowledge of self.
Adams, Tim. “When Man meets metal: rise of the transhumans.” The Observer. Guardian News and Media Limited, Oct. 29, 2017, theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/29/transhuman-bodyhacking-transspecies-cyborg. Date Accessed: Oct. 31, 2017.
Blade Runner 2049. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Warner Bros Pictures, 2017. Film.
Chitwood, Adam. “’Blade Runner 2049’ Writers on whether Deckard is a Replicant.” Collider. Complex Media Inc, Oct 2017, collider.com/blade-runner-2049-is-deckard-a-replicant/. Date Accessed: Nov 2, 2017.
Ghost in the Shell. Dir. Rupert Sanders. Paramount Pictures, 2017. Film.
Lilley, Stephen. Transhumanism and Society: The Social Debate over Human Enhancement. SpringerLink, 2013, libaccess.mcmaster.ca/login?url=http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4981-8. E-book. Date Accessed: Oct 30, 2017.
Nagel, Thomas. “What is it like to be a bat?” The Philosophical Review, vol. 83, no. 4, 1974, pp 435-450. JSTOR. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2183914. Ebook. Date Accessed: Oct 27, 2017.
“Postmodernism.” New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Edited by Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005.
Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession, 1991, pp 33-40. JSTOR. JSTOR, http://www.jstore.org/stable/25595469. Date Accessed: Nov 1, 2017.
Riesman, Abraham. “Does Blade Runner 2049 Settle the ‘Is Deckard a Replicant’ Debate?” Vulture. New York Media LLC, Oct. 7, 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/10/does-blade-runner-2049-say-whether-deckards-a-replicant.html. Date Accessed: Nov. 2, 2017.
Van Riel, Raphael and Van Gulick, Robert. “Scientific Reduction.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Winter Edition, Ed. Edward N. Zalta, 2016, plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/scientific-reduction/. Date Accessed: Oct 27, 2017.