Mother’s back

Lorna Sage

  • What is a Woman? And Other Essays by Toril Moi
    Oxford, 517 pp, £25.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 19 812242 X

Feminism is fiftysomething if you start counting from The Second Sex, and, like Toril Moi, a lot of academic women are taking stock. The good news is that wherever positive discrimination in favour of men has been suspended, there are many more women in universities than there used to be, as students, teachers and even tenured professors. What’s been lost is the sense of connection with utopian politics. Part of the fiftyish feeling is to do with having to recognise that the future – that future, the classless, melting-pot, unisex, embarrassing one – is now in the past. Or, more painfully, that it has been hijacked by obscurantism and academic careerism, which often amount to the same thing.

What Is a Woman? and Other Essays deplores this development. Moi is in a tricky position, however, for she herself is widely seen as one of the villains of the piece: the woman who trashed sisterhood in her 1985 book Sexual/Textual Politics by preaching post-structuralist demolition of the whole person, and dismissing American feminists as naive empiricists. ‘With friends like these, does feminism need enemies?’ Susan Gubar asks with uncharacteristic bitterness in her new stock-taking book Critical Condition. Clearly Moi is unforgiven, even though she has partly recanted. For instance: she used to argue that ‘all efforts towards a definition of woman are destined to be essentialist.’ Now she thinks definition is a red herring, and wields the very word ‘woman’ like a weapon. This will not endear her to the women whose work she so influentially pigeonholed. Nor will her insistence that her former savagery was fuelled by a euphoric sense that conflict was exciting and feminist writing should be rash, hand to mouth and excessive. This was intellectual life after all, and vive la différence. No harm was done, we were all playing the same game, weren’t we? The moment fed, she says now, a recurring ‘fantasy of being able to speak in a way that would genuinely be all-inclusive ... The fantasy is one of merger, in which one would not have the problem of separating one’s voice from that of others, so that, ultimately, it would not matter who was speaking.’

Well, it has turned out to matter. The essays that make up this new book examine the question of how to speak for yourself, and not in quotation-marks as though you were the mouthpiece of an unstoppable dialectical process. Moi still recognises the author of Sexual/Textual Politics, but no longer accepts the way she operated, quoting with some incredulity herself quoting Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous. She/they were doing away with the old humanist self as ‘constructed’, in one of the book’s most-quoted passages, ‘on the model of the self-contained powerful phallus’. Now, she says: ‘I don’t think I can have believed this when I wrote it. I don’t understand why every integral whole must be phallic ... It doesn’t help that I say I have it from Irigaray and Cixous. This in fact makes it worse.’ This new use of ‘I’ liberates her from having to pay lip-service to post-structuralist orthodoxy. She hasn’t changed, she was just carried away, she implies, and there’s no reason not to believe her. With hindsight, the first book’s odd disapproving allusions to Cixous’s personal style – ‘ermine as emancipation’ – take on more weight. There spoke the literal, serious and class-conscious Moi of the turn of the century, exasperated with the decadence and snobbishness of deconstruction – ‘obscure, theoreticist, plagued by internal contradictions, mired in unnecessary philosophical and theoretical elaborations.’

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