Friday, 25 November 2016
Law and ethics in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go
This blogpost is based on a discussion session run jointly by the Fiction and Human Rights group at TORCH and the Law and Medical Ethics discussion group from the Law Faculty. I’ve tried to capture some of the main points raised by each of the main discussants, who were: Dr Michelle Kelly (Faculty of English) and Dr ImogenGoold (Faculty of Law).
Imogen Goold focused on the theme of personhood, and what it means to be a person. Never Let Me Go raises an interesting legal conundrum where the clones, who appear not to have personhood under the law in the novel, behave just like they are persons who do have protection under the law.
She also raised the issue of the linguistic terminology in the novel. The term ‘completing’ for dying is particularly interesting – both euphemistic and suggesting that this is the purpose which Ruth Tommy and Kathy have for their lives.
The characters in the novel are making organ donations, but they are not really donations in that it is a case of forced altruism – doing good for other people, but not choosing to be altruistic. Goold asks can it be altruism if you have not chosen it? Another issue under the law is that these are donations that lead to their death. Legally, this isn’t possible ‘IRL’. You cannot give a living donation that results in death (which is a legal protection of people from themselves, eg a parent who might willingly give a donation that led to their death if they were giving life to their child).
So the law does direct people with what they can do with their bodies. For the most part law has principle of autonomy; your choices are the most important thing. This prevents society as moving towards a utilitarian manner. (e.g. Tommy has four donations, that might save four people, therefore it’s worth it). As a society we don’t take that into account even where it might be the most utilitarian thing, with the greatest good for the most people.
These protections are afforded to those who have legal personhood – in the law you gain when you take your first breath, and retain it to your death. Throughout the book there is the belief that if they can demonstrate that they are in a real loving relationship (true love) they can defer their donations, or (implicitly) that if they do higher quality art work; if they can demonstrate the kind of qualities that legal persons have, they will be allowed to be treated as having legal personhood, even if they don’t realise that’s what they’re trying to do. That clones do not have personhood, they are not capable of those things, is a fundamental assumption – but as the book shows it isn’t true, they are just people being treated badly.
Kelly began by picking up on the language used in the novel. It has a clear distinctive voice narrated through the character of Kathy. Ishiguro harnesses ordinary language/the language of altruism and care yoked to a rather gruesome reality. The gruesome reality is normalised in the novel by the use of this language. This encourages us to think about how language can normalise extreme, or horrible actions through the banality of the language used to describe the medical horrors perpetrated in the novel. The kind of language around donation and care and completion acts as a kind of social immuno-suppressant.
Although Never Let Me Go draws on the genre of sci-fi, the historical realism of the setting situates it in the 1990s. Together with the normalising language this suggests that shocking things are potentially coexisting with our own lived reality. This opens the possibility of reading the novel as an allegory for the inequality of our own society, for time and production of different socio-economic classes under a system of inequality of wealth, rather than as a dystopic near future or near past. Kelly raised the idea of adoption or surrogacy or indeed the organ trade within the context of the global south to north , and their inequality, as a parallel.
While cloning presents with enormous problems with ethical and medical codes, we do already live with crude monetary estimates of value of human life, and these are highlighted by the novel.
The easy identification for Never Let Me Go is with the form of Bildungsroman. The novel clearly engages with this form: it features teenagers, a boarding school; and culture and literature as means of improvement. However, assimilation into society comes through death rather than life: organs areliterally assimilated into the bodies of others. It is a quantifiable improvement but that is at the level of population rather than individual. In this it cannot be a Bildungsroman centred upon the narrator – because her assimilation will come at the point of ‘completion’.
The book describes a population centred around long-lived elite living at the expense of the lower class. If we’re locked into this as a Bildungsroman with a single protagonist, it makes it difficult for us to look at the problems that exist at the population level. Kelly suggested climate change at being at this same level of things you can’t look at with the individual novel. She also noted that the Bildungsroman form is central to thinking about literature and human rights. [And I might personally introduce the idea of Frankenstein as another uncomfortable Bildungsroman.]
Kelly suggested that Ishiguro’s target in the novel is the complicity and compliance of society as a whole.
The clones live a constrained but rewarding life (culture etc). The novel suggests that culture might coexist with a murderous regime; it might even enable it. The fundamental idea at the basis of Hailsham is that the school feels that as long as they get culture, it’s okay to kill them. This is the provocation of the novel: what is the role of literature/ culture in enabling exploitation or resistance? We tend to think of literature as a potential source of or provocation to social justice, but in this it might be seen as a way of making the population happy to be complicit.
Goold further suggested that there is a linguistic indoctrination as well as a mental/ physical one – they are taught to be complicit – so that by the time it dawns on them what they are for, they accept it because they are so compliant – that is one of the shocking things about it, is how they accept it fairly easily. Even when they go to find to the woman they think Ruth is cloned from, they are not angry, they are curious. This is part of what makes it so disquieting.
Kelly: in a way our interpretation of personhood is a more emotional, reactive response to their environment, so their lack of emotional reaction almost does make the clones different, not-people – but in reality it’s a reaction to their institutionalisation.
Goold went on to talk about the thought experiment by John Harriscalled the survival lottery. This is a real utilitarian approach in which you opt in to the survival lottery, and if your number comes up, you die but all your organs are taken to save, for example twenty other people. The reason you would want to be in it is if you are, and you need an organ, you would get it. It feels uncomfortable. John Harris argues that the rational thing to do is be in it. The difference from Never Let Me Go is that Kathy, Ruth and Tommy have never opted in – nor will they ever get the option to benefit from the system.
The discussion afterwards highlighted some more frightening things about the novel. In particular, the uncanny parallels with our current political situation. A member of the audience pointed out that naming something allows it to become legitimate. Changing the word is a normalising mechanism, which becomes embedded through repetition. The word that came to my mind was ‘altright’ – renaming white supremacy and neo-nazism in order to make it an acceptable thing to be once more. We can be programmed through language. Goold pointed out that this is the reason why lawyers are so obsessive about words and definitions, because words govern what space into which something can fall – they draw the bounds. Another audience member point out that one of the very frightening things about the novel is that there is nothing keeping them in place; we are all being conscripted and forced to comply with something. A final frightening thought for teachers and students alike: cloning is a redundant mechanism within the novel because it is really about what we are being taught in schools, and how it indoctrinates us into our society.