The Function of the Pokémon Center

Today we’re talking about the weird space of the Pokémon Center! Although ostensibly a place that works to heal the damage done to pokémon bodies in battle, what does it mean that the PC actually enables continued battling? What indications are there of state control? What sort of social interaction occurs in a PC?

Free healthcare (because they use unpaid labor?)

Pokémon Centers not only provide free healthcare but also free food and lodging for traveling trainers. This implies either some sort of state involvement or subsidy or funding from the Pokémon League. It’s easy to see why–free healthcare allows more trainers to participate in the money-generating battle circuit. I’m imagespeculating that the PC’s only cost is supplies, since labor is probably free; the Nurse Joys are probably clones engineered for work in the PCs and probably aren’t paid (or at least not very much). The Joys are assisted by pokémon (usually, in Kanto, chansies), and since pokémon have no legal rights they’re most likely considered service animals who are authorized to administer medicine.

PCs allow the govt. and/or League to shape the culture of battling, because Nurse Joys enforce certain rules and manage the movement of trainers. For example, when Ash and Brock clash with a trainer who abandoned his charmander in ep. 1.11, Nurse Joy intervenes: “You know the rules— pokémon are never to be used in personal fights. It’s disrespectful to the pokémon and their trainers!” Here Joy enforces not only the way trainers use their ‘mon but also how they think about that use–i.e., she shapes the discourse of battling. Battling is codified not only by League rules but also by personal codes of honor and self-discipline. This sanitizes the practice of blood sports–implying that battling isn’t self-serving but a respectful art or interaction–in ways not dissimilar to the bullshit ideas of art, respect, and bravery that get trotted out by fans of bullfights.

There’s also an 11 p.m. curfew for trainers who sleep in the PC. When Ash tries to dash out of a PC before curfew back in 1.20, Nurse Joy scolds him about his health. Add this to the way that the Joys tell each other about trainers they encounter, so that a few mention that they’ve heard of Ash from their cousin/sister/whatever in another city–they’re less like Big Brother and more like Big Mother, overseeing the movement and health of trainers. Any battling trainer must visit the center, ensuring that nearly all trainers are influenced by the PCs. The Joys, and by extension all Pokémon Centers, enforce League rules, regulate the health of non-humans and the movements of their human trainers, and shape the discourse of battling. It would be interesting to know who controls the centers, the government or the ambiguous but presumably private League, and therefore who is exerting the forms of control exercised by/in the PCs.

Aesthetics

Okay, so if we buy into the idea that the PC is essentially a space in which control is exerted over trainers and their ‘mon and the economic system of battling as a whole, what does it mean that the PCs consistently blend into their surroundings? Unlike gyms, in which the leaders showcase control over a specific environment and the ‘mon that live in them, PCs blend in and aren’t uniform (well, apart from the cloned healthcare professionals and their standard issue chansy).

Again, working off the assumption that PCs are centers of control, maybe it’s another way Kanto hides/makes invisible mechanisms of environmental control. We rarely see power generators or urban centers. Much of Kanto is populated sparsely, if at all, and somehow the necessary highways, power generators, and waste treatment plants are hidden. Outside of Gringey City, most of these apparatuses of power are invisible. The PC, Beachfront PCby blending in with local architectural aesthetics, also hides its status as a mechanism of external control. This is potentially more sinister than, say, a brutalist architectural design in that it’s harder for Ash and co. to realize the way the PC supports a problematic system. However, I’m willing to let this slide, because I’m just really delighted by the beach-house style PC. It’s adorable and I love it.

As a social space

There isn’t as much to say about the social space of the center, because percentage-wise the characters don’t spend a lot of time there. It’s clear, though, that different socioeconomic classes encounter one another in the PCs, because fairly often, only Ash, Brock, and Misty have to sleep over at a center and they’re the only ones there. Presumably the other trainers we see in a PC during the day have the money to pay for lodgings. This is a big point in PCs’ favor, since they seem to legitimately offer poorer trainers like Ash opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. 

Final note

Nerd that I am, I would very much like to know who controls PCs. The League obviously profits from battling and branding. The trainers who battle essentially work to generate revenue for the League by battling, maintaining the battling fanbase that keeps the industry of poképrodcuts™ going. Sure, free healthcare is great, but Ash doesn’t seem to be making money from battling, even though trainers like him are a big part of the system that generates the League’s profits. Like, okay, I know the show isn’t going to give us figures for revenue generated, but I wish the technical aspects of the League came up more. Who is profiting and how, and what they do to keep those profits coming in, would be helpful in our attempt to think about how the PC functions in a specifically economic context.

