Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complexes


Via I came across this article discussing, somewhat superficially, to be honest, the idea of avatars and physical form (chosen or not) in relation to an individual.

I probably shouldn’t be discussing this right now, but I’m two episodes away from finishing the 2nd GiG and I want to record my thoughts before they fade too much. Spoilers below, recommended to have seen the entire first season of GitS: SAC and up to episode 24 of GitS: SAC 2nd GiG.

The article linked to via Digg isn’t, ultimately, all that interesting to me. The author is attempting to use Ghost in the Shell as a starting point to begin talking about Second Life and other constructed online personas. However, the author of the article draws a distinction between Motoko’s “shell” and her “avatar.” In the show, Matoko is visually represented in different ways. Her physical body looks one way, and while her “internet” persona is similar, it’s distinctive from her physical form. It seems, according to this article, that the author believes the latter internet-persona is Matoko’s avatar as it was chosen specifically by her —

But wait! Matoko is a full-prosthetic cyborg. Her body is entirely fake, she can change it at any time. If an “avatar” is merely a form chosen by an individual to represent themselves then is not her prosthetic body also her avatar? Furthermore, Matoko uses her cybernetic body far more than her internet persona. One could then say that because she continually chooses the same appearance for herself over time and uses her prosthetic body more than her digital persona that the physical Matoko-shell is more of a representation of her “self” than her digital persona. A further example may be that Matoko, in the first season of SAC, uses multiple different personae online, but only one cyborg body. Naturally, though, there are mitigating factors, such as Matoko wanting to present a certain professional appearance as well.

What I found more interesting than the article that I was discussing were some of the comments on Digg.

Take a look at this comment by LaughingMan11:

I think the thing that amused me most about the first season of Ghost in the Shell SAC is exactly that… they conjured up a character who inspired large scale imitation and whose logo became a powerful meme in the GiTS universe, but in doing so, the meme, the logo, and the Stand Alone Complex phenomena actually leaks out onto the REAL Internet, and the REAL world….

And here I am, finding myself imitating the Laughing Man, just like all of you.

It’s beautifully ironic, but also true. Naturally, our real-world Laughing Man don’t conduct extortion or kidnappings — yet. And it’s unlikely in our isolated world that we’ll see the rise of pervasive Stand Alone Complex style behavior. I think it requires a degree of interconnectivity we haven’t yet reached.

Here’s a comment by maninblac1:

Of all the concepts in GITS the SAC phenomenon is the most abstract.

I can’t say that i perfectly understand the concept because i have some fundemental logic issues with the definition. Since the person who was “the laughing man” was real, but the idea of “the laughing man” was not, doesn’t that make the SAC a technicality. The fact the real person existed should make him the center point of the complex, thus unifying it.

It’s a thought provoking question. Is the SAC merely a contrivance thought up by the writers, a catchy name with no real substance or insight backing it? I think perhaps the key to understanding the Stand Alone Complex and assess whether it’s a phenomenon worth identifying or whether it’s just a technicality of a particular situation is in the second season. The second season deals with a man who attempts to manipulate the Stand Alone Complex behavior to achieve a desired end. This begins with the injection of a virus into cyberspace that activates based on particular conditions. This gives rise to a group called the “Particularist Eleven” who are deceived by the virus into thinking they have read a certain political treatise that motivates them to action. According to the delusion, the Particularist Eleven was a part of a manifesto written by a political theorist who himself ultimately thought to create a unified theory of revolutions and who became a revolutionary himself.

In an absolute sense one can say with confidence that the Particularist Eleven manifesto does not exist. The men who become infected with the virus and begin carrying out terrorist actions in accordance with the ideals of the text are copying an original that is wholly fabricated. From this angle the Stand Alone Complex is definitely real and not merely a technicality. However, one could also say that the virus itself is the “original.” Even though it may achieve its ends by pretending to be something that it isn’t, and deceiving people to believe it is something that it isn’t, the virus ultimately exists and is the “original” that breeds imitators via infection.

However, the intriguing twist of the 2nd GiG is that the Particularist Eleven virus is discovered fairly early in the series. At the point the virus is discovered it moves to the background and becomes a largely irrelevant piece in a much larger puzzle. We discover that the primary purpose of the virus was not itself to be a stand alone complex but rather to provoke a larger-scale stand alone complex. Millions of the refugees, many of whom do not even have cyberbrains, independently become imitators of Kuze.

