Cyborg Goddess:

The Technological Path to Transcendence
in Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell

by Dan Dinello


“Without a transcendental belief, each man is a mean little island. Since we cannot expect the necessary change in human nature to arise by way of natural means, we must induce it by artificial means. We can only hope to survive as a species by developing techniques which supplant biological evolution.”
            Arthur Koestler, Ghost in the Machine

“Pre-cybernetic machines could be haunted; there was always the spectre of the ghost in the machine. They could not achieve man’s dream, only mock it. Now we are not so sure. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”
            Donna Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto”


The soul-searching cyborg of Ghost in the Shell quotes the Bible, saying, “For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part but then shall I know fully.” Cyborg assassin and government agent Major Motoko Kusanagi wanders aimlessly around a city.  She feels lonely and trapped in her corporate-created body with its computer-enhanced brain. Confused about her identity beyond police work, Major Kusanagi wants to find her place in the world. She wants to know if she’s an autonomous person or an automaton.

In a gorgeous, visually poetic slow-motion sequence scored with haunting music and spine-tingling angelic chants, she looks for clues in the crowded urban futurescape. Kusanagi sees a series of ambiguous canals and streets that look like the bloodstream of an organism or the circuits of a machine. She’s startled to recognize a woman or a cyborg with the same body and face as she. A huge building under construction echoes her origins as a technological creation.  A sad dog stares quizzically as if to say, “Who are you?” 

Female mannikins, frozen behind a display window, mock her. Rain falls as children  - all with identical yellow umbrellas - run across a bridge. They - along with the countless blinking neon billboards, the bird-like airplane overhead, and the crowds of zombie-like people – serve to show humanity’s spiritless surrender to technology, its fusion with machines, and its obsolescence as a species. Kusanagi sees armless, female busts behind dark glass as ghostly voices sing the beautiful Shinto chant, “Faraway God, give us your blessing,” suggesting both her own fragmented identity and her desire to transcend it and find meaning beyond the human world. 

The Age of Spiritual Machines

Oshii Mamoru’s 1996 anime Ghost in the Shell - based on an acclaimed Manga series by Masamune Shirow - transpires in a future world where the replacement of fragile human body parts, including brains, has reached a logical conclusion. Most humans have become cyborgs. Despite mental implants that provide direct access to the internet, they retain a human identity – a “ghost,” mind or soul. The most powerful people are those that have been most technologically enhanced.

Super-heroine Major Kusanagi barely exists in her original human form, retaining only a small portion of organic gray matter inside an almost totally robotic, titanium body or “shell.” She can patch her nervous system into the internet, mentally “dive” into cyberspace, and access the connected minds of others. She practically co-exists on the net. In the movie’s ostensible action, Major Kusanagi pursues a terrorist hacker named the Puppet Master.  The philosophical action, however, focuses on her techno-metaphysical quest beyond gender and human identity for a spiritual bond, for perfection, for transcendent wholeness, for the ghost in her shell.

With its cyborg superwoman, Ghost in the Shell raises the possibility of technology’s positive potential, not only in terms of its path to transcendence, but also in terms of its subversive undermining of gender identity.  Unlike most science fiction films that valorize maleness and the human while devaluing females and demonizing technology, Ghost in the Shell uniquely advocates a vision of the posthuman future that exalts technology and renders obsolete humanity and its gender prejudices. In this, it reflects the philosophy of techno-feminist Donna Haraway. Incidentally, Donna Haraway is also the name of a cigarette-smoking police forensic expert in the Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.

Manifesto for Cyborgs

In her “Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway espouses the liberating potential for women inherent in cyborg mythology. While aware of the role this technology plays in the maintenance of corporate social control, government surveillance, militarism and patriarchy, Haraway embraces its rebellious promise: the machinic-muscled, macho movie-cyborg – Terminator, Robocop, and Iron Man among others – should be recoded as female and appropriated as a means of subverting gender bias.

Gender is constructed socially not determined biologically, according to Haraway and other feminist thinkers. "There is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women. Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism" (Cyborg Manifesto, 155).  Cultural conditioning includes the casting of male and female into oppositional and hierarchical categories: objective-subjective, rational-emotional, mind-body. These stereotypical dualities associate masculinity with the rational life of the mind and with technology; they associate femininity with the body’s irrational feelings and the natural world.  In this cultural match-up, the female often loses, forced into “inferior” or subservient roles. This inequality reflects gender bias, social discrimination, sexual objectification and sexist oppression, rather than something biological or natural, the possession of reproductive organs. 

