The Other Side: Pessimistic Transhumanism in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

Winter is ending, and I am slowly but surely making my way through the pile of books I have bought and been gifted over the Christmas period. This month, outside of my studies, I have managed to read Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (four women attempt to investigate a mysterious expanding zone that has caused catastrophic outcomes for every human that has previously crossed its borders), Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (brief but beautiful novel about the compassion of a father who confronts the truth of the Magdalene Laundries) and Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.

I had only previously read one of Ishiguro’s novels, Never Let Me Go, during the first lockdown. And yes, a tear or two were shed. I fell in love with the tenderness and humanity with which he described his characters, and his ability to create a world in which the dark underbelly is omnipresent but still difficult to properly grasp until the story’s conclusion. Ishiguro looks at the consequences of technological advancement for those who do not enjoy the privilege of its benefits, as the main characters’ suffering and eventual deaths are legitimised as they benefit the lives of the majority.

Still from Never Let Me Go (2010) Dir. Mark Romanek

Francis Fukuyama describes the transhumanist movement as one where humans “must wrest their biological destiny from evolution’s blind process of random variation and adaptation and move to the next stage as a species”. Transhumanists believe in the employment of technology to allow humans to transcend our anatomical limitations, allowing us to reach the next stage of evolution. In popular media, the first two examples that came to mind when I stumbled upon this concept would have been the replicants in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? along with “Be Right Back”, the first episode of the second season of Black Mirror, in which a widow is able to almost re-animate her late husband by algorithmically scanning his text messages, emails and social media posts to re-create his mannerisms before having this new ‘consciousness’ uploaded into an android copy of his body.

However, transhumanist ideology has been subject to criticism. Billionaire cowboy and ex-Twitter CEO Musk has faced backlash for his claims that we are to flee to Mars and become one with technology through his Neuralink (a brain implant which he hopes could “restore full-body functionality to someone who has a spinal cord injury” . Ashley Capoot writes: “Musk invested tens of millions of his personal wealth into the company and has said, without evidence, that Neuralink’s devices could enable “superhuman cognition,” enable paralyzed people to operate smartphones or robotic limbs with their minds someday, and “solve” autism and schizophrenia”. While Musk seems optimistic about the capabilities of this device in treating complex neurological and psychological conditions, he also views this fusion of the human brain with computers as a necessity in combatting the increasing complexity of artificial intelligence algorithms. While transhumanist ideas are becoming increasingly topical in popular culture and academic scholarship, there exists the ever-present rebuttal that these ideas–especially those touted by the Musks and Bezoses (?) of the industry–exist to benefit the exceedingly wealthy. I have already discussed the role of class in environmental discourse and how the effects of climate change disproportionately affect the poor, while those who are most at fault are the same group who will have the option of fleeing to Mars if worst comes to worst.

Ishiguro’s speculative fiction Never Let Me Go observes the impact of the advancement of the human race on a hidden underclass of clones that have been sterilised and raised to function solely as organ donors to benefit the rest of humanity. In this world, man has discovered cures for almost all disease and extended human life expectancy greatly through the raising of these clones, as they are raised in Hailsham School for the sole purpose of growing defectless organs (hence they are forbidden from smoking or otherwise engaging in risky behaviours and are unable to reproduce) and fulfilling care duties for their peers who have already donated tissues or organs. However, this disturbing practice is only implied for a large chunk of the novel, with the eventuality that the main characters are to face some unsettling but as of yet intangible fate hanging over the text’s earlier chapters. Ishiguro follows Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy as they navigate friendship and romance as they come of age in Halisham. It is not until the end of the novel that the characters realise that their circumstances are inescapable; that the art that they were made to create at Hailsham as children was not some key to their escaping, but rather was being collected as part of a protest by their mentors and different human rights activists to demonstrate that the students possessed souls and that the practice that had benefitted humanity so greatly had been actively violating the rights of a manufactured outgroup. The process of donation is treated with an unusual sense of honour by the end of the novel, after Kathy is left to care for her friend and romantic interest, Tommy. As Tommy draws closer to being summoned for his fourth donation, Kathy describes the way in which ‘completion’ (a euphemism for death used throughout the text) is treated by those who face it:

“I’ve known donors to react in all ways to their fourth donation. Some want to talk about it all the time, endlessly and pointlessly. Others will only joke about it, while others refuse to discuss it at all. And then there’s this odd tendency among donors to treat a fourth donation as something worthy of congratulations. (…) Even the doctors and nurses play up to this: a donor on a fourth will go in for a check and be greeted by whitecoats smiling and shaking their hand”.

