Psycho-Pass: Understanding Structural Violence
Airing in October of 2012, directed by Naoyoshi Shiotani and written by Gen Urobuchi, Psycho-Pass has received continuous praise for its psychological and technological exploration of a young dystopian society. The story takes place in Japan, which has adopted a state of isolationism from the rest of the world in favor of an authoritarian regime. However, the government is not comprised of people: Japan now relies on an intricate technological overlord known as the Sibyl System, which operates through an omnipresent system of cameras and sensors in order to monitor the entire population of Japan. This article will explore the various themes of structural and necroviolence presented throughout the series, as well as the issues of a smothered or entirely usurped sense of humanity in the world of Psycho-Pass through the lens of thinkers such as Hegel, Foucault, Nietzsche, and Caillois.
Taking place in a dystopian authoritarian society, Psycho-Pass offers an interesting variety of themes related to structural violence. One of the most integral aspects of the plot- the Sibyl System- is the source of most all of the structural violence that takes place within the series. Operating as the new mode of governance in this future authoritarian dystopia, Japan has achieved a “peaceful” society by sacrificing human agency in favor of a technological dictator called the Sibyl System. The Sibyl System is fully integrated into Japan’s social sphere, and uses a panoptical collection of cameras and sensors placed all over the cities in order to monitor citizens’ psycho-passes. A person’s ‘psycho-pass’, which is the series’ namesake, is a twofold system of measurement that includes a person’s ‘hue’, or overall psychological state, as well as a ‘crime coefficient’, which is indicative of how criminally inclined an individual is. In this way, Sibyl not only controls how individuals think and behave, but also dictates how they live their lives. Specifically, Sibyl is in charge of assessing one’s cognitive skills and places you in a job field that is an appropriate fit for the state of your psycho-pass.
The first and most obvious instance of the structural violence imposed by Sibyl is the system’s panoptical nature. Similar to the panopticon described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, Sibyl is able to watch every citizen almost simultaneously, which encourages the citizens of Japan to behave themselves at all times to the point where it may even be unnecessary for Sibyl to keep a constant watch over them: such is the ultimate goal of the panopticon. Since there is no escaping Sibyl’s grasp while also living a regular life, many are forced to give up any semblance of agency and are unable to fulfill their innermost desires; the panopticon of the Sibyl System all but demolishes any trace of humanity’s free will.
The effects of Sibyl and its violence against humanity does not stop there: through the standardization of humanity using the psycho-pass system, Sibyl not only has the power to determine where an individual fits into society, but also has the power to decide if an individual is not allowed to fit into society at all. The psycho-pass system uses cymatic brain scans to determine a person’s ability to be left in society; if an individual’s crime coefficient exceeds the regulation value, the system alerts the Public Safety Bureau (MWPSB) and the individual is pursued to be apprehended or killed by law enforcement. If apprehended, the individual’s psycho-pass is often unable to recover and they are labeled a ‘latent criminal’, effectively making them a second-class citizen. Latent criminals are not allowed out into society, and are typically locked away in solitary confinement, since they are deemed as unhelpful and ultimately a threat to Sibyl’s peaceful society.
Ironically, however, Sibyl does allow for some latent criminals to be released into society: these individuals are referred to as Enforcers, and they work for the MWPSB as detectives. Enforcers, however, are still second class citizens- they are not allowed out of the MWPSB office alone without explicit permission from their superiors (called Inspectors), and in general they are treated as sub-human, which is yet another example of the complicated structural violence that Sibyl has put in place.
Sibyl also demonstrates instances of necropolitics and necroviolence against humanity. Necroviolence is a facet of necropolitics, a term coined by Achille Mbembe, which relates to the power of sovereign bodies over life and death, necroviolence specifically having more to do with sovereign treatment of the body post-mortem. Sibyl’s necropolitics and necroviolence towards humanity is nuanced and multifaceted; much more obvious than the disease of serenity that Rikako discusses, an example of Sibyl’s necroviolence as the acting sovereign body is the creation and use of a weapon called The Dominator. Also known as the Dominator Portable Psychological Diagnosis and Suppression System, The Dominator is one of the only weapons used by the MWPSB (Public Safety Bureau).
