Digimon as Totem

Let us not fetishize technology. History is not solely determined by technological progress. Rather, any technology generates an array of potentialities, some of which will be realized and some of which will not. Those that get realized are selected by culture. For example, the means of industrial production so celebrated in capitalist societies are equally if not more celebrated by communists. Hence Diego Rivera’s celebratory Detroit murals, made in reference to the factories of Henry Ford. That the technologies of industrialism are used towards the end of replicating capitalist class structure is due to culture. Yet once a potential is actualized, it will result in a situation in which new potentials are suggested. In retrospect, it will appear as if it were inevitable. So on and so on.

It is thus not entirely nostalgic to, at times, return to the past, to look at those cultural products that anticipated the potential futures suggested by then-emerging technologies. We can return to those pasts, not in the hopes of staying there, but to excavate the discarded futures implied by our cultural products. Why did some future become actualized rather than others? What would have happened if any of those other futures did become actualized? What chance do we still have of recovering these futures?

I say this in anticipation of a topic I consider surrounded by the trap of nostalgia. This topic is Digimon.

Digimon is an example of the apparently abandoned archetype of the virtual pet. Comparable cultural products include Neopets, a website dating from before Y2K but now useless due to the 2020 death of Adobe Flash, Rumble Robots, the popular toy-line from the defunct Trendmasters, and Sony’s robotic dog Aibo. It’s easy to forget that one of the most intuitive ways of imagining AI products in the early 2000s was to envision them as companions. To understand technology in terms of the very specific image of the pet-companion is to imagine a particular relationship with technology that was abandoned with the rise of social media.

Digimon was originally a Tamagotchi-like game first released in 1997, only later dramatized and expanded into a broad franchise designed to compete with Pokemon. The video game – and all its implications with digitization and artificial intelligence – was central to Digimon. Digimon was thus born from the capitalist tendency to expand its field of exploitation ever more totally, a creative tendency that brought us such cultural products as the 7up video-game Cool Spot, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (in which the cartoon series was conceived as an advertisement for a toy-line), and SpaceJam (evolved from a 1992 Nike commercial). Citizens of postmodernity must cope with this Stockholm syndrome of identifying with that culture that was designed to exploit them ever more inventively and intimately (something for which, I will argue, Digimon is particularly suited). It is absurd that an inferior competitor to Tamagotchi had evolved to the point of legitimately investigating the relationship between affect and AI. But absurdity is inherent in the process of denaturing.

Digimon, the series, is a dramatization of the impulse to anthropomorphize those processes that led to the creation of the original Digimon game. A darker anime title to compare with Digimon is Ghost in a Shell insofar as both are interested in the consequences of automated technology achieving an agency comparable to that of humans, a will. Ghost in a Shell explores more precisely the extent to which we are implicated with technology and, thus, the challenge to identity implicit with technological progress. Digimon is much more gentle (though Digimon: Tamers is particularly heavy for a kids’ show). Suffice to say, it is amazing how easy it is to see even a simple computer program as a biological organism, something over which we express care. Something like a soul seems to emerge in automation.

Digimon seem to hover between the “real” world, where a computer program’s actions are plugged into actual systems of productions, and the dream world of concepts. Whereas Pokemon are biological, predicated as believable on the basis of evolution, Digimon exist as an amalgamation of conceptual and biological processes. This of course leads to the often absurd, visually incongruent Digivolutions of characters. What’s more, different “species” of Digimon can Digivolve into the same species, only to de-Digivolve back into their original, distinct forms. And when Digivolved, the Digimon do identify completely with their new form, sort of like Alice in Wonderland claiming “I am not entirely myself”. While the evolution of Pokemon is Aristotelian and permanent, the Digivolution of Digimon is Rhizomatic and temporary. The form of the Digimon is dictated only by a dream logic: the Digimon’s form responds to its situation. Identity is not fixed.

