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Contested Utopias: Ghost in the Shell, Cognitive Mapping, and the Desire for Communism

By Matthew Stoddard1

To reawaken, in the midst of a privatized and psychologizing society, obsessed with commodities and bombarded by the ideological slogans of big business, some sense of the eradicable drive towards collectivity that can be detected, no matter how faintly and feebly, in the most degraded works of mass culture just as surely as in the classics of modernism—is surely an indispensable precondition for any meaningful Marxist intervention in contemporary culture.

Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” 46.

It would be overly harsh to characterize Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell (Gosuto In Za Sheru) (1995) as a “degraded work.” Yet the film is still certainly an object of mass culture. What is crucial in the above passage, a point made only more forceful through the hyperbole of the language, is that even such objects of mass or popular culture contain an impulse towards collectivity, a desire for communism that Jameson describes elsewhere as properly utopian. The ultimate aim of this essay will be to identify this utopian desire as it appears in Oshii’s film. As Jameson suggests, this desire is latent and thus needs to be tracked down and traced out. However, a glimpse of such utopianism can be immediately detected in what may be described as the explicit utopian theme of the film. But here it is truly degraded, twisted by the ideological trappings of mass culture. It is thus only from a different vantage point that the utopianism of Ghost in the Shell takes on the radical political dimension of collectivity.

I will begin with the diluted manifestation of this utopian drive, only to end up at its more radical form. Connecting the former to the latter, the formulations of which serve as bookends to this essay, is a reading of the way in which the future world of Ghost in the Shell, set in 2029 A.D., seeks to represent the realities of the contemporary capitalist mode of production. This reading of the film has two parts. In the first part I detail the film’s representation of the tightly interwoven networks of power and information characteristic of the current mode of production. In the second part I provide a different reading of these networks as networks of immaterial labor. I argue that what the more radical utopia offers is an affirmation of the collective dimensions of this form of labor. While the first part deals exclusively with the film, the second part will introduce an “extra-textual” element, namely the labor of the film’s production. This representation, or mapping, of the capitalist system is itself potentially political, although I contend that the version I outline in the second part is somewhat stronger in this regard. The radical form of the film’s utopianism can therefore be seen a kind of flashpoint of this political potential.


First and foremost Ghost is a utopian tale about the evolution of humanity to a higher form of subjectivity. This evolution centers on the potential of computer technology, particularly information networks, and finds its apotheosis in the climactic merger of the so-called Puppet Master, an entity that exists entirely within cyberspace, and the government agent-cyborg Major Kusanagi. The new being created out of this merger exists within cyberspace and achieves a mode of subjectivity that enjoys seemingly unlimited mobility, speed, knowledge, and potential for action, and eludes the grasp of traditional structures of institutional power. This new being implies, if faintly, a kind of collectivity. As the Puppet Master puts it, the new being is “a part of all things.” However, this invocation of some sort of collectivity is enfeebled and essentially eclipsed by the film’s overall insistence on the individual. The film is decidedly about Kusanagi, her “birth” (the construction of her cyborg body shown during the opening credit sequence), and her “death” (the merger with the Puppet Master) framing the narrative. In between these moments there is the development of Kusanagi’s existential crisis, brought on by the realization that the “ghost” – that is, the soul, or all of the information a person gathers and stores during their lifetime – can be fabricated. This singling out of Kusanagi is reinforced by her incomparable expertise with weapons and prowess at hand-to-hand combat, as well as her general physical superiority over all the other characters. What is more, there is a vaguely messianic quality to Kusanagi, indicated by the fact that she is specifically chosen by the Puppet Master to inaugurate a new form of being.

