Jeffrey Williams with Toril Moi

Toril Moi
Toril Moi

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Toril Moi took place September 1, 2006 in Toril Moi’s office at Duke University. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams, and transcribed by Heather Steffen.

Jeffrey Williams: Sexual/Textual Politics burst onto the scene in the mid-80s and changed the representation of feminism in the U.S. You became a kind of European informant of French feminism, and to some you were perceived as attacking Anglo-American feminism for its essentialism and waving a banner for French feminism. How do you see the reception of that book when you look back?

Toril Moi: The argument in the book wasn’t actually “Anglo-American feminism is bad; French feminism is good”; the argument was that the great thing about the Americans was their strong and explicit political allegiances, and that the actual politics of the French were often incredibly vague. I also thought that the Anglo-American development, which had been exciting to me because it was thinking about women and writing in completely new ways, was almost theoretically unconscious in the late 1970s, just as the theory wave was happening. I thought the French feminists that I read had a much more solid theoretical formation, but that they were lacking in politics. I also found them on the whole ahistorical and idealist. The idea that I was setting up a binary where one was positive and the other was negative was based on fairly superficial reading. I think that there are other problems with the book, but in each chapter I tried to give as fair an account of what the theorists in question were saying as I could, and then I tried to show where the problems were. I was also astounded when I heard that people thought I was a great fan of Irigaray and Cixous, which I have never been.

JW: I thought the book was a deft survey, selecting major American feminists like Showalter and then French feminists like Irigaray and Cixous, and putting them in a comparative frame. Nobody had done that before. What prompted you to write the book?

TM: It was the book I would have wanted when I was a grad student. I didn’t publish my dissertation. . .

JW: What was your dissertation on?

TM: It was called “L’Utopie féminine: Les romans utopiques de Christiane Rochefort,” and it was written in Bergen in a traditional European department of comparative literature, where my main emphasis was on French, although we had to do a little of everything. It was also a really good department—in Scandinavia it was absolutely cutting-edge in terms of literary theory at the time. This was in the late ’70s, so we did structuralism, but we never got up to poststructuralism.

I had no women professors. In all the theory we read nothing was ever written by a woman, so in the late ’70s, me and a few other female grad students were trying to develop something like a feminist critical practice. I wrote my dissertation on feminist utopias because it was the most woman-centered, feminist thing I could find. There was a chapter on the development of French women’s writing after World War II, a chapter on theories of utopias and what utopias have to do with politics, a chapter on each of Rochefort’s four utopian novels and some conclusions. I did a decent amount of work on it, but I would have had to expand it massively for a book, and I was no longer really interested in my own approach. The first important American book, like Showalter’s and Gilbert and Gubar’s, were being published just as I was finishing the dissertation, so it was almost autodidactic writing. I then moved to Oxford and became an unemployed academic. I didn’t get a decent job for five years after my dissertation.

JW: What year was that?

TM: 1980, and my first real job was in 1985 in Bergen.

JW: What did you do in Oxford?

TM: I first finished my dissertation. I spent six months without an academic job, then did one term of teaching at the University of Trondheim (now NTNV) in Norway, which hardly paid the rent. I then had a fellowship at Clare Hall, Cambridge. For a living I translated novels, some by Angela Carter, Fay Weldon and Nadine Gordimer, for a Norwegian publisher.

I had to figure out how to combine the translation with my own writing because there is always a terrible deadline for translations. This was way before computers, so you had to write it out and re-type it and so on. I usually looked at the book and decided how many pages I needed to do per day to stick to the deadline. I’d get up in the morning, do my pages and then settle down to do my own work.

I had a one-year fellowship at Clare Hall, Cambridge, and then I got some teaching in Oxford. My first job was what they called a “six-hour college lecturer” at Pembroke College, Oxford, for which I was paid £2,500 per year. There was no way I could live on that, so I kept translating for five years. These were the early Thatcher years in England, and I knew lots of brilliant people who couldn’t get jobs. Occasionally I read about Americans who were complaining about the tenure system, and I thought “they don’t know their luck—they actually have salaries for six years, and they’re worried about what happens in the seventh!” I would have given anything for a salary for a year. At that point I had only been to the U.S. once, briefly. Now that I live here I see how the tenure system has another way of getting at you, but at least people on tenure-track actually have jobs.

In some ways the early 1980s were an incredibly free time for me.That’s when I wrote Sexual/Textual Politics. I was teaching part-time, and I was translating novels, and I wanted to write a book that would have helped me as a grad student. When I wrote it, a lot of the French texts hadn’t been translated yet, so I had to work through the field for myself, to see what I thought about it.

JW: There’s a line in Benjamin’s essay, “Unpacking My Library,” where he says, “Writers are people who write not because they cannot afford the books they want but because they cannot find what they want in the books they can buy.”

