The Work Of Orienting Oneself Towards The Future

David Plunkert, The Mouth’s Guard
David Plunkert, The Mouth’s Guard

More from my notes / rough draft for my paper on Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (for more info check out previous blog entries):

And yet precisely because of the text’s relentless problematization of the narrative and the time in which it is couched, what comes next is never explicitly a sequential event – it’s never a surprise; it’s never something that the children are waiting for.  This is important because the anchoring reality of their lives is the fact that they have been bred for a single purpose, and are always moving ineluctably towards that impending purpose: to donate their vital organs to some faceless, unmentioned, non-cloned human being.  And even this event is ruthlessly devoid of a sense of finality: the children are expected to donate as many organs as they can, and so have anywhere from a first, to a second, and maybe even – if they’re “lucky” – a third donation to look forward to.  This reticence to approach what is for them inevitable resounds with the subject who reads the book, and who wonders if she operates similarly.  It is here, also, that the term that the children and their guardians use to designate the end of their life is “completion,” comes into play.

Once a student has made his or her final donation – whichever that might be – and their life ends, the are said to have “completed,” a term that connotes a sort of sterile utility, and suggests that they have completed their task, or the function for which they were created – they have, literally, finished.  But the term also seems to want to fill its other, traditionally opposed, meaning: that the act of giving one’s life in this manner is one that causes a wholeness, that makes one complete, the analogue for the reader being the sentimental idea that once one achieves one’s special purposes, one becomes complete.  The text, however, never suggests this, but in and through the brutal nonchalance (and lack of explanation) with which the term is used, openly defies this meaning, leaving instead a vacuum against this possible definition.

If remembering is a method of knowing oneself, and knowledge of oneself is closely connected with – as Foucault asserted – the imperative to take care of oneself, how then – in what way – we might ask, must one remember? This question is bound up, in the text, with what one must remember.  It is obvious here that for Kathy H., what must be remembered over and above all else is not her impending completion; it is not even the question (that the reader is more-than-probably asking) of why, when looking back, the children never stood up against their politico-biological reality, never truly challenged the brutal determinations which so acutely controlled their lives.  As a memoir of a character in her own narrative, “Kathy” discloses “herself” the how that we have been discussing in this reading, a claim that we can make when we remember that the subject that articulates it – and for whom the question of articulation is of the highest value – is the one that exists at the end, or after the end, of the narrative altogether – Kathy H. herself.  The what-for, the question of to what end – if not to liberation or the isolation of some “complete” truth of their souls – becomes that which the author/ character provides through remembering herself and her story in this memorial mode of narrativizing, where it becomes clear that the question of how to remember – for Kathy as narrator as well as Kathy as character –  is always immediately bound up with the question of and answer to why one should remember: so that one might attempt the work of orienting oneself towards the future.


Linear In Every Direction

Bill & Ted Meet Socrates
Bill & Ted Meet Socrates

… the subject exists within a world that is thoroughly temporal, and – in the case of the character-subjects in “Never Let Me Go” – a narrative that is rendered specifically knowable by and through this temporality.  A narrator is thereby forced to use language whereby what is usually referred to as “the passing of time” can be, if not marked, than simply (or at least) known.  The language utilized by the Kathy H. character-narrator to couch her subjects in time is therefore indicative of an understanding of time that exemplifies a possible practice of knowing time.  The latter follows from the former precisely because the narrative practice is informed by the above-mentioned ethical ethos, one that takes time for a specific intent and purpose, an intent and purpose that is more fully articulated as time – and the narrative – “goes on.”

There are two primary methods by which time is (explicitly) made known in the text, and they are loosely analogous to an objective time (time as that in which we exist) and subjective time (time as exemplified by significant events in the life of a subject).  Both are structural, and work towards the overall problematization of time, in tandem with the non-linearity  of the narrative.  The first, “objective,” method is through the evocation of time markers that are easily conceivable as non-linear: the time of day and the seasons.  As markers of time that occur “in nature,” and that constantly repeat themselves, these terms are often conceived of as cyclical, but only in relation to each other, as a system of repetition.  They are rarely mentioned together, as such a system, but are evoked simply to couch the subject somewhere – or somewhen – in time.  The second, more subjective, mode of time knowing involves the constant and endless evocation of the ordinal.  Whether it is the students first or third year at Hailsham, or a subjects first, second, or third “donation,” all events of significance are couched within this ordinality, giving the narrative – together with the use of the above mentioned natural markers – a sense of being placed within a sequence, but a non-omniscient sequence – we never know exactly what comes before or after anything that is described as being the first, second, or third of its kind.  These two methods of marking time work together to provide a picture of time that is conceptually analogous to the narrative jumbling mentioned above, and together work to create various mutations of forms of problematizations for knowing time, as exemplified in the following excerpt:

We were having this conversation on a fine summer evening, sitting out on the little balcony of her recovery room.  It was a few months after her first donation, and now she was over the worst of it, I’d always time my evening visits so that we’d be able to spend a half hour or so out there, watching the sun go down over the rooftops.