The way in which the film offers a faint notion of collectivity only to disarm it through a relentless individualism is exemplary of the ideological mechanism formulated by Jameson in his essay, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” According to Jameson this mechanism “strategically arouses fantasy content within careful symbolic containment structures which defuse it, gratifying intolerable, unrealizable, properly imperishable desires only to the degree to which they can be momentarily stilled” (“Reification and Utopia” 33). Utopian drives are thus tapped into and brought to the fore so that they may be properly managed. As Carl Silvio argues, this mechanism can also be detected in the film’s treatment of gender. He writes, “The film, in other words, gives an outlet and a voice to the liberatory potential of the cyborg . . . while simultaneously containing that potential by re-narrating it within another older and better known myth: the dominance of masculine mind and spirit over the feminine materiality of the body” (56).2 Thus, on the one hand, Kusanagi’s athleticism, military know-how, and centrality in the narrative inverts traditional representations of female characters. This inversion is punctuated in the climax of the film where Kusanagi is disengaged from her sexed body, and hence from biology, in her merger with the Puppet Master. Yet, on the other hand, Kusanagi is rendered as an eroticized spectacle. She is repeatedly shown naked, and made the object of the gaze of male characters through shot-reverse shot patterns.3 Moreover, and most importantly for Silvio, her merger with the Puppet Master is presented in terms of normative heterosexual reproduction – the temporary cyborg body of the new being, it should be noted, is in fact a child. Kusanagi is therefore presented as a maternal figure at the very moment she seems to transcend biology.

Silvio’s feminist reading is instructive for my argument for two reasons. First, it dovetails with my account of the film’s degraded utopianism. Indeed, Kusanagi is the lone significant female character, and the spectacularization of this femininity only further emphasizes her individuality. Second, Silvio historicizes Ghost in a manner I will build on and extend. He argues that the liberatory desires expressed, and defused, in the film are desires directly tied to the capitalist mode of production. The articulation of the desire to transcend gender through the “liberatory potential of the cyborg” is, for example, rooted in the proliferation of cybernetic technologies. Furthermore, Silvio argues that the liberatory desires expressed in the film can be understood dialectically in terms of the way in which capital’s penetration into every pore of the social has only further fueled a desire to overcome it.

This aspect of contemporary capital is very much present in the film, the representation of which occurs on a variety of registers. As Silvio observes, it can be detected in the very figure of Kusanagi. A corporate constructed cyborg, Kusanagi is connected to institutional information networks at all times: “her sense of personhood cannot be thought of apart from its bureaucratic organizational structure” (Silvio 59). But there are other ways in which this social milieu – the ubiquitous system of global, or multinational capital – is represented, ways that form, as it were, the background to Kusanagi’s personal narrative. To describe this aspect of the film, Jameson’s concept of cognitive mapping is useful. This type of mapping may be understood as a somewhat more neutral (for lack of a better term) representational operation than the ideological containment of social desires. Put differently, there is a much more ambiguous political or ideological agenda at work in cognitive mapping, which is something that every text, pop cultural or otherwise, always already does merely by virtue of its status as narrative. To say that cognitive mapping is somehow more neutral than the mechanism laid out in “Reification and Utopia” is not to say that it is has no political valence. Rather, it is to say that, in the case at hand, and in most of Jameson’s examples, cognitive mapping is in and of itself less a function of the specific ideological prescriptions or prohibitions that work directly to manipulate an audience, although it may interact with these in interesting ways, and more a symptom of the way in which what Jameson calls the “social totality” necessarily invades a given text and forms a basic condition for representation, regardless of how it might be ideologically worked over.

Before laying out the cognitive mapping operation in Ghost, this concept needs elucidation. Essentially, cognitive mapping names the attempt in narrative to connect the local and the global. More specifically, cognitive mapping tries to represent the most abstract structural realities of the capitalist mode of production in terms of the phenomenological experience of everyday life. One way in which Jameson describes this operation is by way of reference to Louis Althusser’s scientific formulation of ideology as “the Imaginary representation of the subject’s relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence” (“Cognitive Mapping” 283).4 Jameson identifies the emergence of the incompatibility between the local and the global in the second great stage of capitalism, that of monopoly capitalism:

At this point the phenomenological experience of the individual subject – traditionally, the supreme raw materials of the work of art – becomes limited to a tiny corner of the social world, a fixed-camera view of a certain section of London or the countryside or whatever. But the truth of that experience no longer coincides with the place in which it takes place. The truth of that limited daily experience of London lies, rather, in India or Jamaica or Hong Kong; it is bound up with the whole colonial system of the British Empire that determines the very quality of the individual’s subjective life. Yet those structural coordinates are no longer accessible to immediate lived experience and are often not even conceptualizable for most people.

