Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pop Culture and Philosophy vol. 3: Sexual Confusion In a Time of Cyber-Identity

When Ghost in the Shell was first released as an anime nearly fifteen years ago, it provoked a great deal of criticism for the sexualized nature of some of the violence.

In the film the main character, Kotoko Kusanagi, undresses before engaging in combat.

Interestingly enough, however, Ghost in the Shell is essentially about a futuristic world wherein cybernetics has advanced to the point where entire android bodies can be implanted with human brains.

Kusanagi is a member of Section 9, a police unit that consists almost entirely of full cyborgs. As a result, Kusanagi's body isn't really female. It's merely a machine built to resemble a female body. It cannot reproduce -- although the first film deals with the issue of reproduction in an intruiging manner -- and could be populated by absolutely anyone.

Sociologists have long recognized that sex and gender are often treated as the same concept, yet are markedly different. Sex is a description of the sexual characteristics of the body. Males have male sexual characteristics and females have female sexual characteristics. In terms of biology, this essentially comes down to the sex organs.

In Ghost in the Shell, fully cybernetic bodies have no sex organs. Accordingly, they can only accurately be described as asexual.

Gender, meanwhile, is a much more complex topic. Gender is largely considered to be a function of identity: a collection of the ideas, concepts and emotions one holds regarding their sexuality combined with their phsyical characteristics and impulses.

Clearly, gender confusion would be much easier to deal with in an age of cyber identity -- wherein one's physical form could be entirely customized at will so long as one were willing to compromise on conventional concepts of their own humanity.

Transplanting into a fully cybernetic body would pose to one the philosophical dilemma of embracing asexuality in order to rectify their gender confusion -- something they believe will be solved by transplanting themselves into a body of another sex.

In order for the transplanting of one's brain to fully solve their gender confusion one would have to find someone willing to have another brain implanted in their body, and their own brain implanted in someone else's.

Organized gender swapping could very much be a reality in such a world.

But it also poses larger questions about how one keeps track of identity in such a world. Many of the documents used today to keep track of one's identities deal with physical characteristics -- height, weight, hair and eye colour, skin colour and even date of birth. These are all characteristics securely grounded in time and space.

Take the case of the Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister suggested in episode one of Stand Alone Complex -- an anime series treated as separate from the feature-length films or the original manga. When the Minister gets drunk he occasionally likes to swap bodies with Geishas at a club he often frequents. The national security of Japan is eventually compromised when an individual with criminal intents steals the body of the Minister.

The individual in question has perpetrated the ultimate act of identity theft. With notions of identity naturally focused around one's body it doesn't even necessarily take a talented actor to steal one's body and, forthwith, their identity.

The individuals swapping bodies through an organized gender swapping scheme could be considered to be swapping not only their sex, but also their effective identities. While one has to imagine that a society in which the swapping of bodies is possible would have to employ more fluid methods of tracking identity, one also has to consider the likelihood that such methods would first have to breach a psychological and philosophical barrier.

Certainly, the idea that one's true identity lies somewhere other than with their body wouldn't be a new concept. Religious people believe in the soul. However, one has to remember that they treat the soul largely as an otherworldly entity. The more fluid sense of identity required for a society like that portrayed in Ghost in the Shell would need to apply such ideas in the corporeal world.

TV programs like Ghost in the Shell mount an interesting challenge to traditional notions of identity. One only has to wonder how long it will be before global civilization actually has to deal with that challenge in real life.

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