Re-Wiring the Self and Memory in the Posthuman of Superhero Comics

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

Re-Wiring the Self and Memory in the Posthuman of Superhero Comics

Rimi Nandy

“We’re gonna make you indestructible. But first, we’re gonna have to destroy you.”

The distant dream of transforming human beings into a better version of themselves has always been a part of the human imagination. The trace of our earliest ancestors can still be found in the primates. The process of evolution has led humans to the present stage. With time, every aspect of the human body underwent a gradual change, and with it, society has also been restructured and reconstructed. Technological advancements are made to move the human race one step further. However, the idea of creating a better society through carefully selecting a partner for procreation can be found in the words of Plato. The 1940’s saw an intensification, even an institutionalization of eugenics. The term was first coined by Sir Francis Galton in the year 1883. ( Editors) This later gave birth to man’s preoccupation with a superior human body which transcends the average human existence, based on Nietzsche’s concept of the übermensch. In the hands of the Nazi regime, eugenics sought to enforce biopolitics predicated on the idea of racial superiority. Following in the wake of eugenics, the branches of transhumanism and posthumanism were born. The incorporation of a technological extension in a human body or tinkering with the basic DNA of the human body leading to the creation of super humans became a popular trope.

Übermensch: the precursor of the Posthuman superhero

Nietzsche first discusses the figure of an übermensch or “overman”, who is superior to the average human being, directly associating it with his Theory of Will to Power. By virtue of the superiority gained by the übermensch, he either desires to destroy or protect. A sense of self-actualization is reflected in the power play between the powerful and the weak.  The contrasting characters of the superhero and the villain is a  true portrayal of this belief in the will to power. This desire to overpower the weak adds meaning to life. A superhero’s actions can contribute to achieving a sense of fulfilment by protecting the weak. The desire to help and protect humanity drives the actions of a superhero. The human, according to Foucault, is a historical and cultural construct. (Garland) The superhuman in the form of the übermensch counters the idea of being human through his ability to overcome the physical and metaphysical limitations endured by the socially constructed idea of a human. In spite of being endowed with superhuman powers without access to any form of sovereignty, the characters of the Winter Soldier, Wolverine, Jessica Jones, Doctor Manhattan, Lucy, and Vision share the common trope of enabling a better life for society. Their bodies become the site where the power relation between the strong and the weak is played out. The übermensch sets the stage for the development of superheroes as a popular cultural trope.

Transforming into the Posthuman

The superheroes and their representation always include an origin story which points at the exact moment when the average person transforms into the enhanced superhuman. Wolverine, however, was never truly an average human, with his mutated gene enabling him to heal faster than anyone. However, the pain endured in the process and the loss of memory transforms Wolverine into a raging man with little sense of the consequences of his actions. Jessica Jones, on the other hand, is an experimental superhero. She survives a fatal accident that alters her genetic code. Nonetheless, the super strength she acquires forces her to accept the responsibility of saving people. The psychological trauma she endures turns her into a reckless alcoholic. Her ability to connect to other people and her standards of morality are equally twisted. Much like Jessica Jones, the character of Bucky the Winter Soldier also lacked agency when turned into a super soldier. The body horror endured by the Winter Soldier is clearly evident in its representation on screen.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki. 2021. Ideal Federal Savings Bank. [online] Available at:

Through the integration of bionic arms coupled with constant brainwashing, Bucky is transformed into a killing machine. He has no right over his body or his own consciousness. Bucky is an assassin who follows orders he never questions. During his battle with Captain America, Bucky fails to recognize his closest friend. The moral obligation connected with memory is completely eradicated. However, Captain America’s words “till the end of the line” break through Bucky’s brainwashing. In a fight between a machine and human nature, Bucky overcomes his conditioning.

Following the trend of accidental superheroes, there is also the character of Lucy from the 2014 film of the same name. Lucy, the protagonist, accidentally absorbs a manufactured enzyme named CPH4. As her mental and physical capacity increases, her moral compass appears to decrease. Doctor Manhattan, from Watchmen,is a similar superhero, whose body is broken down into atomic particles when he gets trapped inside Gila Flat’s test vault. Akin to Lucy losing her sense of pain and fear, Doctor Manhattan can no longer experience any human emotions. He sees himself as someone beyond the grasp of humanity.

