Updated: Sep 12
A conversation about giving, and seeking, attention, and what French philosopher Simone Weil can teach us about both; Part I
By Danielle Servedio & Uriel Abulof
A man walks down the street He says, "Why am I short of attention? Got a short little span of attention Paul Simon, “You Can Call Me Al”
Look at this post. You may already detect a disturbing ratio of words to images. Did you notice the scrollbar? It looks terribly short, which means this post is terribly long. Are you ready to commit so much of your time and attention to it? What, at this moment, can fight the tl;dr (“too long; didn't read”) rationale? Certainly not words like “rationale.” Being a dad of two, one of us can attest that with people it’s often the opposite: the shorter they are, the more attention they demand. The longer they become (my son is nearly my height), the more it’s us, the adults, who seek their attention.
Isn’t “attention deficit” no longer a disorder, but our new world order, an Attention Deficit Order?
Look at us. Two humans trying to understand attention. One possible point of departure: Whether we give attention or seek it, we don’t speak of “paying attention” for nothing. It feels fitting. Attention is taxing, tiring, trying; it comes at a cost. No wonder we often dodge it, wittingly or not.
In our health care culture, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has long become a household staple. Experts estimate that 7.2% of children (under 18) worldwide suffer from ADHD. But being “short of attention,” often coupled with FOMO-hyperactivity, may be a bigger phenomenon still, and its wording misleading: Isn’t “attention deficit” no longer a disorder, but our new world order, an Attention Deficit Order? Is this much ADO about nothing, or should we do something about this modern malaise - and if so, what?
Seeking answers, we turn to the advice of the one thinker who has devoted so much attention to, well, attention: Simone Weil. We turn to her to turn toward each other, and to you. To ease the ADO burden we’ve divided our conversation into parts, and hope you join us, as we search for connection and the meaning of attention.
You write quite a bit about existentialism, and Simone Weil doesn’t seem to fit the bill, though I can see similarities in her philosophy and Simone de Beauvoir’s “Ethics of Ambiguity.” I think Weil can also help us understand human reflection. The podcast Philosophize This! has some excellent episodes on Weil that I really enjoyed.
I know little about Weil, and this wonderful podcast certainly helps. But for quick answers, I typically turn to my main source on existentialism: Existential Comics! (the last one on Camus is especially cool). It joins quite a few in arguing that what set Weil apart was that she “was the one who lived the real existential life.”
I think that for many, Weil’s personality eclipsed her philosophy (to my mind, they should go together). The story of her working in a factory, trying to teach her coworkers Plato’s Symposium is one case in point…
I agree, they should go together. I think her personality is the result of her philosophy. Her call to action is a powerful message. I believe that she revealed uncomfortable truths by becoming the worker, the starved, and the warrior. Her self-inflicted starvation and in her eventual death speak to the inequalities of the world, and to the inevitability of death. When it comes to shocking events that push us into thinking, Weil herself was the shocking event. And at the same time, she also signified a way to break out of the problem of too much thought/introspection.
I like the notion of reading a person’s life, not only their actions, as a “shocking event.” But I’m not sure, maybe we romanticize her. Did she actually disturb society, or even just her “own” intellectual milieu - or perhaps only her own mind (getting caught in Rihana’s dystopia)? As for embodying, constantly living, her philosophy - Doesn’t “life,” by becoming (also) a philosophical expression, get in the way of developing and communicating that philosophy?
You make a good point. I’m curious though, why are you less sure that she disturbed society? I mean her actions were not overt, but don’t you think that her subtle influence on the people around her led to a slow chain of events that grew into something bigger? Don’t small actions create change? Do disruptions need to be grand gestures? I might be wrong, but I believe that small actions, no matter how subtle, influence others. Rosa Parks did something grand, but acted similarly before being noticed.
I’m not sure what you mean by your last question. How does life impede philosophical development and communication? Don’t philosophers live their philosophy? Life can create blind spots, but isn’t noticing and changing these things the very point of becoming?
Small disruptions can lead to vast changes, I just doubt, from the little that I do know, that that was the case of Weil. My life/philosophy quandary is certainly opaque, in my mind too. I’ll give it another try. For starters, we may wish philosophers were like Weil, but Weil is partly remembered because most are not.
Now, to the bigger question. When you live your philosophy, practice what you preach, the interplay between the two can be mutually enriching – you can understand, and better, both. The possible downside, however, is that your life becomes your “publication.” Living “the real world” may consume your energies (how much time and strength to reflect and write do you still have, having spent a whole day working in a factory?), alienate some people (“so you think you’re better than us?”), and eventually even alienate yourself (“they don’t/can never understand me!”). How can we gain the good and avoid the bad? Not sure, but I’m sure there’s a way (on the other hand, I’m notoriously naïve).
