The life of matter: concepts of impersonal agency in the pokéverse

After a week-long hiatus in which I tried and failed to catch up on some reading, we’re back with a little bit more about how the show is addressing the idea of difference.

Episode 1.29, “Sparks fly for Magnemite,” is another one of those episodes that has a theme but doesn’t ever clearly articulate it. It’s a weird quirk of the show; they’re obviously doing “Ash learns a lesson” type episodes, but without clean resolutions. I like it, because it doesn’t spell things out, but it can get a little confusing because it doesn’t spell things out. Episode 1.29 is exploring the way that our characters think of the agency and liveliness of inorganic matter. The two new pokémon we learn about in this episode are both “inorganic pokémon.” What the characters learn by the end of the episode is that even inorganic matter has agency–i.e., tendencies, preferences, and the ability to act in ways contrary to human desires and plans.

Gringey City

Passing through Gringey City, Ash and co. are disgusted by the pollution. It’s an industrial town with no obvious living quarters. Ash remarks that it’s a “really weird city. Lots of factories but no people.” Brock, a.k.a. Exposition Man, explains that “Pollution ruined the air and the water here.” While there, Pikachu falls ill, sparking at the cheeks and running a fever, and the city’s power shuts off because Photo 2015-07-14, 9 07 08 PMof a concentrated attack by sludge-pokémon called grimer, threatening the lives of the (disturbingly numerous) pokémon in the IC unit of the local Pokémon Center.

After some legitimately creepy, Alien-like action in the dark powerplant, stalked by grimer in the air vents, the gang is cornered by the violent, murderous pollution pokémon. They only survive with the help of the metallic magnemites, one of whom has taken a liking to Pikachu.

A few things are going on. While the cause of the grimers’/muk’s violence isn’t clear, their active animosity toward the humans is obvious. Grimer’s Pokédex entry says that their origin is pollution and that they’re “Born from sludge.” Perhaps it means they breed in sludge, but even their bodies are more or less sentient poison glop. The grimers, born from pollution, embody the way that the waste humans produce can escape their control and affect the world in new ways. The products of our own consumption can, in turn, try to consume us. “Inorganic” does not equal dead or even controllable.

A bit of theory

Jane Bennett might call this an example of vibrant matter. Bennett is the main thinker of the philosophy of vital materialism, outlined in her book Vibrant Matter. Vibrant materialism expands the definition of agency and life, saying that agency and a liveliness are present in any “creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new” (118).1 There’s a lot of background before she gets to this point–she draws on thinkers from Lucretius (b. ca. 99 B.C.) to Spinoza (b. 1632) to Deleuze/Guatarri (contemporary scholars)–but the gist of it is that human lives interact with and are influenced by a lot of non-human elements, including inorganic elements themselves. The non-human world, even what we and the characters see as the “dead” world of stuff, is a far more active and vital force than we often understand.

The agency and desire of the inorganic in the pokéverse is brought up very explicitly when a lone magnemite shows attraction to Pikachu. Misty comments that it seems to be in love–the magnemite even blushes and orbits Pikachu like a lovesick satellite. Brock is doubtful: “If it were an animal pokémon I’d understand,” he mansplains, “but how can an inorganic pokémon fall in love with an electric rodent?”

The magnemite’s attraction is so strong that it and its fellow magnet ‘mon show up to save Pikachu and the others from the murderous grimer. Magnemite changes its mind, though, when Pikachu loses some electric charge in the battle.  Brock then has to wonder if magnemites, inorganic though they are, may be capable of desire and preference, musing, “Maybe magnemite fall in and out of love just like humans do?”2 While the grimers embody the perils of ignoring the vitality and capacities for resistance inherent in matter, the magnemites shows the possible alliances we can make with matter. Because of one magnemite’s attraction, all the magnemites came to save them. The gang owes their lives to vibrant matter.

Accepting difference

The episode is also about accepting other-ness. Brock immediately assumes that because magnemite is inorganic that it has no subjectivity. He accepts that it’s alive, but questions its ability to have intentions and desires. He has to admit, though, that just because Pikachu is warm-blooded/cute and magnemite is metallic/less expressive, magnemite is no less an agentive being than Pikachu.

Interestingly, Misty is the one who, from the first, accepted that the magnemite might have the capacity to want and to feel. Misty also was the only one able to feel pity for the tentacool/tentacruel from the start. Misty, the one who was tormented, doubted, written-off by her sisters as pretty useless and therefore unworthy of their kindness, once again shows herself to be the one most able to see the beauty and the person-ness of weird, unlikely, not-conventionally-cute others.3

TL;DR: The grimer and magnemite show us and the characters how things we sometimes think of as simply objects or dead matter can actually have tendencies, abilities, properties, or vitality that forces us to consider them in a new way. Misty seems to be the most able to see the agency of things and beings that are different.

1. One of the chapters of Bennett’s book actually discusses, at length, a recent massive power outage in the U.S., a crisis that highlighted the emergent properties of a complex system made up of things “from a quirky electron flow and a spontaneous fire to members of Congress who have a neoliberal faith in market self-regulation.”

2. Why this is in question I’m not sure, since inorganic ‘mon are obviously no less active than more familiar “animal pokémon.” Brock once ran a rock-type gym. Rock and metal are both inorganic materials, so does this imply that Brock has always assumed that his geodude and his onyx were just lumps of active granite without desires or affection? Maybe it’s just an example of the species discrimination our culture practices when we decide we can’t eat dogs but can eat pigs. 

3. This does not stop Misty from being a total butt to the psyduck she unwillingly acquired a few episodes before. She calls the poor thing “useless” more than once, yelling at it because it isn’t a very good battler. I’ll definitely call her out on this at a later point…

Voice of the apokélypse–communication and alterity in episode 19 and beyond

A single, belated update this week. I’ve got my ongoing Ph.D. reading (did you know Leonard Cohen a) is Canadian and b) pre-music career, wrote a novel in which there is depressing sex on nearly every page?) and I’m also prepping a paper for submission to a journal, so things are busy.

To business! Today I’m pointing out that though there does seem to be a cultural divide between the categories of “human” and “nonhuman,” people in the pokéverse continually blur and trouble this divide through friendships with/ownership of pokémon. Episode 19 is the first time that one of the dominating concepts–that pokémon training allows you to access new experiences/relationships/empathy–is shown to be pretty obviously true. Yet the way that communication is only achieved by domination and ownership makes the message more complicated than the way it’s presented.

A bit of theory lite.

Ep. 19 is particularly concerned with inter-species conversations, and Sherryl Vint can help us here. Vint writes about inter-species communication in sci-fi and how shared language does not always bridge difference. She points us to a well-known Wittgenstein quote: “If a lion could talk we could not understand him.” Vint explains that “this is because language is integrally tied to a form of life, produced by concrete and embodied experience that varies among species.” Basically, different bodies result in different subjectivities. The mind of a cnidarian-cephalopod (Tentacruel) and that of a human pokémon trainer are irreducibly alien to each other.1 They can’t even think all of the same thoughts. Sharing a language won’t fix problems of communication caused by radical alterity. Instead, “truly communicating with an animal other is about facing a consciousness that is beyond ours” (Vint 68). Ecocritical scholar Timothy Morton explains that while we can’t get rid of the perspective that entraps us in our own subjective existence, by acknowledging “irreducible otherness” (151) that entrapping first-person perspective can “be made to vibrate, in such a way that does not strengthen its aggressive resolve. . . but that dissolves its form, however momentarily” (168). Admitting that there’s an undissolvable difference between us allows us to at least begin to grasp what that difference may mean. 

Reading degrees of difference in the show

Difference is established from the start of ep. 19–Nastina’s view of the tentacools is that they’re “useless,” an obstacle or a challenge that must be eradicated. The reef is a prime development site, and the tentacools are not, in Nastina’s view, a part of it but extraneous flotsam to be cleared away. What matters to Nastina is profits. The Swarm, in contrast, have been defending their territory, something they consider to be “theirs.” The tentacools/Tentacruel aren’t aligned exclusively with the non-human, either, since the Swarm consider any pokémon who help the humans to be enemies. Basically, everyone wants different things and has very different ideas about the world.

When Misty climbs a tower and apologizes to Tentacruel, acknowledging that humanity is at fault, that admission of guilt prompts the Swarm to withdraw. An acknowledgement of different needs, moralities and perspectives enables a truce. Not a peace–as I mentioned last week, Tentacruel warns that it will have its eye out for human incursion. But this is, I think, Morton’s “vibrating I.” The way the conflict ends is, for Pokémon, fairly subtle, as the difference is never re/dissolved completely. Instead Tentacruel realizes that humans might be capable of change and empathy; Misty and the others acknowledge that non-humans have needs and claims that conflict with and take precedence over human ends. It’s a moment of connection and communication.

