Cyborgs and Identity in Cyberpunk, from Ghost in the Shell to Cyberpunk Edgerunners

By: Kitty Lin February 16, 20240 Comments
Major Kusanagi sitting in a tank top looking contemplative

Spoilers for all of Cyberpunk Edgerunners and Ghost in the Shell.

Content Warning: Discussions of body modification, body horror, chronic disability, poverty

So, you’re a cyborg.

Run your fingers along the back of your neck, and you’ll notice the distinct absence of cybernetic ports through which you can interface with other programming. You’ll look in the mirror and see eyes—your eyes, without a map, heat sensors, or different displays superimposed over your vision to give you data on the world around you quicker than you can blink. You don’t hide an arsenal in your limbs or have armor grafted into you, skin-deep. Still, you’re a cyborg.

There’s more than one side of you. You can do certain things very well, yet what you do is not what you are—that is infinitely more complicated. You’re comprised of many moving, changing parts, even if society only chooses to see one of them. That part is usually the most convenient one; if not, the part that will make the most money.

Identity is a complicated subject; the ways we can reflect, parse, and better try to know ourselves are nearly infinite, while the ways we can convey that to others effectively are not.  Usually, we are limited in how we present by the economic and social pressures of our society.  The cyborg challenges its fans to ask themselves: if what makes us people isn’t as concrete as flesh and blood, then what other unshakable, unchangeable truths about ourselves have we been wrong about?

A hologram addressing a room full of people

Cyberpunk: Edgerunners

Even in the far-flung dystopia of Cyberpunk: Edgerunner’s Night City, technology struggles to match identity in its fluidity. There might be a thousand reasons for cybernetically augmenting, but it’ll still lead to a manufactured piece of hardware.  

Most people in cyberpunk settings are pretty freakin’ poor. Their options for cybernetics are usually limited to stolen or bootlegged versions of the tech that made corporations obscenely wealthy and allowed governments to dominate their populations. Even in all their infinite, transhuman potential, cyborgs are grounded by their mechanical parts, sure, but also by becoming part-commodity themselves. They carve out flesh and blood pieces of themselves and replace them with something that can be bought and sold, something that can be tampered with or corrupted, something already used by corporations and the government to crack the infrastructure-breaking wealth chasm wide open.  

In Night City, anyone who’s not ready to stick a knife in your back is a good friend, and anyone who can help you make a pretty eddy (or penny, or buck, for those who are not native to Night City) is your best friend. In Edgerunners, David Martinez’s mother is killed in a mercenary-sparked accident, and the limited stability he knows goes with her. The Martinez family could barely scrape together enough to live. Although David attended an elite Arasaka prep academy, he couldn’t afford to thrive there, because of the expensive cyber-equipment it required and the expectation of wealth from his peers. To meet this expectation, David gets some black market cyberware, but it ends up damaging everyone else’s when David attempts to use it in class, not only pissing off a whole institution of people who didn’t want him there in the first place but once again leaving him in need of proper (read: expensive) equipment. The series immerses viewers in the oppressive fatigue of living with the poverty tax, the constant expensive replacing of cut-rate equipment combined with the various laws that the wealthy are exempted from. David’s story shows that financial security is often less a matter of getting your foot in the door and more of already having been through the door, to begin with.

While the circumstances surrounding a procedure as invasive as cybernetically augmenting are often a complicated tangle of socio-economic status and inner conflict, replacing parts of oneself with a machine is impossible to divorce from literally becoming part-object. In replacing parts of themselves with technology, capitalism virtually consumes a cyborg as they tune themselves to be more practical and earn more capital, one piece at a time. The line between choosing cybernetics for personal reasons while it being convenient for function and choosing cybernetics specifically for function and capital is thin—it’s also the line that separates how we can intend to construct and determine our identities and how those identities are determined by the means of production and our self-commodification under capitalism. 

David with a headbandage on looking like he's in pain

In his dedication in Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno says that production “degrades” reality so that it resembles life in appearance only, and even that, one that’s bound to fade.If identity is dependent on things as superficial as what can be made, bought, and sold, then just as Adorno predicts, everyone is destined to live chafing against the cage of what we feel living should look like, instead of actually living. Moreover, in a world where crafting an identity for capital and function is normalized, there exists the potential to be “unproductive” or “to fail” within an identity. What’s left for you when you fail to be what you are?

Literal cyborgs may not be living among us, but all of us living in the world Adorno describes are already too familiar with the implications of seeing someone as a “role” before a person. In a society where the only control someone might have is over their body, exercising a deeper consideration of who they are, who they want to be, and the ways to close that distance might be one of the most rebellious acts one can commit.

In the case of the poor cyborg masses of Night City, most choices that lead to survival also lead to fashioning oneself into a tool or weapon. In David’s case, he may be able to build himself into someone stronger. However, he has still rooted himself into a life of crime and is feeding a cybernetic habit that can make him ill and kill him. Throughout the show, viewers follow David through a life-changing tragedy and watch as he grows into the self he is building. When playing by the rules of society at the beginning, David is smaller, bullied, and questions himself more; his frustration is directionless in the way it is with teenagers, given their relative powerlessness in a society that threatens to swallow them whole. Characters that later show romantic interest in him, like Lucyna and Rebecca, emasculate him by commenting on his scrawny build and lack of “street smarts.”  

