“Tomo mama kangaskhan!” – the validity of hybrid identity

You know, this episode should’ve been really good. It should’ve been really interesting and potentially powerful. Just goes to show you how wackiness isn’t always good, and voice acting is really important. Also maybe shows that I’m getting old in the soul? Anyway, this episode was really annoying but I should probably talk about it, so let’s get this over with.

The gang arrives in a protected reserve and encounters a herd of the massive, bipedal, armored marsupial ‘mon called kangaskhan. They’re known as “the parent pokémon” because of their pouches, which always seem to contain a baby. Team Rocket shows up to tries and nab a bunch of ’em because they are Very Bad People. Despite the fact that the Officer Jenny who patrols the reserve carries an actual rifle (yikes), it takes this spiky haired, leopard-skin-clad minidude with a boomerang to literally swing in and save the day. It’s Tomo, the human raised by pokémon–the pokéverse’s version of Tarzan, apparently. (The boomerang is a nice touch, though, since the Australian-ness it evokes goes well with the marsupial pouch of kangaskhans.)

Who is this mysterious stranger-child who rides away in a kangaskhan pouch and can communicate with his herd? The question is answered when these weird ass people emerge from the bush and announce that they’re looking for their long-lost son, Tommy! (COINCIDENCE? UNFORTUNATELY NOT!) Tomo is actually Tommy, a child lost when his wilderness lovin’, freaky lookin’ dad DROPPED HIM OUT OF A HELICOPTER.

Our gang of ecologically irresponsible do-gooders joins the search for Tomo/Tommy and, when they find him, his parents try to explain the situation to the child who one, doesn’t remember them and two, seems to be a lot safer with the non-humans who never dangle him out of helicopters geez frickin’ louise why would he ever go with his “real” parents?

Tomo has difficulty distinguishing humans from non-humans and asks Misty, “You people or pokémon?” He must have encountered humans, i.e. “people,” and… somehow he has learned the discourse of species and humanism well enough to know that “people” and “pokémon” are different categories. He doesn’t know humans well enough to recognize them right off, and that isn’t surprising, since his dad looks like a ditto transformation gone wrong and also wears animal-print clothing and also a Hitler ‘stache. I really don’t blame Tomo for being confused. Photo 2015-08-04, 9 36 32 PMLook at this guy:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  um . . . . . . . . . .

Now I really want to watch Tarzan.

Again, Tomo/Tommy has difficulty recalling his parents. When Misty prompts him to try and remember his parents from before, all he can think of is time spent with his herd–sleeping in the pouch, carried across the plains, lulled to sleep as the herd sings a pokémon song. As he thinks about the family he’s grown up with, his dad hits him really hard over the head with a log and chirps, “We’ll just take him home and start from scratch.” This man should not be a parent.

The blow to the head seems to jog Tomo’s memory, because he clutches his head in existential (and probably literal) pain and shrills in his annoying voice: “Tomo mama kangaskhan. But this lady Tomo mama too. … Tomo head feel bad!”

His crisis/concussion is interrupted by Team Rocket, formulaic defeat of the villains happens, the bad parents see how much their son cares about his adoptive family and crash their helicopter to help defeat TR and protect the herd. Then they decide to put on tiger skins and live with the herd so that Tomo/Tommy can be with his kangaskhan family: “Let Mama and Papa join your family, Tommy,” his terrible father asks. The next day Ash and co. wave goodbye to the family, who respond by shouting, “Kangas kangas kangas-khan!”

Look, this episode is really annoying, largely because of Tommy’s voice and stilted speech (and also because of that Hitler-stached father), but there’s something weird and maybe Freudian going on. Notably, the human parents accept, even affirm Tomo/Tommy’s partial non-humanity. They sacrifice not only the trappings of humanity (i.e., what makes them appear to Tomo as “people”), putting on animal flesh and speaking animal language, but also a part of their parental status. They’re in the pouch with Tomo/Tommy and his adoptive poké-sibling, the cradling pouch meant for the children of “the parental pokémon.” They’ve given up part of their authority and joined the larger community, the herd, of non-humans that their child loves.

This is kind of cool, and shows that although there’s a system of enslavement and bloodsports in place, in the pokéverse the thing that sets humans apart from non-humans isn’t some innate essence of specialness but rather, one would assume, lifestyle and power. Culture or nurture, if you will. Because nurture, not nature (essence) is what determines how someone identifies species-wise, the parents putting themselves in the (literal) position of juvenile kangaskhan makes their decision more significant. Not only is Tomo able to continue to occupy a space somewhere between kangaskhan and human, but it’s implied that his parents are doing more than just camping out to be near their son. They’re making a decision to reshape themselves, to be nurtured into new, hybrid beings.

This episode, like I said, could have been really interesting. However, I’m thinking of making a list of the best/most significant episodes as I go, and this one will not be on it because I cannot stress how irritating Tomo/Tommy and his father are. As interesting as the ep.’s implications are, it’s just not worth it? Oy.

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…

Ep. 26–Empathy, cross-dressing, and stench-plants

Let’s check back in on Ash as our protagonist. If you recall, very early on I noted that Ash faced a choice to imitate the total domination of non-humans that Kanto media seems to push or to continue to choose unconventional, less socially acceptable, potentially more open relationships to non-humans. I’ve also noted that Ash can be kind of sexist.

This arc of development makes sense, since Pokémon is, at its heart, about living amidst extreme and abundant difference. Sometimes the difference creates conflict. The show’s underlying message is that empathy, developed through first-hand experience, is how one navigates this difference. We see this with the Sabrina arc, ultimately about how a non-human learned to relate to an unstable young woman no one else could or wanted to deal with. Episode 1.26, in which Ash is explicitly called out on his lack of empathy, is a good place to check back in with our main character. Does Ash actually learn anything?

