The True Thinking of Artifice: On Simone Weil & Politics

I was reminded yesterday by a friend of Simone Weil’s classic essay “Human Personality,” and was struck by the notion that at some point (perhaps somebody already has) I might write a piece comparing the centrality of her question here, ‘Why am I being hurt,’ to Judith Butler’s more recent question in Precarious Life, ‘Who shall we mourn?’ Both questions attend to supremely significant issues. Indeed, one might argue that Weil & Butler approach the same issues but from different angles. This may be true, but one must be careful in too quickly affirming the sameness at the expense of the important differences.

I am deeply sympathetic–no, make that outright supportive–of Weil’s desire to speak for those who cannot speak–or, more properly, that which cannot be spoken. The impersonality of this unspoken truth is crucial to Weil, and is apprehended, if at all, in the solitariness of one’s humiliation. She offers no concession to consolation in her work, which is often unsettling. I don’t read Weil as a masochist. Suffering, rather, is an inevitability, of life & of life on the way to the truth. If pain must sometimes be handed out as punishment, this is only because the inevitable is often disproportionately distributed and/or dissimulated by the secular appeal to “rights.” 

The problem, to be perhaps overly blunt, is Weil’s religious conviction. Or, to be more precise, the effects of her religious conviction. Though, to be fair, one needn’t be religious to go through the maneuvers of her thinking, re: the ineffable purity of truth. There is, after all, a kind of crypto-religious logic to even avowed atheists who confess as much. Weil at least wears her conviction on her sleeve for all to behold.

The problem, however, is simply too quickly to name the end of her search–e.g., the good, the true, the just, etc.–and in so naming, renders that which is named too static for it to live up to its claim. A static universal is certainly elusive, but it doesn’t seem to me plausible than any such thing, if it is to be universal, would be a single “thing” toward which one’s attention might be directed. In my view, the good, the true, etc., are only modes of attention, not its purposive end & ambition. I mean, in effect, that our attention has a hand in creating, in giving voice to, that (in Weil’s terminology, impersonal) truth that is experienced.

Weil is keen on moving from the personal to the impersonal, stripping oneself of the personal as much as possible, in order to achieve the impersonal. If she achieves nothing else in her body of work, she articulates in brutal, often ugly, honest terms what this transition actually means. While it could be interesting to think through how this move is played out in more sublimated, publicly acceptable forms, to stay on task here I want to say a few words why I think it is more appropriate to go the reverse route: from the impersonal to the personal.

There’s always a personal residue in the impersonal–your solitude is experienced always as under duress or threat. It is either momentary, or occurs at all only in spite of others who would deny it to you. Depending on your disposition, this residue sullies the discovery/experience or enhances the effects of its ineffability, i.e., keeps it elusive & one frustrated/searching. If we move from the impersonal to the personal, though, the “residue” is neither a problem nor a limit, but the context(s) from which the effects of the impersonal are realized here & now, and requires creative will more than it does revelatory powers. (Which is not to say this creative will is any more popularly commonplace than revelation. Indeed, one could very well argue that revelation is claimed far more often than creative politics.)

Consider those who have no proper voice from which to cry their pain. In less dramatic language, we might think of them, in the language of Jacques Rancière, as those who have no proper place in the political community, and who thus lack (that is to say, are denied) the capacity freely & coherently to synthesize and articulate their perspective of the sensual world. They are, in effect, the proletariat who ordinarily play no role or part in the giving or taking from the shared world of experience. Whether his thought actually allows this to happen or not, Rancière argues that politics is precisely that event when such a people nonetheless forcibly partake in that aesthetic/sensory experience, and thus in that creative community. In politics they, in effect, create the voice(s) they have been denied, and thus slaves who have ceased to be subservient; in more positive language, they have made a claim to freedom.

What I find so profound about this kind of claim, though, is that it is not strictly a “discovery” or “assertion” of a natural state or expectation: if this claim to freedom reveals anything at all it is that there is nothing natural about social roles and positions. The more preposterous the claim the better, devoid of any justification or quality (this is in line with Weil’s resistance to the claiming of “rights.”) In such a claim, any preconceived or sought-for correlation between social role and natural capacity is shown to be purely theatrical–that the slave is no more essentially so than is the noble politician–that there is no “but for the grace of God go I”–and thus artificial to the core. Importantly, this is not to say that theatricality and artifice should be dismissed. The “revelation” as such is not its eradication any more than is the knowledge that an actor on a stage is playing a role. Artifice can be abusive, of course, and tend to become so when (a) it is unknown/unacknowledged or (b) the roles have become overly typecast. Both conditions occur all too readily, usually on the level of “la politique,” as Ken Surin brought up in a recent comment thread, which is precisely what keeps the critique of “le politique” in play.

In artifice, one might say, we are freed to enact a kind of true thinking or attention that authenticity would otherwise deny (i.e., about that which/those who are constitutively silent).

5 thoughts on “The True Thinking of Artifice: On Simone Weil & Politics

  1. write it! i’m actually glad to see a post up about weil. i wrote my MA thesis on the figure of the creature in weil and there were a lot of people who sort of laughed at me… i think, in large part, because of her various forms of extremism: religious, especially. there is something unapologetically dogmatic about her work. and the fact that she was doing this in the 20th century makes it far less “excusable” than if she’d been writing in the 16th. but i also think that she makes some really powerful, and beautiful, observations. i keep coming back to her work, in spite of myself, because it has something in it. i can’t quite figure out what. i like her best, i think, when i’m able to see her contradicting herself but still sounding wise, anyhow. weil is all about stripping down, as you mention. she’s grace crazy, and totally anti-body. which makes her hard for me to read. but one of the things that’s so evocative about “the human personality” is that her ethical statements rest on something that’s ultimately sensual: the cry of the human person, something you can hear.

    if you’re interested in thinking about weil and the question of precarity/vulnerability, you should definitely check out anat pick’s creaturely poetics ( weil’s and vulnerability is central here. and you might also want to check out weil’s essay “affliction and the love of god.”

  2. Yes, the anti-body stuff is so startling throughout Weil’s oeuvre. Interesting comment re: how doing it in the 20th century is even less “excusable” than in the 16th. I think she was very well-aware of that, and readily admitted her defiance of the present world that would call her to account. I’m not fond of the “at least she was being honest” line, as though honesty is somehow the paper-thin justification necessary for a vote of confidence (see, many a Ron Paul supporter), but like you I find myself once again drawn to, let’s say, the expression of her honesty. (I’m an aesthetics guy at the end of the day, not theology or philosophy, so this seems reasonable.) When she isn’t removing the skin from her bones and life from lungs, and imploring you to do the same, I find her critique of “personalism” quite powerful & still pertinent today.

    I for some reason had it in my head that Elaine Scarry discussed Weil in Body in Pain, but a quick search proves me wrong. Revisiting Weil has compelled me to do the same with this modern classic.

  3. and, of course, the anti-body posture was something she appeared to live out, as well. and i think you’re right that she knew she was being iconoclastic. i think, in some ways, this iconoclasm is what makes her so fascinating. i love the fact that she was a pseudo-catholic… there are debates over whether or not she was ever baptized on her death bed. and she certainly rejected her jewish background (also something about her work that’s really difficult to read). but she was never, when she was writing, formally religious.

    when i was working on the MA i found a note, on wikipedia (i think), suggesting that agamben’s 1960 phd dissertation was on weil. i was never really able to substantiate this. he makes a couple of offhanded references to her in his corpus. but i was always curious about some intuitive resonances i sensed between his concept of bare life and her work. he never mentions her in conjunction with this.

Comments are closed.