REVIEW OF: Schwab, Gabriele. Imaginary Ethnographies: Literature, Culture, & Subjectivity. Columbia University Press, 2012. 240 pages. ISBN: 9780231159487.

Gabriele Schwab’s Imaginary Ethnographies: Literature, Culture, & Subjectivity belongs to a broadening category of critical reflections on literature that seek to foreground the ability of literary works to create worlds and cultures. Despite its thick maze of intertextual and interdisciplinary discussions, this book manages to maintain a reasonably simple diction. In fact, this simplicity may be in formal consonance with a recurrent emphasis in the book on what has often been called “surface reading” in the contemporary practice of literary criticism (Best and Marcus). In the second chapter titled “Traveling Literature, Traveling Theory: Imaginary Encounters Between East and West,” Schwab includes an autobiographical account of her own experience of reading American novels (especially Pearl S. Buck’s Peony) as a child in Germany. She clarifies that this account was aimed at emphasizing the importance of a so-called naive reading, which is, in her words, “among the most prominent cultural and psychological functions of literature” (53). It is also precisely this “speculative” (1) nature of the labour associated with literary production that undergirds the categorization of literature as a form of “ethnographic writing.”

While Schwab’s earlier book, entitled The Mirror and the Killer-Queen: Otherness in Literary Language, interpreted the act of reading as a form of cultural contact, her present book takes a step ahead in exploring the ways literature “writes” culture. It also analyzes the manners in which readings of literary texts can not only lead us to push against the limits of our subjectivity but also enable us to tie together our cultural and psychological histories in imagining more redemptive spaces and modes of living. Taking her cue from the recent “rhetorical turn” in anthropological studies, Schwab brings together a rather complex interdisciplinary lens that includes the anthropological, the ethnographic, the literary-psychical, the critical-theoretical, and the phenomenological. One of the crucial threads that run through the book is the psychological idea of “transference.” Schwab underlines her notions on the anthropological roots and ethnographic roles of literature with a constant direction to psychical elements that govern the writing and reading of literature.

In the first chapter of Imaginary Ethnographies, Schwab claims to “give the debate” between Claude Lévi-Strauss’ “writing lesson” with the Nambikwara in his book Tristes Tropiques and Derrida’s critique of the same in his Of Grammatology a “new turn by highlighting the Nambikwara chief’s agency and his performative, playful, and ironical use of writing that escaped the attention of both Lévi-Strauss and Derrida” (16). In the second chapter, she discusses the “first classic of Western Orientalism” (45), Il milione, which was an ethnographic representation of the East by Marco Polo, foreign agent to the 13th-century Mongol imperialist Kublai Khan. The fact that Columbus carried a carefully annotated copy of the manuscript of Il milione on his journeys shows the way literature (as “imaginary ethnography”) can shape socio-geographical imagination. Schwab suggests that literature as ethnography is free from the limitations of other ethnographic projects. Since “ethnographies proper,” such as anthropological ethnographies, carry an element of accountability to truth claims, they usually seek to reduce the actual impact or interference of cultural and psychological “transferences.” However, as Schwab asserts, “imaginary ethnographies enjoy the aesthetic freedom to use fantasy and transference as central creative impulses” (56).

The second section of the book comprises a series of focused expositions of a few literary texts with an attempt to flesh out convincingly the emergence, sustenance, and significance of three figurations of human liminality: the cannibal, the child, and the alien. In the context of the cannibal, Schwab discusses at length two contemporary literary texts—Juan José Saer’s The Witness and Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar—and sets up a field of rich intertextual connections between these literary texts and a range of critical readings on cannibalism by Montaigne, Voltaire, Rousseau, Freud, Lévi-Strauss, Derrida, de Certeau, and Kristeva. Invoking Freud’s conflation of the mythic-cultural and the psychological in the icon of the cannibal, Schwab argues that while the cannibal served the colonial imaginary as an instance of that which is not the colonial self, its reappearance and recurrence in contemporary postcolonial narratives signal toward possible relations that the human subject in the postcolonial and post-genocidal world may share with itself. The colonists shared a paradoxical relation to cannibalism: the “fear of being devoured” by the natives coexisted with the “insatiable desire for incorporation that fed the voracious energies of the colonial enterprise” (80). Schwab’s reading shows that the figure of the cannibal, which emerged out of an anthropological quest, has a stronger psychological valence today. Born out of an “inversion of a colonial imaginary” (95), civilized subjects of the modern nation-state are “melancholic cannibals” because they have “fashioned [themselves] by encapsulating or encrypting the cannibal within [their own] self as an abject Other from a remote time” (20). In other words, we are carrying the paradoxical burden of emptiness that is the result of a lack we have neither caused nor suffer.

