Brenda Chalfin: Taking Arendt to the Toilet – Excursions in Ethnographic Theory

Brenda Chalfin (University of Florida) gave a talk titled “Taking Arendt to the Toilet: Excursions in Ethnographic Theory” at the online UH Friday Anthropology seminar on 16th April, 2021.


Political theorist Hannah Arendt faces substantial criticism for her misapprehension of the politics of race, gender, and de/colonization. Why then should we invite her into conversations in contemporary anthropology? Is there anything to be gained besides satisfying anthropology’s penchant for iconoclasm and theory-bashing?

Focused on waste, public life and the body politic in urban Ghana, this talk probes the merits and risks of reading Arendt anew. To what extent can Arendtian claims and contradictions shed light on the politics of urban public culture and infrastructural innovation? Moreover, how can the realities of urban living pry open the limits and blind spots of Arendt and invigorate discussions regarding the nature of political life in the Anthropocene marked by waning state capacity and the rising sway of non-human forces, including human waste.

Exploration of these issues draws on ethnographic research in Ghana’s city of Tema. Constructed at independence as a showcase of African modernity, Tema’s was endowed with a city-wide infrastructural grid, including a rare, fully serviced sanitation system. With waste management in the throes of collapse, myriad infrastructural alternatives – devised by residents – are now at the fore. The sorts of body politics and public life that emerge in the breach are used to think through, with and against Arendtian perspectives.