New understanding of AI through post-humanist life writing

21 minutes to read
Jaimy Pijpers

Life writing is a genre conventionally reserved for only the perspective of and the life of human beings. The genre is a form of self-expression that is exclusively accessible to humans. In the age of the Anthropocene where humans have had a significant impact on the planet and still have, the restriction of life writing for only human life is not sufficient enough and seems an outdated way of thinking. Man-made disruptions during the Anthropocene are not just geographical footprints like species extinction and climate change but also artificial intelligence (AI). The story of artificial intelligence on planet Earth has only begun, yet the technology is already seen as the future, and businesses transnationally are investing in it. AI has been used for several years to predict consumer behavior and influence consumer choice and is already transforming how the world works and how people navigate the world. 

As AI continues to advance and become more and more integrated with people’s day-to-day lives, it also becomes more apparent in popular culture. Films like ‘Ex Machina’, ‘Bicentennial Man’, or newer ones like ‘AI Love You’ or ‘JUNG_E’ all include portrayals of artificial intelligence. Popular culture and science fiction illustrate the endless possibilities of AI. AI has become a basic feature to characterize the robot in the story as ‘The Other’ (Cave et al., 2018). Characteristics usually ascribed to AI are violent and destructive motives or extreme social abilities due to technological advancement (Oliveira & Yadollahi, 2023). But while AI stories often unfold against the background of technological development, the social issues don’t necessarily have anything to do with technology (Hermann, 2023). 

As the age of artificial intelligence has received its own name – the Algorithmocene (Lee, 2020) – Isn’t it time to open up the genre of life writing to artificial intelligence? To provide a more nuanced and alternative perception of AI, and let AI stories unfold with their own social issues.

In the book ‘Klara and The Sun’ Kazuo Ishiguro enables a more nuanced and in-depth portrayal of the life of an artificial robot. This paper explores the topic of post-humanist life writing through the case study of the book Klara and The Sun. The exclusivity of the humanist perspective in life writing can be seen as a fault in the contemporary world. Post-humanist life writing opens up the exploration of life beyond human beings and helps people to understand and appreciate the life stories of other forms of life including artificial life. 

Humanist life writing: the autobiography and biography

Life writing is the written account of a life. The genre is about the written expression of one’s identity and inside perspectives. It is the expression of the autonomous and conscious self and asserts sovereignty over the knowledge about one and one’s world. There are multiple forms of life writing. There are journals, memoirs, letters, and testimonies. Life writing includes many kinds of texts. This paper will focus on two specific forms of life writing: the autobiography and the biography. 

The autobiography is written by the self and the biography presents an outside but objective perspective about a life. The key differentiation between the two specific forms of life writing is authorship. In the seventeenth century, Lejeune made a clear distinction with the concept of the autobiographical pact. This pact includes the establishment of a threefold identity: the author, the subject, and the narrator. In the autobiography, all three entities are the same. The author declares a commitment of truth to the reader by presenting the text as autobiographical and the reader thus trusts the author that what they are reading is a truthful – and thus autobiographical – story (Wagner-Egelhaaf, 2019). The main difference between an autobiography and a biography is that the biography is a written account of a life, but written by someone else than the subject. Whereas an autobiography remains subjective to the writer. The author of a biography uses objectivity and evidence to convey as accurately as possible someone’s life story. This life has been most often the life of a human being. 

One of the reasons both forms are mainly reserved for human life is because there are no available autobiographical accounts (yet) of artificial intelligence and their life experience. This reason however only accounts for the autobiography where there is a threefold identification, but not for biographies. The conventional conception of the human race as being the only entity with agency and voice is one of the reasons why there is a lack of non-human written life accounts. Many philosophers argue that moral agency is an exclusively human characteristic. This absence of such moral agency in non-human entities gives superiority to humans over non-human entities. This indicates an underestimation of the mental lives of other non-human beings (Shapiro, 2006). Critics of advocates of this theory argue that the states of non-human minds can’t be known with absolute certainty as there are no records by other-than-humans. Life writing through a post-humanist lens raises critical philosophical and epistemological questions challenging the traditional notion of the genre, such as what counts as a (narratable) life, who can write about this life, and what form the storytelling adopts.

