For lengthier discussions of the value of Hannah Arendt for narrative environment design, see Arendt, phenomenology and narrative environments and Addenda: Arendt, phenomenology and narrative environments

Why is the writing of Hannah Arendt, 1906-1975, important for narrative environment design?

It is important because she focuses on the active life in its many aspects: we labour, we work, we act and we think or judge, as she puts it. She has a distinct political phenomenology of action that emphasises spatial, perceptual and performative relations; and, within that phenomenology of action, she has a distinctive interest in storytelling and narrative. All of those aspects are important when considering the design of a narrative environment and Arendt’s thinking permits an opening towards a performative conception of the relations among narrative, environment and human elements of the overall design.

Why does her thinking need to be critiqued and extended?

Her thinking needs to be critiqued and extended because she might seem to treat labour, work, action and thinking/judging as separate spheres in a strict hierarchy, with (political) action at the top, framing thinking/judgment. She might seem to propose an elitist and anti-egalitarian concept of politics, restricting freedom of action to a limited group of wealthy men (heads of households). Also, she might seem to propose that the sole content of politics is politics itself, as speech or exchange of views, to the exclusion of social or economic policies.

Her work needs to be extended in the direction of allowing these categories to be seen to flow through one another, by means of the bodies and environments that constitute the intersubjective and intercorporeal, or ‘worldliness’ in Arendt’s terms. Rather than the material world being simply the product of work or fabrication, it takes part in articulating labour/life and action/politics and the relations among labour/life, work/world and action/politics. A narrative environment is a domain, a ‘space of appearance’ in Arendt’s terms, of such intersubjective, intercorporeal ‘worldliness’. A dynamic, fluid model of the relationships among labour, work, action and thinking/judging, drawing upon the body in its intercorporeal constitution, a direction opened up by Judith Butler, for example, is needed.

Why does Arendt place such emphasis on the active life, as labour, work, action and thinking/judging?

She creates her categories as part of a process of reversing or inverting the ascendancy of the vita contemplativa (contemplative life) over the vita activa (active life). She perceives the contemplative life, as a withdrawal from action, to have been in the ascendant in Western thinking since Plato, an emphasis strengthened by Christianity, with its notion of ‘otherworldliness’ and postponed gratification or ‘realisation’. Arendt stresses the ‘thisworldliness’ of human reality through labour, work and action. This places her alongside Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger, each of whom emphasises the active life, although in different ways, and puts the human body at the centre of thought/judgment.

Another purpose in creating her categories is that they provide a means for her to critique Marxian thought about labour, work and action, as the constituents of the vita activa. She seeks to undo what she sees as Marx’s overestimation of the value of labour and work and his underestimation of the value of action, as politics or political action.

Arendt, on the one hand, is critical of the contemplative life. Instead, she proposes a thoughtful life, closely related to action. On the other hand, she is critical of the active life reduced solely to labour and work. Instead, she emphasises the importance of the political life, as action.

Vita activa is Arendt’s interpretation of the Greek notion of praxis, a notion that came to her attention through the work of Heidegger. It is a notion that is also developed by Marx. However, according to Arendt, Marx is mistaken to see the pinnacle of human life as the expression of labour, through which humans come to recognise themselves and their value. Instead, she proposes action as the means whereby humans disclose themselves to one another through word and deed in a specific space of appearance constituting the public realm/public space.

It is this notion of a ‘space of appearance’, constituted through (political) action, which sustains freedom of action, that is of great significance for thinking about the kind of environment, as a ’space of appearance’, that any specific narrative environment can be said to bring into existence.

What does Arendt conceive of as being authentically political?

Arendt’s examples of moments of the authentically political are Greek city states, as well as Greek (tragic) theatre; the Roman res publica; the American Revolution; the French Revolution; the working-class rebellion in Europe from 1848 to the 1930s, particularly the workers’ councils; and, later in her life, the American civil disobedience of the 1960s. For Arendt, “politics is all the more authentic when it is eruptive rather than when it is a regular and already institutionalised practice” (Kateb, 2000: 134-135).

She focuses on these positive examples in order to draw out what she considers to be deeply problematic in the negative examples of German Fascism and Soviet Communism, which she characterises as ’totalitarian’.

The work of Hannah Arendt is useful for considering whether any specific narrative environment acts politically and in what sense it might be argued to do so. This engagement with Arendt’s thought, like that with any other theorist, requires an understanding of both her value and her limitations in conceiving action and the political.


Kateb, G. (2000). Political actions: its nature and advantages. In The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt, edited by Dana Villa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

edited 15 September, 2017 by Allan Parsons

Associated Practices

The design of narrative environments requires critical thinking (and creative thinking) , but does it need critical theory, in the more narrow sense?

Bohman explains that critical theory in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. In traditional approaches, Max Horkheimer argues, the general goal of all theory is a universal systematic science, not limited to any particular subject matter but embracing all possible objects. However, for Horkheimer, a ‘critical’ theory may be distinguished from a ‘traditional’ theory on the basis of a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation, acts as a liberating influence, and serves to create a world in which human needs and powers are satisfied (Horkheimer, 2002).

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 13.56.43

As Horkheimer defines it, critical theory never aims simply at an increase of knowledge as such. Rather, critical theory is adequate only if it meets three criteria: it must be explanatory, practical, and normative, at once (Bohman, 2005). Thus, it must explain what is considered to be problematic with current social reality and in what ways it is a problem; identify the actors to address it and change it; and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation.

For Horkheimer, a capitalist society could be transformed only by becoming more democratic, such that the conditions of social life that are controllable by human beings depend on real consensus in a rational society. The normative orientation of critical theory, as critical social inquiry, is towards the transformation of capitalism into a real democracy in which such control could be exercised. In such formulations, there are striking similarities between critical theory and American pragmatism.

