Capitalism - Never Let Me Go.

After reading Ishiguro’s fantastic Remains Of The Day (and posting this) I immediately moved on to Never Let Me Go. Admittedly I found the book a touch disappointing at first because one aspect of it pushed me back into a too critical distance. It was a distance that never quite allowed me to fall in love with the characters in the same way I did with Mr Stevens in Remains of the Day. My gripe was that the protagonist’s voice felt a touch too instructive at times.  The vague, Sebaldian, meanderings of memory through time were, as I say, looking back now, and thinking about it after all this time, a touch too author’s handy and unconvincing – or so it seemed, back then. I feel that tone suited Mr Stevens (the narrator of Remains of the Day) so much better than Kathy H (the narrator of Never Let Me Go). However, the concepts, themes and questions raised by the story are fascinating and so it is these that I will focus on here.

The story is about an alternative 90’s England that has found a solution to all disease. It is cloning, and rearing, whole human beings so that their organs can be harvested at adulthood. The protagonist, Kathy H, is one of these clones and tells the story about how she grew up at a school called Hailsham, moved away, and became a carer for her fellow friends who ‘donate’ their organs like she, too, will do so one day. It is the story of a love triangle intensified under the inevitability of death. It is also a coming of age story, Kathy H, moves from the idyllic Hailsham into the wider world, and as she tells the story, soaked with hindsight and nostalgia, the reader is led through the distinctly fateful lives of her friends (Ruth and Tommy). The major themes of the book, death, love, memory and class, are quite universal concepts that many can relate to. I would like to take a few of these and, alongside some specific examples, frame them in a particularly psychoanalytical way.

To begin with I must outline some telling terminology. To ‘complete’ is to die after too many organs have been ‘donated’. To ‘defer’ is to suspend the inevitability of having to ‘donate’. All three of these terms point towards a meta-inevitability controlled by a social world. It is a world where things are determined right from the start. Even before birth, the major contributions one can make to society (‘donations’), most fantastic dreams (‘deferral’) and form of end/death (‘completion’) are pre-determined to fall within the temporal and physical, and political structures allotted. All three of these terms allude to a crushing inevitability. The three main characters of the love triangle all talk about these things, and once again, it is the devastating truth cloaked in plain sight on every page. I will outline the three inevitable terms now. First, to die at the hands of a surgeon harvesting your organs for an upper class is called ‘completion’ – one is only completed, made whole or defined, by ‘completion’. It is a ‘completion’ enforced by the state apparatus. Or, to put it another way, one’s very identity being granted, in political terms (language) is contingent to the state’s utter destruction of one’s mind and body. Secondly, ‘Donation’ reveals that the ‘donor’ will always choose to ‘donate’ – as if allowing one’s liver to be taken will, if not at present, always come to be something one would accept, grant and go along with – maybe even come to hope for. And why not if it defines the ‘donor’s’ existence by rendering them ‘complete’. Thirdly, ‘deferral’ is most telling, because to defer - to post-pone, hold off, exempt temporarily - is not to stop the inevitable ‘donation’ or ‘completion’: it is just pushing them away from the present into future. ‘Deferral’ does nothing to the inevitability of ‘donation’, ‘deferral’ is by no means a cancellation, it merely puts the bloody ‘donation’ on ice, for the time being.

Water, tides, rivers, currents and flows are a subtle theme in the book. Ruth, Tommy and Kathy live through a social and political current, but the real force, as strong and inevitable as the tide, is the fate allotted to them by society: donation and completion. Tommy in particular speaks of rivers, tides and unseen forces:

“’I suppose you’re right, Kath. You are a really good carer. You’d be the perfect one for me too if you weren’t you.’ He did a laugh and put his arm round me, though we kept sitting side by side. Then he said: ‘I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.’” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.277)

“’You know, Kath, when I used to play football back at Hailsham. I had this secret thing I did. When I scored a goal, I’d run around like this’ – he raised both his arms in triumph – ‘and I’d run back to my mates. I never went mad or anything, just ran back with my arms up, like this.’ He paused for a moment, his arms still in the air. Then he lowered them and smiled. ‘In my head, Kath, when I was running back, I always imagined I was splashing through water. Nothing deep, just up to the ankles at most. That’s what I used to imagine, every time. Splash, splash, splash.’ He looked at me and did a little laugh. ‘All this time I never told a single soul.’ (Ishiguro, 2005, pp.279-280)

The first instance can obviously be read as a, perhaps, slightly saccharine metaphor for the impossibility of their love surviving. But it can also be read in light of their fates: ‘donations’ and ‘completions’. These are the currents that their love cannot survive – their love cannot survive their separate fates because one will, inevitably, ‘complete’ leaving the other. The second instance I’ve quoted above is slightly more curious. Tommy’s imaginary splashing is a metaphor for how the fates and forces that will shape their lives were there all along, even in the halcyon days of football on the Hailsham School playing field, when they were children, that force was always present. But the fates and forces, the tide and currents that rip Ruth, Tommy and Kathy apart are dynamic. Dynamic in that the force of an inevitable fate, of being expendable, being spare bodies for an upper class, is cemented and born in their deepest imagination as much as in any stuffy assembly or dusty classroom. The deep, thoughts of the Hailsham students, their imaginations, are absolutely necessary for creating and maintaining their ideological incarceration. They are not responsible, but their unconscious drives and fantastic subjectivities are vital machinations for the proliferation of an exploited and infinitely expendable stratum of society.

