restricted access Ishiguro's Inhuman Aesthetics
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Ishiguro's Inhuman Aesthetics

The question of what it means to be human pervades Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go, which gradually reveals a counterfactual twentieth-century England where clone colonies provide ready supplies of organs for donation. In the tradition of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell's 1984 (1949), the novel envisions a dystopian civil society where clones struggle to comprehend the significance of their own circumscribed personhood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this interrogation of what it means to be human emerges through a critique of Romantic-inspired assumptions about aesthetics and empathy. While the novel attracts attention for its theme of genetic engineering, its deepest anxieties arguably concern the ethics of artistic production and consumption in an age of multiculturalism and globalization. Through its veneer of science fiction, Never Let Me Go offers an allegory both for national concerns about the state of England and for transnational fears about rising global inequality. In its portrait of the systematic exploitation of the clones and its implicit exploration of vulnerable actors in our modern economic order, the novel indicts humanist conceptions of art as a form of extraction that resembles forced organ donation. If Romantic-inspired views of empathy rely on the claim that art reveals the human soul, Ishiguro's novel implies that the concept of the soul invokes a fundamentally exploitative discourse of use value. In this respect, Never Let Me Go shares in a pervasive late-twentieth-century cultural skepticism about the viability of empathetic art. [End Page 785]

Yet Ishiguro's critique does not—as might be expected—abandon the ethical potential of works of art. Instead, it makes a case for an ethics offering a very different approach to art and empathy that relies on the recognition of the inhuman. As an alternative to humanist modes of representation, Ishiguro's inhuman style suggests that only by recognizing 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 life. Never Let Me Go implies that if there is to be any empathetic connection with Ishiguro's protagonists, it will not occur through the consoling liberal realization that clones are humans, just like us. It will evolve through the darker realization that art, along with the empathy it provokes, needs to escape the traditional concept of the human. The novel thus calls for what seems like a contradiction in terms: an empathetic inhuman aesthetics that embraces the mechanical, commodified, and replicated elements of personhood. While inhuman is often used as a synonym for cruel or unethical, Ishiguro's novel suggests exactly the reverse. As its aesthetics of replication allows us to sympathize with others without recourse to such constraining ideals, Never Let Me Go reinvents empathy for a posthumanist age.

Empathy, Art, and the Human

The act of identifying with someone else's experience is deeply tied to our everyday understanding of what it means to be human. While older traditions of philosophy have presumed that persons are fundamentally autonomous and exclusively self-interested, this model fails to capture important dimensions of ordinary human behavior. Richard Rorty makes this point when he argues that a vast amount of Western moral philosophy directs our attention toward what he calls "the rather rare figure of the psychopath, the person who has no concern for any human being other than himself" (123). Indeed, modern psychological accounts afford empathy a significant place within social and biological narratives of human development. Brought into English as a translation of the German aesthetic term Einfühlung, the term empathy entered English in 1909 through the work of the American psychologist E. B. Tichener (Wispé 78).1 Tichener used the word to describe a physical process in which infants between birth and ten months began to mimic the nonverbal expressions of those around them (Omdahl 25). Known as motor mimicry, this nonverbal bodily process was understood to exemplify the instinctive and physiological basis of shared feelings.2 In the 1980s, the American developmental psychologist Martin Hoffman showed how the motor [End Page 786] mimicry of infants could lead to...