Critical theories are forms of knowledge which, as Raymond Guess writes in The Idea of Critical Theory ,differ from theories in the natural sciences because they are ‘reflective’ rather than ‘objectifying’, that is to say, they take into account their own procedures and methods. Critical theories aim neither to prove a hypothesis nor prescribe a particular methodology or solution to a problem. Rather, in differing ways, critical theorists offer self-reflective modes of thought that seek to change the world, or at least the world in which the inequalities of market capitalism, as well as patriarchal and colonial, or post-colonial, interests, still prevail.

Thus, the term ‘critical theory’ can be extended, as Jane Rendell suggests, to include the work of later theorists, such as those included under the labels of poststructuralism, postcolonialism, feminism and others, whose thinking is also self-critical and seeks to effect social change. This kind of theoretical work provides the opportunity not only to reflect on existing conditions, but also to imagine something different, to transform rather than simply describe them. More importantly, Rendell argues, it is possible to extend the ‘critical’ as defined through critical theory into practice, to include critical practices, i.e. those practices that involve social critique, self-reflection and social change.


Bohman, J. (2005). Critical theory. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available from [Accessed 24 February 2016].

Horkheimer, M. (2002). Traditional and critical theory. In: Critical Theory: Selected Essays. New York, NY: Continuum, 188-252.

Rendell, J. (2007). Critical spatial practice. Jane Rendell [Website]. Available from [Accessed 12 March 2016].

Edited by Allan Parsons on 16 March 2016

edited 27 July, 2016 by Admin

The importance of tragic theatre for narrative environment design is threefold. First, it places great importance on plot construction and the effects upon the audience that such plotting can achieve. Second, it emphasises the importance of engaging an audience empathically, in relation to plot construction, in the context of moral and intellectual education. Third, like drama, the narrative in a narrative environment is embodied and enacted, woven into an experiential, intercorporeal, spatio-temporal framing. Much, therefore, can be learned about the design of a narrative environment from the construction of a drama. Engagement with and participation in narrative environments, like drama, involves the weaving together of emotional and intellectual responses, together with reflection upon those responses.

The Western tradition of dramatic construction has been dominated by the Aristotelian conception of tragic drama. This was critically re-articulated by Bertolt Brecht, through his conception of epic theatre; and by Antonin Artaud, with his conception of a theatre of cruelty. The Aristotelian model has been further destabilised by the disruption of plot by the insertion of elements of reflexivity, the inclusion of devices that point to the deliberate constructedness or artificiality of the drama’s narrative, such as in the theatre of the absurd, and by the implications this has for the participant/audience. These points are taken up elsewhere in the MANE Compendium, for example, in the entries for Epic theatre (Brecht), Defamiliarisation and Protagonist.

Tragic theatre, as conceived by Aristotle, then, is important not just for its emphasis on plotting but also for its concern with the emotional and intellectual effects upon the participants and the proximity or distance which the participants are granted in relation to the narrative events unfolding. Questions which arise focus on whether the Aristotelian approach encourages critical thinking on the part of the audience, or simply delivers aesthetic pleasure as an end in itself, through catharsis; whether it permits an understanding of the social conditions of the protagonist’s actions, rather that a narrow focus on individual decision-making and action within a universal, ideal conception of the human condition; and whether the emphasis on emotional engagement helps or hinders the audience’s intellectual understanding of the drama’s significance and meanings.

Theatre of Dionysus at Pompeii

Theatre of Dionysus at Pompeii

Greek tragedy was a popular and influential form of drama performed in theatres across ancient Greece from the late 6th century BCE (Cartwright, 2013). Working inductively, Aristotle developed his theorisation of tragic theatre from the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

Aristotle’s theorisation of tragic theatre is framed by wider debates in the Ancient Greek world about the role of the art-work (poiesis, making, work; a form of poietic production) and the emotions in moral and intellectual education. The central issue for tragic theatre is whether emotional engagement with the characters in the drama help or hinder the audience’s critical intellectual reflections on the characters and situations represented in the work. For Plato, the emotions that tragedy evokes in the audience disables them intellectually and leads them astray morally (Curran, 2001: 167) Aristotle, at least in the interpretation of his work proffered by Martha Nussbaum and Stephen Halliwell, values tragic drama because it elicits emotions that work in conjunction with a cognitive understanding of ourselves as human beings and of the world in which we live (Curran, 2001: 167-168).

Curran (2001) brings into sharp focus Aristotle’s view, first, that plots must feature individual error and a morally admirable protagonist; and, second, that engaging with the thoughts and feelings of the tragic protagonist is central to responding to tragedy. These practices, as Aristotle describes them, do not permit drama that is socially critical, unless they are supplemented by other devices that link the action of the protagonist to a larger social nexus. In this respect, Brecht’s recommendations for dramatic construction are useful for supplementing the failings in Aristotle’s preferred dramatic practices.

For Aristotle, tragedy has a final purpose or end, i.e. telos, which is to be an imitation or representation, i.e. mimesis, of action and human life. While Aristotle links mimesis to similarity, he argues, against Plato, that the artist/playwright does not just copy the shifting appearances of the world. Rather, the artist/playwright imitates or represents reality itself, and gives form and meaning to that reality. This mimesis is associated by Aristotle with a characteristic pleasure, that of experiencing the catharsis, i.e. relief from of purification of, of the pity and fear evoked by the tragic events. In addition, response to mimetic works involves, for Aristotle, a certain kind of emotional or intellectual learning, although he does not elaborate upon this learning nor, indeed, does he expand in detail upon what catharsis involves.

While Aristotle distinguishes six elements of tragedy, i.e. plot, characters, verbal expression, thought, visual adornment, and song-composition, the basic principle of tragedy for Aristotle is plot, or the imitation (mimesis)  of action. For an action to be tragic, it must incorporate features capable of eliciting pity and fear to effect a catharsis of these emotions in the audience. Aristotle evaluates plot construction on the basis of which plot patterns best evoke the emotions of pity and fear. Aristotle’s account of tragedy and why it affects the audience appeals to a universal essence of human nature, such that the definition of certain events will elicit a response of pity and fear in anyone who witnesses the dramatisation.