The second “cultural iconotrope” (15) of the child does not trigger visions of an “abject prehistory” but acts as a “placeholder for both prehistory and the future” (20). Underlain by an attention to increasing instances and reports of child labour, child prostitution, child conscription, and legal criminalization of children, Schwab’s reading of Richard Powers’s Operation Wandering Soul contributes a significant interpretation of the disappearance of childhood from our society. In Schwab’s narrative, the incorporation of the cannibalistic other within the self and the vanishing of the child are not necessarily apocalyptic consequences of a destructive civilization. On the contrary, she contextualizes these contemporary flights of fiction within more enduring traditions of anthropological and psychological considerations and views them as highly potent imaginary spaces for possible and emergent ethnographies. The historical-anthropological and psychological elements implicit in these fictional texts also carry the promise of resonance with the reader’s ability to envision possible ways of living.

Schwab’s discussion of Octavia Butler’s trilogy Xenogenesis serves as the high point of her narrative that sought to connect literary instances of “transference” of cultural mourning (or lack of it), and desire for utopia. She points out that science fiction narratives usually tend to retell or re-imagine human stories in extra-terrestrial topographies or to extend human fears and historical catastrophes into a transspecies culture. However, Schwab distinguishes Butler’s tale from such traditional science fiction narratives in her reading of Xenogenesis as a “utopian ethnography of the future” (156). In Butler’s post-human world, the integrated presence of otherness in the human indicate a redemptive scope of escaping the violent history of humankind. Therefore, Schwab seconds Donna Haraway’s claim that Xenogenesis “is survival fiction.” It is perhaps through this analysis that encryption (or writing the story) becomes most immediate to ‘writing’ an envisioned culture.

In her final chapter, entitled “Cosmographical Meditations on the Inhuman: Samuel Beckett’s The Lost Ones,” Schwab extends her argument to claim that these imaginary mindscapes or “soulscapes” (159) emerge “from a radical encounter with otherness in which one loses all familiar ground, categorical frameworks, or modes of perception” (159). This concluding chapter is a fitting coda to Schwab’s book-length attempt to elucidate the phenomenology of reading. Her development of a dialogue between Samuel Beckett’s play The Lost Ones and Jean-François Lyotard’s philosophical reflections in his The Inhuman lends a weighty dimension to the lengthy discussions on the literary texts. This chapter emphasizes the thematic preoccupation of the book with the positive potential latent in our experience of reading texts that capture, endorse, and even effect forms of disorientation.

One of the central arguments of Schwab’s book seems to be a possible redefinition of “culture” as “transference.” She mentions that “the paradigms of ‘culture as text’ and ‘culture as translation’ must be expanded to include a paradigm of ‘culture as transference’” (75). This renders the idea of ‘culture’ less restricted or bound (as in a textual form of authenticity and interpretative multiplicity) and less synaptic (as in hopping across boundaries in translating cultures). This claim implies a sense of culture as not only fluid but also underlined primarily by indeterminacy, irregularity, and a certain degree of exteriority. Culture is a nexus of associations that both grow out of subject positions and contribute to subject formation, and this nexus is always tentative or on the move.

On an extrapolative note, Schwab consistently locates the idea of “culture” in an absence that is potent with possibilities. She uses Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s term “experimental systems,” which are “spaces of emergence that invent structures in order to grasp what cannot yet be thought” (3). Writing, Schwab argues, is an “experimental system” which creates and makes available “literary knowledge,” which is a “memorable and transformational experience of something that at this point still escapes a full understanding or conceptual grasp” (4). The Nambikwara’s “performative modes of indirection” are an example of the form of concealment that goes hand in hand with the affective superficiality of the impact of literature. The manuscripts of Marco Polo represent the vacant yet eventful spaces of the actual absence of knowledge and thought. However, such absence and the tenuousness of the ‘surface’ seem to carry deeper promises: cultural continuity and evolution (if I may risk using that term). Schwab’s conclusive linking of the idea of ‘impense’ (the unthought) with Lyotard’s idea of the primordial “informe” (infant or the inhuman) loads the signal term “imagination” with not only adequate psychological reference but also with a more comprehensive phenomenological relevance of living in culture. Though “transference” as a psychological term may seem to be pointing outwards to a chain of associations that extends by moving away, it also dialectically holds together the possibility of moving closer to one’s own self. Just as literature is the “writing” away of culture, it equally involves a creative act of translating cultural experience into internal subjective knowledge.

Apala Das
University of Toronto

Best, Stephen, and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations, vol. 108, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–21, JSTOR, doi:10.1525/rep.2009.108.1.1.