[From the Archives] What is an Intellectual Woman?: An Interview with Toril Moi

Today’s post is an excerpt of an interview with Toril Moi, from Issue 67 (Fall 2006).  The interview took place on 1 September 2006 in Toril Moi’s office at Duke University. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, then editor of the minnesota review, and transcribed by Heather Steffen, then the assistant to the journal while a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University. In this excerpt, Moi discusses differences between American and French feminism.

Williams: Sexual/Textual Politics burst onto the scene in the mid-80s and changed the representation of feminism in the US. 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?

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. […]

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

Moi: I think it’s a book that’s of its moment. It’s not possible to change it now. It came out in 1985, 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 and 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.

For more of Jeffrey J. Williams’ interview with Toril Moi, visit our archive for Issue 67 here. You do not need a subscription to read this or any article from that issue.

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