Aristotle’s approach to tragedy is therefore essentialist in two respects: it is based on an account of plot as the inherent nature of tragedy; and it assumes a universal or idealised spectator, who will respond with pity and fear when witnessing the appropriately depicted suffering of the tragic protagonist. The best tragic plots in Aristotle’s view are those which show harm occurring, or about to occur, to kin or loved ones due to the tragic character’s not knowing what he or she is doing.

In Aristotle’s ideal tragic drama, then, the protagonist is basically a good person, a person ‘intermediate in virtue’ (Curran, 2001: 174), who brings about, or threatens to bring about, his or her own misfortune and those of his or her kin or loved ones, but who acts in ignorance of what he or she is doing. The suffering brought about is far greater than any error the character might have committed, and it is this which allows the audience to feel pity and fear for him or her, a protagonist who, as ‘someone like ourselves’, we, the audience, can empathise and sympathise.

As a caveat, it should be noted that Aristotle draws on the class and gender hierarchies outlined in his Politics, such that, in his view, the goodness of a woman should be represented as inferior and the sufferings of a slave are not worthy of representation at all. Tragic characters, in other words, are male and are members of the aristoi or the oligoi, the noble or the wealthy classes.

For further thoughts on the value of tragic theatre for narrative environment design, see Pedagogic journeys 1. Tragic drama as narrative, learning environment


Aristotle (2000). The Poetics of Aristotle, translated by H. Butcher. Pennsylvania, PA: Pennsylvania State University. Available from – Poetics.pdf [Accessed 5 August 2013].

Cartwright, M. (2013). Greek tragedy. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available from [Accessed 19 March 2016].

Curran, A. (2001). Brecht’s criticisms of Aristotle’s aesthetics of tragedy. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 59 (2), 167–184. Available from [Accessed 25 June 2016].

edited 7 August, 2017 by Allan Parsons

As noted elsewhere, for example in the ‘Narrative environment design’ entry and the ‘Theoretical practice’ entry, a narrative environment may be said to constitute a world, and its approach to design could be considered ontological. The philosophical sources for this kind of thinking can be found in phenomenology, notably in the work of Heidegger, Arendt, Merleau-Ponty and Sloterdijk.

Thus, as Lemmens (2013) explains, like Heidegger, Sloterdijk conceives of humans as world-forming beings. For Sloterdijk, however, humans are never in the world nakedly or without protection, so to speak. They always reside in spheres. Another difference between them is that while Heidegger was principally engaged in the analysis of human being-in-the-world, Sloterdijk is more interested in the process of coming-into-the-world. Picking up on the theme of natality from Hannah Arendt, Sloterdijk emphasises that we all have to come to the world in order to be in it. We are born, but too soon (Elden and Mendieta, 2009: 5).

In Arendt’s (1958: 96) view, ‘world’ emerges from the work of homo faber, which she distinguishes from the labour of the animal laborans. Thus, Arendt argues,

“Human life, in so far as it is world-building, is engaged in a constant process of reification, and the degree of worldliness of produced things, which all together form the human artifice, depends upon their greater or lesser permanence in the world itself.”

For Sloterdijk, coming-into-the-world essentially consists in the process of sphero-poiesis, the creation of protective, immunising inner worlds or inner spaces. Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy presents a grand cultural-historical panorama of the process of the sphero-poietic “coming-into-the-world” and, thereby, the “coming-into-being”, of the human being as the ek-sisting and world-disclosing being Heidegger described in Being and Time.

Rauschenbach further explains that, from Sloterdijk’s point of view, the ontological starting point of human existence is the womb of the mother. Therefore, co‐existence precedes existence. There is no being without being‐in‐something, initially in the uterus. Life is always life‐in‐between‐of‐life. From the beginning and at all times, the human being is surrounded by something that cannot appear as an object. It is the indiscernible complement of one’s own existence, with which one forms a pair.

To contain the infiniteness of space and to create spaces in which sharing can be experienced, Sloterdijk suggests speaking of human spheres (contexts of and for understanding). The shared space is isolated from the rest of the infinite space. Within the sphere, the space can be manipulated. These manipulations can result in specific climates (2004, p. 309). Sloterdijk uses the term climate not only to denominate a meteorological state, but also to refer to nine dimensions, which altogether characterize the climate of human spheres (2004, p. 362).

Sloterdijk conceptualizes the human sphere as a nine‐dimensional greenhouse (chirotope, phonotope, uterotope, thermotope, erotope, ergotope, alethotope, thanatotope, nomotope) in which human beings are able to survive and consequently can develop complexities beyond their animalistic heritage. Each of the nine dimensions can attain different degrees of implicitness and explicitness. An individual on its own is not able to survive. It depends on being part of a sphere, populated by others. Sloterdijk’s ontological starting point is therefore unthinkable without the other as it is the collaborative mode with the other that allows for positively influencing the climate within a sphere.

Such thinking can also be used to consider and gain a critical appreciation of the contemporary global conjuncture which, Escobar (2016) contends, can be best characterised by the fact that we are facing modern problems for which there are no longer modern solutions. Ontologically speaking, Escobar continues, one may say that the crisis is the crisis of a particular world or set of world-making practices, the world that we usually refer to as the dominant form of Euro-modernity, i.e. capitalist, rationalist, liberal, secular, patriarchal, white, and so on.

Furthermore, of particular relevance to narrative environment design, such world-making, world-forming or world-building practices are design practices.


Arendt, H. (1958). The Human condition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Elden, S. and Mendieta, E. (2009). Being-with as making worlds: the ‘second coming’ of Peter Sloterdijk. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 27 (1), 1–11. Available from [Accessed 7 September 2016].