There comes into being, then, a situation in which we can say that if individual experience is authentic, then it cannot be true; and if a scientific or cognitive model of the same content is true, then it escapes individual experience. (“Cognitive Mapping” 278)

This problem of the split between subjective experience and the larger economic system is then exasperated in the succeeding stage of capitalism – late capitalism, multi-national capitalism, post-industrial capitalism, etc. – in which we now live. It is in fact the very difficulty of cognitive mapping in the present that draws Jameson’s attention. For it is the ability to perform this mapping operation, not only in cultural objects, but in all kinds of social activities, that allows for orientation within the mode of production, and provides a basic condition for effective political engagement against it. Thus while cognitive mapping may not always be said to have an overt ideological agenda, it always contains within it the potential to be used as an element of radical political praxis.

Jameson identifies three major difficulties posed by contemporary capitalism for cognitive mapping. The first difficulty is the absolute saturation of space by technologies linked to capital; that is to say, today there is no outside to capital, which reaches to all points of the globe and into all aspects of social life. Such saturation problematizes the ability to achieve any kind of distanced, critical perspective. Second, there is the difficulty in representing the highly diffuse and impersonal nature of capitalist power. Third, there is the difficulty posed by class, as the working-class is today undergoing a set of swift mutations due in part to the highly intricate and amorphous relations between industrial and post-industrial sectors of the economy. This difficulty provides an additional layer to the politics of cognitive mapping, for the emergence of class consciousness is, Jameson argues, tied to the very representability of class. The orientation provided by cognitive mapping can thus be, at its most powerful, the orientation of the working-class as such.

If the basic operation of cognitive mapping is the representation of the larger systemic reality of capitalism (a reality that necessarily includes class), then the form by or through which it works is allegory. In fact, representation is perhaps something of a misnomer when speaking of cognitive mapping, which is in no way mimetic and in no way seeks to actually give a picture of the mode of production. As Jameson insists, the mode of production is something that can never be represented in this sense precisely because it is a scientific concept that works on a different level than human perception. In place of representation Jameson therefore often uses the term “figuration,” which designates the way in which the unrepresentable structures of capital are allegorically rendered, that is, given the figure of things that are more accessible to narration and visualization.

In The Geopolitical Aesthetic (and elsewhere) Jameson investigates two such figures at length. The first is conspiracy. Owing to its assumptions of vast and insidious networks of power and manipulation, Jameson argues that conspiracy has become a privileged narrative figure for cognitive mapping in our time, something that he confirms by way of the popularity and relative sophistication of largely North American conspiracy films since the 1970s – Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976), and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) are privileged examples. This figure bears directly on Ghost, which in addition to being a tale of human evolution, is also a conspiracy film. Here it is the Puppet Master who resides behind a vast conspiracy. As Kusanagi explains, the breadth of this conspiracy includes “stock manipulation, illegal information gathering, political engineering, [and] several acts of terrorism.” As a being of pure information, criss-crossing computer networks without hindrance, the Puppet Master takes the ubiquity and anonymity of conspiracy to an extreme. What makes this incarnation of conspiracy particularly terrifying is the fact that everyone is its potential pawn. The way the Puppet Master commits its crimes is by hacking into and controlling “ghosts,” a procedure that completely dissolves the victim’s memories and replaces them with a simulation.

But this conspiracy has another level that complicates and enriches the film’s mapping of the mode of production. The Puppet Master, it turns out, was originally a secret government program – the original aims of this program, called “2501,” are unclear, but seem to involve some type of international espionage. It is revealed that at some point the program became sentient, breaking free of government control and setting off on its own conspiratorial agenda. This revelation in the narrative not only serves to delineate the truly global, or supranational, character of the Puppet Master conspiracy, in contrast to properly international concerns, it also acknowledges the continued presence of nation-states and the tensions this presence creates in the face of global capitalism. In fact, the film begins with the following statement: “In the near future, corporate networks reach out to the stars, electron and light flow throughout the universe. The advance of computerization, however, has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups.” This presence of the national simultaneous with its dissolution by the global is also expressed in the shifting focus of the narrative.5 Almost the first third of the film centers on the political intrigues of a former colony called the Republic of Gabel, and touches on a whole litany of topics, from political assassination and military juntas to a revolutionary coup and thorny questions of political asylum, all of which seem more suited to a national or international conspiracy than a global one.

