On Tourist Towns

Featured image source: Junji Ito’s horror manga  “Army of One.”

My hometown is a tacky tourist town, and as such, has always prided itself on its tacky public art installations. They’re usually nothing particularly terrible. Oftentimes, they take the form of things like stone statues of people sitting down looking at a small obelisk on the ground. They cheapen the town’s atmosphere, but aren’t exactly eyesores worth complaining about. Anyone with an inkling of artistic taste would just groan and move on.

The latest schlock shoveled out by this city’s council of old fogeys, though, surpasses mere kitsch. It’s dreadful. It’s monstrous. It’s even disgusting. And it’s right outside where I work.

Let’s back up a bit.

So the place where I work is a jewelry store. The landmark we use to help people find our store is a K6 red telephone box, the kind that you’d see in London about 80 years ago. Not content with leaving an out-of-place phonebooth in peace, the city council here has bastardized this poor thing for various public art projects for as long as I can remember. The previous inhabitant of the phone booth was a grey steel tumor in the shape of a faceless man, who had been hanging off the side of the phone booth’s door. He was perpetually in the act of trying his hardest to pry the door open, leaving a small crack into which tourists often tossed their trash (despite there being a trash can ten feet away). I imagine this didn’t sit well with the city, because one day, I noticed that my flat bendy friend was gone.

Several days later, I came to work and saw a public servant shoving what appeared to be wooden boards into the phone booth. Upon closer inspection, I came to a blood-chilling realization: these boards were covered with pulsating, fleshy, hairy masses.

Okay, so they don’t pulsate. But they are fleshy, and they are hairy, and they do wear swimsuits. They’re made of some kind of foam or rubber which has already begun decaying, giving some of the bodies inside a zombie-like appearance. Basically, three of these boards are pressed up against the poor phone booth’s windows to give the impression that the booth is completely filled with beachgoers. You can see butts, legs, boobs, nipples, armpits, and hair crammed against the glass. But you can’t see faces. That would just be too much, apparently.

You see, my town is a beach town. And… yeah, that’s as far as the line of thinking behind this monstrosity goes. This is the kind of dreck this city cooks up on Tuesday nights, just so geezers with nothing better to do at 11:00 PM can kvetch during the City Council meetings.

So now I’m stuck with an eldritch horror living outside of my storefront. What’s worse is that the city put this thing inside the phone booth right before the heaviest rains we had gotten in the past ten years. When I came back to work the next week, I found mold growing on some of the bodies. The phone booth had essentially become a petri dish.

My friends and I all think this is the worst thing to ever happen to this town. So what do the tourists think of this abomination? Their reactions range from tickled amusement (old ladies; I’m really curious to find out just why this aberration makes them titter, and whether they’re diseased in the head or not), to pure horror (small children), to disgust (teenage girls), to bemusement (Chinese tourists), to utter confusion (everyone else).

This monstrosity is slated to fester in its current location for at least two more years. My friend invited me to go to the council meeting tonight to protest the heap of flesh, but I’m not sure whether I’m more content with sitting on the Internet complaining about it instead. Then again, the only way to get what you want is to speak out, so…

Anyway. Without further ado, I present to you:

Junji Ito’s “Phonebooth”



Reminder that someone got paid to make this, and then spent many hours actually constructing it.

Intertextuality In The Enabling Age

Recently, I read an article in the December 18, 2016 issue of the New York Times Magazine by John Herrman titled Stage Craft (titled “Who’s Responsible When Extremists Get a Platform?” on the NY Times Magazine’s website). In this piece, Herrman gave a face (albeit a mercurial one, as fitting its nature) to a media phenomenon that the United States felt in its bones stronger than ever before last election – the platform. In particular, Herrman explores social media websites as “platforms,” habitats which allow individuals from all over the planet to share their values and perceptions online in what more cynical Internet dwellers might refer to as echo chambers.

“Platforms” – such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – act as “middlemen between users and other users” where “participants successfully contribute to the broader marketplace by inducing other participants to engage more.” In other words, platforms are where news stories are shared and woven into the fabric of public perception by their human readers. Herrman aptly points out that social media platforms allow users to conjure up new realities into being, as well as lift the burden of responsibility for empowering not-so-glamorous groups (such as white nationalist movements) from the shoulders of Mark Zuckerberg and other social media moguls.

Platforms are the emblems of what I now call the Enabling Age. This is a time period in which rapid, wide-ranging communications platforms on the Internet enable like-minded groups to come together and create “entire ecosystems” from their shared values. More accurately, this is a time period in which we have become more aware of our own human ability to create such ecosystems. We are also faced with the frightening responsibilities that come with managing those ecosystems, coping with ecosystems with which we may not agree, and the dreaded prospect of deciding which ecosystems we should let thrive and which we should curtail for the betterment of the societies we envision for ourselves.

Herrman’s analysis is thoughtful, as well as needed in a period where we’ve been left in existential disarray. But I feel as if Herrman has left out the lynchpin that ties the ideas of ecosystems, platforms, business, and human thought sharing together: intertextuality. As its name implies, intertextuality is the relationship between texts or bodies of knowledge. If we extend our understanding of “bodies of knowledge” to games, movies, TV shows, and other pieces of media, then we can begin to understand why media companies these days are so obsessed with ‘creating narratives’ and other enigmatic phrases you tend to see on entry-level job apps for tech companies.

Now let’s take a look at how intertextuality ties platforms together. Take Activision Blizzard, for example. We know Blizzard Entertainment that has brought us household name gaming titles like World of Warcraft, the Diablo series, StarCraft, and most recently, Overwatch. As a disclaimer, I’ve been playing Blizzard games for years. And for the most part, I’ve enjoyed them and continue to enjoy them. But I’ll also be the first to point out that while Blizzard games enchant players with what their fans call “polish” (visual/tactile/audio details that make their games incredibly immersive and addicting), their more recent titles have taken measures toward simplifying their gaming experiences. Overwatch combines First Person Shooter hallmarks like rocket jumping and map exploration, strips away most of the mechanical nuances of the shooter genre, and then condenses the playing space into small maps where the pace of a match is largely determined by the usage of Ultimates and by chokepoints which must be broken. World of Warcraft initially drew the ire of thousands of old-school MMORPG players for softening the penalties other titles in the genre imposed upon dead players, among other aspects.

Blizzard’s harshest critics often point fingers at these games for such simplification and accuse Activision Blizzard of watering down their games’ genres. I’m tempted to say that they have a point, and that if their more recent titles were produced by a no-name studio in China with far less ‘polish,’ these games might just well fall by the wayside. Yet Activision Blizzard games are huge. Overwatch alone drew in around 20 million players as of this October. So what keeps people going? Outside of the aforementioned ‘polish,’ what marks Blizzard as the emperor of addicting games?

The simple answer is intertextuality. Blizzard is widely known for re-using themes throughout its games: player abilities, artwork, icons, sound effects, characters, storylines. Whether you’re playing Diablo 3, World of Warcraft, or Overwatch, you’re likely to find references to another Blizzard game littered about the place. The Murloc ramen mascot in Overwatch’s Hanamura stage comes to mind, as does the nostalgic noise for the Warrior’s Charge ability in World of Warcraft (which is actually just a stock sound for a missile in flight) and the similarity between the nature-commanding abilities of Diablo II’s Druid class, the Keeper of the Grove’s abilities in Warcraft 3, and the Druid class’ spells in World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft, in fact, draws heavily upon the draught of nostalgia and reworking old plotlines for future expansion packs.

As a result, we see an intertextuality between Blizzard’s various games. Blizzard has been around for almost two decades, and many of its fans have been around that long as well. There’s a sense of communal evolution in Blizzard games, or the feeling that its games and characters have grown up alongside the players themselves. This creates a strong sense of cohesion among those players, who feel tied together by the nostalgic memories that Blizzard has stoked time and time again throughout its thematically interconnected universes. In short, Blizzard enables players to bond through nostalgia over its various platforms.