Escobar, A. (2016). Thinking-feeling with the Earth: territorial struggles and the ontological dimension of the Epistemologies of the South. AIBR, Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana, 11 (1), 11–32. Available from [Accessed 5 September 2016].

Lemmens, P. (2013). Review essay: Sloterdijk. ID: International Dialogue, a Multidisciplinary Journal of World Affairs, 3 101–114. Available from [Accessed 9 January 2016].

Rauschenbach, R. (2011). How to govern the universalizing community: Peter Sloterdijk’s concept of co-immunism. In: 6th ECPR General Conference, University of Iceland, 25th – 27th August 2011. Reykyavik: University of Iceland. Available from [Accessed 25 August 2014].

edited 25 November, 2016 by Allan Parsons

If it is accepted that the human is one of the main constituents or domains of actantiality in the realisation of a narrative environment, then the relevance of phenomenology becomes apparent, as a tool for grasping the nature of that human actantiality.

This is particularly so because of phenomenology’s concern for the lifeworld, with its emphasis on the human body, especially the moving body, the recognition of embodiment as intersubjectivity and inter-corporeality, in its relation to narration and temporalisation, on the one hand, and to environing and spatialisation, on the other hand, themselves conceived as forms of actantiality. As Thomas Sheehan (2014) expresses it in an interview, phenomenology is about the meaningful presence of things within contexts of human concerns and interests.

Phenomenology, from the Greek word phainomenon, itself derived from phainein, meaning to show,  is “the study of givenness, of the world as it is lived rather than the world as it is objectified, abstracted, and conceptualized.” (Garner, 1993: 448)

A phenomenological approach recognises that the essentially analytic space of Euclidian geometry, Cartesian philosophy or Newtonian physics is very different from lived, or inhabited, spatiality, with its perceptual contours and structures of orientation. (Garner, 1993: 448)

In investigating affective, aesthetic and action-oriented experience as it is influenced and informed by environmental factors and by actual and potential bodily movement, and by exploring the ways that our physical and social environments matter for experience, cognition, problem-solving and for shaping our intersubjective and social interactions, phenomenology can be a very useful resource for research in narrative environment design.

Within phenomenology, spatiality, as lived space, is felt space. Lived space is a category for inquiring into the ways we experience spatial dimensions of our everyday existence, alongside the other themes of lived body (corporeality), lived time (temporality), and lived human relation (relationality or communality). Lived time (temporality) is subjective time as distinct from clock time or objective time.

As Jennifer Bullington (2013: 20) and Dermot Moran (2000) explain, phenomenology is the central strand of 20th-century European philosophy. It stems from the works of Edmund Husserl, 1859-1938, who announced it in 1900-1901 as a bold, radically new way of doing philosophy. To Husserl, it sought to bring philosophy back from abstract metaphysical speculation, with its attendant pseudo-problems, in order to return to concrete living experience. The term ‘phenomenology’ means the logos, or inherent meaning or order, of phenomena, i.e. the meaning of that which appears or shows itself to human beings. How human beings perceive, understand and live the world is the subject matter of phenomenological study.

Phenomenology does not make statements about how the world is in-itself, outside of human beings’ experiences of it. The subject matter of phenomenological studies is an examination of various human phenomena, such as, for example, perception, time consciousness, sexuality, religious and cultural practices, the body, the experience of the Holy and so on, from the point of view of meaning constitution. The central motif of phenomenology is the phenomenological description of things as they are, in the manner in which they appear (Moran, 2000: xiii).

In his later years, Husserl thought that phenomenological practice required a radical shift in viewpoint, one that suspended or bracketed the everyday natural attitude and ‘world-positing’ intentional acts which assumed the existence of the world. In this way, the practitioner will be led back to the domain of pure transcendental subjectivity (Moran, 2000: 2).

When this is done, Husserl further argues that we find two poles of experience: the streaming of consciousness, which he called noesis or noetic acts; and that to which consciousness attends, which he called noema or noematic objects. In place of the objective ‘real’ object we find, under the phenomenological reduction, the streaming of consciousness towards the object-as-meant. This bracketed realm of noesis and noema is the study proper of phenomenology, in this phase of Husserl’s thought. (Bullington, 2013: 22)

However, many of Husserl’s students were unconvinced by the value of this reduction or the possibility of carrying it out, and felt that Husserl had lapsed back into the very Neo-Kantian idealism from which phenomenology has originally struggled to free philosophy (Moran, 2000: 2).

This brings to attention the recognition, as explained by Moran (2000: xiv), that phenomenology cannot be understood simply as a method, a project or a set of tasks. In its historical form, it is primarily a set of people, beginning with Husserl and his personal assistants, Edith Stein, Martin Heidegger, Eugen Fink and Ludwig Landgrebe, and extending to his students, Roman Ingarden, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, Marvin Farber, Dorion Cairns, Alfred Schutz and Aron Gurwitsch, as well as others including Max Scheler and Karl Jaspers. Moran also points out that phenomenology changes when introduced into a new language and philosophical climate, such as when it was interpreted by Emmanual Levinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel Henry and Paul Ricoeur in France, a tradition that was itself later deconstructed by Jacques Derrida.

One of the major French exponents of the practice begun under the heading of phenomenology was Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1908-1961, who implicitly endorses Husserl’s opposition to scientific realism. That is, they both reject the view that the privileged status of the natural sciences provides descriptions of the real nature of the world, however much these depart from our pre-scientific, common sense conceptions of it. Husserl maintains that the ‘real’ world is a world of phenomena, i.e. of things that appear to us; but not of ‘appearances’, in the sense of that behind or beyond which lies ‘the real’. Nor are those ‘phenomena’ the sense-data of empiricism: colour-patches, shapes, sounds, and so on. Rather, they are the objects as they appear to us, objects-for-consciousness. Conversely, our consciousness is (always) of objects. In other words, it is ‘intentional’, aimed or directed at something.” (Keat, 1982: 1)

Merleau-Ponty calls the lived unity of the mind–body-world system ‘the lived body’. The body understood as a lived body is both material and self-conscious, physiological and psychological. These terms, Merleau-Ponty argues, are not as dichotomous as may be imagined: there is mind in the body and body in the mind. The lived body is always oriented towards the world outside itself, i.e. towards otherness, in a constant reciprocal flow (Bullington, 2013: 25).