TM: I suppose! I thought we needed a book like Sexual/Textual Politics, and I thought it could help other people who wanted to do feminist criticism. But the book is still called “feminist literary theory,” and in fact one of the best critiques of the book was that the meaning of the word theory slips around in it. It’s quite clear that in the first half of the book it is literary theory, in the sense of theories about texts and relations between writer and text, or between text and reader, but then when I switch to the French feminists it’s quite obvious that for them theory is about language and really general things, like sexuality and creativity. I think I say this in the afterword to the second edition.

JW: What would you change if you were to go back to it?

TM: I think it’s a book that’s of its moment. It’s not possible to change it now. It came out in 1985, and I wrote it from 1982 to 1984. I was active in various feminist discussion groups in Oxford, mostly with students and other unemployed intellectuals, and we had intense discussions. Some of my feminist friends in Oxford at that time were against theory because they thought that what we needed was a political practice based on respect for women’s experiences. The book was written, among other things, to say that you can’t just go from experiences to politics, because unless you have some kind of awareness of theory you’re not going to know what your politics are. That’s what I’m showing in the first half, particularly about the Americans but also about the French, whom I call contradictory, ahistorical and impervious to the particular case. When Irigaray says, for example, that women should mimic patriarchal discourse because patriarchal discourse covers everything, so all one can do is to mimic it ironically, I asked whether there aren’t places where mimicry, or irony, will go undiscovered, where everyone will take it for straight? And aren’t there cases where you get much further by straightforwardly opposing things?

One important point for me was that if you don’t know what your theory is, you won’t know what your political effects are either. That’s why I read Showalter’s account of Virginia Woolf, for example, to show that she was imposing a feminist version of Lukácsian theory onto Virginia Woolf, and that the effect is an authoritarian straitjacket for women writers, incompatible with what I thought feminist utopia should be about, namely freedom. The idea of laying down requirements for what women must do just because they are women has always been anathema to me.

JW: It seems to me that your recent work could be seen as a turn from poststructural theory, but there’s also a consistent thread in your aversion to idealism.

TM: I think Stanley Cavell says somewhere that he wants a philosophy that can account for the chipped cup in his hand. When theories about women and gender no longer help us to account for any recognizable features in the world, I’m not that interested in them. What difference do they make? What I tried to do in What Is a Woman? was to understand why certain arguments about sex and gender keep going, although they have lost touch with the problems they were supposed to solve.

JW: It’s a kind of pragmatist view, asking what is the use in the world, especially in your more recent work.

TM: Although I would never call myself a pragmatist. I don’t agree with, say, someone like Rorty.

JW: Although there are some people who would put Cavell in the pragmatist camp.

TM: Yes, but not Cavell himself. There’s also Rorty’s own criticism of Cavell’s work. Basically I think the word “pragmatist” is loaded with a specific tradition of American pragmatism, to which I have no particular relationship.

JW: It’s interesting when you talk about the jobs you had—not the best jobs, but they gave you a freedom to write the kind of book that you wanted.

TM: Well, I had bad jobs in a very sexist institution. Now Oxford has changed, but at the time I got my six-hour lectureship in Pembroke College, I was the first woman to have “dining rights” there, which means that I got £2,500 a year plus a teaching room at the college, plus two meals a week at high table.

JW: Two meals a week?

TM: Yes, decent four-course dinners, frogs’ legs and so on. Since I had such an incredibly bad salary I was determined to eat all my dinners, which I did, but imagine going in there and being the only woman with so-called “dining rights.” For one term I was alone; after Christmas, their male French lecteur (that’s the person from France who teaches language basically) had gone mad, so they hired the woman who had been runner-up to the job in the first place—of course. She got the same dining rights as I had, twice a week, so we used to go in together, which seemed to come across as a challenge to many of the men. They did everything to prevent us from sitting next to each other, and it was really a very sexist environment.

But when you’re truly marginal in an institution it can fuel your sense of having something to say, so my first book was pretty easy to write. Some prestigious institutions in America, like Yale, Harvard and Princeton, hire just enough of their own graduate students or, alternatively, tenure the odd associate professor just frequently enough to keep the desire going, to make most of them have that as a desire, which means you try to please and be nice and so on. At Oxford then there was just nothing I could realistically hope for. The very fact of being a woman and a feminist was quite enough; so I felt quite free to say what I wanted.

I should tell you about the one job interview I got in Oxford, for a proper job, in 1985, in French. I was interviewed by twenty men around a long table, and the first question to me was, honestly, “Now, Dr. Moi, you clearly want to destroy this institution, so why are you applying for a position here” That was just after my first book had been published and, after a question like that, you know you won’t get the job. Your only options are either to answer so that the man looks ridiculous, in which case you’re not going to get the job, or you can say, “Yeah, I really do want to destroy the institution,” which also means that you’re not going to get the job. But I should say that Oxford has changed. This spring I spent two months as a visiting fellow at New College, Oxford and there were lots of women fellows and lots of people who weren’t British. That was also a problem—speaking English with a foreign accent was not such a good idea in Oxford in the early ’80s.