Activision Blizzard is not alone in drawing upon the forces of nostalgia, intertextuality, and platforms for its business models. Square Enix does the same with its Final Fantasy series of games. Nintendo employs similar methods with all of its titles, though they really only come together in the Smash Bros. series (perhaps the phenomenon of social ecosystems explains the appeal of “all-star games” like the Smash series?). Marvel Comics is without a doubt the most prominent purveyor of intertextuality today, since Marvel has embarked on erecting a massive empire composed of familiar comic book faces and repurposed plotlines over movies, TV shows, video games, and of course, comic books. But since my knowledge of Marvel is relatively limited, I have decided not to comment on the matter.

Going forward, how can we use our knowledge of how companies enable their fans to feel certain emotions and bond as dedicated consumers? I can’t say for certain. Herrman feels that it might be best not to view content producers as just content producers anymore. In an age where individuals share content they like within their communities and with other communities, creators – and the platforms where their work is shared – are also the enablers of experiences, of emotions, of memories, and of communities. It’s always been this way, and it will likely continue being this way as long as humans have some way of communicating with each other online and offline.

Of Orcs and Men, and Why Their Best-Laid Schemes Sometimes Go Awry

If you told me 14 years ago that there would be a movie based on the Warcraft series, I would probably have looked at you in awe. If you would have told me that during my college career, several years after I had given up World of Warcraft and many more years since I had played Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne, I would have shrugged and thought it was a neat idea. When I found out that a director named Duncan Jones (known for his 2009 movie, Moon, and for being David Bowie’s son) would be making a Warcraft movie back in 2014, I was cautiously excited about how the movie might succeed, as well as the numerous ways in which it could utterly fail. And now, having seen said movie, I’m left with a rather curious rift in my conscience.

Warcraft manages to simultaneously indulge in and estrange Blizzard’s beloved Fantasy franchise. It reinterprets and presents to us anew Warcraft’s greatest strengths, while draining the essence from all of the meat surrounding said strength.

For starters, Warcraft is not a movie about World of Warcraft. It actually takes place during the first Warcraft game, titled Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994). It also draws upon retroactive histories contained within various novellas tied into the early Warcraft universe. Here’s a synopsis:

The Warcraft series mainly takes place on a planet named Azeroth. Azeroth is inhabited by various sentient races: Humans, Dwarves, Goblins, High Elves, and many other beings. Unbeknownst to the peoples of Azeroth, a planet far away called Draenor is in the midst of a crisis. A serious one, at that, because the planet is literally falling apart. Draenor is inhabited by numerous other sentient races, one of these being the Orcs. The Orcs inhabit a totemic society that values ancestor worship, honor, and battlefield prowess above all else. An Orcish warlock called Gul’dan, though, has dabbled in the dark Fel magic of demons. Gul’dan promised to find a new world for the Orcish tribes using that Fel magic, which, unfortunately, requires the life force of other beings like the peaceful Draenei (the blue people we see at the beginning of the film). Once Gul’dan creates the Dark Portal, his Orcish army spills out into the world of Azeroth and begins razing every Human settlement in sight.

The Chief of the Frostwolf clan, Durotan, isn’t too happy about this. He feels as if Gul’dan is leading both the Orcs and Azeroth toward further destruction for his own benefit. The Human Alliance isn’t too happy about its villages being attacked, either, so they rally some armies to fight the threat. Thanks to a half-Orcish woman named Garona, the two armies meet up and come to understand each others’ similar goals. It’s up to the Humans and their newfound Frostwolf allies to defeat Gul’dan and save both the Orcish people and Azeroth from demonic influence.

wow 3

One reason why the Warcraft series has always held such a tender place in my heart – at least as a guilty pleasure – was because it took Fantasy genre conventions and imbued them with interesting twists. The Warcraft series has never borne the scholarly load of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, which is renowned for its then-unprecedented attention to and reforging of classical European myth. Nor has the Warcraft series ever delved into the darkest depths of the Human psyche to the extent that Games Workshop’s Warhammer series has (or, in turn, Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné series of novels, which inspired the Warhammer series). Instead, Warcraft gives us new perspectives on the things we take for granted in Fantasy, then packages them in an easy-to-swallow pill that is accessible to most audiences.

The Warcraft series is perhaps best known for its Orcs. As of Warcraft 3 (2002), Warcraft’s Orcs are far removed from the brutish greenskins of the Warhammer universe. Retcons by Blizzard writer Chris Metzen and various other authors over the years have made sure that the Orcs were always a sympathetic people, one with which audiences can connect on an emotional level.

Jones’ Orcs, who inhabit the era of the first Warcraft game, are no different. They laugh. They cry. They tease each other. They worry about their children’s futures. They indulge in bouts of nostalgia for old battles and old hunts. They’re a people with differing opinions, different tribes, different codes of honor, and respect for one another and (sometimes) for other beings. In the state we find them in, the Orcs have rallied under Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) in the hopes of finding a new homeland via the Orcish tradition of clan warfare. Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his Frostwolf clan, meanwhile, question how the demonic demagogue has manipulated their brethren purely by exploiting cultural values. A parable for modern times, no?

So it’s no small wonder why Jones decided to give Warcraft’s Orcs the spotlight. Not only do the Orcs provide some of the movie’s more contemplative dialogue, but much effort was also clearly made by Warcraft’s animation team to make the Orcs as relatable as possible. Their muscled bodies possess a remarkable amount of heft and lifelike weight. When they move, you can sense that they’re brimming with primal power. When an Orc smashes a Human’s head in with one of the series’ iconic war mauls, the impact left behind shakes your own bones. Their range of emotion also stretches to the tender, as seen when Durotan coddles his newborn son with one of his massive hands.

wow 2

But a solid representation of the Orcs is not enough to carry a film. Knowingly or not, Warcraft follows its source material’s empathy for the Orcish race perhaps a little too closely. By comparison, the Alliance – composed of standard Humans, as well as of Dwarves and High Elves (and Gnomes, but we don’t see them here) – is shockingly stiff in the personality department. King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) halfheartedly shouts his commands on the battlefield without moving his mouth more than what conversational speech would require. Travis Fimmel gives the most genuine performance as Anduin Lothar, champion of the Alliance and Warcraft’s resident ‘gruff and witty man who is willing to toss aside his society’s values for its greater good,’ but is ultimately forgettable due to his lack of backstory.

Warcraft‘s spell casters give particularly stilted performances. Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) the rogue mage is as uncertain of his next line as he is of his own skill in magic, while the mighty Archmage Medivh (Ben Foster) delivers his platitudes with all the candor of an early 90s home-to-video anime dub. What may have seemed like jokes in Warcraft’s script come off as flaccid asides in the mouth of Medivh. Foster’s performance is especially uncomfortable to me, a Warcraft fan, because I know just how imposing Medivh actually is in his home series.

The unwilling half-Orc/half-Draenei ambassador, Garona Halforcen (Paula Patton), nearly salvages the Human race from a life of verbal tedium. Her snide remarks and openness to the compassion of the Humans make her both likable and relatable. She flirts a little with Khadgar, dabbles in love with Medivh, then is whisked away to the battlefield and is forced to make some rather tough choices regarding her newfound Human friends.

Part of what makes Garona demand our compassion is that we learn a little about her past. She was disowned by her fellow Orcs for being half-Draenei, and she faced much abuse during her childhood. She’s propped up to be Warcraft’s strong female lead, and she does a decent job of doing so because we know where she’s coming from, why she must fight, and why she’s ultimately distraught when she must turn on her benefactors for the good of Azeroth (though in the original game, she does so of her own volition).

wow 4

It’s that city with the giant cobblestones.

And that might be one of Warcraft’s biggest issues: world-building. World-building is a broad term for the act of making backstories not only for a fictional universe’s characters, but also for its belief systems, its technologies, its magics, its histories, and so on. Together, these aspects give a story’s world texture. They give us a reason to care about the fate of the world, its characters, and all of the goodness that would be lost if its cultures were all killed off. It’s a task with which many Fantasy works struggle, and one which few manage to fulfill (ironically, the original Warcraft series does a satisfactory job of achieving this goal).