Misogyny

Episode 26 starts, more or less, with Ash being a sexist jerk. Arriving in Celadon City, “the great metropolis,” Brock and Misty are curious about the city’s famous perfume industry. Well, okay, Misty and Pikachu are into the perfume.1 Brock wants to stare at the parfumiers (gross Brock is back). Ash thinks that it’s a boring tourist activity, but instead of going off and doing his own thing, he bursts into the store and basically yells that Misty shouldn’t buy the perfume:

Perfume’s just a waste of money, and it stinks! … All perfumes are a rip off, because all they do is turn guys into zombies. Like this! [Points to Brock, who’s still ogling.]

So, to clarify, Ash hates perfume because “it’s a waste of money” (a very subjective opinion) and because he blames the perfume for Brock’s male gaze (instead of, say, Brock’s tendency to objectify and/or fethishize women).

What might otherwise have just been a way to humorously show Ash’s immaturity becomes more of a “thing” later in the episode when his insult to the parfumiers prevents him from fulfilling his glory-quest. Celadon gym, it turns out, is run by the very women he just insulted. The manager and inventor of Celadon’s best perfumes is the gym leader, Erica, who specializes in grass-type ‘mon. Erica and her parfumier/trainer bffs refuse to allow Ash to enter the gym because of his childish, insulting behavior in their shop.

Meanwhile, Team Rocket is trying to steal  the valuable perfume formula. They’re rebuffed by Erica’s gloom, a pokémon based on a corpse flower, whose main defense is a debilitating smell. They agree to help Ash get into the gym, Photo 2015-07-04, 9 00 55 PMhoping to use Ash’s battle with Erica as a cover for their own thieving. Ash, after a brief side eye, goes along with their plan which, in a lovely little twist, is to dress Ash up like a very girly girl. When he declares he can now “show [Erica] who’s the boss around here,” Jesse warns him that “That doesn’t sound very lady-like!” That is, Ash must perform a stereotypical mode of femininity similar to the one he so vocally despised in the perfume shop. Will this lead to Ash learning to be more understanding?

Empathy

image

Erica’s gym

Let’s all take a second to enjoy Erica’s gym, unlike any we’ve seen before. It’s a series of indoor biospheres, like a really homey botanical gardens. We see one of Erica’s entourage leading a little cluster of grass ‘mon in pok-aerobics while Erica tells a story about a prehistoric omanyte. Her gym aligns well LeftRightLeftwith my theory of gyms being centers of ecological control and imitation. Erica, though, does so not to display power but to create, in the ultra-urban space of Celadon, an open, inviting green space. When “Ashley” is enrolled in a “training class”, we see that the gym is a place of community engagement, an eco-cultural hub that actively works to create a safe space of interspecies interaction and to keep out those who aren’t respectful of others–people like Ash.

Her desire to foster understanding even of much-maligned ‘mon is inspired by the backstory of her own gloom. Erica’s gloom has been with her since she was a child, when it rescued her from a threatening grimer. She has since dedicated her life to understanding and living with grass-type ‘mon. Sure, she battles, but she also takes her perfume inspiration from them, taking what is usually a very human cultural practice and involving the non-human source of that decoration much more visibly and explicitly in the process. That is, Erica doesn’t just use grass-types but seems to work with them.2

When the Ashley disguise fails, Ash gets his battle with Erica. Her opinion of his battling technique is that he “lacks empathy” with his ‘mon. Her gloom’s stench attack is threatening to utterly defeat Ash and his team when everything goes wrong. Team Rocket, nabbing a vial of something from the secret safe, makes a big scene and blasts their way out of the gym, setting the place on fire. Gloom is trapped inside, and Ash rushes in to save it. When he finds Gloom, he hesitates, fearing Gloom’s stench will overwhelm him; leaping across a wall of flame anyway, he finds thatPhoto 2015-07-03, 2 26 11 AM Gloom isn’t stenching. Gloom must feel safe. So… has Ash demonstrated empathy through earning Gloom’s trust?

I’m not sure, because Ash doesn’t seem to have learned to be more respectful of women, and he never had any particular animosity toward Gloom. Erica clearly grants him the rainbow badge out of gratitude. We don’t get the sense that Ash has significantly changed. After all, he’s always been brave and willing to risk his own safety to save others. This self-sacrifice is noble but not necessarily based on empathy. Instead, in this episode we see Ash dismiss certain kinds of “femininity” and then perform (read: appropriate) them for his own ends, later casting them aside as a “stupid costume” as soon as it’s no longer useful. Since he was never particularly prejudiced against Gloom, rescuing the stinky shrub doesn’t show change. In fact, when he emerges from the flames with Gloom, he’s wearing his “battle outfit”–cap turned backwards, game face on. He’s an okayish person, but on his own terms, in his own way.

I think we have to accept that Ash will always act on his own terms. He’s consistently rude about accepting help/advice, he’s reluctant to admit his own faults. If “empathy” is what Ash learns, it’s not empathy through flexibility. Early on I mentioned how Ash’s willingness to do things his own way was an ambiguous trait, potentially making him either a really positive or a really flawed character. I don’t think that’s going to change. Ash is always going to be a basically decent but flawed character. With Brock and Ash both being characters that are coded good but still relate to Others (i.e., pokémon and females) in problematic ways, maybe the thesis of the show so far is hashtag YesAllMen, or at least YesAllTrainers?

1. Once again I’m just going to take a moment to appreciate, deeply, how overwhelmingly Pikachu adores Misty. He loves her, he follows her around, he goes out of his way to avoid coming into conflict with her. He seems to really like Ash, too, but once again, my ideal spin-off series would by Misty and Pikachu just running off to be bffs in some small, seaside town, leaving Ash and Brock to bro around being offensive.

2. The reward for beating Erica is the rainbow badge–fittingly, I watched this ep. around the time when the SCOTUS legalized gay marriage. The parallel may not be intentional, but the rainbow as a symbol of prismatic coexistence certainly aligns with the ethos of Erica’s gym.

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. 14-16–Mobile and Modifiable ‘Mon 2: Evolution as violation, evolution as empowering

This post is a little less dark, a lot less heavy with theory. Maybe more fun? Idk, hashtag sorrynotsorry for the theory bits, I love that magiCrap.