This communication can happen in the first place through the mediation of trained pokémon as translators between humans and uncaught pokémon. We’ve seen Pikachu act as the group’s “translator” already, like when they meet Charmander.2 Meowth translates for Team Rocket, too. This allows the human characters to communicate with strange ‘mon and even enter into new kinds of relationships–Team Rocket’s brief alliance with the Squirtle Squad, for example, and Charmander’s abandonment and eventual loyalty to Ash, are both enabled by the humans’ companion pokémon. In this episode, we see Ash’s ‘mon perform a similar role when Pikachu leaps on the back of Pidgeotto and delivers an impassioned speech on humanity’s behalf.

imageThis scene is particularly weird and important. So many characters cross their categorical boundaries that most end up in some confused middle ground of existence. First, by using Meowth as a translator, the Swarm is mimicking the way humans use pokémon. This confuses the human/pokémon dichotomy, usually clearly marked by who is using whom. Tentacruel and the Swarm here cross that line, using Meowth’s body so that they can clearly confront the humans in English.

Even when Pikachu confronts Tentacruel, and Tentacruel responds with its own booming, gravelly voice rather than Meowth’s English, the communication is not simply between two beings firmly occupying the same category. Tentacruel has already drawn a line in the sand and sees Pikachu, with his sympathy for humans, as an enemy. Remember how wild pokémon have hostility towards captive ‘mon? In being used by/aligned with humans, the identity of a pokémon is made queer–that is, a pokémon is made to occupy several (possibly conflicting) categories at once. Pikachu no longer fits neatly into an identifiable category. Pikachu alone can’t convince Tentacruel to show mercy, and Misty must intervene as well.

Yet the same relationship that makes a pokémon ambiguously aligned also makes the alignment of “trainer” queer as well. Misty intercedes for humanity, true; but earlier she expressed her rage on behalf of the reef’s non-human inhabitants. Prompted by a friendship with Horsea, she advocates for the tentacools even before they attack. Misty has already shown that she does not automatically place human ends before pokémons’ well-being, that she is prompted to think outside of her own human-embodied perspective.

We see a more explicit participation of the human in the non-human a few episodes (1.21) later, when we find out that trainers who raise caterpies/metapod/butterfree make a sort of pilgrimage every year during what Brock calls “the Season of Love.” “They come at this time every year,” he explains knowledgeably, “to release their butterfree.”

imageThis is really interesting. Voluntarily releasing a pokémon into the wild so that the breeding cycle can continue outside of human control is probably the most positive interaction with pokémon we’ve seen, for one thing. Humans here play an active role in the lives not only of individual butterfree but the species as a whole, participating in the ecological rhythms of the non-human world. 3 They do so by catching, raising, and then releasing butterfree, overseeing their lifecycle probably from the caterpie stage on. Humans don’t only participate through butterfree but also fit their human desires to them; releasing a butterfree into which you put time and energy is a sort of sacrifice. This isn’t concerned with speech, but there is a mediation. As humans form a relationship to their butterfree, those butterfree allow them to be a part of a non-human lifecycle.

In each of these examples we see the “vibration” of the subjectivity and category of the characters. This can be incredibly positive and actually does lead to understanding and coexistence, however uneasy. The problem is that I cannot get past that what enables this is the domination of a whole class of beings by another. It doesn’t matter how nice Ash is to Pikachu, the fact remains that Pikachu was at one point forcibly made the captive of humanity. Even the way the Swarm communicates is through the psychic domination of Meowth. As I noted before, they use Meowth for his body–his speech organs beings (curiously) more suited to human speech than the cnidarian-cephalopodic anatomy. This is no different than the way humans use pokémon bodies for their own ends. Someone must be controlled, dominated, or owned for these communications to take place. Is understanding impossible without this violation of autonomy and agency?

I don’t have an answer. I leave that to you all as weekend homework. I do want to end with a suspicion I had about…

Endnotes: anti-semitic imagery in tentacruel’s design

Look at it–it’s got a huge, hooked pincer-nose, and its pokédex description talks about its many hidden, grabby tentacles and how it can catch up to “eighty prey” at a time. Add that to what Brock says in the episode, that “tentacool are known as the gangsters of the sea,” and how Ash quips that “Tentacruel must be their gang leader,” and I immediately got suspicious. Hook-nosed; elusive leader of an unseen cabal; covered in those “jewels” on the top of its dome; grasping and greedy with its many secretive, stretching tentacles; explicitly presented as Nastina’s economic enemy; these are all fairly common anti-semitic tropes. I looked into it and can’t find anything out there about tentacruel as a racialized cahracter. There are other pokémon that are problematic (see the large-lipped, dark-faced Jynx, best known for that episode in which we learn that they’re the manual laborers who assist Santa and yes this is a real thing and oh my willikers am I looking forward to talking about that one). I bring this up because if there are anti-semitic stereotypes at play in the tentacruel design, a discussion of the Other and of crossing categorical boundaries becomes far more complex. But because I can’t find anything about it anywhere, I’m ignoring it for now. For the record, when I watched ep. 19 I happened to be reading a novel about a Jewish Canadian after WWII, so this stuff was on my mind. I also really, really love that there’s a ‘mon that’s got cephalopodic characteristics (and octillery is very boring, do not get me started), and I like tentacruel a lot more after ep. 19; but after I considered anti-semitic stereotypes it was a “can’t be unseen” type thing. Thoughts?

1. There’s a truly bizarre, I think brilliant book called Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise by Vilém Flusser. It’s a “fable” tracing the evolutionary/biological differences between humans and the vampire squid and trying to imagine the different subjectivities. Some of the conclusions revolve around the development in a spiral/coil rather than from fours to vertical, and utterly different relationships to epistemology and psychology. Sample quote:

Its tentacles, analogous to our hands, are digestive organs. Whereas our method of comprehension is active–we perambulate a static and established world–its method is passive. . . it takes in a world that is rushing past it. We comprehend what we happen upon, and it comprehends what happens upon it. Whereas we have ‘problems,’ things in our way, it has ‘impressions.’ . . . Culture is therefore, for it, an act of discriminating between digestible and indigestible entities, that is, a critique of impressions. . . a discriminating and critical injection of the world into the bosom of the subject. (39)

2. The implication is that humans who are familiar with a pokémon can understand its pokéspeech or its gestures. This is true in our own world, more or less, with our companion animals’ body language and noises. When I was about eight I was very good at predicting whether my dog would stop for a pee or a poo, just by observing his body language when he started sniffing around. I called the different stances “poo stanza two” and “pee stanza three,” because I enjoyed rhymes and also I thought that “stanza” meant “stance.”

3. I wonder if any pokémon have evolved (in the slower sense of the word) so that their life cycle depends on or at least makes room for human intervention? Maybe this is how we explain pokémon that only evolve when traded?

Ep. 19–Apokélyptic visions: Capitalism, apocalyptic fantasies, and the pokéverse

Monday was World Ocean Day. If I’d been more aware I would’ve timed this post to coincide, because today we’re talking about eco-catastrophe and episode 19, in which a monster rises from the depths of the sea to visit his Cthulhic revenge upon the humans who have polluted his watery home. It’s very exciting.

This ep. is the first time we see humans and the non-human world coming into conflict in a way that we recognize as a nature/culture divide. I’m going to start with a section on apocalypse narrative (skip if you don’t want to read about capitalism and Latour) and then think about the episode through this lens (skip if you don’t like Pokémon, hahaha, jk, everyone likes the ‘mon).

Theoretical Background–Latour, the two natures, and apocalyptic yearnings

Searching for “apocalypse” on my university’s library website yields a melange of biblical/medieval scholarship and postmodern ecocrit. stuff. This initially strange mix emphasizes, as Karen Renner suggests, that in all apocalyptic stories we “detect collective beliefs about what makes contemporary life unsatisfying” (Renner 205). Narratives of eco-catastrophe and the more Biblical, end-of-times stories do the same cultural work—in both genres another, often “purer” world explodes disastrously into the mundane and reveals fundamental truths about human existence.

In contemporary apocalypse there’s often a particular construction of the non-human that comes into conflict with the dominating paradigm of human society–i.e., capitalism. Bruno Latour talks about the “two natures” we live in. The first is “the natural world” and the second is capitalism. Capitalism, Latour tells us, is “our ‘second nature’—in the sense of that to which we are fully habituated and which has been totally naturalized” (Latour 1). We’ve been “naturalized” because contemporary capitalism seems as given, as ambient as the environment; indeed, more so, because the “first nature” has started to become unstable, literally melting away before capitalism’s unstoppable consumption. The inescapable nature of capitalism is something that we all struggle with: “Why is it that when we are asked or summoned to combat capitalism, we feel, I feel so helpless? . . . on the one hand, [we have] binding necessities from which there is no escape and a feeling of revolt against them that often results in helplessness; on the other, boundless possibilities coupled with a total indifference for their long-term consequences” (3).

Cary Wolfe goes so far as to suggest that ecological thought “in the postmodern moment operates as a genuinely utopian figure for a longed-for ‘outside’ to global capitalism” (Wolfe 30)–utopian because not only are we all helpless before capitalism, but we are also all guilty. The production of the goods and food we consume often results in unethical treatment of disadvantaged labor forces and contributes to environmental degradation. It’s unavoidable, and with our very existence we are culpable. To really find a utopia, then, we must first burn capitalism to the ground. Or, rather, someone from outside must do so, some fantasy manifestation of the eucatastrophic destroyer of worlds–think Godzilla or Ponyo. Preferably Ponyo.