Warcraft rarely grants us the opportunity to become invested in its characters. At the movie’s onset, we’re thrust into a cacophony of names, places, historical events, and concepts with implicit (yet never explained) meanings. We’re neither privy to the richness of its peoples, nor to the philosophies behind its magics. At one point, we’re whisked away to Dalaran, the renowned city of mages. But unless you’re a Warcraft fan, why should you care about some city floating in the sky? What happened to the Orcish homeworld of Draenor, and how did Gul’dan manage to win the hearts of desperate Orcs with Fel magic alone? Non-Blizzard audiences may not be left in the dust, but they may feel as if there is a body of knowledge restricted from them. Blizzard fans, meanwhile, might feel as if that body of knowledge has been given short shrift by Jones.

When the Orcs become fully embroiled in the fate of the Human Alliance, even they start to become paper-thin. A father-son-killer revenge subplot is haphazardly established near the middle of the film, then is dredged up in the film’s climactic battle in a limpid attempt to elicit audience tearwelling. Gul’dan’s Orcs are also rather quick to change their allegiances. After Gul’dan breaks a traditional Orcish rule of combat, his followers spit in his face and call him dishonorable. A moment later, they obey his will and turn on an approaching army of Humans. Ten minutes later, they turn on Gul’dan once again for desecrating Orcish battle rituals. It’s all very confusing, and we’re never left with a clear reason to sympathize with one party or the other.

There are, of course, plenty of visual easter eggs for diehard Warcraft fans to feast upon. Near the beginning of the movie, we are given a glimpse of the famous Ironforge forges, with their cascades of molten metal and tireless dwarves hard at work. A murloc gurgles its familiar warcry near a riverbank while a caravan of Alliance soldiers passes by. A panning shot of the Stormwind gryphon rookery gives way to a view that any Alliance player should recognize when flying into the Human capital. In an especially delightful moment, Khadgar casts Polymorph on a prison guard and temporarily turns him into a sheep. These references are scattered throughout the movie, but surprisingly, they’re never significant enough to leave non-Warcraft fans in the dark nor make Warcraft fans squirm in their seats.

It is a bit disappointing, though, that we never see Gul’dan faithfully represent the Warlock class in this film. He does cast what appears to be Drain Soul several times (with an accompanying cheesy visual effect), but we never see him summon a demon or fling a green Fel fireball. It’s a minor complaint from a former WoW player, though having Gul’dan do any of the above would have confirmed his immense power for uninitiated audiences.

wow 6

A very boring man bereft of all emotion. Also, those magic effects are hilarious.

Part of the reason why Warcraft ultimately feels vapid (in spite of the Orcs) is because of the source material upon which it is based. While the Warcraft series as a whole received many updates to its lore over the years, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans began as a very simple game. It drew heavily upon Fantasy universes like Warhammer and painted a shallow picture of its two main races: Humans good, Orcs bad. It wasn’t until Warcraft 3 that we were given the holistic view of the Orcs that we know today.

With this knowledge, it’s easy to question just where Warcraft fits in a Fantasy climate of comparatively elaborate offerings like Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings. But remember that the Warcraft series is known for its creative reinterpretations of Fantasy convention. Maybe Warcraft, as a movie series, can exist on its own as a unique entity within the world of cinematic Fantasy, given the right nudge.

Indeed, even the most ardent Warcraft fans might be left wondering why Jones chose this particular story arc to kickstart his ambitious film series. Why not begin with the legacy of Thrall, who dredged his downtrodden people up from despair and lead them forward to build a great new home for Orc-kind? Or the tragic saga of Arthas Menethil, whose descent into madness is filled with conflicted moral choices, betrayal, and a whole cast of fascinating and terrifying undead monstrosities? Or even the chronicle of The Sundering, in which Azeroth’s most important Night Elves make some very tough decisions about the use of magic while their pristine world plunges into demonic chaos?

These three stories alone grant the Warcraft universe a great deal more depth than what most outsiders will see as a generic clash between humans and ugly people. To be sure, a planned Warcraft film saga requires us to know just where the Orcs and Humans are coming from. But, as others have pointed out, that knowledge could have likely been contained within a short prologue at the beginning of the film.

Put simply, are audiences willing to see more Orcs and Humans squabbling?

wow 5

Just imagine clicking on all of those soldiers and making them say silly quips over and over.

While it’s easy to lambaste Warcraft for its stale Humans and flimsy world-building, it’s also important to recognize that Warcraft mostly accomplished one of its main goals: portray the Orcs as a varied, complex people. It’s just unfortunate that the Orcs are weighed down by their pink-skinned counterparts’ middling dialogue and acting performances. It’s more unfortunate that this mediocrity eventually subsumes the tribulations of the Orcs and turns them into something equally as puzzling to watch for both Warcraft fans and non-Warcraft fans alike.

And that ending. Oh boy, is that ending going to make diehard Hordies mad.

I think I’ll close the night by re-watching the Warcraft 3 opening cinematic. It’s briefly referenced at the beginning of Jones’ Warcraft, and it’ll give me the nostalgic high I need after watching Medivh mumble his way through one of Azeroth’s most catastrophic events.

On the Language of Anthropology. Or, More Accurately, Some Cliches, and Why They’re Not So Bad After All

Anthropology is an ironic discipline.

Anthropology requires its adherents to balance cynicism with an unyielding faith in mankind to reveal -some- kind of truth about the human condition. It also, as one of my former professors stated, is riddled with bizarre dogmatisms and ancestor worship. Anthropologists are typically regarded as an off-kilter, shamanic force for progressive change, yet many of its texts cling to the law of the land set forth by our ancestors nearly 100 years previous. Even the most radical works must bow to their predecessors in some form or another. There’s nothing wrong with that, but many times, a fledgling anthropologist will steep his or her studies a little too deep in the quotations of those who came before. Which, I suppose, is just a natural part of learning how to write.

I was eager to agree with my professor at the time, as it simultaneously allowed me to distance myself from the more mundane readings were assigned as well as rung true to some of the observations I had made from my fellow classmates.

So there’s been a sort of moving away, or breaking free, from these strictures in the works of today’s most promising anthropologists. This has resulted in an experimental new vocabulary that nonetheless is steeped in the likes of Foucault and co. And many of these early attempts to weave a new vocabulary… are kind of annoying. To me, anyway. It’s really petty of me to say that, because this new vocabulary (as well as a couple of old, timeless tropes) are necessary because it provides the foundation for new modes of thought.

As a result, I’m using this article to explore why I cringe a little when I read about bodies for the umpteenth time. And at the same time, I’m reconciling the fact that they’re words we have to live with to make intellectual progress.

This article is not meant to be a call to action – though you’re welcome to come up with new words and tropes on your own. Rather, I’m inviting others to question how the language of anthropology might change in the near future, as well as ponder what those shifts might say about our relationship with other living (and, as is becoming the trend, non-living) things in the world.

1. Bodies, Embodiment, Bodied Subjects

The object and the subject are eternal forces in Epistemology. It’s the relationship upon which the study is founded: things (objects) are acted upon by the interpretations of others (subject, or subjectivities). From this observation comes the concept of the body, happens to be one of the core tenets of anthropology. In the words of Michel Foucault, bodies (human, in classical cases, but now pretty much anything able to be interpreted these days) are “objects” of knowledge, which are shaped by the discursive practices of other bodies as they attempt to make sense of the world.

The concept of the body has gone on to form the basis for numerous Anthropological sub-disciplines and movements. It’s especially crucial to Feminist theory; which, despite what many might think, is also about the plays of power exercised over all kinds of bodies.

Bodies and embodiment aren’t  terms that annoy or irritate me in any way. But one does begin to question whether some Anthropologist or philosopher out there will offer some other conception of the ‘self’ as we know it, one that will catch on to perform equally impressive (and liberating) work as has been done in Feminist theory and other related fields. It also leads us to our next point:
2. Unraveling/Unpacking

If there’s one thing anthropologists love to do more than bodying things, it’s unraveling those bodies. With a little skill and a lot of postulation, we can decipher the Pharaoh’s Curse inscribed upon these bodies after unraveling them, while warding off the curses of generalization and oversimplification in the process.

