johanna hedva – my body is a prison of pain so i want to leave it like a mystic but i also love it & want it to matter politically (2015)

Event presented by the Women’s Center for Creative Work at Human Resources on October 7, 2015

Go here for a version of this speech adapted for Mask Magazine.

Johanna Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory proposes that sick bodies are the 21st century’s sites of resistance: chronic, pathologized, and historically feminized illnesses ought to be read as modes of protest against the unlivable conditions of neoliberal, imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist cis-hetero-patriarchy. Sick Woman Theory insists that the definition of “wellness” is a capitalist one — to be well enough to go work — that needs to be rejected. SWT redefines the body with its vulnerability as the default, so therefore, we are constantly (not only sometimes) in need of care and support. Because society has eradicated such infrastructures, what are we going to do now?

From here, Hedva (herself a spoonie) has wound up at mystical anarchism, which proposes a communal politics of love, where the “self” has been obliterated in favor of the Many. This talk will try to converge the feminist mystical tradition of Marguerite Porete, Simone Weil, etc., who proposed rejecting the body for the sake of love, with an intersectional-feminist, anti-white-supremacist, queer, and crip politics, which foregrounds the body as primary matter.

A question for the audience: Are these two positions irreconcilable?

Johanna Hedva is currently a Research Fellow with “at land’s edge,” under the mentorship of Fred Moten.
#JohannaHedva (

Johanna Hedva. Photo: Mask Magazine


simone weil – the ring of gyges


simone weil gravity and grace… We set things aside without knowing we are doing so; that is precisely where the danger lies. Or, which is still worse, we set them aside by an act of the will, but by an act of the will that is furtive in relation to ourselves. Afterwards we do not any longer know that we have set anything aside. We do not want to know it, and, by dint of not wanting to know it, we reach the point of not being able to know it.

This faculty of setting things aside opens the door to every sort of crime. Outside those departments where education and training have forged solid links, it provides a key to absolute licence. That is what makes it possible for men to behave in such an incoherent fashion, particularly wherever the social, collective emotions play a part (war, national or class hatreds, patriotism for a party or a church). Whatever is surrounded with the prestige of the social element is set in a different place from other things and is exempt from certain connexions.

We also make use of this key when we give way to the allurements of pleasure.
I use it when, day after day, I put off the fulfillment of some obligation. I separate the obligation and the passage of time.

There is nothing more desirable than to get rid of this key. It should be thrown to the bottom of a well whence it can never again be recovered.

The ring of Gyges who has become invisible—this is precisely the act of setting aside: setting oneself aside from the crime one commits; not establishing the connexion between the two.

The act of throwing away the key, of throwing away the ring of Gyges—this is the effort proper to the will. It is the act by which, in pain and blindness, we make our way out of the cave. Gyges: ‘I have become king, and the other king has been assassinated.’ No connexion whatever between these two things. There we have the ring!


The owner of a factory: ‘I enjoy this and that expensive luxury and my workmen are miserably poor.’ He may be very sincerely sorry for his workmen and yet not form the connexion.

For no connexion is formed if thought does not bring it about. Two and two remain indefinitely as two and two unless thought adds them together to make them into four.
We hate the people who try to make us form the connexions we do not want to form.

Justice consists of establishing between analogous things connexions identical with those between similar terms, even when some of these things concern us personally and are an object of attachment for us.

This virtue is situated at the point of contact of the natural and the supernatural. It belongs to the realm of the will and of clear understanding, hence it is part of the cave (for our clarity is a twilight), but we cannot hold on to it unless we pass into the light.


Excerpted from Simone Weil‘s Gravity and Grace. First French edition 1947. Translated by Emma Crawford. English language edition 1963. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

simone weil – algebra

simone weil gravity and graceMoney, mechanization, algebra. The three monsters of contemporary civilization. Complete analogy.

Algebra and money are essentially levellers, the first intellectually, the second effectively.

