Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

What Does Greimas's Semiotic Square Really Do?

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

What Does Greimas's Semiotic Square Really Do?

Article excerpt

Semiotician A.J. Greimas introduced the semiotic square to consider semiotic relationships (and constraints) between binary terms. Literary, art, and music critics have seized upon the procedure to analyze actants, narrative structures, and discursive paradigms. This essay argues that current literature ignores the visual aspects of the square.

The semiotic square is a graphic representation of the deep structure of a semiotic system (Greimas and Rastier 87). Greimas uses the device to "bring into view" contrary and contradictory terms, thereby "framing narrative segments" within a given discourse (Greimas, Courtis, and Rengstorf 571). In The Prison-House of Language, Frederic Jameson states that the "semantic rectangle" is "designed to diagram the way in which, from any given starting point S, a whole complex of meaning possibilities, indeed a complete meaning, may be derived" (163). (Jameson is right to call the figure a rectangle but, owing to convention, I will continue to call it a square.) Elsewhere, Nancy Armstrong writes that the square allows us to "identify the preconditions for the meaning of particular narratives" (53). In these cases, the square allows a visualization of two particular kinds of relationships: those of "opposition" and "contradiction" (Prison-House 162).

The semiotic square has instigated an expansive range of critical responses that use the device to consider paradigmatic analyses of characters (actants), narrative and thematic structures, discursive boundaries, and a variety of objects that depend on oppositional relationships. Visual semiotician Daniel Chandler synopsizes several prominent texts that deploy the square. He cites work by Varda Langholz Leymore that uses the square to chart oppositions between the beautiful and the ugly (119). Chandler notes Jameson's famous application of the square to Dickens's Hard Times. Chandler also mentions the use of the square by Dan Fleming to consider children's toys, by Gilles Marrion to look at clothing, and by Jean-Marie Floch to analyze "consumption values" in Habitat and Ikea furniture. To these examples, we might well add other notable instances of the square in work by Paul Ricoeur, Donald Maddox, and Felix Thurlemann. Finally, Donna Haraway famously uses the square to consider the "Regenerative Politics" of the other, while Rosalind Krauss has used a variant--the Klein group--to look at "Sculpture in the Expanded Field" and The Optical Unconscious.

In this essay, I focus on two specific discussions of the square, those by Jonathan Culler and Frederic Jameson. I look at the primary critiques that Culler launches against the square, and I recount Jameson's contention that the square functions to illustrate ideological closures. Not in opposition but, rather, in addition, I suggest that if these (and other) critics were to consider the square's figurativity more carefully--a figurativity that Greimas himself provides the terms with which to investigate--they might come to a treatment of the semiotic square that more closely resembles Derrida's deconstructive treatment of the (rectangular) coffin in The Truth in Painting.

The square takes the meaning of an initial semiotic system, [S.bar], to which Greimas also refers as "the universe of meaning" It posits a contradiction to that system [??] (1), which denotes the "absolute absence" of meaning S. Greimas continues that, in addition to the contradiction, a contrary to any semiotic system can also be posited, so that S1 is opposed to S2 (Greimas and Rastier 87). These two "constituent relations," the contradiction and the contrary, can in turn be understood as multiple "dimensions." Along one contrary axis, the complex axis, is the semic structure S1 [??] S2. But we can also posit a contradictory version of this axis, producing the absence of the complex axis. This is the neutral axis, and its semic structure is [bar.S1] [??] S2. Greimas calls these axial dimensions the "substance of content" (Structural 87). …

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