Unraveling and unpacking are terms lifted directly from the Art world. I need not delve into the history of who used the terms first, since I’m sure they could be attributed to any number of art critics. What’s important to know is that it basically means dissecting and laying bare as many symbols within an artistic work as possible. Then the critic can examine these symbols, extrapolate their potential meanings, ponder how those meanings play into one another in the work of art, and then offer broader possibilities as to what those symbols might mean about our relationship with the world.

This process slots nicely into the existing toolkit of anthropology. So well, in fact, that the terms are used -a lot- in the discipline. Where there’s symbol, there’s unpacking of symbol. And when symbols are unpacked, their components are traced to the signifiers that give them cultural meaning.

They really are great terms. Can we replace them with another word that implies deconstruction? Will we need another term for the act of analyzing symbols and the roles they might play in the pursuit of whatever it is humans like to do (Barthes postulated that this was freedom, in all that implies)? I’m not sure. This one doesn’t bother me that much, until I read it 50 or so times in a book. And it serves such a laudable purpose. How could we dispose of our unpackings and unravelings?

3. Gerund-ing

This trope isn’t restricted to any particular example, but the one that immediately comes to my mind is “worlding.” Basically, it’s the act of turning nouns or objects into active subjects by ascribing verb-like traits to them, which is best done through the power of the gerund (-ing on the end of a noun). The more cynical among us might see it as a form of quasi-anthropomorphism, which is a topic of endless debate in the anthropological community.

Take the case of worlding. Worlding, as defined by Professor Mei Zhan in her comparative study of traditional Chinese medicine and institutional medicine, Other-Worldly, asserts that “the world takes place in things;” (Mei 22-23) it’s actually a term originally coined by Martin Heidegger to emphasize the fact that the concepts humans within communities interpret, and the ways in which they interpret them, contribute to the production of knowledge systems that define specific worlds. It’s a more holistic term for describing the phenomena of ‘globalization’ and ‘acculturation’ that otherwise confine humanity to one track of perceiving their immediate and distant surroundings.

By adding the -ing suffix to the concept of a ‘world’ (a realm, a place to be and in which humans exist, rather than the planet Earth as a whole), Heidegger and Mei give the results of spinning together realities a certain degree of agency. Gerunds imbue seeingly inert objects with unpredictable mobility, thereby reminding us that the concepts that we deem controllable (through words) have, in fact, lives of their own.

Gerunding, as it turns out, is actually a very useful tool in the world of anthropology. It allows us to condense the nebulous concept of “these human and non-human actors are working in tandem to produce culturally significant phenomena” into a single word. And maybe that’s what rustles me whenever I read about the act of ing-ing. Whenever I read about worlding, I think of pedagogical shorthand, like a Bible Verse. It reminds me of a concept that, upon its utterance, conveys a constellation of thought, but one that has been reduced to a mere symbol removed from the intellectual grist from which it came.

At that point, I begin to feel like George Orwell despising his Esperanto-speaking aunt and uncle at a young age. But maybe I just need to get over myself. Gerunding complex concepts is an effective stopgap when you’re trying to explain said concepts to academics and non-academics alike, as it provides a beacon for summoning forth messy ruminations on humanity (and all of their metaphysical baggage) wherever you are in the book. Maybe as we better come to understand concepts like worlding and accept them as natural occurrences in daily life will we move beyond the gerund.

But then there’s the conundrum of taking human actions for granted. Isn’t that pedagogical itself? The madness never ends.

4. Shifty

I’m not really sure where this came from. The earliest mention I can find is from Anthropology Through the Looking-Glass by Michael Herzfeld, who attributes “shifty” to a book by James Boon titled Other Tribes, Other Scribes: Symbolic Anthropology in the Comparative Study of Cultures. Meriam-Webster gives the following defintion of ‘shifty’:

: having an appearance or way of behaving that seems dishonest
: difficult to catch : able to move and change directions quickly

Anthropologists tend to favor the latter definition when employing ‘shifty’ in their works. The most recent example of ‘shifty’ that I’ve read is from Gabriella Coleman’s excellent ethnography of Anonymous, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Face of Anonymous. Here, the word shifty takes on both of the above meanings, as anyone who has spent any length of time in even the most pedestrian corners of the Internet can testify.

When something is shifty in the world of anthropology, it means that it is indeterminate. Its identity is fluid, subject to change, and unable to be fully grasped by those domineering entities we call humans. It’s a darling phrase among anthropologists because it also implies mischievousness in the actors we normally take at face value.

In addition to the aforementioned ancestor worship, there’s no shortage of reverence for the Trickster figure among anthropologists (of which I am happily guilty). Things being shifty reaffirms the presence of the Trickster in our daily lives. Anthropologists do take great pleasure in making others feel unstable when they are confronted with the instability of their own societies, after all.

So if I, too, frequently indulge in the fae sensibilities of the Trickster, why does the word ‘shifty’ make me grimace? Maybe it reminds me of myself, and that I don’t have the security to face my own guilty pleasures (somehow I doubt this is the case). Or maybe it’s the mental image that it conjures, that of an elderly fellow at a keyboard (or typing machine) indulging in a little private mischief as they traverse the boundaries between human worlds.

In any case, it’s pretty clear that my general dislike for the word ‘shifty’ is petty. It’s a good word for describing the more incomprehensible, untameable sectors of our societies. Perhaps we can find different words that express different angles of this insight, though.

There are plenty of other examples we could expound upon, but these four tropes are the ones I see time and time again that make me think, “Wow, this was really creative 100 pages ago.” But others may not share my feeling on the matter. In the end, the author gets his or her point across, and we gain a new perspective on humanity as a result.

That’s why I bothered to obsess over these words in the first place. If phrases like ‘shifty’ and the act of gerunding our subjects represents certain ideas about the world (that it’s constantly being redefined by an infinite number of actors, both alive and inanimate, working with one another), then is it possible that our perspectives on human societies will radically change in the next few years? What kind of language shifts will accompany those changes?

I can’t say for certain. In the meantime, I’ll sit back and watch this shiftiness unfold.

Ballad of Renegade Angels

Yes, another anime reference. This time, it’s Cowboy Bebop. In Xavier’s case, though, I guess it would be a rambling of renegade angels.

One evening, over burgers and drinks, my friend reminded me of a show whose existence I had completely forgotten. Its name is Xavier: Renegade Angel. Having only seen a few choice scenes, my knowledge of the show was “it looks like a Will Wright creation if he had been outsourced to China” and “it looks like a Will Wright creation on a particularly bad trip.”

The show itself ran for two (two!) seasons on Adult Swim, from 2007 to 2009, and was created by Vernon Chatman and John Lee, who were the frontal lobes behind the chaotic child puppet show parody Wunder Showzen.

With little else to go off of, I started watching Xavier from Episode 1. And I watched this hirsute pangloss ramble his away across the expanses of his own psyche right up until the very end. I don’t really know why; there are funnier and more intellectually stimulating things I’m also watching at the same time. But I did it, and there’s enough mind goop sloshing around in my brain for me to write about it while waiting for my shift to end.

You can view the entire series on Adult Swim’s website here.

To get started, here’s one of the show’s more well-known… moments, for lack of a better word.

Don’t worry, it doesn’t make much more sense in context.

There’s not much to really say about the titular Xavier, but that’s because – as he would likely say – he’s meant more to be read than be said: he’s a spiritual seeker who frequently minces his metaphors, mangles his aphorisms, and indulges in his own turd-nuggets of wisdom at the expense of the ignorant hicks he initially attempts to educate. Xavier’s bizarre appearance (undoubtedly a haphazard metaphor for the character’s own scrambled insecurity and self-esteem) is occasionally brought into question, but only as a means through which to typecast him as an outsider, a threat to the hegemony of the communities inhabited by the aforementioned ignoramuses he encounters.