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Different spaces

It’s been an ongoing preoccupation to figure out how Kanto manages its land so that pokémon can be easily caught yet also live in a semi-wild space. Here’s a summary of the  notable, exceptional types of non-urban spaces I’ve encountered in the show as of episode 1.34. Ready for some summary of facts and speculations about what they might mean and frequent wistful statements about how it’d be nice to know more?

Mt. Moon

Ep. 1.6. Mt. Moon accessible but challenging to navigate. There aren’t any official restrictions regarding catching the pokémon that live there, but Seymour stops Ash from trying for a clefairy because the Mt. Moon ecosystem is not only delicate, supporting pokémon found nowhere else but also recently disturbed by a Team Rocket scheme. Honestly, this place should probably be a protected national park. Does the fact that it isn’t speak more to the fact that whoever runs Kanto doesn’t care, or does it indicate instead that not many trainers choose to take that difficult trek over the mountain, at least not on foot? One would speak to the culture of Kanto as a whole while the other would speak to Ash’s own choice as a trainer.

Ep. 1.10, Melanie’s Rehabilitation Clinic

Ep. 1.10. Hidden away in the forest, there are no official regulations or recognition here, either, but Melanie and Bulbasaur keep trainers away so that it’s a de facto wildlife sanctuary. The village shows that it’s possible to carve out a small safe space even in unprotected land, but not possible to hide so well that you can’t be found by determined pre-teens and villains with flying stadiums.

Ep. 1.31, Diglett Terraces

imageI haven’t written about this episode on the main blog yet, although I did a speculative post on the tumblr. In this episode the group encounters a dam construction project that is being literally undermined by mole-like digletts and dugtrios. In response to the destruction of their territory they’ve been digging terraces on the clear-cut mountain side and planting trees, as well as wrecking construction vehicles. The gang realizes how significant the digletts’/dugtrios’ role is:

Brock: Diglett plow the ground and Dugtrio plants the trees! And not just here. . . Probably all the forests in the entire world are–

Misty: Beautiful gardens made by these little guys!

Terrace agriculture has (in the real world) been used around valley rivers, to prevent soil erosion and the soil from drifting down into the river and lowering the water quality. Presumably the diglett, who are basically impossible to get rid of, are doing the same, either because they have a sophisticated understanding of agriculture or because it’s a somehow instinctual, beneficial behavior.

This space isn’t legally protected, but in the end the dam project comes to a stop because the project leader finds compassion and also because the digletts are practically unstoppable. Even the pokémon owned by human trainers refuse to fight the digletts/dugtrios because all pokémon are, deep down, back-to-earth activists who oppose large-scale land development. This is a space managed and protected solely by non-humans, not inaccessible but certainly not under full human control. However, the fact that the dam project was approved in the first place indicates a cultural disregard for the life and territory of non-human persons. 1 It shows us the ugly cost of the managed, pretty faux-wilderness that the people in this world take for granted.

Ep. 1.33, Laramie Ranch

image

Lara rides a unicorn with a mane made out of fire and when she first sees Ash, she and her flame-icorn almost kick his head in. She’s pretty bad ass, honestly.

This is the first protected land we see. The Big P Pokémon Ranch is owned by the well-known Laramie family and is a private reserve protected for commercial purposes. Pokémon from the Laramie ranch are highly sought after. The heiress of the Laramie family, Lara Laramie herself, explains the ranch’s methods in a bad Forrest Gump accent: “This whole area’s a pokémon reserve. … It’s a place where it’s against the law to capture pokémon so they can grow up here naturally.” Brock says he’s heard of it as “The place where they raise lots of pokémon in the wild.”

First, the ranch gives us the most explicit evidence that battling pokémon are raised and sold to trainers, not only caught by travelers.

What’s weird is, how can ranch-raised ‘mon be “growing up naturally?” How is this “the wild?” Look at all those pokémon imagegathering around human trainers/feeders. Wild can’t mean “not cared for.” Maybe by “wild” they mean “not in pokéballs,” i.e., uncaught, unclaimed, not permanently owned. Ranch-raised pokémon are still “wild,” because wild simply means “not-yet-claimed.”

“The wild” was a concept I addressed when it came up in episode 10 and Melanie said pokémon belong “in the wild.” When she said it, she meant that the pokémon she cared for should eventually leave her. Maybe the pokémon and the Big P ranch sleep out in the fields? The pokémon on the ranch have greater freedom (and hardship, presumably?) than ‘mon who live inside a ball.

