Toril Moi Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toril Moi 1953-

Norwegian critic, essayist, editor, and biographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Moi's career through 2001.

A controversial voice among contemporary feminist academics, Moi is best known as the author of the provocative Sexual/Textual Politics (1985), which coined the term “Anglo-American feminism.” The book surveys the development of feminist cultural theory and posits two distinct literary discourses—Anglo-American and French—characterizing the French as the more intellectually rigorous and politically relevant of the two schools. In subsequent works that reflect this perspective, Moi continued to expand her analytical theories as well as editing the writings of such notable French feminists as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. She also published Simone de Beauvoir (1994), a critical biography of the feminist theorist. However, in the essay collection What Is a Woman? (1999), which owes much to Beauvoir's seminal theories, Moi revisits and revises some of her earlier arguments originally put forth in Sexual/Textual Politics. Although Moi's literary debut garnered a severe response from American feminist academics, many commentators have applauded Moi's efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of Beauvoir despite most feminists' lingering reservations about the relevance of Beauvoir's thought to contemporary gender issues.

Biographical Information

Born in Norway in 1953, Moi attended the University of Bergen, earning her doctorate degree in 1980. In 1983 she began her academic career at Oxford University in England where she researched and lectured on issues concerning sexuality, sex, gender, and the body, culminating in the publication of Sexual/Textual Politics. Moi returned to the University of Bergen in 1985, serving as the director of the Centre for Feminist Research in the Humanities and as an adjunct professor of comparative literature until 1988. While at Bergen, Moi focused on the intersections between literature and philosophy, editing the essay collections The Kristeva Reader (1986) and French Feminist Thought (1987). In 1989 Moi joined the faculty of the literature and romance studies department at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. During the 1990s, Moi extensively researched Beauvoir's life and career, calling the French critic the most important feminist of the twentieth century. Consequently, Moi published her findings in Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir (1990) and Simone de Beauvoir. After the publication of What Is a Woman?, Moi received a 2001 Guggenheim fellowship and a 2002-03 fellowship at Harvard University, where she began researching Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.

Major Works

Moi's theoretical interests include feminist theory, psychoanalytic theory, French phenomenology, and linguistic philosophy. Sexual/Textual Politics provides an overview of twentieth-century feminist literary theory and groups its development into two distinct schools. Divided into two sections, the book contrasts the underlying “methods, principles, and politics” that inform Anglo-American and French feminism. The first section of Sexual/Textual Politics surveys Anglo-American feminism, which is characterized by the works of such theorists as Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Kate Millet, and Annette Kolodny, as well as prominent feminists of the African American and lesbian communities. According to Moi, Anglo-American feminism articulates an empirical and essential conception of the female self, which is characteristic of liberal humanism. Moi argues that Anglo-American feminism adopts the same assumptions and methods of Western critical practice and, therefore, does not effectively engage the politics of the patriarchal culture. The second section of Sexual/Textual Politics surveys French feminist discourse and critical practice as characterized by the works of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. According to Moi, French feminism articulates an anti-essential conception of the female self, which is characteristic of poststructuralist critical practice. Moi asserts that the text-based methodology of French feminism effectively deconstructs patriarchal constructions of gender, and, therefore, actively challenges the patriarchal culture on its own terms. In The Kristeva Reader, Moi presents a selection of writings by Kristeva over the course of her career. The pieces range from the noted essays “Women's Time” and “Psychoanalysis and the Polis” to extracts from Kristeva's Revolution in Poetics Language (1974), About Chinese Women (1977), and Histories d'amour (1983). Moi's introduction to the volume discusses the development of Kristeva's thought with respect to her multiple social roles as a “foreigner in Paris,” a mother, a psychoanalyst, and in terms of the political changes she witnessed by her affiliation with the Tel Quel group.

All of Moi's writings on Beauvoir aim to rehabilitate Beauvoir's reputation among contemporary feminists, who have generally discounted her contributions. Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir is comprised of a critical overview of Moi's literary theory, an interview with Moi, and two essays on Beauvoir written by Moi. Adopting an interdisciplinary perspective, Simone de Beauvoir examines the personal and intellectual development of Beauvoir within the historical and cultural context of her life. The biography is divided into three parts, each marked by a distinct “textual” moment in Beauvoir's literary career. In the first part, Moi focuses on a 1929 garden conversation between Beauvoir and existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, which Beauvoir describes in her autobiography, Memoires d'une juene fille rangee. The second part of Moi's biography centers on another conversation with Sartre in 1946 when Beauvoir began analyzing the intellectual effects of being a woman in a patriarchal society. The rest of this section studies the philosophical and psychological principles of Beauvoir's mid-century work that culminated in the publication of The Second Sex, which Moi regards as a landmark in feminist literature. The third part of the biography examines the sadness and disappointment that Beauvoir attributes to old age in the conclusion of her La Force des choses. What Is a Woman? represents Moi's first engagement with original feminist theory since the publication of Sexual/Textual Politics. In addition to reprinting previously published essays from Moi's career, the collection also contains original essays that revise some of the positions advocated by Sexual/Textual Politics regarding contemporary feminism. Inspired by Beauvoir's critical theories, the essays address prevailing trends in contemporary cultural definitions of feminism and femininity.

Critical Reception

Sexual/Textual Politics has been and continues to be greeted with open hostility by many Anglo-American feminists, whose discourse and objectives are questioned by the text. Some academics have criticized Moi's work for oversimplifying Anglo-American feminist thought, while others have charged that it neglects the measurable effects of French influence on Anglo-American feminism. Additionally, scholars have objected to Moi's views on the effort to define a feminist literary tradition and the political agendas of African American and lesbian feminists. In contrast, several commentators have applauded Sexual/Textual Politics for provoking dynamic dialogue and healthy debate among feminist academics, noting that Moi's Anglo-American/French dialectic itself speaks to the weaknesses of contemporary feminism. Nonetheless, Sexual/Textual Politics has become a standard text in undergraduate feminist curricula at American universities. Moi's subsequent writings have generally received a more positive critical response than her first work. Several academics have commended Moi's efforts to rehabilitate the work of Beauvoir, frequently calling Simone de Beauvoir an important contribution to the cultural history of feminism. Critics have praised the biography's intertextual approach, complimenting the way Moi underscores the intellectual significance of Beauvoir's relationship with Sartre. Reviewers have also lauded the essays in What Is a Woman? not only as an encouraging sign of Moi's development as a feminist theorist, but also as a practical demonstration of the relevance of Beauvoir's thought to contemporary gender studies.