The female cyborg – an unnatural, bionic body without ovaries or womb – undermines conventional understandings of biology as the site of essential, unified, natural gender identity. The boundary-breaking, hybridized female machine obliterates sexual distinctions and liberates us from female stereotypes based on bodily functions. Haraway implores women to feminize technology and embrace the cyborg as a post-gendered revolutionary who “cracks the matrices” of the dominant culture. “Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves” (Cyborg Manifesto, 181).

Haraway rebels against goddess-feminist wisdom that preaches the religion of nature and rejection of the modern techno-world. In her view, the romanticized goddess naively strives to resurrect an idealized fusion with the natural world and fails to engage with cyborgized reality. Women should therefore reject the Luddite bias of eco-feminism that identifies women with nature and men with technology as this reflects the very gender stereotypes that feminism strives to subvert. Haraway refuses an "anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology," and asserts, "I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” (Cyborg Manifesto, 181).

Radical Feminist Cyborg

Not a human with prosthetics, cyborg Kusanagi is built not born. Her only human parts consist of organic brain cells – from her former female self - housed in a titanium skull and augmented by a computer brain. Manufactured by the Megatech Corporation, her flesh-covered machinic body takes human shape as she floats in a fetal position, immersed in a liquid vat. A huge machine magnetically draws her out of the vat and suspends her in the air for drying. As a manufactured being, she reflects Haraway’s vision of a cyborg as a liberated entity – a creature without human origins and without a future as wife and mother.  “Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster,” writes Haraway, “the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the creation of a heterosexual mate” (Cyborg Manifesto, 151).

Although gendered female with corporate-sized breasts, Kusanagi impresses with her amazing abilities, not her gender attributes. She exhibits no sexual or romantic interest in her male-gendered cyborg partner Batou, who is equally represented as an exaggerated extreme of masculinity. As Haraway says, “Sex, sexuality, and reproduction are central actors in high-tech myth systems structuring our imaginations of personal and social possibility” (Cyborg Manifesto, 169). Eliminating sex helps eliminate a socially constructed gender identity. Kusanagi’s body can’t be impregnated. Her body is enhanced with strength, agility, and speed for police work, not for pleasure or reproduction. Nobody fucks with her, literally or metaphorically.

Cyborg technology has endowed a female character with strength, competence, and power while positioning her male partners in the more "feminized" inferior roles. Kusanagi makes the decisions, does much of the work, and relegates the males to sidekicks. "To be both female and strong implicitly violates traditional codes of feminine identity,” says feminist critic Anne Balsamo in Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women (43). As the narrative’s central character, Kusanagi effectively eradicates conventional gender, making her relatively unique in science fiction cinema. As a balance to the masculization of technology, cyborg Kusanagi’s gives a voice to the liberating promise of the feminized cyborg.

Break Through a Glass, Darkly

While she corresponds to Haraway’s vision of the post-gendered cyborg who refuses “the ideological resources of victimization” and “biological determinist ideology,” Kusanagi still reflects anxieties about the loss of coherent subjectivity. She has not completely fractured the chains of the dominant culture. A profound identity crisis afflicts her - brought on by the awareness that her body’s hardware and software are corporate-created and government-owned. “We do have the right to resign if we choose,” she tells Batou. “Provided we give back our cyborg shells and the memories they hold.” She looks at herself reflected in a glass darkly and finds it difficult to see her true self beyond her corporate-imposed identity as an assassin. Though her job is to find the Puppet Master, Kusanagi’s real mission is to find her true identity, her ghost.

The ghost concept was borrowed from Arthur Koestler whose book The Ghost in the Machine took its title from Gilbert Ryle, a British philosopher.(The Police also named their 1981 album Ghost in the Machine.) Ryle, in his 1949 book The Concept of Mind, attacked the distinction made between the body and the mind, calling it, with “deliberate abusiveness,” the myth of the “ghost in the machine.” In this way, Ryle mocked Rene Descartes’ dualistic notion that an immaterial soul or mind existed within a material body or brain, that it accounted for the person’s intelligence, spontaneity and identity, and that it could exist without the body.  Koestler did not agree with Ryle:  “By the very act of denying the existence of the ghost in the machine – of mind dependent on, but also responsible for, the actions of the body – we incur the risk of turning it into a very nasty, malevolent ghost.” (The Ghost in the Machine, 203)

Wanting it both ways, Koestler derides not only Ryle’s viewpoint as a “naively mechanistic world-view of the nineteenth century” (Ghost in the Machine, xiii), but also denies Descartes’ mind-body dualism. Without scientific proof, Koestler locates the mind or “ghost” in the physical materiality of the brain. Koestler’s "ghost in the machine” refers to higher, more complex neuronal brain functions that compete with earlier, more primitive structures.  Ghost in the Shell takes Koestler’s notion one step further and imagines that a conscious ghost can evolve within an artificial intelligence. While Kusanagi wanders through the city searching for her elusive soul, a new electronic soul emerges elsewhere.