JW: Then in ’85 you got a job at Bergen?

TM: Yes, I got a job at Bergen. I was charged with building up what was then called the Centre for Feminist Research in the Humanities. It turned out to be an incredibly hard task. First of all it was my first proper job. Secondly, when I arrived, there wasn’t a secretary or usable offices, just an old house off campus. I was alone in the house with not as much as a typewriter (let alone a computer) or stationery. At least I figured out how to make them paint the offices. I said, “I think I’ll call a press conference to celebrate the opening,” since this was the first center of its kind in Norway, and then they painted the place within a week. The problem with the job was that they’d advertised for an intellectual, but they hadn’t even hired any office staff. So to start with I even did the accounts—not that I knew how to do them but one learns. They didn’t mind if I didn’t teach as long as I did lots of the administration and became the token feminist on every conceivable university committee.

That same year, a little earlier, I was turned down for a job in comp lit in Bergen. I was runner-up to a man. The argument at the time was that expertise about feminism and women wasn’t really comp lit. That’s the ghettoization: If I know something about women and feminism, somehow it follows that I can’t know something about anything else. The argument particularizes women: If the universal is comp lit, the particular is feminist theory, and it follows that feminist theory can never represent the universal. To have written about Irigaray, Cixous and Kristeva didn’t prove that I knew something about, say, Freud and Lacan and Derrida. On the other hand, if a man had written about Freud and Lacan and Derrida no one asked him to know about Cixous and Irigaray. In any case it turned out to be an excellent thing that I didn’t get that job, because I might be there still, and then I don’t think I would have written the books I wrote later.

So I started the job in Bergen in 1985. I finished Sexual/Textual Politics and sent in the manuscript on the first of September 1984, and I told myself, if I can’t get an academic job that I can live on (that was my first requirement, I must be able to live on it and not have to do all kinds of other jobs) then I will give up this and start retraining as something else. I knew a lot of languages and I’ve always liked math, so I thought I could study economics and become some sort of international economist. Five years strikes me as long enough to hang around. I also had debt because I had borrowed money to study—in Norway there were no grants and one didn’t get fellowships. Norwegians don’t pay tuition, but they do borrow money to live. So then I got that job in Bergen and I soon became really unhappy with it.

My book came out just one month after I’d moved to Bergen and, after a couple of years, it brought in invitations to speak, and then I got an invitation to visit Duke for a semester. I had spent very little time in America before then. I was supposed to visit Duke for one term in the fall of 1987, so I got leave from Bergen, and when I was here the Literature Program offered me a job. I hadn’t applied for anything, and all I knew was that one day Fred [Jameson] came to my office and said, “We’d like to give you a job.” I was so innocent of the American system that I thought he was just saying it might be a good idea at some point. So I said, “Well Fred, it’s no secret I don’t like my job in Bergen, but I’m not really ready to move to America, and North Carolina is a very weird place, so I’m not sure I can do this.” Then he looked strange and didn’t say anything, so two weeks later Stanley Fish, who was here then, came into my office and said, “You don’t understand, we voted on you,” so I said, “Oh, what does that mean?” And he said, “It means that you have to take this seriously.”

So I hesitated for a long time, because I was used to not having a job and living freelance, and I wasn’t socialized in the American grad school system. Most of my fellow students in Norway went off to work in newspapers, press, broadcasting and although a few of us became academics, that was not considered the necessary outcome. In the end, I realized that I did not want to continue the job in Bergen, so I said I’d come to Duke. I came part-time to start with. I wasn’t sure I could live here, but I had really enjoyed teaching at Duke the semester I came in ’87, and I’ve enjoyed the teaching ever since. The Literature Program at Duke is a wonderful place to work. I didn’t fully understand how lucky I’d been until much later. At the time I didn’t know what the options were in America and was completely naïve about the American system. This was surely why I started reading Bourdieu with a vengeance as soon as I could, because I needed to have some kind of theory that could help me think about this vast and complicated system I’d ended up in.

JW: I definitely want to come back to that, but before I forget, Sexual/Texual Politics came out in ’85, then in ’86 you published The Kristeva Reader, and Kristeva was a person that you were especially interested in.

TM: Yes, absolutely.

JW: Though she’s not necessarily a feminist in the way that the other people you write about are.

TM: Well, I thought that was a paradox. In Sexual/Textual Politics I say that Kristeva’s theory is more interesting than, say, Cixous and Irigaray, although she’s not strictly speaking a feminist. Some reviewers thought that was bizarre. The whole point for me was that her way of talking about marginality was more applicable to women’s situations than a theory that talks about women in an essentialist way.

JW: It does seem an academic habit to look for a point to criticize.

