Meaning, Unity, and Understanding

The Ghost and the Shell: Meaning, Unity, and Understanding

This image is simple, yet difficult. At first glance, its simplicity presents the viewer with a situation that appears to be not very remarkable. One might say that there is not much worth saying about it at all; it is just another DVD cover for another anime. However, the simplicity of this image conceals and reveals more than it shows us. And this is what makes it both difficult and simple to comment on. The difficulty arises from trying to provide a definite explanation of it; the simplicity arises from the fact that we, nevertheless, understand the situation. Surely we must find a meaningful way to approach this image so that we may understand its unity--a unity that reconciles these seeming opposites. After all, knowledge of such a reconciliation and unity may assist us if we choose to further our understanding of the many themes presented by Ghost In The Shell.

Perhaps a commentary is in order, a commentary concerned with revealing what we already know about the image via our understanding of both ourselves and others but are not explicitly aware of at all times. This commentary will attempt to delineate or highlight this unexpressed understanding by way of examples, with the aim of presenting insights. These insights in turn shall be used to reveal this mystery, which, it must be said, cannot be presented until the end of this questioning. This method will allow us to dwell on the meanings within the whole, before we understand it as a whole. It will be our task to shine our light ahead of us, making our way one step at a time. When we have arrived at our conclusion, we may find that we understand differently than we had at the outset.

First of all, let us become acquainted with the image we shall be studying. The image is a cover for the seventh volume of the Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex DVDs. It was illustrated by Makoto Shimomura and Kenzi Teraoka, based on original characters created by Masamune Shirow. The characters that we see in this image are Motoko Kusanagi, a member of the private security group Section 9, and a Tachikoma, an Artificially Intelligent tank.

From our perspective, we are looking downwards at the two characters. We are also placed on the left side of Motoko, but we are not quite in line with her: we "stand" slightly behind her. As a result of our viewing angle, we cannot see much of Motoko's face. Nevertheless, we are afforded a reasonably clear view of her body. We can see her kneeling on her right knee, while her right arm is extended forwards, touching. Directly in front of Motoko is the Tachikoma, the object of Motoko's touch. The Tachikoma faces Motoko, perhaps aware of her presence and touch. If we look at its left appendage, it too appears to be reaching forwards, but not touching Motoko. Its appendage is in the vicinity of Motoko's left knee. When we view the entire image, we see the two characters facing one another. One is making contact with the other; the other, however, does not display any obvious contact. Notice that we are aware of contact being made. It is, after all, very hard not to notice it when it is right in front of us. In fact, we may say that it is not even worth pointing out something so obvious to us. We see it, and the rest is silence.

Or is it? Is the contact that we are observing in this image really that trivial? If that were the case, why would the two illustrators choose to create such a bland, empty image? Of course, this would not be the first instance of the viewer being presented with visual-candy--i.e. something that is nice to look at. But this image is so sparse that it may not even qualify as being visual candy. Only two of the characters from GitS are represented in it, one being a minor character. Furthermore, it lacks the obvious kinetic action that "grabs us": massive gun-battles, vivid explosions, and quick bodily movements are nowhere to be found. Additionally, the color palate is nothing spectacular. They are quite limited in range, the dominant colors varying from certain shades of gray and blue. All in all, it appears that this image is indeed very basic and unexceptional. But the question remains: Why choose this image for a DVD cover? Perhaps, when we speak of the image in such a matter-of-fact way, we are missing something. And this something cannot be expressed or disclosed as a collection of basic facts, as our first hasty approach had quickly revealed to us. We arrive at triviality if we choose that method alone, separated from others. So let us approach the image once more, but this time we shall take care to notice the wealth of meanings which are necessarily unified with these acts. However, we shall not observe Motoko's "body language" like it were a mere key or doorway to something beyond the shell. We, on the other hand, shall understand her body language as inextricably unified with the mystery at hand. For this mystery is something that we will understand because of the meanings embedded in the image, skillfully and tacitly expressed by the illustrators. Let us now proceed towards one instance of meaning.