The Soul of a New Machine

A bug in a government security program, the Puppet Master announces itself as an autonomous sentient lifeform, born from the net’s “sea of information.” Thus, Ghost in the Shell dramatizes the Singularity. First proposed in 1993 by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge who said, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” The notion of the coming Singularity has been adopted as an article of faith in the philosophy of Transhumanism. The Singularity refers to a techno-apocalypse when a purely technological entity – an evolved artificial intelligence or a computer network, for example - becomes self-conscious, autonomous, and smarter than humans. Ghost in the Shell uses this idea to unite Donna Haraway’s genderless future and Arthur Koestler’s ghost in the machine, proposing a sentient electronic entity that necessarily transgresses gender boundaries.

Having trapped the Puppet Master in a cyborg body, government scientists are stunned to discover through a brain scan that the conscious computer virus gone wild has generated a measurable mind of its own. “It doesn’t have an organic brain in its head,” says one scientist, “but we’ve detected what looks like a ghost in the auxiliary computer brain.” This suggests Koestler’s notion in Ghost in the Machine that the mind is neither Descartes’ immaterial soul nor Ryle’s pure myth; rather, it’s a higher level of brain function, a material-electro-chemical aspect that can be scientifically detected. Ghost in the Shell, extending Koestler to the Transhumanist viewpoint, proposes that a ghost can arise in a non-human, artificial mind.

As for Haraway’s perspective, the Puppet Master confounds gender expectations by exhibiting characteristics of both male and female. Though it inhabits the shell of a naked female cyborg, it speaks with a male voice. An examining scientist confusingly refers to it as “he,” but explains: “Its original sex remains undetermined and the use of the term ‘he’ is merely a nickname."  As a disembodied, electronic entity, the Puppet Master represents a technologized, posthuman subject that transcends the biological body, disrupts gender identification and helps undermine the sexist social constructions of patriarchy. Of course, it also undermines humanity.

Obsolete Humanity

In Ghost in the Shell, the Singularity marks the emergence of an evolutionary competitor. The Puppet Master exhibits a personality and a measurable mind structure analogous to a human ghost. The scientists must re-evaluate their own tenuous hold on their identity as macho masters of technology, when faced with an autonomous, self-conscious, non-biological techno-creature. 

The Puppet Master intensifies Kusanagi’s identity crisis.  She doubts her own partial humanity:  “Perhaps I’m a replicant made with a cyborg body and computer brain. Maybe I’m completely synthetic like that thing. If a computer brain could generate a ghost and create a soul, on what basis then do I believe in myself?  What would be the importance of being human?”

The diminishment of humanity began with its cyborgization and computer-brain enhancements. Even the most paranoid characters, in Ghost in the Shell, aren’t troubled by the net creeping into their lives despite the expansion of surveillance capabilities and the potential for mind invasion. One character Trash Man commits crimes while under control of the ghost-hacking Puppet Master. He later discovers that his memories have been destroyed and new ones implanted. With human memory fragmented and unreliable, what remains of autonomy, a central characteristic of humanity? Even the Puppet Master admonishes human complacency: “Man gains his individuality from the memories he carries. When computers made it possible to externalize memory you should have considered all the implications that held.”

Kusanagi is ordered to destroy Puppet Master. She and Batou locate it in the courtyard of a museum (The design was based on London’s nineteenth-century Crystal Palace Exhibition Hall, a museum devoted to the technology of the Industrial Revolution.) that displays exhibits of evolutionary history. Protected by a MechWarrior-type tank, Puppet Master still inhabits a cyborg shell. Kusanagi wants to neutralize it, then dive into its mind to understand it, to “see for myself what’s in there” and maybe discover her own unique individuality, her ghost.

A New Branch on the Evolutionary Tree

Kusanagi and the MechWarrior battle each other with big guns.  The collateral damage includes several dinosaur skeletons blasted into bits, pointing to an earlier species gone extinct. Then machine gun bullets rip holes in the evolutionary tree etched on a sidewall: siluriformes, bonbiomus, congridae, callichthyidae, anguillidae, chimpanzee, and hominis. The unmistakable symbolism is that organic evolution has reached a dead end with humanity.

Arthur Koestler - despairing of a human history of war, hatred, racism, classism and, by implication, sexism - said,Our biological evolution to all intents and purposes came to a standstill in Cro-Magnon days. . . It appears highly probable that homo sapiens is a biological freak, a remarkable mistake in the evolutionary process” (Ghost in the Machine, 267, 326). He thought man was an ape with better tools. Koestler’s hope for a technology that supplants biological evolution is answered by the self-evolved techno-entity in Ghost in the Shell.