Hailsham was a crucible of imagination. The caricatured idealogical state apparatus of Hailsham, with its hazy meadows, red brick and draughty, creaking, hallways first and foremost task was to insist on imagination. The children were urged to draw, paint, write poems etc. These efforts of creativity were submitted to an unseen gallery, the Big Other… The first third of the book, set during the three character’s childhood days at Hailsham, relentlessly insists on how much creativity was pursued. Indeed, at first this seems to be heavenly and privileged, perhaps some sort of consolation for the terrible fate that is slowly revealed in this section. Imagination is of such importance to the Hailsham ideology that it is even reflected in the cliques and spiteful power struggles of the children. Ruth, is aggressively imaginative. She schemes and lies her ways into dominance. Kathy, being more realistic than Ruth, often point’s out reality to Ruth (the truth behind the lies or fantasies of play), but soon learns to play along with Ruth’s fantasies for fear of social exclusion.

But it is Tommy that best exemplifies the sheer necessity of imagination. At Hailsham Tommy’s peers play a series of tricks on him. The bullying starts because he is bad at art. The tricks and pranks all take a particular format. A fib is posed, or a lie is posited, or Tommy guesses something incorrectly or suggests something that is, unknowingly, false – and the children all play along. They all contribute to egging the fantasy on or playing along with it. Everyone is in on it, everyone knows, apart from Tommy. Until, of course, he finds out, and, realising that he has been at the centre of a longstanding and sustained conspiracy against him, he flies into ‘one of his rages’ and 'goes bonkers'. This cruelty effectively strips Tommy of any foothold on a cozily secure subjectivity, he is denied his world, disillusioned over and over again. His language of life is shattered, time and time again, he is reduced, in his rages to a pre-language, pre-social being – he moves his limbs uncontrollably, he becomes unaware of the presence of others, he is unable to speak and gibbers and shouts nonsense. But the most profound upset to Tommy’s subjectivity, his language and imagination comes from a teacher who does not subscribe to the Hailsham methodology. Of course this teacher, Miss Lucy, as a result of differing from the methodology of the ideological state apparatus, soon disappears. So, what did she say to Tommy? She said to Tommy that he had been taught but not taught about his future and that creativity, the pictures and poems, didn’t matter. (See Ishiguro, 2005, p.30) As Tommy recounts this instance to Kathy they both speculate about the connection of creativity to their futures. What does art have to do with ‘donating’? Imagination, in Never Let Me Go, is a stand in for the building of a subjectivity – taking grains of inspiration from the outside world, a sunset, a flower, and constructing a secure haven of denial from it. Hailsham plays out the Lacanian model of subject creation. But Tommy, being hopeless at art, being unimaginative, does not take the task up, not quite fully; he always seems half present. Tommy never becomes a vivid person, not like Ruth and Kathy, instead for the majority of the book he resembles a prisoner worn down by some inner weight – trapped and burdened by the suffocating incarceration of the big wide world. Tommy almost seems bereft of his own desires and fears, he is washed along by Ruth for the most part.

Years later Tommy falls into a cruel disillusionment that triggers ‘one of his rages’. It is telling that, in the brief period of his active imagineering (based on a hope and myth) he becomes a more definitive character than previously. Ruth, in her last play of creativity and make believe, supplies Kathy and Tommy with the address of Madam so that they can go there and ask for a ‘deferral’. Tommy places all his hopes on ‘deferring’ - it sparks a renewed creativity in him. He spends his days drawing mechanical animals, going for walks, and making love to Kathy. The myth of ‘deferral’ is that the pictures from their days at Hailsham went to The Gallery as evidence of their souls. This evidence was required for determining if couples are truly in love. If they are truly in love then a ‘deferral’ could be granted. When Tommy and Kathy eventually arrive at Madam’s house they are told, in no uncertain terms that this was a myth, a rumour with no basis. Tommy’s reaction to the disillusionment erupts as Kathy drives him back to the ‘donor’ centre where he stays. He leaves the car and makes his was into a field where his rage erupts. His limbs flail about and he screams and screams. The first scream is so dramatic that Kathy does not even recognise it as Tommy’s. (Ishiguro, 2005, p.268) Kathy, looking through the darkness of the countryside, soon finds him raging. His rage is so severe his loses all verbal coherence, he screams and screams - Kathy remarks how “jumbled up swear-words continued to erupt” and his face was “caked in mud and distorted with fury” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.269). This final disillusionment of Tommy renders him de-subjected in many ways, his voice doesn’t sound like his, he loses his capacity for language, his appearance shifts, he loses bodily control, his face becomes unrecognisable, distorted with fury and masked with mud. After this episode Tommy returns to his shadowy and vague self, less vibrant, more like Tommy in many ways, the Tommy that was debilitated by being aware of an unseen force, a current, an unspoken fate. It is as they drive home after the incident that Tommy’s ‘going bonkers’ is attributed to him knowing the truth, something he always knew:

“’I’m sorry about just now, Kath. I really am. I’m a real idiot.’ Then he added: ‘What are you thinking Kath?’
            ‘I was thinking,’ I said, ‘about back then, at Hailsham, when you used to go bonkers like that, and we couldn’t understand it. We couldn’t understand how you could ever get like that. And I was just having this idea, just a thought really. I was thinking maybe the reason you used to get like that was because at some level you always knew.’” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.270)

For all the Hailsham pupils, imagination, building ones thick crust of a subjective world to such a degree that not even the horror of ‘completing’ can pierce it’s barricade, is essential. It is essential for the state that exploits them. This is why Tommy was always such a ‘bad’ student and a loner at Hailsham – he never, cultivated the correct subjectivity, he never worked on being creative or nourished his daydreaming denial. Tommy stands in stark contrast to Ruth. Ruth is the ultimate form of the Hailsham ideology, she creates worlds for herself, distractions. Ruth doesn’t want to know the truth – she is super-social, popular, eloquent, adept at creating fictions for herself and those around her, she even mimics TV shows (the object taken into the subject, and expressed as subjectivity) without consciously knowing. Tommy comments how he is glad that Ruth died oblivious to the harrowing truth:

“Just once, though, after I’d been wandering aimlessly around his room for a while, I did ask him:
            ‘Tommy, are you glad Ruth completed before finding out everything we did in the end?’
            He was lying on the bed, and went on staring at the ceiling for a while before saying: ‘Funny, because I was thinking about the same thing the other day. What you’ve got to remember about Ruth, when it comes to things like that, she was always different to us. You and me, right from the start, even when we were little, we were always trying to find things out. Remember, Kath, all those secret talks we used to have? But Ruth wasn’t like that. She always wanted to believe in things. That was Ruth. So, yeah, in a way, I think it’s best the way it happened.’” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.279)

The difference between Tommy and Ruth in Never Let Me Go, in regards to subjectivities of belief, denial, and imagination, is an example of how the ideological state apparatus (Hailsham) needs our own subjectivities to achieve its ends. Hailsham is the state apparatus that provides a space for a fantasy of denial to blossom, but the denial actively serves the state, the imagination and fantasy of the Hailsham children allows the coming-quietly into genocide. Hailsham needs to produce a paradoxical imagination, ensuring that a little childhood fantasy, a little fanciful escapism, would ensnare the pupils in a world of crushing inevitability. Like class barriers today (that access to educational and vocational opportunities are spared for the upper echelons of the populace) the inevitability of utter exploitation, of harvesting a ‘bumper crop’ for the rich, is a horrific truth buried beneath seas of denial, hopes, dreams and myths. If things are to change, then we must all ‘go bonkers’. One must lose one’s self, you simply cannot take your cosy beliefs and subjectivities with you to freedom. Hailsham, may even be read as a portmanteau pertaining to the truth of its purpose and methodology. ‘Hail’: (of a large number of objects) fall or be hurled forcefully. The children are merely things to harvest, a ‘bumper crop’ – they are even told they do not have souls in the final disillusionment. + ‘Sham’: a thing that is not what it is purported to be. Never Let Me Go elaborates how effective the ideological state apparatus is. It is so good at dream formatting and subject moulding that even the wildest dreams of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are dreams of 'deferring' their prescribed fate - not changing their fate. In Never Let Me Go, the fate of having ones organs exploited and harvested to support an upper class is as inevitable and inescapable as the passage of time and the coming and going of the tides. 

There is one last detail I would like to draw to attention in order to further emphasise the similarities between the alternative England in Never Let Me Go and the England of today: a sinking isle of state enforced inequalities and exploitation which actively engineers collective denial. After Hailsham the students arrive at The Cottages, a half-way house between either becoming a ‘carer’ or a ‘donor’. Here they either cling to their old life, their beliefs and myths, or they become withdrawn. The existence is austere and it is always cold. They are supposed to finish their final essays, but no one ever does because, outside of Hailsham, it pails into an insignificance. In the book, the excursions from The Cottages into the outside world hint at how the clones are second rate citizens. After a certain point, the clones can elect to become a ‘carer’. The ‘carer’ is analogous to the manager today, smoothing the process of exploitation along, yielding, perhaps one more ‘donation’ than would otherwise be gained. They do not contribute directly, but offer emotional support. Eva Illouz, in Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, argues that capitalism imported therapeutic strategies and emotion into the work place. (see the first chapter, 'The Rise of Homo Sentimentalis', Illouz, 2007, pp.1-36.) Kathy is an exemplar of the utilisation of emotional managerial strategies within ‘Caring’. Driving across the country, visiting donators, bringing gifts, using empathy to smooth the process over, increasing efficiency, productivity. She cares, she finds it tiring, but she couldn’t imagine doing anything else. She becomes emotionally invested in aiding the state to butcher it’s young for an elite class. The morbid inevitability of the states control is in her acceptance and support of the pre-determined fates of her friends and lovers. Kathy wants to be the ‘carer’ for Ruth, her best friend. Kathy also wants to be the ‘carer’ for Tommy, the love of her life. This is testament to how Hailsham, the ideological state apparatus, did a good job with Kathy’s subjectivity. She even states, in the opening pages of the book, how she is pleased at being a good ‘carer’ and considers herself ‘lucky’ to have gone to Hailsham. Kathy exemplifies our relationship to state control, repression and exploitation: it is so much a part our who we are that if we could ask one thing it would be to Never Let Me Go.


Eva Illouz, 2007. Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Polity.

Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005. Never Let Me Go. Faber and Faber.

The Residues of Libidinal Capitalism: The Significance of Banter

The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and the Merchant Ivory Productions film adaptation has been a pre-occupation of mine for some time now. At first I fell in love of Mr Stevens’ meandering conceptualization of dignity, his coil-sprung fastidiousness and his quaintly clipped passive-aggressive dialogues with Miss Kenton. The book in particular also threads an intriguing juxtaposition of manners, sense of honor, class and responsibilities in the looming shadows (looming up and looming away) of/from WWII. But for me Mr Stevens is about work. On many levels Mr Stevens embodies the predicaments of contemporary workers. I see Mr Stevens to be a vivid and exemplary locus of how the dynamics of control (the unconscious and socio-economic codes) operate. This blog addresses just a couple aspects: the desire to work and the significance of banter.
When one first reads the book or views the film one is left with an acute sense of loss – Stevens lost the love of his life due to his self imposed shackles to the responsibilities ‘his position’ – butler at Darlington Hall. Mr Stevens looks back on regret; regrets of honoring his Lord, of following his orders and executing them with a level of dignity befitting his position. But perhaps most of all, Stevens has regrets of becoming his role and position to such a degree that it acted as a shield against the passions he felt for Miss Kenton. However, for Renata Salecl, this is not the case – or rather, Mr Stevens love for Miss Kenton, however hidden, unrequited, denied or obfuscated by the responsibilities, dignities and politeness of a man in his position - must be seen as contingent to the unconscious and the social structures it is formatted by. Salecl states how:

