Stripped of Humanity. Dehumanization in Kazuo Ishiguro´s "Never Let Me Go"

Term Paper, 2014
20 Pages, Grade: 1,7


List of contents

1. Introduction

2. Dehumanization: denying humanness
2.1 Homo sacer and sovereignty
2.2 Biopolitics: degradation of death

3. Kazuo Ishiguro´s Never Let Me Go
3.1 The depiction of homines sacri
3.2 The sovereign: a hidden power 13

4. Conclusion: humans or not?

5. Works Quoted

1. Introduction

The meaning of humanity and dignity becomes more and more essential nowadays and a key concept in our ethical thinking in the world of modern biopolitics, possible future cloning and organ donations. The topic addresses every single one of us, since it deals with our lives and basic human rights.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben deals with the concept of those, whose human rights are taken away. In his work entitled Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life he presents the concept of a dehumanized protagonist figuring as “homo sacer”, a bad and impure man, whose life is considered to be unworthy. He proposes an idea of this figure, which is still applicable in our modern times. He links this idea ultimately to the concept of sovereignty, to whom homo sacer corresponds and with whom he correlates.

The depiction of this figure and his counterpart, the sovereignty, will be closely looked at and after that Michel Foucault´s definition of biopolitics and the relation to life and death will be given.

Afterwards, we will look at Kazuo Ishiguro´s novel Never Let Me Go, in which these concepts take shape. The novel deals with young students, who are destined to donate their vital organs before they reach middle age. We will analyze the relationship between these students and the figure of homo sacer. The character of sovereignty that comes into existence with the help of the guardians who accompany these students, will also be elaborated. We will focus on these concepts related to biopolitics and figure out, how the characters in Kazuo Ishiguro´s novel are stripped of humanity.

2. Dehumanization: denying humanness

2.1 Homo sacer and sovereignty

In order to understand and grasp what the concept of denying humanness actually means, one needs to get an idea of the qualities which belong to the understanding of being human. Such qualities as autonomy, civility, dignity or individuality create and form the basic idea of the nature of a human being. The negation of all those instances defines the concept of dehumanization (cf. Oliver, Sophie: Dehumanization: Perceiving the Body as (In)Human: In: Humiliation, Degradation, Dehumanization. Human Dignity Violated. Dordrecht, Springer, 2011, p. 85). Dehumanization basically and essentially describes a concept, in which a person or a group of persons is treated or perceived as a subhuman or simply not as a full human being (cf. ibid., p. 93). Dehumanization is at least also partly connected to perceptions of the body and embodiment. Seeing and capturing the victim´s body serves as proof of his or her inhumanity (cf. ibid., p. 96). A fact that is closely tied to acts of dehumanization is therefore a physical violation of the victim´s body that is being perceived as not fully human (cf. ibid., p. 86 f.).

In his work Giorgio Agamben talks about the dehumanized and those, whose lives are not considered as worth living. He picks up Pompeius Festus´s work On the Significance of Words and his depiction of a figure of the archaic Roman law, in which his distinctive features are combined with human life for the first time. He depicts the bad and impure character of the sacred man, whom he calls homo sacer. He represents him as a man, who is neither permitted to be sacrificed nor would the killing of that person be considered as homicide (cf. Agamben 1998, p. 47). At first glance those characteristics seem to be contradictory. So the question that arises at this point is: How is it possible that homo sacer is allowed to be killed unpunished and at the same not be sacrificed? What does the sacredness of homo sacer actually mean (cf. ibid.)?

The life of the sacred man is tied to his traits that are incompatible (cf. ibid., p. 48). This incompatibility derives from the ambiguity that surrounds homo sacer. The sacred man is first marked with this ambiguity by William Robertson Smith, who links the term homo sacer to two separate traits, which are nevertheless combined. On the one hand homo sacer signifies “holy”, on the other hand there is also the meaning of “taboo” implied in him (cf. ibid., p. 48 f.). The term “sacred” relates to “taboo” and explains the figure of the sacred man. The taboo which is described here means an instance or entity that is or has to be separated from human society (cf. Agamben 1998, p. 49 ff.).

