Of Colonialism and Corpses: Simone Weil on Force

Helen M. Kinsella read


“. . . . In the scholarship on Simone Weil, her emphasis on colonialism is still not yet fully integrated into analyses of the use of force nor, more generally, as another source of her reflections on the concepts which adumbrate her work.6 Processes that she identified as constitutive of colonialism’s brutality – uprooting, loss of the past, degradation of labor, and the pursuit of unlimited profit and power – inform her thought. As Dietz points out, the hallmarks of Weil’s concerns are “the meaning of individual freedom in the modern collectivity, the nature of community in the nation-state, and the political and social possibilities for an end to the affliction and oppression of the human condition,” each of which directly implicates colonialism and empire. In this chapter, I propose to explore the relationship of colonization to her concept of force and her exposition of rights – to draw out the ways in which her argument that force turns “man into a thing” is born out of her earlier analysis of how in colonial wars “we, first of all, reduce whole populations to slavery, and then we use them as cannon fodder.”

I argue that this accomplishes three things. First, Weil provides an analysis of modernity and the rise of totalitarianism that specifically centers colonialism as fundamental to each and, consequently, to any analysis of international politics. Second, she develops her theories through her own political engagement and activism in the context of her time, negotiating and unsettling the governing intellectual, social, and political expectations – as articulated through gender, certainly, but also no less so through the complex intersections of class and religion. Accordingly, her politics and her scholarship continue to challenge a disciplinary post-1945 positioning of colonialism as peripheral to the development of international thought, and further confirm the significance of “historical women” in the field. Third, Weil’s own reckoning with the tumultuous politics of her time can animate contemporary analyses of force as understood and enacted in complex and critical ways.”

** Essay in Patricia Owens & Katharina Rietzler, eds., Women’s International Thought: A New History, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (2021), pp. 72-92.

Helen M. Kinsella is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

A Degrading Division: Hands & Minds in Simone Weil

Edward J. Hughes read

— essay in Edward J., Hughes, Egalitarian Strangeness: On Class Disturbance and Levelling in Modern and Contemporary French Narrative (Liverpool University Press, 2021), pp. 131-156

Book Abstract: The formulation ‘egalitarian strangeness’ is a direct borrowing from Courts voyages au pays du peuple [Short Voyages to the Land of the People] (1990), a collection of essays by the contemporary French thinker Jacques Rancière. Perhaps best known for his theory of radical equality as set out in Le Maître ignorant [The Ignorant Schoolmaster] (1987), Rancière reflects on ways in which a hierarchical social order based on inequality can come to be unsettled. In the democracy of literature, for example, he argues that words and sentences serve to capture any life and to make it available to any reader. The present book explores embedded forms of social and cultural ‘apportionment’ in a range of modern and contemporary French texts (including prose fiction, socially engaged commentary, and autobiography), while also identifying scenes of class disturbance and egalitarian encounter. Part One considers the ‘refrain of class’ audible in works by Claude Simon, Charles Péguy, Marie Ndiaye, Thierry Beinstingel, and Gabriel Gauny and examines how these authors’ practices of language connect with that refrain. In Part Two, Hughes analyses forms of domination and dressage with reference to Simone Weil’s mid-1930s factory journal, Paul Nizan’s novel of class alienation Antoine Bloyé from the same decade, and Pierre Michon’s Vies minuscules [Small Lives] (1984) with its focus on obscure rural lives. The reflection on how these narratives draw into contiguity antagonistic identities is extended in Part Three, where individual chapters on Proust and the contemporary authors François Bon and Didier Eribon demonstrate ways in which enduring forms of cultural distribution are both consolidated and contested.”