“We’re modelled from trash”: Corporeal and Corporate Borders in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

“We’re modelled from trash”: Corporeal and Corporate Borders in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

Agnibha Banerjee

As dusk gnaws upon the life he has so painstakingly crafted for himself, the butler Stevens, in the last pages of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989), has an epiphany which, in an ephemeral moment of illumination characteristic of much of Ishiguro’s fiction, reveals to him the futility and disgrace of a position he has willingly sacrificed the best years of his life to: “All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?” (256). Like the painter Masuji Ono in Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World (1986) who, at the twilight of his life, admits that though he “believed in all sincerity” that he “was achieving good for [his] countrymen,” he was in fact “mistaken” (124), Stevens joins the hapless crowds of those situated at the margins of power, faceless, docile, and complicit in systems which their limited interpretative resources cannot fully comprehend. In Ishiguro’s oeuvre, such an instrumentalization of life—marked by the reduction of human beings to automatons subtly coerced to serve as means towards the propagation of ends they can only partially decipher—reaches its terrifyingly literal culmination in Never Let Me Go (2005), where the dominated group is denied that which had hitherto been a tautological, if somewhat insufficient, necessity—humanity.

As Myra J. Seaman points out:

the human long presumed by traditional Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment humanism is a subject (generally assumed male) who is at the centre of his world (that is, the world); is defined by his supreme, utterly rational intelligence; does not depend (unlike his predecessor) upon a divine authority to make his way through the world but instead manipulates it in accord with his own wishes; and is a historically independent agent whose thought and action produce history (1)

This category of the human, however, when put to critical scrutiny by the tools of deconstruction and discourse analysis, is revealed to be an amalgamation of ideologically implicated narratives which, operating upon the politics of exclusionism, have been systematically used to designate certain demographics as “less than human” (3), legitimizing their discrimination and oppression. The “human” has always been a privileged construct, awarded by and to those with the material and cultural capital to define themselves thus, and consequently not everyone whose biology—itself an effect of power—would ostensibly identify them as homo sapiens were accorded the benefits of that tag. The definition of the human is, however, thrown into disarray in face of the challenge posed by the clones in Never Let Me Go, whose organs are harvested to prolong the longevity of the “normal” humans. In possession of all those cerebral and limbic attributes hitherto cherished as exclusively human, the clones represent a distinctly posthuman threat, symptomatic of major scientific breakthroughs in the fields of biotechnology and genetics. Evoking an unsettling sense of dread akin to the Freudian uncanny where that which ought to have remained hidden is frightfully exposed, the prospect of human cloning dissolves the abiding enigma of the human—its supposed irreproducibility and irreplaceability—into a murky flux of protein strands and cytoplasmic fluid.

In Ishiguro’s England, the abhorrence for the clones is hinted at throughout the text, culminating in Miss Emily—one of the “guardians” at Hailsham, the clones’ apparently idyllic boarding school—declaring: “Afraid of you? We’re all afraid of you. I myself had to fight back my dread of you all almost every day … There were times I’d look down at you all from my study window and I’d feel such revulsion” (264). What provokes this primaeval dread is perhaps an unconscious awareness of the inhuman mechanisms—the clockwork framework and the arbitrary codes of biochemical data that genetics argues are the fundamental ‘building blocks’ of all life—within the human. The terror of an erosion of difference between the human and the non-human, augmented further by a repressed cognisance of familiarity and identification, results in the “protective projection of our fears and anxieties onto the recognisable form of the embodied human clone” (Marks 3) who is denigrated, and, in Never Let Me Go, commodified and murdered. It follows then, as Leon R. Kass emphasises in Flesh of my Flesh, that much of the bioethical uproar against cloning is an endeavour to define and police the frontiers of the human, banking upon an “intuit” disgust against artificial genetic replication:

We are repelled by the prospect of human cloning not because of the strangeness or novelty of the undertaking, but because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things we rightfully hold dear. … Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to permissible as long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect … repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.  (Kass 20)

In Never Let Me Go, however, such an appeal to an ahistorical, inviolable “central core humanity” is susceptible to the mechanisms of a far more sinister and all-pervasive force—the market.

The capitalist market, with its ruthless, amoral logic of supply and demand, production and consumption, supersedes and subsumes humanist prejudices against cloning, with bioethics playing second fiddle to the biopolitical need to prolong the lifespan of the privileged “normal” humans:

Suddenly there were all these new possibilities laid before us, all these new ways to cure so many previously incurable diseases. This was what the world noticed the most, wanted the most. And for a long time, people preferred to believe these organs appeared from nowhere … There was no going back … their overwhelming concern was that their own children, their spouses, their parents, their friends, did not die … They tried to convince themselves that … you were less than human, so it didn’t matter.  (Never Let Me Go 258)

