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2020 | OriginalPaper | Chapter

7. The Colonial Frame: Judith Butler and Simone Weil on Force and Grief

Author: Benjamin P. Davis

Published in: Simone Weil, Beyond Ideology?

Publisher: Springer International Publishing

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Abstract

This chapter examines Simone Weil’s writings on colonialism, placing them in conversation with contemporary post- and decolonial theory. The chapter first presents Judith Butler’s concept of the “frame” in order to suggest that Weil elucidates “the colonial frame”—namely, the way the ideology of colonialism conditions its subjects to see themselves, others, and the world in such a manner that colonial violence is normalized, legitimized, and maintained. Second, it argues that Weil reveals the colonial frame in interwar France by performing a critical phenomenology of colonizing society, bringing our attention to the particular, material, everyday situations in which the ideology of colonialism manifests itself, such as instances of grieving. The chapter concludes by offering cautionary notes against three potential responses to the colonial frame (inclusion, pity, and tolerance) and by contending that the political value of Weil’s example lies in its emphasis on self-critique.
Footnotes
1
Inese Radzins has noted that “Weil pointed to… the dual nature of France’s destruction—not only in oppressing others, but also by sanctioning this destruction through various policies at home” (Inese Radzins, “Simone Weil’s Social Philosophy: Toward a Post-Colonial Ethic,” in New Topics in Feminist Philosophy of Religion: Contestations and Transcendence Incarnate [New York: Springer, 2009], 71). A future site of Weil studies lies in placing Weil in dialogue with decolonial contemporaries and continuations: consider for instance W.E.B. DuBois’s treatment of colonialism in his 1945 Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace; consider also the Caribbean diagnosis that the two fundamental aspects of France’s relation to the world are universal freedom and colonialism in Patrick Chamoiseau’s and Édouard Glissant’s “When the Walls Fall: Is National Identity and Outlaw?”
 
2
See Simone Weil, Simone Weil on Colonialism: An Ethic of the Other, ed. J.P. Little (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2003), 41–44. My emphasis on Weil’s analysis of emotion challenges her reputation as generally lacking in sensitivity and feeling. Deborah Nelson observes that women philosophers such as Weil “have been perceived as psychologically cold rather than engaged in an ethical project with different assumptions” (Deborah Nelson, Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017], 9). Making a point related to Nelson’s, Sophie Bourgault observes that myriad of Weil’s biographies feature “the disturbing subtext… that it is particularly strange for a woman to eschew romantic love, children, or sex” (Bourgault, “Beyond the Saint and the Red Virgin: Simone Weil as Feminist Theory of Care,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 35, no. 2 [2014]: 1).
 
3
Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (New York: Verso, 2009), 26.
 
4
Ibid.
 
5
Ibid., 15.
 
6
Ibid., 38.
 
7
Ibid., 47, 125.
 
8
Ibid., 73.
 
9
Ibid., 1.
 
10
Ibid., 26.
 
11
Ibid., 50.
 
12
Ibid., 63–64.
 
13
Ibid., 10.
 
14
See Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 315.
 
15
Butler, Frames, 9.
 
16
Ibid., 4.
 
17
Butler’s consideration of precarious and grievable lives is different from “bare life” in the political philosophy of Giorgio Agamben. She writes: “[T]he lives in question are not cast outside the polis in a state of radical exposure, but bound and constrained by power relations in a situation of forcible exposure” (ibid., 29). Thus we can begin to place Weil and Butler in dialogue. Weil, too, would focus on State-sponsored force.
 
18
Ibid., 4.
 
19
Rei Terada, Feeling in Theory: Emotion After the “Death of the Subject” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 4.
 
20
Butler, Frames, 11, 63.
 
21
Ibid., 34–35.
 
22
Ibid., 72, 74. For a consideration of those mappings, see e.g., the excellent collection of poetry Victims of a Map. In one of those poems, “Travel Tickets,” Samih al-Qasim writes: “On the day you kill me / You’ll find in my pocket / Travel tickets / To peace, / To the fields and the rain, / To people’s conscience. / Don’t waste the tickets” (Samih al-Qasim, “Travel Tickets,” in A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry [London: Saqi Books, 1984], 59).
 
