Merge/Flow/Flux

By Jordan Harrison-Twist

In the flow of electricity, code is used to describe required actions for computer systems, distinguishing them from the limited specialized capacities of lowly machines. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer and contemporary of Charles Babbage, foresaw that code could hold symbolic value, so computers could behave outside of the boundaries of mathematics. Binary code, with its appearance of phallic 1s and vulvic 0s, begins as a morass of unordered possibilities, and in finding a moment of insemination in the flow, depicts a legible word or image. But the sexual metaphor in binary code remains bound to ideas criticized in cyberfeminist theory — criticisms which emerged in the late 1980s in relation to the advent of information technologies. The 1 represents a something — a phallus — and the 0 represents a lack — a not-phallus — illustrating the way our social lives were coded into the network: with the gender dualism intact, replete with immanent disparity. Thus, even in the domain of cyberspace, with its emancipatory and disruptive prospects, the woman remains servile to the militarized, commercialized technologies of patriarchal capitalism. Forever a nonentity, reliant on the 1 to determine her existence — he’s the one, I just know it — perpetually giving birth to legibility becomes her only function. Ada Lovelace in her programming wisdom had in the 1830s already criticised the limits of mathematical binary by inscribing it with nuance. Her first name ADA is now given to a programming language used by the US military.

Mamoru Oshii’s acclaimed anime film Ghost in the Shell (1995) investigates the flow of data in relation to consciousness and reproduction. In an information-oriented 2019, the world is connected by an electronic network that pervades all life. The network is accessed by implanting one’s consciousness, one’s ‘ghost’, into a cybernetic body, or a ‘shell’. Born from the sea of information, the Puppet Master is a military creation who becomes sentient, and as all life, seeks a body with which to reproduce, and ultimately, to die. In the film’s climax, the protagonist Motoko Kusanagi merges with the Puppet Master, combining their consciousnesses into a new body, to create something neither Motoko, nor the Puppet Master, but something else: a synthesis of motherless, fatherless mechanical replication. The line drawn between reproductive gender roles becomes permeable as the equal fluidity of merging displaces penetrative sexual intercourse — in a maelstrom of consciousnesses extra-utero.

Rupert Sanders’s less sophisticated live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell (2017) has been much criticized for its gratuitous appropriation of Asiatic motifs, and the ‘whitewashing’ decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead. Strangely though, I actually prefer the iconic scene in which Motoko goes deep-sea diving. More tersely construed than in the anime, Johansson’s Motoko states that she relishes the fear of being submerged, the ‘cold, dark. No voices. No-data-streaming. Nothing […] Feels real’. Far from the indulgent philosophizing of the anime (based on Shirow Masamune’s manga), the transformative power of the disinterested, treacherous water works better with this simplicity of terms — this is, of course, the point: this dive is the opposite of Motoko’s digital ‘deep dive’ into the agitated data memories of a cybernetic Geisha assassin, a mission in which Motoko is tracked and hacked, and the haptic power of her shell is diminished.

One issue with the remake is that twenty years on, the same questions and dichotomies of the original are posed in quite the same way, just with more green-screened bombast. Paradoxically, the accusations of whitewashing have added a unique point of contention to the film’s conclusion. In the remake, we are faced with an Asiatic consciousness concealed in the body of a white woman — a body whose synthetic white ‘naked’ skin is exposed in full when ‘Major’ Motoko is engaged in battle, but whose heritage (in the narrative, as well as the film’s origins) is distinctly Japanese. Sanders’s film is as much about, as it is in service of digital enhancement — not just about ghosts and shells, but also about surfaces and skins.

The seminal text for discussions on gender and technology is Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1984), which discusses the liberating potential of breaking down the biological and technological dualism, as set out in Ghost in the Shell. Criticizing this, as well as the animal/human, male/female, and nature/culture dualisms, she claims that the perceived dichotomy has become a border war, the stakes of which are the ‘territories of production, reproduction, and imagination’. She characterizes contemporary human life as already technologically mediated, and looking at the meeting point of microelectronics and sex — genetic engineering and reproductive technologies — that it is not clear ‘who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine’.

The power to make is one attributed to both the machine and the mother, and as ciphers for this distinction, both electricity and water hold fundamental associations with the creation and maintenance of life. But just as electricity and water share a vernacular — both ripple, channel, flow, surge; floods can flash and dams can burst — the perceived dichotomy between the synthetic and the natural, replication and reproduction, is one in embattled flux. The cyborg’s legacy is not just a half-and-half synthesis of the human being and machine, nor is it one of the conceptions of male and female; rather the cyborg might be liminal, but not median; a network or a whirlpool or a wind; a spectre crackling along the fault-lines of the limitations of binary code, and public debates about Hollywood’s ersatz whiteness of skin.

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About the Author

Jordan Harrison-Twist is a writer and designer living and working in London and Manchester. In 2017, he graduated from the Royal College of Art with an MA in Critical Writing in Art & Design. He writes about humour, pop culture, literature, and art and design.
His RCA award-winning dissertation is named A Conversation with a Bicycle: A Cultural History of Collision Between Humans and Machines — and charts moments in literary texts, cinema, recent history, and art and design, in which humans and machines have met, collided, merged, spiralled together, repelled one another, imploded, or proved impossible to reconcile. The text touches on the Surrealist attachment to the mannequin, the ethics of artificial intelligence, sex robots, and commercial space travel.
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