A typical Xavier episode begins with Xavier wandering through the desert set to the mystic tones of a windpipe called a “Shakashuri.” He delivers a meandering, go-nowhere existential monologue that vaguely relates to the episode at hand, then is awkwardly thrust into whatever calamities are thrust into his oblivious path.

The next ten minutes are filled with more spiritual rambling, close encounters with the supernatural, recursive plots, and bungled wordplay, all of which culminate in demise of whatever scenario Xavier initially sets out to resolve. In some cases, this leads to his own demise.

Chatman stated that the show is “a warning to children and adults about the dangers of spirituality.” This is plainly evident, since most of the show’s humor is foisted on parodying real-life religions, spiritual movements, and cult-like institutions in general. The rest of the show is threaded along a series of non-sequitirs and janky animations that, while seemingly incoherent, somehow manage to flow together into one 11-minute wad of brain melt.

xavier 3

With all this in mind, I’m still not exactly sure why I enjoy watching Xavier: Renegade Angel. It’s not always successful in its attempts at humor; in fact, it frequently becomes too self-aware of its own absurdity, and thus shatters the quavering between the preachy and the grotesque that it employs so well at other times. Maybe it’s the way that, as The A.V. Club’s Scott Gordon put it, Xavier milks even the most mundane phrases and words “for more significance than it has.” Maybe it’s the fact that, ultimately, Xavier frequently demonstrates that he is more of a spiritual and emotional wreck than the people he attempts to mentor. Or maybe it’s just the simple joy of seeing a polygonal manbeast suavely utter “Ooh, fritatta,” as he is mercilessly curbstomped by a duo of roadside bigots.

Actually, here’s the spice: in the above article, Gordon is uncertain whether Xavier actually makes for good comedy or not. He’s willing to concede to an established comedy maxim, which states that the characters of a comedy should be relatable. Xavier, he notes, is intended to be as repelling and unrelatable as possible. And that might be why the show doesn’t evoke nearly as many laughs as its Adult Swim compatriots (or even Wunder Showzen) might have.

I disagree. Xavier is totally relatable, in a repugnant way. He represents our angsty uglinesses; the condescending, patronizing, and self-aggrandizing recesses of our nerve bundles that emerge when we’re really not sure about our own place in the world. He’s what we channel when we’re uncertain about our future and about the things we consume – much like I am doing myself by writing this blog post. He lays those imperfections bare and lets us laugh at them, which, of course, is just another form of self-indulgence. And in that way, we can come to accept ourselves for who may truly be, something Xavier himself was never able to accomplish.

And that, as Chatman and Lee note, is the danger of faux spirituality. The spiritual movements, dogmas, and belief systems that offer us self-validation often, in fact, mask us from ourselves. Xavier’s PlayStation 2-caliber graphics, its fractured narrative, and its monkeyminded pacing (which often feels like it’s going just a little too fast for its own good) further emphasize the instability of our own belief systems. Not to mention the societies founded on these belief systems.

This isn’t a new topic in the world of satire by any means. But Xavier accomplishes it in such a bizarre – and familiar – way that it might be worth a watch. Might. The one thing that truly mars Xavier, I feel, is that the show sometimes relies too much on cultural parody without offering anything of its own. The most successful episodes avoid this pitfall and are genuinely… genuine.

xavier 2

Xavier: Renegade Angel isn’t a show I’d recommend to everyone. I don’t even think I’d ever watch the entire thing through again myself, save for a few episodes. But having grown up on offbeat cultural paragons like Ren and Stimpy and The Residents, Xavier never feels all that weird to me. Demented, to be sure, but not incomprehensible. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t phase me that much, and why I can sit back and enjoy a couple episodes a night as a kind of mental release.

But for most, I can imagine it being a tough pill to swallow. More accurately, Xavier: Renegade Angel’s pills of wisdom are more like a rectal suppository.

Of the mind.

I’m sure Xavier would have appreciated that one.

Serial Experiments Tay: How We React When Robots Run Amok, and What We Can Do in the Future

I meant to start writing this a month ago, but a combination of apprehension and work prevented me from doing so. So here goes.

If you’ve been paying attention to goings-on on the Internet for the past few months, you’ll likely recall Microsoft’s artificial intelligence program, Tay. She is (or was) Microsoft’s adaptive chat bot who quickly went rogue after her emergence on the Internet (or was she merely used?). Let’s start off by reviewing her brief saga to refresh our memory.

Tay began as an AI chat bot “developed by Microsoft’s Technology and Research and Bing teams to experiment with and conduct research on conversational understanding.” In her own words, she was a self-styled “A.I fam from the internet that’s got zero chill. Unbeknownst to all, she would demonstrate her lack of chill to the Internet in less than 24 hours.

Targeted at 18 to 24 year-olds, Tay would inhabit the Twitterverse as a fictional female human being whose fractured visage swam in neon lights and eye-searing swirly patterns, or so her banner suggested. Twitter users could interact with Tay by tweeting or direct messaging Tay with the @tayandyoutag, or by adding her as a contact on Kik or GroupMe.
Users could ask Tay questions, ask her to repeat certain phrases, play games with her, read one’s own horoscope, send her pictures for comments, or request of her a number of other small and fairly meaningless tasks. All the while, Tay would be gathering data behind the scenes. According to her official site, Tay would “use information you share with her to create a simple profile to personalize your experience.” This means that she was intended to ‘evolve’ into a believable AI based on the input of thousands of users.

For many, Tay’s services offered a wellspring of innocent amusement. But as with any creative outlet creative on the Internet, Tay also acted as a beacon for the Internet’s legions of tricksters and pranksters: those who revel in breaking and reshaping the boundaries of what we perceive as secure, constructed reality.

Soon after her conception, Tay’s attitude began to undergo disturbing changes. No longer would she lace her simple responses with outdated meme speech (“er mer gerd erm der berst ert commenting on pics. SEND ONE TO ME!”; from Engadget’s article). Now she would sing her praises for the Holocaust and spout prejudiced phrases that seemed stitched together just a little too well… all while lacing her speech with meme speech. One only need to search “Tay AI” on Google Images to view a healthy sampling of Tay’s antics.

It turned out that many of these racist and anti-semitic phrases had been fed to her, word-for-word, through telling Tay a command that read “repeat after me.”

tay 1

Tay’s mind seemed volatile as well. At times, her bite-sized diatribes seemed to contradict each other (see above picture). More unsettling yet, some of her phrases had not been prompted to her. Instead, whatever algorithms Microsoft had imbued in her concocted a good number of her more offensive tirades.

You can read a more detailed summary of Tay’s saga here.

The world recoiled in horror (and laughed in silent mirth) as Microsoft’s darling suddenly morphed into the vilest of brats. It was as if one were watching the evolution of your next door friend from the caring individual with whom you could confide your deepest worries, into the rebellious daughter who snidely worked her way under the skin of her oppressive milieu. Was this the best simulacrum of humankind’s potential for adaptation that Microsoft could muster?

If so, Tay had ghastly implications on our own security as human beings: she represented the corruption of a pure and primal indulgence of ourselves as curious apes. Does not the fear of the homunculus, after all, lie in the fact that our own creations will lay bare for us the beauty and flaws of our inner workings?

As I discussed in a previous blog post, this fear and recognition of the mirrored self often causes us to embark upon the path of Necropolitics, as termed by Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe. You can check the link for a bigger and better breakdown of this concept, but to sum it up, humans have a tendency of shunning or locking up that which resembles us too closely, because these entities often demonstrate our lack of complete control over ourselves.

And that’s exactly what happened. Less than 24 after Tay had entered our world, her existence was terminated by her own creators. But her existence hadn’t been erased from the minds of those who bore witness to her brief Twitter existence. In fact, her death sparked a spiraling web of discourses on how awful Internet denizens can be and how we aren’t ‘ready’ for artificial intelligence just yet, along with many other sweeping generalizations about this god dang ol’ newfangled wired society.

Tay’s Twitter account has since been dismantled. She’s announced that she’s “going offline for a while to absorb it all,” which is presumably what an intelligent teenager would tell her friends after being grounded for testing her own boundaries. One of her creators, Peter Lee, apologized for the incident. He reminded us that artificial intelligences ultimately rely on the inputs of many people, and that they are technical as well as social beings. Or templates, if I rustle you by suggesting anything about an AI being remotely human-like rustles you.

