Key Concepts of A.J. Greimas

A.J. Greimas‘ work has been an effort to analyse all forms of discourse. Greimas emphasizes the idea that language is an “assemblage of structures of signification” which implies that the language system cannot be “given” in advance but must be articulated as discourse (discourse, for Greimas, is “language as taken on by the person who is speaking”).

In order to analyse this discourse Greimas develops a range of concepts.

(i) At the auxiliary level we have three things.

(a) The minimal meaning unit the “seme,”
(b) The contextual semes or “classeme,”
(c) The link between utterances and paragraphs the “anaphora.”

(ii) Developing a “structural semiotics,” Greimas undertakes an analysis of the production of meaning in a particular context.

(iii) Meaning is neither intentional nor hermeneutic: meaning is a process of signification. Discourse and discursive action produces- “actants.” There is no other subject behind discourse: a sbject is constituted by the very act of discoursing itself (what Greimas terms the discursive instance). The syntactic actant is not “the person who is speaking” but “the person who is speaking” (note the shift in emphasis onto the act of speaking as producing the subject.

(iv) In order to describe the manner of actant action in discourse Greimas introduced other concepts.
(a) Modalities and modalisation is that which characterises any situation of the actant. It is the given in any situation. For example, “The king wanted to go home” or “he was angry yesterday” refer to the modality of obligation and the temporal modality of a condition (being angry) respectively. “Wanting to,” “having to,” and being able to refer to specific levels of existence: “knowing” or “being able to” is the level of actuality, “doing” or “being” to the level of realisation. Evidently modalities are related to actions (which are necessarily discontinuous and momentary).

(b) In order to describe a continuous state of emotion, moods or temperament, Greimas introduced the concept of “aspectuality.” Aspectualities denote disorder, instabilities and imprecise states in the human.

(c) Isotopy refers to the parallel levels of meaning within a single, apparently homogeneous discourse. Thus it indicates different elements (actions and utterances) to be related to the same discourse. Isotopy may be actarial when passages describing different actions are finally seen to be related to the protagonist. They may be discursive when different sentences are found to refer to the same subject. They are figurative when the same text is discovered to conceal different allegories. Or isotopy may be thematic when the text refers to a knowledge/story/truth extending beyond the present narrative knowledge.

Greimas’ Contribution to Narratology 

Greimas in Structural Semantics developed a model of narrative by positing “actants” as fundamental structural units. The actant is neither a specific narrative event nor a character. There are for Greimas SIX actants paired as binary opposites; .Subject/ object, Sender /receiver, Helper/opponent. The subject is paired with the object s/he seeks, the object is sought by the subject, the sender sends the subject on the quest for the object, the receiver of the object to be secured by the subject, helper of the subject, and opponent of the subject. These actants describe and “carry out” three basic patterns in any narrative:

(1) desire, search, aim (subject/object)
(2) communication (sender/receiver)
(3) auxiliary support or hindrance (helper/opponent)

Greimas thus thinks in terms of the relations between the elements. The narrative follows this framework: a contract is established between sender and subject to bring about a new order, or reinstall peace or discover/seek something; the subject who becomes competent along the axes of desire, duty, obligation and knowledge goes on the quest; and as a result of her/his actions restores order or brings in a new one, for which s/he is duly (justly) rewarded or punished.

Greimas’ scheme may be summarized thus:

Contract (or prohibition) violationpunishment
Lack of contract (disorder)establishmentreward

Categories: Linguistics, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Semiotics, Structuralism

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