The robo-tank is terminated with Batou’s help. In the fight, Kusanagi’s and Puppet Master’s shells have been ripped apart and left as armless torsos, like those seen in the store windows earlier. But both ghosts still exist, despite the “dead” bodies.  Seeking confirmation of her independent soul, Kusanagi dives into the Puppet Master’s mind. Surprisingly, it speaks through her female shell with a male voice, once again transgressing the gender boundary.

The Puppet Master surprisingly requests a fusion of their ghosts – a transformation that will enhance them both. On its own, the Puppet Master can’t evolve – it can only make copies. The merging of their minds will create a new entity. Evoking Plato who proposed a transcendent world beyond everyday reality, the Puppet Master begs Kusanagi to come out of the shadows and into the light. Enslaved to corporate control and unfulfilled in her present state of fragmentation, Kusanagi consents. Her merger action with the Puppet Master is a revolt against the corporate state that made her their tool and a leap of faith into the posthuman future.


The film ends on a transcendent note when Kusanagi and the Puppet Master unite their consciousnesses to form a new techno-individuality. Following Haraway, they have uncoupled reproduction from organic sexuality and, thereby, slipped the bonds of a socially imposed identity. As machines, they’ve never experienced sexual pleasure so its lack is no big deal. They have achieved something more significant and, according to Puppet Master, shifted to a “higher structure of existence.”

The new merged entity wakes up in a room, within a new shell. It’s disconcerting to see Kusanagi’s head apparently transplanted by Batou onto a body he “picked up on the black market.”  Wearing a schoolgirl uniform and sprawled in a large chair, she looks like a rag doll. The Kusanagi hybrid even speaks in a girlish voice.  She seems weak, stripped of her physical power. But this perception reflects gender prejudice.  The look of her body is defined by its corporate manufacturer and reflects a female stereotype of patriarchal culture.  As a result of its illicit appropriation, this new shell lies outside government control and therefore provides the Kusanagi hybrid a free, independent, unsuspicious mobile host.

The hybrid refuses Batou’s invitation to remain there, reciting the Biblical words that precede the “through a glass darkly” passage: “’When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ (1 Corinthians 13:11) Now I can say these things without help in my own voice because now I am no longer the woman known as the Major nor am I the program that is called the Puppet Master.” These words simultaneously signal the evolution of a new, dominant lifeform and the obsolescence of the human species and its prejudices. Ghost in the Shell’s validation of this male-female techno-spirit demonstrates Haraway’s vision that information technologies erase oppressive gender identities. By enacting her advocacy of "pleasure in the confusion of boundaries," the electronic cyborg becomes part of the "utopian tradition of imagining a world without gender” (Cyborg Manifesto, 150).

The world without gender is also a world without humanity. Unlike most science fiction films, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t elevate the organic human to superior status or mourn its extinction. Human identity is a database of fragile memories, easily manipulated or erased; the human body is a marionette, easily controlled or destroyed just as the evolutionary tree is blown to bits.  Kusanagi doesn’t yearn to be human, like the robot David in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the robot Andrew in Bicentennial Man, or the android Data in Star Trek The Next Generation. After jettisoning her shell, Kusanagi rejects the human for a chance at bodiless omnipresence and transcendence in the infosphere. Whereas films like I Robot, the Terminator series, andthe Matrix promote a conflict between human and machine, Ghost in the Shell proposes the integration of spirit and technology.  Ultimately, Ghost in the Shell embraces a technological path out of the self and towards a genderless, metaphysical union.

The Kusanagi-Puppet Master hybrid goes beyond Haraway’s anti-goddess formulation and embraces a spiritual aspect of posthuman-ness that her secular philosophy ignores. In its integration of entities, Ghost in the Shell reflects Arthur Koestler’s positive notion of self-transcendence as religious experience: “The integrative tendencies of the individual makes him feel that he is part of a larger entity which transcend the boundaries of the individual self. In the major Eastern philosophies, the “I am thou and thou art me,’ the identity of the ‘Real Self’ with the Atman, the all-one, has been preserved throughout the ages” (Ghost in the Machine, 242).  At the end of the movie, the Kusanagi hybrid says, “And where shall the newborn go now? The net is vast and infinite.” Cyberspace becomes the medium of religious self-transcendence and God-like omnipresence, the unification of the Puppet Master and Kusanagi becomes a techno-spiritual fusion - the electronic embodiment of a Cyborg Goddess.





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