Although the case could be made that Kuze is the “original”, what I see in the anime is that Kuze is an independent agent surrounded by Stand Alone Complexes. He is constantly attempting to persuade the refugees to act in a way that is contrary to their desires (their desires being synonymous with the Stand Alone Complex behavior — becoming revolutionaries). Gouda’s plan, on the other hand, requires that the refugees are isolated from Kuze due to the way that his influence as an independent actor can suppress the Stand Alone behavior in the refugees. The situation Gouda engineers has a similar effect on government officials, provoking situations for which the response must follow a particular path — an archetypal path. The archetype is ultimately the focus of the Stand Alone Complex, as no true original exists but situations in life frequently force individuals to act within the confines of well-known roles. The Laughing Man, for example, taps into the archetype of the Robin Hood character, or the archetype of the Muckraking Reporter, or the unbowed Idealist.

The further twist is that Gouda’s behavior itself, an attempt to engineer a situation in which a hero would arise and overthrow the prevailing social order, is itself a product of an even more far-ranging Stand Alone Complex. Gouda’s personal ambition was to become the Hero, but realizing his own inadequacy, for various reasons, he attempted to provoke the wide scale Stand Alone Complex in order to forge a new role for himself. Ultimately, though, Gouda’s actions may have been merely part of another social pattern — Rather than being the engineer of the hero Kuze, Gouda is Kuze’s imitator. Although this is not entirely certain, Gouda does take substantial risks and does dedicate serious resources towards aims congruent with Kuze’s. The difference is merely that Gouda believes he is the instigator, while another perspective, one Kuze might share, is that Gouda is the imitator.

Since I haven’t finished the series yet I can’t say for sure what side the anime will take on these stances and what evidence it may present for supporting either perspective. In a more general sense, though, I think what is referred to as the Stand Alone Complex is a pervasive, if not quite as strong, element of our own cultures and human nature itself. It can be as specific as saying that, for example, when Israel is attacked by terrorists they must, lest even more dire consequences ensue, assume a certain position whose actions are ultimately proscribed — one might call them imitations of a particular archetype, one which is strong and defends itself vigorously. It can also be as generalized as talking about interpretation — Any experience of, say, a text, is ultimately a construction of the individual mind that interprets it. Such an experience can vary widely, but it can also coincide. Thus we see fairly frequently large segments of a fan base for a particular text becoming upset when an author takes a text (a sequel, perhaps) in a direction that does not coincide with their mostly-shared vision of the text’s message.

I’m not sure if this means the effect is too generalized to be meaningful, but it does seem to describe an effect that otherwise I have no good terminology to explain (aside from, perhaps, “Jumping the Shark” but that has different implications — Namely that the writers ran out of ideas and changed the text’s direction, rather than having drastically different conceptions of a text to begin with but which shared a momentary coincidence before diverging).

3 Responses

  1. Alexander Til Alexandros

    OK I have a question for you, what are your beliefs on the situation of the Stand Alone Complex being a apparent part of reality, it seems, in my opinion, that the SAC is an everyday part of our normal life, now of course my views could be very much persuaded by the series itself however I think it is quite possible that such a thing can exist without things like cyberware in our brains and fully prosthetic bodies, the main question is if it is real how do we define it in our terms.

  2. Well, this post is largely an attempt to work through the question of whether the SAC exists and, if so, is it a useful concept to think about?

    The conclusion I’ve settled on for now is that, yes, the SAC is a real phenomenon. There are varying degrees of broadness one can use to define the concept, but I’m reasonably convinced that it’s not either over-specific or over-broad to be a useful term. And, yes, I agree that the SAC phenomenon is independent of the technology presented in the GITS series. In fact, I’m more inclined to believe that since human interactions in a non-networked world are prone to even more distortion (think of the game “Telephone”) the more they are transmitted, the SAC is actually more widespread the less technologically advanced a society is. However, I think technological advances like cyberbrains and omnipresent internet access allow for the SAC to propogate in more interesting (and controllable) ways.

  3. I don’t think that the original actually matters too much. Whether it existed at all or not is not the point. I think of Stand Alone Complex as whisper down the lane. By the end the idea is changed and might not even reflex the same idea that started. It is that people not connected working together for a similar goal based solely off of what they heard during that whisper down the lane type of communication.

    Think of it like an internet meme. Did someone invent the rickroll? Or did it, over time, change and morph into a prank that thousands of people do that have no connection to one another other than they find it fun?

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