The character of Vision in the Avengers series walks beyond the posthuman, becoming a transhuman. The transhuman varies from the posthuman with reference to the degree of restructuring of the body. Vision is a new species altogether, being the bodily representation of an AI. Ultron, the AI created by Iron Man (Tony Stark), develops a twisted concept of humans being flawed. He chooses not to be contained in the manner of binary codes; instead, he desires a body for himself. Ultron is a classic example of AI transforming a utopian concept into a dystopian world. This fear of AI turning rogue is reflected in the words of Stephen Hawking, who believed that “…the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. (Hawking quoted in Skelley) Ultron’s ultimate aim was to create a more advanced form of himself, in the process eradicating the human race in order to save the world from the hands of a species gradually destroying the earth. Vision is a true synchronization between Artificial Intelligence and advanced Biotechnology. Vision’s skin is manufactured by combining human tissue with vibranium, thereby making his body indestructible. He is not a human being with bodily enhancement; rather, Vision is an embodiment of all the elements that a human being lacks. The groundwork of Ultron’s belief stems from the transhumanist concept of singularity. Body enhancements targeted towards countering human limitations forms one of the basic principles of both Posthumanism and Transhumanism.

Consciousness and Intentionality

The true nature of human consciousness is a fluid concept. The significance of the relation between the mind and the body is crucial to the understanding of consciousness. Whether consciousness is restricted to the mind alone or integrated into the bond between the mind and the body has been debated for a long time. The advancement in computer technologies creating the possibility of saving consciousness in the form of binary code has further spurred on the belief that human consciousness can exist on its own even in the absence of a body. Even so, being situated into an artificially constructed foreign body, the brain re-accommodates itself, thereby also altering the connected consciousness and intentionality. The sense of intentionality born out of the hybridization of the human and the machine creates a new form of intentionality. This is possible only due to the enhanced capability of the body. This form of hybrid intentionality is situated beyond the limits of the human body. The manner in which Wolverine, Jessica Jones, Lucy and the Winter Soldier choose to fight is directly linked to the indestructible nature of their body along with the superhuman strength they have acquired. Their perception of the world and their sense of moral obligation also undergoes a massive change.

Posthumanism contradicts the very essence of humanism, which accepts the centrality of human beings. The central belief of humanism is in the superiority of the human in contrast to all other species. Posthumanism develops on the premise of the human body being limited by its transient nature. It strives towards creating an entity through physical enhancements capable of overcoming the limitations of the body. However, whether human beings cease to be humans due to the enhancements has been a matter of debate among various theorists. The changes in human consciousness affected by the upgrade of physical ability is the focal point in posthuman studies. In the words of N. Katherine Hayles, “Human mind without the human body is not human mind.” (Hayles 222-246) his is clearly reflected in the constant struggles faced by the characters of Wolverine and Jessica Jones, trying to come to terms with the change in their moral sensibilities. The technologically enhanced body of the Winter Soldier also clearly depicts the loss of human consciousness and sensibilities. Lucy is similarly transformed into a superior being, transcending corporeal limitations. Her enhanced intellectual capacity renders her incapable of feeling human emotions. Her cognitive skills follow a logical mindset, stepping over the fallacy and frailty caused by emotions. An important marker of the posthuman is the notion of intentionality. What sets apart Vision from his precursor Ultron is this very intentionality. Both Ultron and Jarvis are Artificial Intelligence created to further human capacity. On the one hand, Ultron views humans as an inferior race to be substituted by procreating a single self, based on his own image. Vision’s body becomes the site for the coming together of two minds, namely Ultron and Jarvis. Vision’s actions are dictated by the intention of Jarvis, who believed in helping humans without altering their sense of individuality. Although Ultron aimed to create an image of himself in Vision, his destructive intentions are overpowered by the more benevolent desire of Jarvis the humans. This coupling of an artificially manufactured indestructible body and the contradictory intentions of Ultron and Jarvis creates a new species in a manner reminiscent of the transhumanist model of posthumanity. Even though Vision is an android, his choice to defend and protect human beings is inspired by Jarvis’ intentions. What essentially distinguishes a man from the man-machine hybrid is the ability to experience emotions.  However, one of the plates from the Avengers comics depicts Vision experiencing sorrow and shedding tears. This expression of emotion complicates the differentiating factor between humans and the android. This is entirely the result of the synthesis between man and machine to create a transhuman being, who is at the same time similar and different from a human being.

