minnesota review interviews Toril Moi


Toril Moi has, for many years now, been engaged in the serious study of ordinary language philosophers like Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell. Her own writings, particularly her last two books — What is a Woman? And Other Essays (1999) and Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (2006) — are deeply exciting and suggestive examples of what literary theory and criticism might become if literary scholars would move beyond the poststructuralist pictures of language that have dominated the humanities for many decades now and learn to appreciate the methods and insights of OLP. In 2006, minnesota review’s editor, Jeffery Williams conducted a wide-ranging interview with Moi, and because of her deep interest in, indeed passion for, both OLP and literary studies, I thought readers of this blog would enjoy reading it. Below is the lead-up to the actual interview, the full-text of which can be accessed by clicking here.

What Is an Intellectual Woman?

An Interview with Toril Moi, by Jeffrey J. Williams

In 1985 Toril Moi caught the attention of the theory world with her brief, pointed, and bestselling Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (Methuen). Although a comparative study assessing key figures of French and American feminisms, the book became known for criticizing the essentialism of the American wing and for bringing news of poststructuralism to Anglo-American readers. Complementing that effort, Moi also edited The Kristeva Reader (Blackwell, 1986) and French Feminist Thought (Blackwell, 1987).

Simone de Beauvoir has been a central figure for Moi, and her next book, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (Blackwell, 1994), is a rich study of the social and institutional contexts that Beauvoir traversed to become an intellectual when there were almost no other women in that position. Following from some of the philosophical questions that Beauvoir raised about the status of women, Moi subsequently published a set of essays, collected in What Is a Woman? And Other Essays (Oxford, 1999) and selected in Sex, Gender, and the Body: The Student Edition of What Is a Woman?(Oxford, 2005), that work through the impasse between biological definitions of sex and cultural definitions of gender.

Over the past decade, Moi has progressively moved from working with poststructural texts to those of “ordinary language” philosophers, such as Stanley Cavell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Her new book, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (Oxford, 2006), exemplifies, in part, “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, argues that idealism rather than realism was the formative antecedent to modernism, and casts 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. This interview took place on 1 September 2006 in Toril Moi’s office at Duke University and was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, editor of minnesota review, and was transcribed by Heather Steffen, assistant to the journal while a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University.

(to read the interview, click here)

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