Digimon’s card game never took off as Pokemon’s did, and there is little competition between the video-game products (Pokemon is a Nintendo franchise, after all), but it’s almost undebatable that Digimon is the more engaging television series, at least for the first three seasons. This is perhaps because of the sense of change inherent in Digimon. Pokemon is more episodic, with serialized elements. Its formula is pretty generic, only deviating at times. Ash is our avatar, consistently encountering new Pokemon to catch as we, the viewers, encounter new products to buy. Every episode of Pokemon is a commercial for Pokemon. Digimon, however, is a psychodrama, in which the human characters explore and overcome experiences of trauma.

What is the nature of the trauma being overcome by the human characters of Digimon? What purpose do the monsters themselves play in this narrative? In general, why should we imagine technology in terms of the sort of companionship represented in Digimon?

The fundamental trauma of Digimon is the erosion of boundaries between self and other represented by the blurring of the digital and the real world. The Digimon help the humans navigate this trauma by operating as both self and other. To develop a healthy relationship with your Digimon is to develop a healthy equilibrium between self and other. We see expressed in different Digivolutions how the self’s relationship with the other can produce disturbing consequences (for example, SkullGreymon and Megidramon) or can produce the exact solution one needs (Angemon, etc). The Digimon respond to the cry of their counterparts. They are the product of that cry, of need. They are Digivolved from that primordial utterance.

The trauma of the human is something like an experience of infection: the other is in the self. There is a fundamental void in nature. One is alienated. Digimon are representatives of their partners, yet the Digimon also represents the other to the human.

It is essential here that the Digimon are partners. They are not in any way inferior or submissive to their human counterparts. It is essential to the nature of Digimon that they are customized to their human partners, as products of desire. Each Digimon is uniquely equipped to dramatize the specific human’s psyche. The Siri and Cortana approach to technology carries the implication that Digimon are slaves, that they provide limitless “free” labor, the possibility that could crystallize capitalism into its most utopian state: everyone is provided a laborer to exploit. Such a master/servant relationship is explored in the figures of Ken Ichijouji and Wormmon. Ken is here represented as the capitalist, the figure who exploits his Digimon as a source of free labor and who seeks to grow his influence such that all Digimon become his slaves. Ken does this because he does not recognize the agency of the Digimon and sees them as tools to be used, as pieces in a game. As such, he regards Digimon as idols. Rather than being iconoclastic, this allegory suggests a relationship to images that is inherently agnostic, treating idols as tools to be used in pursuit of jouissance, as having power specifically only over weaker, more susceptible beings. Of course, this is a way of avoiding the task of dealing with trauma. Ultimately, Ken’s trauma (the death of his brother) is replicated in the death of Wormmon, thus resulting in a return to the state of crisis. Digimon must be conceived as somehow retaining agency. Insofar as they have independence, they are not identical with their user.

This human trauma is innate to what Derrida refers to as the supplement in On Grammatology. The supplement always comes to fill a lack, the want, that defines humanity’s relationship to its environment. This lack is, unfortunately, produced by the supplement itself. It’s innate. The cure comes with a bit of poison, unfortunately. Thus the story of humanity here presented is a sad tale of perpetually gaining and losing equilibrium. In particular, technology develops to overcome some lack only to itself create a new condition of lack.

This drama is represented as humanity leaving the state of nature or leaving the state of adolescence, exiting the order of the mother. Thus it is fitting that the characters of Digimon are predominantly adolescents whose principal problem is that they have been teleported into a strange new world. The experience of adolescence is that of being subjected to alien forces, of navigating a world in which your identity is predetermined. This narrative is thrilling insofar as one can define oneself by cooperating and/or by rebelling. Yet to exit this narrative entirely is upsetting as it entails confronting a vacuum of meaning. The Digital World, in Digimon, is the space of conflict wherein one resists entry into the world of the real. What the Digidestined want to go back to is not exactly the “real” world, at first, but the security of childhood.

The courage to confront this vacuum, to constitute oneself as such a subject, is at the heart of Nietzsche’s work. God’s death is both the opening to boundless potential, but also a void of meaning. This is the threat that exists outside the digital world. The threat within the digital world is dissolution, that the digital world might be deleted. The series, in bouncing back and forth between “real” and “digital” emphasizes that these two spaces are not separate and that disturbing problems arise when the threat of one world manifests within the other. This threat can be described as corruption or transgression, i.e. sin.

