Ghost in the Shell and the Root of Memory

when the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) becomes a compromise between the sedentary and the nomadic ethic, then we may find ourselves, among other things, in the ostentatious reworking of Japanese director Mamoru Oshii’s famous (but virtually misunderstood) anime: Ghost in the Shell.

Ghost in the Shell and the Root of Memory
Ghost in the Shell and the Root of Memory
“I believe in transhumanism: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Pekin man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.”
Julian Huxley (1887-1975)


When technology becomes a balance between oblivion and identity; when new gender narratives depend on the bewildering redefinition of the human grafted onto the robotic; when the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) becomes a compromise between the sedentary and the nomadic ethic, then we may find ourselves, among other things, in the ostentatious reworking of Japanese director Mamoru Oshii’s famous (but virtually misunderstood) anime: Ghost in the Shell.

What’s a Shell?

In Japanese culture, the ghost is created when the ‘reikon’ (spirit/soul) makes contact with the physical world by becoming ‘yūrei’, a spiritual being capable of interacting emotionally and, most interestingly, mentally with the living world. Shell, on the other hand, in addition to evoking the idea of ‘shell’, offers clear references to the computer world, where it is identified as a text command interface used to access computer systems. Ghost in the Shell is originally a manga, a simplified version of a Japanese comic book, by Masamune Shirow (1961, pseudonym of Masanori Ōta), a proficient Japanese cartoonist born in the 1960s, who is passionate about cyberpunk culture, post-apocalyptic futures, ambiguous and multifaceted societies where soul and body contradict each other; bleed, weep and shatter, reassembling assemblages that are never the same as the original, never reassuring.

On the narrative roots of cyberpunk – William Gibson, 1990s

It was not Shirow's visionary ink strokes that brought cyberpunk culture to the masses, however, but rather the American writer William Gibson's novel Neuromancer (1984), unanimously considered the "manifesto" of the proto-futurist genre, which in turn (it should be said) was grafted onto the theoretical framework of science fiction writer Bruce Bethke (1955), To him we owe the invention of the term cyberpunk, the title of his short story published in 1983 and echoed in the serial stories of Michael Bruce Sterling, whose stories help to define the anthropological horizons of the new genre, and a group of writers who would later be known as the artists of the Mirrorshades movement, a name that refers to a common detail in the descriptions of characters from the cyberpunk suburbs: Mirrorshades glasses.

Matrix's echo

Speaking of which, who doesn’t remember the mirrored glasses worn by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the captain of the hovercraft Nebuchadnezzar who frees Neo’s mind (Keanu Reeves) from the shell in which the Matrix, a sophisticated AI and virtual reality complex, forces all humans to live in in order to produce energy for the machines? In fact, The Matrix, the successful 1999 cyberpunk sci-fi film written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski, is one of the noble heirs of the Ghost in the Shell philosophy.

Ghost in the Shell: Philosophy of the frontier

But what is the philosophy of Ghost in the Shell? Why has even post-anthropic cyberfeminism drawn effective and ‘commercially’ powerful insights from it? Feminist philosopher Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, 1985) questions the relationship between gender, identity, and technology: “To be a cyborg instead of a goddess”, to be able to construct (and reconstruct) an identity instead of living on predetermined coordinates, to free oneself from the concept of feminine and masculine, to free oneself from the presence of the ego, to simply do without it, to undo fixity and slide ever faster into the fluidity of a perpetual creation of the individual. In short, the productive interplay between the revolutionary potential of technology and postmodern non-humanity.

Cyber woman

Capturing the revolutionary energy of the emerging cyberpunk culture, Haraway (1944) begins an ideological dialogue that establishes the most extreme and cyber strand of modern feminism and ushers in the era of ‘cyborg subjectivity’ as a sexual revolution. Finally, from the hypnotic Blade Runner (1982) to David Cronenberg’s psychotic body horror to Johnny Mnemonic (1995), philosophy and imagery intertwine like electric wires; the philosophy of dehumanization flows in its three main narrative arteries-the particular setting, the cyborg, and cyberspace-feeding the cyberpunk sensibility. But amidst cynical antiheroes and perverse egotisms, the question remains: what is natural and what is not? Who guards the edge?

Lost in the cyberspace

Cyborgs – understood as hybrids between humans and robots – are nonetheless part of the social fabric; anyone can replace his or her biological body with bio-mechanical parts, preserving – perhaps – consciousness, which can then access a common network. A perpetual, uncontrollable, certainly manipulable hyper-connectivity, with a blurred boundary between the legal and the illegal acting as a disarming, ethically deficient embankment. Ghost in the Shell, which has been exploited over the years by those who wish to dilute identities in the fluidity of becoming, places alarming accents on the very risk that is deliberately tarnished today: in a world of virtual identities, of consciousnesses dispersed across the Net (Ghost in the Shell defines the Net as ‘the vast expanse of data that forms the cyberconsciousness of individuals’), and artificial intelligence learning to be human, where is the human located?

The Root of Memory

Once again, the narrative answers: in memory. It is precisely one of the most dangerous hacks in the story, the Puppet Master, who opens up to the concept of identity in memory:

“The human species uses a memory system called ‘genes’ and acquires its individuality from the memories it holds. Even if such memories can be compared to ‘illusions,’ it is thanks to memories that humanity exists. When the spread of computers made it possible to remove memories, you should have thought much more seriously about what that would mean.”

Not an easy warning.


  • Bukatman, Scott. (1993). Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. London: Duke University Press.
  • The Cyberpunk Project. (2003). “Towards a Definition of Cyberpunk.” THE CYBERPUNK PROJECT.
  • Kader YILMAZ Harraway, Donna J. (2000). “A Manisfesto For Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” THE GENDERED CYBORG: A READER. Ed. Gill Kirkup et.all. London: Routledge.
  • Hayles, Katherine N.(1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Maddox, Tom. (1992). “After the Deluge: Cyberpunk in the 80’s and 90’s.” THINKING ROBOTS, AN AWARE INTERNET, AND CYBERPUNK LIBRARIANS. Eds. Bruce Miller and Milton T. Wolf. Chicago: Library and Information Technology Association. 43-5.
  • McCaffery, Larry. (1991). Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction. London: Duke University Press.
  • Peters, Mischa.(2000). “Mapping the Body in Cyberpunk Fiction and Science.” THE 4TH FEMINIST RESEARCH CONFERENCE. Bologna.
  • Sterling, Bruce. (1991). “Preface from Mirrorshades.” STORMING THE REALITY STUDIO: A CASEBOOK OF CYBERPUNK AND POSTMODERN SCIENCE FICTION. Ed. Larry McCaffery. London: Duke University Press.

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