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Bruno Latour at Recomposing the humanities event, New Literary History

Bruno Latour summarises concisely the necessity of considering at one and the same time the three interconnected dimensions or actantial fields of narrative environment design, that is, narrative (discourse), people (society) and environment (real), in the following sentence:

“Is it our fault if the networks [of both the modern and the ‘non-modern’ or ‘pre-modern’ world] are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society?” (Latour, 1993: 6)

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

edited 13 April, 2019 by Allan Parsons

Associated Practices

According to Jary and Jary (2000), actor network theory combines post-structuralist insights with detailed empirical studies of scientific practices and technologies, organisations and social processes. It builds on the work of Bruno Latour, John Law and Michel Callon. The focus of actor network theory is on the reality and transformability of networks, as against such notions as institutions and society. Its conception of the social is as a circulatory field of forces beyond the agency-structure debate.

In a footnote in ‘Reassembling the Social’, Bruno Latour (2005, fn. 54, p. 54)) writes that,

“It would be fairly accurate to describe ANT as being half Garfinkel and half Greimas: it has simply combined two of the most interesting intellectual movements on both sides of the Atlantic and has found ways to tap the inner reflexivity of both actor’s accounts and of texts.”

The two intellectual movements referred to are North American ethnomethodology and French structuralism or semiotics (Beetz, 2013). The classic work in semiotics is best summarised in Algirdas Julien Greimas and Joseph Courte’s (1982), Semiotics and Language: an Analytical Dictionary. A more recent presentation of semiotics can be found in Jacques Fontanille (1998), Semiotique du discours.” (Latour, 2005: 54n-55n)


The relevance of actor network theory to the design of narrative environments is double:

1. It deals with the articulation of material, textural, architectural, technological, financial, environmental, textual, discursive and subjective phenomena as a system or network acting to create coherence and subject to change or modification. Narrative environments can be conceived as having a similar range and to be similarly concerned with network effectiveness.

2. It deals with a number of themes that have to be addressed in the design of narrative environments, such as for example,

• an emphasis on semiotic relationality, i.e. a network of elements which shape and define one another;
• an emphasis on heterogeneity, in particular on the different types of actor and action, human and otherwise, that animates the network’s performativity;
• an emphasis on materiality, i.e. the heterogeneous material forms through which the network is realised;
• an insistence on processes and their precariousness, i.e. all elements need to continue to play their part or else it all falls apart;
• paying attention to power, as a function of network configuration, as networked effect and effectiveness; and
• paying attention to space and scale, e.g. how networks maintain their boundaries, extend themselves and translate distant actors.


Actor network theory is not concerned primarily with the design or the creation of new environments but with the study of existing environments as actors-as-networks and networks-as-actors, even though it recognises its study as intervening in practice and that its descriptions, explanations and research actions extend the particular environment/network in question. Nor is actor network theory explicitly concerned with concepts of narrative, although Latour does use the phrase ‘narrative path’ when explaining actor network theory, e.g. in Latour (1996) below.


Beetz, J. (2013). Latour with Greimas Actor-Network Theory and Semiotics. Available from [Accessed 7 August 2015].

Jary, D. and Jary, J. (2000). Collins dictionary of sociology, 3rd ed. Glasgow: HarperCollins.

Latour, B. (1996). On actor-network theory. A few clarificaitons plus more than a few complications. Soziale Welt, 47, 369–381. Available from ACTOR-NETWORK.pdf [Accessed 6 February 2016].

The following items are held in University of the Arts libraries: Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The following items are available through Google Preview:

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Andrew Barry has an interesting outline of the value of actor-network theory and the intellectual sources from which it draws in:

Barry, A. (2011). Networks. Radical Philosophy, 165, 35–40.

It may also be worth looking at the following online articles:

Law, J. and Urry, J. (2003). Enacting the social. Lancaster: Department of Sociology and the Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University. Available at  Accessed 9 March 2007.

Law, J. (2007). Actor network theory and material semiotics. version of 25 April 2007. Available at Accessed 27 November 2008.

Latour, B. (2008). A Cautious Prometheus? a few steps toward a philosophy of design (with special attention to Peter Sloterdijk). Available at Accessed 27 January 2009.

Latour, B.  (1996). The trouble with actor-network theory. Available at: Accessed 9 May 2009.

edited 11 November, 2016 by

Buchanan (1998: 64) considers the development of design in the 20th century to have had three distinct periods,

“Design began as a trade activity, closely connected to industrialization and the emergence of mass communication. After a period of time, professions began to emerge, with traditions of practice and conscious recognition of a distinct type of thinking and working that distinguished our professions from others. Professional practice diversified in many forms – in a process that continues to the present. However, we are now witnessing the beginnings of the third era of design, marked by the emergence of design as a field or discipline.”

