General Introduction;

Kate Liu
April 15, 1990
Structuralism; some quotes of Greimas
     Greimas' semiotics seeks to account for the articulation and the narrativization of the semantic universe as a totality of meaning. Similar to the distinction between langue and parole in Saussurian linguistics, in Greimas' semiotics there is the distinction between the deep (semantic) structure and surface syntax, only the latter can be further divided into narrative structure (surface structure) and discoursive structure (the structure of manifestation). The process of narrativization goes through a series of conversion horizontally from the fundamental semantics to fundamental syntax and vertically from fundamental syntax to surfface narrative syntax and then to discoursive syntax. The object of semiotics, to Greimas, is this process of transformation, which is the production of meaning.

     This system of the different levels of structures, or semiotics, to Greimas, is "a hierarchy that can be subjected to analysis and the elements of which can be determined by reciprocal relations (and by communication)" (xxvi). Central to this system is the semiotic square in the deep semantic structure, the perception of an idea (S) with its opposition (-S) and negation (S1).   In Jameson's interpretation, "the semiotic rectangle or 'elementary structure of signification' is the representation of a binary opposition or of two contraries (S and -S), along with the simple negations or contradictories of both terms (the so-called subcontraries S1and -S1): significant slots are constituted by the various possible combination of these terms, mostly notably the 'complex' term (or ideal synthesis of the two contraries) and the 'neutral term' (or ideal synthesis of the two subcontraries)" (The Political Unconscious 166; Cf. Prinson-House 162-66).  This elementary structure, according to Greimas, should be considered "on the one hand, as a concept uniting the minimal condition for the apprehension and/or the production of signification, and on the other hand, as a model containing the minimal definition of any language..and of any semiotic unit." In other words, the semiotic square, "the universal" for Greimas, is the basic mode of signification both in human thinking and all forms of discourse including the narrative.

The semiotic square defines relations of the four terms but not their content; it is comprehensible only when converted into actantial syntax. In the narrative, there are three pairs of actants as binary oppositions--Subject/Object, Sender/ Receiver, Helper/Opponent. These pairs establish relations between subjects and objects that recur in all narratives: 
1. Wanting (e.g. desire, search, or aim), 
2. Exchange (e.g. communication) 
3. contradiction (e.g. Auxiliary support or hindrance). 
Furthermore, from the various narrative sequences, Greimas sees three basic structures: the contractual, the performative and the disjunctive.

The central operation of Greimas' semiotics is, on the one hand, the description of signification as a process of conversion from the deep structure to the surface syntax, and on the other the analysis of linguistic or verbal texts through the "semiotic reduction" to their more fundamental mechanisms of meaning. One problem of his semiotics, Greimas himself admits, is that the actual procedures of conversion from one level to another still needs to be elaborated. This, however, is not the major problem of his semiotics in the field of literary studies. Greimas' semiotic reduction fails to account for the multiplicity of meanings produced in the process of conversion from deep structure to surface structures; instead, it reduces the text to a single meaning, which is only one interpretation of the text. As Jameson puts it, "when such reduction has been achieved, ...all we have are other words and other meanings, another text, a set of terms that...are open to all the drift and force fields of philosophy and psychology..." (ix).

Moreover, Greimas' semiotics seems applicable to traditional narrative, but not to some modern fiction which denies the concept of plot as a linear and causal sequence, nor the postmodern fiction which exposes its meaning-production as artificial and infinitely regressive.

Although problematic in its practice, Greimas' semiotics helps explain the influence and limitation of ideology on human signification

First of all, the semantic universe that exists before individual utterances is in fact the ideologies that exist prior to individual will. Human signification, therefore, is not producing a new meaning free from its socio-economic context, but merely transformation of meaning as "always-already-given" by ideologies into another meaning. 
Second, the semiotic square, in playing out ten possibilities of one term, shows the limitation of that term. In this sense, the semiotic square "constitutes a virtual map of conceptual closure, or ...of the closure of ideology itself." In other words, the semiotic constraint on individual utterances is also the ideological constraint on human signification.