Relations of Power, Knowledge and Language in Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library

Mitarik Barma

Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


Michel Foucault in his book Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology notes with reference to Jorge Luis Borges’ work how language forms an invisible labyrinth of repetition while becoming its own mirror as it places “the infinite outside of itself”. In Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library we are faced with a narrative that not only draws our attention to the fictionality of the text as a language game but also the variance of interpretive freedom it offers to the reader. Thus it essentially raises the question of authorship as well as the human condition of being always already inside the labyrinth of language, culture and discipline. The aim of this paper is to explore the themes of discipline, imprisonment, and textuality as implicated by the text The Strange Library as well as to discuss the problematics involved with the relationship between the author, the text and the reader with reference to selected writings of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Tzvetan Todorov.

Keywords: Haruki Murakami, Michel Foucault, The Strange Library, Textuality, Discipline.

  1. Disciplinary power and its relation to the body

As Michel Foucault notes in his Discipline and Punish, the basic goal of disciplinary power was to turn the human being into a docile body which at the same time will also act within a system of production. In the text, entitled The Strange Library, authored by Haruki Murakami, what we find is a parallel to Foucauldian idea of disciplinary power and its relationship to body, sexuality and the technologies of the self.

At the very beginning, the speaking subject, a little boy is seen to be visiting a library, where rules and regulations must be followed. The books that he wanted to return to the library, How to Build a Submarine, Memoirs of a Shepherd, shows his interest into technical knowledge, that is to say in specialized discourses, situating the little boy as a scholar in the vast discursive network of knowledge. His youth in contrast to the old man he meets, points to the naivety of the speaking subject, while also establishing the old man as a regulative force, representing the ancient rules of language in which one becomes always already situated. By ‘fixing’ the boy within the regulatory space of the library the old man prepares the boy for imprisonment within the library basement, at the center of the labyrinthine network. As Foucault notes,

“The general form of an apparatus intended to render individuals docile and useful, by means of precise work upon their bodies, indicated the prison institution, before the law ever defined it as the penalty par excellence.” (Foucault, 1995)

From the very beginning the reference to sheep and shepherds and the passive nature of the boy scholar indicates that he is already a docile subject. As Dreyfus and Rabinow notes following Foucault, the development in Western political thought is threefold. Traditionally it was concerned with the just and good life of the individual.

“Political thinking was that art which, in an imperfect world, led men toward the good life, an art which imitated God’s government of nature.” (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982)

During the Renaissance however under the influence of Machiavelli,

“Practical, technical knowledge was raised above metaphysical considerations, and strategic considerations became paramount.” (ibid)

The third development in Western Political thought is what Foucault referred as raison d’état where the authors of police and technical manuals formed the policy and regulatory disciplines whose aim is neither the good life nor to aid the prince (state) but

“to increase the scope of power for its own sake by bringing the bodies of the state’s subjects under tighter discipline.”. (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982)

In the text we find that the boy scholar is interested lies in the tax-collection system during the Ottoman era. The three books that the old man supplies to the boy on this topic are: a. The Ottoman Tax System, b. The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector, and c. Tax Revolts and Their Suppression. Looking at the titles it is not very difficult to link them to the three-fold division in the development of western political thought. The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector, which by its title suggests to be the most subjective account among the three can be linked with the Classical Political idea of the West, where the focus was on the subjects of the state. The Ottoman Tax System can be linked to the Renaissance political idea, where the focus of political power shifts from subjects of the state to the state itself and finally Tax Revolts and Their Suppression can be linked to the tactics of raison d’état where regulatory systems works for the suppression of individuals and for the sake of the system of power itself. As Foucault notes in his Stanford lecture,

“…from the idea that the state has its own nature and its own finality, to the idea that man is the true object of the state’s power… a kind of animalization of man through the most sophisticated political techniques results.” (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982)

Thus the individual subject is treated as an objective body useful for production for the state only. The scholar boy’s duty is thus to accumulate knowledge, only to satisfy the hunger of the old man. The sheep man on the other hand functions in place of the police. Foucault notes in The Order of Things how the seventeenth and eighteenth century police dealt with subjects not under juridical considerations but as a productive, labor force working for the welfare of the state. In his Stanford lecture he notes,

“…What the police see to is a live, active, productive man. Under Louis XIV one manual says, ‘the true object of police is man’.” (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982)

Consequently, the police itself as part of the society and falling under different forms of regulatory principles becomes ‘docile’ to such systems of power. The fact that despite having the power of arms the police or the army does not generally try to overthrow the state pertains to the fact that they themselves are bound by different ideological apparatuses such as the law, the idea of good citizenship, nationalism etc. This is one of the reasons why the sheep man is afraid of the old man and his willow stick…Full Text PDF

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