23
Weil, Simone Weil on Colonialism, 47.
 
24
Ibid.
 
25
Weil scholars often speak about Weil’s compassion; I am suggesting that, beyond compassion, Weil knew the importance of critique.
 
26
Martha Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2013), 360.
 
27
For this approach to phenomenology, see Eduardo Mendieta, Global Fragments: Globalizations, Latinamericanisms, and Critical Theory (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 37. I call Weil’s analysis phenomenology, further, because of how it, in Anthony Steinbock’s words, “takes us beyond a subject-object dichotomy often attributed to Western philosophical thought insofar as givenness is not necessarily attached to the appearing of an object over against a subject” (Anthony Steinbock, Phenomenology and Mysticism: The Verticality of Religious Experience [Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007], 2). Indeed, Steinbock continues, “[w]e are involved in the very course of our experience. We hardly notice them when they flow on concordantly without disruption or when everything works harmoniously” (ibid., 2–3). For more on the emerging discussion of “critical phenomenology,” see e.g., Lisa Guenther, Solitary Confinement.
 
28
Lisa Guenther, “A Critical Phenomenology of Solidarity and Resistance in 2013 California Prison Hunger Strikes,” in Body/Self/Other: The Phenomenology of Social Encounters, eds. Luna Dolezal and Danielle Petherbridge (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2017), 49.
 
29
Weil, Simone Weil on Colonialism, 31.
 
30
Ibid., 32.
 
31
Ibid., 33.
 
32
Ibid.
 
33
“Prestige” is a technical term in Weil. She had worked out its connection to violence and fascism in her 1936 “Do We Have to Grease Our Combat Boots,” writing: “One must choose between prestige and peace. And whether one claims to believe in the fatherland, democracy, or revolution, the policy of prestige means war” (Simone Weil, Formative Writings: 19291941, trans. and ed. Dorothy Tuck McFarland and Wilhelmina Van Ness [Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987], 258).
 
34
Substituting “political” for “theological” and “colonialism” for “Christianity” in Gil Anidjar’s political-theological text Blood, we read: “[T]here is nothing natural about blood, and the confusion as to its literal or figurative status (a key site of difference ‘between bloods’), its physiological or [political] existence, is crucial to understand [colonialism], to consider and reflect upon it” (Gil Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity [New York: Columbia University Press, 2014], 257). Blood could open new forms of relation, kin, attention across borders: “It can so break and might therefore engender new contexts; it has, in the form of new notions of kinship and of race or of novel, massive, and massively hailed and barely interrogated practices (circulation, donation, and transfusion, for instance)” (ibid., ix).
 
35
Weil, Simone Weil on Colonialism, 41.
 
36
Ibid.
 
37
Ibid., 42.
 
38
Ibid.
 
39
Ibid.
 
40
Ibid.
 
41
Ibid.
 
42
Ibid., 43.
 
43
Ibid., 42.
 
44
Ibid., 43.
 
45
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory, eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 75, 76. For both Spivak and Weil, the subaltern, in affliction, is mute. They differ in terms of both specificity and response, however. Spivak’s emphasis on the gendered subaltern is more particular than Weil’s universality allows. And whereas Spivak remains critical of French intellectuals’ attempts to represent subalterns, Weil writes in the 1942–1943 essay “Human Personality”: “In order to provide an armour for the afflicted, one must put into their mouths only those words whose rightful abode is in heaven, beyond heaven, in the other world” (Simone Weil, Simone Weil: An Anthology [New York: Penguin, 2005], 86). This call to put words into the mouths of the afflicted raises concerns for the post- and decolonial thinker.
 
46
Butler, Frames, 26, 36.
 
47
Weil, Simone Weil on Colonialism, 43.
 
48
Ibid., 42.
 
49
Ibid., 43. The U.S. Left today remains culpable in, e.g., the reprehensible claim to close borders in the name of U.S. workers. See Angela Nagle, “The Left Case against Open Borders,” American Affairs II, no. 4 (2018).
 