Between the “cyclical” and ordinal terms are multiplied the beginnings of a time further problematized, in the line “a few months after,” in which the naked form of a less natural time-marking term is coupled with the implied ordinality of the word “after;” or the use of the word time in a verbal mode.  The subject situated in such time is the subject that is located in and as a process, a process that does not evince a simple linearity, but that is “linear in every direction” (Deleuze and Guattari, 5).  These overwhelming temporal problematizations not only work to reveal the ethical import of temporal conceptualizing for the subject caught “in” time, but create for the narrative a sense of suspense, even if it is mild, that exists in the vacuum of the possibilities of what is to come next.


Remember Memories, Memory Rememberer!

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey looking acceptably quirky in M. Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"
Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey looking acceptably quirky in M. Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”


More on Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go:”

The question of whether something is being remembered correctly or not prefaces almost every episode in the text, and ultimately functions as the primary method by which Kathy H.’s narrative of memories is constantly seen to exist as contingent, as possibly not accurate, as accurate enough (for all intents and purposes), or as existing somewhere along an un/certainty spectrum- all at once, or in variable combinations.  It has the crucial effect of holding open the constant range of possibilities that it introduces for the narrative, for time and for the human subject who either reads, or is a character in, the text.

This problematization is made possible by the fact that for temporal epistemology the way something is known and what is being known are two things that are mysteriously impossible to divorce from each other.  A scientist might know a rock via a microscope – her object is something other than the method or tools by which she knows it; A rememberer, however, remembers nothing but memories – never the thing that memories are of.  This means that no matter how accurate a memory is, it can never be the thing it strives to remember; and that to remember a memory is an altogether different action than apprehending any other sort of object.

Because of this, we are able to apprehend and consider a narrative of events as something other than the events themselves and, importantly, relinquish the idea that that the ethical imperative in remembering is to do it accurately, even if Kathy’s avowed intentions involve an urge to give order to “all these old memories” (37).  Here intentions, when considered in light of the way events are actually put forth – that is, not in an orderly fashion – might sound confusing, unless we consider that what the text is suggesting is that the correct, or proper, way of ordering one’s memories is to do so in a way that is altogether unlike a simple ordering of a sequence, or a chain of causal phenomena.

We are not dealing with events or objects in-the-world-here, but with memories.

I Got Here In The Balloon Of Time

Still from the upcoming movie "Prototype"
Still from the upcoming movie “Prototype”

For Grosz, time can only be thought of “when we are jarred out of our immersion in its continuity, when something untimely disrupts our expectations” (5).  Her insistence on thinking of ourselves as subjects immersed in it, coupled with this idea that we are able to be jarred out of it, seems to suggest that we have a choice in the matter, that thinking of ourselves as immersed in it will cause us to be immersed in it, and that in being “surprised,” we are actually popping out of it, or at least our consciousness is (5).  She problematizes her own language, however, when she says that

We can think of it only in passing moments, through ruptures, nicks, cuts, in instances of dislocation, though it contains no moments or ruptures and has no being or presences, functioning only as a continuous becoming.

revealing, on one hand, a certain disingenuity of language (she doesn’t really think that any of this is actually happening), and a curious idealism on the other: in this model the locus of what is being apprehended is the mind of the perceiver, not the thing, not anything material.  Granted, this is precisely the sort of slipperiness that all considerations of time must deal with, but in Grosz’s text a clear articulation between what is philosophy – apprehending the subject and/or the object – and what is concept work – ways of thinking about something to a certain end – is not clearly delineated.