Pinterest. 2021. Vision-Even An Android Can Cry | Vision Marvel Comics, Marvel Vision, Marvel Comics Art. Available at:

The importance of intentionality can also be seen in the figure of the Winter Soldier, who is able to overcome his psychological conditioning due to his desire to save his friend Captain America. Wolverine and Jessica Jones, in spite of their raging personalities always verging on the edge of destruction, are ultimately guided by their intention to protect the people around them. Even the character of Lucy ultimately transforms herself into a pen drive handing over knowledge acquired without passing through the various stages of evolution. Her intention, as made clear with her interaction with Professor Samuel Norman, is to help humanity progress with the help of the knowledge passed by her to the Professor. In all the superheroes mentioned earlier, the body enhancements are not in the shape of appendages which can be easily added or removed at will without instituting changes to the moral self. Instead, the modifications are permanently integrated into the body, thereby altering the mind, morality and consciousness.


The critical analysis of the selected characters from a theoretical perspective depicts the manner in which consciousness and sense of morality is affected by the changes introduced in the body. The pain and horror endured during the process of enhancement further adds on to the lack of moral perception. The centrality of the position and significance of the human with regards to posthumanism and transhumanism alters the perception of the superhero’s self. The accidental and experimental methods of imbibing the bodies with superhuman strength, overcoming the arduous process of the various stages of evolution, restructures the very essence of body, mind and consciousness. The posthuman/transhuman body of the aforementioned superheroes undergoes an alteration not only in the physical state but also the psychological and emotional state. The role of technology in bringing such an alteration is crucial to the understanding of the concept of posthumanism.


Abad-Santos, Alex. The history of Vision, the superhero making his film debut in Avengers: Age of Ultron. 16 March 2015,

Cooper, Angel. “Domination, Individuality, and Moral Chaos: Nietzsche’s Will to Power.” Undergraduate Review, Volume 6 , 2010, pp. 60-65.

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Frisina, Megan. Internal War: The Psychological Damage of The Winter Soldier. 23 March 2018,,was%20showcased%20brilliantly%20on%20screen.

Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future:Consequences of Biotechnology Revolution. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Garland, David. “What Is a ‘History of the Present’? On Foucault’s Genealogies and Their Critical Preconditions.” Punishment & Society, vol. 16, no. 4, 2014, pp. 365–384., doi:10.1177/1462474514541711.

Hayles, N. K. “Narratives of Artificial Life.” How We Became posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 222-246. Editors. “Eugenics.”, A&E Television Networks, 15 Nov. 2017,

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Jeffrey, Scott. The Posthuman Body in Superhero Comics:Human, Superhuman, Transhuman, Post/Human. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Lilley, Stephen J. Transhumanism and Society: The Social Debate Over Human Enhancement. Springer, 2018.

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Pepperell, Robert. The Posthuman Condition: Consciousness beyond the brain. Intellect Books, 2003.

Polo, Susana. Doctor Manhattan’s actual powers boggle the mind:A man with matter manipulation and non-linear memory. 8 December 2019. <;.

Robinson, Tasha. Lucy and the enduring appeal of the instant upgrade. 28 July 2014,

Skelley, C. A. “Interfaces and Interfacings: Posthuman Ecologies, Bodies and Identities.” Greensboro, 2016.

Verbeek, Peter-Paul. “Cyborg intentionality: Rethinking the phenomenology.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 2008,pp.  387- 395. PDF.

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Rimi Nandy is presently working in the Department of English Language and Literature at Adamas University. She is also pursuing her PhD from the School of Media, Communication and Culture, Jadavpur University. Her areas of interest are social media narratives, Digital Humanities, Postmodernism, and Posthumanism.

Language and the Borders of Identity in “The Language Sheath”

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

Language and the Borders of Identity in “The Language Sheath”

Yen Ooi

Chinese science fiction written by both writers from Chinese-speaking nations and Chinese diaspora communities has a shared interest in the anxieties of identity. As I write this paper (originally as a presentation for the London Science Fiction Research Community—LSFRC’s Beyond Borders Conference in September 2020), I find myself yet again negotiating personal experiences with critical research while reflecting through the literature. Jiayang Fan, in her personal history piece published in the New Yorker titled “How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda” describes this anxiety clearly when she asks, “For what is an immigrant but a mind mired in contradictions and doublings, stranded in unresolved splits of the self?” Couple this with the sensitivities of language, as demonstrated in Gloria Anzaldúa’s famous quote, “So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language,” (401) we discover a ripe and volatile environment for the expression of identity through language.

