Embodiment and subjectivity

On the identity of being human in a posthuman cyber future.


No need to imagine a faraway future – the overlap of the human body and technology is already pervasive in our life. Push the image to an extreme case, and imagine a hypothetical but not altogether impossible future in which humans can easily undergo physical enhancement. This was once the fear expressed by science fiction dating from the nineteenth century, with the concept of cyborgs, whose uncanny nature of mutability and hybridity triggers a threatened feeling in mankind. But in the present time, cybernetic technology has already been experimented with in medical treatment and proven successful, one typical example being the prosthesis. People’s attitudes are also shifting; such cases are no longer judged as ab-human in the degraded sense, but posthuman. It is just a matter of time until the technology will be ready for mass production – this cybernetic future is not a hypothesis. It is already on its way. And it raises a question: how does the identity of being human and the conception of subjectivity change in relation to the technology, and to reality itself?

Tons of science fiction stories deal with this topic. Here, I am going to look at two extremely influential sci-fi animes as case studies: Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995).

Ghost in the Shell addresses the complex entanglement of embodiment, perception and simulation. With this comes the problematization of identity. In its futuristic setting, cyberization has become pervasive and commonly accepted, ranging from basic prostheses to the higher extent that the entire brain can be cyberized.

There is one funny scene in which those cyber-enhanced people are consuming cyborg food. These artificial and nutritionally empty sandwiches are merely designed to cover up the strange fact that a cyborg body does not actually have any digestive function at all. But simply by performing the act of (futile) eating, the cyborgs remain connected to the biological experience of being „human“. More thoughts are lurking in the background here: Do we need to feel human when we are already posthuman? Why do certain physical experiences matter to our „human“ identity?

In recent decades, there has been an increasingly important theory in the field of psychology: the Embodied Cognition Theory. It claims that cognitive processes are deeply rooted in the body’s sensory functions and in their interactions with the world. A philosophical equivalent could be a phenomenological approach: Edmund Husserl, for example, talked about embodiment from an epistemological perspective and came to the conclusion that lived embodiment is not only a means of practical action but an essential part of the deep structure of human knowledge. One could say that embodiment, both materially and spiritually, lays the foundation of our subjectivity and thus for our identity. But with the pervasion of disembodiment and simulation in the cyber era, this identity itself becomes uncertain.

This leads to another plot point from Ghost in the Shell. Here, one’s entire self-understanding can actually be fabricated. This can be done by hacking into the cyberbrain and implanting simulated memories which constitute a background life story. The remembered events never actually happened. But the emotions triggered are undoubtedly real. And even if someone discovers the fakeness of one’s memory, one can practically not get rid of the mental and emotional side of it. Now, past, experience and memory are what constitute one’s individuality. But if this can be artificially fabricated, where is the line between real and unreal? Neither the „fake memories“ nor the „current emotions“ seem apt to serve as a criterion. And behind this surface, there remains the profound problem whether such an altered self-understanding could not already count as a completely virtual reality.

In Ghost in the Shell, the solution is implied in the title: one’s identity as a human being is closely tied to one’s consciousness. This mental entity is metaphorically referred to as the ghost, which is believed to be the true source of individuality and personhood. The body is just a shell. With this rigorous dualism, it does not really matter what extent of body enhancement one undergoes or whether one’s experience is real or simulated. The strict criterion to carve out what counts as real or „subjective“ is one’s mental ghost.

Now, the whole story in Ghost in the Shell is evolving around this seemingly intuitive idea of identity. Because there is one big challenge the cyborgs face. They are confronted with the uncontrolled creation of new ghosts: with the unplanned emergence of consciousness. This new and unknown form of cyber life is perceived as a threat and dubbed „the puppet master“. The cyborgs discover it as they encounter a robot who seems to be acting on some sort of free will. The cyborgs think someone implanted consciousness into this robot and was manipulating it. But it turns out that the robot is no puppet – and that there is no „puppet master“, either. Instead, the automaton comes from self-emergent artificial life. This life gradually supervenes to the entire collection of cyber data. It can reside in any robot, or merely exist in cyber form as sheer potential consciousness – even though the latter is normally avoided, as the life form aims at realizing itself in an actual body.

Of course, one could ask: if, hypothetically, a consciousness can emerge from pre-existing data and draw on that data as its identity without personally experiencing anything, how does this redefine the subjectivity of human identity?

