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Algirdas Julien Greimas Biography

(1917–1992), Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary, Langages, directeur d'études, Du sens 2

greimas semiotics model semiotic narrative theory structural

Lithuanian-born French linguist, lexicologist, and semiotician. Algirdas Julien Greimas obtained his doctorate in 1948 at the Sorbonne with a thesis in lexicology, “Fashion in 1830, a Study of the Vocabulary of Clothes according to the Journals of the Times.” He left lexicology soon after, acknowledging the limitations of the discipline in its concentration on the word as a unit and in its basic aim of classification. In 1963, he switched to semantics, which was broader in scope, and in 1970 he shifted again to semiotics, an even more encompassing discipline for the study of meaning. But Greimas's early devotion to vocabulary and his love of the word never left him. All throughout his career, whatever his current priorities, Greimas never ceased to maintain his lexicological convictions. He published three dictionaries: one of ancient French (1969), one of middle French (with Teresa M. Keane, 1992), and the dictionary for which he is best known, Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary (with Joseph Courtés, 1979), which is a systematic presentation of the constructed metalanguage and terminology informing his semiotic theory.

Greimas's university career began outside of France. For twelve years, he taught French linguistics on the Faculty of Letters in Alexandria, Egypt, and later at the University of Ankara, Turkey, where he became chair of French language and grammar in 1958. From his first year in Egypt (1949), Greimas made acquaintances whose impact on his intellectual development would be considerable. He met Roland Barthes, and in 1966, they, along with Jacques Dubois, Bernard Pottier, and Bernard Quemada launched the journal Langages. At Ankara in 1963, Greimas met Georges Dumézil, who influenced his mythological research. After appointments at the University of Istanbul, the University of Poitiers, and the Institut Poincaré, Greimas was elected directeur d'études (general semantics) in 1965 at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. The next year, with the support of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the participation of Barthes, he recruited the first research team in semiotics, called the “Groupe de recherches sémio-linguistiques” (Semio-Linguistic Research Group), which would grow and develop into the collective semiotic enterprise known as the Paris School of Semiotics.

Emerging from structural linguistics and the study of folklore and mythology, semiotics began in the 1960s to assert its claim to autonomy, both as a theory of meaning and as a practical methodology for analyzing texts and objects. The relatively rapid development of its theoretical and methodological tools over the following twenty years and the proliferation of its research areas led semioticians to what might be called a crisis of growth, spurring reflections on the epistemological status of the discipline and the history of its concepts. Greimas himself contributed two important essays to these reflections, stressing the implicit logic and continuity of the historical development of the “semiotic project,” which he articulated in terms of a progressive conceptualization of the theory. These two articles also serve as the best and clearest introduction to Greimas's own thought.

The first article is the introduction to a book of collected essays, Du sens 2 (1983), which was translated under the title, “Ten Years Afterward,” in Greimas's The Social Sciences: A Semiotic View (1990). The second article, “On Meaning” (1989), was published for the first time as an English translation of a conference paper given in 1985. Both of these articles, which are very similar in content, are important as intellectual accounts of the stages of Greimas's thought and as historical surveys of semiotics in Paris since 1956. No other introduction to the works of Greimas achieves quite the same effect within such a brief number of pages, and none is as sweeping, as incisive, and as telling as a self-portrayal of Greimas's mind and his portrayal of a school of thought, both fused on one canvas. One other basic article that complements Greimas's synopses is the annotated bibliography of Greimas's works by Jean-Claude Coquet (1985). (A condensed and updated version of this bibliography appears in Eric Landowski [1993].)

Starting in 1976, Greimas chose to formulate the semiotic theory “as a project with a scientific vocation, that is, more as an ideology than as acquired knowledge” (Coquet, 1985). Its global task is to create “a great anthropology” linking all the humanities and social sciences so that a scientific revolution could finally take place in the human sciences, the way it did in the hard sciences beginning in the seventeenth century. By representing the semiotic project as a constantly evolving process, still incomplete or unfinished, it is possible to interpret it in a historical dimension as a sequence and process of changes. Starting from the end and working back to the beginning, we can try to find the main traces of semiotic practice. Only after the fact can we look back and recognize several stages or distinct states. Greimas briefly traces four major steps in the evolution of his theory.

The first stage, which began in 1956, was influenced by structural linguistics and a linguistically based structuralism borrowed from anthropology and folklore. In 1956, Greimas published an article, “L'actualité du saussurisme” (The Relevance of Saussurism) that his students consider an important starting point. Greimas examined works by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Lévi-Strauss and concluded that “the Saussurean postulate of a structured world, graspable in its significations” can contribute to the development of a unified methodology in the humanities and social sciences. Greimas became aware that structuralists in various disciplines focused on problems of language from a linguistic perspective and revolutionized their fields by applying Saussure's principles: Lévi-Strauss and Dumézil in anthropology, Barthes in literature, and Jacques Lacan in psychoanalysis. But no structural linguists in France were attempting to do the same, so Greimas moved to bring the work of Saussure and Louis Hjelmslev into linguistics in order to widen the field of semantic research, to leave the strictly linguistic domain, and attempt to relate language theory to that general “semiology” Saussure called for.