The Puppet Master looms in this initial portion of the film, but only marginally. This storyline is, however, soon dropped altogether, and the saga of the Puppet Master becomes central. At this point, when the Puppet Master conspiracy emerges in its truly global dimensions, it takes on another level of meaning. The criminal global conspiracy turns out to be a kind of quasi-religious conspiracy. The Puppet Master’s activities are re-inscribed as an effort to seek out and finally merge with Kusanagi with the aim not of further crimes, but the ascendance to a higher realm of being. These religious connotations become most overt in the scene of the merger, where the Puppet Master recites a passage from the book of Corinthians that elides the evolution of humanity with the knowledge of Christ. As Kusanagi then sheds her old subjectivity, an angel can be briefly glimpsed rising away from her body.

Figure 1

With this shift in meaning, it is as if the attempt to think through the mode of production collapses, the system proving too difficult to flesh out any further. The film thus moves on to another narrative register, one that must invoke the mystical. But this failure of the conspiracy narrative is also in some ways a success. First, by drawing together questions of the national, global, and religious into one narrative, the film reflects the way capitalism today has created a unifying space where such issues intermingle and collide. Second, and this a point Jameson makes about contemporary conspiracy narratives more generally, what the almost simultaneous recognition and refusal of the global conspiracy indicates is the very complexity of the mode of production, the very fact that it is unrepresentable, which of course expresses, if negatively, a crucial truth about this system.

The second figure for cognitive mapping Jameson explores is information technology. Jameson is unequivocal on the importance, and really the inevitability, of representing such technology:

Since the world system of late capitalism (or post-modernity) is however inconceivable without the computerized media technology which eclipses its former spaces and faxes an unheard-of simultaneity across its branches, information technology will become virtually the representational solution as well as the representational problem of this world system’s cognitive mapping, whose allegories can now always be expected to include a communicational third term. (The Geopolitical Aesthetic 10)

Indeed, in Ghost information technology is mapped onto the conspiracy narrative; after all, the Puppet Master is essentially a computer virus. This conflation of the conspiracy with information networks gives the conspiracy a (mostly implied) breadth and complexity appropriate to contemporary capital. Additionally, the joining of these two figures makes the point that information technology is not some neutral apparatus, but deeply connected with capital.

Yet, as Jameson notes, if the use of information technology as a figure for cognitive mapping offers a potential solution to representing the world system, it also poses a problem. This is due to the fact that this technology has very little visual power. Think, for example, of the desktop computer, or even the huge super-computers of the 1980s, compared to the giant wheels and pistons of the industrial age, whose visual dynamism is so effectively displayed in a film like Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929). One notable way in which Ghost tackles this representational problem is through a strategy of displacement, or really another layer of allegory. Oshii has been clear that the dense urban setting, which goes unnamed in the film but was specifically modeled on contemporary Hong Kong, is meant to provide a kind of concrete visual stand in for information networks. This connection between the urban environment and information technology can be seen in the very first images of the film in which a shifting computerized map of the city slowly fades into the real thing. Similarly, when the new being created from the merger of Kusanagi and the Puppet Master describes the “vast and infinite” nature of the “net,” the image slowly pans left to reveal a long shot of the enormous city. The use of the long shot here is significant in itself, as the city-network is presented throughout the film almost exclusively from street level, and without any sense of the overall layout of the city. The effect of this ground level representation is to create the feeling of a network that is so vast and complex that one can never grasp it in its totality. (The final shot would then imply that the new subjectivity created by the merger has the power to actually perceive this totality as such.) What is more, the detail of the cityscape on this street level is nothing short of stunning. The city is rendered as a veritable sea of information, the urban fabric composed of an extremely dense and layered environment of signs, the textures of which are brought out by a grime that covers almost every surface.

Figure 2


The most glaring shortcoming of these figures in the film is that they do not engage with labor. While both figures work together to invoke a vast network of power and information, there is nothing in them that acknowledges that such a network is also necessarily a network of laboring bodies and minds. There is in fact is very little in the film that comes close to representing the labor that occurs across these networks. Even the great scenes that show cyborgs with thirty mechanical fingers typing at mind-boggling speed do little to provide a representation up to this task, although they do offer at least an indication of the incessant drive towards speed and efficiency.

Figure 3

In addition to the difficulties for cognitive mapping that Jameson outlines, I would therefore add the difficulty of representing new forms and new configurations of labor, especially labor associated with information technologies. If the computer has little visual weight, so does the work done on one. A potential solution to this problem would then be another way of getting at the difficulty today of representing the working-class.