These dilemmas must, for once, stay unanswered. Nonetheless, I still want to shed more light on human subjectivity in the future. And I can only do this by raising even more questions – now of a different sort: less epistemological and more about the examination of inner psychological worlds. Let us look at Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is set in an apocalyptic future. The doom of mankind comes from the attacks of so-called Angels. Those who are capable of fighting against Angels are all teenagers. They seem to become the chosen ones quite at random, as they display no conventional heroic attributes. Yet they prove selectively able to confront Angels. As the story unfolds, it turns out that they are chosen because they each possess a strong „Absolute Terror Field“ (A.T.-Field). The script defines such A.T. Fields as „that wall that encloses every mind that exists“. The funny thing in Evangelion is that the more reserved and unsociable one is, the stronger an A.T. Field one possesses. So, the world saviours in Evangelion are all problematic teenagers with antihero characteristics, dysfunctional families, heavy psychological problems and unsociable behaviour. This is exactly what makes them powerful in the sense of „the wall that encloses every mind“. Without the A.T. Field, it becomes impossible to define one’s own existence, and thus, when an Angel attacks, one’s physical body will dissolve together with the consciousness. But as the story goes, the leader of the government’s department of defence wants to initiate a project in which all human consciousness will merge into one single metaphysical being. The main idea is the following: It is assumed that there is an emptiness in people’s souls, which makes them having little individuality and thus weak A.T. fields. This emptiness cannot be filled as long as people exist as individuals. So, if Humanity is to defeat the Angels, it can only do so as one.

The initiation of this project can be triggered by the government leader. But the final decision of whether the entire human race will dissolve into the single super-being depends on one teenager fighter. He is the protagonist of the story. This apocalyptic project sounds exactly like his ideal world, as he wishes for total nothingness and no otherness, for a closed world that protects him from being hurt in the interaction with others. For him, perfect freedom is perfect nothingness, for, in such a nothingness, there is nothing to hold on to, nothing to orient oneself in.

As it is up to the decision of the teenage fighters whether they want to give up their epistemologically separate being and their individuality, the final episode of Evangelion focuses largely on the psychoanalysis of main characters. Not even humanity’s final fight with the angels is depicted. Evangelion ends with an open implication: the protagonist finally achieves the insight that individual existence is inevitably linked to the possibility of pain. And for him, pain is even better than a painless loss of identity and total nothingness. Therefore, he rejects the project at the last moment.

If we leave all religious and mystical and Freudian psychoanalytical interpretations aside and come to an oversimplified conclusion, it could be the following: The development of one’s identity must be made in relation to others and otherness, even if this involves pain. This is applicable to any time, but with particularly great importance to the present and upcoming future. Technology will make direct interpersonal contact more and more unnecessary. One can easily find satisfaction in virtual reality without getting physically involved with others. In Evangelion this is symbolized in a spiritual way – one retreats to total resignation and social outcast; one embraces nothingness and feels perfectly completed by being alone.

But this cannot be how we envision a liveable future for us, especially as the increasing alienation among this generation has already been pervasive all around the globe. Technology is defamiliarizing and restructuring the experience of our existence. The media theorist Jeffrey Sconce describes this disturbing postmodern society in critical terms:

„[…] where there were once whole human subjects, there are now only fragmented and decentred subjectivities, metaphors of simulation and schizophrenia … beings are no longer anchored in reality but instead wander through a hallucinatory world where the material real is forever lost.“ [1]

But to relate this alienation to the questions of technology, one could at least point out that technology does not exist in a vacuum, not even in radical sci-fi-scenarios like Ghost in the Shell. It is not able to alter our subjecthood solely on a technical basis. Rather, it interacts with all factors of human existence. This said, it seems to be very improbable that a disturbing „hallucinatory world“ can be or ever was brought about by means of technology alone.

In Ghost in the Shell and Evangelion, we were, in different contexts, able to observe that the complete detachment of the subjective – either from bodies or societies – is a myth. Even the most independent form of consciousness in Ghost in the Shell – the self-emergent life form –actively searched for embodiment and contact with the physical and social realm. A similar decision was made by the character in Evangelion in refuting a future of complete nothingness. The dreadful scenarios drawn of the cyber- and cyborg-futures rest on the dubious premise that „the subjective“ is an independent entity which can be singled out, attacked, destroyed or transformed into a „decentred subjectivity.“ But I think the examples of early sci-fi anime shows that „the subjective“ does not necessarily need to be depicted like this. Instead, we can also understand it on a relational basis, tied to embodiment, social interactions and reciprocity. If the future is going to affect humanity, it might not necessarily transform the „human subject“. Instead, it might simply transform the relations the subject lives with.

By Shuo Chen. Picture found on thegeeklife.com



[1] Sconce, Jeffrey (2000): Haunted media. Electronic presence from telegraphy to television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press (Console-ing passions), 19.

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