The other source of inspiration for Greimas's first stage came from folklore and anthropology. His 1983 historical survey, in fact, begins with folklore and omits structural linguistics entirely, including the above article on the impact of Saussure. Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale became the initial text or object study to serve as a starting point for a new type of narrative analysis and as the basis for more encompassing theories. Propp's model attempts to explain the “surface structure” of narratives—the sequence of actions or syntagmatic dimension—and Greimas thought it could be improved through recourse to Lévi-Strauss's paradigmatic analysis of myth. Greimas then noticed four main segments that could be paired and that two of these pairs made up a Lévi-Straussian schema. The structuration of the functions in Propp's model uncovered a logical and semantic structure behind the linear and canonical succession. Thus, by linking together two complementary narrative models, it became evident that the varied surface structures of stories are generated from a smaller set of deep structures that can be actualized as temporal successions. The structuration of the functions or the projection of paradigmatic categories on the syntagmatic development of stories yielded a new and more complete model; the narrative schema.

The second stage of semiotics began in 1964, when Greimas gave a seminar on Hjelmslev's linguistic and semiotic theories, and culminated with the publication of Sémantique structurale (Structural Semantics, 1966), which gave the first elaboration of a linguistic semiotics and the foundation of what became the Parisian school of semiotics. The goal of this kind of study is the semantic and syntactical analysis of texts, which Greimas defines as discourse. Structural Semantics, despite its title, is thus more than structural semantics restricted to describing the meaning of words and sentences. It attempts to go beyond the sentence and account for the coherence and totality of meaning of a complete text or set of texts and concludes with a study of the narrative world of the novelist Georges Bernanos. A major component proposed in Greimas's semantic theory is his model of the “elementary structure of signification,” later elaborated into the “semiotic square,” which attempts to account for the initial articulations of meaning within a semantic microuniverse. The central focus of Structural Semantics, however, is the study of narrative texts and the narrative dimension of discourse. The structuration of Propp's functions and the actantial model take up two chapters in the latter half of the book that are recognized for their theoretical genius and as the tour de force of the work; these chapters are the heart of the second stage of semiotics (perceived as the first stage by outsiders) and they make up the early narratological period of Paris School semiotics. Narratology is at the origin of this semiotics and is its very core. In this early stage, however, narratology focused relatively concretely on the relations among events, actants, contracts, and exchanges; later, it moved toward a more complex and abstract modal grammar.

The third stage of semiotics began in the early 1970s and focused on two different aspects of discourse analysis, narratology, and the study of the literary text. One focus was on the modalities and aspectualities of the function as a verb (want, have to or must, and know how or can), leading not only to the exploration of what action is (thus providing a model for the organization of behavior) but also to the construction of a modal grammar, which covers the entire cognitive dimension of discourse. In 1976, having refined Propp's narrative schema, Greimas tested it in an extensive book-length application to a short story by Guy de Maupassant and concluded that the model was valid not only for folktales but also for the more sophisticated literary texts. The literary semiotics of Maupassant (1976), however, is more than just an application of earlier theoretical models and the then-current theory of modalities. Greimas's goal is to set up procedures that enable the analyst to bridge the gap between the surface structures of a text and its semantic deep structures and to discover the greatest multiplicity of textual facts and operational concepts while varying methodological parameters. The study is as much a search for methodology as it is an interpretation of a short story. It was at this time that Greimas saw narrativity as the organizing principle of all discourse and “the syntactic form of the organization of the world” (1989).

The other approach pursued in this stage of semiotics was related to narratology and consisted of a progressive formalization of the intuitive components of the Proppian schema to the point that Propp's model was abandoned in favor of an ostensibly more rigorous syntax that functioned as a calculus. “It is not that we completely abandoned heroes and traitors,” says Greimas, “but we discovered that Propp's model could be broken down into parts, into important sequences covered over by the model.…Without noticing it we began to work on something other than the tale” (1989, p. 543). For example, semionarrative syntax (as the conceptual structure of narrative is called) takes the idea of the confrontation between two subjects from Propp's conceptions of hero and villain and interprets it as a relation founded either on a confrontation, a sort of polemic, or on the contract, postulating therefore that all interaction is polemicocontractual in nature. As the simplest and most rudimentary model of narrative, the analysis and reevaluation of the Proppian schema led to the blooming of what might be called sociosemiotics: “We discovered a semiotics of manipulation—how the sender manipulates the subject; then a semiotics of action—how competence is acquired to carry out performance; and finally a semiotics of sanction—that is to say, passing judgments on self, on others, and on things” (1989, p. 543). These new semiotics, which are still being worked out, are also modal organizations.