As we have noticed, Motoko is kneeling as she observes the Tachikoma in front of her. Why is she kneeling? An obvious reply to this is that Motoko is kneeling because she is conducting a technical inspection of the Tachikoma. (We will abbreviate this as the TI-view for the rest of the commentary.) But this does not appear to be the same type of kneeling that one does as when inspecting a vehicle or machinery. As we shall see, this act is different. To be more precise, while the physical acts of kneeling in both the TI-view and the one we will be considering are approximately equal, the respective intentions of each act are qualitatively different. Let us suppose that instead of the Tachikoma, Motoko is inspecting an ordinary vehicle. If she were inspecting the headlights on it, she would indeed be kneeling, trying to get a better view of the lights. The same thing could be said if she were studying a dent in one of the doors. In other words, kneeling places one in a better position to visually inspect something of interest, e.g. dents in a door, faulty headlights, scratches in the paint. However, when we replace the vehicle with the Tachikoma, we must replace also the idea that Motoko is kneeling because she is searching for possible technical flaws. To repeat it once more, it would not make sense to use the bland TI-view for a DVD cover, especially for a GitS cover. We must give the illustrators more credit than that, for they wanted to communicate something else. This image communicates a different meaning which is not expressed by an image showing us a matter-of-fact inspection. This image tells us that she is kneeling for a different reason, a specific reason. Let us consider some examples and situations which will assist us in seeing why this is so.

When one kneels during prayer, we understand that this act is not the same act that one does when, say, scrubbing the floor. When one kneels in the presence of a certain person, it is intended to show respect or reverence; it is not because that person's shoes need to be tied or polished. Of course we could stand, but kneeling seems to reveal our deeper, profound emotions in situations that call for it. Furthermore, we recognize that our immediate environment embodies a qualitatively different meaning, a meaning not felt when we are picking weeds out of the garden. (Notice, however, that planting flowers may change our view.) Also, kneeling is not so much an act of submission in the negative sense, but a clear pronouncement of non-hostility. We might also say that we are making types of offerings which can be expressed only by specific acts. In some cases, it is almost as if kneeling brings us closer to what we want to know, what we do not clearly understand, and what we want another to understand. In these situations, kneeling just "feels right". There is no logical or rational explanation why we should be kneeling in any of these situations--acts of reverence, reflection, insight--nevertheless, we choose to do it. These acts are, in a sense, invested with meanings which are not found in certain situations. And it is we who recognize and distinguish these meaningful acts and situations from one another. We know the practical from the personal, and we know it immediately.

In the image at hand, we can recognize such a meaningful act. And this type of act is related to those acts which reveal or highlight reverence, respect, insight, or curiosity. We can see Motoko kneeling, and we have a notion why she is doing so. Her act in this situation conveys more than what would be revealed if she were inspecting a vehicle. There is a sense of profound curiosity and wonder present in her body, affecting those who look her way. Rather than standing beside the Tachikoma, she kneels directly in front of it. She wants her presence to be clearly felt and known. It is as if there is a great questioning resounding in her mind, spilling out into her body, compelling her to kneel. In fact, it may be that we are seeing her questioning, wondering, and curiosity exactly in that way--by her body. Her body language is invested with meaning, a meaning we notice right away. It is this immediately perceived meaning which allowed us to claim that she is not merely inspecting the Tachikoma. We, on the other hand, claim that she is in communion with it. To lend further credence to this claim, let us examine Motoko once more and find another instance of a meaningful act.

In addition to kneeling, we can clearly see Motoko reaching and touching the Tachikoma. Her right hand is placed on one of the Tachikoma's appendages. If we recollect the above mentioned view (the Technical-Inspection view), we may be tempted to say that this is more proof of her merely conducting an examination. Perhaps she is feeling a dent in the Tachikoma's armor, which may compromise its effectiveness in battle. To make things even more basic, we can say that she is simply resting her hand on it, and there is no need to say anything else on the matter. But this apparently small act, too, appears to have a qualitatively different meaning than the TI-view. This act resonates with us, in a way the TI-view does not. What may have been dismissed as an unremarkable detail is in fact worthy of our attention.