It is through and against this emerging field or discipline of design that narrative environment design, as a design practice and a design intervention, should be thought.

Design practice, as it developed in an Anglo-Saxon context, is closely tied to the development of functionalism and the Modern Movement (Burkhardt, 1988: 145-146). In this tradition, the design of objects was conceived on the model of architecture. Specialisation within the field of design did not take place until the latter half of the 19th century in England and, subsequently, in Germany, followed progressively by France, the USA, Scandinavia, Italy and Japan.

As a form of design practice, narrative environment design seeks to, if not to break away entirely from the architectural model and functionalism, then, at the very least, to minimise their importance and to contextualise their significance in a rethinking of such ideas as form, function and materiality through an emphasis on ‘matters of concern’ and a questioning of the ‘matters of fact’ upon which the architectural model and functionalism rely, or rather assume.

At the time of its rise to prominence, the notion of functionalism served a particular purpose. The above-mentioned Anglo-Saxon tradition involved a certain ethical project: to restore to the object its ‘truth’ and ‘honesty’, i.e. to assert that it had some ‘intrinsic’ value in this world (this-worldly-value), and was not just a cipher for a value in an other world (other-worldly-value). This was a reaction to prevalent historicist ideas which relegated objects to the realm of appearances (accidence) rather than reality (essence). The leading advocates of this position, who effected functionalism’s rise to pre-eminence, were Webb, Lethaby, Voysey, Ashbee in England; Muthesius and Riemerschmid in Germany; Wagner and Loos in Austria; and Sullivan in the USA (Burkhardt, 1988: 146).

These thinkers considered the relationships among form, function and material, insisting that they be interpreted in a cultural perspective, taking into account contemporary life-styles and aspirations. They were also closely linked to the leading artistic movements of the time and therefore had an aesthetic orientation.

With the growth of specialisation, the relationship between design and architecture became more tenuous, and design came to see itself linked to systems of industrial production and to economic growth. It therefore took on a very pragmatic approach, form of industrialised, instrumentalised, econo-pragmatism. Design took on a key role in economic policy, as an instrument in the quest for market share and for the satisfaction of national ambition in the display of sovereign power.

Design came to mean a commitment to mass production, with an industrial logic. Ironically, in the context of the forms of contemporary design where, technically, each category of product is much the same, design enters as a means of differentiating products at the level of appearances, in the form of trade mark or brand.

Design, in this phase, is reduced to styling and designers to employees in companies within which they have little autonomy. To break with this situation, they would require greater institutional autonomy and the necessary conceptual equipment. Early examples of attempts to break free from the constraints of functionalism and econo-pragmatism include the ecological and pacifist movements in the USA in the 1960s, the Des-In group in Germany, the counter-design movement centred on the work of Ettore Sottsass and the Florentine Archizoom group. Later developments include the creation of the Alchimia group in 1978 by Ettore Sotsass, Andrea Branzi and Alessandro Mendini and Sottsass’s Memphis Group in 1980.

Nevertheless, these remain minority tendencies. For the majority tendency,

“ …this notion of an everyday culture, of culture as a means to emancipation, allowing people to distance themselves from the world and take a critical look at it – this barely exists at all in the Anglo-Saxon world, where designers are closely linked with industry, and where design associations occupy themselves not with critical discussion but merely with business problems.” (Burkhardt, 1988: 149)

Narrative environment design, then, in part, makes a positive case for that notion of an everyday culture which permits critical distancing; and for the critique of functionalism, not as such, but to combat its hegemonic ascendancy and the assumption of its instrumental simplicity. In short, narrative environment design includes the possibility that the ‘function’ of a designed environment is to subvert the way ‘function’ is understood. As Burkhardt (1988: 151) expresses it,

“Any object can be an object of design, and their multiplicity of evocations should correspond to the multiple possibilities which our society offers of identification and identity.”


Buchanan, R. (1998). Education and professional practice in design. Design Issues, 14 (2), 63–66. Available from [Accessed 14 January 2012].

Burkhardt, F. (1988). Design and ‘avant-postmodernism’. In: Thakara, J., ed. Design after modernism. London, UK: Thames and Hudson, 145–151.

edited 17 April, 2018 by Allan Parsons

There is no single approach or methodology for designing narrative environments although, whatever the approach, a narrative environment is taken to be a more or less complex whole or assemblage, although not necessarily a unified whole or totality, integrating different kinds of material reality, in short a narrative environment may be said to constitute a ‘world’, with its ontological assumptions about what exists and can exist in this ‘world’. While forming a ‘world’ as a form of sphere or envelope, a ‘world’ that is co-created by the designer, the design and the participants who enter the designed narrative environment, narrative environments remain open or porous to the other ‘worlds’ in relation to which they exist.