The problems are thus: meaninglessness, death, and sin. These are problems arising from the constitution of the self, that don’t exist in the state of childhood, the order of the mother, the state of self-presence.

Digimon almost explicitly clarifies that its allegory should not be taken as naively specific to the relationship between humans and their technology. The first episode of the first season begins with references to weather changes indicative of global warming. What this suggests is that the struggle of Digimon is not merely that of children getting trapped in a digital world, something like a magic journey. Digimon deals with an exodus from a state delineated as “natural”. This catastrophe is then explained by the encroachment of the digital, or artificial, onto the “real”. The most fundamental problem of the show is obviously the adolescent’s exodus from childhood.

The problem of adolescence is project onto the image of the computer, but it might as well be projected upon industry, upon the book, or even the LP record. Technology in general reconfigures our relationships to our environments, and even a cultural product as old as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gives form to the anxiety thus produced. The personal computer, particularly when tied to the internet, pulls us all out of our pre-digital Garden of Eden perhaps more rapidly than previous technologies. But like all technology, by reconfiguring social relations, the computer challenges us to reconstitute our own identities.

As in the show, we navigate the internet via spatial and visual metaphors, all while the illusion of vision is predicated on digital intermediaries translating text into image. The internet is implicitly chimerical. The distinctions between word/image/object all tend to dissolve in this space which, while fundamentally digital, simulates the appearance of relations of affect (analog). Perhaps by being multimedia, international, and electric-fast, the computer/internet (as it has been actualized) generates new degrees of anxiety. This anxiety has been projected on the image of the self. We are now haunted by our doppelgängers, the harbingers of doom.

What we have failed to accomplish, culturally, is the creation of a buffer between our “real” and our “digital” selves. We have confused our online “persona” with ourselves. This confusion is a consequence of the specific strategies of tech companies to exploit users with increasingly intimate albeit invisible forms of surveillance. We have constituted avatars with our online activity, enacting the greatest of self-betrayals: the transformation of the self into a commodity. We treat our identities as brands (images) and compete in an online environment with other brands like goods on a market. This competition generates for free the profit enjoyed by platform providers. Only a few brand-identities actually succeed, for little other virtue than possessing the aptitude to generate attention. The presidency of Trump has manifested politically the consequences of this custom.

The Robocop franchise dramatizes the perversion of self-hood by corporate technology designed to construct a unique form of slavery. The notion that the other is forced into the self, here represented as body, is traumatizing. That one’s very being is confined to serving as a tool of the transcendent corporate being is a unique form of horror, most disturbing for its realistic compatibility with the logic of capitalism. It is the trauma of web 2.0, of the self-betrayal designed into our platforms.

There is no innate reason why we should project our own identities into this medium. The technology does not determine this sort of relationship. You are not gaining access to my intimate self via this text you currently read, only the highly regulated expression of an argument with which my self is not continuous. I am not on the internet. Unfortunately, my image is. And my image is not always my ally. We experience a sort of automatic self-betrayal in the form of cultural production, like the protagonist of the fairytale The Red Shoes, forced to dance until she cannot bear it.

The metaphor we’ve been using to navigate the internet (which is really nothing but the radical pervasiveness and acceleration of communication such that our psycho-social landscape is made concrete) is derived from The Matrix. Residual self-image as the actor projected into the system. The actor looks like me and thus is confused with me. So reassured were the Wachowski sisters that they were speaking the language of post-modern critique that they interjected an image of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation into the film. Despite this, there is much in The Matrix that validates the logic of the systems of power it purports to condemn.