When an outside force of nature is used, it isn’t simply as the only hammer able to smash the snowglobe of capitalism; often it’s our narrative penance for harming the environment. When nature hits us back we get what we deserve, we pay for our sins, and then we are free to fight it. We’re able to hate nature again without a guilty conscience, to feel like gladiators rather than all-consuming, global bullies. There are no guilty hearts after the deluge, only heroes, because in the post-apocalypse you’re a hero for simply being alive (well, alive and also not a cannibal). This automatic heroism mirrors the culpability we helplessly accumulate for simply existing in the capitalist pre-apocalypse.

Okay, so what has all of this to do with our friend Ash and his chubby thunder god of a companion? Let us see, dear reader.

The Apokélypse

In episode 18 Ash and friends arrive in a resort town and find out that the hideous Nastina

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the plan. . .

wants to exterminate tentacool that are attacking construction crews working on an off-shore hotel being built over the tentacools’ reef. This infuriates Misty, who says that Nastina is “disrespecting the ocean”; Team Rocket, though, leap at the chance to collect the bounty. Somewhat inexplicably, when the barrel of TR’s tranquilizer spills onto a single tentacool rather than all of them, that tentacool evolves into a tentacruel and also grows to

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. . . the result. That did, indeed, escalate quickly.

ridiculously massive proportions. The tentacruel obliterates the offshore construction site, rides a tsunami onto shore, and begins systematically destroying the city. Thousands of tentacools follow to blow up what their kaiju leader hasn’t already. They mind-control Meowth, using his ability to speak English to announce their intention to destroy all humans (very Independence Day). In the end, Pikachu and Misty convince Tentacruel that humanity has learned its lesson, and Nastina and Team Rocket both get a paddlin’ from mama Tentacruel who then, having caused death and billions of dollars of damage to beachfront resort property, withdraws beneath the waves with an ominous warning.

Nastina is explicitly a villainous capitalist. Her greed for further profits is as explicit as her hedonistic wealth (she surrounds herself with pretty young men and tables of rich food and sets the reward for the extermination job at “a million bucks!”). She hates the tentacools, not only because they disrupt and resist her efforts to develop (and destroy) their reef but also because they simply aren’t useful. “I don’t know why such despicable creatures exist,” she rasps; “You can’t even eat them! They’re disgusting and they’re hurting my profits!”

This episode uses another trope of apocalypse fantasies in the way that the faceless swarm of tentacools is ultimately centralized in a single massive enemy. In just a few seconds the threat morphs from this

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This is a trope of apocalyptic escapism. The issues we’re anxious about (post-nuclear national trauma, pre-environmental collapse) are condensed from a faceless multitude into a single entity that can be fought and talked to. In contrast to the debilitating, pervasive ethos of capitalism (here embodied in Nastina’s insatiable development of the resort that overspills terrestrial boundaries), Tentacruel’s accelerated growth is immediate. Terrifying it may be, but at least there’s a single enemy to defeat rather than a systemic construct or discourse. The smaller tenacools are still an issue, as they follow in their leader’s wake. A Photo 2015-06-04, 2 22 27 AMsingle tentacool is the voice of the swarm, speaking through Meowth. Even then, though, it speaks for all of the swarm. The tentacled menace acts with a legitimately creepy, single will (a hive mind or a psychic link?). The body (Tentacruel) holds the voice (Meowth), effectively making what could be a hydra-like threat into a single entity.

As for that guilt all humans share, Tentacruel declares war on the whole human race and makes it clear (with a rather scoldy tone) that this fate is one humans deserve. “Now,” the swarm-Meowth proclaims, “we’re going to destroy your world, your home, as you so foolishly tried to destroy ours, and none of you has the right to complain about it.” Misty seems to accept this, in the end–

Misty: Please listen… We humans understand that we’ve hurt you. We won’t destroy your homes anymore!
Tentacruel: If this happens again we will not stop. Remember this well! […]
Misty: Goodbye, Tentacruel. [quietly] We’ll remember.

Yet although humans are at fault, they aren’t the only ones. Earlier Misty justly accused Tentacruel as well, shouting, “What you’re doing is wrong because it hurts pokémon and humans!” Tentacruel’s rage is justified–we are not supposed to like Nastina–but Tentacruel goes so far as to lose our sympathy. The humans can justifiably fight back because they paid for their faults. It’s okay once again to commit acts of violence against the non-human. As in most escapist apocalyptic fantasies, the destructive waters and fires of the deluge wash away  human civilization and human guilt.

Latour’s piece is an unexpectedly effective lecture to read alongside this episode. The show also plays around with a couple major tropes we see in apocalyptic disaster films, even more popular now than they were back in the ’90s. From a worldbuilding standpoint, this ep. shows that there’s still some resistance to human domination of the environment. While I’m sticking with my theory that all the land has been technologically recreated and controlled by humans, the ocean seems to resist human dominion. Tentacruel relents but remains a watchful elemental protector of the oceans.

Endnotes: A minor speculation
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There’s a very strange final scene in which we see Nastina, thrown into the distance by Tentacruel, crash through some sort of wooden structure under construction, landing next to an identical woman. This new woman quips (in a voice identical to Nastina’s), “You shouldn’t drop in on me like this,” to which Nastina responds, “I thought that’s what cousins are for!”

This scene isn’t as frighteningly out of nowhere as it seems. The woman in pink is from the previous, unaired episode eighteen.1 Here’s the thing, though–all the nurse Joys are ginger, identical, and improbably refer to each other as cousins (or non-twin sisters). Unless Kanto’s humans have some pretty bananas genes and also issues with incest, there has to be a connection, right? Are Nastina and her “cousin” reject Joy-clones? The episode goes out of its way to remark on how grotesquely ugly Nastina is; abnormally short with exaggerated features and stiff, gnarly hair, Nastina seems almost malformed. She’s also quite spry, so it doesn’t seem to be the fault of age. Maybe she actually is malformed, a cast-off from a bad batch of cloned Joys. She may even be an earlier experimental model. Perhaps cloned Joys age quickly and are hidden away on island towns and kept comfortable in their last days? (Also apparently given access to heavy weaponry?) It’s total speculation, but just like the Mewtwo bas relief on Bill’s lighthouse door, it’s too strange a coincidence to just ignore.

And that’s it! On Tuesday I’ll return to this episode. Until then, I’m off to play Pokémon Snap for the first time and spend my Friday night monitoring a large local bat population. Your weekend probably won’t top mine, but don’t let that stop you trying!

Cited
Latour, Bruno. On Some of the Affects of Capitalism
Renner, Karen J. “The Appeal of the Apocalypse.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 23:3 (2012)

Further/Suggested Reading
Canavan, Gary. “Après Nous, le Déluge.”
Solnit, Rebecca. “Call Climate Change What It Is: Violence.”

To be fair, the episode looks really weird, not because of the fake breasts but the way TR is making a bikini-wearing Misty cry.

1. Episode 18 was banned in the west and is not available through Netflix. The reason is that James disguises himself as an absurdly booby, bikini-clad beach hottie to enter a female beauty contest because reasons. Misty, apparently, also undergoes further body-shaming as part of the plot, although I don’t think this factored into the ban because a cut-down version was eventually aired, sans cross dressing scene (inserted below). I guess gender fluidity is too much for kids, but these other episodes with a tighter focus on bloodsports, not infrequently featuring adults brandishing guns at children and non-humans, are perfectly fine?

Ep. 10 (again) — Speculations about population management and the paradigm of ownership

I’m sticking with episode ten for one last post. What does it tell us about pokémon and Kanto’s ecosystems? Also, I’m not sure that the people of this world have the concept that some pokémon want to remain free.

Why shouldn’t you catch sick pokémon?

If you recall, in the last post I noted that Misty says something like “only bad guys would catch sick pokémon!” Makes sense on the surface. Misty and the others imply that bothering sick/stressed pokémon is somehow more cruel than catching a healthy wild one, which is why those who would dare to do such a thing are “bad guys” or “robbers.” But any time you try to catch an unwilling pokémon (as Misty does with an oddish) it’s going to be traumatic. Why are sick ones special? If anything, being caught would get them prompt medical attention from a Pokémon Center.

I don’t think it’s about the pokémon at all. I think it might be about population control, a form of Kanto biopower1 that manages the health of the wild pokémon population and ensures the health of the battling industry. There are a few ways this idea of leaving sick pokémon might accomplish this.

First, refusing to catch sick/weak ‘mon woud ensure those pokémon were not caught and treated at a Pokémon Center. This would lead to the weakest dying and, in theory, the gene pool would improve. Allowing natural selection to continue uninterrupted would makes the stock of wild pokémon stronger overall—probably better for them and better for trainers who catch them.

But, you ask, wouldn’t catching them also remove them from the gene pool? True, it would take them out of the wild population; but, we know that there are pokémon breeders because that’s Brock’s career goal. While wild pokémon power the industry/cultural institution of the traveling trainer, there must be captive-bred pokémon. For all we know, outside of traveling/battling circles, captive-bred pokémon might be more prevalent than wild-caught ones. Maybe they’re selectively bred to produce stronger battling ‘mon or for fancy color variations (the main reasons people breed pokémon in the games), or perhaps darker reasons. (Think of the captive pikachu used as emergency generators in episode 2.) Regardless, keeping weaker pokémon out of the captive pool would be in the best interests of the breeding programs.