Anyway. Today it’s about unstable and evolving bodies. Pokémon bodies are inherently unstable, capable of/subject to sudden changes of form and abilities. Like really fast, really crazy puberty, basically? Evolution is like if awkward Neville became hot Neville between the first and second movie. It’s one more way pokémon bodies are vulnerable to being changed and rendered into tools against their will, yet it’s also a potentially empowering capability that might allow pokémon to escape certain forms of human control.

Modifiable Bodies–Manipulation

In episode 14 Ash finally arrives at Vermilion City and challenges his third gym, determined to win a badge in pitched combat. The leader, Surge, is extremely harsh–we see a lot of pokémon being rushed to the ER after a battle.1 Ash challenges Surge and finds that Surge battles with a raichu, the evolved form of Pikachu. Surge laughs at Ash for bringing “a baby pokémon” to the battle, says that “electric pokémon are only useful once they’ve learned all their electric attacks,” and scoffs that Ash should’ve made Pikachu evolve as soon as he caught it.

Pikachu is badly defeated and hurt–not in body, Brock says, but in his “spirit.” This is where the good stuff starts. Vermilion’s Nurse Joy offers Ash a thunderstone. Exposing Pikachu to the stone will “make Pikachu evolve into a raichu;” but as Brock cautions, evolution will change Pikachu and, after the transformation, “Pikachu will never be the same.” The fact that we know Ash’s companion as Pikachu (rather than some other nickname) draws attention to what’s really at stake–evolution is a change in identity. They don’t clarify exactly how drastic a change it is, but I’m speculating it’s akin to the regeneration of the Doctor, in which basic memories and skills remain but personality, particular areas of strength, and preferences undergo dramatic alterations.

Agh, it’s been ages, but just watching this gif hurts my heart. I miss 11. 😦

And then, suddenly, I’m back on Team Ash, because despite how eager both Ash and Pikachu were to defeat Surge, Ash tells Pikachu, “I don’t want to force you to evolve if you’d be happier staying the way you are now.” He holds out the stone–and Pikachu bats it away with his tail, just like he rejected the pokéball in the first episode. (Very nice visual parallel, writers. Poképoints for you all.)

Pikachu continues to value his material self, satisfied with his embodied identity, the Fat Amy of Ash’s team (but with fewer needless body shaming jokes made at his expense). Ash supports him–and not only out of nettled pride, which would be disappointing, but also, it seems, very real affection for who Pikachu is. It’s a move consistent with Pikachu’s character development and the themes I’ve been tracking, and it’s a moment that, with small but very real emotional stakes, forces Ash to decide and to show us what he most values.2

It also starts to nuance battling a little bit. We’ve gotten some advice on type advantage (don’t fight ground-types with electric, e.g.), but now Ash and Pikachu have to find a strategy to defeat an objectively stronger opponent. With Brock’s help they realize that pokémon who are evolved at a young age have weaknesses in other areas–in this case, Surge’s raichu sacrificed speed for brute power. Pikachu’s ultimate victory shows that battling can be more of an art than the beat-downs we’ve seen so far. Upping evasion to wear down a stronger opponent is a legitimate strategy in the games, too, which is a nice touch.

Pikachu’s win also puts into perspective the narrowly avoided, needless, irreversible change of a beloved character. I say change, but I think it would’ve been more like a loss, because in this episode evolution is discussed in fairly aggressive, negative terms. Ash’s choice is whether to “make” or “force” Pikachu to evolve or not, words that draw attention to the power Ash could exercise over Pikachu’s body if he chose. Although most pokémon evolve on their own, some bodies are more vulnerable to rendering than others–not just rendering from material to immaterial but rendering on a genetic level from one identity to another. This sort of power is deeply sinister, creepy, manipulative, even worse than the way Ash electrocuted Pikachu way back when. Evolution can be a violation.

Modifiable Bodies–Empowerment 

I talked in the last post about how the incessant conversions of pokémon bodies (from material to immaterial, e.g.) might make humans see pokémon as bodies that exist to be acted on and altered. The idea of pokémon becomes less of a being, a person, and more a process or malleable substance that can just be rendered into a stronger being, a little bundle of portable energy, or even food for the sake of humans, and in general people don’t find this problematic or unusual because it happens so often.

In episode 15 James is tricked into buying a magikarp. It’s a pyramid scheme–the (racialized, Mexican-accented stereotype) swindler explains that magikarp lay huge clutches ofPhoto 2015-05-28, 12 19 13 PM eggs, so James can breed more and sell them to people who could breed their own and sell those. James falls for it, then realizes that Magikarp is useless as a battling ‘mon.3 Later, adrift on a raft after a shipwreck, Team Rocket and Ash’s gang consider eating Magikarp. They stare hungrily at her and Ash and Brock fantasize about all the things she could be made into.

The really creepy thing, though, is Photo 2015-05-28, 12 18 10 PMthat in fantasies Magikarp still has her head and tail. We don’t just see “food,” we see magikarp-as-food. This is why I think that the changeable bodies of pokémon may create a certain lack of empathy in people’s minds–even the compassionate Brock can easily imagine turning Magikarp into food while still clearly thinking of her as a pokémon, despite the fact that we have clearly seen that pokémon are persons with complex subjectivities.

After they realize they can’t really eat Magikarp (“The moment of tooth!” cries Meowth as he bites down on her, only to find his teeth chipped against her bony plates), James kicks and berates her for being completely useless. James’s abuse is the final straw, the catalyst needed for her spectacular and disastrous and magnificent evolution.

It’s honestly quite wonderful. The poor magikarp, sold as a baby machine, dismissed as useless, nearly eaten, physically beaten, has within herself the power to become something seriously terrifying, the fearsome and glorious gyarados. Evolution isn’t necessarily something that can be done at will–Magikarp probably would’ve become a draconian goddess of the depths long before now if she could have. It is, though, something that Magikarp does, not something that someone does to her. The unstable form of her own body is here an empowering potential that allows her to escape an abusive situation and take her own revenge on her own terms. You go, li’l fish. 