The novel ends after Tommy’s ‘completion’, as Kathy faces a future having outlived the vast majority of her peers. Ishiguro’s choice to examine the outgroup of a supposedly utopian society brings the reader to reflect upon the ramifications of this accelerated technological development. The miraculous medical advancements that have come about as a result of the cloning are often mentioned, yet it is difficult to feel optimistic about these changes when the primary characters actively suffer as a result. The new medical treatments are not seen directly in the text, only alluded to, rendering them all the more difficult to believe.

I’ll Be Okay, I Just Need to Be Weird and Hide for a Bit: Modern Post Punk and Dada

In recent years, post punk (especially in the UK and Ireland) has seen a revival of sorts. Notable releases including Gilla Band’s “Holding Hands with Jamie” (2015), Black Midi’s “Schlagenheim” (2019) and Dry Cleaning’s “New Long Leg” (2021) have all provided newer, more abstract perspectives to the genre–Gilla Band frontman Dara Kiely’s accounts of chicken fillet rolls and bleached moustaches certainly feel a world away from the emotive (and occasionally melodramatic) lyrics one would find on a record like “Disintegration” or “The Queen is Dead”. I have certainly found it intriguing to observe these newer bands’ tendency to shirk sentimentality in their work altogether, but, to me, this reads like a reflection of the neurotic political conditions of the last ten years.

Dry Cleaning’s most popular song, “Scratchcard Lanyard”, involves a string of seemingly unrelated statements spoken by a seemingly disconnected Florence Shaw. In live performances, her apathetic delivery is amplified as she tends to stand almost entirely static, sighing into the microphone, almost rolling her eyes. I absolutely adore this song, most of all for the main hook: “Wristband, theme park, scratchcard, lanyard/Do everything and feel nothing/Do everything and feel nothing”. The line feels like a moment of clarity in a sea of lyrics that bear seemingly little meaning: “I think of myself as a hearty banana/With that waxy surface”. But, others interspersed in verses of nonsense reveal a sense of weariness, or a sort of existential angst: “I’ll be okay, I just need to be weird and hide for a bit/And eat an old sandwich from my bag” “You can’t save the world on your own/I guess”. The music video depicts Shaw wearing a dollhouse on her head and drinking from a tiny glass, singing into a tiny microphone, remaining relatively expressionless all the while. The contrast between the driving, more lively instrumental and the unenthusiastic vocals is reflected as the camera zooms out and we see Shaw standing static, staring right at the viewer with her head trapped in the house, while her bandmates are free to move as they please. The closest ‘canonical’ group I could compare them to would be Talking Heads, due to the warm, prominent basslines and funky guitar tones, but it’s difficult to describe the band in simple terms. The lyrics could be providing an insight into the neuroses of a struggling idealist, driven to near-madness by a monotonous but unrelenting life. The listing of different cities and products, conjures up an image of an individual who is simply going through the motions, doing everything, feeling nothing.

It likely goes without saying that the song resonated with me a lot. When I googled the lyrics for the first time, I discovered that the hook I had become so fixated on had been lifted from a tampon advertisement.

