I have chosen to write about Simone Weil (1909-1943), because her writing and actions resonate not only with my work, but with my feelings towards the conditions around my work. I stumbled upon her writing by accident, while browsing a bookshop window. Spotting a book entitled ‘Gravity and Grace’, I wondered what might be hidden in its pages. What then drew me to Weil’s work, as a geographer, was her distinctive attention to the relationship between oneself and the world. To give a very short description: for Weil, we, as human beings, are part of the material processes of the planet and the universe, and this also includes our thought and actions. What makes a difference in our actions, for her, is whether we embrace this ‘big’ connection in our lives: do we make our life about personal gain for the short term, or about investment in the greater world and the long-term?
In Weil’s case, her brash dismissal of certain societal values and mannerisms, seem to reflect her intolerance for short-termist thinking and action. This started at the (inter)personal scale – refusing feminine forms of dress or even basic politeness in some cases – and continued into her work ethic. For example, she criticised education for having been turned into a vehicle for prestige and professional advancement, rather than for thought and long-term societal advancement (sound familiar?). Not only did she verbally criticise education, but she also refused to teach the required curriculum, to mark students and to only teach a certain class of people. In addition to getting repeatedly ‘sacked’ for this kind of behaviour, she also took time off to experience (as closely as possible) how it is to live like a worker, soldier or oppressed minority, by working in car factories and sharing workers’ accommodation, by joining an anarchist militia in the Spanish Civil War, and by participating in Harlem life during her exile in the US.
Importantly, Simone Weil appeared to be very aware of her own position of privilege and the choice this brought about in terms of how she could live. She justified her choice by stating that it was worse not to know how oppressed people live and not to think about what actions could bring about social change. She further hoped that her experiences would prevent her from developing an unrealistic view of conditions and potentials that were often celebrated by similarly privileged political activists, philosophers and revolutionaries at the time. As it has been discussed in earlier posts on this blog, today’s academic work continues to be marked by a disparity between thought and action. As Jessica Abrahams, for instance, pointed out, the often celebratory treatment of the working class in theory differs rather painfully from practice.
The existence of this blog testifies that this is also true for the treatment of women and non-White academics. One could add to this the academic fantasies of resistance to neoliberalism. Here, Simone Weil’s work functions for me as a very humbling or even intimidating example of how theory could translate into action. While her turbulent and short life can be read as a reminder of the risks of such actions, I find it more productive to think of it as a source of empowerment. Not only does she provide me with a ‘sanity check’ on some of my actions when people around me recommend otherwise, but also with the possibility that even in the case of the dismissal, censorship or ridicule of one’s ideas, one’s actions can still affect something. Despite her despair at the world for allowing mass inequalities and violence, Simone Weil tried to create a space for hope – or, in her own words (in ‘Oppression and Liberty’): ‘the mere fact that we exist, that we conceive and want something different from what exists, constitutes for us a reason for hoping’.