Friday, March 22, 2013

Perfect World

What is a system? What place do people have within systems? And can people escape the systems they find themselves part of? The answer to that, according to PSYCHO-PASS, is "no."

I was almost disappointed at the end of episode 22 to find that PSYCHO-PASS ended similarly to how it began. Akane, no longer a rookie, has taken Ginoza's role as head Inspector; now, Ginoza is an Enforcer lap dog, like his father before him. After discovering the nature of the Sybil System and going to such great lengths to capture Makishima, I was tempted to curse Gen Urobuchi for writing such an anticlimax. There's nothing more obnoxious than one of those anime that has a perfectly circular story where life continues as it always has by the end. Yet, in the case of PSYCHO-PASS, such a development is more appropriate than I initially realized.

Everyone and everything is part of a system, a network of humans and non-humans (animals, objects, machines, etc) that fulfill unique roles in society. These monolithic systems seem to reduce human agency to nothingness in that our individual choices don't constitute major changes. In PSYCHO-PASS, should someone like Enforcer Kogami kill Makishima, he knows that he has to either run away or face punishment for his actions. There are too many law enforcers doing their jobs correctly for Kogami to go unpunished, people like Akane Tsunemori, who cling to their hopes in truth and justice too strongly to act rashly.

According to current models of systems thinking, radical changes or "mutations" within a system, rather than being seen as invasive and threatening, are instead adhering to the rules of behavior already outlined by the system itself. Cary Wolfe, in his book What is Posthumanism?, quotes R.L. Rutsky when he claims mutation "cannot be seen as an external randomness that imposes itself upon the biological or material world - nor, for that matter, on the realm of culture. Rather, mutation names that randomness which is always already immanent in the processes by which both material bodies and cultural patterns replicate themselves." Anomalies like Kogami and Makishima are inconsequential because the system accounts for the inevitable manifestation of such people. In fact, Makishima was targeted for assimilation into the Sybil System because of his criminally asymptomatic status, while Kogami would have been eliminated, evidence of Sybil's awareness of its own limitations. 

Fiction such as The Matrix Trilogy and even the seminal Nineteen Eighty-Four explore similar avenues of thought, coming to similar conclusions. In the first Matrix film, protagonist Neo aims to destroy the machine program that governs all society and preserves humanity. By the end of the second film he is told this is an impossible task: his actions have been predicted, even fostered by the very same system he resists, in order so that he may inevitably perpetuate the Matrix program. By the end of the films, he finds a way for humans and machines to coexist peacefully, but still fulfills his role as a "fail-safe" that prevents the Matrix's complete collapse, as a mutation allowed to instigate dynamism within the confines of the system. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith is handed a copy of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a book supposedly written by an opponent of the domineering INGSOC party. As it turns out, the man handing out the book was a party member posing as a revolutionary, and used the book as a pretense to catch Smith committing thought crimes. By the end of the story, Smith is tortured into submission and reinstated as a member of society. 

In both The Matrix and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the idea that a protagonist can gain enough knowledge to topple the system from within is dismissed entirely; to quote Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulations (a seminal text for the directors of The Matrix), "such a sentiment is utopian." The system certainly cannot eliminate human agency, but it almost always accounts for it. The Sybil System in PSYCHO-PASS saw Akane Tsunemori as an excellent addition to the police force, as someone who would uphold the law despite her reservations. To quote Baudrillard again, although Akane offers Sybil "a single ironic smile that effaces a whole discourse," a glimmer of hope that someday the system will be defeated, she must return yet again to the world as someone who knows the truth but cannot act upon it. 

Upon entertaining the thought that the Sybil System can ever fail, Sybil laughed. It came through as something else, not laughter, but a stab of cold down my spine.*

* The last line is my rewriting of a famous line in Neuromancer, when the virtual construct Case is talking to tries to laugh but doesn't sound anything like people recognize. P. 106.

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