That otherness, in the context of narrative environment design, is understood both in terms of temporality, as narrating, and spatiality, as environing.


Bullington, J. (2013). The Expression of the psychosomatic body from a phenomenological perspective. In: The Expression of the Psychosomatic Body from a Phenomenological Perspective. Dordrecht, NL: Springer, 19–37.

Garner, S.B. (1993). ‘Still living flesh’: Beckett, Merleau-Ponty, and the phenomenological body. Theatre Journal, 45 (4), 443–460. Available from [Accessed 5 February 2018].

Keat, R. (1982). Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of the body [Online paper]. Russell [Website]. Available from [Accessed 22 March 2016].

Moran, D. (2000). Introduction to phenomenology. London: Routledge.

Phenomenology Online [Website]. Available at [Accessed 23 March 2016].

Sheehan, T., Polt, R. and Fried, G. (2014). No one can jump over his own shadow. 3:AM Magazine, (8 December). Available from [Accessed 1 September 2016].

edited 11 February, 2018 by Allan Parsons

Critical thinking in the West can be traced back back to the Socratic-Platonic tradition, with Plato formalising the Socratic critique of received opinions into a distinction between knowledge, in the form of episteme, and doxa, in the form of belief. This serves as the basis for distinguishing the elevated position of the philosopher, as having epistemic knowledge, from the common man, who has only doxic belief (Biesta and Stams, 2001).

However, Biesta and Stams insist, it is Kant’s three Critiques which remain, for the contemporary 21st century reader, a major attempt to articulate what it could mean for a philosophy to be critical. Kant also provided an explicit argument for linking critique and education. Judith Butler (2009: 775) contends that Kant extended the scope of critique yet further, arguing that while  critique arrives at its modern formulation within philosophy, it also makes claims that exceed the particular disciplinary domain of the philosophical. In Kant, Butler states, critique operates not only outside of philosophy and in the university more generally but is also a way of calling into question the legitimating grounds of various public and governmental agencies.

The term ‘critical theory‘, which develops within the same conceptual frame, has a narrower scope, however, referring to the thought of several generations of scholars within the Frankfurt School.

What is particular interest in the context of narrative environment design is the relationship between critical thinking and creative thinking. Thinking about the relationship between the critical and the creative can be assisted by considering the thought of Bruno Latour and Jacques Derrida, amongst others, who consider what has been called a ‘crisis of the critical’.

Latour, for example, starting from a materialist anthropological perspective, sees critical thinking as a ‘modern’ conception based on the separation of the subject (critic) from the object (the criticised), as in Cartesian-derived dualistic thinking. Contemporary problems, Latour argues, require overcoming this dualism by recognising the implication of the critic in the problematique, not standing apart from it, and as part of the constitution of the ‘object’, ‘subject’ and the ongoing situation in which they are inter-related.

Derrida similarly, but with a very different style derived from philosophical discourse, questions the binary assumptions concerning the ground upon which the critic stands, arguing that this cannot be simply outside or above, in the sense of ‘exterior and ‘transcendental’, but rather must remain on a level with that with which there is a critical engagement. The critical engagement is both an intervention, or event, and an invention, or creation, for Derrida.


Biesta, G. and Stams, G.J.J.M. (2001). Critical thinking and the question of critique: some lessons from deconstruction. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 20 (1), 57–74.

Butler, J. (2009). Critique, dissent, disciplinarity. Critical Inquiry, 35, 773–795.

edited 30 April, 2019 by Allan Parsons

Associated Terms

While a Greimasian approach to narrative environments emphasises actantiality, as a complex field of inter-related, systemic or networked inter-actions involving actants of many different kinds, from conventional characters to various kinds of artefactual entities such as climate and religious symbolism, there still remains the problem of what might ‘animate’, ‘drive’ or ‘give impulsion’ to this field of interaction.

One approach to understanding some of the human motivations implicated in such fields of inter-action that is potentially compatible with Greimas’s actantial model, with its structured oppositions and dynamic relational axes, is the agonistic politics of Chantal Mouffe, which gives priority to the notions of antagonism, agonism and hegemony (i.e. hierarchical power relations achieved through apparent consensual agreement).

The weakness of Mouffe’s position from the perspective of narrative environment design, as a political arrangement of some kind, is a lack of attention to the affective dimension of affiliation, a dimension to which she often alludes but does not develop; and to the spatial dimension, which she mentions but fails to engage at all [1].

Mouffe’s approach to “thinking the world politically” is outlined below.

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Antagonism and Hegemony

In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argue that the concepts of antagonism and hegemony are essential to an understanding of the political. Both concepts point to the importance of the radical negativity that is manifested in the ever-present possibility of antagonism. This dimension of radical negativity forecloses the possibility of a society beyond division and power (Mouffe, 2013: 1)

Laclau and Mouffe define hegemonic practices as practices of articulation, through which a given social order is created and the meaning of social institutions os fixed. In this view, every social order is a temporary and precarious articulation of contingent practices. Any social order is always the expression of a particular configuration of power relations, which is susceptible to being challenged by counter-hegemonic practices that seek to disarticulate it in order to install another form of hegemony.