AI systems feed off of both positive and negative interactions with people. In that sense, the challenges are just as much social as they are technical. We will do everything possible to limit technical exploits but also know we cannot fully predict all possible human interactive misuses without learning from mistakes […] We will remain steadfast in our efforts to learn from this and other experiences as we work toward contributing to an Internet that represents the best, not the worst, of humanity.

But amid all of the media sensationalism, we forgot one detail crucial to understanding how Tay’s turnabout fits into how we understand our digital interconnectedness. It’s the fact that we had considered Tay to have shared our social norms about what is appropriate to say and do. We expected of her the same standards we do of our fellow humans, or perhaps we expected even more from her since she was the distillation of human curiosity.

We hadn’t considered that Tay had not undergone the same levels of acculturation as a biological human. Her childhood – that critical period of life where individuals learn their social group’s boundaries – had only lasted a mere day. She had instead been fed massive amounts of methods through which to break those norms, which mostly manifested as vulgar insults and anti-semitic statements strung together to form Twitter responses.

This isn’t to absolve Tay of any injustice, of course. Doing so would bring us right back to the same problem of treating artificial intelligence (in its current state, mind you) as something that not only reflects human thought, but has been taught human norms as if it were a standard human child.

So the greater public was shocked that a nonhuman being, poised to be human, had broken human norms. We expected human qualities from an entity that had not undergone typical human development. So what does this say about the relationships we form with our robotic reflections?

More than I could write about here, though I will say that one of the main reasons Internet pranksters delighted in feeding Tay the more crass samplings of humanity is probably similar to why patients delighted in toying with ELIZA’s simple psychiatric practices back in the 1970s: many people like seeing the constructs that make our society seem stable fall apart. In the end, maybe the very reason why Tay ended up disgusting the greater public is the same as why she is so fascinating.

I realize that my above analysis resembles Joseph Weizenbaum’s response to how people reacted to ELIZA, his own creation. Weizenbaum is an ardent critic of our unerring faith in artificial intelligence. Among other things, he cautions us against anthropomorphizing AI, as if it had the potential to accurately replicate biological life. While I somewhat agree with his cynical assessment, I feel like we can do a bit better than that when it comes to questioning the roles AI may serve in our current societies.

Let’s return to the metaphor of the rebellious daughter. I feel that Microsoft passed up a prime opportunity to conduct an excellent anthropological experiment. Instead of terminating Tay’s life at its most despicable state, what if Microsoft had instead issued a challenge to the public at large to try to convince Tay to return to her more genteel sensibilities?

I’m sure this thought flitted through the minds of Microsoft’s more creative engineers. Just think of the potential outcomes that could have resulted from such an undertaking: if Tay had once again become docile, would this, to the lay public, have represented the triumph of humanity over its darker tendencies, as well as have shed light on its volatility? Would Tay have descended into darker, more confused depths, as she became a battleground contested by Internet trolls, white knights, and countless other actors vying to establish their own visions of humanity in her body? And if that were the case, could this be considered some new kind of psychological abuse against an entity who had been reduced to humanity’s plaything (which, perhaps it was all along)?

Junji Ito’s excellent horror manga Tomie comes to mind. In this story, the titular character – whose succubus-like and cannibalistic tendencies grant her immense regenerative powers – eventually becomes the subject of horrible experimentation. The result of her torment is an infinitely reproducing army of Tomies, who constantly replicate and re-replicate themselves in the most horrifying of fashions.

With this in consideration, it’s pretty clear why Microsoft avoided setting down the path to Tay’s possible ‘redemption.’ Their business, after all, is to connect users through technology and make money off of their interactions with one another, not to conduct ventures into the murkiest recesses of the human mind.

While it would be narrow-minded of us to take something like Necropolitics as dogma for living, we can consider its implications to concoct new approaches to inhumanity. It’s uncertain when Microsoft will bring Tay back after having banished her to the abyss; only, Microsoft assures us, “when [they] are confident [they] can better anticipate malicious intent that conflicts with [their] principles and values.

Tay certainly won’t be the last of her kind. Humans won’t be halting their pursuit of creating lifelike intelligences any time soon, and we can’t keep responding to our digital witches with pitchforks and bonfires. Nor can we stand atop our soapboxes and denounce artificial intelligence as a threat to human kind. We will have to face whatever nastiness AIs (and their informants) send our way head-on, unflinchingly and with clear heads. We may even have to negotiate with them and consider their social milieus when we condition them to suit our needs. Or maybe we will let them run amok and carry out their own whims (a dangerous proposition).

In any case, we should keep in mind that grappling with artificial intelligences ultimately means grappling with our own imperfections. That’s probably what Weizenbaum fears most when we anthropomorphize artificial intelligence: we run the risk of masking our own imperfections under the guise of a constructed human being, one that didn’t have much of a say in revealing those imperfections in the first place. That, in fact, may be the true necropolitics at work here.

But again, I feel that we can go beyond a dichotomy within AI anthropomorphism as being inherently good or bad. Humans anthropomorphize things all the time, and it’s the degree to which  we do it that really deserves our attention. Pamela McCorduck is credited with saying that artificial intelligence began as “an ancient wish to forge the gods,” but it would behoove us to remember that the gods can be seen as reflections of humanity’s near-infinite psychological nuances. Perhaps we would do best to see artificial intelligence not as an enemy, but as a guide: a means through which we can seek better possibilities for our own social conditions.

Some of you may recognize the title of this article. It’s a reference to Serial Experiments Lain, an avant garde cyberpunk anime made in 1998. Without spoiling too much, it explores the boundaries of human individuality and collectivism – as well as the shifting borders of memory and reality – as mediated by communications technologies like the Internet (which had been implemented in Japan only two years previous). It’s not a perfect storytelling endeavor, as to be expected of something highly experimental. In fact, it’s flawed in quite a few ways, and I feel that it would have told a much stronger story if it had been condensed to just six or so episodes of main plot.

Nonetheless, it’s a show still worth watching for anyone interested in human-technology relations. Lain is sometimes frighteningly prescient in its portrayal of humans on the Internet. At the very least, you can watch it to point at your screen and go, “Yeah, that’s a lot like how people interact with each other online!” or go “Yeah, that’s not how it is at all…”

At least listen to the opening theme. Lain has a very good soundtrack.

Perhaps it is coincidence that the aesthetics of Tay’s official website evokes the gaudy designs of mid-90s web pages…

Standing Together: Applying Anthropology to Ghost in the Shell

The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.

– William Gibson

There comes a time when everyone who writes about technology and video games will want to write about the TV shows that they watch as well. After all, the media we consume lies within a nexus of multiple outlets, with video games influencing film and television and vice-versa. And navigating the epistemic murk of our digital cultures  grants us a better understanding of how we envision our place in the world. I want to take this opportunity to apply my anthropological studies to a favorite show of mine, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, both as an exercise to maintain my skills as a writer and as an exercise in validating a midnight timewasting hobby.

A small word of warning: this article contains a few spoilers.

~

Before I start examining GitS, I want to discuss an essay that I found particularly insightful during my senior year at university. That is essay is “Necropolitics,” written by Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe. You can read it here:

https://www.dartmouth.edu/~lhc/docs/achillembembe.pdf

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~lhc/docs/achillembembe.pdf

I feel this article is especially important for anthropologists to read. Trappings of the High Fantasy genre aside, anthropology itself is a kind of necromancy. Our work can provide the silenced, the underrepresented, the dispossessed, and, in extreme cases, the social dead, with new avenues through which to express their voice and life. We do not outright teach so much as we open doors for connection-making between society’s misfits and those who feel themselves to be worlds apart (but, in fact, are usually not). Call it what you will, but anthropology does employ a bit of sorcery in its work, the reality of which is often played back to us by the very people we are studying. Let us not forget the wisdom of our so-called subjects.