TM: Well, you can’t control the way that people read you. My responsibility is to try to write as clearly as I can. It may be because I’ve moved from country to country, and I’ve had to learn to write in a foreign language that I’m intensely interested in writing clearly and trying to communicate something with reasonable degrees of lucidity, so as to make it possible for people to understand what I think I’m saying. That doesn’t mean that I want to force them to agree, but I am interested in trying to avoid the kind of misunderstandings that come with lax writing. I try to be clear about what I am arguing; I rewrite a lot and always try to imagine how other people might take this sentence or this argument.

JW: So it’s almost like translation, where you’re conscious of the different kinds of language groups or audiences. In your new book you enlist yourself in what some people have called “ordinary language criticism.”

TM: I always tried to write in that way, though, way before I started reading Wittgenstein, Austin and Cavell. I just think that one writes for people; one never writes for no one. For example, my first book was for graduate students like myself or as I had very recently been. If other kinds of readers then start enjoying it too, that is of course all to the good. You can usually tell when you read a book who it’s written for; they’re already there, they’re embedded in the text in one way or another.

Some writers aspire to the universal. But if you notice that, you usually find that the effort fails, because it is impossible to write for everyone. You write from your perspective, and that’s shaped by the social situation you’re in, and that means you have some notion of who you’re writing for, even if you haven’t thought about it. Just the fact of choosing this question rather than that tells us a lot about who you’re writing for. For example, that certain theoretical questions have a philosophical, academic audience goes without saying.

I should add that clarity isn’t the same thing as transparency. There has been a boring debate about “transparency,” often in defense of obscure writing. I don’t even understand what a transparent word or a transparent language might look like. But I do think you can write with clarity about everything, including extremely difficult things. When the subject matter is difficult, the result will be difficult. What I’m against is unmotivated difficulty.

JW: After The Kristeva Reader you also edited French Feminist Thought, which came out in ’87 and which was a kind of extension of Sexual/Textual Politics. So in a way you were the informant to the Anglo-American scene of French feminist theory.

TM: In some ways, although there were lots of people who went deeply into French feminism at the same time. There still weren’t a lot of books in English and it was possible to read all of them. But when I published Sexual/Textual Politics, others too were publishing on the same topics. Alice Jardine, for example—her book Gynesis came out around that time.

Also, I think that, because of the institutional situation they were working in, many Americans weren’t interested in writing the kind of book I did. It’s quite obvious that a book like Gynesis and many of the other excellent American books in the field that came out around then have a somewhat different readership in mind.Their authors had to impress an academic audience, and write a book that was going to get them tenure. I didn’t have to think about any of that.

Nevertheless, Sexual/Textual Politics is an academic book. I was extremely surprised to see it become a textbook so fast. I think that has to do with the way it’s written; it’s written for people who want to get to know this material, just as I did. I don’t think I assumed that I’m more intelligent than my readers; I assumed readers who were where I had been two or three years earlier.

JW: In a way, to put it in Bourdieu’s terms, the mode that most people write in is to gain them distinction in the institution, and to do something that would be called a survey, that work usually does not confer distinction—even though, if you think about the books that actually make a difference in criticism, many of them are surveys.

TM: The funny thing is that, when I wrote this book, I didn’t have the word “survey” in mind. That is a word that comes out of a specifically American teaching situation, and if you haven’t worked in that situation, you don’t even know what a survey is. I saw it as a theoretical-political intervention in the cutting-edge debates of the time, and I just tried to make it as clear as I could. The book is not a survey in the sense that I cover the field; instead, I selected representative theorists. There were lots of Anglo-American feminists writing in that period, and I just chose three or four. The book also has a very strong argument, which is usually taken to be anathema to the survey. I wasn’t trying to be neutral; I was trying to intervene.

Now you couldn’t even hope to do a book like that, because, first of all, the idea of a field called feminist literary theory is probably over. Now you have various gender theories, theories of sexuality, queer theories, and you have postcolonial, transnational and other theories—a series of fragmented, multiple sets of fields with specific expertises.

JW: Now does seem an age of dispersion, into micro-fields or specific “studies.” It does seem that, in the ’80s, theory was much more, if not unified, a general discourse everybody knew the terms of.

TM: Here’s one thing I want to say about the moment of the early ’80s: I lived in England pretty much during the whole of Mrs. Thatcher’s regime. I remember standing in the apartment I was renting here [in Durham, NC] watching her leaving office on TV, and thinking, “My God I lived for ten years in that country, and she was always in power.” In England from 1979 to 1985, French theory was being received by British intellectuals, who, on the whole, were already Marxists. Everyone read everything. My model for Sexual/Textual Politics was actually Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism. What I thought was so great about that book was here’s Perry Anderson, a committed Marxist, very even-handedly presenting both the strengths and weaknesses of his own Marxist tradition. It’s a short, lucid and even-handed book, definitely a model for me.

A number of Americans asked me, did I really think feminism was mature enough to be criticized? I always replied that if feminist theory is going to be a serious intellectual enterprise, we have to use our own critical reason as much as we can to improve our own positions. No intellectual field can refuse to think.