Ultimately, the implication of evolving bodies is that there is a deep ambiguity in any relationship with pokémon. Almost all are capable of a drastic change in power and form and identity. This sometimes opens pokémon to further control and violation; but it also, potentially, disrupts the power exercised over a seemingly “useless” pokémon like Magikarp. She has the dangerous, lurking potential to become too powerful to control, to instead turn the tables on humans.

So maybe pokémon bodies still resist. Even in a world in which control over bodies is nearly inescapable, this instability makes human control uncertain.

1. The ‘mon we see are all pretty weak battling pokémon. Who challenges a strong electric-type gym with a pidgey or a rattata? I’m all for courage and underdogs and whatnot, but fighting a raichu with a friggin’ pidgey is just irresponsible.

2. Also worth noting is that Ash is learning a lot more by negative examples, defining himself against other trainers, than he does from positive examples. In explicitly trying to not be like Team Rocket, Damien (who abandoned Charmander in ep. 11), and Surge, Ash is becoming more compassionate. Is this another indicator that people in Kanto are actually kind of shitty in general? Brock and Misty are cool; but the nicest people we’ve met have actually been completely outside the battling culture (Seymour and Melanie).

3. A sample in-game Pokédex entry for magikarp says that it “is a pathetic excuse for a Pokémon that is only capable of flopping and splashing. This behavior prompted scientists to undertake research into it” (X). In an earlier game we’re told it’s so weak that “no one knows why it has managed to survive” (Diamond). First, those scientists studying magikarp need to come up with a better justification of their research if they want to get any research grants; second, note that the phrasing isn’t “HOW it has managed to survive” but “why.” Magikarp is really harshly dismissed because of its inability to battle. For this reason alone I’ve always kind of liked it. Not all ‘mon need to be warriors, you know? Idk, I like magikarp, I think they’re kind of pretty and they have nice fish mustaches. The first shiny I encountered was a magikarp I found while fishing for a feebas in some cave lake back in Diamond. I still have her, though she’s evolved since way back then.

Ep. 13 (again)–Mobile and Modifiable ‘Mon: pokéballs and the disintegration of the pokémon body

After my playful but legitimate conspiracy theory, this post is some Very Serious doings. I want to explore how pokéballs and the technology of digitizing/dissolving bodies makes the exercise of biopower nearly inescapable in the pokéverse. The more time I spend thinking about it, the more this world becomes a techno-dystopia that has hidden all visible appartuses of control and normalized some pretty problematic practices.

In episode 13 Ash catches his seventh
pokémon, a krabby. imageThe colors and shots are dramatic—the slow-motion “battle,” seen at the right; then a tight focus on Krabby as it dematerializes and is encapsulated by Ash’s pokéball; then a final tight shot of the pokéball as it dematerializes with a blinding light, transported back to Oak’s lab.

This is a good place to think about the implications of the way pokéballs act on pokémon bodies.

Background theory of non-human bodies

Recently I read some of Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capitalin which Shukin writes about the way we use animals, physically and figuratively. Nonhuman animals are powerful symbols (e.g., the sigils of the noble houses of Westeros), and animal bodies are a literally vital aspect of most products. (It’s the same in Kanto–there’re huge industries that use pokémon bodies and images.) In our world, we constantly render the animal body into a metaphorical or actual product. Rendering, as Shukin explains it, is exercising power over bodies, making the nonhuman body into an idea or a product while hiding the messy, material origins and process of production. 1

Shukin’s project is to point out how and why rendering tries to hide the bodily origin of ideas and products. Shukin draws attention to the living bodies we use/consume because that distorts the seemingly “painless transmission” of animal-into-product/symbol. It distorts the rendering process because thinking about how and why we render bodies changes how we think of the easily-consumable idea or products we’re used to. This changes how we see things because, as essential and universal as they are, bodies, with their squishy and vulnerable materiality, terrify us–hence the popularity of body horror films like AlienThe Thing, etc. We (well, not me, but others) want to eat a hot dog without thinking about how that hot dog is the conceived, birthed, living, feeling, nurtured, slaughtered, butchered, ground fleshbits of a pig.

Yet that body was real and, when we find unprocessed, recognizable bits of a corpse (like a foot in our chicken nuggets), we see the body that was behind the product all along. We realize that something had to die and bleed before we could eat it. This scares us. Gods help the beef industry when an outbreak of mad cow disease reminds humans of that living, vulnerable, threatening otherness of the bovine body that was rendered into the ground chuck that made their Memorial Day burger.

Making it clear that all products and animal images are contingent on the body emphasizes that, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri write, “bodies resist” (Commonwealth 31). Bodies resist at the most basic level by demanding a lot of work to make them into anything else, by reminding us of their otherness in unexpected ways. Shukin says that the “neoliberal fantasy” is one of transcending the undeniable, fundamental stubbornness and messiness of physical materiality; she calls it fantasy because that transcendence isn’t possible in our world.

Bringing it back to the pokéverse

In Ash’s world, though, the physicality of the body is far from fundamental, and resisting the rendering action of biopower is more difficult. In the pokéverse bodies are easily dematerialized, stored away, transported.image The close-up of Krabby as it is caught makes it clear how immaterial technology can render the body in this world. Before it disappears it becomes translucent energy and then, ultimately, loses its form altogether.

This tech, whatever it is, allows humans not only to control and carry their pokémon but to disembody them completely. It does away with many aspects of messy materiality.

I noted from the first the way the pokémon world is obsessed with not only the bodies but the images of  pokémon. The way humans think of pokémon is mediated by products and visual presentations–a discourse that presents pokémon as creatures to be loved and admired, but also used. Ash’s journey is often about the discovery that some pokémon don’t want to be controlled outright, that they attempt to act on their own terms; but I wonder if the dematerialization technology makes commodification, abstraction, and reduction of pokémon to objects more difficult to question. In Kanto everyone is rendering pokémon bodies all the time, dematerializing and reassembling them constantly. The constant disintegration/reiteration of pokémon bodies means that materiality isn’t a fundamental, shared experience that can prompt empathy–human bodies seem to remain intact, but pokémon are convertible, portable, easily storable; they are, in the end, conveniently useable. The non-human body is no longer a troublingly material fact.