In order to get a glimpse of a more fully realized figuration of labor in the film, it is necessary to look elsewhere, specifically to an analogon. While the analogon comes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Psychology of Imagination, it is Jameson’s deployment of the concept in his essay on Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), that I will draw from here. In this essay, Jameson describes an analogon as an “extra-textual element” that forms a “structural nexus in our reading or viewing experience . . . which can then do double duty and stand as the substitute and the representative within the aesthetic object of a phenomenon on the outside which cannot in the very nature of things be ‘rendered’ directly” (“Class and Allegory” 72). Between the analogon and the principal text there is then a kind of interpretive circuit. In Jameson’s reading of Lumet’s film, it is the star system that provides the analogon. The triangular relationship between the three main characters is articulated though this extra-textual element: “For the whole qualitative and dialectical inequality of this relationship is mediated by the star system itself . . . and our reading of this particular narrative is not a direct passage from one character or actant to another, but passes through the mediation of our identification and decoding of the actors’ status as such” (“Class and Allegory” 72). For Jameson, who reads the differences in the actors’ status as class difference, the analogon works to ratchet up the muted class dynamics of the narrative and give them a greater complexity.

With Ghost it is the work done on the production of the film that can provide an analogon. This work may be understood through the broad concept of immaterial labor. Maurizio Lazzarato defines immaterial labor this way:

The concept of immaterial labor refers to two different aspects of labor. On the one hand, as regards the “informational content” of the commodity, it refers directly to the changes taking place in workers’ labor processes in big companies in the industrial and tertiary sectors, where the skills involved in direct labor are increasingly skills involving cybernetics and computer control (and horizontal and vertical communication). One the other hand, as regards the activity that produces the “cultural content” of the commodity, immaterial labor involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as “work” – in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion. (133)

Immaterial refers then, at least in part, to those forms of labor whose representational problems I mentioned above, i.e. labor connected with information technology. In Lazzarato’s definition, it is apparent that these problems would also apply to the other main aspect of immaterial labor. It is not this difficulty though that makes this form of labor of interest for cognitive mapping. Rather, it is the dominance of immaterial labor in the contemporary mode of production. To say that this labor is dominant does not mean that it has erased other forms of labor, or even that it is quantitatively superior in terms of employment numbers; it means that this type of labor has ascended to a hegemonic role in the overall mode of production such that it influences the nature of all other forms of work. The dominance of immaterial labor is thus qualitative in that it has become paradigmatic or hegemonic.6 While many different kinds of labor persist, the communicative aspect of immaterial labor has been integrated into the infrastructures of nearly all of them, drawing the various sectors of the economy together into a common network. As such, immaterial labor must be recognized as an important, perhaps even inevitable, aspect of any sort of cognitive mapping.

Like all film production, and really all of cultural production more generally, the work involved in the production of Ghost falls within the realm of the second part of Lazzarato’s definition of immaterial labor. While film production certainly produces a material good (strips of celluloid), the main product, the cluster of precepts and affects contained in a film, is immaterial. Somewhat more specific to Ghost (though much less so now over a decade after its release), the production of the film also falls under the realm of the first part of the definition, as much of it was performed with computers. Computers were used to generate images that are interspersed throughout the film, and manipulate images produced by traditional single-cell animation. Moreover, a computer editing system was used to stitch together the computer animation and the cell animation. If we take these two different forms of animation as expressions of different forms of labor – the immaterial labor associated with information technology, and a more traditional, more manual material labor, respectively – this last aspect of the production provides a kind of figure, albeit a crude one, for the paradigmatic role of immaterial labor in the overall mode of production. For while the ratio between the two types of images certainly favors cell animation, the two types of images and forms of labor are able to exist together and communicate via their immersion in a common digital milieu.

The important question remains though of how the analogon presents itself within the film; that is, how the analogon can be grasped as part of the form of the image. But first a different question must be answered: What justifies recourse to the analogon in this case? Or: what might cue a viewer of the film to consider the labor of the film’s production? There are at least two significant factors here. The first is the film’s preoccupation with computer technology, which in light of its production, is self-reflexive. Second, there is the combination of innovative techniques and the impressive assemblage of creative talent employed in the production process. The importance of this second factor is indexed by the release of another film, a twenty-six minute behind-the-scenes documentary, variously titled Ghost in the Shell: Production Report and The Making of Ghost in the Shell, that focuses on and celebrates the technical aspects of Ghost. This short documentary was created as a marketing tool and shown on Japanese television in 1997 to coincide with the video release of Ghost; it is also included as a special feature on Manga Entertainment’s English-language DVD of the film from 1998.