Ep. 1.34, the National Pokémon Reserve

by Marinko Milosevski, found at Marinkoillustration.com

Here the gang is looking for the Safari Zone “where wild pokemon run free, just waiting to be captured.” How this differs, exactly, from the rest of the places they’ve been on their journey, I don’t know, except that maybe it’s a place where the ‘mon are easier to catch?

Regardless, they come to a place teeming with rare and exotic pokémon. This place, though, turns out to be a protected public parkland contiguous with the Laramie ranch. 2  As soon as Ash exclaims (with a look of unbridle avarice), “Let’s start catchin’ ’em,” a cop disguised as a chancy leaps from a bush, brandishing a shotgun. Officer Jenny explains that  they’ve wandered into  “a national pokémon preservation area. It’s here for the raising and protectionimage of pokémon.” Finally we have a place set aside for pokémon. But that’s all we really get. No reason why, no explanation. Do some species of ‘mon need this protection especially, or is it a more general attempt to relieve the pressure on the reserve of valuable bodies?

Regardless, these spaces have all raised questions. I’m particularly interested in publicly protected land and land under development, and I’m hoping we get more about those kind of spaces eventually.

1. To be fair, we get a really dark vision of what will happen if the dam project continues. Namely: image  and also image

2. Which raises, for me, a lot of questions. Does the Laramie ranch  use public parkland? Do they pay the government for grazing rights? If so, how much? Alternately, are there govt. subsidies for raising ‘mon? So many questions!

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.

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?

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.

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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?

Some speculation on Kanto’s environmental management

A quick word before we begin– Recently on Tumblr there’s been a fantastic explosion of art that imagines cross-bred pokémon with characteristics of both parents. Some even imagine what sort of ecosystem would lead to such cross-breeds. It’s exactly the sort of thinking that prompted this blog, and it’s all beautiful, so even if you don’t follow Pokécology’s Tumblr, the art is worth looking at.


Okay, now to business! At this point, I feel like I’ve seen enough of the show to start thinking about how it presents space/environment. By the end, I want to consider the possibility that all of Kanto is basically a huge, Hunger Games type arena.1 

Also, a final note on terminology [tangent warning]— I use the term “environment” as a shorthand, but I don’t love it. It’s a single, monolithic and reductive concept. “The environment” and “nature” are human concepts, flexible and deployed in different ways but always, inescapably a simplification of what they claim to label. When I say environment, what I mean is really the interaction of living things with each other and their nonliving surroundings. “The environment” is a complex, restless, explosively irreducible web of interactions. What really defines a place or a region or a biome are those interactions between living things and the place they live. That is, “the environment” is nothing more than interconnected ecosystems. Place is not really what we mean when we say “environment,” but rather what happens in that place. So when I talk about control over “environment,” what I mean is control over those things that live there and how they interact. Make sense? Good! Now down to business.

Environments encountered, environments simulated; or, Squirtles all the way down? 

The first character to indicate that, yeah, maybe just catching creatures willy nilly in your relentless lust for bloodsports is maybe not environmentally responsible behavior?

To get from Viridian to Pewter Ash and Misty follow an unpaved road and then pass through/around Mt. Moon as they go to Cerulean, meeting the delightful Seymour the Scientist. 2 It’s rough going in place– rope bridges and footpaths. Is all of this undeveloped space left alone to be huge wildlife corridors or parks?  We have no indication that there is any regulation of what pokémon can be caught or where, so it isn’t strictly regulated. Eventually I think we see Pokémon Rangers, but here and now Ash is free to roam and potentially disrupt any ecosystem he enters, so maybe it’s more like a game reserve?

At this point, it really struck me that the vast tracts of undeveloped land in a world technologically advanced enough to have pokéballs, teleporters, and free health/law enforcement run by clones have to be intentional.

Brad O’Farrell writes in his article about the similarities between Kanto (and other regions) and real places. All of Kanto, he says, is based on Tokyo, but with some significant differences:

[Kanto’s] map isn’t based on present-day Tokyo, it’s based on the pre-sprawl Tokyo of the 1960s. The towns that are connected by forests and rivers in the Pokemon world are connected by concrete and bullet trains in our world. The fantasy of this world is not just that humans and Pokemon live side by side, but that the golden age of Japan never ended. This world is in a state of tranquility while its real-life counterpart was in a state of upheaval.