Semiotics was, in a way, freed from the Proppian model, and yet the field's strength and success depended on the fruitfulness as well as the rather unexpected success of that model. Since the 1960s, the Proppian model was considered as the model par excellence of the narrative, and, even when it was abandoned temporarily in the search for more general structures, it was reinstated as an ideological narrative schema, a universal schema to be kept side by side with the modal grammar. To free oneself from the constraints of the Proppian schema and to acquire an autonomous modal syntax was an effort that took on a “revolutionary” aspect, and it gradually changed semiotic practice from top to bottom. The basic theory of the decade was published in Greimas and Cortés's semiotic dictionary (1979). A second volume came out in 1986, edited by the authors of the first volume, thus giving the helm to forty semioticians of the Paris School.

The fourth stage of semiotics, which began in the early 1980s, switched focus from narrative syntax to discursive syntax and set out to construct an aspectual syntax. Unlike the opposing categories of yes and no or black and white, aspectualities are tensive, valuative, and gradual. The salient features of temporal aspectualities are duration and becoming, which are continuous and gradual processes. In this stage, semiotics was sufficiently developed to overcome an initial methodological limitation of viewing characters only as vessels of action. Since Propp, structural poetics and semiotics have avoided treating the character in a text as a psychological essence, “person,” or even as a well-rounded “being.” This self-imposed bias was justified initially when it was necessary to define the actants and differentiate them from psychological issues of characters—their emotions and temperaments. Semiotics began with the theory of actants and initially attributed to subjects only the ability to act. One of the research areas that opened up after 1979 was instigated by the need to grapple with the subject's ability to feel, respond, and evaluate. It became possible at this point to undertake an examination of the traditional theories of passions expounded by René Descartes (15961650), Baruch Spinoza (16321677), Gottfried W. Leibniz (16461716), Freidrich W. Nietzsche (18441900), and Sigmund Freud (18561939) and give them semiotic interpretations.

It was at this point first noticed that, contrary to the implicit postulations of these classical theories, one rarely encounters solitary passions: they were almost never linked to a single subject, and their description always called for the establishment of an actantial structure. The semiotic interpretation of these passions was undertaken almost exclusively in terms of modalities. Thus, passions can be described in terms of modal syntax and at least two interdependent actants; for example, avarice = wanting to + conjunction. Greimas and Jacques Fontanille have explored this passional phase of semiotics in a collaborative work, Sémiotique des passions (Semiotics of Passions, 1991). This comprehensive study has extended semiotic analysis and patently integrated a new area of research to the point that Paris School semiotics today has become not only a semiotics of action but also a semiotics of passion—a pathemic semiotics.

In more recent developments, Greimas turned to the more fundamental issue of value, which retrospectively can be seen to underpin the entire theory of semiotics as a basic axiom. The point of interest is to know how an individual selects values relative to truth, the good, or beauty and how that individual evaluates, sanctions, judges, and cherishes these values. In other words, semiotics here focuses on the values that are sought after by individuals and the functioning of value systems in discourse: truth telling, ethics, and aesthetics.

[See also Actantial Model; Actants; Narratology; and Paris School.]

Bibliography and More Information about Algirdas Julien Greimas

  • Works by Greimas
  • “L'actualité du Saussurisme.” Le français moderne 24 (1956): 190–203.
  • Structural Semantics: An Attempt at a Method (1966). Translated by D. McDowell, R. Schleicher, and A. Velie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
  • “Du discours scientifique en sciences sociales.” In Sémiotique et sciences sociales, pp. 9–42. Paris: Seuil, 1976. Translated as “On Scientific Discourse in the Social Sciences” in Greimas, 1990, pp. 11–36.
  • “Introduction.” Du sens 2: Essais sémiotiques, pp. 7–18. Paris: Seuil, 1983. Translated as “Ten Years Afterward” in Greimas, 1990, pp. 175–184.
  • Maupassant: The Semiotics of Text. Translated by P. Perron. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1988.
  • “On Meaning.” New Literary History 20.3 (1989): 539–550.
  • The Social Sciences: A Semiotic View. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
  • Greimas, A. J., and J. Courtés. Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary. Translated by L. Crist, D. Patte, et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
  • Greimas, A. J., and J. Fontanille. The Semiotics of Passions. Translated by P. Perron and F. Collins. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
  • Other Works
  • Budniakiewicz, T. Fundamentals of Story Logic: Introduction to Greimassian Semiotics. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1992.
  • Coquet, J.-C. “Eléments de bio-bibliographie.” In Exigences et perspectives de la sémiotique / Aims and Prospects of Semiotics, edited by H. Parret and H.-G. Ruprecht, vol. 1, pp. liii–lxxxv. Philadelphia and Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1985.
  • Landowski, E. “In Memoriam Algirdas Julien Greimas.” International Journal for the Semiotics of Law 5.15 (1993): 227–228.

—Therese Budniakiewicz

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