According to Sarkowsky (2022), the post-humanist discussion should not be about selfhood and autonomy and what is or is not a life. Although these are vital and recurring elements of the discussion, its focus should be more on relationality. In particular three aspects of relationality: voice, narratable life, and narrative form. The aspect of narratable life is closely connected to the problem outlined above by critics of post-humanist life writing about what accounts as a life. Although the aspect touches on the question of what counts as life, the narratable component highlights the holes in the boundaries between humans and other-than-human species. To broaden the concept of narratable life to a post-humanist scape means to include forms of life expression that are currently not accepted nor recognized as relevant in life writing. The aspect draws on human’s capability of understanding other life expressions in terms of life narration. 

But the discussion of what counts as a life – who and what has moral agency – and human’s capability to understand extends to the central conceptual problem of voice. The paradox of post-humanism lies in the question of who speaks and who has a voice. To give voice to non-human life experiences to this day appears to be inevitably bound to the human voice. Even when narratives are exploring other lives and worlds it is still told by a human. Yet, this is where relationality jumps in according to Sarkowsky (2022). Relationality focuses on the question of how humans create identity in relation to and moves away from the notion of the autobiographical autonomous selves. This reduces the preoccupation with the self and moves the genre more toward life in the world. Although this shift doesn’t remove the human race as a centerpiece in life writing, it does emphasize more on the relation of life with the world. This still mostly includes human-to-human relations but critical non-human and other-than-human relation research seems to open up the genre slowly (Batzke, Garrido & Hess, 2021). The introduction of relationality, therefore, shifts voice to not just the physical process of sound production but also the metaphor of agency. Although voice for now remains to be human it is an effective node of interpreting the world and envisioning and understanding non-human life as it explores the presence of other-than-human life. 

The last aspect of Sarkowsky (2022) about narrative form is about what form of narration post-humanist life should adopt. With Klara and The Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro introduces characteristics of the novel into the genre of life writing to enable a new form of life writing. 

Post-humanist life writing challenges people to critically think about how autobiographers and biographers are connected to and engage with the materiality of their lives as it challenges how narrative works (Batzke et al., 2021). This could mean that the autobiographical pact and other certain aspects of the traditional notion of the genre have to be re-envisioned and possibly abandoned. Opening the genre up beyond humans means prioritizing the focus on relationality over the focus on the human self. 

Post-humanist life writing: the possibilities of the novel 

To expand the life writing genre with a post-humanist lens, several genre constraints have to be re-evaluated. What is traditionally deemed as characteristics for the genre of the novel could help to enable a proposition of a new form of life writing: the presentation of an other-than-human life.

The concept of time plays a significant part in opening up life writing to post-humanism. Life writing always happens within a certain time period, the period of the subject’s life. While biographies can be written after someone has passed, an autobiography is always written during one’s life and stops when one’s life stops. According to Smith & Watson (2017), novelists are not bound by (historical) time. Meaning they can situate their narratives at any time in the past, present, or future. When it comes to post-humanist life writing this is an essential barrier that needs to be broken as the time has not come yet that other-than-humans are writing about their life experiences. In (auto)biographies readers are given a historical time period, this allows for a set of possibilities within the context of the story of the subject's life. This traditional narrative notion of life writing puts time in an intelligible and structured order, yet the chaotic presence of everyday life is filled with surprising elements and novel acts. The novelty of novels lies in the present holding together the past and future with infinite possibilities (Harrison, 2009). Time isn’t as important in novels as in (auto)biographies. Thus, a life writing form unbounded of time gives the opportunity to explore the life of an other-than-human. A life which is unknown as to when life starts and when it finishes. And opens up the time-bounded set of possibilities to endless possibilities. This endlessness represents the relationality of humans to other-than-humans as there are still umpteen relations to be explored. This leads to opening up traditional life writing from exclusive use of referentiality to including probability and signs of fiction in the genre (Smith & Watson, 2017).