An analogue that might describe the phenomena that Grosz calls a “nick,” and that presents a metaphorically opposing view, can be found by thinking about processing power, or speed.  Let’s say that in our story our main character is a robot that has attained sentience: she is just like a human in all of the necessary systemic connections, only she is able to process the data that she apprehends at speeds far faster than her flesh and blood creators.  One day she goes for a walk, when at a particularly busy intersection of the vast and technologically advanced metropolis in which she lives she hears the horn of a large truck honking frantically.  Her cybernetically improved neck swivels her face in the direction of the sound and the beautiful brass gears of her impressive CPU shift into high gear: she sees three men, standing on three opposite corners, two are pointing towards a large red truck that is coming from the north (one with his left hand one with his right hand), while with their opposite hands they are waving frantically in the direction of three people who are spread out at various distances along a sidewalk (almost immediately she calculates the ranked probability of to whom the men are waving).  There are six other vehicles, five pedestrians, four sets of streetlights, three quadrupedal quasi-domesticated canines, eight buildings, and ten tree-like obstacles in the immediate vicinity, and an exponentially multiplying number of possible outcomes and explanations for the scene as it unfolds.  It might seem that the above scenario violates anything like an inquiry that is interested in any intents or purposes, and we might object, like Howard the hard-nosed engineer did, that no one will ever be able to think that fast so it’s useless to even think about.  But think about the simple linguistic difference between a surprised robot and a surprised human who were later asked to give a statement to an officer of the peace.


I heard the honking of a truck’s horn, and when I looked up there were three men, standing on three opposite corners, two were pointing towards a large red truck that was coming from the north (one with his left hand one with his right hand), while with their opposite hands they are waving frantically in the direction of three young people who are spread out at various distances along a sidewalk. There were also six other vehicles, five pedestrians, and three dogs that were actually in the road.


I heard a horn, and I looked up, and there were people waving and yelling, and these dogs were barking.

What the nick of the surprised robot would look like on a timeline, then, would be more like a balloon-like growth (fig. 1), and the story of the robot’s morning would be a dot at which she woke up, a straight line when she was walking to work, and then the bulb, wherein all the text that processed all that happened filled out the moment of being greatly aware of time via the events that unfolded before her, and would return back to a straight line once she recorded her statement and trotted duly off to perform the labor that humans were increasingly shunning, where there would be another dot.  Language, then, has the capability to conceptually – not actually – mimic the acceleration of processing data, an analogue to becoming more aware of something as it happens “in time.”  What this suggests, I hope, is that it is possible to think of or about time in moments other than these so-called “nicks.”

The Stitching Together of One’s Memories As A Form Of Critical Reading

A still from the 2010 adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go"*
A still from the 2010 adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”*

“This was all a long time ago so I might have some of it wrong; but my memory of it is that my approaching Tommy that afternoon was part of a phase I was going through around that time – something to do with compulsively setting myself challenges – and I’d more or less forgotten all about it when Tommy stopped me a few days later.“ (13, italics mine)

In chapter two it becomes apparent that the correct – see ethical – reading of one’s own ‘timeline’ bears the same sort of burden as it does for the characters in Heinlein’s novella: it’s an act of stitching together one’s own narrative, to the end of – the end of what? Making sense of the now? Or the “me” in the now? *** The answer to this question seems to be open-ended (hard to articulate), because of the fact that it is the author-character’s voice, whom we read as having some form of authority precisely because she is the narrator, only in the case of this book it is not presented as an omniscient narrator, but one that allows for the constant problematization of the narrative and therefore, because it is a personal memoir, of her own self, her own understanding of herself or the processes by which she has been – and is therefore still being – subjectivated, all via and by virtue of her memory and the fact that she is always ‘moving’…


In the third chapter, the aforementioned act of stitching together one’s memories is presented as a form of critical reading.

The main character, Kathy, has been closely watching the progress of a fellow student named Tommy, who has been exhibiting behavioral difficulties, when she notices a certain abating of his temper tantrums.  Curious as to the reason, she organizes a meet-up, so that she can ask him about it.  In the scene that follows it becomes clear that Kathy – herself actually memoir-narrating the whole thing, remember – through scrutinizing Tommy’s narrative – a narrative that involves a certain disclosure as to the character’s reality (and therefore, the novel) – seems to be doing through said scrutiny what she’s been doing throughout the text of the book: seeking to understand things through a correct remembering of what has happened and what’s been said.  What is interesting here is that because it is a sort of second-order ‘reading’ (Kathy remembering how Kathy was helping Tommy remember), and is therefore not burdened with the mantle of narrator, it allows us to see a bit more of the questions asked above ***: Tommy’s situation has allowed, via the help of Kathy’s scrutiny, the opening up of certain questions regarding the nature of the children’s lives.  It hasn’t given them much more information, persay, than they already know (the text allows this “But we have been taught all about that” page 29), but it manages to introduce a further and equally mysterious problematization into the narrative, one that gives it a lean forward, that further sucks the reader towards possible answers, but also causes a shift in orientation for the character-subject.  This is the difference between Kathy the narrator and Kathy the character: it lets us see that remembering as a mode of critical reading can work to orient us not only toward the ‘now,’ but toward the future.

* that I haven’t seen.

Reminder: these are notes from my reading of the text, as I work feverishly to complete a paper before the semester begins.