The Dominators work by reading and sending a target’s psycho-pass directly to the Sibyl System for a crime coefficient calculation, and have four settings apart from the automatic safety: Non-Lethal Paralyzer, Lethal Eliminator, Destroy Decomposer, and Explosive Destroy Decomposer; only when the target’s crime coefficient exceeds regulation value will The Dominator receive authorization from the Sibyl System to abandon its otherwise constant state of automatic safety. Apart from the more subtle structural violence imparted by Sibyl through the use of The Dominators, such as the usurpation of human decisionmaking concerning morality, along with questions as to whether or not the use of a Dominator for killing means that the user is killing, or Sibyl is killing, there is a distinct element of necroviolence that occurs with the use of The Dominator. Sibyl allows for the use of The Dominator’s Lethal Eliminator setting against a person only if their crime coefficient exceeds 300; once an individual’s psycho-pass indicates a crime coefficient of this level, Sibyl deems that they are unfit to remain in society at all, even in solitary confinement. Known also as the “anti-person lethal mode”, The Dominator will alert it’s registered user if and when they are needed to eliminate a target, requesting for them to “please aim carefully.”
Eustress Deficiency is one noticeable way in which the Sibyl System commits necropolitical acts against the Japanese public; in a society that has sacrificed all that it means to be human for the sake of a sense of peace, humanity has also given up their driving life force: stress. Eustress Deficiency is the disease of Psycho-Pass’s Japan. As the show’s main antagonist Shogo Makishima discusses, Eustress Deficiency is thought to be the leading cause of death in Sibyl’s new society, though these deaths are continuously declared to be “heart failure from an unknown cause.” Since Japan now operates on the psycho-pass system, citizens are exposed to excessive stress care in attempts to keep their hues and crime coefficients within the limits designated by Sibyl. As Shogo points out, stress is a driving force in life- with the appearance of the Sibyl System and the psycho-pass, people began to find their sense of stress “numbed so much that patients who can’t even recognize stimulation itself started appearing.”
Individuals who suffer from Eustress essentially became living corpses, their autonomic nervous system ceasing to function independently and their vital functions eventually shut down completely. Rikako Oryo, a murderous psychopath who works briefly with Shogo Makishima, has a striking commentary on this phenomenon. Rikako’s father, previously a famous painter known for the transgressive nature of his artistic exploration of the self, suffered from Eustress Deficiency which eventually led to his death. Rikako referred to Eustress as a “disease of serenity”, saying “Everyone here is the same. They don’t notice anything. They don’t say anything. And they don’t think anything. They are merely a shell of their former selves and soon they will disappear like the melting snow. This epidemic leads innocent people to their deaths, and yet, this pathogen will never be eradicated. This is a disease called serenity- a form of death that the people have wished for.” In humanity’s search for the ultimate peace, humanity has also signed its own death warrant.
This relationship between Japan and its mistakenly incomplete wish for peace is illustrated further by the name choice of The Sibyl System itself. The Sibyl System is named for the Cumaean Sibyl of Greek mythology, an oracle who wishes for eternal life from the god Apollo, but erroneously forgets to also wish for eternal youth. Sibyl wastes away throughout eternity until she shrinks to a size small enough to fit into a jar, which is hung from a tree. The village children dance around her, mocking her as they chant, “Sibyl, Sibyl, what do you wish for?” to which Sibyl replies, “I wish to die.” By choosing the name of Sibyl for the authoritarian overlord that Japan has chosen to give up its humanity to, the creators draw an important parallel between the Japanese public of Psycho-Pass and the Cumaean Sibyl from Greek mythology: both had steep and momentous desires, but made the mistake of not thinking them through. The careless wishes of both the Cumaean Sibyl and the Japan in Psycho-Pass leads them to the grievous consequence of a hellish serenity which they themselves have chosen.
The way in which The Dominator’s Lethal Eliminator setting affects the human body upon contact is the most noticeable instance of Sibyl perpetuating acts of necroviolence; the way in which The Dominator kills acts as a method of erasure, which is a common theme in discussions of present-day sovereign power. Upon contact, the Lethal Eliminator mode causes mass swelling of the target before the individual’s body completely explodes; the whole process takes roughly two seconds, and when it is over often all that remains of the target is a pile of blood and entrails.
In this manner, The Dominator completely erases what was once a living person- someone with a name, a personality, a family- and leaves behind nothing but completely unidentifiable organic matter; the Dominator annihilates not only its target, but also a chance for the individual to be identified, or even grieved for. Once the scene is cleared, no trace remains of the violence committed by Sibyl against the individual- as such, Dominators are able to erase the proof of Sibyl’s violence completely. There remains nothing to apologize for, since the body no longer exists; and, if it does, the body is not remotely recognizable enough to find anyone to apologize to. A notable instance of this erasure by the sovereign occurs toward the peak of season one: an Enforcer by the name Shusei Kagari stumbles upon classified information regarding the Sibyl System, only to be discovered by a cyborg operated by the Sibyl System itself. Having the ability to control The Dominator at will, Sibyl uses the Lethal Eliminator mode despite Shusei not possessing a crime coefficient above the designated limit of three hundred. Shusei’s body, having been completely obliterated by The Dominator, is never found- it is never known by many at the MWPSB whether Shusei was killed, or fled the MWPSB to escape his life as an Enforcer. The treatment by Sibyl of Shusei’s body, and others like him, indicates that as a sentient system it truly regards itself as a sovereign body. As such Sibyl views itself as being privileged to dictate how to treat the bodies of Japan’s citizens both before and after death. This treatment, as per the theory of necroviolence, is often lacking in respect and human decency.