A notion of the fictive novel is the perception of novelists' commitment to the dramatic and emotional impact over truthfulness and factfulness. Autobiographers are less concerned with artistic values and more so with being as accurate and faithful to the experience and interpretation of the subject and the subject’s world. While it might be true that novelists are more interested in form and imagery to create a symbolic and artistically unified world, this is needed to give life writing a post-humanist form. Autobiographers seek truth through intersubjectivity and interpretation. They take the necessary steps to ensure the text covers everything and that no important event is forgotten, and that the interpretations of the subject are honest through memory and referentiality. The autobiographical text that eventually comes into existence shows the state of mind and the relationship of the subject all mapped out. However true the subject’s mind is to the autobiographer, however true the imaginative subject’s mind is to the novelists. While autobiographers are exploring and describing the conscious responsive minds of humans, novels in parallel explore and describe the unconscious unresponsive minds of imaginative beings. Paradoxically, novels of fiction often come closer to the subjective truths of experience than works of nonfiction. This is due to the particularity, immediacy and chaotic nature of everyday life which non-fiction works fail to capture. Many people’s understanding of the world and societal written and unwritten rules is therefore shaped by fictional works, including books, films, television shows, plays, and music (Harrison, 2009). The genre of life writing and the specific forms associated with the genre should be further extended to provide non-human perspectives. As people make sense of the world and how they navigate in it through fictional works, providing other-than-human perspectives can lead to more acceptance of and understandability of other-than-human entities. 

To pursue the life writing of a subject is to emphasize the value of someone’s story. In order to emphasize and understand someone it is important to understand someone’s perspective. How did it look to them, what did they think they had to deal with, what alternatives did they see? Only when people look at something from the point of view of someone else can a true understanding of why they behave as they do, and can explanations of the performed behavior like social norms and subcultures be found (Harrison, 2009). In the upcoming Algorithmocene – in which humans also have a lasting impact – humanist life writing provides inadequate perspectives in a time where multiple forms of life are intimately interconnected. With Klara and The Sun Ishiguro shows how exactly the novel can help with opening up the most humanist life writing genre to post-humanism, and create more understanding. 

Klara and The Sun 

Klara and the Sun is a story about companionship between a human – Josie – and a robot or artificial friend – Klara. In the book artificial friends (AFs) are made as companions for humans, especially children, as in this world having friends and companionship is not as common as it is in the contemporary world. Josie is undergoing a genetic editing process called ‘lifting’ to enhance herself as a human being and increase her chances of a better life with more opportunities. For example, there is only one educational institution that accepts a limited number of non- ‘lifted’ children. The lifting process does not come without any risks and eventually, Josie gets sick. Klara is chosen to protect, care and accompany Josie. This however not the case. In a quest to save Josie, Klara is challenged to go beyond her capabilities and sacrifice parts of herself to ensure Josie gets better. 

Klara and The Sun, illustration by Jenna Sharaf

Klara and The Sun: life writing of an artificial friend

The book is written from the perspective of Klara. The story follows her side of the story from the moment she came into the AF store, the promise from the little girl who later turned out to be Josie to take Klara home with her, the endless waiting for Josie, and the quest of saving Josie. The book shows her thoughts, her feelings, and her life experience as an artificial friend. This is an essential element for (auto)biographical written life accounts as it references the lived experiences of the subject. As stated before, biographical texts are written accounts of a life. These texts are written by someone else than the subject. In Klara and The Sun the narrator and subject are the same entity, only the author differs. And since the book portrays the state of mind and the perspective (of an artificial other-than-human) it could already be said the book could fall in the biography category. 