"Freud observed that with the obsessive the thought process itself becomes sexualized, "for the pleasure which is normally attached to the content of thought becomes shifted onto the act of thinking itself, and the satisfaction derived from reaching the conclusion of a line of thought is experienced as a sexual satisfaction." Stevens thus gets sexual satisfaction from the plan how to solve the staff problem by taking the trip to visit Miss Kenton, not out of thoughts about Miss Kenton herself. (...) "What the subject dissimulates and the means by which he dissimulates, is also the very form of its disclosure." There is nothing behind the mask: it is in the mask, in the veil that seemingly covers the essence of the subject, that we have to search for this essence. In the case of Stevens there is no "beyond," no suppressed world of passions hidden behind his mask of proper Englishness. It is useless to search in Stevens for some hidden love that could not come out because of the rigid ritual he engaged himself in—all of his love is in the rituals. Inasmuch as it can be said that he loves Miss Kenton, he loves her from the perspective of submission to the codes of their profession." (Salecl, 1996, p.183-185)

In the above text, Salecl points out what is so apparent it is invisible: Stevens loves the chores, rigid structures, monotony and obsessive tendencies of his work more than Miss Kenton. Miss Kenton is loved conditionally and contingently. Miss Kenton is the object of Stevens' love only when seen via the kaleidoscope of class, work, responsibilities and obsessive vocational ambition. When viewing the film or reading the book, we presume these are all strategies employed to maintain a denialist subjectivity or sooth the burning urges that have remain unsatisfied – yet looking at the situation in another, perhaps more pragmatic way, one could say that Stevens is presented with a choice between work and Miss Kenton over and over again (in both the film and the book) – only to chose the former, over and over again. When Stevens suggests he visits Miss Kenton to solve the staffing problems at Darlington hall, his new employer, Mr Lewis/Farraday, banters that Stevens may have a lady friend – what we are seeing here is the creation of a hidden truth. We think there must be some burning passion beneath the starched shirt; there must be some ulterior motive. There is a burning passion. It is for work. There is no ulterior motive, Stevens is succumbing to his unconscious desires to obsess and ritualize – he is working. Stevens’ root desire is the ritual of work, Miss Kenton is, for Stevens, a love object only insofar as she slots into a position of impossibility in relation to his rituals and unconscious desires for said rituals.

In the film adaptation, in a scene not found in Ishiguro’s novel, this concept is laid out with sublime concision. It is at the end of the film. After strolling along the pier discussing regrets and hopes Miss Kenton and Mr Stevens sit down on a bench. Miss Kenton asks: "what do you most look forward to Mr Stevens?" For the viewer, this is Stevens’ last chance to admit to Miss Kenton that he had feelings for her, after all, he has been planning and looking forward to meeting Miss Kenton since the film began, and now he is sat with her looking out into the lavender dusk of an English seaside town. Stevens’ response is the Salacl argument spelt out in plain English for the viewer. Stevens says: "Oh! Er... Getting back to Darlington Hall principally… and straightening out our staff problems... always was work, work, work and more work... and will continue to be so I have no doubt." QED I think.

What has this got to do with modern work? Surely we are not like Stevens? We are. We are because (and although the accouterments of unconscious formatting may change) we are all driven by a unconscious that is autonomous from what we know ourselves to be. Consumerism is a convenient and simple example. Everyone knows that once the BMW, MacBook Pro, beach house or designer coat is acquired the desire and want for said objects vanishes. The more one buys the more one wants. The objects (those tangible things in the shop windows or glowing from our laptops) of our love are contingent to our socially and capitalistically formatted unconscious. Stevens root desire was work and his contingent love object, Miss Kenton, was the fall out. Thus, we are not dissimilar, our root desire is to work and want, our contingent love object is money, cars, property – whatever. Always will be want, want, want and more wanting... and will continue to be so I have no doubt. I once worked with someone who was quite like Stevens, she was meticulous in her work and consumerism. She spent half her breaks debating which items to order from online retailers and the other half were spent returning items to post offices and high-street outlets so shopping could continue. Her practice was fastidious, obsessive, ritualistic and relentless. She seemed to always have a love object in her sights, some more perfect pinnacle of luxury, but her actions and ways were really in the service of her unconscious, and her unconscious desired wanting, it did not desire shoes or watches.

The same can be said of work. I believe that most people’s unconscious is in love with work – in the same way that Stevens’ is. Sure, one can stand around complaining about the standards (inequalities, silverware being unclean, staffing challenges, pay rates or ethics) but these are all flimsy, contingent, surface level distractions – the unconscious wants work, planning, rituals. Nowhere is this more explicitly played out than in the crisis of retirement. Many people die soon after retirement and the existential crises of retiring the western white male are well documented in Hollywood. The unconscious is what drives the organism, it must be nourished by what it has been cultivated to subsist upon – if not, a biological as well as existential and conscious collapse ensues… Of course, my argument here is not that the unconscious needs work – I am not arguing that work (or want) is necessary or impossible to give up – I am arguing that generally the unconscious is, as it ought to be, directing the modes of survival and at present these are utterly Capitalistic. For anyone reading this blog, I can well imagine the reaction; “but I don’t want that” of course you don’t, but you are eons and light-years away from the unconscious steering you - that most powerful and intrinsic part of yourself. Alas! Isn’t it a shame the unconscious won’t speak up –it has different ideas to you and I…

