RELATED TERMS: Collecting; Material Culture; Representation; Narrative Ecology; Events

Since the late 20th century, there has been a ‘return to things’ in the social sciences and humanities, to the extent that Bill Brown (2001), a scholar of American literature, has called for a ‘thing theory’. This movement contravenes an earlier focus on representation and the long scholarly tradition that separated subject from object, mind from matter. Among these approaches, human existence and social life are understood to depend on material things and are entangled with them. People and things are relationally produced. (Hodder, 2014)

The design of narrative environments is in accord with this perspective.

While accepting this perspective, Hodder nevertheless points out that the focus on dependence rather than on relationality draws attention to the ways in which humans may be entrapped in and by their relations with things: humans are caught in a double bind, depending on things that depend on humans. Hodder defines this as ‘entanglement’. For the design of narrative environments, this constitutes a ‘tangled hierarchy’.

In a narrative ecology perspective, things are designed objects, products or services, with specific roles. As actants, which afford certain possibilities for action, things exert a design-centered view of the world of activities and the meaningful relationships which participants have with it.

Things and Events

While the human is engaged, or perhaps co-constituted, with(in) the material world as an entanglement in the form of a ‘tangled hierarchy’ of ontological levels, such things of the world are nevertheless temporal. They have a limited duration. They are, in other words ‘events’. As Carlo Rovelli (2018) argues,

“We can think of the world as made up of things. Of substances. Of entities. Of something that is. Or we can think of it as made up of events. Of happenings. Of processes. Of something that occurs. Something that does not last, and that undergoes continual transformation, that is not permanent in time. The destruction of the notion of time in fundamental physics is the crumbling of the first of these two perspectives, not of the second. It is the realization of the ubiquity of impermanence, not of stasis in a motionless time.”

In this sense, “The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events”, the difference between them being, as Rovelli eloquently expresses it, is that,

“things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an “event.” It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.” [Although, we do ask ourselves, do we not, where the kiss will be tomorrow, or where the kiss will come from tomorrow?]

The design of narrative environments, while recognising and employing the duration of certain ‘things’, is concerned with the world as the passage and timing of events. It is, in this way, similar to composition (semiotic notation), on the one hand, and choreography (the inter-relationships among moving bodies and ‘things’), on the other hand; and to composed choreographics or choreographed composition, on the third hand!

The things that are most “thinglike”, that is seemingly durable, are more properly long-lasting events which seem to have consolidated.


Brown, B. (2001) ‘Thing theory’, Critical Inquiry, 28(1), pp. 1–22. Available at: (Accessed: 14 November 2012).

Hodder, I. (2014) ‘The Entanglements of humans and things: a long-term view’, New Literary History, 45(1), pp. 19–36. doi: 10.1353/nlh.2014.0005.

Rovelli, C. (2018) The Order of time. Translated by E. Segre and S. Carnell. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.