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?