2 Pages

• Philip Shaw and Peter Stockwell (eds), Subjectivity and Literature from the Romantics to the Present Day (London: Pinter Publishers, 1991), 256 pp., £35.00


The critical terrain revisited in Subjectivity and Literature from the Romantics to the Present Day is that domiciled by the ‘Unreliable Narrator’. This stalwart of practical criticism is uncovered with disconcerting enthusiasm in a selection of texts, from Charlotte Brontë’s Villette to the works of Orwell and Fowles. But perhaps the most unreliable narrative voice to make an appearance is that of the editors, Philip Shaw and Peter Stockwell, whose introduction outlines a collection of essays poised on the cutting edge of theoretical enquiry. They describe a volume that interrogates the questions of subjectivity generated by Kant and renegotiated by Derrida, Deleuze and the later Foucault. This may have been the collection they would like to have assembled but sadly it is not the one that unfolds. A curious abyss opens between the introduction and the essays that follow-not only in terms of the purported common critical interest, which recedes out of view between essays, but also, in some cases, between a theoretical sophistication claimed for the essays and the methodology and critical agenda that are in fact invoked. At its weakest points the collection investigates subjectivity as though it were a facet of character development, and identifies postmodernism as a straightforward disjunction between belief and action, apparently forgetting the critical presupposition announced in the introduction and its implications: that the various fictions of subjectivity in all their complex inflections, which emerge alongside the political, economic and social shifts of 1789, are historically specific and have no absolute status.