You are here

Revolution of the Ordinary by Toril Moi

Reviewed by Robert Britten, University of Oxford

Revolution of the Ordinary. Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell, Toril Moi. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. £ 22.50. ISBN: 9780226464442.


Toril Moi’s latest book offers a scrupulous yet accessible account of Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosophy and poses a challenge to what she identifies as a ‘disdain’ (5) for ordinary life and language in literary studies and theory. Moi has written extensively on Feminist literary criticism, authoring a survey of Anglo-American and French feminism in Sexual/Textual Politics (1986) as well as monographs on both Simone de Beauvoir and Julia Kristeva. It is clear from the outset that, in Revolution of the Ordinary, there is no less at stake than in her writing on feminist and socialist matters – she takes the reader ‘on foot’ (30), as she writes, through the landscape of the Wittgensteinian vision of meaning as use; then sets out to show her the transformative power of this vision using the example of feminist discourses. But the example is neither random, nor does it present a mere add-on to Moi’s argument: Thinking through examples is at the core of her project of urging theory towards the particulars of ordinary life.

            Dividing the book into three parts, Moi first takes her reader through her reading of Wittgenstein. In keeping with the spirit of the whole enterprise, this is not some kind of overarching comprehensive account of Wittgensteinian thought, but focuses on certain ordinary language readings of the Philosophical Investigations. The first two chapters are devoted to a run-down of key terms: Meaning and Use, Language Games, Grammar, and Forms-of-life. Like the Philosophical Investigations, which Wittgenstein begins with the account of language learning in Augustine’s Confessions, Moi sets out discussing Wittgenstein’s response to the Augustinian picture of language, reading his story of buying five red apples from the supposedly naïve and definitely refreshing perspective of Wittgenstein’s imagined interlocutor; ‘a child, who can’t stop asking “why?”’ (26). Patiently anticipating a range of criticisms of ordinary language philosophy as it has been (mis-)understood in different contexts, she insists that the scope of her (or Wittgenstein’s) argument does not require an account of meaning: instead ‘to learn a language is to be trained in a practice, to be initiated into a form of life’ (43). In themselves, the first two chapters are a brilliantly lucid introduction to Wittgenstein’s vision of language. On their basis, Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 set out his critique of ‘theory’. Comparing Derrida’s notion of concepts, and the implied extreme demand for univocal meaning from which deconstructive arguments take off, with Wittgenstein’s approach, Moi pits what she identifies as theory’s ‘craving for generality’ (99) of theory against the intellectual power of examples. On the particular case of feminist intersectionality theory, she argues that theory’s attempt to make concepts overarching and fully inclusionary risks generating highly complicated and inaccessible theoretical models that leave little room for attention to particular and ordinary female realities.

            Having set out these key terms and indicated ways in which the Wittgensteinian vision of language might revolutionize the way we ‘do theory’, the second part of the book turns to the ‘Differences’ between ordinary language philosophy and various strands of post-Saussurean thought. Differences are important to Moi because she wants her reader to realize, along with Wittgenstein, that the ‘picture that holds us captive’ is so pervasive because no other options occur to us. As with Wittgenstein previously, Moi in Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 sets out the key terms of Saussurean thought and presents different takes on them in literary studies. Her account of these is enlightening, because her examples demonstrate how a thinker generally thought of as outdated continues to influence the theoretical landscape, even if as the representative of a constraining picture of language that becomes a taking-off point for poststructuralism. Sourcing examples from Knapp and Michaels, Fish, and de Man, the argument now turns from Wittgenstein’s five red apples, builders at work and children playing ring-a-ring-a-roses to what Moi calls a ‘disdain for the ordinary’ in the ways these thinkers have approached questions about language and meaning. In Chapter 7, her discussion of Herbert Marcuse responds to the claims that ordinary language philosophy is inherently reactionary and commonsensical, and that to describe ordinary linguistic practices rather than to critique them, is fundamentally hostile to the idea of change. Drawing on the earlier chapters on Wittgenstein, Moi defends him against such allegations, saying that while he acknowledged changes in languages and, correspondingly, in forms-of-life, he would have denied that ‘philosophers have any special power over the evolution of language’ (157). Ordinary language, she stresses, is not some kind of positivism, nor specifically ‘restricted to “the common usage of words”’ (161): ‘It is simply “what we say”. […] It is, simply, language that works, language that helps us to draw useful distinctions, language as the medium in which we live our lives […]’ (161).

            In the third part, titled ‘Reading’, Moi begins to set out her account of how ordinary language philosophy offers a toolkit for new strategies and approaches in literary theory and criticism. Drawing in Chapter 8 on Rita Felski’s discussion of the hermeneutics of suspicion as a pervasive mood, Moi now brings to bear what she has been stressing throughout the book; that the approach to language that Wittgenstein puts forward is not another theory, or even methodology, but as a different kind of attitude, or mood, or spirit. Reiterating the Wittgensteinian notion of ‘utterances as actions, as something we do’ (180), she suggests that precisely this notion might work as a remedy against the belief that texts have surfaces and depths, and that a good, critical reading must always pursue the latter: ‘Action aren’t objects, and they don’t have surfaces and depths’ (180). Chapter 9 develops this with a view to controversies about authorial intention: ‘To say that texts are actions and expressions is to remind us of the obvious: […] that they are spoken or written by someone at a particular time, in a particular place’ (197). For Moi, as with the question of surface or depth reading, the disputes around whether reading should try to get into the author’s mind or not, are due to a wrongheaded picture of an inside and outside of mind and exterior world. Arguing for reading as a practice of acknowledging both the concerns and circumstances that the text reveals and what we bring to it as readers, she suggests that ordinary language approaches to reading escape the critical or skeptical spirit pervasive in theory as the only good response to linguistic positivism. Turning, in her final chapter, to the example of the right-extremist terrorist attack committed by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011, Moi strikingly demonstrates the relevance of this argument in the particulars of life: ‘One doesn’t have to be a Norwegian in the aftermath of Utøya to yearn for language to be in touch with reality’ (222). Having set out to argue against the deep philosopher, who is concerned with the relation between world and language and seeks deep meaning beyond the ordinary and banal uses of language, Moi now demonstrates the nuance in her critique by appealing to cases of contemporary life – Breivik’s cut-and pasted ‘manifesto’, ‘truthiness’ in politics and other cases where language seems alienated from the world. ‘In such a situation we need a philosophically serious alternative to theories promoting the idea that language is in some fundamental way disconnected from reality, just as we need an alternative to linguistic positivism and / or scientism’ (223). Previously in the book, Moi has attempted to share some of the elation she says she has felt reading Wittgenstein and understanding the potential inherent in his vision for language, and manages to do so by the clarity and accessibility of her argument and the diversity of her examples. In the final chapters she has also demonstrated the urgency for theory to become permeable by uses of language outside a strictly literary or theoretical context.