About fifty years ago the life of the Provençal peasants ceased to be like that of the Greek peasants described by Hesiod. The destruction of science as conceived by the Greeks took place at about the same period. Money and algebra triumphed simultaneously.

The relation of the sign to the thing signified is being destroyed, the game of exchanges between signs is being multiplied of itself and for itself. And the increasing complication demands that there should be signs for signs… [Note that this comment comes decades before Baudrillard writes about simulacra in 1981.]

Among the characteristics of the modern world we must not forget the impossibility of thinking in concrete terms of the relationship between effort and the result of effort. There are too many intermediaries. As in the other cases, this relationship which does not lie in any thought, lies in a thing: money.

As collective thought cannot exist as thought, it passes into things (signs, machines…). Hence the paradox: it is the thing which thinks and the man who is reduced to the state of a thing.

There is no collective thought. On the other hand our science is collective like our technics. Specialization. We inherit not only results but methods which we do not understand. For the matter of that the two are inseparable, for the results of algebra provide methods for the other sciences.

To make an inventory or criticism of our civilization—what does that mean? To try to expose in precise terms the trap which has made man the slave of his own inventions. How has unconsciousness infiltrated itself into methodical thought and action?

To escape by a return to the primitive state is a lazy solution. We have to rediscover the original pact between the spirit and the world in this very civilization of which we form a part. But it is a task which is beyond our power on account of the shortness of life and the impossibility of collaboration and of succession. That is no reason for not undertaking it. The situation of all of us is comparable to that of Socrates when he was awaiting death in his prison and began to learn to play the lyre… At any rate we shall have lived…

The spirit, overcome by the weight of quantity, has no longer any other criterion than efficiency.

Modern life is given over to immoderation. Immoderation invades everything: actions and thought, public and private life.

The decadence of art is due to it. There is no more balance anywhere. The Catholic movement is to some extent in reaction against this; the Catholic ceremonies, at least, have remained intact. But then they are unrelated to the rest of existence.

Capitalism has brought about the emancipation of collective humanity with respect to nature. But this collective humanity has itself taken on with respect to the individual the oppressive function formerly exercised by nature.

This is true even with material things: fire, water etc. The community has taken possession of all these natural forces.

Question: can this emancipation, won by society, be transferred to the individual?
Excerpted from Simone Weil‘s Gravity and Grace. First French edition 1947. Translated by Emma Crawford. English language edition 1963. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

simone weil – beauty

simone weil gravity and graceBeauty is the harmony of chance and the good.

Beauty is necessity which, while remaining in conformity with its own law and with that alone, is obedient to the good.

The subject of science is the beautiful (that is to say order, proportion, harmony) in so far as it is suprasensible and necessary.
The subject of art is sensible and contingent beauty discerned through the network of chance and evil.

The beautiful in nature is a union of the sensible impression and of the sense of necessity. Things must be like that (in the first place), and, precisely, they are like that.

Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.

Among other unions of contraries found in beauty there is that of the instantaneous and the eternal.

The beautiful is that which we can contemplate. A statue, a picture which we can gaze at for hours.
The beautiful is something on which we can fix our attention. Gregorian music. When the same things are sung for hours each day and every day, whatever falls even slightly short of supreme excellence becomes unendurable and is eliminated.

The Greeks looked at their temples. We can endure the statues in the Luxembourg because we do not look at them. A picture such as one could place in the cell of a criminal sentenced to solitary confinement for life without it being an atrocity, on the contrary.

Only drama without movement is truly beautiful. Shakespeare’s tragedies are second-class with the exception of Lear. Those of Racine, third-class except for Phèdre. Those of Corneille of the nth class.

A work of art has an author and yet, when it is perfect, it has something which is essentially anonymous about it. It imitates the anonymity of divine art. In the same way the beauty of the world proves there to be a God who is personal and impersonal at the same time and is neither the one nor the other separately.

The beautiful is a carnal attraction which keeps us at a distance and implies a renunciation. This includes the renunciation of that which is most deep-seated, the imagination. We want to eat all the other objects of desire. The beautiful is that which we desire without wishing to eat it. We desire that it should be.