JW: Your next book, the Beauvoir book, draws more on Bourdieu and looks at how Beauvoir was formed by the French educational system and the French cultural and social systems. Before you mentioned how coming to America drew you to Bourdieu. What prompted you to do that book?

TM: Well, I think I’m less marked by institutions than some of my colleagues, because graduate school, if you can call it that in Norway, was really very free. We could do what we liked, more or less, and there were very few courses. Arriving in America, I felt I needed to learn how the institution worked, because otherwise I couldn’t really understand my colleagues or indeed my students.

Anyway, I’d planned to do the Beauvoir book already when I was finishing Sexual/Textual Politics. I wrote my first book to be able to do better work on women writers, and the writer that I had admired from a very early age was Simone de Beauvoir.

JW: She’s important in Sexual/Textual Politics, parallel to Woolf for the American feminists.

TM: I put her in as the Ur-mother, as it were, but she doesn’t get the same share of the stage as Woolf. Woolf for the Americans is more entrenched, which makes sense, but I didn’t do much with Beauvoir in Sexual/Textual Politics because none of the theorists I wrote about did anything with her. They detested her, in fact, although Kristeva paid some allegiance to her later. But basically, Cixous and Irigaray saw in Beauvoir the horrible, bad mother image.

In any case, I started thinking about doing work on Beauvoir in ’85. In ’87 when I visited Duke, I was beginning to do the research. The book took a long time to write. As I said, my interest in Bourdieu had something to do with coming to America, and that fed into the Beauvoir book. And I thought, as I still do think, that Simone de Beauvoir is the greatest thinker about feminism and about women’s situation in the twentieth century.To write on her was like scaling Mt. Everest for me. I think one should write about writers and thinkers that really challenge one. As soon as I’ve struggled my way to finish an intensive-labor book, I think, gosh, there’s so much more to be said. But at least I’ve said something.

JW: Simone de Beauvoir is a very different book than Sexual/Textual Politics. It’s a scholarly intellectual history, and it’s a densely researched history, whereas in What Is a Woman? you return to theory and theoretical problems, and then the Ibsen book is more your literary book. You don’t keep doing the same kind of book.

TM: I think it’s a virtue for intellectuals to have a wide range, yet I didn’t really plan this. After finishing Sexual/Textual Politics, I knew I had to write about Beauvoir, and I wanted to write something more concrete—if you like, an intellectual history. Perhaps we should say that in my writing, archive and philosophy/theory alternate. That’s how it’s turned out, anyway.

The Beauvoir book has some biography in it. In Europe it has been published as a trade paperback in various countries, not as an academic book. I thought of it as a book that anyone who enjoyed reading The Second Sex might want to read. Every reader might not see all the academic sidelines that I’m running in it, but it still makes a great deal of sense to people, and I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from people who are not academics—not from the English version, but from the translations. To me, of course, it is also a serious academic book.

JW: In it you describe her life as an intellectual woman or the possibilities for an intellectual woman of the first generation in the academy, walking against the current. You give detailed descriptions of things like the French educational system at the time. One of your turns is not to see her as a philosopher but quite explicitly as a writer; she makes the choice, in a Bourdieuian way, that distinction is to be had through being a writer rather than being a philosopher, unlike Sartre, who had different options as a man.

TM: In the first third of the Beauvoir book I show how she was “made”—how she became Simone de Beauvoir. Pierre Bourdieu’s work was particularly useful for the book because he had done so much work on the French institutions that produced her. It would be hard to do that kind of sociological and cultural analysis on other writers, say on a Norwegian writer, because the Bourdieuian research isn’t there. Once I started working on Beauvoir, I realized that what fascinated me was precisely “the making of an intellectual woman.” To show how Simone de Beauvoir became who she was, partly as a product of institutions, partly as a product of her own choices, and partly, of course, as a product of discourses of femininity, of which she herself was to become the greatest analyst and critic, was a challenge.

She was the first to embody a new mode of existence for women, a member of the first generation of women educated on a par with men. It’s no accident that on the first page I place her in a cohort comprised of women like Hannah Arendt, for example. There weren’t intellectual women of that kind before. In Virginia Woolf’s generation—Woolf was born 1882, Simone de Beauvoir in 1908—women didn’t get an education at the university level, with very few exceptions, nor were they ever expected to make a living from their intellectual work. So Woolf writes essays on not knowing Greek and talks about the daughters of educated men, because she simply can’t say educated women. This is the institutional difference between Woolf and Beauvoir.

I was interested in Beauvoir as an intellectual woman, educated in the same institutions as men, who for a long time believed that everything was equal. When she came in second in the agrégation exams in philosophy and Sartre came in first, she concluded that this was an objectively true judgment and made it her own: she left philosophy to him, she claimed. (We don’t have to believe her.) I take the moment of the two sitting the same exam to be the key moment when they are compared supposedly equally. In the book I show how unequal they actually were and how much more brilliant she was than she allows herself to think. I’m trying to take apart that simple moment and show how much social conditioning and institutional shaping there is in it.