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The instrument of dematerilization is itself dematerialized

Well, I lie, because even the digital or energized signal is always dependent on the material. Somewhere there must be hardware. Somewhere, in some lab, there are pieces of physical machinery that enact these digitizations. Pokéballs are hardware; but even then, pokéballs aren’t consistently physical, as we see after Ash catches Krabby. Pokéballs can be teleported from one place to another instantly, regardless of location. Pokéballs even change size, from a conveniently portable ping pong ball during travel to a baseball during use. Even the materiality of the hardware is unstable and uncertain.

This is a way of controlling not only pokémon but interactions with those pokémon—the transfer of Krabby to Oak’s lab is automatic, so somehow the pokédex or Ash’s pokéballs are able to communicate with each other and with some machine hidden away, which is then able to transport that ball from any location. Ash is only allowed (by the League?) to have so many ‘mon with him at any point, which means that the balls are somehow registered to Ash specifically, possibly through the pokédex (which, as we learn in ep. 2, is somehow irreplaceably biolocked to him and only him). Ash and his pokémon are read and identified somehow, branded, not on their skin, but (presumably) on their genetic code. Here, bodies, at the most basic material level, are identifiable, readable, and manipulable from afar by invisible machinery.

In the end, we have to conclude that, to the pokéverse’s technology, physical bodies are nothing but sets of numbers and data to be identified, tallied, balanced, transmitted. Just as I speculated that the environment is completely controlled and created by powerful and invisible technology, so are the bodies of pokémon at the mercy of hidden mechanisms to which  physical distance seems to be no object. In Kanto, biopower is inescapable.

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Pikachu’s ball emerges from its secret compartment

Pikachu, though… Pikachu does something exciting, as I’ve noted before. By refusing the pokéball, Pikachu resists the basic form of control. Maybe he couldn’t refuse unless Ash allowed him to—after all, he was in a pokéball in Oak’s lab; but even there he was in a special, physical storage space, maybe to keep him from breaking out? If Pikachu can come out at will, why don’t more pokémon?2  Regardless, Pikachu values the solidity and materiality of his own body, resisting battles that intimidate him and refusing to be dematerialized even when doing so would protect him from physical danger. Pikachu reminds the world that “bodies resist,” at least as long as they’re actually embodied.

On a final note, the uneasiness I’m feeling isn’t just me reading into things; Ash feels it too. Krabby’s sudden, unstoppable transportation troubles him, and he spends the next ten minutes worrying about Krabby, wanting to verify where Krabby is, that Krabby is okay, wanting to actually see Krabby once he discovers Oak has it back in Pallet. Even though Ash has, by now, lots of experience with dissolving bodies, in this case the krabby was taken without his consent, and this defamiliarizes the process, makes it more startling. When he assumes Oak has eaten Krabby, Ash shows a sudden awareness of a pokémon’s vulnerability to being broken down and rendered into something portable/usable/consumable.

Phew. Heavy stuff. I’m not sure I made even one joke in this entire post. I guess, though, dystopian Pokémon isn’t a very funny topic? Anyway, Friday we continue the theme by exploring the implications of pokémon evolution!

1. For example: Canada uses the image of the beaver to evoke assocations of Canada’s wilderness and pristine beauty; yet the beaver was the center of a huge fur trade that led to a huge ecological tole on beavers and their ecosystems, to say nothing of the displacement and oppression of Canada’s First Nations. Thinking about the actual history and material reality of the beaver in Canadian history would undermine the usual use of that image, as Shukin discusses in the first pages of her book. Regarding products, fun fact, much (most?) red lipstick gets its red coloring from the boiled and crushed chitin of the cochineal beetle. Smearing the congealed color of a boiled and squeezed bug shell on one’s face is a common practice, largely because cosmetics companies don’t talk about the source of their color.

2. So I know that in the Black and White seasons Ash’s oshawott often comes out of its ball without permission. Maybe they could but don’t? Maybe many aren’t violently opposed to being owned. Maybe the process of being dematerialized is a form of automatic domestication—Brock catches a zubat and it can take commands the first time he sends it out of the ball, which might imply that a pokémon’s body and brain are somehow altered to make them more docile and responsive to human commands? It’s all speculation, but how else would kids be able to command elemental beings more or less immediately after catching them?

Episode 12 — The social and legal status of pokémon in Kanto

In eps. 10-12 the show offers three different  ways pokémon can be hurt or endangered by human carelessness. Ep. 12 specially shows us how pokémon might fit into Kanto society from a legal standpoint.

The weird social space of the Squirtle Squad

The Squirtle Squad is a gang of rabble-rousing squirtles that have all have been deserted by their trainers so, as Officer Jenny says, “they just run wild and play tricks on the whole town.” Officer Jenny says (mournfully) that “It’s really kind of sad because if they had somebody to care about them, they wouldn’t have turned out to be as bad as they are.” She makes them sound like troubled, fatherless youths.

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The most adorable menaces to society

The Squad occupy a strange social space–they vandalize and steal food from shops and are basically low-level criminals. Formerly domesticated, they still hang around town but they aren’t owned or controlled. They’re a marginalized and disenfranchised little group, acting outside of human control but within human society. If you took the flippant rowdiness and vigilante-ism of the teenage mutant ninja turtles and mixed it with the counter-cultural idgaf-ness of Banksey, you’d get the Squirtle Squad.1

In the end, after teaming up with the Rockets, kidnapping Ash and the gang, and then being betrayed by the Rockets, the squirtles end up on the right side of the law. When Ash shields the head squirtle from a “flashblast” bomb dropped by Team Rocket, Ash’s bravery wins them over. The Squirtle Squad helps to put out the forest fire started by Team Rocket’s bombs, win the friendship of the town, and are appointed town firefighters (complete with a uniform). image

This is where it gets a little weird, because officially appointing nonhumans as town firefighters complicates what we’ve been exploring for the last few posts– namely, the status of pokémon in Kanto society. Does being officially appointed make them legal persons? If yes, is catching/training legal slavery?