We have to remain quite still and unite ourselves with that which we desire yet do not approach. We unite ourselves to God in this way: we cannot approach him.

Distance is the soul of the beautiful.

The attitude of looking and waiting is the attitude which corresponds with the beautiful. As long as one can go on conceiving, wishing, longing, the beautiful does not appear. That is why in all beauty we find contradiction, bitterness and absence which are irreducible.

Poetry: impossible pain and joy. A poignant touch, nostalgia. Such is Provençal and English poetry. A joy which by reason of its unmixed purity hurts, a pain which by reason of its unmixed purity brings peace.

Beauty: a fruit which we look at without trying to seize it.

The same with an affliction which we contemplate without drawing back.

A double movement of descent: to do again, out of love, what gravity does. Is not the double movement of descent the key to all art?*

This movement of descent, the mirror of grace, is the essence of all music. All the rest only serves to enshrine it.
The rising of the notes is a purely sensorial rising. The descent is at the same time a sensorial descent and a spiritual rising. Here we have the paradise which every being longs for: where the slope of nature makes us rise towards the good.

In everything which gives us the pure authentic feeling of beauty there really is the presence of God. There is as it were an incarnation of God in the world and it is indicated by beauty.
The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible.
Hence all art of the highest order is religious in essence. (That is what people have forgotten today.) A Gregorian melody is as powerful a witness as the death of a martyr.

If the beautiful is the real presence of God in matter and if contact with the beautiful is a sacrament in the full sense of the word, how is it that there are so many perverted aesthetes? Nero. Is it like the hunger of those who frequent black masses for the consecrated hosts? Or is it, more probably, because these people do not devote themselves to what is genuinely beautiful, but to a bad imitation? For, just as there, is an art which is divine, so there is one which is demoniacal. It was no doubt the latter that Nero loved. A great deal of our art is of the devil.
A person who is passionately fond of music may quite well be a perverted person—but I should find it hard to believe this of any one who thirsted for Gregorian chanting. [hahaha!]

We must certainly have committed crimes which have made us accursed, since we have lost all the poetry of the universe.

Art has no immediate future because all art is collective and there is no more collective life (there are only dead collections of people), and also because of this breaking of the true pact between the body and the soul. Greek art coincided with the beginning of geometry and with athleticism, the art of the Middle Ages with the craftsmen’s guilds, the art of the Renaissance with the beginning of mechanics, etc. … Since 1914 there has been a complete cut. Even comedy is almost impossible. There is only room for satire (when was it easier to understand Juvenal?).

Art will never be reborn except from amidst a general anarchy— it will be epic no doubt, because affliction will have simplified a great many things… Is it therefore quite useless for you to envy Leonardo or Bach. Greatness in our times must take a different course. Moreover it can only be solitary, obscure and without an echo… (but without an echo, no art).

* Descendit ad inferos… So, in another order, great art redeems gravity by espousing it out of love. [Editor’s note.]
Excerpted from Simone Weil‘s Gravity and Grace. First French edition 1947. Translated by Emma Crawford. English language edition 1963. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

on undoing the self and paying attention

Excerpted from this post at Wine, Women and Philosophy:

… And aren’t unsettling folk just like that? You think you’ve done them, ticked them off, when suddenly, you’re back to square one… This other quagmire into which we had unwittingly waded – the actual technicalities involved in “undoing the creature in us” so as to successfully “decreatea la Weil – required our immediate attention.

And so, spurred on by Anne Carson’s insight into how to go about actually paying attention – “Attention is a choice of where you put your mind…And looking at the object of your attention to the extent that you forget you’re doing the looking” – we embarked on a series of exercises designed to both instruct us on the ins and outs of destroying the “I,” and sharpen our skills in the attentiveness department.