The genome, which genetic determinism holds to be the governing algorithm of life, thus becomes the (pre)text for the capitalist appropriation and instrumentalization of biopower. Biopower, as Michel Foucault enunciates, is a force that concerns itself with “the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life … optimising forces, aptitudes, and life in general without the same time making them more difficult to govern” (The History of Sexuality 141). In the dystopian reality of Never Let Me Go, the rigidity and perpetuity of the boundary between the humans and the clones is reinforced in the following ways: childhood indoctrination, fantastical tales of escape, and denial of the humanity of the clones. These measures foreclose the possibility of subversion, eradicating transgression even before its inception. Operating in tandem with each other, these interpellative forces reduce the embodied materiality of the clones to “docile bodies,” that enter “into a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down, rearranges it” (Discipline and Punish 134), and commodifies it in an economy of extraction masquerading as an economy of exchange. The compulsory organ removals are called “donations” (giving it an altruistic and voluntary veneer), and in death (though the word itself is never used), the clones are said to “complete,” ironically suggesting that the clones become fully realised subjects only when their vivisected objectification culminates in a total annihilation of existence.

The vestiges of resistance that remain in the novel, most notably the use of the clones’ artwork to determine whether or not they qualify as human, serve not to alleviate their exploitation but to further enmesh and implicate them in a network of liberal humanist power-knowledge structures that (re)inscribe their dehumanisation. Devastated and disillusioned that the myth of a deferral of organ donations was precisely that, a myth, Tommy, one of clones reared at Hailsham, enquires of Miss Emily: “If the rumours weren’t true, then why did you take all our art stuff away? … Why did we do all that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that?” (Never Let Me Go 254), to which she retorts: “We took your art away because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.” (255). Ironically, it is precisely this attempted identification with the human—who in humanist thought is the exclusive proprietor of the “soul”—through a flawed appeal to Romantic conceptions of art, that dooms the clones, calcifying their position as disembodied and disembowelled utilities. As J. Paul Narkunas observes:

Hailsham and other elite clone farms were an humanitarian gesture to foster [the clones’] happiness while ensuring their compliance, while also assuaging any stings of conscience among the “natural humans” who supported these institutions, for creating humans whose only value is through organs that must be donated. … Ishiguro comments on the transformation of the affective values of humans— their interiority, their souls, and their empathy—into a kind of capital for humanitarian organisations.  (Reified Life 236)

Ishiguro, however, does not entirely abandon the empathetic potential of art. Instead, as Shameem Black contends, “As an alternative to humanist modes of representation, Ishiguro’s inhuman style suggests that only by recognising what in ourselves is mechanical, manufactured, and replicated—in a traditional sense, not fully human – will we escape the barbarities committed in the name of preserving purely human lives” (3). In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro emphasises the need for a radical remapping of the cartographies of the human that would celebrate difference through the deployment of a posthuman bioethics that does not draw borders dictated by discriminatory notions of origins and originality, but instead embraces the all too human non-human, both within and without. Exemplary of this “new aesthetics of empathy for a posthumanist age” (Black 20) is Tommy’s artworks which celebrate difference through a juxtaposition of the organic and the mechanical, of the automata within the human and the human within the automata: “The first impression was like one you’d get if you took the back off a radio set: tiny canals, weaving tendons, miniature screws, and wheels were all drawn with obsessive precision, and only when you held the page away could you see it was some kind of armadillo, say, or a bird” (Never Let Me Go 187). As biotechnology and genetics continue to corrode the precarious boundaries of the human, as capitalism persists in using science as a means to dissect and commodify existence, Ishiguro’s clones, albeit “modelled on trash” (164), like Tommy’s “fantastic creatures” (188), posit an alternate vision of the posthuman body, one that achieves a chiasmatic intertwining of the organic and the mechanical, one that revels, independent of the tyranny of the market, in the other-than-human within the human.


Black, Shameem. “Ishiguro’s Inhuman Aesthetics.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 55, no. 4, Winter 2009, pp. 785-807. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26287383.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Penguin, 2019.

The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge. Translated by Robert Hurley, Penguin, 1998.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock, Penguin Modern Classics, 2003.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. Faber, 2013.

–. Never Let Me Go. Faber, 2010.

–. The Remains of the Day. Faber, 2013.

Kass, R. Leon. “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” The Flesh of My Flesh: The Ethics of Cloning Humans. Edited by Gregory E. Pence, Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

Marks, John. “Clone Stories: ‘Shallow are the souls that have forgotten to shudder’.” Paragraph, vol. 33, no. 3, November 2005, pp. 331-353. http://jstor/stable/43151855.

Narkunas, J. Paul. Reified Life: Speculative Capital and the Ahuman Condition. Fordham University Press, 2018. Seaman, J. Myra. “Becoming More (than) Human: Affective Posthumanisms, Past and Present.” Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 37, no. 2, Summer 2007, pp. 246-275.

Agnibha Banerjee is Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at Adamas University, India, and is currently working on a PhD proposal. He completed his BA in English from St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta in 2017 and his MA in English from the University of Calcutta in 2019. His research interests include posthumanism, utopian/ dystopian studies, modern and postmodern literature, Marxist criticism, and discourse studies.

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