Source: Twitter

I was reminded again of this song while studying 20th century art movements (including Futurism, Surrealism and, most importantly, Dada) when I came across this quote by Francis Picabia:

“Dada is like your hopes: nothing
like your paradise: nothing
like your idols: nothing
like your heroes: nothing
like your artists: nothing
like your religions: nothing”

This felt like a perfect summation of the movement’s very core; the anger and hopelessness underpinning the amusing and nonsensical works being created. Nihilistic humour from a generation who felt totally disempowered during a time when the upper class acted as the gatekeepers of culture. Studying the writings of Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara (for me) rendered conspicuous the prevalence of their ideas in contemporary art and music in the present day. Of course, the particular genre I’m examining has always been political and often satirical (Morrissey singing “I say, Charles, don’t you ever crave/
To appear on the front of the Daily Mail/Dressed in your Mother’s bridal veil?” immediately springs to mind) but the more cacophonous soundscapes and unusual vocal deliveries of the other bands I have mentioned does seem like a more recent trend in post punk.

16th November 2022: Hopeful and Homoerotic Spaces in Irish Writing

Dr Michael G. Cronin is a lecturer at Maynooth University whose research centres around twentieth century and contemporary Irish writing along with sexuality studies. Yesterday, I attended a talk he gave on “Hopeful and Homoerotic Spaces in Irish Writing”, wherein Cronin distinguished between Irish Gay and Lesbian novels that focus on time, and those that focus on space. I lacked a certain context going into this seminar, as my studies in Irish literature have been admittedly limited. While I did touch on writers including Joyce, Beckett, Heaney and Friel during my studies as an undergraduate, Irish writing, not to mind Queer Irish literature, is not a research area that I would be hugely informed on. However, for me, this rendered the seminar all the more illuminating, and I would absolutely be open to researching further the issues and texts Cronin discussed.

Dr Cronin first provided some context to his research, discussing the Gay and Lesbian novel’s rise in popularity in Ireland in the nineties. He outlined the background of the Gay Liberation movement in the seventies as well as examples of queer Irish literature released prior to the nineties, pointing to the work of Kate O’Brien and Oscar Wilde. The post-Stonewall movement provided Queer communities with new visibility and forms of expression, as different sub-cultural identities and spaces took form. Spaces such as Gay saunas and bars allowed for freedom of expression and the exploration of identity, while Gay and Lesbian sections began to appear in book shops, acting, as Cronin put it, as the “literary form of a historically distinct formation”. This was the time when Catholic values were rendered residual, as Neoliberalism rose as the dominant ideology in Irish society. He also highlighted the de-criminalisation of sex between men in 1993 as an indicator of social progression and acceptance in Ireland. The context Cronin provided was equally engaging and informative, and was immensely valuable in my understanding of his research. Most intriguing, I felt, was his argument that changes in Gay and Lesbian Irish writing can be mapped along the route of Ireland’s economic boom and recession.

Cronin went on to discuss the work of authors including Jamie O’Neill, Michael O Conghaile and Barry McCrea. While the most popular forms of Gay and Lesbian writing would be the ‘coming-out romance’ and the historical romance, McCrea’s The First Verse and O Conghaile’s Sna Fir work to subvert standard tropes and expectations in Queer writing. Both novels centre around space rather than time, and follow unusual, disjointed structures. Both novels are more comparable to the adventure tale, with little focus on the act of coming out itself, which Cronin argued may be a critique of the significance placed on this rite of passage. McCrea’s novel utilises the inherited form of the coming of age narrative (one central protagnonist, uses a first person narrator, focuses on a student moving away from home), but alters it. The central drama is not rooted in the protagonist’s self-discovery, rather, it follows his addiction to Bibliomancy, a form of divination. This process causes him to hallucinate, although the distinction between reality and illusion are not always immediately apparent to the reader. Time becomes distorted and the novel ends without a conclusion or resolution, with the main character in the same place as he was in the opening scene, on the bus. Similarly, Sna Fir follows an episodic and disjointed structure, subverting the expectations of the linear biographical narrative. The novel presents men operating in various homosocial spaces, including pubs and university spaces. The main character has several encounters with older partners, but, once more, there is little focus on the act of coming out itself. Mobility is also huge in this text, as the protagonist travels from rural Connemara, to university, Dublin and London.