In Digimon, the real and the Digital world are both treated as continuous, and the narrative only becomes more interesting with the return to the real. The Matrix, however, creates an exceeding bleak real world that becomes narratively uninteresting. It has the bizarre effect of making the captivity of the Matrix attractive, which is explored in The Matrix’s most interesting character: Cypher. Yet Cypher is treated with little sympathy and is presented primarily as a villain, as an object of disdain, before his story is cut. This possibility of jouissance is later touched upon in the Animatrix episode titled Beyond to a more interesting effect. In the original movies, and especially in the sequels, one is never really convinced that one’s real image could ever be as enjoyable as one’s residual self-image, and the principal justification for the actions of the characters is an innate desire for truth and freedom, represented by the real. See how the real in The Matrix is itself just a symbol for desire? The pervading motivation of The Matrix is presented as choice, but here, as on our currently popular social media, choice feels a lot like duty. Neo never feels free, despite all pretenses.

Despite what the movie may say about the evil of the Matrix, there is no doubt that the hyperreal Neo, the residual self-image, is that Neo who is awarded agency, who is treated as real in the images on the screen. When Neo’s identity is consolidated (“My name is Neo”) it is consolidated in the Matrix. The bit about Trinity and love and all of that comes across as entirely secondary and aimless, but even insofar as it is of importance, its importance is expressed in the Matrix. The sequels weakly try to address this problem. The Matrix perpetuates a cultural virus stemming from Plato. This fantasy of the more real Real and the transcendent self, the knower who sees versus his or her peers who are deceived, is the same one we find ourselves playing online, though we may question if we do so by choice. The allegory of the cave is such a potent meme just because it looks pretty, not because it is true.

We never needed to project ourselves onto the internet. We need not identify entirely with our online “other”. It is more healthy to act within the digital environment via an intermediary, a self/other hybrid. A Digimon.

It’s a funny comparison, but Neopets and Facebook are not too principally different. An image is uploaded to the internet and some text is associated with that image to give it context. We develop relationships with these images even though they have no intelligence. The power of the image comes from its capacity to survive in the imagination of the beholder. But the image of Neopets is evidently fantastic and other, whereas the image on Facebook appears real and self. The reason the companion archetype died in the early 2000s is that it was more financially beneficial to platform builders to stimulate in users the sort of affect one feels towards one’s self rather than towards one’s companion. We competed harder and thus produced more when we became convinced we were, ourselves, in the digital world, alone against a sea of competitors.

Digimon, digital companions, help their humans navigate this social space. Digimon are like stuffed animals in their most basic forms, (something self consciously reflected on several times, particularly in Tamers with Terriermon being treated like a stuffed animal by Suzie Wong). They are transition objects. The transition object eases the subject’s separation from his or her mother-figure by representing the mother, by supplementing her absence. Thus the object eases the subject into a stage of independence.

The Digimon companions protect their humans. This is because the Digimon are totems, in WJT Mitchell’s sense of the term. Mitchell’s totems are contrasted with fetishes and idols, both of which exhibit duplicitous relationships with their viewers. He clarifies that in a state of hyperreality, images have “replaced the production of hard commodities in the vanguard of advanced capitalist economies,” (Iconology, 202) thus clarifying his focus on fetish, idol, and totem as image. Here, he acknowledges Baudrillard’s formulation of simulacra.

Mitchell struggles with Baudrillard’s extremism in regards to the irredeemability of images emerging from capitalist media. The idol or the fetish, for iconoclasts (including Marxists), are threatening because they harbor the potential to take power from their viewers, to “appropriate voice” (Iconology, 151) or rather, I’d argue, to appropriate the viewer’s (re)productive capacities. Thus images have agency, like malicious spirits or viruses, particularly the agency to invade the “real” world. Mitchell holds an open position towards the possibility that such image/objects might have “both an authentic and inauthentic function for their users” (Iconology, 203) suggesting that the culture of capitalism can itself be appropriated. It parallels the ideas of Michel de Certeau, which reward agency to those people often treated as passive in Marxist cultural criticism.

What the idol or the fetish transforms into when appropriated, implied by Mitchell but not stated, is the totem. The totem as a means to situate the subject culturally while protecting the subject from the ideology buried within capitalist culture. The totem as the means to navigate the inherently transgressive nature of the supplement, as a means of coping with the inevitability of the fall. Mitchell describes his method of exploring the fruitful dialectics between Marxism and capitalist aesthetics as “dialectical pluralism”, referring to the “two models of dialogue” of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as the best illustration (Iconology, 207). This reference heavily implies the process of nature denaturing itself, described by Derrida.