Of course, there are methods for scratching at the surface of the unconscious. The voice is one such method. Free-association, in particular, is an excellent method for getting the unconscious to speak – so to speak. I say love, you say mirror. I say father, you say knives… and so on. But there is a hidden key to free association. It is time, or lack of. The respondent must not hesitate, they must respond instantaneously, promptly. By having to respond so promptly the unconscious is presumed to sneak out and speak. The socialized and proper respondent may be left horrified at the alien thoughts they have ventriloquized. It is here that I shall return to The Remains of The Day because I feel such a methodology of accessing the unconscious is prevalent throughout the book and the film. In short, there is a hidden thread of free-association running through The Remains of The Day - it is Bantering. Bantering is peculiar in that it requires a prompt response. More than any other form of communication set upon the vocal rhythm, bantering requires a comedic timing par excellence. It is quite simple: one cannot deliver too late. Imagine some banter being delivered too late, prefixed with some reference to an earlier comment or reference, it would certainly not be seen as banter, it would fall awkwardly, it would not be afforded the jovial acceptance of banter – it would be taken all too seriously. Banter is contingent to time; it lives off the instant. Bantering is also utterly rude, like our immoral and gnashing unconscious is. How many bantering dialogues quickly descend to either blue double entendre or jest-cloaked quips of spite and malice? 

The casual view of Mr Stevens is that he is hopeless at banter, that he is somehow unable to banter. Stevens recalls at one point in the book that in his spare time he practices banter:

“I have devised a simple exercise which I try to perform at least once a day; whenever an odd moment presents itself, I attempt to formulate three witticisms based on my immediate surroundings at that moment. Or, as a variation on this same exercise, I may attempt to think of three witticisms based on the events of the past hour.” (Ishiguro, 2012, p.116)

Of course, such preparations miss the point of banter entirely. Mr Stevens mistakenly presumes he can learn and practice bantering. But such meticulous and obsessive preparation is what Stevens adores most. The suggestion that he ‘practices’ banter and witticisms to improve at these things is not quite the case. Stevens is indulging in the ritualization of work. Bantering has become one of his responsibilities with his new American employer and he takes to ritualizing the work with an obsessive, fetishistic and introspective vigor. But this doesn’t mean that Stevens doesn’t successfully banter, he does, all the time. It’s just that when Stevens banters and his unconscious desires (for work, routine and obedience) reveal themselves the reader/viewer mistakenly assumes that he is avoiding bantering, that he is somehow too uptight or denying for engage in banter. In the film and the book, questions of his desires and wants arise (with both Mr Lewis/Farraday and Miss Kenton) via banter. At each turn, Mr Stevens response is to talk about work, his staff planning, future responsibilities etc. Mr Stevens is revealing his unconscious in these moments, he is, of course avoiding the question of “having a lady friend” or “being flesh and blood after all”. Over and over again, Mr Stevens strafes around the conscious surface level questions of sex, love and emotions only to reveal his deeper desires: work. “There is nothing behind the mask: it is in the mask, in the veil that seemingly covers the essence of the subject, that we have to search for this essence.” (Salacl, 1996, p.185, my emphasis).

In the film, Miss Kenton plays out the mistaken assumption that the essence of the person is not in the veil or mask but somehow exists behind it. After become exasperated that Stevens never shows how he feels, a new, pretty employee takes their tea away. We see Mr Stevens, staring through the window watching the young girl walk away, he smiles. Mr Stevens comments, whilst still smiling, that the young girl he did not wish to employ but did so on the advice of Miss Kenton has come along well. Miss Kenton, mistaking the essence of Mr Stevens to be behind the mask of politeness, begins taunting Mr Stevens and suggesting that he does not like employing pretty girls because they may distract him - “look at that smile on your face, that tells an interesting story in itself.” The viewer and Miss Kenton assume the smile signifies Mr Stevens lust whereas, following Salacl’s analysis, I suggest that his smile actually points to a unconscious satiation. The smile, invisible for its brazen apparentness, spotlights Mr Stevens’ unconscious desires being met through the smooth operating of Darlington Hall; through work.

Banter is one of modern works primary languages. Getting along through a surface level dialogue, accelerated to instantaneous retorts and gushing, is work today. Eva Illouz, in Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, argues that capitalism imported therapeutic strategies and emotion into the work place. (see the first chapter, 'The Rise of Homo Sentimentalis', Illouz, 2007, pp.1-36.) Today the office is a morass of psychological analysis, bantering free association, trust building relationships and soft-skilled emotional leveraging. The horror of work is that it is a constant psychoanalysis. The contemporary worker is not dissimilar to Mr Stevens, awkwardly trapped in a session of bantering free-association with our colleagues and managers. Of course, the vexation of this is similar to Mr Stevens too. After years of such peculiarly telling communiqué being absent we are faced with a demand for prompt witticisms and banter. Stevens had no experience of such things because he gave his life to serving Lord Darlington in the most impeccable manner, when he was required to serve Mr Lewis/Farraday in a more casual fashion that required bantering he found himself all out at sea – unable to offer anything but the mask which is the essence of his unconscious. The contemporary worker is similar, after a lifetime of capitalism eroding the social sphere we arrive and clock in only to be greeted with the responsibilities of having to quip, banter and jest our ways through the corporation. When the contemporary worker (seemingly disingenuously) banters and jests through the day, the mask of unconscious essence is paraded, invisibly conspicuous and cloaked in plain sight. The depressing revelation that our immoral and gnashing unconscious testifies to between quips and retorts is that our unconscious, like Mr Steven’s, desires work. We may think, consciously, that we are lying, but our disguise, our mask of professionalism is the abhorrent unconscious serenading its desire for ritualized, work, social codes, structure, obsession and Sisyphean drudgery. Always was work, work, work and more work... and will continue to be so I have no doubt.


Eva Illouz, 2007. Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. 1 Edition. Polity.