For example, developing an actantial approach, taking its orientation from the work of A.J. Greimas, Jacques Lacan and Bruno Latour, a narrative environment may be considered to be articulated from three main classes or kinds of actant, narrative actants, environmental actants and human actants, each of which act upon the others and become entangled to form a complex whole or field of actantiality.

Alternatively, in an approach which relies more heavily upon the terminology employed by Etienne Souriau, Christian Metz and Gerard Genette, this complex whole may be termed diégèse.

The design of narrative environments could be seen as part of a post-Humanist, non-instrumentalist, materialist approach to understanding and re-designing the ‘real’ or ‘actual’ world, in which human agency is not taken to be the centre of the world but is an emergent phenomenon within, for example, a sphere (Sloterdijk), a network (Latour) or a living system (Maturana and Varela). It therefore partakes in the ‘ontological turn’ in design, in particular a relational ontology, as discussed, for example, by Escobar (2013).


Escobar, A. (2013). Notes on the ontology of design [Draft paper]. Available from [Accessed 4 September 2016].

edited 4 September, 2018 by Admin

Associated Terms

In order to develop a consistent approach in which the narrative, the environmental and the people dimensions of narrative environments are all understood to act, it is necessary to adopt a theory of action that is post-humanist in the sense that it does not put human agency first and foremost, but contextualises it within a field of more complex systemic, networked or rhizomic performance and performativity, while also acknowledging the possibility that such fields of action can generate new contexts.

One such theory is that which has developed around the term ‘actant’.

Actant: a history of the term

The structuralist semiotician A.J. Greimas was the first to invoke the term actant in connection with narrative. However, he did not invent the word. In developing his actantial typology Greimas drew on the syntactic theories of Lucien Tesnière who, in Elements de syntaxe structurale (1959), likened a sentence to a little drama. Greimas drew on the syntactic theories of Tesnière in order to re-characterise Propp’s ‘spheres of action’ as actants (Herman, 2000)

For Tesnière, a sentence is like a drama. As a drama, it implies a process and, most often, actors and circumstances. The verb expresses the process. Actants are beings or things that participate in the process. Circumstants express the circumstances of the action (Melcuk, 2004). Tesnière acknowledged just three actantial grammatical functions: first actants (subjects), second actants (first objects), and third actants (second objects). Tesnière classified circumstants in the standard way, that is, according to the semantic content that they contribute to the clauses in which they appear, such as, temporal, locative, causal, final circumstances and those of manner, and so on.

When transposed from the plane of dramatic reality to that of structural syntax, the action, actors and circumstances become, respectively, the verb, the actants and the circumstants. The verb expresses the action. The actants are beings or things that participate in the action, in whatever capacity and whatever style this might entail, even if it is as mere walk-ons and in the most passive way imaginable. Actants are always nouns or the equivalents of nouns. Inversely, in a given phrase nouns always assume, at least in principle, the function of actants.

Tesnière’s actant vs. circumstant distinction is, for the most part, synonymous with the more modern terminology of argument versus adjunct . Actants (arguments) are necessary to complete the meaning of a given full verb, whereas circumstants (adjuncts) represent additional optional information, that is, information that is not essential to completing the meaning of the verb (Kahane, S. and Osborne, 2015).

Actant and narrative

As Timothy Lenoir (1994) explains, Greimas set out to produce a generative grammar of narrative in which a finite number of functional themes in binary oppositions juxtaposed with possible roles, such as subject-object, sender-receiver, helper-opponent, would generate the structures we call stories.

Greimas distinguishes between actants, which belong to narrative syntax, and actors, which are recognisable in the particular discourse in which they are manifested (Greimas 1987: 106). In simple terms, actors are the things in a narrative that have names, such as the King, Tom, Excalibur, while actants are the narrative units-functions they manifest. One actant can be manifested by several actors; and the converse is equally possible, just one actor being able to constitute a syncretism of several actants.

Beetz (2013) provides two examples of the use of these Greimasian actants:

“In a classical folklore tale, for example, the king (Sender) calls on his bravest knight (Subject) with his magical sword (Helper) to bring freedom (Object) to his daughter (Receiver), who is held captive by the evil sorcerer (Opponent); every actant is manifested by one actor. But in the comic series Batman, Subject and Sender are the same person in the narrative. Bruce Wayne (Sender), who gives himself the mission to bring justice to Gotham City (Object) is Batman (Subject), who fights The Joker, Poison Ivy and others (all Opponent) to secure the lives of the citizens of Gotham City (Receiver).