Perhaps one way to gain the good and avoid the bad is Weil’s theory of attention: to take the perspective of another we must engage passively and eliminate the self. This is fascinating because I do not believe that the lay person has the ability to engage passively. It is quite difficult, and if it is done, there are most likely limits to such a feat. This is something that I think about often.
I wonder, for example, what such attention means for freedom. Her strong belief in action and deciding how to think and act in situations aligns with existentialism, but her thoughts on the innate nature of morals (humans are innately moral) may reduce freedom, and lead to bad faith.
Finally, you mention alienation as almost innately bad, but is it? Could confronting alienation be necessary for finding authenticity?
I think you’re onto something important here. I’m trying to think if I ever give attention in such a way. Is attention immersion? If so, I seem to have many such attentive moments, with people, nature, and art. But does my immersive attention eliminate my Self? Quite the opposite. There’s a seeming paradox here. Precisely because the attention overwhelms, the self surfaces. By sensing intensely, I become, at once, aware of my Self, feeling.
Instead of having a feeling Self, you’re filling yourSelf with others
Would Weilian attention then ask me to feel less so as not to let the self out (then in)? I don’t know, but perhaps the paradox is entirely on me, maybe it emerges from my already (too?) deep sense of Self.
Conversely, if you often feel like “no one,” Weilian attention might become a way of turning your absent “self” into a philosophy. Instead of having a feeling Self, you’re filling yourSelf with others. Lacking a clear sense of self, you can try to fake a “persona” to pass among people, or you can embrace a chameleon way of life, or perhaps both.
Surely, it’s not incidental that Weil directed her attentive empty self primarily to God (trying to fill no-one with The One?). And it’s likely not incidental that she died out of (willed?) starvation, as if emptying her corporate, not just mental, self as well.
I think now of Buber’s I-Thou (You), and a simple search brought me to this piece, which cites his criticism of Weil invalidating the “I.” I get this, but I think Weil got something profoundly right, which Buber didn’t quite realize: the I can obscure the You. Still, unlike Weil, I think that it need not be the case.
I also agree with Weil that pain is part of the portal onto other(s). How strikingly different is that from Orwell’s 1984! For Big Brother, pain is the instrument of power, which Weil abhorred.
And I like Weil’s idea of God’s omnipresence inherently turning us, humans, into absence. There’s something slightly scary about it: Since God is everywhere, we’re nowhere - and that’s good! I guess she wanted to embrace, not fight, that inherent lack, and face-fight the lack’s implied “evil” by wedding the whole/holy and the lack/unholy to create a space (ether?) that invites Good.
I can imagine Weil agreeing with you that alienation can motivate authenticity; it may operate like emptiness does, almost priming us to become complete/good through God. As for choice and bad faith, what you suggest makes much sense: whence freedom sans self?
You seem to want to avoid the elimination of the Self as long as it’s not alone, but standing with the Other. Maybe this is where her theory is flawed? Maybe Buber wanted God by recognizing the Self in difference? Weil did eliminate herself in her final act of devotion. She starved herself to protest against her own ability to eat while others starved. Even if it was suicide, was it really a choice to die or merely a consequence? Was Weil living too much as a “being for others”?
The push and pull between our authentic, private identity, and the false, 'sane' self is at the heart of existing
The I can obscure the You. Psychologically, R.D. Laing does well when he discusses the interplay of the You, the I, and the objective World in the formation of the Self. In his Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, he describes each of us as a Divided Self, torn between our authentic, private identity, and the false, 'sane' self that we present to the world. I think that this push and pull is at the heart of existing. I believe that Laing sees the I in the following way. The i is the me as I see myself in the world, as the person that is projected onto me by you as you perceive me to be based on the person that I believe you to see me. Laing believed this can cause a rift between the self and their body (the “unembodied self”) and within the self, both triggering mental illness.
If this conflict is at the heart of existing, and if the I can obscure the You, how exactly can Weil’s theory of attention be used to be with the Other? Is this even possible?
Finally, you say there’s something scary about an omnipresent God annulling people. Yes, it is, but I enjoy confronting it. And I think Weil’s confrontation of the lack isn’t far off from de Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s idea that we look to fill the void in an effort to avoid the anxiety that surrounds our very existence and death. I guess going chameleon is another way, but we can address this karma later…
End of Part I