There are two aspects of this short film that are particularly interesting here. First, it is revealing in terms of the visual weakness of the types of labor associated with information technology. Throughout the film what serves as a representative for this work is a close-up of a computer monitor on which a cursor performs various operations.

Figure 4

These shots are accompanied by a voice-over that attempts to counteract their visual dullness by explaining the technical aspects of the work. There are also a number of shots of various elements of computer hardware that confirm Jameson’s point about the visual nature of information technology. Second, and more significant, is the way the film gives form to the interpretive circuit between the feature film and its production, that is, between the film and the analogon. In the case of the DVD this circuit is literally hardwired, while in the case of the film itself it is given cinematic form. This latter form is constructed through two types of images. In the first type, short scenes from Ghost are presented with a voice-over explaining the technical details of the images on the screen. The second and more prevalent type of image is a split screen composition in which scenes from Ghost appear in the upper left portion of the frame, while in the lower right hand corner members of the animation team describe their work.

We can now return to the question of how the analogon actually appears as part of the form Ghost itself. What is made available to the viewer is an experience of the film’s images purely as an expression of the labor of their production. As with the clips of the film in Production Report, the images can be seen as demonstrations of their own technical composition.7 In this way, the diegetic world of the film in all its spatial and temporal dimensions is evacuated and replaced by a seamless fabric of immaterial labor. One might think here of the scene in The Matrix (1999) in which Neo is able to perceive the world of the matrix as a cascade of binary code. Yet in this image from The Matrix, as in the images of the computer screens in the documentary, there is no sense of actual human involvement. Perhaps a better explanation would be to say that it as if the voice-overs and talking heads in Production Report are rendered visually within Ghost itself, the technical composition of the images having the same corporeal and affective nuances as the human voice and the human face.

The difficulty in describing this type of image is that it cannot really be isolated in the film. To return to the example of Jameson’s reading of Dog Day Afternoon, it is not as if one simply sees Al Pacino, Charles Dunning, and James Broderick; rather, one sees them and Sonny, Moretti, and FBI agent Sheldon. However, while Jameson is clear on this point, he does not provide much to go on in terms of how this kind of superimposition or double exposure provides a specific form of image. In this regard I think the relation between the actual and the virtual described by Gilles Deleuze in the second volume of his books on cinema is useful. For Deleuze, the actual and the virtual form two sides, or two aspects, of the same image. The actual is the real, the tangible, that is, what is directly given to perception. In contrast, the virtual is what is indistinct and held in the imagination. (In Bergsonian terms, the actual is the present while the virtual is the continued existence of the past as memory.) Yet as Deleuze explains there is a constant exchange between the actual and the virtual that renders them indiscernible. Although the two sides of the image are distinct, it is impossible to hold them apart, and to examine one side and then the other: “In fact, there is no virtual which does not become actual in relation to the actual, the latter becoming virtual through the same relation: it is a place and its obverse which are totally reversible” (Deleuze 69). The two sides of the image thus face each other like two mirrors; there is a constant oscillation between the two that draws them together into an incredibly tight circuit.

The two aspects of the images in Ghost, what we might call the diegetic-image, and the labor-image, exist in such a relation, rotating at such a speed that they blend together (like the common optical toy), each image constantly pulsing through the other. This quality of the film’s images allows for another possible reading of the conspiratorial/technological networks detailed in the previous section. Here these networks of power/data become networks of immaterial labor. The teeming urban fabric becomes a kind of a living topography of labor. Not only the city though, but everything in between, that is, the entire world of the film, takes on this aspect. This global image of labor offers one solution to a representational problem of immaterial labor yet to be mentioned. For immaterial labor has become more or less synonymous with the social itself. This conflation can be thought across both spatial and temporal axes. In regard to the former, because immaterial labor includes an immense array of social activities – “activities that are not normally recognized as ‘work,'” as Lazzarato says – the zone of production has been decentralized, labor being no longer confined to the factory, and thus spread across all of social space. The situation is the same in regard to time. If work can be any type of social activity, any activity where communication is at stake, then all time is potentially work-time. Taken to its furthest extreme, the product of immaterial labor is nothing less than society itself, society become an integrated productive machine.