Cronin argued that these novels present a Utopian perspective, and that the propagation of hope necessitates an alternate position on the current reality. Homoerotic desire is positioned as “a vector for Utopian possibilities”. This is epitomised by the presence of the Gay sauna in these texts, which is described in Sna Fir as a place of absolute freedom, and the one space where liberty is tangible. These novels that focus on space rather than time present a more Utopian view and, Cronin argues, possess fewer internalised Capitalist or consumerist hegemonic values. The shift of the narrative focus away from the act of coming out and towards the characters’ ‘adventures’ is certainly refreshing.

This seminar was highly engaging and valuable and I would absolutely consider reading further into contemporary Gay Irish writing after attending. The inheritance of modernist and surrealist tendencies by the authors discussed and their fusion of these styles of writing with the outlined biographical narratives make for literature that presents new perspectives. Despite the fact that I had not previously encountered the authors or texts discussed, I felt that I had a strong understanding of Cronin’s ideas coming away from the seminar, and I would be very eager to read the novels he discussed. Altogether, an extremely strong and original seminar.

Climate, Class, Contrasts, Complacency – 19th Century Representations of the Environment in Mary Robinson’s ‘The Wintry Day’ and Now

Last night, I watched a viral clip of Phoebe Plummer, the climate activist who received international attention for throwing soup over Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, confronting an interviewer for neglecting to report on the climate crisis. I had seen her been fairly widely labeled as a snowflake, as a performative activist, a virtue signaler, a member of the woke mob, and so on. Having seen the clip, I must commend her creativity. The painting was undamaged, and her actions certainly sparked conversation. At times, it feels as if we have become too accustomed to this worldwide decay–a constant, looming feeling of collapse. I remember checking my phone on a coffee break at my hotel job earlier this year to see that Roe V. Wade had been overturned, and that thousands of women were now at risk of having to carry unwanted pregnancies, no matter their circumstances. I woke up this morning to see that a man who passed away last month had won a seat in the US midterms. My news feed speaks of mass evictions in Dublin. Such and such a country is on fire. Cork is flooded. Somebody on my Facebook has opinions on vaccines and “Q”

There’s a certain fatigue that comes with this endless stream of misery, as well as the feelings of powerlessness that can come with it. It’s easy to fall into complacency when these anxieties become a part of everyday life. But, seeing Phoebe Plummer telling her interviewer that the news always makes time to show the sports highlights while downplaying impending catastrophe made me realise how easy it can be to tune it all out.

This was on my mind as I analysed the poetry of Mary Robinson, particularly “The Wintry Day” for my Romanticism and Modernity seminar. She contrasts mansions, silky chambers, people gathering around fires, singing, drinking, enjoying one another’s company, protected from the harsh conditions outside. Meanwhile, the poverty-stricken are left to freeze in “barren” hearths, braving the cruel force of nature. She paints comforting, joyful, domestic images before abruptbly ending these stanzas with “Ah! No!” and juxtaposing the wealthy’s celebrations with the grief and misery of the poor. The poor are isolated “in a cheerless nak’d room…where a fond mother famish’d dies” while the wealthy gather around “their shining heaps of wealth…sporting their senseless hours away”. Robinson exposes the massive disparity between classes as she describes how different members of society would experience the same day in Winter. The wealthy seem to possess little awareness of the conditions the poor are forced to face as they are exposed to the harshest conditions with little food or shelter. The oppositions between nature and culture, rich and poor, excess and barrenness are extremely striking and surprisingly relevant to today.

This poem written in the nineteenth century feels unsettlingly close to our current reality. It definitely brought me to wonder about my own role in all of this. Am I, like the wealthy citizens in Robinson’s poem, “senseless”? We are, of course, undeniably privileged in our ability to tune out negative news by switching off the television and deleting Twitter. What about those in the global South who are affected most, while the worst perpetrators–our friends Musk and Bezos, for example–propose ways to escape the planet that they helped to destroy? Transhumanism was another topic we discussed in class, but it feels so disturbingly cynical that our newfound ability to prolong our lives, play with the idea of consciousness, or explore new worlds, is being harnessed by the ultra-wealthy to transcend the consequences of their own actions.

