Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Poor Creatures": Ishiguro's and Coetzee's Imaginary Animals

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Poor Creatures": Ishiguro's and Coetzee's Imaginary Animals

Article excerpt

This essay reads J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go with reference to the Lacanian distinction between humans and animals, such that humans are exiled from the instinctual realm governing the meanings of sex and death, making these functional impasses definitional but also ethically demanding of human beings.


The interesting thing about a negative ... is that it posits a fuller
picture of reality than does a positive statement.--Anne Carson, Economy
of the Unlost (Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan)

Much recent work on the subject of humans and animals complicates the basis on which distinctions between the two have been drawn (Herrnstein Smith). It is not surprising, given the myriad ways in which humanity's abuse of its natural environment is now affecting us and being brought, belatedly, into the field of public policy and consciousness, that theorists of animality have been drawn to Deleuze and Guattari's rendition of "becoming-animal" with its continuist sensibilities (Thousand 233-39; Kafka 35-36; Baker 117-21, 125-26). Here, animality represents the aspect of human being furthest from the authors' familiar targets: all versions of identity premised on sameness, all forms of politics working through stricture or negation. They call for a recognition of what humans owe to animals in the mobilization of invention of all kinds and in the constitution of (inventive) reality: "The becoming-animal of the human being is real, even if the animal the human being becomes is not" (Thousand 238; qtd. in Baker 121).

In this essay I will pursue a different track. I am interested in how the relation between humans and animals is thought, not through commonality or positivist exchange, but through impasse, specifically, the structured mode of impasse of the literary text. In J.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace, the relation of the protagonist, David Lurie, to the animals he comes to care for emerges as an ethical question about the response of white South Africans to their country's racist past. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, by contrast, depicts a posthuman future in which animality represents the failure of the inhuman to mask humanity's fear of death. Both novels use questions about animals to address the relation of the human being to its finitude, a relation often ignored in narratives of human and animal likeness. In problematizing the relation of humanity to its past and future through an address to our mortal ends and beginnings, the novels provide a means for thinking through the central distinction between humans and animals in the present. This is language, which, unlike animal communication, which operates entirely within the field of the biological, exiles human beings from direct access to our instincts, rendering our primal impulses conflicted, prone to endless meanings (Leupin xxvii; Gurewich; Pontalis 145).

Human beings are seemingly the only species to give large amounts of time and energy to investigating the extent to which we resemble other life forms. Scientific answers to this question, arising from biology, social psychology, and cognitive science, often fail to address their own narrativity and imaginative dynamics, as N. Katherine Hayles observes. Writing on Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, Hayles notes that the book is "underwritten by two imperatives: preserving the autonomous agency characteristic of the liberal [human] subject, and re-locating it in the non-conscious modular units of the genes" ("Desiring" 150). The move to preserve human agency is masked by a displacement to the non-human realm, so that any address to the question of environmental factors, genetic or human, disappears. Hayles notes a similar "lack of constraint" characterizing "the mutating assemblages" of Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, so that both texts require an "effacement of the linguistic actors they rely on to perform what the text describes" (153, 156). …

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