Haraway meets Arendt meets Butler meets Laclau


Dear Amanda and Andrew,

I was intrigued by your suggestion, Amanda, of setting up a ‘Haraway meets Arendt meets Butler kinda thing’, creating cross-cutting dialogues among Donna Haraway, Judith Butler and Hannah Arendt on the topic of Arendt’s notion of ‘thinking’, a notion which, in turn, must bear a significant debt to Heidegger and to Kant, figures who will remain ‘secondary’, in the background, not as foundational or essential. I was further intrigued by your suggestion, Andrew, of adding Ernesto Laclau into the mix, to create, so to speak, ‘a Haraway meets Arendt meets Butler meets Laclau kinda thing’.

These suggestions provoked me initially to search for links to Haraway on Arendt. Indeed, it set me ‘thinking’ that such ‘thinking’ could not simply be part of vita contemplativa, the contemplative or meditative life, but must be part of vita activa, the active life, a kind of critical ‘thinking’ that bridges discourse and action, a kind of critical action, then, perhaps, rather than an act of criticism.

In searching for the conjunction of Arendt and Haraway, I came across this passage in a transcript of a talk by Haraway (2014):

“ … in the midst of the three guineas Virginia Woolf insists, “Think we must.” Think we must. If ever there has been a time for the need seriously to think, it is now, and it has got to be the kind of thinking that Hannah Arendt accused [Adolph] Eichmann of being incapable of. (That was not an English sentence, but it’s okay, I’m talking about Germans.) Namely, the banality of evil in the figure of Eichmann was condensed in Hannah Arendt’s analysis into the incapacity to think the world that is actually being lived. The inability to confront the consequences of the worlding that one is in fact engaged in, and the limiting and thinking to functionality. The limiting of thinking to business as usual. Being smart, perhaps, being efficient, perhaps, but that Eichmann was incapable of thinking, and in that consisted the banality and ordinariness of evil. And I think among us, the question of whether we are Eichmanns is a very serious one.”

There four phrases in this passage which are of relevance, concerning incapacities, inabilities and limits, i.e. that from which, so long as we are not Eichmanns, we may learn:

the incapacity to think the world that is actually being lived;
the inability to confront the consequences of the worlding in which one is in fact engaged;
the limiting of thinking to functionality;
the limiting of thinking to business as usual.

Taking these four phrases, it could be argued that ‘to think the world that is actually being lived’ and ‘to confront the consequences of the ‘worlding’ that one is in fact engaged in’ is ‘to disobey’ its (positive) law, to refuse to embody its enactments and to recognise that such law never should have been written in the first place, thereby ceasing to limit thinking to functionality and to business as usual (conventional wisdom, conventional (un)thinking): To refuse positive law and to repeal that law.

In the context of obedience to positive law, including that which never should have been formulated and enacted, Haraway raises three kinds of acting-and-thinking: ‘worlding’, ‘trading’ and ‘making’.

“those metabolisms of the oikos and [ikos?], of economy and ecology, and of worlding, and of trading and making, need to be figured older than the mid-18th century, and that does not mean going back to some kind of deep ecology.” (Haraway, 2014)

In this way, Heidegger’s notion of being-in-the-world, as an integrated whole which does not prioritise being (qua individual beings) over the world but insists on their inseparability, is displaced by thinking-acting-in-the-world, as a different kind of integrated whole. It is not a poetic dwelling, pace Heidegger, but an active residence in the world, to use a phrase from Paul Kockelman (2012). Thinking-acting-in-the-world is an active participation in the creation or production of the world (i.e. ‘worlding’), not just its ‘fabrication’. It is a form of ‘making’ that brings ‘worlds’ into practice and not just into being.

In this form of ‘making’, as thinking-acting-in-the-world,

“… it matters what stories tell stories, it matters what thoughts think thoughts, it matters what worlds world worlds. That we need to take seriously the acquisition of that kind of skill, emotional, intellectual, material skill, to destabilize our own stories, to retell them with other stories, and vice versa. A kind of serious denormalization of that which is normally held still, in order to do that which one thinks one is doing. It matters to destabilize worlds of thinking with other worlds of thinking.” (Haraway, 2014)

In other words, it is an act of disobedience. Thinking means not simply following a rule blindly or unquestioningly, as if this dutiful act of obedience constituted a ‘right’.