What then of Kusanagi? What then of her merger with the Puppet Master and her ultimate transformation? Or, more to the point: what here becomes of the utopianism of the film? A bit more can be said of Kusanagi in regards to my initial reading of the film. While she is highly individualized, Kusanagi is also deeply enmeshed in the networks of power. Again, as Silvio puts it, “her sense of personhood cannot be thought of apart from its bureaucratic organizational structure” (59). One way this aspect of Kusanagi is emphasized throughout the film is in the scenes in which she literally plugs into the network through sockets embedded in the back of her neck. These scenes are also striking in their use of a vocal “spatializer” to render the dialogue that takes place over the net. When communicating in this way the mouths of the characters do not move, the spatializer making the sound of their voices echo in an odd fashion that suggests immersion in a dense field of sonic information. As Wong Kin Yuen points out, this type of immersion is also represented throughout the film in the use of water imagery (15). At one point, Kusanagi goes diving in the port outside the city, letting herself slowly float to the surface in a kind of reenactment of her birth. This metaphor of a genetic connection to the networks is made literal in the opening credit sequence in which Kusanagi’s body is constructed inside giant tanks of liquid deep in a high-tech corporate lab.

If these networks are taken to be networks of immaterial labor, then Kusanagi becomes something like a figure for the working-class. In this capacity Kusanagi gives the disembodied and free-floating affects of the living topography of immaterial labor a cohesive body, and a more visually accessible subjectivity. There is then a kind of slippage or overlap here between labor and class. She functions in this way precisely through the dual emphasis on her individuality as well as her inseparability from the networks of labor she is immersed in. While she is literally composed of such labor, she also gives it a more specific form. If in relation to the labor-image the diegetic image becomes a seamless, or global, figure of labor, Kusanagi gives this figure a body within the image. There are a number of scenes in the film that nicely visualize what I mean here. In these scenes Kusanagi alternately melds into, and emerges out of, the background of the city as she activates and de-activates her thermo-optic camouflage.

Figure 5

In the oscillation between the two aspects, or two sides, of the film’s images, it as if this movement in which Kusanagi seems to dissolve into the air and then re-solidify occurs at such a rate that she is both at once, both of the common fabric of the image and in it. While I do not think that it is necessary to conclude whether Kusanagi is specifically any more or less effective a figure than simply the film’s images in general, her function as a figure is what provides a different reading of the film’s utopian climax. From this perspective Kusanagi’s evolution is an allegory for the ascendance of the working-class to a higher level of power. It is an ascendance towards a greater collectivity, which can here take on its more radical political dimensions.

But this ascendance to a higher power does not simply come out of thin air. Nor does it come from an overthrow of power. Indeed in the reading of the film I have been developing in this section, capital is nowhere in sight. Everything has become labor. What this climactic transformation then suggests is an affirmation of the powers of immaterial labor, an affirmation that draws its energy entirely from within. In this sense the utopian moment might, in the idiom of the Italian workerist tradition, be called a moment of self-valorization. Self-valorization describes an autonomous expansion of working-class power, apart from any relation, dialectical or otherwise, to capital. Self-valorization is essentially that utopian drive towards collectivity that Jameson describes. I use this term here, however, because it has most widely been used as a way of articulating this utopian drive specifically in terms of immaterial labor. For many theorists of immaterial labor – e.g. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri – there is a kind of communism to-come in this work. The seed of this communism lies in the relative autonomy of the communication and cooperation inherent in immaterial labor. Because immaterial labor encompasses all of social activity and all of social space, capital can only manage it rather than directly produce it. More concretely, there emerges the tendency for management techniques to become more diffuse and horizontal – “participative management,” “teamwork,” and so forth. In more and more workplaces, management has begun to be incorporated into all manner of positions rather than centralized in a single entity, thus placing a greater emphasis on horizontal communications over vertical structures of command. Within the networks of immaterial labor there are thus the outlines of a collectivity that can construct the world without any transcendent authority, without a boss, and without capital. What Ghost expresses is the desire of this collectivity to affirm itself and grow stronger. It is the desire for the realization of the latent communism buried in immaterial labor.