The concept of the ban is also essential. Taking into consideration that homo sacer is a figure of exception and is caught in the ban, who may be killed at any time (cf. ibid., p. 53), then the ban is also ambiguous, because the sacred man is involved and included in society by being excluded and banned from it (cf. ibid., p. 50 ff.). The ban is equal to the taboo and the ambiguity of the ban includes the ambiguity of the sacred (cf. ibid., p. 50 ff.).

The conjunction of the characteristics, meaning the permitted and unpunished killing of homo sacer and his unsacrificeability, in other words the “sacratio”, (cf. ibid., p. 52), takes place, because he is put outside human jurisdiction without being captured in the domain of divine law. “Sacratio” appears in a form of a double exception, where the sphere of the profane and the religious or in other words the ius humanum and ius divinum is abandoned. The structure of the double exception is defined by a double exclusion and a double capture simultaneously. This occurs, because due to his belonging to God the sacred man cannot be sacrificed and is captured in the community because of the ability to be killed without any punishment. What characterizes the condition of homo sacer is exactly this peculiar double exclusion. The killing of the sacred man forms a violence, to which homo sacer is exposed. That killing is neither classifiable as a sacrifice nor as a homicide. The violence, which touches the sacred man, takes place in a realm that is neither sacred nor profane, but is carried out in a sphere of human action (cf. ibid., p. 52 f.).

The sphere of human action described by Agamben acts as a violence that opens up a limited space of the sovereign decision (cf. ibid., p.53). The sovereign decision refers to the bare life of a person, meaning the natural life or the pure fact of birth (cf. ibid., p. 75). The sovereign incorporates bare life into a state of exception. So ultimately it is the sovereign that determines whose bare life is to be taken as an exception and whose not (cf. ibid., p. 53).

The political domain, in which the sovereignty acts, takes the form of a space of indistinction between homicide and sacrifice, where the double exclusion as the excrescence of the profane in the religious and vice versa takes place. The production of bare life or sacred life, as Agamben also calls it, is the sovereignty´s actual aim and activity (cf. ibid.).

Homo sacer and the sovereignty are in need of each other in order to exist and are correlative. The sovereign corresponds to all potential hominess sacri and homo sacer correlates to all men that have the capability to act as sovereigns (cf. ibid.).

So coming back to the question what the sacredness of homo sacer actually means, we can say that it is “(…) the originary form of the inclusion of bare life in the juridical order (…)” (ibid.) Hence sacred life, the life of homo sacer, is only sacred when it is taken into the sovereign exception (cf. ibid., p 54).

From the beginning sacred life occupies a political function to which sovereign power is linked and on which it is founded (cf. ibid., p. 61) His body is defined by an intimate symbiosis with death and is exposed to it. Nevertheless he does not belong to the world of the deceased persons, but his body is “ (…) a living pledge to his subjection to a power of death” (ibid.).

Homo sacer´s character goes back to medieval times, where the sacred man was classified as a bandit, an outlaw and a man without piece banned from society. Back in time Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sources emphasized homo sacer´s liminal status and labeled him as a wolf-man (cf. ibid., 63 f.). What remained in the unconscious is homo sacer who appears as monstrous hybrid of human and animal in a space of indistinction between the two. He is neither a man nor an animal and dwells between both conditions belonging to none of them (cf. ibid.). That condition, which describes bare life, is possible in any moment of time. The sovereignty has the power to bring any person into a position like that. The sovereignty´s point of view sees only bare life as genuinely political. Our modern practice of embracing citizen´s rights, social contracts or free will leaves the sovereignty´s political realm (cf. ibid., p 64).


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Stripped of Humanity. Dehumanization in Kazuo Ishiguro´s "Never Let Me Go"
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (English and American Studies)
Narrating the (dis)eased body
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stripped, humanity, dehumanization, kazuo, ishiguro´s, never
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BA Kinga Gmiat (Author), 2014, Stripped of Humanity. Dehumanization in Kazuo Ishiguro´s "Never Let Me Go", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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