When we see Motoko touching the Tachikoma, she does not appear to be concerned with its physical aspects (e.g., its armor, weaponry, appendages, or sensors). She is simply touching the Tachikoma. In fact, if we look closely we notice that her fingertips are touching it. Her palm is not pressed flat against it, thus indicating that no great pressure is being placed against the Tachikoma. Her touch is light, using only the subtle connection made by her fingertips alone. Surely this is not how one would approach a tank. After all, why should she be delicate with an enormous piece of machinery? It would be safe to say that the battle-ready Tachikoma can withstand a mere touch. Yet, Motoko is doing exactly that: gently placing her fingertips on it, like one would handle a rare vase. Why? What is involved with this delicate touch, and why is it being used in this situation?

As we had noticed above, an act is not the same act when performed in different situations and contexts. When touching a rare vase, this act is invested with care, a care not present when touching a cement wall. One would take exceptionally great care when attempting to touch a sleeping tiger. Our touch in particular environments and instances is inquisitive--it makes familiar what was previously unknown. Our inquisitive, light touch somehow sharpens our consciousness--tunes us in to the correct channel, as it were. Conversely, our consciousness quickly tunes us in to the right channel before we touch the object of curiosity. This would become apparent if we were cautiously touching the previously mentioned tiger. We would know not to handle it roughly, but gently. Even if we had never known what a tiger is, we would most likely approach one cautiously. To take a different example, we take great care when grasping and carrying a newborn baby. We do not need to be told that we have to be careful; we just know. So it appears that in specific contexts our touch is invested with a special meaning that is lacking when we touch a brick wall or an old rusty car. Thus we notice a relation among all of those specific acts which display significant meanings worth pointing out. We can now use this relation to shed more light on Motoko's act, which is suggestive of such a significant meaning being present.

In Motoko's immediate involvement with the Tachikoma, we may now make the additional claim that her touch is invested with a significant meaning, as was the case with her act of kneeling. She does not appear to be acting as if the Tachikoma were nothing more than an AI battle-tank. Her actions express a reflective, almost pensive, value. As we noted, she chooses to press her fingertips gently against the Tachikoma, indicating that she is aware of a profound presence before her--a presence requiring care. It is like her act is saying out loud: "No other act can properly express my intent. Therefore, I do this." It may be that this is another one of those instances where a certain physical act or gesture just "feels right". We cannot properly explain why we do some things in certain situations, for they seem to come naturally. --We touch the face of a newborn baby quite differently from how we touch a rock.-- When we observe Motoko's body language, we notice that it does not take any special formal training to notice the meaning embedded in it. It speaks to us in a way that we recognize immediately. We need no radical theoretical knowledge to understand the curiosity and questioning of her touch. The questioning, the curiosity--both are here and now, before us, immediately recognizable as they are embedded in her acts. Her mind is embodied in her gestures, readily available to those who cast a glance her way.

Look at her; her curiosity is palpable. We intuitively recognize her inquisitiveness, yet we are not fully aware of what she is questioning--what she wants to understand clearly. We are drawn in with her, trying and wanting to express in words the exact object of our curiosity. Her body language cannot help but to communicate meaning to us, a meaning filled with wonder. She quietly kneels in front of the Tachikoma, gently making contact with it. She is being affected by what she is in the presence of. This affection heightens her awareness and curiosity, demanding her full attention. If anyone were to come upon this situation, Motoko may not even notice that person's presence. Her focus is on the Tachikoma and what it reveals to her. Perhaps she is not even aware of herself, that she is being considerate and subdued. It may be said that in situations such as this one, this is an ideal state to be in. It comes to us naturally. The "I" in the sentence, "I am thinking", is placed in a broader environment, as well as the thinking. This state colors or tunes the world differently so that we may understand something as we had never understood it before. It places the familiar in a new context, demanding that we look at its now newly unveiled form. It reveals. And what it reveals to Motoko is an implicit understanding she had all along. All of her gestures and actions are ready to disclose the mystery. She is recognizing the presence of the mysterious Ghost, the animating, living force which gives herself the ability to be and to understand.