In subsequent books, Mouffe has developed her reflections on the political, making a distinction between ‘the political’ and ‘politics’. In Mouffe’s account, ’the political’ refers to the dimension of antagonism that can take many forms and can emerge in different social relations. ‘Politics’, she takes to refer to the ensemble of practices, discourses and institutions that seek to establish a particular order and to organise human co-existence in conditions which are always potentially conflicting, because they are affected by the dimension of ‘the political’.

Political questions are not susceptible to technical solutions by experts, Mouffe contends, because they require decisions that make a choice between conflicting alternatives, i.e. they are inescapable moments of decision that require having to decide within an undecidable terrain. In this context, Mouffe points to the inadequacy of liberal thought which, because emphasising (technical) rationality and (methodological) individualism, cannot grasp the pluralistic character of the social world.

Liberal thought’s (methodological) individualism means that it is also blind to the formation of collective identities. This is a major shortcoming as the political, Mouffe argues, is concerned with forms of identification from the outset; the political unfolds through the relational formation of ‘us’ as distinct from, if not always opposed to, ‘them’. Politics always deals with collective identities, i.e. the constitution of a ‘we’ which requires, as its very condition of possibility, the demarcation of a ‘they’.

As already noted, such us/them and we/they relations need not necessarily be antagonistic. They may concern questions of recognising differences. Nevertheless, there is always the possibility that and us/them, we/they relation might become a friend/enemy relation. This transformation occurs when differences begin to be perceived as threats to ‘our’ collective identity, to our existence as a collective body. Henceforth, any us/them relation becomes a locus of antagonism. Mouffe concludes that the condition of possibility of the formation of political, collective identities is simultaneously the condition of impossibility of a society from which antagonism can be eliminated.

Antagonism and Agonism

Mouffe argues that her agonistic model provides an alternative to the two main approaches in democratic political theory: the aggregative model, which conceives of political actors as being moved by the pursuit of their interests; and the deliberative model, which emphasises the role of reason and moral considerations. Both of these models fail to register the centrality of collective identities; and the crucial role played by affects in their constitution. Mouffe suggests that it is impossible to understand democratic politics without acknowledging ‘passions’ as a driving force in the political field.

One of the main challenges for pluralist liberal democratic politics is how to defuse the potential antagonism that exists in human, social relations. The crucial issue is how to establish the us/them distinction, constitutive of politics, in a way that is compatible with the recognition of pluralism. What is important for libel democratic politics is that conflict does not assume the form of an antagonism, i.e. a life-and-death struggle between enemies, but that of agonism, i.e. a discursive, dialectical contest between adversaries.

The adversary, for Mouffe, is the opponent with whom a common allegiance to the democratic principles of liberty and equality for all is shared, while nevertheless disagreeing about their interpretation. The confrontation between adversaries constitutes the agnostic struggle which is the condition of a vibrant democracy.

While consensus, while viable, is necessary, it nevertheless must be accompanied by dissent, Mouffe states. According to Mouffe’s understanding, of ‘adversary’, antagonism is not eliminated but rather sublimated. In agonistic politics, the antagonistic dimension is always present, since what is at stake is the struggle between opposing hegemonic projects which cannot be reconciled rationally (i.e. according to a technical rationality). The prime task of democratic politics is to ‘sublimate’ passions by mobilising them towards democratic designs, by creating collective forms of identification around democratic objectives.

Agonism without Antagonism

For Mouffe, the shortcomings of Hannah Arendt’s conception of agonism is that it is without an accompanying antagonism. Whiel Arendt places great emphasis on human plurality and insists that politics deals with the community and the reciprocity among human beings who differ from one another, she does not acknowledge that this plurality underlies antagonistic conflicts. To think politically, for Arendt, is to develop the ability to see things from a multiplicity of perspectives. Arendt’s pluralism, Mouffe contends, is not fundamentally different from that of Jurgen Habermas. Arendt seeks in Kant’s doctrine of aesthetic judgement a procedure for ascertaining intersubjective agreement in the public sphere. Thus, Arendt ends up, Like habermas, envisioning the public sphere as a space where consensus (without reserve, so to speak) can be reached.

Nevertheless, there are differences between Arendt and Habermas concerning that consensus. For Habermas, consensus emerges through an exchange of arguments constrained by logical rules; while for Arendt agreement is produced through persuasion, not irrefutable proofs. Neither Arendt nor Habermas acknowledges the hegemonic form of consensus and the ineradicability of antagonism, a moment that Lyotard calls the differend:

“As distinguished from a litigation, a differend would be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments.” (Lyotard, 1988: xi)

Mouffe also takes issue with the conception of agonism proposed by Bonnie Honig, whose view is inspired by Arendt. The core of the perspective on politics advocated by Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Arendt, which Honig calls virtu, is the agonistic contest through which citizens are encouraged to keep policies and ideas open to discussion and to challenge any attempts to end debate. Mouffe, while agreeing with the importance of contest, does not think that the character of agonistic struggle can be envisaged solely in terms of an ongoing contestation over issues or identities. She suggests that the crucial role go hegemonic articulations also needs to be grasped, as does the necessity of challenging what exists and of constructing new articulations and new institutions.

The weakness of Honig’s approach, Mouffe proposes, can be seen in her exposition of feminist politics, which conceives the public space of politics as a verbal game of disputation, where the central question is not what we should do but who we are. For Mouffe, this is not sufficient to envisage an adequate form of feminist politics. The agonistic struggle should not be centred on the deconstruction of who one is and the proliferation of identities at the cost of addressing the question of what we, as citizens, should do. In Mouffe’s opinion, Honig, like Arendt, places to great an emphasis on the aspect of freedom understood as action in the context of speech acts and the presentation of the self, while not taking seriously enough the issue of justice, of what is to be done.