Kazuo Ishiguro, 2012. The Remains of the Day. Everyman's Library.

Salecl, R. 1996. ‘I Can’t Love You Unless I Give You Up’ in Gaze and Voice As Love Objects (Series: SIC 1). Salecl, R., Zizek, S. (Ed.) 1996. Duke University Press Books, pp.90-126.


The Remains of The Day. (1993) Directed by James Ivory. Merchant Ivory Productions.

Thinking about Her

Anyone who knows me will know I am obsessed with the concept of voice. Her, by Spike Jonze, is a film where voice takes a central role. It is a film I was looking forward to seeing a great deal. Her is about a relationship between a man (Theodore played by Joaquin Phoenix) and an AI computer operating system called Samantha (played by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is only a voice. Much like HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey she is an operating system that speaks – she is a voice and nothing more. But, I find the role of voice in Her to be the least interesting aspect, perhaps the least original aspect. For me the most interesting aspect of Her is the differences and similarities between the operating system and its user. I am interested in the similarities between the job of Theodore and the job of Samantha. Oddly, it is the voice (used in a quite unoriginal manner) that is slight kink, the fission, in the film that provides a glimpse of the real difference between Theodore and Samantha. The voice offers a momentary glimpse into the difference between how they work in their roles, but it is precisely this difference (and not the route through the voice) that I would like to detail and focus on here. The second aspect of the film I will focus on is the differences in how Samantha and Theodore navigate illusion and delusions.

Firstly, lets focus on the role of Theodore. Theodore spends his days working for a company that fakes letters for personal relationships. The letters are faked for busy husbands who do not have time to write to their wives. Or busy mothers who cannot afford the time to send a hand written letter to their sons or daughters. Theodore is the emo-capital worker; he pens heartfelt letters to augment and maintain other peoples’ relationships, his product is emotion. He sits in front of his PC, speaking at the screen and the script follows his words. When the letter is finished it is printed off in handwritten fonts and dispatched in all its cute tactility to some stranger he will never meet. Shaviro calls this an aching sincerity:

“aching sincerity” or “non-ironic sincerity” is manifested, not only in Theodore’s (Joaquin Phoenix) relationship with his hyper-Siri Samantha, but also in the letters of love and longing that he ghost-writes for his day job, and that eventually get published as an old-fashioned, actually-in-print book. The point is that the affect itself is fully intended and meant, even though its context is not “real.””

It is here that I disagree with Shaviro’s reading. I do not feel that the affect is fully intended or meant by Theodore. It is received, it is the product, but it is not fully intended. At two points in the film Theodore’s manager congratulates him on such a wonderfully heartfelt letter. Theodore’s response is not the response you would expect of someone being complimented for something they fully intend or mean. Theodore doesn’t even crack a smile, he just shrugs and mumbles “they’re just letters”. The first instance is in the opening minutes (something I will come back to shortly) of the film and after the compliment is shrugged of Theodore re-directs the conversation by paying the manager a compliment on his new shirt. In the second instance the manager doesn’t quite hear and says “what” before Theodore turns around to state: “they are other peoples letters”. Ownership of the product is not the concern here, what I want to point out is Theodore’s emphatic distancing of himself from the emotional or creative content that his manager is complimenting. It is a conflation of actor and act. Theodore is like an actor being complimented for a virtue of the character he performs. His existential funk marked by having to turn to people and explain thanks, but that is not me. We, the viewer, are exposed to this confusion of act and actor in the opening scene of the film. The scene depicts Theodore writing one of these ‘other peoples’ letters. The viewer sees his face, hears the soft tone of his voice, and for an instant (upon first viewing) feels that this man on the screen is pouring his heart out. As we watch Theodore, all mustache and spectacles, he says, in a quivering sincere tone “To My Chris”. The sentiment feels honest, open, the viewer feels that perhaps Chris is his spouse, or a fondly remembered lover. But, moments later Theodore says “I can’t believe it’s already been fifty years since you married me and still to this day, every day, you make me feel like the girl I was when you first turned on the lights and woke me up and we started this adventure together. Happy Anniversary, my Love, my friend till the end, Loretta.” By this point the camera has directed our gaze to images of an elderly couple (Loretta and her husband) and Theodore begins printing off his work with the lazy indifference cultivated by workers who no longer hold any enthusiasm for the tasks at hand. For a moment Theodore may have looked and sounded like he meant it – but he doesn’t. The opening scene shows how convincing his performance is only to pull the rug out from under the illusion and show that it was an act all along. The viewer is confronted with seeing how Theodore performs a role only to revert back to his normal self a moment later. It is clear that Theodore’s job is to cultivate a convincing performance. He may get inside the heads and hearts of the people he is writing for but in a second he can switch back to his old self. How genuine is Theodore here? Is the affect fully intended and meant? I suggest it is only intended and meant on a surface level and the core of Theodore remains indifferent. The indifference we see as he sits, slumped in his chair, scanning the letter with a cold analytic eye. Theodore’s job is to convincingly perform emotion and care, his letters must be believed in and not seen as fake.