For help, let’s turn to precedents in our own world.

Nonhuman animals in Western legal history 

Murderous sow and her piglets on trial. She was found guilty, apparently, but the piglets were acquitted.

Okay, that title is a little grand and ambitious. More specifically I want to briefly, simplistically discuss nonhuman animals on trial in the middle ages.

In Europe animals were put on trial for “crimes” against humans up until the Enlightenment. A lot of weird cultural stuff is going on there, too much for me to reliably try to explain, but there are a few ways that these trials inform an understanding of how non-humans interact with human legal institutions.

First, putting an animal on trial might imply that the animal is part of a moral order. This doesn’t mean that they were fully autonomous persons under the law, or even that they were seen as moral beings, but it solidified the idea that nonhumans, too, were created inside of a natural order of creation (specifically a judeo-Christian paradigm, so “natural order” in huge scare quotes). Trials tried to determine nonhuman animals’ place in this natural order. Potentially, such legal proceedings more firmly established human dominance over an animal that had acted in a way dangerous to humans (pigs had a not-uncommon habit of eating unwatched human infants, apparently).2 This way of approaching animal trials isn’t that different from the way wolves are described as crafty/noble/dangerous enemies in 19th century writing. Describing animals as criminals or enemies frames them, not as creatures acting out of their own needs and outside of arbitrary, human-created law, but instead as enemy combatants or rebels against a universal order. It doesn’t necessarily make them persons–writers describe a wolf’s behavior (preying on livestock) as instinctual while simultaneously describing that behavior as part of an ongoing conflict between humans and wolves– but it does make humans’ extermination of wolves all part of what “naturally” happens in such conflicts. Legally considering the category of “animal” in this context covers over the motives, goals, attitudes, and effects, and general social/ecological/material realities of what humans do to animals by focusing instead on the supposed spiritual/moral/ideological significance.

Still, animal trials can also be seen as positive. In An Environmental History of the Middle Ages, John Aberth writes that although in the middle ages non-human animals weren’t counted as persons, they “did have certain rights” (232). While bringing a pig before the court sometimes sanctioned some pretty horrific animal cruelty, it also created the possibility that some animal actions would be found justified and unpunishable (pests eating a crop, for example) because creatures have a right to thrive and pursue their own animal needs, regardless of what is convenient for humans. In other words, sometimes an animal trial makes room in the human system for non-human actions, forcing humans to reconsider their own limitations.

We find slightly different examples of non-humans receiving official, legal status in human society in the 21st century, too. Companion animals come to mind, although those are made official as the guides/helpers/instruments of their human owners. In Cuba several stray dogs are “employed” by state institutions. From the Huffington Post:

“More than a dozen state institutions ranging from Cuba’s Central Bank to a public toilet have taken street dogs under their wings in recent years, assigning them official IDs and housing and granting them year-round medical care and protection from the city dogcatcher.”

Recently one of these “guard dogs” received an award for stopping an attempted theft of an air conditioner. While the status of these dogs isn’t always as delightful as it sounds–apparently their “official” status is sometimes revoked by officials who, presumably, have no soul–this is an interesting way of helping some strays by giving them some form of government “employment.” Their job doesn’t make them persons but does make a space for animals within an otherwise human-centric system.

The Squirtle Squad, then, find a more settled place within human society. Abandoned and marginalized, their recognition by the local government renegotiates their relationship to humans. Much like Cuba’s stray dogs, the Squad are given a job and some security. Is human dominance re-established? The uniforms might imply that it is, although I suppose the Squad could revert to criminals at any time. It’s nice that they aren’t farmed out to trainers, too, but instead taken in as employees. (Depending on how Marxist-sympathetic you are, this might be disappointing; truth be told, I kind of enjoyed them as anarchistic ne’er do wells rather than as tools of The Man.)

Bonus: A Caveat

I want to be careful about forcing pokémon into a category of either “nonhuman persons” or “nonhuman animals” because, while I’m taking the U.S. dub as my primary text for reasons of convenience, it is a Japanese franchise that is informed by non-Western worldviews.3 This is all conjecture from watching the very few anime I’ve seen, so grain of salt and all that, BUT: I think that pokémon may be part of a trope in Japanese media in which human and non-human animals coexist alongside a separate order of beings altogether. Sometimes they’re spirits, sometimes they’re semi-physical beings that aren’t quite alive but aren’t dead. Often they 1, aren’t visible to most people, 2, don’t fit into the category of human or non-human, and 3, are feared, used, and/or abused by humans. In the two specific anime I’ve linked to, the protagonist often has a more empathetic understanding and connection to these beings than most of his peers.

Pokémon does something not dissimilar, but pokémon are visible to all, and while Ash is unconventional in his methods, he doesn’t seem to have or be forming attitudes that are drastically different from most of his peers’.

Still, while as a franchise Pokémon may not quite fit in with this trope of an alt-category of beings, pokémon as creatures may occupy a special status in Kanto’s own “natural order.” I might flag this and keep an eye out in future episodes for any indication of how ‘mon might be compared to animals.


Flagged: Where do pokémon fit? Are they in the same category as human/non-human animals, or are they something else entirely? If pokémon are in their own category, how is that described and does that description justify the way humans see pokémon as things you can catch and train and own?

1. I really want to read the Squirtle Squad’s style as an allusion to the Beatles, because, I mean, look at ’em.image 

More than a little uncanny, no? 

2. Remembering the last post I wrote about spoken motives vs. the function of a cultural idea, executing violent domesticated nonhumans removes especially violent creatures from the gene pool, possibly resulting in a less murderous breed of pig. This isn’t the ostensible reason animal trials were held, but it is one potential function or effect of executing baby-eating hogs. Also, FFS medieval peeps, maybe don’t leave your babies where roaming, hungry pigs can get at them.

3. I tried to explain object-like pokémon like trubbish and klefki to my partner and why they make more sense in an animistic culture than the living/dead binary we have in the West. Being less nerdy and not having been raised to take sentient ice cream cones for granted, I’m not sure she appreciated it. See also: Tsukumogami

Ep. 8 & 9 — Tough but cool: Difference, discourse, and what it means to be a “good trainer.”