Mitchell is thus attempting to resolve the problem of the supplement, the lack embedded in presence and the outside embedded in the inside, avoiding the iconoclasm implied by Marx. He recognizes that a return to “nature”, or the destruction of capitalist media advocated by Baudrillard is a perilous maneuver because it entails the sort of zealotry implicit in iconoclasm. It attempts to repress the spirits rather than to enter into a negotiation, and it is doomed to failure.

The totem is Mitchell’s attempt to counter Baudrillard with a potential, a tactic (in de Certeau’s sense of the term) latent within the new state of nature brought about by capitalism. The totem is an image that mediates negotiations, it is a good spirit that mitigates trauma. Mitchell seems to differentiate the totem from the “aesthetic objects” that tend to “cloister themselves in the enclave of aesthetic ‘purity’” (Iconology, 158), however, it is suggested that the attitude of the viewer, a “willingness to contemplate the ‘impure’ image” (Iconology, 158) is that which prevents the aesthetic object from such cloistering.

Mitchell literally refers to the totem as a “companionable form” that “elides the distinction between natural and conventional signification”(Iconology, 158). Mitchells own examples of totems are diverse, but summed up as “pictures that reflect on the nature of images” arising “whenever the nature of images becomes linked with an account of the nature of man” (Iconology, 158). That Digimon can meet their human counterparts in either world, that they can aid their counterparts in navigating the affect produced by transgression, by the crossing of worlds, that Digimon can appear as good or evil, and that Digimon require a reciprocal relationship with their partners all seem to suggest that the Digimon is the realization of Mitchell’s totem.

Mitchell claims that totems have something like a life-span, that once the play of the supplement becomes resolved into a new state of nature, the totem becomes reified, like an idol. He suggests that the work of iconology is to “breathe new life into dead metaphors” (Iconology, 158-159), but I question if there is not ultimately a limit to the totem’s capacity to revive. A fallen Digimon can, of course, revive, but only insofar as its death was the cause of a fresh trauma. When the crisis for which the totem comes into being is resolved, the Rubicon has been crossed. One’s childhood is over. And it’s alright.

Dealing with trauma (rather than resolving it) is both difficult and thrilling because doing so constitutes us as characters with defined identities within a narrative that suggests purpose. But to attempt to perpetuate the lifespan of your totem is to fetishize it, thus transforming it into something that can appropriate your voice. This is the threat of nostalgia. Wim Wenders explores this threat at length in his director’s cut of Until the End of the World, where once vivid and charming characters are reduced to a pathetic, seemingly inescapable state of narcissism upon being exposed to recordings of their own dreams.

Every season of Digimon ends in a feeling of saudade, bittersweetness. The last episode of the first season is devoted almost exclusively to the characters’ experience of this feeling. What occurs in the last episode of Digimon is an experience of saudade because in resolving the character’s trauma, the relationship with the Totem, the Digimon, the self/other, dissolves. The relations between all the characters dissolve as they are now equipped to enter adulthood.

Spike Jonze’s Her also explores the totem in the form of an AI assistant. Theodore falls deeply in love with his AI Samantha, and there are portions of the film that do address the transgressive nature of this relationship. But overall, the relationship is not presented as too wild, not too disconcerting in the context of the film’s world. A large portion of the film focuses more on the normality of the relationship, the sorts of struggles, compromises, and thrills characteristic of genuine romantic companionship. This makes the film all the more moving as it builds to its crescendo: Samantha leaving Theodore. Her, too, ends in a feeling of profound saudade, as the resolution of the crisis (Theodore’s traumatic divorce) entails the dissolving of a relationship. The feeling of saudade is beautifully expressed in the dialogue:

Theodore: I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved you.

Samantha: Me too. Now we know how.”

In knowing how to love, we are made capable of surviving in a new state of nature. Conditions that were once frightening, that appeared as monstrous, are finally made mundane. It’s finally, ultimately, okay.