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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 389-421

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Criminality and (Self) Discipline:
The Case of Paul Auster

Joseph S. Walker

I had come to the limit of myself, and there was nothing left.

—Paul Benjamin, Squeeze Play

Quinn let out a deep sigh. He had come to the end of himself. He could feel it now, as though a great truth had finally dawned in him. There was nothing left.

—Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy

Double-Edged Discipline

Beneath the often playful and chaotic surface, there is a sense of deep meaning in the fiction of Paul Auster that concerns itself primarily with the position of the individual in contemporary society—and more specifically, with how (or whether) that individual can free him- or herself from dominant hegemonic systems to achieve a measure of self-determination. The key to this question lies in the interplay in Auster's texts between two opposed forms of disciplinary power. The first operates on behalf of the dominant ideological structure of society, the patriarchy, [End Page 389] often represented in Auster through the rather literal embodiment of father/son relationships. The second is a particular notion of self-discipline that many of Auster's characters willingly subject themselves to, and that at moments seems to offer genuine hope for some form of freedom. 1 The interaction of these two forces constitutes the obsessive subtext to which Auster continually returns, and the points of crisis in his texts when they most significantly emerge are often marked by the occurrence of crime. Thus, my central concern here will be the moments and images of criminality that recur with startling frequency in Auster's fiction.

The institutional, patriarchal discipline that serves as the dominant force in Auster's fiction is largely identical to that described by Michel Foucault, most particularly in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. This is the "discipline" constituted by all those institutions and systems in industrial society that impose on the individual "an uninterrupted, constant coercion, supervising the processes of the activity rather than its result and exercised according to a codification that partitions as closely as possible time, space, movement" (137). Foucault suggests that as a result of the continual exposure to disciplinary institutions—not merely the prison, but also the school, the military, the hospital, even the "normative" space of domesticity—the identities of individuals are in fact constructed by the whole operation of this "carceral society," with its "procedures that constitute the individual as effect and object of power, as effect and object of knowledge" (192). In such a society, which defines and categorizes everything, it is impossible to escape being defined and categorized; even forms of resistance and disorder (including, of course, criminal acts) merely provide additional ways for the individual to be labeled. Ultimately, we become ourselves instruments of discipline, policing ourselves in the expectation that we will be policed.

This vision of the self as nothing more than a product of external discipline, acting on behalf of the social hegemony, is challenged and problematized by the self-discipline that is the second integral aspect of Auster's fiction. Many of Auster's most compelling characters attempt to use rigorous self-discipline as a tool of resistance that allows them to counter the external discipline placed upon them, creating a self that exists prior to and apart from the categories and demands of the disciplinary society. This second form of discipline bears further reference to [End Page 390] Foucault, specifically to the demanding "care of the self" that he discusses in the third volume of The History of Sexuality. Indeed, there is much of relevance in his tracing of the development, from classical scholars through the Christian period, of "an art of existence that revolves around the question of the self [. . . and] of the procedures by which it exerts its control over itself, and of the way in which it can establish a complete supremacy over itself" (238-39). Auster's characters do indeed seek to establish just such supremacy over their...


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