After my playful but legitimate conspiracy theory, this post is some Very Serious doings. I want to explore how pokéballs and the technology of digitizing/dissolving bodies makes the exercise of biopower nearly inescapable in the pokéverse. The more time I spend thinking about it, the more this world becomes a techno-dystopia that has hidden all visible appartuses of control and normalized some pretty problematic practices.
In episode 13 Ash catches his seventh
pokémon, a krabby. The colors and shots are dramatic—the slow-motion “battle,” seen at the right; then a tight focus on Krabby as it dematerializes and is encapsulated by Ash’s pokéball; then a final tight shot of the pokéball as it dematerializes with a blinding light, transported back to Oak’s lab.
This is a good place to think about the implications of the way pokéballs act on pokémon bodies.
Background theory of non-human bodies
Recently I read some of Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital, in which Shukin writes about the way we use animals, physically and figuratively. Nonhuman animals are powerful symbols (e.g., the sigils of the noble houses of Westeros), and animal bodies are a literally vital aspect of most products. (It’s the same in Kanto–there’re huge industries that use pokémon bodies and images.) In our world, we constantly render the animal body into a metaphorical or actual product. Rendering, as Shukin explains it, is exercising power over bodies, making the nonhuman body into an idea or a product while hiding the messy, material origins and process of production. 1
Shukin’s project is to point out how and why rendering tries to hide the bodily origin of ideas and products. Shukin draws attention to the living bodies we use/consume because that distorts the seemingly “painless transmission” of animal-into-product/symbol. It distorts the rendering process because thinking about how and why we render bodies changes how we think of the easily-consumable idea or products we’re used to. This changes how we see things because, as essential and universal as they are, bodies, with their squishy and vulnerable materiality, terrify us–hence the popularity of body horror films like Alien, The Thing, etc. We (well, not me, but others) want to eat a hot dog without thinking about how that hot dog is the conceived, birthed, living, feeling, nurtured, slaughtered, butchered, ground fleshbits of a pig.
Yet that body was real and, when we find unprocessed, recognizable bits of a corpse (like a foot in our chicken nuggets), we see the body that was behind the product all along. We realize that something had to die and bleed before we could eat it. This scares us. Gods help the beef industry when an outbreak of mad cow disease reminds humans of that living, vulnerable, threatening otherness of the bovine body that was rendered into the ground chuck that made their Memorial Day burger.
Making it clear that all products and animal images are contingent on the body emphasizes that, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri write, “bodies resist” (Commonwealth 31). Bodies resist at the most basic level by demanding a lot of work to make them into anything else, by reminding us of their otherness in unexpected ways. Shukin says that the “neoliberal fantasy” is one of transcending the undeniable, fundamental stubbornness and messiness of physical materiality; she calls it fantasy because that transcendence isn’t possible in our world.
Bringing it back to the pokéverse
In Ash’s world, though, the physicality of the body is far from fundamental, and resisting the rendering action of biopower is more difficult. In the pokéverse bodies are easily dematerialized, stored away, transported. The close-up of Krabby as it is caught makes it clear how immaterial technology can render the body in this world. Before it disappears it becomes translucent energy and then, ultimately, loses its form altogether.
This tech, whatever it is, allows humans not only to control and carry their pokémon but to disembody them completely. It does away with many aspects of messy materiality.
I noted from the first the way the pokémon world is obsessed with not only the bodies but the images of pokémon. The way humans think of pokémon is mediated by products and visual presentations–a discourse that presents pokémon as creatures to be loved and admired, but also used. Ash’s journey is often about the discovery that some pokémon don’t want to be controlled outright, that they attempt to act on their own terms; but I wonder if the dematerialization technology makes commodification, abstraction, and reduction of pokémon to objects more difficult to question. In Kanto everyone is rendering pokémon bodies all the time, dematerializing and reassembling them constantly. The constant disintegration/reiteration of pokémon bodies means that materiality isn’t a fundamental, shared experience that can prompt empathy–human bodies seem to remain intact, but pokémon are convertible, portable, easily storable; they are, in the end, conveniently useable. The non-human body is no longer a troublingly material fact.