Guys and gallades, we have a new banner! It’s a commission from the wonderful Caity Hall! Look at more of her work on deviantartstorenvy, and even Instagram. That’s me! There I am! With an eevee and a dedenne! It’s basically what I would see if I looked in the Mirror of Erised.

*sigh*


This is a long one, and it’s more theoretical than the others have been, but I think it might be my favorite so far.  I had less time to work on the blog this week, so if there are places where the logic is difficult to trace, point it out, ask a question, disprove a point. I will digitally and literally like any comments you can offer. Except spam. Or trolls. Or something pro-Oak. Anyway. Let’s start exploring!

In episodes 8 and 9 we see Ash learning what constitutes a “good trainer.”  Here I analyze some of the discourse that constructs and informs the idea of what a “good trainer” actually is. Before we really get into it, some theoretical background: A discourse is a set of ideas and vocabulary used to talk about an important concept (e.g., gender, humanity/animality, race, childhood, etc.1) Discourse both describes and constructs our thoughts about a concept. Discourse often determines what we consider to be true and possible because if we don’t have the ideas or the words to talk about something different from what we know, it’s hard to believe that it’s possible. In eps. 8 & 9, the ideas and vocabulary (discourse) of what makes a “good trainer” are used to justify some pretty shoddy treatment and conception of pokémon.

Difference—All you have to do is care

In episode 8, “The Path to the Pokémon League,” Ash encounters A.J. A.J. trains “savage pokémon” and Ash calls him “the wild pokémon trainer.” I don’t think he uses pokéballs at all. Instead he controls his ‘mon through intense training, using a whip (well, a whip crack) to time his pokémons’ attacks precisely.

A.J. is harsh. After soundly defeating Ash, we hear him yell at Sandshrew like a drill sergeant, saying “you call that a win?!” All his pokémon wear a metal straight jacket/shackle combo called a “strength intensifier.” He makes his sandshrew train in a swimming pool, although sandshrews are weakened by  water. As A.J. proudly tells Ash, “we live by the rule ‘no pain, no gain’!” Ash, furious, counters with his own philosophy that “A great trainer should make friends with his pokémon!” A.J.’s defense is: “I ask no more of Sandshrew than I do of myself—the very best.”

When Sandshrew goes missing, A.J. panics. We see in flashbacks how much he and Sandshrew have been through together in their quest to “be the greatest,” as A.J. says. A series of shenanigans later (Team Rocket steals Sandshrew instead of Pikachu, A.J. and Sandshrew beat them up and earn their 100th win), A.J. and Sandshrew’s happy reunion convinces Ash that A.J. is good people. He is, Misty tells us, “Tough but cool.” Brock says earlier in the episode that “A.J. is tough, but as you can see he cares deeply for his pokémon.”

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A.J., Ash, and… Pikachu? You… you okay, buddy?

This episode is very much an “Ash learns a lesson” tale. A.J. is immediately “othered” by his southern U.S. accent (i.e., negatively set apart as unsophisticated and cruel); his whip is scary; the way he yells at his pokémon is disturbing. In the end, though, A.J. and Sandshrew teach Ash that, as the narrator sums up for us, “there are many paths that lead to the Pokémon League.” It’s a lesson about not making snap judgments. In the end A.J. goes off to start his journey with Sandshrew walking by his side, a parallel to the way that Ash and Pikachu travel together. Whoa, TWIST—they’re actually more similar than they are different!

I love a good “don’t judge people with stigmatized and exaggerated accents” story, but yikes. Unlike the episode where Ash learns empathy from Brock, here Ash learns that it’s okay to use restraints, to micromanage your pokémon’s lives and time, to harshly acclimate them to their fears and weaknesses as long as you do it to make them (and yourself) stronger and as long as you really care.

Giselle and the Importance of Experience

As a contrast to A.J.’s overly involved and hands-on style, in “The School of Hard Knocks” we meet Giselle who is skilled in book learnin’. She attends Pokémon Technical, a training school for the rich imagethat guarantees its graduates entrance into the Pokémon League. The brochure says it’s for trainers who want to challenge the League “without having to travel on difficult badge collecting journeys.”

As an academic and an aspiring educator who works primarily with the written word, I looooove me some anti-intellectual subtext. -_-

Giselle has extensive knowledge of pokémon factoids and has trained on a simulator that looks almost exactly like the video games. (This is hilarious and maybe complicated and therefore for another time.) 2 Still, Ash and Pikachu are able to defeat Giselle’s cubone even though, as a ground type, cubone has an immediate advantage because he’s immune to electrical attacks. Giselle is surprised because “none of the textbooks” indicate that pikachus can win without electrical attacks.

The moral of this episode is that Ash and Pikachu win because they’ve taken that hard journey and engaged more directly with pokémon. As Misty, goddess of wisdom and rage, tells us sagely, “A simulation’s one thing, but this is real life.”  No substitute for the real thing, people. 3

Discourse–Collapsing body boundaries through discourse, problematizing the discourse through bodies

These episodes are really important! How so, you ask? Well, hold onto your butterfrees, friends, because we’re about to get speculative and theoretical! Let’s closely examine the discourse of pokémon training and battling as shown in these episodes.

These are all pikachu, Pikachu, and pikachu at the same time.

First off, grammatical analysis! On this blog I’ve deviated from the standards of the franchise and used an S indicate plurals. I’ve also capitalized the names of pokémon (Pikachu, as in Ash’s) but not the general species (pikachu, as in some rando electrical mouse). But in Kanto (and most of our world), the singular/plural is the same and the general species name is capitalized. This makes it hard to differentiate the categorical and the individual. The word Pikachu could refer to to a single pokémon, a group of pokémon of the same type, or even Ash’s specific pokémon. It’d be like having a sheep named Sheep.