JW: I think it’s skillful how you weave in with her personal story statistics about how many women went to university.

TM: She writes an autobiography about all this, and she never tells us that she was only the ninth woman in France to pass the agrégation exam in philosophy. Can you imagine? Sartre had studied philosophy for seven years and she for three, and he had failed the exam the year before—all things she doesn’t tell you! It tells you something about how she chose to represent herself. Even when she is fifty, when she writes her memoirs, she chooses to present it in that way, after writing The Second Sex.

Beauvoir’s oeuvre is not just philosophy, not just fiction, not just memoirs—it’s all three. I have two chapters on The Second Sex, which I think should be taken seriously as philosophy. Since the early 90s, I am pleased to say, there have been a lot of books on Beauvoir, and they have almost all been on Beauvoir’s philosophy, but there hasn’t been so much of a renewed interest in Beauvoir as a fiction writer or as a memoirist. I think she should be taken seriously in all three genres, so that’s how I constructed the book. I wrote on her first novel, L’invitée, because first novels often show how the author positions herself in the social and literary field, and then The Second Sex, of course, and then the final chapter on the memoirs, which produces a much more psychoanalytic image of Beauvoir than the early part of the book, which is more anthropological/sociological, and the middle one’s the writer.

JW: That leads me to a question about What Is a Woman? In the second section you talk about personal writing and its possibilities, and your reservations about the vogue of personal writing exemplified by Jane Tompkins’ “Me and My Shadow,” and you compare it to the way in which Beauvoir uses exemplary instances to illustrate her theoretical points.

TM: It really is a very interesting question for me: how to use yourself in intellectual work, call it philosophy or theory or whatever? I was, in part, inspired by a poll conducted by the PMLA in the late 1990s about the personal, which showed that most critics seemed to be convinced that we must choose between personal and impersonal writing, or between subjective and objective writing. As if these were our only options! Moreover, I’m not very interested in deconstructing oppositions, because once we have learned how to deconstruct, we know how it goes; it’s much more interesting to point out how you can start thinking about doing something else.

To investigate Beauvoir’s use of herself in The Second Sex, I do an extremely close reading of the first three paragraphs, where she starts by asking, “What is a woman?” and finally ends up declaring, “I am a woman.” “I am a woman” is in some sense a personal statement. Her use of the phrase tells you there are certain aspects of the personal you’ll never be able to avoid. Male philosophers who begin big books never begin by saying, “I am a man,” for that goes without saying. What needs to be undone is the idea that the universal is still male and the particular is female—as if the fact of being a woman is somehow more personal than being a man. The reader will have to decide whether you’re just intolerably narcissistic or whether you’re using the personal to make a point that can be relevant for others.

In “I Am a Woman,” I say (on page 204), “I’m tempted to say in certain situations I want to be considered an intellectual, not as an intellectual woman.” But then I go on to say, “Yet I do not say it,” because if I were to go around saying in public, “I don’t consider myself an intellectual woman,” there’d be half the feminists who are still out there saying, “You’re denying your sex and/or your gender!” But, on the other hand, if I say, “Yes, I’m an intellectual woman,” my work gets funneled into that particular category—as if all my thoughts were “feminine.” What I want to get at is that this dilemma, which usually has been theorized as equality versus difference, is the patriarchal dilemma. Men are not placed in the same impossible position, just because they are men.

For example, there are lots of women writers who have declared publicly, “I’m not a woman writer. I write for everyone.” Men aren’t pushed into that position. I’ve never seen any man say, “I am not a male writer,” (except perhaps when challenged by feminism). Of course, plenty of men declare, “I’m not a Southern writer. I’m an American writer.” When it comes to regions, ethnicities, sexualities, a similar dilemma can arise for men too. It doesn’t arise on the grounds of their maleness alone, because there is no opposition between being male and a writer, as there apparently still is between being female and a writer. At least that’s what our language use reveals. Beauvoir has theorized this already for us by saying that women are given the “choice” between either eliminating our sex (pretending we have no sex) or imprisoning ourselves in our sex, yet both options are equally undesirable. For me, that’s still a very live insight.

When people say, “You say that because you are a woman,” sometimes they’re doing that precisely to avoid hearing what you’re saying. (Sometimes, of course, they may say it as part of a genuine discussion.) This is why I think that ordinary language analysis, which tells us to ask who would say what to whom in what situation, is so much more interesting than just abstract analysis of discourses in their broad generality. I’m interested in how the words we use have all kinds of possibilities. That’s why the first essay in What Is a Woman? is about recuperating the word “woman” for ordinary use, not handing it over to the essentialists. New contexts, new speakers, new listeners give new meaning. An individual can never determine the meaning of a word—its usage—but you can analyze different instances and find that sometimes people use the word “woman” perfectly adequately and other times completely offensively.

