TO GREIMAS, the semiotic square is the
elementary structure of signification, marking off the oppositional
logic that is at the heart of both narrative progression and semantic,
thematic, or symbolic content. The semiotic square has proven to be
an influential concept not only in narrative theory but in the ideological
criticism of Fredric Jameson, who uses the square as "a virtual
map of conceptual closure, or better still, of the closure of ideology
xv). (For more on Jameson, see the Jameson
module on ideology.)
Greimas' schema is useful since it illustrates
the full complexity of any given semantic term (seme). Greimas points
out that any given seme entails its opposite or "contrary."
"Life" (s1) for example is understood in relation
to its contrary, "death" (s2). Rather than rest
at this simple binary opposition (S), however, Greimas points out that
the opposition, "life" and "death," suggests what
Greimas terms a contradictory pair (-S), i.e., "not-life"
(-s1) and "not-death" (-s2). We would
therefore be left with the following semiotic square (Fig. 1):
As Jameson explains in the Foreword to Greimas'
On Meaning, "-s1 and -s2"—which
in this example are taken up by "not-death" and "not-life"—"are
the simple negatives of the two dominant terms, but include far more
than either: thus 'nonwhite' includes more than 'black,' 'nonmale' more
than 'female'" (xiv); in our example, not-life would include more
than merely death and not-death more than life. Indeed, in a given narrative,
alternative terms will often suggest themselves for -s1 and
-s2. As I explain my
application of Greimas' theories, we can infer in even a simple
phrase like "the road is clear" an implied dominant binary,
"activity (s1) and quiescence (s2)."
Were we reading a narrative where we find a post-apocalyptic world in
which the last surviving humans are presented walking through a series
of deserted streets in which they must fight the machines that have
taken over, the contradictory seme not-activity (-s1) might
be taken up by machine parts or the abandoned city itself. Not-quiescence
(-s2) could conversely be taken up by human consciousness.
Our semiotic square would therefore look something like this (Fig. 2):
Such a semiotic square might in turn be tied
to other dominant binary oppositions in the narrative, including quite
possibly "life and death." As Greimas explains, "nothing
permits us to assert that a semiotic manifestation is dependent on only
one system at a time. And so far as it is dependent on several, its
closure can be attributed to the interaction of the different systems
that produce it" (60).
In other words, one can construct a series of, say, three semiotic squares
that explore various levels of a story's manifested diegesis,
each semiotic square related to the next.
Narratives will also tend to find figures
that resolve the implied oppositions of a given semiotic square. The
union of the dominant binary (S), here "activity" and "quiescence,"
will often be reserved for the utopic solution for the problems of the
perhaps represented in the hero of the tale; in our hypothetical sci-fi
narrative, perhaps the hero is able at the end of the story to reconstruct
the pre-apocalyptic bourgeois lifestyle that saw the balance of work
and leisure (or activity and quiescence) as the principle of human freedom.
The resolution of the opposition, "activity (s1) and
the human (-s2)," might be taken up in the story by,
for example, a slave force; the resolution of the opposition, "quiescence
(s2) and machine parts (-s1)," might be represented
by the use of humans as batteries for the machine (as in The Matrix).
Finally, the resolution of the combination not-quiescence (-s2)
and not-activity (-s1) might be taken up by the central A.I.
that runs the post-apocalyptic world (as in Neuromancer's Wintermute),
a figure that would also inhabit the contradictory space of both not-life
and not-death. As Jameson continues, "The entire mechanism then
is capable of generating at least ten conceivable positions out of a
rudimentary binary opposition (which may originally have been no more
than a single term, e.g., 'white,' which proves to be internally defined
by a hidden opposition we articulate by promoting the concealed pole
'black' to visibility)" (xiv-xv).
In our hypothetical sci-fi narrative, the ten terms would be: activity,
quiescence, non-activity, the abandoned machine, non-quiescence, human
consciousness, A.I., human slaves, human batteries, and the utopic hero.
Greimas illustrates how all sorts of phenomena
are organized by this semiotic logic. A good non-literary example is
the logic of traffic lights in Europe. In Europe, Greimas explains (52-53),
the yellow light has two functions: when a yellow light follows green,
you are expected to slow down and prepare to stop (as in the United
States and Canada); when a yellow light follows a red light, you are
warned to get ready to move forward. As Greimas explains, the green
light (s1) is, in this example, in a contrary relation to
the red light (s2). The green light represents "prescription"
or a "positive injunction" (cross!); the red light represents
an "interdiction" or a "negative injunction" (don't
cross!). In the European system of lights, we are also given both possible
contradictory pairs (-s1 and -s2): when the yellow
light follows green, the signal is a nonprescription (get ready to stop!);
when the yellow light follows red, the signal is a noninterdiction (get
ready to go!). If the yellow light stands alone without changing, it
assumes the neutral position: both a nonprescription and a noninterdiction
(get ready to stop if you see someone crossing but be ready to go if
you see no one!). Greimas' point is that we are all constrained by the
finite series of possibilities opened up by such semiotic oppositions:
"An author, a producer of any semiotic object, operates within
an epistemy, which is the result of his individuality and the society
in which he is inscribed. Within this society it is possible for him
to make a limited number of choices, which have as an initial result
the investment of organized contents, that is, contents endowed with
valencies (possibilities of relations)" (61).
For another example of a semiotic square,
see my reading of the
Dürer image associated with this Introduction to Narratology.