Finally, telling trainers to leave sick and weak pokémon alone might prevent a trainer from being saddled with easy catches that won’t help them in the arena. This wouldn’t just lead to less successful trainers and, by extension, a less successful Pokémon League, but could also put greater stress on the (free) pokémon health care system.

This is all speculation, but I think that “don’t catch sick pokémon” is a weird idea when examined, and these guesses are pretty plausible, if I do say so myself.2

A Paradigm of Ownership

In episode ten we get a pretty clear idea that everyone in Kanto has a basic inability to really see pokémon as independent beings who may want to stay independent. Team Rocket’s role in this episode is to be figures of unchecked acquisition and, being excessive, they’re labeled “bad.” All they do in the end, though, is follow the possessive attitude that we see in Ash and Misty to its logical conclusion.

First off, Ash uses the word “robbers” to describe people who would come to the village and capture pokémon. The thing is, it’s already been made clear that the pokémon don’t belong to Melanie or anything else, so “robbers” is the wrong word. Still, “robber” emphasizes that people who would try to catch sick pokémon are crossing some sort of moral line (see footnote 1), at least according to Kanto society.3 It also implies that there isn’t even a word for catching pokémon that you should leave alone.

Later Melanie tells Ash how brave and helpful the wild bulbasaur is, and we see just how deeply Bulbasaur cares for his fellow pokémon. Melanie says he’s so protective that he “doesn’t like trainers,” although by the end of the ep. he comes to respect Ash. It is very clear at this point that there are some pokémon who actively want to be left alone, who exercise agency and empathy to keep other pokémon safe from humans. But instead of responding with understanding and respect, Ash’s response is to say, wistfully, “It would be great to have a pokémon like that!” In both instances, Ash seems unable to see the pokémon he meets as anything but potential possessions. It’s a sort of objectification-greed hybrid. (It’s deeply unfortunate that Bulbasaur does voluntarily join him. Ugh. Maybe Ash needs to not get everything he wants for a change?)

image

What a cute little object!

More disappointingly, Misty does the same thing. Misty has already tried to catch a clearly frightened oddish. We learn it was abandoned by a trainer because it wasn’t a good battler. Misty apologizes and says, “All I think about lately is winning. I hope I’m not becoming heartless.” This is great! Score one for empathy and self-awareness! Except that just before this she tries to comfort the oddish by saying, “You just need to find a trainer who understands you.” But… why? Why does Misty insist, like Ash, on putting the pokémon in Melanie’s village back into the paradigm of trainer/pokémon, when clearly an existence outside that paradigm is possible? Oddish is with Melanie because it was abandoned and is lost. As a viewer my first assumption would be that Oddish, dumped by a jerky trainer and obviously afraid of being caught in the beginning of the show, does not want to find another trainer.

And then we get Team Rocket’s deeply strange, symbolic role, which draws attention to the inconsistencies of the characters. Hoping to catch vulnerable pokémon, Team Rocket attach balloons to a stadium4 and fly it into the clearing. Then they use a super-powerful vacuum to suck the pokémon into the stadium. Oddish, interestingly, is the ‘mon that comes closest to getting caught.

image

It’s either a literalization of training OR a really weird phallic metaphor. Or both.

It’s like a weirdly literal metaphor for what all trainers do to pokémon, especially when we consider the scene when Misty tried to catch Oddish. The Rockets aren’t doing anything very different from what the protagonists did earlier.

As I hinted earlier, it’s basically just taking the culture of training to its logical conclusion, stripping it bare of all the nuances and niceties and moral scruples and approaching it with cold efficiency. (Well, okay. As efficiently as you can when you’re using helium balloons and large portable arenas of uncertain provenance.)

Maybe Team Rocket is “bad” because, by taking Kanto’s possessive attitude toward pokémon to the extreme, they reveal what it is in the end—cold and greedy. The Rockets show the dark side of using pokémon for glory and power, which endangers the entire institution, and undermines the idea of the noble quest that Ash and his peers buy into. TR is “evil” because they don’t follow the rules, but the rules  justify behavior that is, in the end, barely different from Team Rocket’s. The Rockets are to trainers what hardcore Christian fundamentalists are to the evangelical church—embarrassing, unashamed, and ultimately dangerous in the way they call attention to the potentially dark conclusions and attitudes of the institution.

1. I’m basically going to speculate on some biopolitics of Kanto. A bit of theoretical background, influenced by some overly simplified Foucault and others: biopolitics is a term for the governance that manages and controls population rather than individuals. Biopolitics focuses on the health, productivity, and management of large numbers, of demographics, of populations. Biopower, the way that biopolitical thought is exercised, often operates through discourse. Rather than force a population to follow certain rules in order to improve a population’s health, often a set of ideas and vocabulary are internalized, affecting the way a culture thinks and creating a sense of what one should do or has a duty to do. This sense of duty is seen as a moral good in itself, and people following it works in favor of The System. Discourse determines how we think of our bodies, which affects how we use them, which ultimately determines what sort of body we are able to have. As Sherryl Vint writes in Bodies of Tomorrow, “The ideas that we have about what is natural or proper for our bodies influence what our bodies can and cannot do, and preconceived ideologies will determine what science will or will not find when it looks at them” (18). Of course, ideology is never framed as “I’m telling you how to live and I have an ulterior motive,” and it isn’t “used” by any one person or group. Instead it’s often couched in religious or moral/ethical codes that are seen as ends in themselves, done because they’re The Right Thing To Do. Therefore, Misty says that you don’t catch sick pokémon simply because . . . 

2. As a side note, if you like this kind of speculation, you should check out “Meganium” by R.J. Palmer. His pieces always have some great speculative write-ups. From this particular piece [sic for the whole thing]: “Foongus [a mushroom pokemon] have only become a point of interest recently, when their pokeball-like camouflage developed. In the past two decades, Pokemon training has seen a huge surge in popularity of youths the world over, as has the littering of broken pokeballs across the country side. Pokemon have become very cautious around the appearance of a pokeball, as they do not want to be caught. It appears that Foongus has adapted this color pattern to take advantage of the natural wariness of other Pokemon species. As such, the numbers of Foongus have skyrocketed with few Pokemon eating them. There is another species of Pokemon that uses a similar camouflage in the Kanto area [voltorb/electrode] , scientists are still uncertain which species developed the trait first.”

3. This discourse might function as population management and justification of battling/pokémon catching practices. You have to draw the line somewhere. Ash is kidnapping a random creature but he can still say “at least I’m better than X”? Maybe constructing an idea of what makes a “bad trainer” allows you to justify your own practices by comparison, even if what makes them bad isn’t that different from your own actions, when you really look at it, but just culturally unacceptable.

4. Which… what? They go from clumsy pit traps to portable arenas, and I just don’t know how or why, like, what sort of organized crime is this, even?

Ep. 10 — Ecotage!: Environmental extremism and the reinstitution of a natural order

Today we’re back to considering how the people of Kanto think of the world around them, what we might call “Nature.” A few posts ago, I speculated that Kanto’s wilderness may in fact be more or less a large, intentionally rugged park. The strongest evidence for this includes the way Ash and friends can travel on well-maintained footpaths even through fragile ecosystems like Mt. Moon. Episode ten, “Bulbasaur and the Secret Village,” seems to support this speculation. In this episode we encounter Melanie, who’s desperately trying to create a space that is inaccessible to other humans and maybe trying to restore a “natural order”—i.e., a non-human space—for the pokémon in that area. In the end, her goals are hard to suss out, but I’ll offer a few speculations anyway.

BulbasaurDefender

“You shall not harm this poor turnip today!”

In episode ten Ash and co. get lost. Not dangerously lost in the woods, though, more like, not sure if they’re on the right road. Misty attempts to catch an oddish and her starmie beats it up, but it’s saved by a bulbasaur who leaps from the bushes to fight off the attacking trainers and ‘mon and disappears back into the undergrowth.

BulbasaurPuff

He comes in all badass and then makes this face. This is why he’s my fav.

Later a rope bridge1 snaps, dumping Brock in a dangerously rocky river; then Ash and Misty fall into a pit trap and later get scooped up in one of those net traps that hang you from trees. Scoop nets? Tree traps? The ewok special? (I did a good amount of googling to find the technical term, but no joy, so I’m going with “an ewok scoopy-net dangle trap.” Ooo, ooo, band name!) Brock shows up to rescue them and they discover that the traps were set by Melanie, a young woman who’s created a haven for weak and abandoned pokémon. The traps keep trainers out of the village and give the pokémon a place to rest.  The bulbasaur is a volunteer who fights off trainers that get too close. Ash, Misty, and Brock all seem to understand, and Misty agrees that “Only bad guys try to capture sick pokémon!” imageMelanie is kind but also the most dangerous character we’ve encountered. Team Rocket is more sinister and malevolent, but Melanie is the only one who’s actively sought to harm anyone. Her drastic measures underscore her desperation to create a place where no other humans can safely come.

A few other things mark her as an environmental extremist. She rehabilitates the wounded pokémon but doesn’t use manufactured medication (i.e., potions) and she says she “isn’t qualified to be a pokémon doctor.” Instead she makes medicine from local plants. Living alone, administering herbal medication to wild pokémon in as remote a location as you can find in Kanto, Melanie is obviously a marginal figure.