Well, I lie, because even the digital or energized signal is always dependent on the material. Somewhere there must be hardware. Somewhere, in some lab, there are pieces of physical machinery that enact these digitizations. Pokéballs are hardware; but even then, pokéballs aren’t consistently physical, as we see after Ash catches Krabby. Pokéballs can be teleported from one place to another instantly, regardless of location. Pokéballs even change size, from a conveniently portable ping pong ball during travel to a baseball during use. Even the materiality of the hardware is unstable and uncertain.
This is a way of controlling not only pokémon but interactions with those pokémon—the transfer of Krabby to Oak’s lab is automatic, so somehow the pokédex or Ash’s pokéballs are able to communicate with each other and with some machine hidden away, which is then able to transport that ball from any location. Ash is only allowed (by the League?) to have so many ‘mon with him at any point, which means that the balls are somehow registered to Ash specifically, possibly through the pokédex (which, as we learn in ep. 2, is somehow irreplaceably biolocked to him and only him). Ash and his pokémon are read and identified somehow, branded, not on their skin, but (presumably) on their genetic code. Here, bodies, at the most basic material level, are identifiable, readable, and manipulable from afar by invisible machinery.
In the end, we have to conclude that, to the pokéverse’s technology, physical bodies are nothing but sets of numbers and data to be identified, tallied, balanced, transmitted. Just as I speculated that the environment is completely controlled and created by powerful and invisible technology, so are the bodies of pokémon at the mercy of hidden mechanisms to which physical distance seems to be no object. In Kanto, biopower is inescapable.
Pikachu, though… Pikachu does something exciting, as I’ve noted before. By refusing the pokéball, Pikachu resists the basic form of control. Maybe he couldn’t refuse unless Ash allowed him to—after all, he was in a pokéball in Oak’s lab; but even there he was in a special, physical storage space, maybe to keep him from breaking out? If Pikachu can come out at will, why don’t more pokémon?2 Regardless, Pikachu values the solidity and materiality of his own body, resisting battles that intimidate him and refusing to be dematerialized even when doing so would protect him from physical danger. Pikachu reminds the world that “bodies resist,” at least as long as they’re actually embodied.
On a final note, the uneasiness I’m feeling isn’t just me reading into things; Ash feels it too. Krabby’s sudden, unstoppable transportation troubles him, and he spends the next ten minutes worrying about Krabby, wanting to verify where Krabby is, that Krabby is okay, wanting to actually see Krabby once he discovers Oak has it back in Pallet. Even though Ash has, by now, lots of experience with dissolving bodies, in this case the krabby was taken without his consent, and this defamiliarizes the process, makes it more startling. When he assumes Oak has eaten Krabby, Ash shows a sudden awareness of a pokémon’s vulnerability to being broken down and rendered into something portable/usable/consumable.
Phew. Heavy stuff. I’m not sure I made even one joke in this entire post. I guess, though, dystopian Pokémon isn’t a very funny topic? Anyway, Friday we continue the theme by exploring the implications of pokémon evolution!
1. For example: Canada uses the image of the beaver to evoke assocations of Canada’s wilderness and pristine beauty; yet the beaver was the center of a huge fur trade that led to a huge ecological tole on beavers and their ecosystems, to say nothing of the displacement and oppression of Canada’s First Nations. Thinking about the actual history and material reality of the beaver in Canadian history would undermine the usual use of that image, as Shukin discusses in the first pages of her book. Regarding products, fun fact, much (most?) red lipstick gets its red coloring from the boiled and crushed chitin of the cochineal beetle. Smearing the congealed color of a boiled and squeezed bug shell on one’s face is a common practice, largely because cosmetics companies don’t talk about the source of their color. ↩
2. So I know that in the Black and White seasons Ash’s oshawott often comes out of its ball without permission. Maybe they could but don’t? Maybe many aren’t violently opposed to being owned. Maybe the process of being dematerialized is a form of automatic domestication—Brock catches a zubat and it can take commands the first time he sends it out of the ball, which might imply that a pokémon’s body and brain are somehow altered to make them more docile and responsive to human commands? It’s all speculation, but how else would kids be able to command elemental beings more or less immediately after catching them? ↩