Is it that Kanto represents a pre-development glory or a far-future or alternate development? We know that there are terrifyingly powerful kinds of tech. in Ash’s world, and Cerulean City is definitely an urban hub, albeit a smallish one. Large population centers require power, waste disposal, water treatment; so where is the visible infrastructure? All I can think is that Kanto’s technology is so advanced that control over the environment is made invisible. The tech. is so advanced that it can recreate the rivers, forests, mountains that connect cities while still enabling large urban centers to exist.

They’re all just magikarps in a tank. Metaphorically speaking.

Just as pokémon are mediated by merchandise and television, I think that even the environment of Kanto might be all mediation, just squirtles all the way down. There’s no “real” wilderness left. Kanto isn’t a past golden age that never ended, it’s so post-tech-explosion that they’ve recreated wilderness-like spaces. There’s support for this theory in the (mostly) well-maintained footpaths that go through the areas Ash travels. This isn’t wilderness at all but managed space, cultivated for pokémon, yes, but also for traveling trainers. This would make all of Kanto a vast, Hunger Games-style arena that supports/enables the industry and culture of pokémon training. While such tracts of land allow more space for pokémon to live, they also serve as a way to maintain breeding populations of pokémon for trainers to battle and catch. No area is undisturbed– human populations may be clustered and concentrated in the urban spaces, but trainers still have access even to the fragile ecosystem of Mt. Moon.

Art by ChuzOr

Think, too, about the kind of spaces we’ve seen in the two gyms. Brock has an entire boulder field he can conceal or conjure at will. Even more sophisticated and elaborate is the aquarium in the Cerulean Gym. (Question: Do the swim performances happen in the same water that the coral and fish live in? Because that would neither be responsible fish care nor sanitary pool conditions.)

That this ability to recreate and control environments takes place in gyms, places that best exemplify control over pokémon, might support the theory that gyms are no more than miniature recreations of the way Kanto is, as a whole, recreated and managed space. In the gyms the ability to recreate the environment (and sometimes, as in Pewter’s gym, hide it away until needed) is casually celebrated, part of both the aesthetic and the gym’s unique challenge at once.

Another piece of evidence to support the theory is the way that Ash and company take for granted that traveling on foot through a bug-strewn Viridian forest is as legitimate a way to go from place to place as Gary leaving Pallet by car. We don’t get any sense of a wilderness/civilization opposition, no nature/culture tension. It seems to be taken for granted that these spaces are meant to be accessible. So is environmental control made invisible not only physically but also conceptually? Maybe they don’t ever talk about “the environment” or address a nature/culture opposition because, in their society, there isn’t one. This can be a powerful thing– our own, real-world insistence that there is such a thing as “the environment” or “nature” allows us to abstract what is actually immeasurably complex. It allows us to think of our nonhuman neighbors, the trees behind our house, the thousands of small communities hidden in lichen and canopy, the unseen clusters of barnacles on a harbor piling, the melting sea ice, the networks of mycelium that connect fungus and forest, as one single thing to be managed and legislated.

Still, the fact that humans’ effects on the environment are invisible creates the potential for any harm done by the infrastructure that must exist to be more easily ignored. Also, if humans are actively managing and controlling what appears to us as “wilderness,” it makes Kanto’s seemingly pristine forests and mountains into an arena. It would be a representation of what space “should be”– a mediation not unlike the way the ‘dex feeds Ash information that is clearly biased. Ash and co. might take this accessible wilderness for granted because they have no conception of space that isn’t created and controlled by humans.

1. Not to undermine that chilling statement’s Very Serious Tone, but a quick look on fanfiction.net reveals about 35 crossovers of Hunger Games Pokémon, a mashup that I think would work better than the fanfic I googled up the other day in which Prof. Oak teaches “Pokémon ed” at Hogwarts during Harry’s second year. That said, Snape teaching pokémon potions is legitimately delightful and works really well in this other one I found so, props Mr. Chaos, 10 points to Pidgeyclaw. HuffleJigglypuff? 

2. Seymour legitimately cares about Mt. Moon and the very rare, enigmatic clefairy. He ends up staying there to live with them. (I’m guessing he means like extended field work. The Dian Fossey of Mt. Moon.) He also stops Ash from trying to catch them, gently indicating that it would be best for the (possibly sole remaining) population of clefairy to remain undisturbed. He also has no pokémon and is the character who most obviously sees the ecosystem and its inhabitants as valuable in themselves. So there are environmentalists in this world! Although I don’t think we’ll meet him again, I really, really like Seymour and his ridiculous rhymes. We would most definitely be friends.