I think what she’s doing is attempting to (re?)create a human/pokémon divide and maybe a nature/culture divide as well. She tries to make the village inaccessible. Kanto’s pseudo-wilderness offers no resistance even to fairly ill-equipped pre-teens, so Melanie has set primitive traps to simulate a degree of inaccessibility. She (literally) undermines the easily-entered faux-wilderness by subversively making the most obvious elements of human control/infrastructure–roads and bridges–unsafe and unreliable.

Like Seymour, Melanie proves that there are alternative ways of coexisting with pokémon than we’ve seen so far. She lives with and cares for them but never expresses ownership. She catches no pokémon, and they respond by actively seeking out her company. It’s clear that even wild pokémon respond well to peaceful, caring humans.

Melanie, though, is uncomfortable with the way she’s changed the ecology of the region. She wants the pokémon under her care to leave her because her own role in their ecosystem isn’t “natural” and the haven she has set up is disrupting their development. In the end, when she suggests that Bulbasaur go away with Ash, she explains that because of her and Bulbasaur, “it’s too safe here. [The pokémon] don’t want to return to the outside world.”

Here’s where I really start to lose a sense of what Melanie is doing. I get that she’s a wildlife rehabilitator, caring for creatures but making sure they return to where they came from. As she explains it: “I think it’s important that all of them return to the wild. That’s where pokémon belong…” If she stopped there I’d be happy, but she goes on: “…and hopefully someday they’ll find good trainers like you.” Melanie seems deeply determined that no trainers should come to her village because pokémon should have a place to be safe from humans, yet we know that she doesn’t think of “the wild” as a place free from humans. She says that pokémon belong in “the wild” so that they can grow strong and then “find good trainers,” so when she says “the wild” she means a place where there’s competition, conflict, and the potential to be caught.

So let’s puzzle this out. Does she just want to protect them when they’re weak? But wouldn’t being caught while injured lead to quicker medical care? Maybe pokémon are in danger of being killed in conflicts with over-zealous or cruel trainers, but then why not just put up “no catching” signs and run a legitimate shelter? Melanie seems to be squatting, and she’s secretive and reckless about her methods. She is definitely operating outside the norm, outside of what she sees as socially acceptable, practicing a sort of ecotage. Maybe her desperate secrecy is telling us that most trainers would use her kindness as a way to access weak prey, and she’s desperate for there to be somewhere for weak pokémon to go, even only temporarily. This would hint at a dark side of training culture.

If we accept that trainers are, by and large, terrible people, maybe she’s trying to send away pokémon because too many would attract more trainers and the authorities. A human-free space for the injured is better than nothing, even if she has to send away the healthy so that her haven can continue to exist. 

If she’s just worried about her presence disrupting this area’s ecology, it’s already way too late. By caring for weakened pokémon she’s saving some that might be eaten or die of illness. The fact that she has to care for non-native pokémon, too, makes it clear that the ecosystem is already compromised by human trainers injuring and releasing pokémon in the area. Some of these pokémon are potentially-invasive species, like the staryu we see in the village. 2 She wants the pokémon she cares for to go back to “the wild,” but since there’s no ecosystem that hasn’t been changed by humans, why not allow the pokémon to live in a place changed into a refuge instead of a scary world full of flying pokéballs? Maybe she’s just Yellowstoning? 3

Whatever the reason, her sending Bulbasaur with Ash is confusing. I guess we can’t read her as being opposed to ownership of pokémon absolutely, although she has strong feelings about something, as evidenced by her deadly bridge trap. Melanie, what do you actually believe in? Are you the Kanto equivalent of a crazy hermit cat lady who feeds three dozen feral cats and doesn’t own shoes?! I don’t want to blame this on the writers because taking Pokémon unusually seriously is sort of my whole thing… but it feels like an excuse to get Ash another member for his team.

I still like her as a character—she’s definitely an environmental extremist, and I think she and Seymour the Scientist should team up, maybe hook up, and be eco-activists together.4

So, to sum up: even “the wild,” the closest we’ve gotten to a concept of “nature” like our culture has, is still a place where trainers are. Environmental extremists and alternative communities are a thing in Kanto, though. Melanie and Seymour are both strange characters who live on the margins of society alongside pokémon and refuse to catch or battle them out of a respect for pokémons’ own lives, desires, and social arrangements.

Bonus: Brock’s unconventional masculinity, cont. 

I just want to point out that in this episode Brock’s unconventional masculinity is again a quietly present theme. Brock falls into the river and is swept away, and we see in a flashback how Melanie rescues him, grabbing his hand and pulling him from the water. Later we know Brock likes her because Ash, seeing him watching Melanie as she cares for the pokémon, teases him, and he blushes. He’s shy about it, doesn’t want her to hear and doesn’t want to talk about it with Ash and Misty. The way Brock is rescued, paired with his shy and subtle admiration of Melanie, is sweet, and it’s nice that we’re getting more of Brock being a complex male character. It almost makes up for that gross comment about the high schooler (see annotation for episode 9). Not quite, but almost.

1. What is up with anime worlds and rope bridges? They’re in half the anime I’ve watched. (Which is, granted, like, four.) If I go hiking in Japan am I going to have to cross half a dozen of these deathtraps?

2. Although apparently able to survive out of water for a least a moderate amount of time, staryus live on the ocean floor or in estuaries. It must’ve been released nearby, because the nearest ocean is in Vermilion, a place we don’t see for another, like, four or five eps.

3. I definitely made this up, but it’s a thing now. Yellowstone, v.- to consciously alter an ecosystem in an attempt to restore it to an earlier state, or to mitigate the damage being done by others, and to do so by making as little impact as possible outside of targeted own efforts. E.g., reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone to restore an earlier ecosystem while reducing other forms of human impact, thus allowing the park’s “Natural processes [to] operate in an ecological context . . . . less subject to human alteration than most others.” 

4. More adventures in Google: I looked to see if there was any fanfiction with Seymour and Melanie, and didn’t find any. I did find one fanfic that, advertising the pairings it contains, listed “Ash/Large Harem (30 girls).”  

. . . . . . . . . . .

 BertStare 

Anyway, I’m calling dibs on any “Melanie and Seymour become eco terrorists” plots, no one else write one! I even doodled a cover. (Haha, look at that crazy-impossible shading on Melanie. Such artistic statement!)Moonrise!

It’ll be like The East but with more pokémon and less Brit Marling, which is a shame because she’s a stellar actress. Her voice is actually vaguely similar to the voice of the actor who plays Melanie. Coincidence, or fate?! 

Ep. 5, Acting on and through bodies

BoyOrGirl

Welcome back, all and sundry! (Unlike Oak, I don’t force anyone to announce their gender or identify with the normative, binary stereotypes of Boy/Girl. Ugh, Oak is the worst, amiright?)

Before we begin, I’d like to point any Tumblr users to Pokécology’s new Tumblr, which is a delightful mishmash of stuff I find and sometimes create with my artisinal MS Paint skills (developed over decades on the classic desktops we all remember with a nostalgia we cannot resist but which we know to be false).  St. Francis of of Assissi preaching to the taillow, an ad for McMonalds, various fab. screenshots of Jesse and James— all fun things, so check it out if you like fun things.WeedleGif

Now, to business. I want to focus exclusively on episode 5, because it is a legitimately rich and complex episode and because ep. 4 was full of weedles. I’m not a huge fan of weedles. (I am, though, a huge fan of this gif which I didn’t make but wish I had because who needs a Ph.D. when you can combine my fav. scene from Spongebob with weedle for a reference pun? No one, is who.)

Today I’ll be paying some deserved attention to Brock’s uniquely performed masculinity (not directly ecocritical, but whatever) as well as exploring the treatment of pokémon bodies. It has only taken five episodes to convince me that, if I ever get my wish and wake up in pokémon world, I will immediately become an anti-battling activist and run a shelter for abandoned/maimed/rejected pokémon because this world is messed up. Let’s begin!

Brock and Kanto’s Pervasive Ethos of Competition 

Brock is a stony and intimidating, seemingly cold gym leader, scoffing at Ash’s inexperience and starting their battle with a scornful “let’s get this over with.” We quickly learn, though, that he is also a nurturing and parental figure. He does the dishes and mends his siblings’ torn dresses, all while wearing a frilly apron. (It probably belonged to his dead mom. Think about that. He wears his dead mother’s apron while he does chores. Oh, my broken heart.)

Brock has assumed a parental role because his father left to become a trainer. An excellent battler, what he wants most is to become a breeder– he tells Ash he wants to travel with him so he can eventually “become the world’s best breeder.”
(Cultural takeaways are: there are pokémon-centric occupations apart from trainer, professor, or health care provider; leaving to become a trainer isn’t only something that children do as a kind of  excessively violent gap year; and there’s an underlying “culture of engagement” in which travel and direct experience is equated with learning– more on this later?)

The original sharer of this image captioned it “this kid has serious issues,” which makes me have sad feelings.

