I have touched on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) in a previous post and the challenging idea that many actors are non-human – they are therefore actors without the potential to intentionally affect change. Objects, ideas, and processes have a role and may be share the stage with sentient beings, so to speak, but to what extent can they interact? In that earlier post, I was trying to work out the extent to which studio could be considered as more than an inanimate setting with no meaning and influence over the human actor(s).
One way of putting this, picking up on the comment from Ed Mayo to an earlier post, is what power does it exert? Or I could ask, does the studio have agency?
Power, agency, and influence are present at the very least as latent values: dimensions of a cultural landscape. My use of the word latent, rather than implicit, suggests a hidden influence or one that is waiting or ready to be enacted. For example, the presence of a technology in a given setting (e.g. a studio) speaks loudly – Why is it there? How did it get there? What is its usual function? How else might it be used? What does it amplify about identity? etc. It is not only on the stage but part of the conceit and of the plot that might unfold. If, in this example, it is ‘my’ studio, what does it mean to me?
I dug out my block printing press over the summer and bought some news tools and materials. Now I am back at work, too busy to engage in the process of printmaking again, they haunt me. Really, I must put them away for a while.
Objects, ideas, processes and other non-human devices are indisputably part of the context and they have a role to play. Intention, on the other hand, maybe viewed as no more than a distinguishing characteristic of the human actor in the same way that non-human actors have their distinguishing characteristics.
This, of course, raises the question of whether ANT has any value to understanding spaces for learning in which the primary interest of the educator is the human act or experience of learning. As I noted, ANT seems to depersonalise the idea of learning space in which nothing is anterior (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010), distancing us from the ontological position of seeing learning as an outcome of doing, being, becoming, belonging and connecting. However, it is a socio-material construct and, for me, usefully makes us think about the significance of context on learning and specifically the idea of embodiment – how the environment as a whole speaks to us.
The actual environment, the tools we use, the things we and others make, the things we find, stumble across and take notice of are all very important influences upon us as professionals and learners but, as actants, in a learning ecosystem, such objects and artefacts have a sub-ordinate role because they do not have intention.
Fenwick, T. & Edwards, R. (2010). Actor-Network Theory and education. London: Routledge.