Re: [xmca] Actants, Greimas, Levi-Strauss

From: Martin Packer <packer who-is-at>
Date: Mon Jul 09 2007 - 16:38:26 PDT

Tony, your linking of Latour and Greimas surprised me, so I've been digging
around and you're quite correct. It seems that Latour has drawn on Greimas'
structural narrative analysis in his construing of science-in-action as a
struggle of almost mythical proportions, with 'trials of strength' and so

But there is still an ontological dimension, I think. In an interview Latour
says "But then I add to this implausible semiotics a still more implausible
ontology, and strangely enough, the whole thing, instead of being a complete
mess, ends up being reasonable, even common sense!" Don't ask me to
articulate the 'common sense' here, but he seems to be proposing that
actants, both human and non-human, emerge from ongoing practice. That nature
and society, in fact, emerge from practice. This is arguably the
"interaction order" approach of Garfinkel and others.

This may help us think about tools (and signs). Rather than starting with a
blind man and a cane as two entities, better two understand both as emerging
from a single ongoing course of practical action.

Perhaps this is too great a leap, but I stumbled across an interview with
Loic Wacquant, student of and then collaborator with Pierre Bourdieu, in
which he describes his fieldwork on boxing in Chicago ('Body and Soul'). He
has some nice phrasing which captures (a la Merleau-Ponty) the embodied
character of practice and the ontology of transformation:

He speaks of the "silent pedagogy that transforms the totality of the being
of the fighter by extracting him from the profane realm and thrusting him
into a distinctive sensual, moral, and practical cosmos that entices him to
remake himself and achieve (masculine) honor by submitting himself to the
ascetic rules of his craft."

And he quotes Bourdieu's 'Pascalian Meditations': "It is because the body is
(at different degrees) exposed, put into play, into danger in the world,
confronted with the risk of emotion, hurt, suffering, sometimes death, and
thus obliged to take the world seriously (and nothing is more serious than
emotion, which touches on the innermost depth of our organic dispositions),
that it can acquire dispositions which are themselves openings to the world,
that is, to the very structures of the social world of which they are the
embodied form."

Here too is a mythic conception of our engagement in the world, from which
particular subjects and objects emerge, dance briefly on stage, and then all
too often disappear again.


On 7/8/07 4:17 PM, "Tony Whitson" <twhitson@UDel.Edu> wrote:

> In putting together a couple final posts on toolforthoughts, I noticed a
> post early in the thread (pasted below) from Paul Dillon re: Levi-Strauss
> which is actually very much related to "actants," so I thought I'd call
> attention to the connection.
> As noted in my post below, "actants" are part of Greimas' theory of
> narrative structure (not of ontology). Greimas' work here grows directly
> out of that of Propp (and others) on the structure of folk tales, for
> example, which builds directly and explicitly on the structuralism of
> theorists such as Levi-Strauss, following Saussure.
> So folk tales, like totems, are toolforthoughts in a sense that's
> independent of such things as computers, although computer technology may
> now give rise to a situation that opens questions of the sort posed by
> Shaffer & Clinton.
> --------------

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