I always loved Brock, loved that there were other things you could do with pokémon, and pretty early on in my pokémania I decided that I would rather be a breeder than a battler. I love that we get a serious main male character who is not typically masculine but also not really camp (cough, James, cough). That the first gym leader we meet, a tough and intimidating battler who uses the massive and rock-skinned onix, turns out to be the character who has, arguably, the tenderest heart of anyone in the Indigo League seasons is just so wonderful. The tough Brock that we first met doesn’t disappear in the future, but he is nuanced. Brock as a male character is able to perform his masculinity in the way Ash is attempting, but he would rather design blends of pokéchow to feed the baby ‘mon he wants to breed. I love the relationship between Brock and Ash, too, as Brock begins to play the part of friend and mentor. If Ash and Misty act like close-in-age siblings, Brock is the perfect older brother. (Much as my younger siblings would, I am sure, describe me.) I also love that Brock is non-white. Yay, some casual diversity in our main characters!

oh what horrors we hath wrought throughout our endless quest/ to master even life itself, to be the very best. – me, just now

What I love a lot less, though, is that while Brock would rather raise pokémon as a breeder instead of a fighter, his desire to be a breeder is still expressed in terms of “being the best.” Even breeding is discussed in competitive terms, which indicates that Ash’s entire cultural milieu is saturated with the rhetoric of competition/mastery. This is the kind of twisted attitude that, no doubt, drove breeders to discover the abomination that is HSOWA. →

Cultural ideology was badly poisoned!

The question is: does Brock’s desire to express his mastery in a tender, nurturing way undermine the paradigm of combative competition or simply reproduce it? Should we be troubled that every aspect of Kanto society is permeated with this narrative of competition and domination? I’m deeply bothered by this, not so much because I think Brock’s intentions are bad, but because I think that in this culture the rhetoric of “being the best” is inherently toxic. In part it’s because in this same episode, that same desire drives Ash to what is unquestionably, undeniably abuse in an attempt to win his first badge.

Ash and Appropriating and Invading the Pokémon Body

By the end of this episode, Ash has gone further than just stepping into the ring himself. After Pikachu is soundly defeated by Brock’s onix, Ash tapes wires to Pikachu’s cheeks, hooks him up to a disused hydroelectric wheel,  and manually generates electricity by using the wheel like a stairmaster. The electricity overwhelms Pikachu, who makes disturbing, pained mewling sounds– but it also supercharges Pikachu’s powers.

Ash is now confusing physical boundaries between his body and Pikachu’s. He transfers his own physical energy, technologically converted and transmitted, into Pikachu’s body. Ash is making literal the unspoken way that trainers see pokémon as extensions or embodiments of their own skill.1 We know he sees Pikachu in this way because of the way he talks about battling after his loss to Brock. Ash says, “Brock’s way better than me. I could never enter a League match if I can’t beat him,” and later, “I’m gonna get a badge all by myself using the pokemon I’m training.” To Ash, at least, pokémon are proxies. By thinking of battling in this way, Ash is abstracting his very immediate, real pokémon bodies into representations or symbols that evoke no more empathy from him than that crappy merch. that filled his room.

So Ash trudges on the water wheel, sweating, and he hears Pikachu’s pained cries of pain, he calls, “If I can take this, you can take it Pikachu!” The next shot is a close-up of Pikachu’s face:

Pika Pain. 😦

I think Ash intends the words to be encouraging, but using a stairmaster (basically) is not the same as being hooked up to a a hydroelectric generator and electrocuted. This is undeinably abuse. By seeing the pokémon as tools to display his competence, Ash ignores the pain that Pikachu feels while battling and while “training.”

PikaPiKA

who’s ready for a pika pounding?

And again, let’s be clear: Ash is using his body to alter Pikachu’s body, motivated by a desire for battle prowess. He acts not only by acting on Pikachu’s body (giving orders, practicing battle moves) but also within it. Moreover, the purpose of the pain Ash inflicts on Pikachu is to inflict more powerful, painful attacks on other pokémon. It’s a bizarrely literal displaced aggression in which Ash imbues Pikachu’s body with his aggression so that Pikachu can exercise Ash’s competitve will on other pokémon who are, in turn, the proxies of the gym leader Ash wants to defeat. There’s a lot going on here, and this will definitely come up again.

PikaPounding

Awwwww, but also, Ahhhhh!

I speculated in my first post that some of the themes of the first three eps would, in a more mature show, set up Ash as a figure of moral ambiguity with two potential paths– that of a dangerous, potentially destructive competitor or a revolutionary figure who defies the normative way of seeing pokémon as battle tools. This episode makes me think that this is not actually a stretch. During the electrocution, how can we not be troubled? If you have any empathy (and it’s Pikachu, in his especially cute and chubby days– even Brock says that he’s “in [his] cutest stage”), this scene is disturbing. Sure, Pikachu ends up okay (he comes back in ready to win like he’s in a professional Smash Bros. tournament), but that doesn’t change the fact that Ash abuses his pokémon to make it stronger. 2

Ultimately, though, Ash does land on the side of empathy. As Pikachu is frying a water-soaked Onix, Brock’s 10 siblings3 try to stop Ash because they want to save Brock the pain of seeing his Onix endure more punishment. Ash has a flashback to when Brock called off their first battle and sent Ash away, and he realizes Brock held back for Pikachu’s sake. Ash then stops the battle, saying he feels that the fire sprinklers, set off by his overpowered Pika’s attacks, gave him an unfair advantage. Is Ash trying to navigate machismo codes of battle and avoid admitting he didn’t want to cause further pain by instead citing a code of honor? We did just see him realize how Brock empathizes even with pokémon he doesn’t own. I want to believe that Ash is bothered by the pain experienced by pokémon and holds back, not out of a desire to win fairly but because he realizes empathy and skilled training are not exclusive. (Although some point in some season Ash is in some twisted gym where he has to feel all the pain of the pokémon in the ring, and when I get there I will definitely experience a touch of schadenfreude.)

Basically, to sum up: In this episode we see Ash being a bit of a psychopath. We also see him learn from Brock, a trainer he respects, that maybe there is a way to be both a competent trainer and an an actively empathetic and caring person. The moral: Brock is the best and Ash is a figure we’re justified in questioning.

1. It reminds me of the way anthropologist Clifford Geertz talks about cock fighting in the extremely readable piece about the Balinese sport entitled “Deep Play.” 

2. So, Pikachu is an elemental creature, but this method of training is like forcing a single sled dog to pull five people for five miles. Or maybe waterboarding a squirtle? It’s a shite thing to do Ash. Ash, you are being a psychopath, Ash, stop taking advice from supersketch rando beardy guys, Ash what are you even doing? SMDH Ash, Ash you’re pretty damn close to going on my list Ash the only other person on that list is Oak you do not want to be on that list Ash.

You’d have to have a heart of *stone* not to love this picture

3. I honestly don’t know if I should flag this and pay attention to “reproductive rights in Kanto culture”, or just assume Brock’s parents wanted 11 kids? But then, the father left Brock’s family so I’m guessing he wasn’t too keen on it, but maybe it’s a weird blended family situation like a Kanto Brady Bunch, except all the kids look like mini-Brocks, even the girls, soooo? I also wonder if we’re getting a parallel between training and parenting, since Brock’s father failed as a parent and as a trainer. I’ll watch out for explicitly parental language in training advice/instruction/rules. 

Eps. 1-3, Cat and Mouse: Pikachu and Meowth as liminal, parallel figures

How to read: Sections can be read on their own if you don’t want to read it all; links are to pictures, gifs, or definitions. None of them are necessary, all of them are wonderful, and the alt text is always a joke. See also the note on the text or the Annotated Episodes page, where I highlight the most important or hilarious bits. (Especially, for ep. 2, the sass between Officer Jenny and Nurse Joy.)


Before we move on, I want to talk about the pokémon  characters of the first three episodes, specifically Pikachu and Meowth. Both are liminal–that is, both blur boundaries and categories and are set apart from other pokémon. They’re liminal in different ways, however, and the very different ways they reject the usual pokémon-human dynamic sets up a rivalry between them.

Pikachu

The first pokémon Ash encounters refuses to act in the way Ash has seen pokémon represented. Pikachu rejects both Ash’s affection and his mastery. He straight up just whacks the pokéball away, creating a potentially embarrassing moment for Ash (Who’s already standing in front of a bunch of neighbors wearing PJs.).

In fact, Pikachu is actually violent, albeit in a way that’s more “I’m done with your shit” than it is dangerous. Pikachu also refuses to battle a Pidgey and is a total passive-aggressive, sassy little jerk when Ash tries to catch it anyway, sitting in a tree and laughing like an evil furby.  This is just truly wonderful because 1, it reinforces the idea that Ash is unprepared to exercise the practices of mastery he so desperately wants to… um…. master. 2, Pikachu is completely hilarious about it. He’s a total honey badger in this first episode; he may, at some point, have been caught (by Oak? That would be interesting, caught by the dynastic poké-patriarch, raised by the marginalized Ash) but he is refusing the basic terms of the trainer-pokémon contract. He travels outside of his pokéball, refusing to be made storable/transportable/summonable, and he openly ridicules the human attempting to order him around.

The refusal of the pokéball is very significant, as I think the way that Pikachu very clearly values his own, physical body is one of the most important aspects of the character. This is a part of Pikachu’s character even after he accepts Ash as a companion and trainer (but not master) by the end of ep. 2– while I’ve forgotten many of the episodes since I was 8, I have always vividly remembered the ep. in which Pikachu refuses to evolve. I’ll unpack this more when we discuss pokéball tech and pokémon bodies, but I’m saving this for the episode where Ash catches krabby.