I chose the short story “The Language Sheath” by Regina Kanyu Wang (2020), translated by Emily Jin and Wang herself, because of how strongly it resonated with me. When I first read it, I wondered how Wang, a writer who lived in Shanghai, would know of a diaspora’s relationship with language so well. I felt silly when I learnt that this experience isn’t unique to diasporas. It is an experience of colonization through language that happened, and is still happening everywhere.

“The Language Sheath” is a story about Ilsa and her son Yakk, and their complicated relationship that’s made more problematic by them having different first languages. In the story, Ilsa is a linguist, specializing in Kemorean, a fictional language in the fictional country of Kemor, and she’s hired by a language-technology company called Babel to create and record a corpus of spoken Kamorean for their translation machine that uses an output filter described as a ‘language sheath.’ Ilsa’s dream is for Yakk to embrace being Kemorean and to speak Kemorean well, but Yakk, like every teenager, wants to do what trend dictates—he wants to speak English and embrace all that is modern and cool.

My first languages were English, Malay, Hokkien (on my paternal side), and Hakka (on my maternal side). Growing up in Malaysia, it is compulsory to learn English, something that was inherited from our colonial past, and Malay is the national language. Because Malaysia’s demographics are multicultural, it is common for Malaysians to speak a third or fourth language from their family. Like Ilsa, my parents wanted me to be able to use their languages, but because Mandarin is the centralized language for China, they wanted me to speak that too, and so I learnt it. But I struggled to enjoy Mandarin because it felt forced, and was of the least use to me. In the end, English became my main language. Though I speak some Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese, and Mandarin, I can barely read and write in Chinese.

Like Yakk’s parents, my parents had a big decision to make when it came to choosing my school and considering what effect it might have on my language. In the story, Ilsa holds a grudge with her ex-husband when she tells the reader: “Take my son, Yakk. His father sent him to an international school in early childhood, and even though he transferred to a Kemorean public school later at my insistence, his Kemorean is execrable. He can only construct simple sentences and commits solecisms all the time. He even speaks with an odd accent, as though he weren’t a native speaker. It’s a terrible disappointment.” Though my parents don’t see my basic Mandarin as a disappointment, what is highlighted here is the difficulty families face when parent and child use different languages.

My lack of Chinese language skills sometimes feels to me like a betrayal to my parents, no matter how much I tell myself that it isn’t. Like the relationship between my identity and my language, I place the same values to my parents’ languages and their identity. In a particularly personal section in her essay, Fan confesses that “It is reductive to compare a mother with a motherland, but…”. And I paraphrase this for my point, that it is reductive to compare a mother with a mother tongue, but the intricate and intense relationship that one has with their parents is precisely based on communications, which suggests that a difference in language would create problems. Ilsa’s description of Yakk above shows her disconnect with him because of their languages, and as readers, we can accept and possibly empathize that this difference, among other things, has caused their relationship to break down.

Though we know through the study of linguistics that languages continuously change with society, the loss of a language creates what is known as illocutionary silencing: “When a language disappears, past and present speakers lose the ability to realize a range of speech acts that can only be realized in that language. With that ability, speakers lose something in which they have a fundamental interest: their standing as fully empowered members of a linguistic community”. (Nowak, 831) Our desire to protect a language here stems from our need to maintain our position within a community—whether for cultural heritage or lineage purposes—that in turn, establishes our identity. This places an intangible value on the language itself.

The Language Conservancy, tracking 7,000 languages in use today, say that “about 2,900 or 41% are endangered” and that “about 90% of all languages will become extinct in the next 100 years.” When language is lost, it is easy to blame the older generation for not being better protectors, but the processes of modernization, of economic growth and colonialism are like natural forces against maintaining a pure language. In the story, Ilsa explains: “More than a decade ago, the Kemorean government started to heavily promote English education in order to boost economic development and international trade. Kemor’s generous policy on foreign investment brought an influx of foreigners to the country.” The drive for economic growth in the story became the main perpetrator for the fall of the Kemorean language. And in the story’s world, English still represents the world lingua franca, as the socio-economic colonialist.