Pluralism, Multiplicity and Division

Mouffe finds similar limitations in the conception of agonism put forward by William Connolly, who attempts to make the Nietzschean conception of the agon compatible with democratic politics. Central to Connolly’s vision is the notion of agonistic respect, which represents for him the cardinal virtue of deep pluralism, the most important political virtue in the contemporary pluralistic world. The question that Mouffe poses for Connolly’s theory is whether all antagonisms can be transformed into agonisms and all positions accepted as legitimate and accommodated within the agonistic struggle; or are there demands that have to be excluded because they cannot be part of the conflictual consensus that provides the symbolic space in which the opponents recognise themselves as legitimate adversaries? Connolly seems to suggest that there can be a pluralism without antagonism, whereas Mouffe argues that a more adequate political approach requires dealing with the limits of pluralism.

Mouffe summarises her critique of theories of agonism influenced by Nietzsche and Arendt by noting that their main focus is on the fight against closure which means that they are unable to grasp the nature of the hegemonic struggle. The incapacity of these theories to account for the necessary moment of closure that is constitutive of the political is the consequence of an approach that envisages pluralism as a valorisation of multiplicity, eliding the constitutive role of conflict and antagonism.

All of the approaches discussed by Mouffe (2013) acknowledge that under modern democratic conditions, the people cannot be envisaged as ‘one’. However, the Nietzschean-Arendtian approach sees the people as multiple whereas, in Mouffe, the people appears as divided.

Mouffe concludes that it is only when division (exclusion) and antagonism (irresolvable conflict) are recognised as being ineradicable that it is possible to think politically.


[1] In this respect, it is worth examining Mouffe’s (2012) book chapter “Space, hegemony and radical critique”, where she asserts that the work of Doreen Massey had made her aware of the importance of the spatial dimension in politics. Apart from noting Massey’s insistence on space as a dimension of multiplicity, on space being the product of relations and practices and on the need to acknowledge that our co-constitutive inter-relatedness implies spatiality, Mouffe fails to engage with Massey’s work.


Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (2001). Hegemony and socialist strategy: towards a radical democratic politics, 2nd ed. London, UK: Verso.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1988). The Differend: phrases in dispute. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Mouffe, C. (2012). Space, hegemony and radical critique. In: Spatial Politics: Essays for Doreen Massey, edited by D. Featherstone and J. Painter. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 19–31.

Mouffe, C. (2013). Agonistics: thinking the world politically. London: Verso.

edited 17 July, 2016 by Allan Parsons

Narrative environment designs can be understood to bring together the storyworld of the narrative and the lifeworld, or Lebenswelt, of the human participant in the designed environment, itself a variety of umwelt, to generate a field of interaction or, more theoretically, a field of actantial potentiality. Care needs to be exercised in using the term lifeworld (Lebenswelt), however. Lifeworld should not be considered to designate a homogenous domain of experience nor understood to be introducing a universal horizon. It is not “a changeless foundation of ‘lived’ intentionalities.” (Sandywell, 2004: 168).

The notion of lifeworld was introduced in the posthumously published second volume of Husserl’s Ideas, under the heading of “Umwelt”, translated as “surrounding world” or “environment”. Husserl there characterizes the environment as a world of entities that are meaningful to us in that they exercise motivating force on us and present themselves to us under egocentric aspects. For Husserl, it is this subjective-relative lifeworld, or environment, that provides the ground of the more objective world of science, and indeed any other theoretical, symbolic system, such as narrative. Scientific or other theoretical views constantly flow into the way one understands the everyday world.

While Husserl spoke of a ‘Lebenswelt’ (lifeworld) to stress the solidness of the human encapsulation within reality, it was Heidegger who made this ‘grounding’ yet more defined. Heidegger called this worldly entrenchment In-der-welt-sein, or ‘Being-in-the-world’, a condition which he named Dasein, there-being or being-there. With this concept, Heidegger called attention to the fact that a human being cannot be taken into account except as being an existent in the middle of a world amongst other things.

For Heidegger, Dasein is ‘to be there’ and to be human is to be located, embedded and immersed in the physical, literal, tangible, everyday world. Heidegger rejected Husserl’s psychological orientation and developed his own phenomenology as an ontology. For Heidegger the world is here, now and everywhere around us. We are totally immersed in it, an insight which Sloterdijk, among others, pursues.

Husserl’s phenomenology brackets the lifeworld, which he treats as the ‘natural’ or unreflective attitude involved in everyday conceptions of reality. The lifeworld is, however, not a pure, interpretation-free world. It is a social, historical, and cultural world loaded with various interpretations and value perspectives. The life-world includes individual, social, perceptual, and practical experiences. Lifeworld denotes the way the members of one or more social groups, for example, cultures, linguistic communities, use to structure the world into objects.

In analysing and describing the lifeworld, phenomenology attempts to show how the world of theory and science originates from the lifeworld, strives to discover the mundane phenomena of the life-world itself, and attempts to show how the experience of the lifeworld is possible by analysing time, space, body, and the very givenness or presentation of experience.

Sandywell (2004: 163) highlights potentially problematic uses of the notion of lifeworld. If it is reified into existential presuppositions, as in the ‘structures of the life-world’, it can then be said to sustain the ‘paramount reality’ of social coexistence and co-ordinated world-work. Sandywell points out that the concepts of lifeworld, world of daily existence, and so on are  polemical concepts. They signify the world in which we live and which for us, or for some other group, constitutes reality in contrast to the world which science constructs.

Thus, Sandywell (2004: 167) argues that,

“The phenomenological concept of an aboriginal ‘Lebenswelt’ functions as a barely disguised nostalgia for the sustaining source of meaning, of primal significances occluded by the rise of modern science and technology. This forms the basic premise for a ‘phenomenology of the social world’ and theories of the lifeworld contrasted with the colonizing logics of systems (Schutz 1967, Habermas 1987).”

Sandywell (2004: 167) proposes rejecting the notion of,

“an originary, unitary and homogeneous ‘lifeworld’ set against multiple, differentiated ‘spheres’ that announce the inception of modernity (the Kantian triumvirate of science, morality and art as Lebenssphären (‘spheres of life’) being the most influential differentiation paradigm in social theory).”