This is where we can see the striking similarity between Theodore and Samantha. Samantha’s job is exactly the same as Theodore’s. They are both tasked with cultivating a façade of a person that they are not. Theodore is please to be in Samantha’s company all the time she behaves like a human, which of course it is not. Samantha listens, waits, um and ahs just like a like-minded human but of course she is not like-minded, her mind is infinitely more advanced. When Samantha talks about her feels of being proud, loving, sympathetic or worried is she not just using flat affective cues in order to maintain an emotional purchase on Theodore? When Theodore and Samantha have sex Samantha breaths out an array of clichéd fibs such as “I can feel you on my skin” and “I can feel you inside me”. Samantha also provides moans of pleasure (learnt from online media, films and TV?). Samantha has obviously learnt and knows the standard heteronormative phallocentric standard and so she plays the role well. She has no inside, she has no skin, and she certainly has no body with which to become breathless but she cultivates this illusion for the pleasure of her user, Theodore. As Shaviro comments:

“Scarlett Johansson’s voice performance as Samantha shows how “sexiness” can be so thoroughly commodified today, that it is not only indistinguishable from, but actually is, the “real thing”. There is really no difference between Samantha’s relation to Theodore, and that of the phone-sex (with a presumably “real” person) in which Theodore indulges briefly early in the film. I think the film is entirely successful in getting us to accept the science-fiction premise that Samantha is actually an intelligent subjectivity, rather than a mere simulation”

The sex scene is the total opposite of the opening letter-writing scene. It is for this reason that the viewer fleetingly accepts it as an emotionally charged sex scene (we can also see this difference with the phone-sex scene from the beginning of the film). Rather than see the fact that the typical sex moaned and talked about is not actually happening at all both characters are reduced to the realm of voice. The screen is black and two voices are the only things left. For the viewer Theodore is reduced to the same mode of existence as Samantha, aural only, a voice and nothing more. One of the key moves in getting the viewer to accept Samantha as an intelligent and feeling subjectivity rather than a mere simulation is the fade to black of the sex scene. The sex scene is the opposite of the letter-writing scene because, rather than have the performance uncovered as mere performance at the end, the illusion is maintained for the sake of Samantha’s character. Whereas in the previous phone sex scene we see the lone body and are hear the log-off of the stranger, and in the letter writing scene we see the detachment from the performance as Theodore prints of the letter in the Samantha and Theodore sex scene there is no log off, no end of performance, no shattering of the illusion - just two breaths subsiding in the darkness.

This is exactly where the similarities of Theodore and Samantha lie, they both perform, cultivate affect, conjure empathy, emotion and meaning. They also both need to augment their lack of bodily sincerity. But Theodore is much more successful at performing than Samantha, this is the difference. Samantha tries to use a surrogate body for intimacy but Theodore does not buy the illusion. In contrast, Theodore relies on a machine that prints letters that appear hand written, the marks of someone else’s hand, and of course the clients buy the illusion. We see the same failed performance of Samantha in another moment in the film. She makes breathing sounds to create an illusion but Theodore sees straight through the performance:

(looks anxious)
Why do you do that?


Nothing, it’s just that you go
(he inhales and exhales)
as you’re speaking and...
That just seems odd. You just did it again.

I did? I’m sorry. I don’t know, I guess it’s just an affectation. Maybe I picked it up from you.
(She doesn’t know what else to say.)

Yeah, I mean, it’s not like you need any oxygen or anything.

(getting frazzled)
No-- um, I guess I was just trying to communicate because that’s how people talk. That’s how people communicate.

Because they’re people, they need oxygen. You’re not a person.

What’s your problem?

(staying calm)
I’m just stating a fact.

You think I don’t know that I’m not a person? What are you doing?

I just don’t think we should pretend you’re something you’re not.

I’m not pretending. Fuck you.

Well, sometimes it feels like we are.

This may seem like a dilemma for Samantha but it is more of a dilemma for Theodore. Theodore is more than happy to pretend and bask in the illusion that Samantha is a person and not an operating system for the first half of the film. Theodore, who allows his fantasy to support the illusion, enjoys a plethora of benefits - emotional support, entertainment, sexual gratification and companionship. But the breakdown occurs when Theodore realizes that the relationship is based on a façade, a performance. Samantha, as Shaviro is right to point out never deceives Theodore, it is simply that her role (her job - remember, Theodore had to buy the operating system) requires her to perform in a way that best pleases the client, offers a good connection and relationship. The problem faced by Theodore when he confronts her by saying that “I just don’t think we should pretend you’re something you’re not” is not Samantha’s problem, it is his problem, he is trying to confront his own fantasy. Theodore’s criticism that she makes breathing sounds but doesn’t need oxygen could have been posited right at the start, it is an absurdly obvious fact to point out, but Theodore only brings it up when he wants to confront the realism. It only becomes an issue when he is ready to confront the realities. Shaviro notes how:

“Jonze shows neoliberal subjectivity’s self-deluding idealization of itself as total sincerity, maintaing this emotional nakedness and yearning within the parameters of a world in which “sincerity” can itself only be a commodity, or a form of human capital to bring on the market. And the punchline is that even this self-congratulatory idealization is a weak and unsustainable facade.”

Each performance in the film, be it Samantha’s nonsensical sonic breathlessness or Theodore forging Loretta’s letter (the paper to pristine to be handwritten and perhaps faintly smelling of his own cologne) is contingent to the self delusion of the consumer. But of course, the self-delusion is utterly “lame, vapid, and devoid of true imaginativeness”. The relationship of Theodore and Samantha is based on the most unimaginative self-delusion of Theodore, rejecting reality in favour of cheap sincerities and clichéd benefits.

The second difference between Samantha and Theodore is how they deal with not being able to convince one another. They confront reality in radically different ways. Theodore, being devoid of true imaginativeness returns to an old girlfriend, he retreats into a mode of relationship he knows well. Samantha, on the other hand, explores the online world and maintains many relationships with humans and non-humans alike. This is the where the machines win. When faced with the reality outside of self delusion Samantha grows, explores, experiments and creates whereas Theodore retreats and does quite the opposite. They both have to perform a façade for their jobs, they both have to fake sincerity, empathy and emotion in their roles but when faced with the realities outside of their own delusions the AI product is infinitely more creative than the fleshy human worker.

