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  • Topologies of Identity in Serial Experiments Lain
  • Craig Jackson (bio)

The problem or issue of human identity is a recurrent theme in anime, manga, and science fiction in general. From the dipolar identity of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the indefinite iterations of the Eternal Champion in the multiverse of Michael Moorcock, the precise nature of what constitutes a human, and the form in which that humanity is manifested, remains unsettled. The potential for human–machine interface provides an additional dimension to the problem. External memories and digital avatars allow for the possibility that a human might live in a machine.1 Conversely, biomechanical hybridization and cybernetics imply that a machine might live in us.2 This human–machine interface, in all its various forms and ramifications for human identity, is the frontier that many anime and manga series navigate. One particularly intriguing series in this vein is Serial Experiments Lain (1998).

Lain, the anime, is intriguing for its exploration of identity as a construct without a fixed or unambiguous location. As an entity, Lain, the character, is shown to simultaneously exist in many places—at home, at Cyberia, at Arisu’s, in the Wired—and in many modes—diffident, ebullient, pernicious, assertive. Eventually, however, Lain becomes aware of these simultaneous identities. And they may, indeed, be viewed as simultaneous. They need not [End Page 191] result from a split identity, in the manner of a Dr. Jekyll one moment and a Mr. Hyde the next. Nor are they necessarily mere aspects of Lain, or more precisely, incomplete parts that only in sum constitute a whole. In one of Lain’s trips to the Wired, Eiri Masami tells her, “Another you has always existed in the Wired.” 3 This is difficult for Lain to accept, however: “I’m me, right? There’s no other me but me, right?” 4 For Lain to believe otherwise would contradict the notion of a unitary localization of identity: namely, that at a specific point in time, human identity exists at a specific point in space. Identity, for Lain, needs distinct coordinates, a way to situate oneself uniquely among the grid-lines of existence: “As long as I am aware of myself, my true self is inside me.” 5

It is hard to see this statement as anything other than a spatial corollary of the cogito ergo sum, to wit: “I think, therefore I am . . . at this precise time and place.” This is Cartesian geometry applied to Cartesian philosophy, with Lain fixing her identity at the origin.

Circles in the Sky

By any measurement, the analytical geometry of René Descartes must be counted among humanity’s most enduring achievements. It is a system by which a single point, chosen arbitrarily, radiating measured orthogonal lines, suffices to coordinatize a space, turning continuous, amorphous curves and regions into discrete sets of equations. Coordinate geometry was the essential ingredient in the calculus of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, and its usage today remains undiminished by time or fashion. From the trajectories of satellites to computer-generated imagery, the influence of Cartesian geometry is pervasive.

A by-product of Descartes’s formalism, however, is the persistent, reinforced notion that all local properties of a universe may be extended globally. This notion assumes that, since any given locality may be situated within a Cartesian frame, then there must also exist a coordinate frame for the entire universe. I say “reinforced” because the notion of a universal unambiguous measurement of space relative to a solitary fixed point did not originate with Descartes. Indeed, the need for a linear ordering of our perception of the universe (and simultaneously, our position in its hierarchy) may be witnessed, for instance, in the concentric orbits of the Ptolemaic geocentric theory, developed nearly 1500 years before Descartes (Figure 1).

The cycles and epicycles of this system provide a universal order from Earth to Empyrean. It is a coordinate system for all creation.6 But while the [End Page 192] geocentric model eventually fell to heliocentrism, which in turn eventually fell to the view that the universe has no “center” whatsoever, the universal sense of certainty with respect to place that the geocentric model engendered persisted...