Structure, Hierarchy, and Law Enforecement
The MWPSB itself is one of the best examples of Sibyl’s violence at work. The Public Safety Bureau is set up in the manner of a machine- the employees of said Bureau are expected to accept Sibyl’s commands unquestioningly, and to ensure this Sibyl has actively sought the de-education of law enforcement. Employees of the MWPSB- effectively detectives or cops- are no longer given any sort of criminal justice training, for fear that such training will not only lead to a deviation from the system in terms of action, but will also cause an individual’s crime coefficient to deviate from the regulation value. In this instance, Sibyl operates in a Nietzschean manner, seeming to fear that “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” However, in a manner similar to how Nietzsche describes Christian morality, Sibyl is unable to establish itself without being in opposition to something: in this case, Sibyl is fundamentally opposed to the latent criminals but, as such, Sibyl’s unquestioned authority is simultaneously contingent on latent criminals existing so that the system may continue to cast them out to continuously assert its authority. Similarly, Sibyl’s arm of law enforcement also relies upon latent criminals; since Inspectors are required to maintain a psycho-pass within Sibyl’s regulations, they are often unable to do the job of a real detective, which requires one to “stare into the abyss”, so to speak.
Operating on this logic, the MWPSB becomes a system reliant on a relationship similar to a master and a dog (Inspectors and Enforcers, respectively). Because Inspectors are rendered unable to perform any real law enforcement themselves, Sibyl requires latent criminals who can become Enforcers in order to maintain any semblance of public law enforcement. Sibyl’s creation of the juxtaposing positions of Inspector and Enforcer operates in a manner reminiscent of Caillois’ theories surrounding notions of the sovereign and the executioner. Caillois is careful to point out that the sovereign and the executioner (Sibyl/Inspectors and the Enforcers, respectively) evoke each other through their antagonistic natures toward one another. In Michel Leiris’ writing on the subject, he argues that the opposing natures of sovereign and executioner fulfill “cardinal yet symmetrical functions” that render them equally untouchable, both by society and each other. Enforcers operate in a manner that is strikingly similar to the executioner that both Caillois and Leiris discuss: since the weapon they carry- detective work- is the “contagion of the sacred”, those who adhere to the sacred are thus unable to use it while still operating within the sacred body. The Inspectors, working as Sibyl’s right hand, are thus rendered unable to perform the duties of executioner that a law enforcement agent would perform in a more traditional society.
This illustration of Enforcers symbolizing the executioner as Caillois describes him is even further embodied in the relationship between Nobuchika Ginoza and Tomomi Masaoka, the father-son pair of Inspector and Enforcer in the MWPSB. Having been a detective during the time leading up to Sibyl’s instillation, Tomomi is the embodiment of an anachronistic worldview in the face of drastic cultural shifts. As an Enforcer under Sibyl’s relatively new regime, Tomomi aligns with Caillois’ concept of the executioner not only in that he works “cardinal and symmetrical” to the sovereign, but also in that his son inevitably follows in his footsteps. The space in society that the executioner occupies, for Caillois, is also shared by his family; as such, “the executioner” as a title was often viewed as hereditary. Similarly, although Nobuchika is determined not to commit the same mistakes as his father, he nonetheless is unable to maintain the state of his crime coefficient after Tomomi’s death and eventually takes over his position as the MWPSB.