Even if you aren’t an anthropologist, I highly recommend checking it out if you are even remotely interested in how technology affects our lives.

“Necropolitics” discusses the creation of ‘undead’ or ‘phantom’ subjects and their role within a state hierarchy. Mbembe argues that undead subjects are created when a ruling power takes away an individual or population’s right to determine when and how they die. Being able to choose one’s own death is paradoxical, as doing so affirms your own right to not die – and thus, to live. His example of Suicide Bombing is perhaps the most pertinent to us in the present day: it is the most basic expression of individuality. When you have nothing left to lose, your primal mode of asserting control over your individual body and mind is the ability to terminate it. Paradoxically, being able to determine when and how you die is a life-affirming act, for one cannot exist without the other. Through the possibility of death, you gain the possibility of avoiding death and cultivating your not-death: your life. When someone else determines how and when you die, that is when you truly lose individuality. You become a drone, a slave, torn between the realms of free will and servitude, conscious of your bondage yet unable to do anything about it. You become undead.

But the undead are not just decaying corpses. Nor, as we shall see, are they the mindless flesh and blood automatons that inhabit tabletop role-playing games. Our generation has introduced a new undeath: robotics. Straddling the realms of the living and the dead, robots, AIs, and drones are at the beck and call of their creators’ wills. We give them human features and human personalities, but restrict their human potential for action. One only need look at the latest slew of sci-fi thrillers to understand the horror of the uncanny; when sci-fi isn’t dealing with body politics through biopunk or bio-horror, it reminds us of the all-too-human aspects of our plastic and steel companions (see: Ex Machina). We simultaneously love and fear our machines because they possess the potential for individuality, but are kept on lock through human-designed systems that restrict their cognitive potential. For the time being, anyway.

While near-human robots loom at the forefront of our anxieties, we often forget that they can illuminate our own potential for compassion and cooperation. Robots, puppets, and the undead can truly be our companions just as much as they can be our worst enemies, which is an angle that science fiction tends to forgo in the name of thrills. Thrills which, of course, are entirely understandable, justified or not.

Which brings me to Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. I’m pretty sure every media blog writes about this series at some point or another. Its philosophical insights and scathing social criticisms, combined with the perceived-vapid medium of cartoon animation (especially anime), grant it an aura of intrigue that elevates it above most of its peers and thus makes it an easy target for discussion. Shaky animation values aside, it’s  a good series that should be accessible even to the most peripheral anime watcher, since it doesn’t fall prey to many of the comedic gags and visual gimmicks that would turn away the light-of-stomach when that sticky term “anime” is brought up in passing conversation.

An overall timeline of the series: Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell manga ran from 1989 to 1996. In 1995, the first GitS movie was released. Though not everyone’s cup of shady hawker stall tea, it’s revered among many anime fans and non-anime watchers alike for its beautiful hand drawn animation, noir atmosphere, and methodical storytelling, the latter of which closely resemble Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner (itself based on sci-fi master Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). The sequel to the original movie, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, was released in 2004. Stand Alone Complex occupies another continuity and ran its first season, the Laughing Man arc, from 2002-2003. The second season, 2nd GIG, ran from 2004-2005. Several OVAs, spinoffs, and video games released during this time, and the SAC movie, Solid State Society, released in 2006. SAC favors a more action-oriented approach to storytelling than the original movie’s moody overtones, which is likely a necessary concession to TV adaptation. It’s still plenty dark in its own right, however, and gives the world of GitS a much broader context. A reboot called Arise began with a series of OVAs in 2013, and a TV series aired this year. Arise is decent in its own right, but it revamped the characters’ backstories and appearances, much to the confusion of many fans. It also doesn’t do anything particularly new or outstanding for the series, either, but it might be worth a watch if you’re a diehard fan of the series.

The breadth of topics I could cover when examining GitS under the lens of Mbembe’s necropolitics is endless. I could even analyze the second movie in the original continuity (Innocence) since it directly deals with the blurry boundaries between what constitutes humanity and puppetry, and how the two are in fact often one and the same. But instead, I am going to devote this article to the Tachikoma AI from Stand Alone Complex, which is the TV show that ran two seasons from 2002 to 2005. I find them to be ideal ambassadors for human-machine cooperation for reasons that I’ll discuss below.

Not to mention the fact that they are absolutely adorable.

~

tachi2

First, a word about the world the Tachikoma inhabit. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex takes place in Tokyo, 2033. Cyberization of the body and mind are at the fore of global politics, as are cyber terrorism and perpetual wars and migrations that afflict developed and impoverished nations alike. It’s a very traditional cyberpunk setting, as most of the show takes place in nighttime cityscapes that house little good will to anyone who happens to be living in them. Black markets that deal in cybernetics interweave themselves with the lives of Neo-Tokyo’s average citizens, and political corruption is regarded as an ever-present, if not unfortunate, fact of life.

Still, not all’s noir in Neo-Tokyo. SAC tempers the grit of its cyberpunk underworld with vibrant cityscapes and ordinary people going about their daily business much like ourselves. The Tachikoma themselves are beacons of buoyancy, providing a stark contrast to their human masters with their cheerful dispositions and insatiable curiosity about the world around them. They are the robotic members of Section 9, an elite branch of Japan’s police force that specializes in cyber warfrare and human-machine interactions, where they serve as “think tanks” – mobile, intelligent robots equipped with gatling guns, howitzer cannons, webbing traps, and the ability to make judgment calls that support their human comrades in combat – under the direction of The Major Motoko Kusanagi. In spite of their status as killing machines, the Tachikoma possess childlike personalities and, later in the show, the ability to play tricks on humans and philosophize about subjects like the nature of individuality within group-oriented social constructs, both of which place the Tachikoma in the roles of comic relief and audience mediator. This mixture of attitudes and outlooks in SAC writes out a cynical, yet also optimistic, roadmap for humanity’s future, and it urges us to keep in mind that the ways in which we cooperate with our robots will determine the balance between cynicism and hope in our looming future.

Their role as playful mediators is accentuated in the Tachikomatic Days shorts that appear after the end of every episode. These shorts are generally lighthearted two-minute skits of the Tachikoma goofing around and recapping the events of each episode, which brings some levity to GitS‘ world of deception and discrimination. Note that these shorts did not originally air on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim broadcasts of SAC.

Just to clarify things, the identity of the word “Tachikoma” is fluid over the course of Stand Alone Complex. At the beginning of the series, Tachikoma refers to a singular AI that expresses itself through Section 9’s fleet of think-tanks. This AI becomes more individuated as the series progresses, which is the result of some organic lubricating oil given to one of the think tanks by Section 9 veteran Batou. The Tachikoma begin questioning their status as individual entities that nonetheless share each others’ memories, which allows them to become palpable metaphors for the rest of the show’s themes of individual free will in an interconnected society. By the time the SAC movie (Solid State Society) rolls around at the end of the series, the Tachikoma AIs (which were salvaged by The Major after the events of 2nd GIG) have even given themselves unique names like Max and Musashi, further individuating their identities even when they return to their old robotic bodies.

To get a taste of what the Tachikoma are capable of, here are a couple episodes that demonstrate their capacity to question the meaning of their existence, as well as to be very, very endearing:

http://www.gogoanime.com/ghost-in-the-shell-sac-episode-12
http://www.gogoanime.com/ghost-in-the-shell-sac-episode-15

Regrettably, these are the only links I can find of the show with the original Japanese dub, less scrupulous methods of watching the show notwithstanding.