The book in particular plays with conventional stereotypes of robots and other artificial machines. By positioning Klara as the narrator of the story and focusing on her actions and behavior and what defines her as an artificial ‘friend’, Ishiguro echoes the post-humanist field that perceives artificial intelligence as capable of exhibiting human qualities (Ajeesh & Rukmini, 2022). As a first-person narrator Klara has a rich and complex subjective experience of her life and surroundings, this portrayal makes the story able to move beyond conventional ontological and epistemological questions regarding AI: is AI merely a sophisticated statistical machine, or is AI capable of reason, understanding and self-knowledge? There is a common notion of AI not being able to be self-aware. Klara and The Sun describes in detail Klara’s mind, and with every page, it becomes more and more impossible to reject her capability of reason, understanding, and self-knowledge. At the beginning of the book Klara says “the more she watched, the more she wanted to learn” (Ishiguro, 2021, p. 20), she recognizes her shortcomings and states her commitment to learning more. It is in this small sentence Ishiguro establishes Klara’s ability to self-reflect and thus her capability of being self-aware. The question of whether or not Klara is an intelligent entity is immediately put to bed. It shows the reader that Klara is in fact capable of intersubjectivity and interpretation as Klara is capable of reflecting on her life. 

While agency is still an important element in the book by establishing Klara’s capabilities of intersubjectivity and interpretation and combining both the genres of life writing and novel, the book shifts beyond selfhood and autonomy. Consequently, the importance of relationality is brought to the foreground. The book forces the reader to confront more interesting, philosophical questions concerning humanity’s relation with artificial intelligence. What is the relationship between the human race and AI? Are there similarities? How do humans and a humanist-constructed world look like to other-than-human life forms? Klara and The Sun emphasizes the relation of life with the world. 

Another important characteristic Klara and The Sun incorporates of the genre of life writing is the time bounded element. The narrative of the book follows Klara’s life, and is thus constricted by her lifespan. The book follows Klara’s life experiences in chronological order from the moment she is set up in the store until she is brought to The Yard where she has a slow fade. In humanist terms, the story follows Klara from when she is born until she dies. Ishiguro plays with the traditional narrative notion of the genre of life writing by putting the time element of the story in a structured order. Thereby adopting the narratable form of humanist life writing for post-humanist life writing. But the story doesn’t only adopt the structure in its narratable form. Traditionally the context given through the element of time in (auto)biographical texts is a point of reference for readers. They can pinpoint certain happenings and possibilities in the text to the socio-cultural happenings in that time period. A historical or current time period. Klara and the Sun is not situated in a time period readers can refer to. But although the technologies and socio-cultural happenings in the book are not something from the contemporary world there are a lot of similarities between the two. The story is set in a speculative future with complex characters, yet at the same time, the imaginative world offers an uncanny similarity with the contemporary world because the carefully constructed world looks plausibly like the contemporary world, just more technologically advanced. Instead of a story straight out of science-fiction world, the reader is confronted with the intimate mundane everyday life of an ordinary family. The story isn’t about heroic characters rebelling against a dystopian world, but about normal everyday people trying their best to adjust to this different way of living (Mejia & Nikolaidis, 2022). 

Furthermore, using the unbounded time element Ishiguro is able to capture what humanist life writing often fails to capture. The particularity, immediacy, and chaotic nature of everyday life. Whereas in narratives most often one thing happens at a time, the book captures the collapsing of simultaneous situations. For example during the interaction meeting with Josie and her peers. This interaction meeting is a social gathering for lifted children to help them interact and get along with other children, as this is not common in the book’s society. As mentioned above there are multiple layers of technological superiority in the book. Rick’s and Klara’s imposed inferiority becomes explicitly evident during this meeting as the other lifted children show their condescension toward both Rick and Klara in different ways. Rick is asked questions that started off innocent but due to the lack of social skills from all parties become quickly intrusive and offensive. While Rick is questioned about who he is and why he is who he is, Klara is completely dehumanized. Instead of asking who she is, Klara is forced to perform humiliating tasks a servant would. Josie is asked multiple times if they can throw Klara around. This shows how the attended children see and treat AFs more so as an object or a toy who is supposed to somersault and land clean on their feet than as a living entity. Klara is also compared to other AFs which shows the human perception of homogeneity amongst artificial friends. There is only one girl in the room who calls throwing AFs across the room evil to which one of the boys says the girl is too soft. The scene captures how in what looks like one event, multiple things are happening at once. This gathering of multiple situations is enabled by using novel characteristics and slightly abandoning the ordered time structure, not in the coherent whole but just for this particular scene in order to capture the chaotic nature of daily everyday life.