Lastly, G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit provides an interesting perspective as to how consciousness develops, and is yet another theme of the structural violence presented in Psycho-Pass. In Hegel’s dialectic, he posits that a consciousness develops through how it relates to the outside world as well as to itself. On this model, when two consciousnesses (not yet defined as self-conscious) encounter one another, a struggle for recognition ensues; this leads to what Hegel refers to as the “master-slave dialectic”. Hegel’s dialectic, however, operates on the assumption that both conscious parties assume themselves to be entirely free and unrestrained. In the world of Psycho-Pass, this is not at all the case. With the Sibyl System in place as the ultimate decider of the course any citizen’s life will take, Sibyl acts as the end-all be-all of Hegelian recognition, although it does not operate in the traditional sense of two individuals battling for recognition and “self-consciousness”. Instead, Sibyl recognizes each citizen through a grade of sorts, marked by one’s psycho-pass, which will ultimately determine what a person will go on to be in life, thus determining their societal value. Human agency and decision making, moral judgements, ethical frameworks, etc., have all been superseded by Sibyl, thereby replacing the need for an “Other” for recognition (as per the Hegelian model). Sibyl now embodies the deciding factor as to whether or not a person is valuable to society; as such, it would seem that Hegel’s dialectic as well as human agency in general has been overridden, which leads one to wonder whether or not self-consciousness still exists at all. Indeed, the character Shogo Makishima- the series’ main antagonist- remarks on this, saying, “Who isn’t alone in this society? The time when our connection to others was the basis of our selves is long gone. In this world where everyone is watched over by the system and live within the system’s standards, a community isn’t necessary. Everyone just lives in their own cell, and the system tames them by giving them each their own personal serenity.”
Since Hegel’s dialectic is, arguably, prone to violence (psychological or otherwise), Sibyl has worked to negate it in favor of an entirely peaceful society, one where a dialectic is unnecessary for recognition. Despite Hegel’s dialectic being made obsolete by Sibyl, there is still at least one outstanding example of the dialectic manifesting, and that is in the relationship (or perhaps “rivalry” is more appropriate) between the main antagonist- Shogo Makishima- and the main protagonist and antihero Shinya Kogami. Shogo and Shinya represent a Hegelian dialectic of two Masters battling for superiority, but also of two Slaves battling for recognition despite the authoritarian Sibyl System denying it to them. Shogo Makishima represents an anomaly in the world of Psycho-Pass: he is what is referred to as a “criminally asymptomatic” individual. This means that his psycho-pass does not indicate to the Sibyl System that he is a danger to society. It is likely due of this lack of recognition by the Sibyl System that Shogo has decided to go against it, as Shinya comments, saying that Sibyl not recognizing him as it does other citizens likely led him to feel as though he was not human at all. Rejected from society, lacking placement by the Sibyl System, Shogo falls back to the Hegelian dialectic in order to gain the recognition denied him by the Sibyl System. Shogo becomes a serial killer and a terrorist, while Shinya Kogami is an employee of the Public Safety Bureau; Shinya becomes obsessed with catching Shogo, and Shogo becomes infatuated with the game of cat-and-mouse unfolding between himself and Shinya.
A former Inspector, Shinya Kogami was demoted to the level of Enforcer by Sibyl due to a criminal coefficient that exceeded regulation value, thereby clouding his psycho-pass. As such, Shinya and Shogo represent two sides of the same coin: Sibyl does not recognize them as wholly human, robbing them of their agency within Japan’s new dystopia. These two characters play the Hegelian dialectic out to its ultimate manifestation, the series climax occurring when Shinya at last catches Shogo and kills him with a shot to the back of the head. Although the series ends with his death, Shogo seems content in the fact that he has at last been recognized by someone- Shinya saw him as a rival, an opponent worth battling, and as an equal with which he could partially empathize. Shogo exits the Sibyl System with his own death, becoming a Master in his own right, having gained personal recognition despite being denied it by the system. Shinya exits the series having won out in his Hegelian battle with Shogo, as well as exiling himself from Sibyl by committing an act of murder, thereby replacing Shogo in some sense, as he is no longer able to return to a society dictated by the Sibyl System.
Gen Urobuchi’s acclaimed series Psycho-Pass, since its release in 2012, has been praised by some anime enthusiasts for tackling difficult philosophical and metaphysical themes including utilitarianism and the ethical dilemmas surrounding an ‘ideal society’. Urobuchi’s work also tackles themes of anthropological violence including structural and necroviolence; the many themes present within Urobuchi’s work operate both in and outside of the philosophical discourse of thinkers like Hegel, Nietzsche and Caillois. As such, the dystopian setting of Psycho-Pass offers an interesting hypothetical lens through which one may observe how theories such as Hegel’s dialectic and Mbembe’s necropolitics could manifest in a hyper-technological authoritarian society.
Caillois, Roger. The Sociology of the Executioner. 1939.
De Leon, Jason. The Land of Open Graves. 2015.
Hegel, G.F.W. Phenomenology of Spirit. 1807.
Mbembe, Achille. Necropolitics. 2003.
Nietzsche, Friederich. A Genealogy of Morals. 1887.
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