JW: It seems to me that that is a similar move to the one you make about sex and gender, and even about American versus French feminism in Sexual/Texual Politics, that our arguments in theory gravitate to two poles, and they become extremes and then lead us into false choices.

TM: And then let’s figure out quite concretely how to get around them, not just declaring that they’re an aporia or that we must deconstruct them, which doesn’t solve any problems. Then you’re just stuck with the same concepts—you’re just playing with them. If the concepts are the problem, you have to find ways of using them in new ways, or ways of using other concepts.

JW: One way you’ve done that, at least in What Is a Woman? and the Ibsen book, is through ordinary language criticism. On the one hand, I can see that as a turn from poststructuralism and your earlier work on French feminism, but on the other hand, I think it’s consistent when I look at Sexual/Textual Politics, where you go for a certain clarity in how you discriminate and elucidate the problems. Does it represent a turn?

TM: First of all, I don’t actually think that ordinary language criticism quite exists yet. I think there is an anthology with that title, but the concept is far from worked out yet.

JW: Cavell seems to be a touchstone for you in your recent writing, and his argument for sorting through philosophical problems in ordinary language.

TM: Yes. Why have I found a Wittgensteinian, Cavellian perspective so liberating? It helps me, theoretically, enormously. There’s that famous line in Wittgenstein, “A picture held us captive, but we could not see it for it lay in our language.” That’s how I analyze certain problems to do with the sex/gender opposition. In the end I show that the dominant picture is not compulsory, you don’t have to see it that way. To get to that point is not easy, however. The sense of freedom and relief that finally comes when you see, “Oh, it’s not compulsory, there are other ways of seeing,” is that then you can discuss which picture would be more useful for you or better at solving the problem. As long as you’re held captive by your original picture of how things must be, you can struggle with the same concepts and come up with more and more fancy solutions, but it may be that it’s the way you picture the foundational relationships between your concepts that is preventing you from getting any further. Ordinary language work is like psychoanalysis in the sense that psychoanalysis makes you see things you already know, but see them differently.

JW: Through the ’90s you were especially interested in Bourdieu and since then Cavell, and also Jameson and Ibsen in your new book. In the ’80s, you drew more on French feminists, whereas the significant figures that you have used in the past few books have been men. I don’t know whether that matters, but I’m curious.

TM: I don’t know that it matters a lot. Clearly if you set up a pantheon of intellectual heroes today, there will be more men than women in it—unfortunately, most influential intellectual figures are still men. But I have after all worked on Beauvoir and Kristeva, as well, so my heroes and heroines are evenly distributed.

Cavell helped me enormously to understand the relationship between the personal and the theoretical. The first book of his that really made me see why he would be important to me was The Pitch of Philosophy, which is a fairly autobiographical book. He starts there by talking about the personal, and he explains that he came out of the analytical tradition in which any talk of the personal or the subjective was anathema and made people think that he was not a real philosopher. Yet he wanted a philosophy that made sense of the personal. I was coming from the Jane Tompkins moment where I felt that a certain kind of feminism reduced everything to the personal. There are some things that are more than just personal, I thought, and the personal and the subjective are not always the same thing. So I found Cavell situated exactly where I wanted to go, but coming from the opposite direction, as it were.

JW: Your writing strikes me as having a distinctive voice, but it’s not personal in the usual ways, except at the very end of What Is a Woman? where you talk about your mother. But that’s the only autobiographical reference I can recall.

TM: I think I have a strong voice, at least in the sense that I try to mean what I say. Cavell tells us to risk ourselves in what we are saying, to say, “This is what I think, this is what I see, can you see it too?” It takes courage to do this for it makes us reveal to others who we are.But that is precisely not the same as to write an autobiography. So far in what I have written I haven’t felt that more personal anecdotes about myself would strengthen my arguments or be more exemplary than, say, a passage from a work of fiction, but I’m not against using personal material.It all depends. And also, in practice, I’m a quite private person. I get embarrassed; I fear embarrassing others. That one reference to my mother was cleared with her first. I translated every word back into Norwegian for her, because she doesn’t speak any English, and I said, “Would you feel okay if I wrote this?” She replied, “Oh, that sounds lovely, Toril, and I’m all in favor of you writing it,” so I did. But I wouldn’t have if she had objected. I’m very worried about impinging on people’s privacy, and on my own too. If I find a fabulous novel or play where some of the same issues are at stake, they often present more powerful versions of the same human dilemmas.

JW: Your intellectual history seems exemplary of a certain moment, of the ’80s and the rise of theory, which actually helps illustrate that moment. It’s become distant history to our students, who might have read Butler but have no idea who Paul de Man is.