Klara and the Sun and relationality

It is important to understand the societal relevance of the book in the discussion of posthumanism. With Klara and The Sun, Ishiguro enables the life writing account of an other-than-human life form through the combination of using characteristics of life writing and novel. But perhaps more importantly, it illustrates the arguments and counterarguments of what counts as a (narratable) life in the discussion of posthumanism by situating Klara in humanizing and dehumanizing positions. 

In Klara and The Sun Ishiguro explores humanity’s quest of achieving perfection. To be human is to have imperfections. The quest for human perfectibility goes back to the seventeenth century and has occupied not just the minds of many scientists but philosophers as well. With philosophers such as William Godwin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau believing in the progressive nature of human beings, the idea of human beings being potentially perfectible came into existence. This idea has been the foundation of superiority complexes and has people assert their superiority over other people (Sun, 2022). The quest for obtaining natural perfectibility in the algorithmocene has shifted to the artificial domain. Technological perfectibility is often associated with the idea of a ‘superhuman’, ‘transhuman’ or ‘posthuman’. But most often this ‘superhuman’ is not an entity beyond humans but more so the 2.0 version. The issue of control and superiority comes again into play when discussing technological perfectibility. There is a fixation on complete control over these technological entities or objects which is a fantasy of obedience.

Ishiguro explores this fantasy of obedience and the tension between natural and technological perfectibility. In the book, AFs are technologically augmented entities created to counterbalance the weaknesses of humans. Klara is meant to accompany Josie and help her with her illness. At multiple times in the book Klara has been the fastest in detecting Josie’s condition. Clearly, she is more capable than the other humans. Yet at the same time, these AFs who improved humans are under the control of humans and are only to perform their assigned roles. They are the technological others of human beings and not another form of life helping human beings become better. Klara is portrayed as ‘the Other’. This is where life writing jumps in to provide for a more nuanced view of Klara. So the reader can relate to Klara and develop a relationship with an other-than-human life. 

For example, in a conversation with Josie’s father about Klara possibly replacing Josie they discuss the reason why she wouldn’t be able to succeed to continue as a human and the uniqueness of human beings: 

“Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?” (Ishiguro, 2021, p. 242).

To Klara, the human heart is not the problem as “a human heart is bound to be complex but it must be limited” (Ishiguro, 2021, p. 243). While Klara foresees little complication to continuing Josie, Josie’s father insists on the individuality of humans and the homogeneity of artificial friends. By this point in the story, Klara has already displayed humanist qualities like empathy, compassion, happiness, and longing. The reader has to reconsider what makes a life a life beyond the traditional human reserved characteristics like a moral agency. As a result, the focus shifts to the relation of a life with the world and others in the world. According to Stenseke (2022), the value of Klara’s life depends on the view of others, regardless of Klara’s metaphysical abilities or agency. 