The takeaway is this: Pikachu is immediately, actively negotiating his relationship to Ash, establishing more of a partner dynamic. In ep. 2 he signals to Ash to generate power using Misty’s bike and pedal-powered bike light. This is Pikachu’s first battle alongside Ash (unless you count the fight against the spearow flock); here, Pikachu gives the orders.

This first battle stands out all the more when we remember that earlier in the episode we see the Pokémon Centre keeps pikachus to generate power by running on a specially made treadmill, used as a “Pikapower source.” The pikachus run and somehow this allows the machine to draw electricity from them. Here humans are using pokémon bodies not only in sport but also as a part of the infrastructure. (Flagging it.)

Pikachu takes note of this and then rejects and upends that model of subjugation when he asks Ash to generate power that is then amplified by Pikachu and the other pikas. Much as the humans used the pikachus’ bodies and powers as a resource, Pikachu here draws on human labor to attack not only enemy pokémon but also enemy humans. (Flagging this: The Rockets as an exception to the no-violence-against-humans rule?) It’s an inversion of the earlier use of pikachus, a subversive act that alters the usual dynamic of a battle without rejecting it outright. It makes Ash a participant and makes Pikachu a partner.

Becoming the Top Cat:  reappropriating the pokémon sign

In episode 2 we meet the faaabulous Team Rocket! (Sidebar: I like that James’s voice isn’t as over-the-top as it’ll get in later episodes; it makes him a little less silly and a lot more sinister. Regardless, we still get some just beautiful moments of pure mean girling. Flagging it: does everyone stay sassy, or is it just these early ones?)

When we’re introduced to Meowth it’s immediately established that he’s not just a pokémon owned by Jesse and James but a member of the gang. He insists, “I’m the top cat!” and Jesse and James agree. Meowth assumes the position of the criminal mastermind. He speaks English, doesn’t really battle other pokémon, he’s part of a human gang; we don’t really know much about him or pokémon linguistics yet, so he comes as more of a surprise than an immediately noticeable anomaly. What’s pretty clear is that he doesn’t have a pokéball and seems to be uncaught. He’s self-domesticated, and maybe this allows him to dictate the terms of his companionship with Jesse and James in a stereotypically feline way. As a clever and ambitious criminal Meowth is doubly marginalized– he is uncaught but also not wild, and he works alongside humans in their illegal ventures.

I want to talk about the Rocket balloon, which is shaped like a giant meowth head.  It’s another tacky poképroduct and a trademark of the Rockets. How do we read the balloon in relation to Meowth? Meowth isn’t dumb, and he must have noticed the overwhelming amount of pokémon merch and the way pokémon images are used as commodities. Brazenly using a meowth balloon, he reappropriates his own image, reclaims it, embraces the representation and attempts to redefine it. (It’s a nice pun, too—Meowth’s ambition is established at the same time we see that he literally has a big head. Visual pun!  )

Reappropriating the kitsch objectification of his species, Meowth redeploys the empty, generic representation of meowths to instead represent Meowth.

Meowth doesn’t reject out of hand the human-pokémon dynamic, however, as Meowth and the gang become obsessed with stealing and then mastering Pikachu.  If Meowth and the gang successfully capture Pikachu, Meowth will appropriate another typically human power, that of owning (or at least controlling) a pokémon.

Meowth’s weirdness is deepened by his desire to capture Pikachu. It’s partly motivated, I think, by Meowth’s desire to define or discover exactly what power he has.

Not sure what ep. this is from, but episode two is foreshadowing it!

This is set up after the Rockets are defeated in ep. 2. Jessie grumbles, “Great! A cat losing to a mouse,” to which Meowth protests, “That Pikachu is no ordinary Pikachu!” Meowth’s and Pikachu’s relationship is somehow “unnatural.” Normative modes of battling don’t apply here. Meowth in his self-domestication has lost the ability to be mastered, perhaps, but also to assert mastery through battling. He has more freedom than Pikachu, arguably, but how much power he is able to exercise isn’t clear. Maybe for Meowth’s choices to be truly validated, he needs to eventually assume mastery over other pokémon in the same way humans do?


Bonus: A few more words about my nemesis, Prof. Oak:

So I forgot about this, but Gary says explicitly, “It’s good to have a grandfather in the Pokémon business, isn’t it?” He’s just rubbing our noses in his privilege, not even subtly… Which wouldn’t be as bad if Oak wasn’t also a terrible human person. Dumbledore Oak is not. (Well, maybe this Dumbledore.) I like that Ash isn’t immediately being mentored by the classic “old white wizard” type figure because it undermines that trope we’ve seen more and more since this aired. Instead, Oak allows Ash to hug a semi-feral electric Pokémon knowing full well that Ash could be zapped. (And believe me, he knows, because when pre-zapped Ash says that Pikachu is the best Oak just mutters , “You’ll see.”) Seriously, Oak is like those bitter, shrivel-souled profs that try to thin the herd of their first-year students in the first few weeks. Look at his face in this gif. Stare into those cold, dead eyes. I bet he has tenure and there are dozen of much more competent young post-docs working at McMonalds just to pay off their loans.


Flagged:

  • How often and how do we see ‘mon being used as renewable resources/part of the infrastructure?
  • Rockets as an exception to the rule against trained ‘mon attacking humans?
  • Do the chars. keep their sass?

Eps. 1-3: Environmental Mediation and Engagement– Pokommodification, Ash as a transgressive figure, and PokePrivilege

There’s a lot to say about Ash as a character. I’ll write an entirely different post about the Pokémon characters in the first three episodes, but for now, let’s jump into what we’re shown of Ash.

(How to read: Sections can be read on their own if you don’t want to read it all; links are to pictures, gifs, or definitions. None of them are necessary, all of them are wonderful, and the alt text is always a joke. See also the note on the text.)


The Mediation of Merchandise 

Wow, okay, from the first we get a lot of imagery of commodification of Pokémon Pokommodification. (Pun train! Hoothoot!)

In the first few minutes of ep. 1, we see that Ash’s room is filled with random Pokecrap. The merch that Ash has ranges from kind of cute—Snorlax beanbag chair—to really chintzy—a voltorb that opens up into a clock with a spring-bobble pidgey cuckoo, which makes no sense at all and is the kind of crap you get for nephews you don’t like. Ash very literally buys into the Pokémon obsession, which (as someone with a plush woobat hanging three feet away) I get. It’s interesting, though, that there is very clearly an in-world industry of IMG_8569Pokémon merch not dissimilar to the industry we see in our world*.  This is clearly not presented as product placement for real-world merch– I’m pretty sure they never made a poliwhirl pencil sharpener or a glass zubat mobile. So the toys are there to signal… what, that Ash, like the viewers, loves Pokémon and Pokémon  toys? Or can we read it as a sign that Ash’s society is heavily invested in Pokemon as entertainment objects, that Pokémon have been turned into commodities in the entertainment industry (and, I’m suspecting, the food industry, the energy industry, the tourism industry– we’ll see). Ash is at a remove from real Pokémon, something that becomes abundantly clear through his vast knowledge gaps. Ash surrounds himself withPokémon simulacra as he hopes/waits to encounter actual Pokémon. The result is that he has no idea how to interact with living Pokémon. CeciNestPasUnPidgey

Another way we know immediately that Ash has engaged with Pokémon  primarily through media representations—the first shots of the first episode directly mirror the grey, pre-game scenes of the Gen I games, then turn to full color, exciting shots of what seems to be an actual and immediate fight, and then fade again into the flickering grey of a television screen as we pull back to find that Ash is watching a televised battle. What’s more, some of  this battle makes up the theme song footage of the show’s first season. This draws our attention immediately to the fact that Ash, like us, is watching  filtered, fictionalized representations of Pokemon, even though Ash (unlike the viewers) plans to dedicate his early years to interacting with the real thing. (Some of us also planned this, settled for literature instead. Pokesigh) His rote memorization of his choice of starters, also learned through an educational broadcast (maybe some kind of MOOC that Oak teaches?) is obviously the excitement of the inexperienced.

Educational Mediation– Oak and Pokedex

I’m gonna say up front that I think Prof. Oak is hella shady. A lot of information and power is given by Oak and for various reasons  I’m somewhat suspicious of him as an objective source of information. (More on this later.) When Ash receives a Pokédex from Oak in the first episode and then begins to rely on it for information, I’m immediately wary. For one, it’s apparently an identification device registered to Ash and only Ash, although Ash himself isn’t aware of this. (We see this in episode 2 where Ash basically gets asked for papers at a police checkpoint.  Flagging this, what is up with the political situation that they’d both allow a ten year old to wander, sans guardian, but also demand to see his papers?)