Some Thoughts on the Public, Private and Pandemic in Pearl (2022)

October has come and gone, and it’s safe to say that I have consumed my fair share of horror films over the last week or so. I would like to say that I have developed a fairly strong stomach when it comes to horror–Midsommar and Silence of the Lambs are two of my favourite films of all time–but Ti West’s Pearl is unsettling in a different way. The Gothic has been one of my research interests from the very beginning of my academic journey; something about the macabre in literature has always been appealing to me.

The titular character is a young woman born to German immigrant parents, who must tend to their farm while her husband is overseas fighting in WWI. Pearl’s mother is controlling and repressive, and Pearl is limited by her duties of managing the farm and caring for her disabled father. The main character’s Southern drawl, modest personality and girlish appearance make her appear deceptively innocent. However, there is a disturbing disparity between her actions in public and the desires she exhibits when nobody is watching.

The film presents several contrasts to the audience throughout; public and private, repression and sexuality, tradition and progression. Pearl desires to move past her humble origins, desperate to be seen for what she believes she is: a star. She becomes fixated on “the pictures”, fascinated by the dancers she sees in her local cinema. The resident projectionist introduces Pearl to pornography, assuring her that it is soon to become legal and that she, too, could be on screen someday. In one of the more unsettling scenes of the film, Pearl goes home and simulates intercourse with a scarecrow, all the while fantasising about the projectionist. This is not the first time the protagonist is seen engaging in unusual and disturbing behaviours in private, speaking to her farm animals as if they were human and killing them when she feels they have insulted her or misbehaved. When Pearl’s controlling mother confronts her for leaving the house, Pearl murders her, showing her new, disturbingly defiant character.

It would be impossible to mention the backdrop of the influenza pandemic presents without relating it to the ongoing covid pandemic. Pearl’s mother witholds food once she discovers that she has been to town, putting her father at risk. There is a feeling of isolation present throughout; the cinema is sparsely attended, and background characters are seen walking alone with their faces covered. One particular shot, where Pearl is watching a film, alone, and slips down her mask to eat, feels so mundane, but so unnervingly relevant to today, that it honestly caught me off-guard.

The most memorable scene of the film occurs when Pearl attends an audition to join a dancing group. Her dream of moving beyond her isolated life on the farm finally feels within reach, and she obsesses over her routine in the hopes that she may become like the dancers she admires in the cinema. However, when Pearl is rejected, she suffers a breakdown, screaming at the judges that she is a star and having to be escorted away. Not only has she suffered the heartbreak of missing out on her dream of being on the screen, Pearl fears that this rejection has condemned her to waste away on the farm for the rest of her life. In a striking monologue, Pearl reveals to her sister-in-law, Mitsy, that she has always felt different from others due to her inner feelings and desires, and that she resents her husband so much for leaving her on the farm that she wishes he would die. It is the most clarity the audience sees from the protagonist, who is prone to fits of violent rage, which lead her to murder her parents and the projectionist. Mia Goth’s performance here feels honest and even sympathetic, with this monologue bringing a sense of depth to Pearl’s character. After revealing her despair, Pearl brutally murders Mitsy with an axe after becoming falsely convinced that the judges chose Mitsy over her.

The final scene, where Pearl’s husband returns home, feels like the ultimate defilement of the domestic space. He finds a feast of rotting food, with Pearl’s deceased parents seated at the table. The final image feels like a corruption of the traditional image of the nuclear family, perhaps as if to say that the old way of living has been done away with? Perhaps, in her disturbed mental state, the main character is finally attempting to perform the role of the housewife, but has become too detached from reality. Pearl comes to greet him, and the film ends on an extended close up shot of her strained, tortured smile.

I may revisit this film in my writings–it is still very fresh, so there is no doubt that there will be further discourse on the role of the domestic space, generational differences in early 20th century America and the role of sexual desire in the film. I know for sure that it’s a film I won’t be forgetting about anytime soon.