TM: Having worked as much on Bourdieu as I’ve done, I can see that my own intellectual trajectory is at once typical and highly unusual. It has made me the kind of person who tells my graduate students, “Write what you want, and as long as you really have faith in it, it will work out. If you don’t have faith in it, you’re going to hate it, and if the institutions you’re trying to please can’t live with you as you are, you’re probably going to be miserable there anyway.” I am of course speaking from a position of extreme academic privilege now, so it’s easy for me to talk. My students have to do what they have to do, I suppose.

My writing, except perhaps for the first book, always has an existential dimension—not least in the ordinary language philosophy stuff. The reason why I like Stanley Cavell’s work so much is that he starts with the problem of skepticism, which everyone thinks of as purely epistemological, and shows that it is also an existential experience. In the new book, I’m talking about Ibsen’s modernity, particularly the period after 1870, as the age of skepticism. Ibsen’s theater is radically new and interesting because he asks: How can you live with other human beings? How can you love someone in an age of skepticism, if no words are to be trusted? If you only play-act with the people you’re supposed to love, who is it they’re loving? Can you love them if you don’t even know who they are? For me, the sort of Cavellian moment is wonderfully consonant with Beauvoir and Sartre’s existentialism, because it’s about our existential experience of philosophical problems.

JW: I like that formulation. In the Ibsen book, you present a new picture of modernism. The usual picture is that it responds to realism, but you say that actually, in Ibsen’s time, there’s this strong tradition of idealism, not just in philosophy but in literature, that was much more prominent than realism.

TM: Right, when idealism falls apart, what you get is modernism. In my view, we ought to think in terms of three phases of modernism. I’m only writing about Ibsen’s modernism as one exemplary form of the early phase, 1870-1914. If your paradigm is realism versus modernism, what do you say about Thomas Hardy, Conrad, Henry James, Oscar Wilde? I don’t mean that they are doing exactly the same thing as Ibsen; I mean that they too are reacting against idealism and trying to find their own way of dealing with its demise. When idealism falls apart, skepticism is both the option and the cause, as it were.

The second generation—what I would call high modernism, which would be Virginia Woolf, James Joyce,and so on—are coming out of the work of the first generation. It’s very hard to understand why James Joyce would love Ibsen since Ibsen has been assimilated to realism understood as a non-modernist moment, but if you see Ibsen as trailblazing the demise of idealism, it makes sense. Joyce and his generation saw what Ibsen was tearing down; he’s sort of clearing the ground for them. If you’re going to theorize what modernism was, you really need to look at the tradition it came out of. I’m interested in the historicity of literature and culture. In a sense I’m saying you’ve got to imagine that you were living in the nineteenth century, to see what kind of ideas of art and literature and theater you would have had before about 1860. Then I show that Ibsen, and Henry James and others, actually had those sorts of ideas.But then they break with idealism. In this sense, the Ibsen book is about the making of modernism.

Parts of the book are about Ibsen’s remarkable representations of women. It makes sense for a feminist to write about Ibsen. Partly I chose Ibsen because he’s Norwegian. That’s personal, to be sure, but scholarly too, since an Ibsen scholar has to know the original language. Secondly, Ibsen and Beauvoir both value freedom above all. Ibsen is the first writer who actually manages to describe modern women who are neither madonnas nor whores, but actual everyday, ordinary, complex women. Actresses today call Hedda Gabler the women’s Hamlet—it’s the part everyone wants to do. There aren’t in the theater, even in the twentieth century, that many great parts for women, and certainly not many plays in which the women characters carry the philosophical and existential problems of the play. Ibsen’s ahead of everyone when it comes to women in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth, too.


In 1985 Toril Moi caught the attention of the critical world with Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, a short study of key figures in French and American feminist criticism. She also helped introduce poststructuralist thinkers to Anglo-American readers with her editions of The Kristeva Reader and French Feminist Thought. Simone de Beauvoir has been a central figure for Moi, and her next book, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, studies the institutional context that Beauvoir traversed to become an intellectual when there almost no women held that position. Following from some of the philosophical questions that Beauvoir raised, Moi next published a set of essays, collected in What Is a Woman? And Other Essays and Sex, Gender, and the Body:  The Student Edition of What Is a Woman?, that work through the distinctions between biological definitions of sex and cultural definitions of gender.

Over the past decade, Moi has looked more at “ordinary language” philosophers, such as Stanley Cavell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, than poststructuralists. Her book Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy exemplifies “ordinary language criticism,” and proposes a major revision of the genealogy of modernism. It recovers the idealist tradition in literature that dominated through the nineteenth century, arguing that idealism was the formative antecedent to modernism rather than realism and casting Ibsen as a central modernist figure.

After receiving undergraduate (1976) and graduate (1980) degrees in Comparative Literature from the University of Bergen in Norway, Moi pieced together lectureships at Cambridge and Oxford until 1985, when she became director of the Centre for Feminist Research in the Humanities at the University of Bergen. In 1989 she moved to Duke University as a professor in the Literature Program, while continuing to hold an adjunct professorship at Bergen until 1996. Since 1999, she has been James Duke Professor of Literature and Romance Studies at Duke.

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