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The Dehumanization of the Other

Dax Tate

University of Washington Honors 392A

Biopower and Biopolitics

Professor Alys Weinbaum

June 6th, 2016


The “Other” is the source of seemingly endless theory in the study of biopower, and

perhaps for good reason. The history of humanity has shown us some of the most severe (and

catastrophically successful) dehumanization efforts imaginable: Chattel slavery, the Holocaust,

disenfranchisement, colonization, and too many more have plagued especially Western society for

centuries. The seeming omnipresence of this dehumanization begs the question in my mind of how

we can recognize and, potentially, combat it in our own society, rather than risk the naivety of

claiming that we live in an “Other-less” society. Many theorists of biopower (Foucault, Agamben,

and others) have attempted to answer, or at the very least inspire, questions very similar to this,

and text after text has been produced in pursuit of an answer. I believe, however, that before one

can even begin to theorize about and look for the Other in our society, one must understand what

that truly entails, almost to the point of experiencing it firsthand.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is a uniquely powerful novel that can play a very

important role in this understanding. Its uniqueness arises from Ishiguro’s ability to address some

of the most intricate theories on the relationships of power, while at the same time creating an

emotional, relatable, and overall human story that allows the reader to position him or herself

within Kathy’s perspective, and within her world. Although many novels can create this immersive

effect, and many theories can describe (or attempt to describe) these complex mechanisms of

power and life, very few can do both simultaneously, and this is where Ishiguro’s work is essential.

Through two key scenes of the novel, and the works of Lisa Cacho and Giorgio Agamben, I will

be analyzing the ways that Ishiguro, and the category of the novel in general, can address the

dehumanization of the Other in ways that theory cannot.

“Being spiders” is a recurring theme in the novel, and serves as Ishiguro’s metaphor for

being the Other. The idea is rooted in the “confrontation” of sorts between Kathy (and her friends)

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and Madame. Prior to the event, her friends had all recognized Ruth’s observation that Madame

was afraid of them, but, as Kathy says, it remained “a pretty light-hearted matter, with a bit of a

dare element to it” (Ishiguro, 35). Kathy even notes that Madame reacted just as they had imagined

she would. So why, then, do Kathy and her friends feel as though they had “walked from the sun

right into chilly shade” as they walked past Madame? Despite the group “knowing” how Madame

felt about them, they could not really understand where they stood in her mind (as the Other) until

they had actually experienced what Kathy calls “being the spiders”. And once they had, they

emerged “a very different group” (Ishiguro, 35). Although a novel cannot quite supplant first-hand

experience, it is likely the closest one can get, short of facing that dehumanization personally, to

truly understanding what it means to be the Other.

This is not the only powerful scene of the novel, however. As I clarified above, it is not

enough to know the various processes of dehumanization, or to be able to identify which groups

or individuals are marked as the Other. Only Kathy’s experience of “being the spider” allows her,

and to an extent, the reader, to understand that feeling. But Kathy’s feelings, along with her and

other clones’ status as the Other, are not verified until one key meeting near the end of the story,

when Kathy and Tommy find Madame and Miss Emily to request the rumored deferral. After

learning explicitly about clones, Hailsham, and more, Kathy makes a remark to Miss Emily about

the scene above with Madame, noting that “she’s always been afraid of us. In the way people are

afraid of spiders and things” (Ishiguro, 268). Before I get to the rest of the scene, it is important to

note Ishiguro’s word choice in equating Kathy and the clones not just with spiders, but also with

things. In a novel exploring the dehumanization of the Other, it is difficult to imagine a better word

to contrast the humanity of the general populace with the inhumanity of the Other than “thing”.

However, where one might expect Miss Emily to backpedal, to try to cover Madame’s obvious

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fear, she actually gives Kathy an honest admission: “we’re all afraid of you” (Ishiguro, 269). Going

on to use words like “dread” and “revulsion” to describe her feelings of the clones, Miss Emily

gives Kathy, and again, partially the reader, a true understanding of the dehumanized position of

the Other in society, and what that means for the Other personally.