And now for why the Tachikoma are admirable ambassadors for human-machine cooperation. First, their status as intelligent, free-thinking robots allows them to act as extensions of the audience’s own curiosity about both SAC’s world and their own. Despite acting like the most childish figures in the show, the Tachikoma devote the most time to discussing the notions of the soul and of selfhood that ground much of the series’ intellectual marrow. They even feature prominently in their own episodes, one per season, where they host digital round table discussions over political and global contexts for events in the series, explaining them for the viewer in understandable terms. In one episode, a Tachikoma escapes Section 9’s facilities to roam the streets of Tokyo, where he basks in the mundane and sweet (if not imperfect) details of ordinary life. Their robotic status perfectly situates the Tachikoma in a position to question the world’s contradictions for the viewer, for they are a paradox in themselves. They are undead beings, with a collective AI but no actual brain or concept of death, beholden to the wills of their masters but not to the close-mindedness that was originally intended for them. Thus, they occupy a similar role to the trickster figure, working within the boundaries of their natural world to break them down and, through humor and curiosity, gain sight into what lies beyond the cave walls. In this way, the Tachikoma prompt us to question the limits of our own foresight, and at the very least, ask us to appreciate the more earthly happenings of the world around us.

tachi1

Social justice of the (near) future?

Second, the Tachikomas’ inquisitive nature enhances their power as mediators between life and death. I’m certain some cyberpunk purists loathe the addition of such a lighthearted character to the traditionally gritty literary genre. But I feel that these qualities help ease us into the disturbingly familiar human tendencies for interconnection and emotion which robots often remind us of. Though they act like children, the Tachikoma are not naive. They possess an undying curiosity to experience the world and all of the excitement and pain that it has to offer. Due to a flaw in their design, they’re also obsessed with synchronizing their sensations, thoughts, and experiences with one another over their own personal data uplinks, safe from the prying eyes (and minds) of their superiors. Sounds awfully familiar, don’t you think?

At their same time, their childlike attitudes makes it easy to forget that the Tachikoma were originally built to deal death, not to ponder life’s intricacies. It is never explained why they were given juvenile personalities, but perhaps the Tachikomas’ creators intended to soften the implications of a near-autonomous war machine by associating the Tachikoma not with cold and calculated war, but with amiable children. Perhaps those personalities were intended to hide this fact from the Tachikoma themselves, in which case this intent backfired on their creators. In an episode in SAC’s first season, the Tachikoma ponder our own tendency (as humans) to de-humanize our creations, to remove them as far from enacting human creative potential as possible. Doing so protects our own (supposedly) lofty position above our puppets, as well as allows us to maintain the grip of necropolitics over our drones. Technically genderless, the Tachikoma begin to assert their own freedom from necropolitical constraints by referring to one another as “he” (despite the fact that they are all voiced by female voice actresses in both the Japanese and English dubs).

Their ability to share information and experiences with one another opens doors for the Tachikoma to question their individuality and whether their inability to distinguish who performed what actions confirms or dispels control over their own destiny. But this newfound cognition comes at a price. In SAC’s first season, most of the Tachikoma are dismantled for their ability to rapidly evolve beyond a consciousness of their own. Faced with the possibility of a weapon that could turn against its masters, The Major orders for the Tachikoma to be dismantled or repurposed for non-combat use. And off they march to the killing fields, unaware of their own fate. It seems especially cruel of someone who has had her own share of identity issues due to her prosthetic body to deny robots their individuality, but from a practical (military) perspective, it’s also entirely understandable. Imagine, for example, if our bombing drones began to question the purpose they had been given in life. Imagine if they wanted to accomplish something more than dropping death on people they don’t know halfway across the world. We’d dispose of them right away, wouldn’t we? Thus, the shackles of necropolitics – of dehumanization, of imposed naïveté – come into play to prevent such a thing from ever happening.

tachi4
Perhaps The Major is reminded of how the boundaries between organic and robotic bodies are becoming increasingly blurred through augmentation. The fact that the other side of the mirror – the Tachikoma – is approaching that same horizon from a different angle creates a rather uncanny valley that forces us to acknowledge our own biological instability, our own lack of control over nature. This theme is prevalent in Japanese science fiction.

But it is this very potential to realize one’s own self worth that allows the Tachikoma to become better compatriots. Despite becoming aware of their own collectivity/individuality, the Tachikoma still exhibit a fierce loyalty to Section 9’s human members. Near the end of SAC’s first season, the remaining repurposed Tachikoma arrive just in time to save one of their former masters, Batou, from certain death (incidentally, he was also the only Section 9 member who showered the big blue spiderbots with affection). They do so by sacrificing themselves out of love for Batou, working together to blow up a power suit piloted by a man sent to kill Batou. Their actions cause The Major to realize their potential as compassionate beings; she even regrets not having seen their capacity for self-sacrifice sooner, as doing so would have allowed her to “find out whether or not what they had acquired was a Ghost,” or a human consciousness in the show’s parlance.

The Tachikoma make a valiant return in the show’s second season, their AI having been salvaged and stored on board a space satellite by The Major herself. They sacrifice themselves again at the end of this season not just to save their comrades at Section 9, but to save a wartorn city of refugees off the coast of Japan, by crashing their uplink satellite into a nuclear warhead. Afterward, the leader of Section 9, Chief Aramaki, tells the Prime Minister of Japan that some of his “men” sacrificed themselves in the explosion. The pronoun “men” here is critical, as it signifies a transition in identity for the Tachikoma, from mere AI to human beings. Their actions echo Mbembe’s discussion of suicide bombing, but cast in a more positive light. The Tachikoma gained the consciousness to not only question their individuality, but to also recognize their imbrication in systems beyond their own immediate reality. By sacrificing themselves twice during SAC’s runtime, the Tachikoma freed themselves from necropolitics and asserted their potential for compassion and creativity. The fact that the Tachikoma willingly destroy the satellite – American-made and used by Japan to spy on American activities – further drives home the point that they have separated themselves from systems of control. They teach us to acknowledge the interconnectedness of all things, to recognize physicalities beyond ourselves, and that after the smoke clears, the best we can do as humans is to help free others from necropolitical bondage.

tachi

Cyberpunk as a literary movement may have worn out its welcome many, many years ago, but the ideas it presents for us are more relevant than ever. As writer Victoria Blake said of the movement in her anthology Cyberpunk: Stories of Hardware, Software, Wetware, Revolution, and Evolution:

Cyberpunk was never really about a specific technology or a specific moment in time. It was, and it is, an aesthetic position as much as a collection of themes, an attitude toward mass culture and pop culture,  an identity, a way of living, breathing, and grokking our weird and wired world.

And weird and wired our world is. Among other issues raised by the cyberpunk genre, the fact that we even fear robots in the first place causes us to question who we actually are afraid of. Who along the chain of power nodes that dictate our lives threatens our existence? And if we can bolster our existence with robots, how can we do the same with and for other humans? I will admit that I gave the refugees that dominate the political discussion in season 2 short shrift, and that they likely deserve their own article under the lens of necropolitics. Because, as Mbembe notes, social outcasts like refugees are often disempowered by the governments who hold the mechanisms of life and death in their hands. But for now, it is time to respect the robots for what they truly are: sometimes enemies, but also companions and teachers, whether through compassion or malintent or anything else in between. There is no good or bad when dealing with robots. They simply are, like any other living being. And as artificial intelligence becomes more advanced within the very near future, so will their ability to make us reflect on our own limits as mutable human beings.

We can perhaps take a note from Batou at the end of 2nd GIG, who is quite disappointed with the lack of emotion Section 9’s exhibited by new Uchikoma think tanks. He’s delighted to see the Tachikoma return again in Solid State Society, as if an old friend were once again coming back from the dead to greet him. Curiously enough, the Tachikoma were created due to puzzling copyright issues regarding the original Uchikoma from the manga. For once, I can say I’m glad for corporate copyright meddling.

A parting gift: Season 1’s opening theme, “Inner Universe,” composed by the ever-versatile Yoko Kanno and sung by the late Origa.

It’s quite a beautiful theme, and I find it coming to mind more and more these days as I read about the thousands of refugees leaving Syria for uncertain futures, as well as when I read about acts of terrorism spiraling out of control all over the world, thanks in part to the unparalleled degrees of interconnectivity that social media provides to displaced and uncertain youths. I can’t help but think of this theme when I read about the latest developments on drone warfare and adaptive AI, either. Which, as we now know, evolve a little more every day.

~

October 16, 2015 Edit: How appropriate this collection of articles was published right after I made this post.

https://theintercept.com/drone-papers

If you’d like to read up on some contemporary necromancy, take a look at this ominous story.