“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.

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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?

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.

image

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