To be sure, this second version of the utopian impulse in the film does not completely do away with the first. In relation to his reading of Dog Day Afternoon, Jameson makes a similar point. To his own query about whether Dog Day Afternoon can be considered a political film he answers: “Surely not, since the class system we have been talking about is merely implicit in it, and can just as easily be ignored or repressed by its viewers as brought to consciousness”(“Class and Allegory” 71). To be fair, Jameson makes this statement before he brings in the analogon of the star system in the essay’s final pages. But I think the statement could just as easily have been made at the end of the essay. One may ignore or repress the star system just as much as one may ignore or repress the class dynamics inherent in the narrative in isolation, although perhaps not as easily. Similarly, one may ignore or repress the analogon of production in regards to Ghost, and thereby wipe out the reading of the film’s utopia I have laid out in this second section. (In the same way there is no guarantee of an actualization of the film’s cognitive mapping.) But this second utopia would still exist as a possibility. In fact it is the persistence of each of these two utopias in the face of the other that provides perhaps the most important figure of the film. It is, in short, a figure of class struggle. This figure only enriches the second version of the utopia, which has the shortcoming of appearing too idealist as it smoothly and effortlessly takes flight in the affirmation of collectivity. While the transformative power of labor – that is to say, the drive towards collectivity, or the utopian desire for communism – can be described as autonomous, it still exists in the face of capital, in the face of its enemy.


[1] I would like to thank Phil Wegner for inviting me to present an earlier version of this essay at the 33rd annual meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies in October of 2008.

[2] Silvio’s invocation of the “liberatory potential of the cyborg” is developed vis-à-vis Donna Haraway’s arguments in her “A Cyborg Manifesto.”

[3] The classic formulation of the relations between agency, passivity, and patriarchy in certain shot-reverse-shot structures is, of course, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

[4] See also Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 51. The reference is to Louis Althusser’s “Ideological State Apparatuses.”

[5] Eric Cazdyn articulates this persistence of the nation in the face of globalization in the film in terms of gender. He reads the simultaneous transcendence and re-inscription of traditional notions of gender as representing the diverging tendencies of the breakdown of the nation and its continued relevance, respectively.

[6] See Jason Read, The Micro-Politics of Capital of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present.

[7] To be sure, there are certainly other situations, that is, other films, in which this type of image may occur. In brief – a full consideration of the question of where and why such an image arises would require another essay – what seems most important is the prominence of an analogon of production. But there may be other factors. For instance, animation seems to offer a particularly good environment for such an image. Compared to animation, live action arguably places a greater weight on the existence of the pro-filmic apart from any kind of technical intervention. This is not an ontological claim however, but an epistemological one. Live action, it seems, has a greater capacity to “cue” the viewer towards a kind of Bazinian understanding of the image. In this respect one might consider the greater depth of live action images, or, invoking Stanley Cavell, the presence of real human actors. Conversely, the lack of these two features would seem to give animation a much greater ability to eradicate any notion of the autonomy of the pro-filmic, thus allowing for an experience of the image purely as a field of technical processes.


Althusser, Louis. “Ideological State Apparatuses.” Lenin and Philosophy. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. 85-126. Print.

Cazdyn, Eric. The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 242-254. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. Print.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-182. Print.

Hardt, Michael and Antioni Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.

Dog Day Afternoon. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Warner Brothers, 1975. DVD.

Ghost in the Shell. Dir. Oshii Mamoru. Bandai Visual, 1995. DVD.

Jameson, Fredric. “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film.” Signatures of the Visible. New York: Routledge, 1992. 47-74. Print.

—. “Cognitive Mapping.” The Jameson Reader. Eds. Michael Hardt and Kathi Weeks. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000. 277-287. Print.

—. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992. Print.

—. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.

—. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Signatures of the Visible. New York: Routledge, 1992. 11-46. Print.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial Labor.” Trans. Paul Colilli and Ed Emory. Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics. Eds. Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 133-147. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York: New York University Press, 1999. 58-69. Print.

Read, Jason. The Micro-Politics of Capital of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Print.

Silvio, Carl. “Refiguring the Radical Cyborg in Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell.” Science Fiction Studies 26.1 (Mar. 1999): 54-72. Print.

Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude. Trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson. Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2004. Print.

Yuen, Wong Kin. “On the Edges of Space: Blade RunnerGhost in the Shell, and Hong Kong’s Cityscape.” Science Fiction Studies 27.1 (Mar. 2000): 1-21. Print.

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