Rey Chow understands that those who are colonized start to see their own language and culture as being relegated. She proposes three levels of mimeticism working in an overlapping, overdetermined manner at all times. The first level has to do with the imperative created by the colonizer or imperialist. The values are hierarchically determined and the colonized, her language, and her culture are thus relegated to the position of the inferior, improper copy. “Condemned to a permanent inferiority complex, the colonized subject must nonetheless try, in envy, to become that from which she has been excluded in an a priori manner. She is always a bad copy, yet even as she continues to be debased, she has no choice but to continue to mimic. She is damned if she tries; she is damned if she doesn’t”. (104)

In speaking with Wang about her story, I understood that she was coming from a similar place as me. Mandarin, though the national language, isn’t her mother tongue, which is Shanghainese. In trying to understand China and its people, because of its seemingly long and unbroken history, there is little concern about colonialism or imperialism. Yet, the various governments through its history, have brought on colonializing impact on its people through the management and development of the national language. From the standardization to Mandarin, to the processes of unification of the written language, to the adoption of the Beijing dialect as standard, it has been in progress for a long time, and we are still seeing minority languages, dialects, and topolects being affected today. There are many layers to this power struggle between languages, but the problem posed is the borders the inheritance of language alludes to that shapes our identities.

In the story, Ilsa and Yakk have different relationships to both Kemorean and English. Ilsa feels that she has to protect Kemorean so it doesn’t continue its path to decline. She believes that “A true Kemorean should speak nothing but the Kemorean language.” Yakk, however, did well with English. Though this was mostly due to his father’s decision to put him in an international school where English became his first language, he also believed that English was the more powerful language, which opened up international opportunities. This reminds us of the position that English already holds in our world today as the lingua franca. We learn in the story that “After transferring to the public school, [Yakk] lost touch with his old friends from the international school. Only David and William met up with him occasionally. They gave him English books and told him which of their old classmates had been admitted to top universities in other countries.” This cements the belief that English brings opportunities that Kemorean cannot.

The colonized here is Yakk, who is now “seen in terms of a desire to be white,” what Chow explains that is felt “concurrently with the shame accompanying the inferior position to which she has been socially assigned.” Ilsa fights Yakk because she sees him to have a desire to be not-Kemorean and she equates this to the shame—a shame in losing his Kemorean heritage, which accompanies his inferior position that she has now socially assigned to him. And the more Ilsa pushes Yakk, the more his position as the colonized is strengthened. Yakk starts to vacillate between Kemorean and English because of the stresses caused by Ilsa, which gives his identity plurality and multiplicity, the characteristics that Chow describes in the second level of mimeticism. This is a complicated position for the colonized as he learns to love and hate, yearn and reject multiple reflections of himself, much like the earlier quote from Fan that describes the immigrant as “stranded in unresolved splits of the self.”

The black and white, which is the Kemorean and English in the story, is now mutually constituted. And in the story, Ilsa affirms this through allocating good characteristics to Kemoreans and bad characteristics to foreigners. The crux of this is experienced when Yakk returns home one day to see his mother crying. As he hugged her, he whispered, “Don’t cry, Mom,” in English and Ilsa just stared at him in response. And it was after he said it again in Kemorean that Ilsa hugged him back, tighter. This scene highlights the fact that Yakk is aware that speaking in Kemorean appeases his mother. And Ilsa in turn believes that if Yakk continues on his English path, she will lose him forever. Near the peak of the story, Yakk has a recurring nightmare where he is surrounded by circles of people who are repeating his mother’s lines over and over, while he tries to break away to no avail. “Yakk, listen to me, you must respect Kemorean. You have to speak your mother tongue well. This is about honoring your culture…”

Yakk later learns that Babel successfully creates the language sheath to both translate and perfect Kemorean. So, whether a speaker uses a different language or is just speaking in broken Kemorean, the sheath will be able to transmit only “Standard Model Kemorean output.” He reacts by asking his mother, “Everyone’s words, you tamper?” And Ilsa replies: “Not tampering, but embellishment. What I have provided is only a sheath. The content of the speech won’t change. The sheath only makes the words more elegant and pleasant to the ear.” In this scene, with Yakk’s rudimentary question and Ilsa’s sophisticated response, we reach the coda that brings us to Chow’s final point on mimeticism of the colonized.

The colonized now no longer replicates the white man or his culture but rather an image, a stereotyped view of the ethnic. In the story, Ilsa becomes the person who creates this stereotype through the creation of the Kemorean language sheath. Not only will there be Standard Model Kemorean to be heard with the sheath, it will be hers. Though Ilsa’s determination in preserving Kemorean can be seen as a strength, especially in thinking that she is fighting the colonization of their language, what she doesn’t see is that her actions endorse and legitimize the colonizer’s campaign.