But where does this experience and understanding leave the reader? Although it may differ

greatly depending on personal perspective, Ishiguro in general is able to draw the reader into

Kathy’s shoes, so that when she begins to see herself as a spider, the reader feels a deeper pain

than anything that could be elicited by a theorist explaining the mechanisms of dehumanization.

And when Miss Emily tells Kathy that she is universally feared, dreaded, and revolted for nothing

but her simple fact of existing, the reader is given a window into the hopeless despair that the Other

might feel. Lisa Cacho, in her piece Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the

Criminalization of the Unprotected, uses the idea of “double consciousness” in a way that may be

helpful in understanding what makes fiction here more effective than theory. Originally put forth

by W.E.B. Du Bois for explaining how African Americans and other dehumanized groups come

to see themselves through “the eyes of others,” particularly the dominant group, Cacho adopts the

theory to explain “how we might interpret reading stories and seeing photographs through how we

imagine other audiences see, read, and transparently recognize” (Cacho, 10). Although Du Bois

and Cacho use double consciousness to explain how the minority sees itself through the eyes of

the majority, Ishiguro’s writing actually comes to have a similar effect on the reader, but in the

opposite direction. As one reads through each of Kathy’s very human memories and experiences,

they come to understand at least her world, if not their own, not through their own eyes but through

the “eyes of the other,” or through Kathy’s eyes. As a result, when Kathy moves from knowing

that Madame fears them to experiencing the sense of “being the spiders,” and finally to

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understanding her own dehumanized status in her world as a revolted “thing,” the reader is

transported in a way that simply cannot happen through the logical, explanatory style of theory.

Cacho’s work on “Social Death”, among many theories on the dehumanization of

biopower, is especially beneficial here because she also tries to address the impact felt by the Other

in Western society. She describes early in her analysis an idea that is conveyed regularly in Never

Let Me Go, that “the figure of the stranger is, thus, ontologized, ‘as a way of being in the world;’

it is ‘assumed to have a nature’ and turned into ‘something that simply is’” (Cacho, 9). Cacho is

here borrowing from Sara Ahmed’s theory of “stranger fetishism,” the idea that the stranger or

Other, in this case the clone, is culturally crafted to be more than just the way one is born. “It”

becomes an entire entity, complete with pre-established behaviors, attitudes, and reactions. We see

this prevalently in Kathy’s case, as both Madame, Miss Emily, and the general population are

petrified of the clones, whether they are playful young children, or obedient young adults: It does

not matter what the clones actually do or say, because their very being has been prefaced by their

status as clones. Another part of being the Other, according to Cacho, is that it signifies

“undeveloped minds and defective bodies” (Cacho, 70). Although clones by definition are exact

replicas of human minds and bodies, this mark is not lost in Never Let Me Go. Because of their

almost undeniable mental and physical equality, the clones are forcibly reduced. They are made

able to read and learn and even to produce art by the few proponents of clone equality, like Madame

and Miss Emily, but only to prove that they can be human in the face of a public that sees clones

as mindless and soulless. Physically, the clones were reduced from their very origin, apparently

made with no purpose than to sacrifice their bodies to the very people subjecting them. It is very

telling to note here, though I won’t stray too far, that in the case of the Morningdale Incident, when

society was faced with not just the prospect of clones equal, but superior in mind and body, the

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clones experienced a massive backlash, even further subjecting them as a physically and mentally

inferior Other.

Although Cacho’s theory is effective in many respects, its major shortcoming is in trying

to address the Other from a definitive, explanatory perspective, which falls far short of the novel.

As shown above, Cacho’s theories on the Other are much more effective when read with the novel

than on their own. In other words, they are able to put names to the phenomena of the novel, but

alone do very little to convey the emotional experiences and understanding given through Kathy’s

perspective. For instance, take the phrase “being the spiders” from Ishiguro, and the term borrowed

by Cacho, “stranger fetishism.” Although Cacho’s has a concrete definition that is very informative

on paper, there is little depth to it. Ishiguro’s phrase however, despite its childish tone, or more

likely because of it, has an emotional connotation that carries with it all the pain of a young child

recognizing that she is not just disliked for something she said or did, but hated for something she

is. This emotional attachment is what makes Ishiguro so able to convey understanding of this

complex notion of biopower, and what makes the novel conceptually more adequate to address

these theories than the theories themselves.