This grammatical quirk makes the individuality of pokémon difficult to talk about and difficult to think about. The individual and the categorical are referred to with the same word, and I’m going to go so far as to suggest that it enables (or at least correlates with) the idea of the pokémon as an extension of the trainer. There’s evidence for this when A.J. makes a grammatically strange statement explaining how he and Sandshrew began their journey: “We promised to do whatever it took to become the greatest pokémon trainer of all time.” A.J. here erases the difference between himself and Sandshrew by collapsing we into one thing, “the greatest trainer.” He does so naturally, easily, and the statement is supposed to sound positive, inspiring, even. It shows A.J.’s conviction. And on the surface it sounds nice, right? It could be love that motivates this erasure of difference—the linguistic parallel to Ash’s willingness to throw his own body between Pikachu and a flock of angry spearows.

But wait, what’s that sound? . . . . . .

Sorry, boys and kirlias, it is time to stomp on those warm fuzzies and start callin’ some bullshit, because this identification is how A.J. justifies emotional and physical abuse of his kidnapped, gladiatorial, glory-grabbing tools. To requote, A.J. defends his methods by saying “I only expect of them what I expect of myself—the best.” (Ash did this, too, when he justified his electrocution of Pikachu with “If I can take it you can take it.”) Problem is: it is the pokémon who do the fighting, wear the restraints, are burned, bitten, zapped, leveled up and then made to fight harder. A.J. is just holding the whip.

So, to sum up so far: some weird grammatical slipperiness works in conjunction with the idea that pokémon are extensions of the trainer to justify abusive methods. This is where ep. 9 comes in. Experience is a major legitimizing concept of Ash’s world (e.g., “A simulation’s one thing, but this is real”). If you can say that you yourself participated and met the same demands you set for your pokémon, this also supports the idea that pokémon become an extension of the trainer–we becomes one. Ash enacts this phsyically by using his own strength to pump electricity into Pikachu. With A.J., training, even harsh training, becomes a form of self-care, because a good trainer and his pokémon are a single entity and both work toward the same goal.

But other concepts take away pokémon’s individuality as well in less aggressive, ostensibly caring ways. Giselle says that “pokémon are only as strong as the trainer that raises them.” This puts the burden of responsibility (for pokémons’ safety and their prowess in battle) on the trainer but also denies that pokémon have active agency, ability, and desire apart from their trainer. Again we find that we collapses into one, with the trainer being the central element in the equation. It’s couched here in terms that take blame off of the pokémon, so it seems well-intentioned; but again, it denies that pokémon have the ability to really, autonomously share and participate in (or resist) battling culture.

BUT, have hope– Pikachu undermines this discourse with the simple fact of his own pudgy body. Yes, though some have said Pikachu is an unremarkable mascot for the franchise,4 Pikachu here earns his place as the only pokémon my mother can recognize by name.

imagePikachu is able to refuse a battle in ep. 8 because he rejects the pokéball and can’t be de/rematerialized at will by Ash. Pikachu is motivated by self-preservation as much as loyalty to (or fear of) his trainer. Pair his healthy fear of pain with his ability to improvise against Giselle’s cubone (reversing cubone’s skull mask and throwing the bone back for a knock out) and we find the “pokémon are an extension of the trainer” a difficult position to maintain. Misty draws attention to this when she points out that it wasn’t Ash’s skill that won the battle against Giselle. Even then, though, she calls it “just kind of a fluke.” Pikachu’s own role in the victory is ignored because the discourse of training insists that trainers battle and win, not pokémon. Misty’s conclusion is that if Ash’s (lack of) directions didn’t win the battle, it must’ve been an accident.

Ash’s inexperience makes Pikachu’s improvisation possible. A.J., in contrast, wouldn’t tolerate Pikachu’s kind of behavior even from his bff Sandshrew, no matter how much he actually cares. Ash’s inability to master others is exciting and positive because Pikachu’s undirected victory creates cracks in the discourse and opens up potential for change and negotiation with the ideas that dominate Kanto culture and reduce pokémon to the role of tools. I just wish that Ash would start to realize this, really question the discourse directly and actually take his own path.

1. Iara Lessa summarizes Foucault’s definition of discourse as “systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak.” It’s important to note, too, that discourse is never dominating; there are always places where it is in conflict with competing discourses and ideas. Discourse is also not from any one, hegemonic source, but is instead a pervasive cultural approach created by socioeconomic, historical, and religious influences all in cooperation or tension with each other. An emergent property of a culture, maybe? Whatever. Back to the pocket monsters.

2. We also learn that they have a concept of “levels” in Kanto, just like the video games. This has to be difficult— I suppose it’s like the breed standards for show dogs? If the pokémon can perform certain “tricks,” as one student calls them, they’re counted as being a certain level? But it would be so subjective; it’s not like a pokémon earns a quantifiable number of exp. points in a battle, so… yikes. The League must need loads of by-laws and spreadsheets and style guides to keep track of these things, and maybe some actual level tests, maybe like a skill-scalable obstacle course but geared for different species and types… Someone’s full-time job must be League Inspector or Judge, and the regulation committee meetings must be endless nightmares. Also, would gym leaders announce their pokémons’ level on the sign? Do they use pokémon fitted to the level of the challenging trainer? Brock was able to judge Pikachu’s strength at a glance back when he first met Ash, so does a gym leader have to be able to sum up the strength of any given pokémon? I kind of like that idea, actually. It would nuance the gym leaders, make them more impressive, because as of now we don’t have any idea of what it takes to be a gym leader. (Brock and Misty don’t seem to have challenged any gyms; maybe they can’t, as leaders? Point is, we don’t know why they’re especially qualified.)

3. I just realized that this moral is foreshadowed at the beginning of the episode when Brock “advertises” for “100% Cerulean Coffee.” No joke— he looks right out of the screen and gives a product plug. Referencing the more obviously manipulative discourse of “authenticity” that’s used in marketing actually draws attention to the way that the discourse of authentic training might not itself be infallible, as I’ll discuss in the second section. Happy accident or cynically genius show writers?

4. And, fun fact, clefairy was originally intended to represent the games, but Pikachu’s popularity in the anime changed everyone’s minds before they were released.

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.