At the end, “The man from Babel introduced himself as Hanson, the executive in charge of the Kemorean Project. He spoke to Yakk in English and shook his hand like an adult. Yakk didn’t like him, though. Mother’s condition was Babel’s fault.” Hanson is seen as a saviour of Kemorean in Ilsa’s eyes. She puts him and the company and its tech on the pedestal. She gives them the power to take and own Kemorean, to be packaged and sold, to be stereotyped. In Yakk’s meeting with Hanson, she affirms this by asking Yakk, “Did you thank Mr. Hanson? He’s been so helpful to us.”

Though Hanson isn’t a main protagonist in the story, he is the representation of the colonizing culture, clearly defined by Chow in The Protestant Ethnic & The Spirit of Capitalism. “The white subject who nowadays endeavors to compensate for the historical “wrong” of being white by taking on politically correct agendas (such as desegregation) and thus distancing himself from his own ethnic history, is seldom if ever accused of being disloyal to his culture; more often than not, he tends to be applauded for being politically progressive and morally superior.”

However, Chow also reveals that “When it comes to nonwhite peoples doing exactly the same thing, however—that is, becoming sympathetic to or identified with cultures other than their own—we get a drastically different kind of evaluation”. (117) This can be clearly seen in Ilsa’s reactions when Yakk expresses his preference for English. She cannot identify the value of the culture that English brings at all, or a culture of hybridity. To Ilsa, English should remain a second language, a tool for communication and business only. “Kemoreans speak much better English than foreigners speak Kemorean. From my perspective, this isn’t right. Foreigners are coming to Kemor, so why should Kemoreans learn their language instead?”

If we accept that language defines our identities, then what can we—who are working with the colonizer’s language—do to move on? What can we learn from this? Chow’s words ring of truth when she says, “What defines diasporic realities, paradoxically, is what cannot be unified”. (130) To allow us to study the convoluted relationship between an immigrant, a diaspora, or the colonized and their languages, we need to first accept that it is and will always be in a state of flux, or as Kyoko Murakami describes in her study on the liminality of language, that in analyzing the self, it is “not as a static being but “becoming”. (31) Perhaps then, we might be able to accept the liminal position languages hold that simultaneously represents a culture, yet invites assimilation with other cultures and languages, like a plant that is part epiphyte and part parasite. 


Anzaldúa, Gloria. Barrios and Borderlands: Cultures of Latinos and Latinas in the United States, ed. Denis Lynn Daly Heyck. New York: Routledge, 1994. pp 401-402.

Chow, Rey. The Protestant Ethnic & The Spirit of Capitalism. Columbia University Press, 2002.

Bennett, Jane. Influx and Efflux: Writing up with Walt Whitman. Duke University Press, 2020.

Fan, Jiayang, ‘How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda.” The New Yorker, 7 September 2020. Accessed 27 November 2020

Murakami, Kyoko. “Liminality in Language Use: Some Thoughts on Interactional Analysis from a Dialogical Perspective.” Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, vol. 44, 2010. pp 30-38.

Nowak, Ethan. “Language Loss and Illocutionary Silencing.” Mind, Vol. 120, Issue 515, July 2020. Accessed 1 December 2020.

Pandell, Lexi. “WIRED Book Club: Is Three-Body Problem’s Translation Better than the Original?” Wired, 6 October 2016.

The Language Conservancy, “Language Loss.” Accessed 2 December 2020.

Wang, Regina Kanyu. Jin, Emily and Wang, Regina Kanyu (trans.) “The Language Sheath.” Clarkesworld, Hugo Award-winning Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine. Issue 164, May 2020. Accessed 19 November 2020.

Yen Ooi is a writer-researcher whose works explore cultural storytelling and its effects on identity. She is currently working towards her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, specialising in the development of Chinese science fiction by diaspora writers and writers from Chinese-speaking nations. Her research delves into the critical inheritance of culture that permeates across the genre. Yen is narrative designer on Road to Guangdong, a narrative driving game, and author of Sun: Queens of Earth (novel) and A Suspicious Collection of Short Stories and Poetry (collection). Her short stories and poetry can be found in various publications. When she’s not writing, Yen is also a lecturer and mentor.

“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.

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.