In citing Arendt, Haraway echoes Butler, who comments that Arendt,

“ … faults Eichmann for his failure to be critical of positive law, that is, his failure to take distance from the requirements that law and policy imposed on him; in other words, she faults him for his obedience, his lack of critical distance, or his failure to think. But more than this, she faults him as well for failing to realize that thinking implicates the subject in a sociality or plurality that cannot be divided or destroyed through genocidal aims. In her view, no thinking being can plot or commit genocide. Of course, thinking beings can have such thoughts, formulate and implement genocidal policy, as Eichmann clearly did, but such calculations cannot properly be called thinking, in her view.”

Here, rather than the incapacities, inabilities and limits listed by Haraway we have a series of failures and failings:

failure to be critical of positive law;
failure to take a critical distance from the requirements that law and policy imposed on him;
failure to think.

Eichmann’s greatest failure, however, is a

failure to realize that thinking implicates the subject in a sociality or plurality that cannot be divided or destroyed through genocidal aims.

In other words, thinking-acting-in-the-world is unavoidably intersubjective, although this is not to say that it is grounded in a universal, consensual intersubjectivity. This last is a point where Arendt and Laclau concur:

“What Laclau and Arendt share, despite their differences, is the view that intersubjective agreement is not there to be discovered in the universality of experience or the sameness of identity. There is nothing that we all share by virtue of being human or of living in a particular community that guarantees a common view of the world; there is nothing extralinguistic in the world that guarantees that we all share a common experience; there is no Archimedean place from which we could accede to a universal standpoint.” (Zerilli, 1998: 8)

The intersubjective is, we might say, grounded in agonism, an agonism that hegemonically holds together antagonisms, as Laclau argues.

“Hegemony means that the relation between universal and particular entails not the realization of a shared essence or the final overcoming of all differences but an ongoing and conflict-ridden process of mediation through which antagonistic struggles articulate common social objectives and political strategies. The very fact that commonalities must be articulated through the interplay of diverse political struggles-rather than discovered and then merely followed, as one follows a rule-means, first, that no group or social actor can claim to represent the totality and, second, that there can be no fixing of the final meaning of universality (especially not through rationality).” (Zerilli, 1998: 11)

Butler picks up on this intersubjectivity from another angle, when she poses the question of,

“How, we might ask, does thinking implicate each “I” as part of a “we” such that to destroy some part of the plurality of human life is to destroy not only one’s self, understood as linked essentially to that plurality, but to destroy the very conditions of thinking itself?”

Articulating Butler with Laclau, we might be tempted to ask this question differently: how do “I”, as part of a “we”, break with a hegemonic order, in order not to achieve universal emancipation but to articulate a different hegemonic order, a different “we”, while, at the same time, avoiding destruction of the plurality of human life and, we might add, the plurality/diversity of all living things, in other words, avoiding genocide, on the one hand, and extinction, on the other hand.

Thus, is put into the frame Arendt’s judgement that it is not up to ‘us’, to anyone one of ‘us’ or to any group of ‘us’, to decide in their own right, on the basis of the ‘worlding’ (through labour, work and action) in which they are engaged, with whom to share the earth.

As Butler (2011: 292) expresses Arendt’s insight:

“Cohabitation with others we never chose is, in effect, an abiding characteristic of the human condition.”

The stage is set, then, for our further debate …


Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. New York: Viking Press, 1963.

Arendt, H. (2000). Labor, work, action. In The Portable Hannah Arendt, edited with an introduction by Peter Baehr. London: Penguin Books, 167-181.

Butler, J. (2011). Hannah Arendt’s death sentences. Comparative Literature Studies, 48 (3), 280–295. Available from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/458048 [Accessed 28 January 2017].

Haraway, D. (2014). Anthropocene, capitalocene, chthulucene: staying with the trouble. Open Transcripts. Available from http://opentranscripts.org/transcript/anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/ [Accessed 23 December 2016].

Haraway, D.J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: making kin in the chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kockelman, P. (2012). Residence in the world. In: Agent, Person, Subject, Self: A Theory of Ontology, Interaction, and Infrastructure. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 96–135.

Zerilli, L.M.G. (1998). This universalism which is not one. Diacritics, 28 (2), 2–20. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1566241 [Accessed 5 February 2017].


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