Of course, there was a lot of preliminary discussion as to whether destroying the “I” was a desirable thing in the first place. In a sense, that Weilian notion of carving out a void in the space where the self normally resides goes counter to the rah-rah-be-your-biggest-and-best-self kind of rhetoric on offer in Self-Esteem for Dummies etc. In a culture where Self reigns Supreme, doing away with it is unnerving at best, terrifying at worst – even if this negation is, as Weil contends, a necessary move if one is to fully open oneself to Truth and Knowledge and Whatever Else Truly Matters.

For the self gets in the way. Like a shadow, it blocks out the light. Like unwanted baggage, it weighs you down. Like the elephant in the room, it takes up all the space. Clear the shadow, the baggage, the elephant, and you’re starting to get somewhere. A strange way to go about getting to the bottom of self-esteem, perhaps. But it seemed to offer something in the way of getting more out of life, and so we bit.

Simone Weil suffered from terrible migraines. She tried many ways of clearing them out of her head, but nothing seemed to work. One thing she knew for sure was that they got in the way of her being able to turn her full attention to what mattered. In April 1938 she found herself attending the Easter Mass at the Abbeye St-Pierre in Solesmes. She felt the Gregorian chanting of the monks enter her body, go straight to the space in her head filled with migraine. As the chanting poured in, her migraine did a peculiar thing: it emptied out. Soon, the space formerly known as migraine was awash with Gregorian Chant. It was a space rendered ready for paying attention: for “a patient holding in the mind,” as Weil referred to the act of paying attention, which in turn would make thought itself “available, empty, penetrable by the object.”

This is a radical take on the role of thought in the life of the mind: not the light bulb switching on as it encounters its object, but rather, the necessary conditions for the object to come to light. In Weil’s conception, thought must be suspended if the object of one’s attention is to find its way in, gain a proper foothold. If thought is busy thinking, the object just passes it by. If thoughtfulness hasn’t twinned itself up with attentiveness, the best we can hope for when it comes to thinking is a worrying – Weil would go so far as to say dangerous – mishmash of “partial attitudes.”

That, at least, is the theory. We obviously needed to put ourselves in Weil’s shoes to grasp what it felt like in practice. And so we experimented with filling our heads with the self-same Gregorian chants that had so impacted Weil, and making of the resulting void a luminous object-ready nesting ground. Yah, right. Weil, as I suggested earlier, was unsettling: not your average, run-of-the-mill, kind of gal.

But we gave it a go, and then turned our attention to other aural stimuli: a metronome’s steady tick-tocking, which brought the Weilian notion of time as “unvarying perpetuity” into the equation; a wind-up music box with its twirling ballerina and its ever-decelerating ditty, which prompted us to probe yet further how time, if invariably monotonous for Weil, could helpfully be categorized as either “time surpassed” – as in here comes the void, which is good monotonous – or as “time sterilized” – as in me just going round and round like “a squirrel turning it its cage” and never getting anywhere near the void, much less admitting to myself that I am going round and round (which for Weil is the worst sin of all, this kind of self-delusion) and which is, not surprisingly, bad monotonous.

This seemed as good a queue for a song as we were likely to get, so we broke out Anne Carson’s Duet of What is a Question from her Weil-inspired opera in three parts, Decreation (2005), and gave it our valiant best. Improvising the vocal arrangements – Carson had only supplied the libretto – provided us with the perfect opportunity to pay attention to each other, and hone our deep listening skills. As for getting us closer to the void, we were still a little in the dark. Enter American poet Fanny Howe (b.1940) and her beautifully observed prose poem, Doubt.

If Baruch Spinoza is the physicists’ philosopher, Simone Weil, it would seem, is the poets’ philosopher. Though it is easy to understand why Weil speaks to poets like Carson and Howe, the writing that comes of their interest in her ideas and her personal narrative is as tantalizing and challenging as Weil herself.

Sometimes, though, what poetry gives us that philosophy cannot is a line of such stark and heart-breaking beauty that knowing what the void, for example, actually is, or what it is to make one or find it or get there no longer seems to matter. For a very brief moment, we just feel decreated – like the creature in us has unraveled, like we have completely come undone.