The Ghost? Can we truly say that this is what she is contemplating, what she is grasping? We have to remember the anime that we are dealing with. If we were to forget it, we might be able to say that she is merely admiring or studying the latest technological wonder. But the world of Ghost In The Shell nevertheless influences how we perceive and understand this image. It gives us a context to place this image, and we work with this context as an additional guide to discern this meaning. However, this is not to say that our understanding of this image is limited by the anime itself (i.e. We inquire because GitS alone presented it to us). Instead, we use the GitS universe as a reference point, a point of familiarity. We know that the entire corpus of GitS often questions the nature of the Ghost, but not always explicitly. However, the image on the DVD cover presently under consideration seems to present this question, but not exactly as we might expect it to be. It uses a different channel to communicate its meaning.

We might say that the scene broaches the question, "What is the Ghost?", indirectly. Instead of boldly presenting a subtitle pronouncing the subject at hand ("I ask you, what is the Ghost in the Shell that Motoko understands to be in the Tachikoma?"--ahem), the image gives us the sense that we have come upon a private communion between two individuals. We witness a pregnant pause. It may be taking place in a busy, populated section, but the situation itself involves only the two of them. But we have to be careful when we use the words "private" and "only". True, this situation does involve Motoko and the Tachikoma, but the scene is open to us as well. Specifically, it is not the scene alone which is open to us observers; the meanings which are embedded within it are open to us as well, so we are now participants as well as observers. Notice that our participation involves a sort-of "distant" contemplation, and Motoko's participation involves her active engagement in the image. Yet, we nevertheless understand such an interaction, despite our apparent distance. We vicariously experience Motoko's experience. We understand the Ghost as she understands it. Recall that we were able to make the distinction between meaningful acts in various situations and contexts. From these distinctions we were able to claim that Motoko's body language expresses a profound curiosity which would not be visibly present if she were conducting mere inspection. As a result of those distinctions and clarifications, we are now able to say that the Ghost is the object interest. When we remember the series which this scene is drawn from, our claim intuitively seems that much more "right". In fact, if we now consider everything we have mediated on in this commentary, we notice that the image does not intend to give a question at all. Rather, our questions have emerged from what we have been presented. They are from us, not the image. We, as we now notice, have been given the impression of what the Ghost is. This impression is what we question. We have been guided towards an unexpressed understanding.

This image conveys the sense or understanding of what the Ghost is, but it does not attempt to provide a definitive explanation. An explanation of the Ghost cannot be something analogous to, say, an explanation of a mathematical term. (However, even mathematical concepts have this deep understanding that is arrived at by various demonstrations and methods.) To try and explain the Ghost with such a strict method would present one with what may be insurmountable difficulties and insoluble questions. And if we were to present it as a formal definition or concept, we would unintentionally filter out the meaningful links which had enabled us to approach it. Even with our own approach, numerous clarifications and examples were needed to shed light on what we were trying to see. And once this understanding had been reached, we could neither fully express it in words, nor fully contain it in a formal definition. We, on the other hand, were concerned with experiencing it so that we could engage with it. Undoubtedly, to deny all that was revealed from the image seems counter-intuitive because it was exactly this implicit understanding that allowed us to discern between one meaningful act and another, one meaningful environment and another. Having said all that, we do not make the following claim that we cannot approach the concept or understanding with words, and therefore we must necessarily abandon all attempts at clarifying this concept and others like it. Clearly, that makes little sense, to the point of it being absurd. After all, our study of the image relied on words. Let us consider this: When we use language in specific contexts, we must attempt alternative ways of clarifying what we mean, what we understand, and what we want others to understand. So it was with language that we had inquired into the nature of this image, which demanded to be inquired into and to be brought forth.

The purpose of this commentary was to assist us in those tasks. By means of the familiar, we arrived at fresh insights of what we had already known. In the image we have just studied, it can arguably be said that the Ghost has been indirectly presented to us, and it was our duty to highlight and understand it. The task was not to tell us; it was to show us--when we have our "aha" moment. While we may not be able to point at the mystery like it were a physical object, we can be guided towards an implicit understanding of it by means of our shared understanding of ourselves and our meanings. And once we become aware that we do understand, we can never abandon our understanding of it, for we must engage with it if we are to make sense of ourselves and our place in the world--ideas presented by Ghost In The Shell.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Erzengel Weiss for reviewing the 1st and 2nd drafts; any remaining errors are solely my own.

First published 11/16/08; revised 02/16/10