So how can we use the effectiveness of the novel to expand on some of the most prevalent

theories of biopower? To do this I will be examining a vastly influential theory in the study of

biopower: Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer. Agamben’s analysis of biopower is centered on what

he calls “the exemplary places of modern biopolitics: the concentration camp and the structure of

the great totalitarian states of the twentieth century” (Agamben, 136). The concentration camp, on

one hand, is easy to see in the form of the clone-raising facilities alluded to by Miss Emily at the

end, but does that mean Kathy and the other clones at Hailsham, in much more adequate

conditions, are not dehumanized? Although Hailsham has every appearance of a cheerful place for

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the clones to be raised, the reality is present in its very name. The clones are raised to “hail” the

very “sham” that they are raised believing: that they are human, that they are fully functioning

members of their society, that they are not the Other. So although the conditions and the mentality

are different from the other facilities, the result is the same: the clones are bound by society to a

life-that-is-not-life, to “social death,” the Other, or what Agamben would call “homo sacer”. Also

present, however, is Agamben’s notion of “an inner solidarity between democracy and

totalitarianism” (Agamben, 142). Just as Hailsham does not appear similar to a concentration

camp, it is difficult to find this solidarity in the novel. However, by looking at the two parts of the

story’s society, it begins to become clearer. The majority population is shown in a democratic

society all too similar to our own in Western nations, another reason the novel is so strikingly

effective. The clones, however, without being under the power of any separate government than

the general population, are subjected to an entirely different system. The clones are told where to

work, when and where to live, and even when to die, all without a single vote cast. This is

resembles totalitarianism in every way, and yet it coexists with the democracy we know today.

Therefore, Agamben’s idea of an “inner solidarity” becomes fairly clear to see, in a way that is

startlingly recognizable in our own world.

Through these institutions, Agamben analyzes the various mechanisms that have been used

to create homo sacer, or sacred life, in Western society. Homo sacer is Agamben’s concept, a

being from Roman law that is absolutely central to society, even today, by way of its own exclusion

(or what Agamben calls the “inclusive exclusion). It is analogous to what I have referred to as the

Other, and is well represented by the figure of the clone in Never Let Me Go. Agamben’s use of

the concept is fairly limited, however, in that his theory places homo sacer as a negative value

through which society founds its own political life. Cacho brings up Lindon Barrett’s idea of

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negative value in her work, stating that “the ‘object’ of value,” the general population, “needs an

‘other’ of value because ‘for value “negativity is a resource,” an essential resource’” (Cacho, 13).

Never Let Me Go without a doubt explores the dynamic of negative value in the Other, but the

political seems to be a minor issue. In scenes like the meeting with Miss Emily, for instance, there

is no mention of politics, government, civility, law, or much else of what makes up Agamben’s

use of negative value. What is at stake instead is, in Miss Emily’s own words, redefining what it

means to be “fully human” (Ishiguro, 262). The advent of clones creates a crisis for humanity,

which is resolved by turning the clones into “things” or “spiders”. Agamben, looking at homo

sacer as an issue among human beings, can hardly be faulted for not extending his analysis to

clones as an Other. However, Ishiguro’s novel, by placing Kathy and other clones at the heart of a

negative value analytic of humanity itself, is able to expand on Agamben’s theory of homo sacer,

the “inclusive exclusion,” in ways that his theory, or any theory, could not likely account for.

This analysis has, in all hopefulness, inspired as many or more questions than it has given

answers. By looking into key scenes of Ishiguro’s novel, one can hopefully see the possibility of

coming close to understanding what it fully entails to be the Other in our society, and how the

novel, and not just Ishiguro’s, stands as the most effective medium for conveying this

understanding. Cacho’s work as a theory comparable to Never Let Me Go is likewise able to name

some of the aspects of the story, but also reveals the shortcomings inescapable in theory. However,

when Ishiguro’s novel is put to use with the theories of Cacho and Agamben, or any relevant

theories, it can reveal very complex mechanisms of dehumanization that reach far beyond the

world of the novel and raise important issues within our own society.

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