People’s understanding of the world and societal standards are for a large part shaped by fictional works. Oftentimes it is the lack of understanding of how other-than-human life forms fit into the social world. Social rules are put in place to coordinate in the world and structure social interactions. For instance, speaking with two words when talking to someone with authority. When new and different players are introduced to the social field it can cause tension as people don’t know what to do. For example, when Klara visits Rick’s house and meets his mother she wonders out loud whether she should treat Klara as a house guest or some kind of vacuum cleaner. By giving Klara metaphysical abilities and simultaneously putting her in situations she is dehumanized the reader experiences feelings of empathy for her. Throughout the book, Klara is reduced to an artificial servant with no feelings or thoughts of her own. Josie’s mother brought Klara into their home to observe Josie and eventually continue as Josie even states she envies Klara as she has no feelings. To this, Klara said:

“I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available.” (Ishiguro, 2021, p. 111). 

Klara goes above and beyond to cure Josie which seemed like a hopeless case but ended in a miraculous recovery. She even gives some of her liquid necessary to function properly to ensure Josie’s recovery. In the end, Klara, an artificial being, is portrayed as more ‘human’ than the other human characters in the book. The complex psychological process and abilities of Klara lead to the recognition of how similar those mental processes are to how humans perceive, think, and act. This resemblance as well closes the bridge between the autobiographer and the novelist as the book shows parallels between the state of mind of a human and of an imaginative being or other-than-human life form. 

Towards the end of the book Klara discusses with her old Manager why she wouldn’t have succeeded in continuing as Josie:

“Manager, I did all I could to learn Josie and had it become necessary. I would have done my utmost. But I don’t think it would have worked out so well. Not because I wouldn’t have achieved accuracy. But however hard I tried, I believe now there would have remained something beyond my reach. The Mother, Rick Melania Housekeeper, The Father… There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.” (Ishiguro, 2021, p. 338).

With the ending, Ishiguro suggests that it is not the metaphysical abilities or agency of the human race that makes their life worthy of the notion of life. It is others who allocate what is deemed a life. Ishiguro allows readers to experience the world through the eyes of artificial life by combining genre characteristics of life writing and novel. And forces readers to re-evaluate ontological and epistemological questions about humans and their relationality with artificial intelligence and the world. 


The concept of post-humanist life writing can feel uneasy as it goes against the traditional understanding of the genre. But in the age of the Anthropocene where humanity’s self-centeredness is seen as the catalyst behind the catastrophic happenings today like climate change and species extinction, the Anthropocene should be seen as an opportunity to rethink and challenge the role of the human race. Post-humanist life writing can provide a better understanding of other-than-human perspectives. It raises important philosophical questions and will help people understand and sympathize with other forms of life. Through Ishiguro’s portrayal of artificial life as a life capable of cognitive processes – which are conventionally exclusively human attributes – a new perception of artificial life is created. A post-humanist perception that challenges the conventional perception of AI as incapable of emotions. The book reflects on a philosophical discussion about the self, soul, and consciousness. It re-evaluates what makes humans human, and what makes life a life. It opens up the possibility of extending ‘human’ qualities onto other-than-human entities. Klara is not just a machine and seeing her world through her eyes reveals a psychological complexity and a rich subjective experience of other-than-human life. 

Genre characteristics of the novel could help open up life writing and broaden people’s perception and understanding of other-than-human life forms. Novels often come closer to the subjective truths of experience due to the novel’s ability to capture the particularity, immediacy, and chaotic nature of everyday life. Also by introducing the concept of time of novels in life writing would open up infinite possibilities which allows more to be explored. There is no knowledge yet when an other-than-human life will come into existence or already is here. A life writing form unbounded of time gives the opportunity to explore the life of an other-than-human.

The re-evaluation of traditional characteristics of the genre life writing, and even possible abandonment of the autobiographical pact, provokes an even more controversial question if it is even possible to open up the genre to post-humanist life writing: if not, does life writing as a genre in the age of the Algorithmocene remains relevant? This question reconceptualized the center stage humanity has taken in the planet’s story and further focuses the emphasis on relationality. Post-humanist life writing is a step toward humanity’s responsibility of not further endanger and damage the world inhabited by humans and other-than-human entities and embracing the interconnectedness of it all. 


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