Assorted notes and queries

Time to ponder out a few aspects of the pokéverse. Today I update, clarify, and introduce a few small, random speculations about the culture, inhabitants, and governance of Kanto. Each section is standalone, so this post is long but made of individual sections. Bite-sized, like poképuffs! Pick and choose what you like! Also, if you have questions, comments, corrections, or theories of your own and you feel like sharing, leave a comment or contact me on tumblr.

Aggression against humans

Way, way back I suggested that wild pokémon would attack trained and captive ones not out of jealousy, but because they recognized that humans were only as threatening as the pokémon that accompany them. I flagged this theory, imagespeculating that wild pokémon might not attack humans very often because their behavior had been conditioned from years of being sought and caught.

There are various ways in which this theory is disproved, but “Primeape Goes Bananas” (ep. 1.25) most conclusively shows us that wild pokémon do, indeed, attack humans. Mankey and its evolved form, primeape, are basically a cross between a cotton ball and a baboon. Both are known for being particularly aggressive, so it may be an outlier, but other pokémon–a gyarados, zubats, even the ghosts–explicitly attack humans, not just their pokémon. Pokémon behavior, then, varies widely and includes aggression against humans as well as their trained ‘mon.

Pokémon language

In ep. 1.17 we spend a lot of time with just the pokémon characters. They’ve been separated from their trainers, so they spend a lot of time talking to each other in their poké-speak. We get subtitles of what they’re saying. Most of it is normal conversations, although Ekans and Koffing, Team Rocket ‘mon, speak in ways that are coded as less Photo 2015-05-29, 2 34 10 AMintelligent (3rd person, no pronouns, etc.). Keep in mind that they’re all speaking using only the syllables that make up their species name–sucks to be, like, a spheal and have only one syllable. The fact that they can articulate complex ideas leads me to conclude that poké-speak is 1, excessively tonal in ways that we can’t always hear with our human ears, or 2, not only verbal but also somatic. That is, many animals use non-verbal communication like scent, posture, movement patterns, and colors to communicate (often complex) ideas or information. Elephants use sound, but it’s sound pitched at frequencies humans can’t hear. Pokémon may use any and all of these methods to supplement their rudimentary syllabic abilities.

There’s support for some non-verbal element in that Meowth can communicate with other pokémon, but even Ash, who understands most of his pokémon, does so with less complexity than Meowth. If scent or subtle body language are in play, it might explain why Meowth can comprehend poké-speak better than any human.

Finally, on a somewhat tangential note–the fact that pokémon can communicate with varying degrees of sophistication is taken for granted by the characters. I do think that Pikachu is more intelligent than other species–say, caterpie or magikarp. But even insectoid Butterfree had an undeniably complex personality. For, you know, a bug. All pokémon are persons and are seen as such, even if they aren’t legally protected from being caught and trained as bloodsport entertainers.

State oversight 

Back in 1.20, “Maiden’s Peak,” we discover that Pokémon Centers have curfews, strictly enforced by Nurse Joy and by a metal shutter that closes off the PC after a certain time (I want to say 11 pm?). Seeing the metal shutter descend, Ash tries to leave–Brock is still out there, staring at the rock/statue of the ghostly Maiden–but Nurse Joyce stops him, scolding him about his “bedtime,” and Ash can’t go rescue Brock.

The way Joy actively prevents Ash from leaving makes me think that the Joys aren’t just healthcare drones but also surveillance, a way to oversee and gently manage the large population of trainers. The free healthcare and overnights for traveling youngsters keeps them safe, sure, but I’ve already noticed and noted how the Nurse Joys pass on information to each other about trainers that pass through their Centers. The takeaway is that the Joys perform certain disciplinary and surveillance functions, managing not only the health of pokémon but also the activities of humans. It’s not necessarily sinister, but in light of the rather authoritarian “curfew” it’s not unproblematic, either.

Ghosts again

Speaking of ghosts, I want to more clearly articulate the difference between real-world ghosts and ghosts in Kanto. In our world, ghosts are fragments of the past with unfinished business. The fear is that the past will burst into the present again. We in the West are afraid of the past, of what we’ve done or don’t know what to do with. In Kanto/the pokéverse, though, ghosts represent an opposite movement. Ghosts move from the present into parts of the past that are supposedly stable, familiar, traditional. Slapstick and the local legend of the ghostly Maiden are reawakened and use by ghosts in unfamiliar, scary, dangerous ways. This may be a contrast between Western and Japanese cultures–although this is speculation based on no formal research, my sense is that a lot of Japanese narratives are about how tradition survives in a quickly changing present. Regardless of the real-world source, in the pokéverse ghosts (dis)embody the way the present can reawaken and defamiliarize a seemingly stable past.

Oak’s lab

Oak’s lab is the coolest. We get a very brief look inside in ep. 1.25, so let’s break it down. image

Apart from being idyllically built on top of a wooded hill, backed by forests and mountains, there’s a wind turbine! This makes a lot of sense–I’m guessing that a lot of the energy in Kanto is produced in ways that are more easily integrated into the environment. I talked about Kanto being a dystopia, but there are some positive aspects of god-like technology and imageenvironmental control.

imageNext we get some closer views–here’s Oak meditating. Behind him is a pond, the same pond as in the second picture. It’s home to many pokémon, whom Oak presumably studies. This study of captive ‘mon aligns with Oak’s fairly sedentary research. Still, he seems to have a breeding population of the poliwag line (their second-stage evolution, poliwhirl, is peeking out from behind the rock), which means that they must not be too unhappy.

I was prepared to think more favorably of Oak because of all of this set-up. But then, during his meditation, the phone rings. Oak doesn’t move or even react. Then Krabby appears next to him holding a portable videophone. People, Oak has trained Ash’s krabby to be his phone butler.

imageApart from being exploitative of our crustacean-like friend, it crosses an in-world cultural line, and speaks to Oak’s character, albeit obliquely. Back in episode 11 when the gang encounters an abandoned charmander, they’re very uncomfortable about this pokémon who isn’t wild but is seemingly unattached. Although they want to help, they conclude that it would be best if its trainer cared for it. They go back for it eventually, but it’s clear that people prefer to leave other trainers’ pokémon alone if possible. It’s probably related to the pervasive paradigm of ownership–that is, trainers tend to see pokémon as either owned or things that can and will someday be owned, and have trouble talking about pokémon in any other way. Finding a pokémon who is owned but not cared for may trouble this, undermining their faith in the essential goodness of training culture. They don’t like it and aren’t sure how to handle it, and part of the solution is not interfering with others’ ‘mon and thereby culturally honoring the responsibilities and the power of ownership.

Part of Oak’s job is caring for pokémon over the six-per person limit, and allowing Krabby to roam around is sweet–yay, Krabby gets exercise! But Oak training Krabby to be his butler crosses a line. He’s interfering with another trainer’s pokémon, which we know is a no-no. Oak acts trangressively because he can–he works from a position of privilege and control, above the rest of Pallet Town (literally, up on that hill) and most of society as a whole. Oak is, in the end, still a total butt.

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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.

image

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?

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

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

Why shouldn’t you catch sick pokémon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Paradigm of Ownership

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

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

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

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What a cute little object!

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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