The French Review 62.3 (1989): 513-514.

SCHLEIFER, RONALD. A.J. Greimas and the Nature of Meaning: Linguistics, Semiotics and Discourse Theory. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987. Pp. xxvi + 223.

[Reprinted with the permission of The French Review]

In contrast to the current clarion call to "historicize,' Ronald Schleifer presents an unapologetic, and seemingly unstylish, case for a renewed structuralist project based on an elucidation of the ongoing critical enterprise of A. J. Greimas, Indeed, Schleifer indicates that by studying how the semiotic apparatus proposed by Greimas (particularly the "semiotic square") "articulates and relates signifying and ideological values" (xxii), his goal is to offer a "modest contemplation of the nature of meaning in the context of contemporary semiotics" (xxiv). By contrasting and combining the fundamental linguistic presuppositions of the structuralist strategy on which Greimas develops his semiotics beyond the 1966 Structural Semantics, the initial chapter provides the frame for the book's overall strategy of relating the linguistic foundation of semiotics to the broader, socio-historical concerns of discourse analysis. Professors of literature and theory will find this first chapter quite useful, particularly in conjunction with the final chapter, for introducing students to semiotics and to the post-structuralist critique of its premises.

The central chapters follow the itinerary suggested in the book’s subtitle, thereby linking the structuralist and post-structuralist projects presented in the opening and closing chapters. In chapter 2, Schleifer focuses; on a work and a period which precede the Analytical Dictionary in order to examine the importance of linguistic analysis on Greimas's earlier study, especially its broader relationship to structuralist linguistics. Exploring what Greimas calls the systematic or "scientific" approach to the problem of meaning, Schleifer completes this chapter with a succinct analysis of the processes of inventory and reduction in the "immanent semantic universe." Then, building on these insights in chapter 3, Schleifer connects the earlier work to the more recent study (1983) in which Greimas articulates his ongoing enterprise of a "morphemics approach to meaning developed through a metalanguage that can account for the "invested contents manifested in discourse.' Specifically, Schleifer examines closely how the actantial classes proposed by Greimas (having syncretized Propp's personae dramatis) are "invested" semantically on the semio-narrative level through "modalisation," i.e. how their actions are invested "with a meaning from the point of view of an agent of language' (101), both in terms of 'modal semiotics' and of "modal logic" (102-110). In light of this "constitutional model of analysis,' Schleifer outlines Greimas's second, "transformational model," which not only "attempts the grammaticisation of discourse' (111), but also provides the necessary link between the semio-narrative level of language and "the discursive level of narrativity" (128).

In chapter 4, Schleifer takes up this concept of 'the generative trajectory of discourse," explaining how the theory of discourse embodied in narrativity can account for semiotic and discursive relationships, on the one hand, in the "collective corpus" of the social sciences (with extensive references to the works of Lévi-Strauss), and on the other hand, in individual, literary texts. It is in chapter 5, however, that Schleifer makes the strongest and, no doubt, most arguable case for a renewed structuralist project. For Greimas, Schleifer argues, "despite the gesture ... seemingly to 'bracket' the referent, this 'semiotic' conception of reference, in fact, reinscribes referentiality in relation to the 'grammatical’ relationships that define language' (204). Reconceiving reference as "enunciated," i.e. as always occurring "within another context in which reference 'has to do with reality''' Greimas attempts to parry the post-structuralist (notably, Derrida's and de Man's) critique of semiotics by defining its goals as "the account of the apprehension of meaning, including ‘referential meaning" (206). Thus, despite the dense Greimasian metalanguage which Schleifer clearly masters, but occasionally fails to explicate clearly to non-initiates, this study nonetheless provides a valuable reference not only to Greimas’s consistently rigorous methodology of actantial analysis, but also to semiotics reformulated in terms of the referential dimension.

Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University