David cybernetically modified and significantly bulked up

In later episodes, David lives a teenage boy’s macho-cyberpunk fantasy: bulked up considerably with muscle modifications, he is running the crew, has wooed Lucyna, and spends most of his time with his jacket undone giving the viewers a generous look at his new rugged physique. This is a dream of power for someone who has had every sense of stability and agency in his life stripped away before now. Compared to David’s start in the series—a small, bullied kid who could only watch as his mother ran herself ragged to give him more opportunities—the ability to take swift, decisive action and live outside the law to make money seems to be the foundation of the thrilling life David’s built for himself. On the flip side of his heart-pounding adventures, though, are the powerful enemies he’s making, such as the megacorp Arasaka, and his impending cyber-psychosis, which creeps closer with each augmentation. Here, Night City seduces David with the illusion of power and choice: “cyber-snake oil” sold to him by an unconcerned RipperDoc for the right price. 

Most of the population in Cyberpunk Edgerunners is David; left floundering for an answer when all possible solutions are out of reach.

A man in a mask in profile

Ghost in the Shell

While it can be easy to buy into the romance of cybernetics as a salve for the sting of poverty, as seen in Cyberpunk, Ghost in the Shell makes no attempt to woo the audience with shiny, futuristic tech.This ’90s movie asks not what cybernetics can do for you, but instead, what you can do with your cybernetics, in scrutiny of what function you serve and how it secures your role in society.

The film opens with several nude shots of The Major—all completely void of sexual undertones in the close-ups we get of her body. The nape of her neck is exposed, and we’re shown the inlets where cables plug in. What should be a tantalizing splash of skin is instead the most complex stealth wear in the industry, capable of allowing the Major to disappear into her surroundings entirely. As the opening title sequence plays, we get the construction of The Major’s cyborg body chassis, with much of her assemblage superimposed with imagery reminiscent of being in the womb. Machines methodically bolt and screw her skeleton in place; her skin is poured onto her, her face sculpted over the equipment that allows her the ability to see, hear, and effectively neutralize evil. We get a few serene moments as The Major lays in the fetal position immersed in a synthetic amniotic fluid before awakening as herself.   

There is a contrast here between the assembly of a machine, when machines are often viewed as clinical, calculating, and masculine, and the yonic imagery of a womb and The Major’s foregrounded femininity. Here, The Major’s distinction from other women is emphasized once more, as Ghost in the Shell uses our assumptions about gendered imagery against us. If we weren’t shown this process, it would be all too easy to assume The Major is a human woman. What happens when the criteria for being a woman, so shaped by patriarchy and the male gaze, are no longer pertinent to how we engage with a female character? How can a post-human character change our understanding of the roles we are conscripted to play?

Major Kusanagi from behind naked looking at a robot .

The Major often struggles with the ambiguity of consciousness within a body that is entirely pre-determined. She’ll never be sure how much of herself is her mind, a soul, or if it’s another function grafted into her hardware. After drinking beer with Bateau, The Major muses on this, saying, “I’m only free to grow and expand within these confines,” her own admission that her tech, which allows her to complete death-defying maneuvers and hold her own against some of the most dangerous individuals on the planet, is also the prison that she exists in. 

This “prison” doesn’t just refer to the limits of inhabiting a pre-determined vessel, but at the cost of having it to begin with: her service to the state. The Major reveals that if any cyborgs on the force wanted to retire, they’d need to relinquish their cybernetics. In the case of the entirely physically augmented Major, this would be the equivalent of death. Not only does technological advancement pave the way for less humanistic policy, but even the case of those who dedicate their life to the service of their country, like The Major and Bateau, are only allowed to exist in the context of their service.

We see this in the skeletal city around The Major, covered in scaffolding with piles of garbage left to sour in the rivers. The city looks sick; the population appears incidental to their home, now a shell. The background shots of the city through windows are still and silent. We get very little of the people who live there and only up close when they serve as collateral through the messy chase scene with the garbagemen. Even as The Major rides a boat through the city, its inhabitants float by at a distance, through panes of glass and up out of reach behind railings. 

It isn’t until the movie’s end, in which The Major is reborn as more than just a person or a machine, that she finally gets to choose where she goes next. As she comes to terms with what it means to be human and what a soul really is (rather than the ‘ghosts’ that haunt their otherwise empty chassis), the viewers are allowed to get closer to the people, embodying the last remnants of life in a fraught city. As The Major feels disconnected, the city appears empty. As she yearns for the potential to be more than she was made to be, we see the shapes moving soundlessly through the city, not noticing her. Finally, when she is ready to join them, the city is full of light and sound.

A nightime shot of Night City

More than that, the cyborg set to the backdrop of smoggy, rotting cityscapes is no coincidence. Cybernetics and the city are one and the same in cyberpunk—full of possibility but entirely hollow without someone to inhabit them. Cities are comprised of different communities with different identities, experiences, cultures, and ideas fitted together to make one organism—yet, the state treats those communities and the people within the city like a machine would treat its parts, as interchangeable, movable, and disposable depending on what would best serve capitalism. Many years later, Edgerunners returns to this idea, with Night City itself a conflicted character as much as any of the augmented humans.

“The cyborg” isn’t just a symbol of identity’s complexities and the careful balance between the person crafting it and those interfacing with it, but a reminder of how something so personal can have very public implications. 

You’re you with all the nuance and agency that goes with it—but your body isn’t entirely yours. Your arms, eyes, and mind are all commodities, and society appraises you based on whether or not it believes you’re using them pragmatically. 

See what I mean, cyborg?

About the Author : Kitty Lin

Catherine 'Kitty' Lin is a Chicago-based writer who considers fiction to be her actual place of residence. She's been published in Adelaide Literary Magazine and children, churches, and daddies for her crime short story and has published various articles on global class issues. Her most recent works include a steamy romance novel under a pseudonym that she'll take to the grave and an upcoming science fiction novella, The Apocalypse by Night, that follows the abysmal forever-after of vampires in the wake of the climate apocalypse.

Read more articles from Kitty Lin

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