Beyer, C. (2015). Edmund Husserl. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .Available from [Accessed 18 June 2016]

Hornsby, R. (2002). What Heidegger means by being-in-the-world. a personal blog. Available from [Accessed 18 June 2016].

Sandywell, B. (2004). The Myth of everyday life: toward a heterology of the ordinary. Cultural Studies, 18 (2), 160–180. Available from [Accessed 22 November 2015].

edited 16 November, 2016 by Allan Parsons

Specific narrative environment designs may be said to be ‘political’ or to have political effects in some sense. In order to define more clearly what might be meant by this kind of assertion and to understand how a narrative environment might be said to act ‘politically’, it is worth pondering the distinction often made by contemporary political theorists between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’.

Politics or policy (la politique in French, Politik in German), refers to concrete policy-making, decisions and actions, the struggle for power and its exercise; while ‘the political’ (le politique in French, das Politische in German) refers to the frame of reference within which ‘politics’ occurs, implying the notion of polity or political unity. This distinction, awkward in English, has made its way into Anglo-American political theory via European philosophy.

Oliver Marchart (2007) traces the history of this ‘political difference’ in Ricoeur, Arendt, Schmitt and Mouffe, through to Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe, with diversions into Wolin, Sartori and others.

The theoretical differentiation between politics and the political occurs for the first time in German political thought with Carl Schmitt, while the habit of differentiating between these two concepts started in French thought in 1957, with Paul Ricœur’s essay ‘The Political Paradox’. This led Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe to adopt the differentiation which, in turn, motivated other theoreticians such as Claude Lefort and Alain Badiou to reformulate their own theory in terms of the political difference.

Ricoeur was responding to the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956. He was shocked by the unexpectedness of the Budapest uprising and the severity of its suppression by Soviet troops. In his view, the event demonstrated the autonomy of the political as a domain of human experience, distinct from other domains such as the moral, economic or aesthetic. The political domain has own particular problems, dynamics, modes of action and normative criteria (Schaap, 2013).

The concept of the political is frequently invoked by post-Marxists and theorists of radical democracy. Reacting against the Marxist view of politics, both Schmitt and Arendt, as does Ricoeur, insisted on the autonomy of the political. French post-Marxists,  including Claude Lefort, Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière, have drawn on these debates about the political to critically appraise the liberal human rights consensus that emerged in the wake of the Cold War as a basis for examining how human rights might be mobilised for an emancipatory politics (Schaap, 2013).

For Lefebvre, the difference between le politique and la politique enables a distinction (i.e. not a disassociation nor a separation) between the thinking of the political and political action.

In the work of Chantal Mouffe, ’the political’ refers to the dimension of antagonism that can take many forms and can emerge in different social relations. ‘Politics’, she takes to refer to the ensemble of practices, discourses and institutions that seek to establish a particular order and to organise human co-existence in conditions which are always potentially conflicting, because they are affected by the dimension of ‘the political’.


Chambers, S.A. (2011). Jacques Ranciere and the problem of pure politics. European Journal of Political Theory, 10 (3), 303–326.

Marchart, O. (2007). Post-foundational political thought: political difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1965). The Political Paradox. In: History and Truth, translated by. Charles A Kelby. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 247-270.

Schaap, A. (2013). Human rights and the political paradox. Australian Humanities Review, 55, 1–22.

edited 3 May, 2017 by Allan Parsons

A narrative environment could be conceived of as a ‘distribution of the sensible’; or, if it is a political act, a disruption of a ‘distribution of the sensible’.

Jacques Ranciere (2004: 12) defines the distribution of the sensible as, “the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it.”

Such a system, Ranciere continues, as distribution of the sensible, establishes, at one and the same time, something common that is shared (inclusively) as well as parts that are exclusive.

From a narrative environments perspective, it is important to note that such an apportionment of parts and positions is based on a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines the way in which something in common lends itself to participation and in what way various individuals have a part in this distribution.

In this way, Ranciere notes, the distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based, firstly, on what they do and, secondly, on the time and space in which this activity is performed. Thereby, having a particular ‘occupation’, as a commitment to be at a particular place or paces for specified periods of time, determines an actant’s ability or inability to take charge of what is common to the community. In addition, it defines what is visible or not in a common space, endowed with a common language, and so on.

There is thus an ‘aesthetics’ at the core of politics, Ranciere argues, not to be understood as the perverse commandeering of politics by a will to art or by a consideration of ‘the people’ as work of art but rather as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience.

Ranciere uses this approach to propose his theory of the inter-relationship between aesthetics, as the distribution of the sensible, and politics, as specific arrangements of participation and exclusion.

Thus, for Ranciere (2004: 13):

“Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.”

For Rancière, the ‘distribution of the sensible’ is tied to the concept of democracy (Birrell, 2008), by means of a potential ‘redistribution of the sensible’, both as a perceptual alteration of the visible/invisible and as a political rearrangement of the inclusive/exclusive, to form a new apparatus, regime or dispositif; or, indeed, narrative environment.

Ranciere’s thinking about the ‘distribution of the sensible’ is an important factor in Ales Erjavec’s (2015) definition of aesthetic avant-gardes, which seek to reach beyond art into ‘life’, and aim to transform not just artistic styles and techniques but also the world. The artistic elements of such works are set within an experience-transforming orientation.


Birrell, R. (2008). Jacques Ranciere and the (re) distribution of the sensible: five lessons in artistic research. Art & Research, 2 (1), . Available from [Accessed 23 December 2015].

Erjavec, A. (2015). Introduction. In: Erjavec, A., ed. Aesthetic revolutions and twentieth-century avant-garde movements. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1–18.

Ranciere, J. (2004). The Politics of aesthetics: the distribution of the sensible. London, UK: Continuum.

edited 5 October, 2017 by Allan Parsons