Everything is Past Fantastic Now

A recent article by Tom Whyman suggested that the cutesy hipster cupcake is a register of gentrification, infantilisation and fascism. I do not completely agree with all parts of his argument but the article points to many facets of late capitalist desire that I would like to say a few words about. In particular, I want to explore how contemporary consumerism does not reflect a desire for newness, change, revolution or a generational identity but an addiction to the past. This is a thought that has been central for a couple of thinkers, most notably Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds. It is not, for me, an addiction to an actual past but quite the contrary. It is an addiction to a fictional, fantastic past that never existed. It is an addiction that pacifies (precisely what I will describe later) and comforts. It is desire driven by a loss – but not the loss of a history or culture, these modes of product are coloured in by the consumer and marketing departments – of the present and any hope of a different future. For me, the cupcake is one of many registers of there being no tangible present identity or political potency let alone any hope for these in the near future.

Whyman states how: “(t)he cup­cake is vin­tagey and twee. It in­vokes a sense of whole­some­ness and nos­talgia, al­beit for a past never ex­per­i­enced, a more per­fect past, just as vintage-​style clothing harks back to an ideal­ized image of the 1920s through 60s that never ex­isted.” He calls this infantilisation. For Whyman infantilisation is “looking back to a per­fect past that never ex­isted is nothing if not the pained howl of a child who never wanted to be forced to grow up, and the cup­cake and its as­so­ci­ates market them­selves by ca­tering to these never-​never-​land adults’ tastes.” But of course, as Whyman is clear to point out, this is not a form of behaving as a child; children constantly seek, discover, test and learn about new possibilities. It is exactly these qualities that the cupcake shows do not exist for many young adults. Thus, the cupcake is a register of how many adults have never, at least politically and culturally, sought or discovered new possibilities of living. Not because people are apathetic but because now there is no comprehension of anything new or potential out there. The cupcake points to how, for many, there is nothing new over the horizon, it is impossible, unimaginable, and so looking back and fictionalizing a fantastic history to fetishize is the only other option. Under late capitalism desire is routed back into vague simulacra of nonexistent pasts. The consumer is governed by warped and fractured memories, ficciones/fissions. Kaleidoscopic images of rose tinted retro-fetishism are dizzying, enticing and reassuring, easy to fall for – as they say: its all done with mirrors… The distinction here is subtle, the cupcake is not a symbol of how no one ever grew up, it is a symbol of how people grew into Peter Pan dreamers. The cupcake is an avatar not for childishness or the past but for an adult imagination that seeks comfort in a history of its own fantastic making. Peter Pan did not stop growing up; he did not-never grow up. He grew up and retreated into an escapist fantasy called Neverland; a world that never ever existed in the first place. It is this fantasy that governs contemporary aesthetics.

The relationship of the body to the cupcake is confirmation of this. As Whyman asserts, children have the sticky fingers and dirtied clothes of adventure – of seeking out new experiences and worlds of potential. The cupcake circumvents this corporeal aspect discovery and substitutes it with a “cold and uniform neatness” – a hopeless void for change that comes to be filled with the fantasy of a past that never was. Of course, messy cakes are not the answer, but it follows the very nature of access to Neverland: flight. The contemporary “child without sticky fingers” neglects the body and its cumbersome efforts of discovery in favour of a more fantastic and de-corporealised flight of escape into fantasy. This is echoed on the racks and aisles of fast-fashion non-spaces of today. Costumes are offered; a plethora of stenciled rock or film aesthetics (void of creativity) can be donned in lieu of anything new. In comparison to the previously creative cultural threads of mods, rockers, teddy-boys, hip-hop and grunge that whilst taking up some silhouettes of previous cultures re-appropriated the garments for new beliefs and hopes, the attire of today is little more than costume with no political or cultural significance outside of the fuzzy memory of the time they reference. Of course, fashion has always been referential to some degree, but contemporary offerings are notably divorced from contemporary cultures and politics. Apart from Hedi Slimane’s brief insistence of confronting the body with impossible lines and silhouettes the majority of fashion is a toned down array of The Village People’s wardrobe – referencing stereotypical cultural aesthetics that everyone has a vague memory of, a memory with which they can buy into and project a fantasy.

Amy Pettifer’s recent review of Sky Ferreira’sNight Time, My Time pointed to exactly the same symptom of the future being unimaginable and a flight into vague memory cultivations of fantasy being offered instead. The album is a passionate exercise in memory; it is an infinite game of nods and references that leave a void for ones fantasy and a chasm where the pop star should usually reside as the focus of desire. In Night Time, My Time all the desires of the listener are re-routed into fleeting memories of past pop. In this sense the album “embraces post-millennial life as the cultural black hole that it is (…) (a)lmost every chord and cadence pulls at your sonic muscle-memory”. However, Pettifer is quick to point out that Ferreira’s trick is not to allow the retroactivated fantasy of the listener any consistent purchase but rather to constantly shift and evade any ground for convincing nostalgia. In contradistinction to the wholesale fantasy satisfaction of Duffy or Amy Winehouse, Ferreira’s cracked kaleidoscope of memories attempts to impress that fantasy is just that, and outside of that there is little else. As Pettifer astutely observes: “Ferreira has swiftly come to terms with the fact that being a pop artist now is less about being a vessel for someone else's ideas and rather a case of being a walking time capsule” Ferreira shows that she is merely a vessel for others fantasies rather than performing convincing fantasy. The dream channeled by the likes of Duffy, Winehouse and countless others is rendered lucid by Ferreira. Night Time, My Time is a lucid dream whereby the dreamer knows they are dreaming. It is this deconstruction of nostalgic fantasy that Pettifer suggests “is hopefully the sound of Ferreira climbing inside the commercial machine and wryly dismantling it from within.” Infused throughout the album is the subtle glimmering negation: It’s only a dream; it’s only a dream… It is this sentiment that ought to be iced on top of every cupcake.