These examples show that actants can be manifested by several actors and that one actor can manifest several actants. They also show that actants do not have to be manifested by human characters, as is the case in the freedom of the daughter, justice for Gotham City. Objects and abstract concepts can be actants just as much as humans, as long as they can be identified as ‘that which accomplishes or undergoes an act’. Furthermore, in a dynamic interpretation of Greimas’s semiotic square, one actor, over the course of a narrative unfolding, can pass through all modalities of actantiality (sender receiver, subject, object, helper, opponent)

Greimas’s actants, like Bruno Latour’s in his actor-network theory, therefore, are not solely human actors. Actants can also be non-human for Greimas as well as Latour. Actants are syntactically defined, and, for Greimas as for Latour, the performance of the actor presupposes competence. Subjects are defined not only as subjects but also by the position occupied in a narrative journey, a journey characterised by the acquisition of competences. Actors are constructed as the conjunction of actantial and thematic roles on this two-by-two grid (Lenoir, 1994).

An actant is a class of ‘characters’, in the broadest sense of this term, which have the same function in their different manifestations in a narrative. Actants appear as certain forces, powers or capabilities in a given text, situation or field. They are by no means equivalent to ‘actors, i.e. the concrete characters of a story or the dramatis personae of a play. (Rulewicz, 1997)

The reasons for requiring the concept of actant are as follows, as explained by Rulewicz:

Firstly, an actant may be abstraction, such as God, Freedom or Equality; a collective character, such as the chorus in ancient tragedy, a group of characters fulfilling the same tasks, like soldiers in an army; or an actant may be represented by different characters that all act in a definite way. It should be added that an actant may be an animal, organism, inanimate object or, indeed, an environment, so long as one understands the term ‘environment’ actively, as an ongoing process of contextualisation and environing.

Secondly, one character may simultaneously or successively assume different actantial functions.

Thirdly, an actant may or may not appear as a presence in the narrative, nor does it have to appear in the utterances of the characters. An actant may be the general abstract notion which is presented on the ideological level of the narrative.

Actant and actor-network theory [actant-rhizome ontologies]

In the context of actor-network theory, Akrich and Latour (1992: 259) define the term actant as:

“Whatever acts or shifts actions, action itself being defined by a list of performances through trials; from these performances are deduced a set of competences with which the actant is endowed; the fusion point of a metal is a trial through which the strength of an alloy is defined; the bankruptcy of a company is a trial through which the faithfulness of an ally may be defined; an actor is an actant endowed with a character (usually anthropomorphic).”

Borrowing from Latour, Jane Bennett comments that,

“While the smallest or simplest body or bit may indeed express a vital impetus, conatus or clinamen, an actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces. A lot happens to the concept of agency once nonhuman things are figured less as social constructions and more as actors, and once humans themselves are assessed not as autonoms but as vital materialities.” (Bennett, 2010: 21)


Akrich, M. and Latour, B. (1992). A Summary of a convenient vocabulary for the semiotics of human and nonhiman assemblies. In: Bijker, W.E., and Law, J., eds. Shaping technology/building society: studies in sociotechical change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 259–264.

Beetz, J. (2013). Latour with Greimas Actor-Network Theory and Semiotics. Available from [Accessed 7 August 2015].

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Greimas, A. J. (1987). On Meaning. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Herman, D. (2000). Existentialist Roots of Narrative Actants. Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, 24 (2), 257–270. Available from [Accessed 17 November 2018].

Kahane, S. and Osborne, T. (2015). Translators’ Introduction. In: Elements of structural syntax. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.

Lenoir, T. (1994). Was that last turn a right turn? The semiotic turn and A.J. Greimas.Configurations, 2, pp.119–136. Available at:

Melcuk, I. (2004). Actants in semantics and syntax. Linguistics, 42 (1–2), 1–66, 247–291. Available from [Accessed 9 March 2018].

Rulewicz, W. (1997). A Grammar of narrativity: Algirdas Julien Greimas. The Glasgow Review, (3). Available at: [Accessed September 21, 2014].

For a practical guide to using the actantial model in the design of narrative environments, see:

Hebert, L. and Eveaert-Desmedt, N. (2011). The Actantial model, In Tools for text and image analysis: an introduction to applied semiotics. Rimouski, Quebec: Universite du Quebec a Rimouski. Available at

edited 18 November, 2018 by Allan Parsons