Worse, though, the ‘dex is simply more mediation that gives Ash information about Pokémon that is highly questionable. For example, when Pikachu comes under attack from a spearow after Ash throws a rock, the ‘dex explains that “Wild Pokémon tend to be jealous of human trained Pokémon.” Let’s unpack this:

Actually, no, you know what, I straight up call bullshit, because Ash just threw a rock at the spearow. The spearow is not jealous, it’s angry, possibly frightened, and we know (because the Pokédex told us moments before) that humans have to weaken wild Pokémon by using their own Pokémon. Wild Pokémon aren’t jealous, it’s just that the real threat to the spearow is not Ash but the Pokémon Ash is (in theory) controlling. Do wild Pokémon follow the “battle rules” that you don’t attack people but instead displace aggression onto Pokémon proxies? If so, then human-Pokémon interactions have drastically influenced the behavior of wild Pokémon. (I know that there’ll be instances of Pokémon attacking humans directly, but I’m flagging this as a running concern–do wild Pokémon usually ignore humans and focus on the domesticated Pokémon?)

Transgressing Boundaries, Ritual Aggression, and Ash’s Revolutionary Potential

smdh

Ash’s inexperience is clear even after he actually gets a Pokemon. Just like he doesn’t get why that spearow is attacking Pikachu, he tries to use his jacket to weaken and catch a pidgey after Pikachu won’t obey him. Spoilers: doesn’t work.

Later (episode 3), with Pikachu and a newly captured pidgeotto too weak to fight, Ash attempts to fight Team Rocket himself to avoid sending a weakened caterpie to battle ekans and koffing. Although it’s been established that Team Rocket doesn’t follow the rules (“The Pokémon League rules say only one at a time,” protests Ash– so there’s a governing body regulating ritualized bloodsports?!), even James laughs and literally flicks Ash off, scornfully informing Ash and the viewers that “In Pokémon battles, only the Pokémon can fight each other.”

This. Right here. This. This makes me so excited, because this is Ash’s biggest failing, that he doesn’t “get” how Pokémon training really works, and his ignorance prevents him from performing the human-Pokémon dynamic that’s been modeled for him. It’s this ignorance, then, that ultimately makes him a transgressive character.

Leave Pikachu alone!

He keeps keeps crossing the line, and this provokes ridicule from others; but crossing the line and leaping into danger himself  is what earns him Pikachu’s respect in the first ep. In contrast to his highly mediated, self-distancing obsession with Pokémon merch and TV shows, his first moves as a trainer all involve throwing himself over the boundary of How Things Are Done. Sure, okay, part of this is throwing rocks at birds and trying to catch them in his clothing, but it’s also shielding Pikachu from spearow attacks with his own body or trying to physically fight off adult criminals himself rather than sending out his poor concussed caterpie. What many take as a sign of Ash’s total ignorance is a much more direct engagement with his world than most of Ash’s peers are willing to attempt. (He starts off on foot, after all; cf. Gary Oak, who travels by car.) They may be more savvy about how to actually participate in the discourse and practices of Pokémon training, but none of them are as willing to actually enter into “the world of Pokémon” as whole-heartedly, whole-bodily as Ash is.

Indeed, in a tightly controlled cultural arena (literally), Ash is willing to transgress cultural codes. I’m going to call it now, Ash is a potentially dangerous and revolutionary figure. Listen, I know we don’t end up in season 13 following Ash’s struggles as the hunted leader of a violently Marxist revolution fighting against both the Pokémon  Yakuza and a totalitarian government as he takes a stand for Pokémon personhood** (writing that sentence made me so excited)– BUT, Ash is immediately breaking rules, both out of compassion and due to his inability to perform the type of control/mastery/competitive competence that will make one “the best.”

And I don’t want to overstate the point– Ash still has a driving desire to be a master. He’s totally gobbling up what the media’s been serving. While the side of the good/evil line Ash belongs on is never really in doubt– he’s not only young and non-threatening but also essentially good-hearted and, for a ten year old, compassionate– there exists in my head and heart a darker, more nuanced version of the show in which Ash is a more conflicted character (a Potter Sorting Hat type deal) whose disregard for/ignorance of the rules could go either way, fueling his ambition and making him a dangerous power-seeker or causing him to question a system that he has, til now, accepted uncritically. These ideas are here in the show, they’re just never really made that dark and complex. Probably audience concerns, but when I was watching first season Saturday morning reruns, I’d’ve loved that stuff, so… 

The Oak Dynasty, Privilege, and Gender(?)

One of the reasons I’m suspicious of Oak is the subtle hints of his privileged position. Not just him, but the structure of the society as a whole seems tinged with privilege. Power comes from Oak in the form of starter ‘mon, in the form of knowledge, in the form of technology. Gary obviously knows more about Pokémon than Ash and, as I mentioned, he leaves by car, which implies greater wealth. The Oaks are obviously a Pokémon dynasty who are thriving within the structure of things and who embody the competence and mastery Ash desires. It’s nepotism, guys and gals, plain and simple. 

Unlike Oak/Gary, Ash is immediately associated with women, living with his mother

Ash's house

Ash’s lonely, lonely house

in a small house on what looks like the very edge of town. (Flagging it: Is Ash’s association with women, as opposed to the Prof Oak/Gary pairing, a theme? If so, what is the implication?) Ash may be a marginalized figure– Gary demands Ash address him with an honorific, saying, “Mr. Gary to you. Show some respect!” (This was the reason we all named him BUTT in the Gen I games. Mr. Butt. Lolz.)

Ash: You aren’t afraid of an itty bitty Caterpie in a pokéball are you?

Then Ash is sort-of mentored, sort-of befriended, sort-of harassed by this rando girl whose relationship to Pokémon isn’t clear. (She’s got a goldeen, but she’s afraid of bugs? know that Misty is a member of a gym, but Ash doesn’t.) As strange as his friendship with Misty is, it’s a stark contrast to the fawning admiration the cheerleader girls lavish on Gary as he drives off to begin his journey. And honestly, some of the nicest moments come when we see that Ash and Misty’s antagonistic relationship is a sibling dynamic, with Misty’s irritation deflating when things get serious, and Ash being obnoxious but never really mean. They’re obviously comfortable together. Misty arguably has much greater grounds for demanding respect than Gary–like Gary, she is an “insider,” able to navigate the social structures with which Ash is struggling. Unlike Gary, though, Misty treats Ash as a peer, more or less. (Ash repays her by being a total sociopath, because he is ten.) As a peer, she still has greater knowledge and occasionally advises/educates Ash. The question is, will her attitude toward Pokémon  inform Ash’s development as a trainer as much as the educational tools given to him by Prof. Oak? Are we seeing two different and conflicting ways of learning?

And that’s where we are! There’s probably more to be said, but that’s what comment sections are for! Coming soon, a closer look at the liminal Pokémon figures, and reading pikachu and meowth as foils (and, I think, kindred spirits).


Flagged:

– Political situation

– Do wild ‘mon usually attack trainer’s ‘mon instead of the trainer themself?

– Is Ash consistently associated with women? Is the show saying something about gender, and if so, what?


* I bought my Pikachu wallet at Hot Topic and the really pretty cashier said “You’ll be the coolest kid in town” but she said it in a patronizing way not a flirty way so I left in shame but now I have an awesome wallet, so oh, well, it just goes to show ya stuff.

** Googling for “Pokemon legally recognized as persons” (my search history is just the best; one search is “Octopodes are massing”) yields no fanfics about said legal battle, which is good  because I’ve had one about Mr. Fuji going up against eco-social injustice in the pipes for a while, and I am stone cold serious. Fuji-san for president.

Starting out

Welcome to my earnest but playful attempt to ecocritically watch my way through the first season of the Pokémon TV series!

Basically, my mission is this: I want to watch the first season of Pokémon  and really pay attention to the way the series presents the world’s environment. As someone who reads literature and films ecocritically–that is, focusing on how something portrays environment, ecology, the border between self/other, etc– I want to systematically think through the series paying particular attention to environment. To think Pokecologically, if you will. (Or if you won’t. Can’t stop the pun train, ’cause the pun train is the fun train, hoothoot!) Anyway, this will primarily be about the TV show’s representation as opposed to the games. (Although the games may come up, or maybe get their own blogging series?)

There’s a fair amount of writing out there on the real-world cultural importance of the show, which is good stuff– see the continuously updated further reading section–but not nearly as fun as thinking about the show for the show’s sake. There’s also a lot of fan speculation/analysis about the Pokémon world. I’m not going to rely on others’ research or thoughts, though I might bring it in as I go; instead,  I’ll rely most heavily on my own observations.

As I watch, these are the questions I want to keep in mind:

– How heavily is society structured around Pokémon, and how explicitly do we see Pokémon framed or used as economic entities?

-At what points are we invited to critique the hegemonic discourse of the Pokémon world–namely, that we gotta catch ’em all and, through aggressively competitive social relationships that displace aggression onto non-human proxies, become the best, and that doing so is the most desirable way to foster friendly relationships between humans and Pokémon and also go get all the glory?

-How often do we see evidence of attempts to coexist with Pokémon (wildlife corridors, wildlife sanctuaries, environmental initiatives)?

-How is technology presented in relation to the human and non-human world?

-Are there issues of privilege–for example, how does the Pokémon world’s society treat those humans and Pokémon who are not able-bodied?

-Is there anything to be said about biopower? (Free Pokémon health care; possibly cloned police force/health care workers; the digital storage/transport of Pokémon and the 6-Pokémon  carry limit; et al.)

– Gender. What’s the ratio of male:female trainers? What careers do women typically have in that world? (I have a feeling Pokémon may actually have really positive things to say; all nurses are women, but also all police, so. We’ll see.)

Sound good? Suggestions are welcome!