In one sense Gabriele Schwab’s study Subjects without Selves: Transitional Texts in Modern Fiction is not a new book. Schwab has translated her 1987 Entgrenzungen und Entgrenzungsmythen (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner), only changing parts of the first chapter to account for the different reception contemporary literary theory has received in Germany and the United States. Moreover, although she wanted to produce a more liberal translation of the German original, Schwab “resist[ed] the insistent temptation to totally rewrite the book”; therefore, she has not endeavored to bring her work into direct engagement with more recent work on issues of the formation of subjectivity within literary texts, within the reader during the act of reading, within culture, and within critical theories of fiction. Nevertheless, Subjects without Selves does provide an interesting and significant contribution to theories of literary subjectivity, especially as that subjectivity is constituted within the language and reading experience of “transitional texts” of the modernist and postmodernist tradition.
By “transitional texts” Schwab refers to narrative texts that mark certain formal transitions, particularly in the exploration of linguistic techniques for the representation of consciousness, and she refers to the idea of the transitional as a dynamic boundary point at which the reader’s subjectivity engages textual subjectivity. The texts upon which Schwab focuses her practical readings-Melville’s Moby Dick, Woolf’s The Waves, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s The Unnamable, and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow-are all experimental in one way or another, and each displays a different perspective on the question of subjectivity. Through these texts that mark, as some readers have argued, the “death of the subject,” Schwab offers a very different story:
Instead of an ending or a radical discontinuity, [she tells] the story of dynamic change within an ongoing process. Such a story is less interested in endings than in beginnings; it emphasizes the emergence of new forms over the disappearance of old ones. In order to understand the significance of these new forms, one must ask why literary games with the [End Page 418] boundaries of language and subjectivity have exerted such a strong fascination. What is their psychological appeal for the reader? And how do these new forms of literary subjectivity relate to the dissolution of subjectivity brought about by schizophrenia, paranoia, or the so-called new narcissism?
Schwab’s attention to the reader and reading processes is one of the most valuable parts of Subjects without Selves. Building on the work of Anton Ehrenzweig (although one can also see the influence of Julia Kristeva), Schwab sets out a theory of reading that recognizes the interrelation of primary and secondary processes in how the subject engages with language in such acts as self-definition or world-making. Within a Cartesian paradigm, the secondary processes of logic and rationality predominate the subject’s articulation of the self/world, self/other relationship. Schwab argues that transitional texts stage a linguistic field in which our habitual secondary processes are frustrated, thereby opening space for the free play of primary processes that destabilize readerly desire for the ordered and closed text. The primary processes give access to an open text that does not have to fulfill conventional aesthetic patterns to generate a satisfying experience (what Roland Barthes, in another context, calls the “writerly”). Even though Schwab demonstrates throughout how characters and narrative form collaborate in activating primary processes, her most effective chapter for demonstrating the reader’s activity is her examination of Finnegans Wake. Schwab does not try to present the “meaning” or “key” to Joyce’s text; instead, she underscores how its experimental play with language reawakens the multiplicity of linguistic possibilities in the text, never reaching a final closure but always generating “the expansion of the boundaries of subjectivity through language.”
In her closing chapter, Schwab draws on Kristeva’s formulation of the “affinities between her model of the subject-in-process and quantum physics by comparing the nonobservable objects of quantum theory with the ineffability of aesthetic experience. For Schwab the analogy to quantum physics suggests a holistic...