For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Labor as Action: the Human Condition in the Anthropocene"

by Hyvönen, Ari-Elmeri (2020)


The Anthropocene has become an umbrella term for the disastrous transgression of ecological safety boundaries by human societies. The impact of this new reality is yet to be fully registered by political theorists. In an attempt to recalibrate the categories of political thought, this article brings Hannah Arendt’s framework of The Human Condition (labor, work, action) into the gravitational pull of the Anthropocene and current knowledge about the Earth System. It elaborates the historical emergence of our capacity to “act in the mode of laboring” during fossil-fueled capitalist modernity, a form of agency relating to our collectively organized laboring processes reminiscent of the capacity of modern sciences to “act into nature” discussed by Arendt. I argue that once read from an energy/ecology-centric perspective, The Human Condition can help us make sense of the Anthropocene predicament, and rethink the modes of collectively organizing the activities of labor, work, and action.

Key Passage

On the most fundamental level labor, for Arendt, corresponds to biological life – to the necessities of our subsistence. Borrowing Marx’s characterization of labor as the human “metabolism with nature”, Arendt understands the activity in cyclical terms. Once produced, the fruits of labor are immediately consumed and “return into the natural processes which yielded them”.31 This cyclicality distinguishes labor from work. The latter involves making and using instruments in order to erect a human world. Unlike labor, work has a definite beginning and a definite end. The products of work are designed to stand the test of time, and because of this their material must be removed from the cycles of nature. The tree must be killed for wood, and the extraction of raw materials (ores, stone, marble) requires “interrupting one of nature’s slower processes”. Work, thus, creates a chasm between us and nature. We build a world by exercising violence against nature. (p.10)


Philosophy Of Mind, Philosophy, Continental Philosophy, Philosophy, Arendt, Action, Phenomenology


On Arendt

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