Wednesday 2nd November 2022: Some Reflections

The first half of the semester has passed, and to say it has been a busy time would be an understatement. Over the course of the last few weeks, I attended my conferring for my BA in Music & English and have begun working on my first essay for my Theories of Modernity module.

Graduating has definitely brought me to reflect upon my last three years at University College Cork. I was always encouraged to experiment and investigate new methods of research during my time as an undergraduate student. Some of my favourite projects include a presentation I gave on “Sirens”, an episode of Ulysses where the narrative structure is based on musical forms (combining my two passions!), a group project I participated in where we recorded a podcast on vampires in literature from the 18th century to the present day, and a project where I investigated the disparity in gender representation in Irish music and how DIY collectives, events and initiatives can uplift women in the music industry.

I have always enjoyed taking a more multi-faceted approach to different projects, and I love challenging myself to think outside of the box when answering the question. However, with my first deadline approaching, I do feel under slightly more pressure to contribute to the academic field with more original ideas. I have chosen to write about how different 19th century thinkers represent the relationship between humans and technology. I found the seminar covering 19th century representations of modernity to be extremely engaging and I felt like the class group worked really well to collaborate and build off of our ideas and interpretations together. What I found most striking about these texts was the tendency of these authors to identify the worker with the machine, and their not-so-subtle reliance on essentialist ideas of gender. I found the presence of these essentialist ideas most interesting considering that these thinkers tend to praise technological advancement as it allows society to progress forward and for humans to work beyond their natural limitations. However, it is clear that the benefits of scientific and technological advancements were never intended to be divided out equally when we consider the issues of classism and sexism in 19th century society. Ure praises a particular employer for maximising profits “by substituting the industry of women and children for that of men; or that of ordinary labourers for trained artisans” (2). Even the more progressive Martineau often fails to meaningfully distinguish between man and machine in her admiration of the industrial process (Fielding and Smith, 419-20). When this idea popped up in our seminar discussions, I knew that I wanted to investigate this line of thinking even further in my essay.

While I have been quite busy lately, I did have the chance to finish a new novel. Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh is a historical fiction/horror novel which takes place in the fictional feudalist village of Lapvona and follows the various villagers’ depraved antics. While I was not entirely taken with the novel–the plot felt a little directionless for my liking–it was definitely a unique read with a creative and original cast and setting. The main character, Marek, is the deformed son of Jude, a disturbed shepherd. The main character and his father experience intense bouts of religious guilt and frequently engage in self-flagellation in the hopes of absolving their sinful thoughts and desires. Marek is able to ascend above his circumstances, however, when he accidentally kills the Lord Villiam son and is unexpectedly adopted by him as a replacement. Moshfegh refuses to shy away from portraying the very darkest aspects of society. Violence, gore, sexual assault, religious trauma and even cannibalism are all present throughout the novel, so much so that some readers may view these as gratuitous. There is some commentary on class, as the villagers resort to cannibalism during a drought and famine while the king hoards a nearby spring to build a moat. The novel is a unique read, but it is definitely far from subtle!

Ure, Andrew. The Philosophy of the Manufacturers, 1835, London, pp. 3.

Fielding, K. J., and Anne Smith. “Hard Times and the Factory Controversy: Dickens vs. Harriet Martineau.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 24, no. 4, 1970, pp. 419-20. JSTOR, Accessed 2 Nov. 2022.

Lapvona (2022), Ottessa Moshfegh

First post!

Hi all! My name is Emily Dollery and I have started this scholarly blog as part of my MA English – Modernities programme at UCC. My main research interests would be Gothic, Modernist & Naturalist literature. During my undergraduate degree, I studied modules such as “Women and Literature”, “Reading Ulysses” and “Modern and Contemporary American Literature” and I look forward to expanding my knowledge over the next few months!

I did my undergraduate degree in Music & English so I do already possess some rudimentary knowledge of audio production and editing, so I would definitely be interested in incorporating different forms of media and communication across this blog. I am quite passionate about the arts and cultural events and I host a radio programme on UCC 98.3 FM where I focus on local Irish artists and talk about events in the local area.

My most recently read book is Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh, a historical fiction novel.