50
Weil, Simone Weil on Colonialism, 66.
 
51
Ibid., 67.
 
52
Ibid.
 
53
Ibid., 68.
 
54
Ibid.
 
55
Ibid.
 
56
Ibid.
 
57
Ibid., 71. Spivak notes that this is “the sanctioned ignorance that every critic of imperialism must chart” (Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 86).
 
58
Weil, Simone Weil on Colonialism, 70.
 
59
Ibid., 69, 70.
 
60
Ibid., 74.
 
61
Quoted in Simone Pétrement, Simone Weil: A Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976), 361.
 
62
Ibid.
 
63
Butler writes tongue-in-cheek, not unlike Weil at times, that the photos of U.S. torture at Abu Ghraib show that, “in an effort to win the clash of civilizations and subject the ostensible barbarians to our civilizing mission,” the U.S. “has rid itself so beautifully of our own barbarism” (Butler, Frames, 84–85).
 
64
Butler, Frames, 15.
 
65
Roberto Esposito, The Origin of the Political: Hannah Arendt or Simone Weil? (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), 3.
 
66
A. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, “Le Déracinement of Attention: Simone Weil on the Institutionalization of Distractedness,” Philosophy Today 53, no. 1 (2009): 101, 104.
 
67
Mahmoud Darwish, Journal of an Ordinary Grief, trans. Ibrahim Muhawi (New York: Archipelago Books, 2010), 7. Please note that this quotation was originally the epigraph of this chapter; publishing conventions required it to be moved here.
 
68
Butler, Frames, 51.
 
69
Ibid.
 
70
This caution is in line with the decolonial philosopher Enrique Dussel’s call for political transformation: “The excluded should not be merely included in the old system—as this would be to introduce the Other into the Same—but rather ought to participate as equals in a new institutional moment (the new political order)” (Enrique Dussel, Twenty Theses on Politics, trans. George Ciccariello-Maher [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008], 89).
 
71
Jason Mohaghegh and Lucian Stone, “Introduction: Outsider Imperatives,” in Manifestos for World Thought, eds. Jason Mohaghegh and Lucian Stone (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017), x.
 
72
Butler, Frames, 140, 143.
 
73
Ibid., 143.
 
74
For the function of tolerance in a colonial context, cf. Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
 
75
Ibid., 170–171. This resonates with what Alessia Ricciardi has called Weil’s “negative politics,” meaning “a kind of negative thinking with respect to institutional, ideologically formalized politics, a skepticism that nevertheless eschews nihilism” (Alessia Ricciardi, “From Decreation to Bare Life: Weil, Agamben, and the Impolitical,” Diacritics 39, no. 2 [2009]: 76–77).
 
76
Esposito, Origin, 49.
 
77
In “About the Problems in the French Empire,” written in exile from New York in mid- to late 1942, Weil was still thinking about French colonialism, observing: “There lives in the soul of all men a burning hunger for freedom which, as a source of energy, is more precious than coal or oil” (Weil, Simone Weil on Colonialism, 90). Weil thus demands an inversion of priorities by connecting turning on the lights, driving to work, or flying to a prestigious international academic conference—all of which rely on coal or oil—to the liberty of some and the oppression of others. “Politics is everywhere,” Edward Said adds; “there can be no escape into the realms of pure art and thought or, for that matter, into the realm of disinterested objectivity or transcendental theory. Intellectuals are of their time, herded along by the mass politics of representations embodied by the information or media industry, capable of resisting those only by disputing the images, [frames,] official narratives, justifications of power circulated by an increasingly powerful media—and not only media but whole trends of thought that maintain the status quo, keep things within an acceptable and sanctioned perspective on actuality” (Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures [New York: Vintage, 1994], 21–22).
 
78
My emphasis on intention and effort here, to be clear, resonates less with Derrida’s reiteration and more with Sartre’s owned sense of responsibility in Sketch for a Theory of Emotions.
 
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Metadata
Title
The Colonial Frame: Judith Butler and Simone Weil on Force and Grief
Author
Benjamin P. Davis
Copyright Year
2020
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-48401-9_7