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  • Greimas Avec Lacan; or, from the Symbolic to the Real in Dialectical Criticism
  • Phillip E. Wegner

In this essay, I want to explore the implications for a materialist dialectics of a reading of A. J. Greimas's semiotics, and in particular what Fredric Jameson has described as its "supreme achievement," Greimas's "semiotic rectangle"1 (figure 1). My approach challenges what has become a commonplace assumption—advanced, for example, in both Paul de Man's classic essay "The Resistance to Theory" (1982) and Paul Ricoeur's three-volume opus Time and Narrative (1983–85)—that takes Greimas's work and the tools he elaborates as the quintessence of a structuralist drive to abstraction, marked by totalizing/totalitarian tendencies and an utter rejection of historicity (the diachronic) and indeterminacy. (In de Man's terms, this takes the form of an absolute privileging of the grammatical level of a text over the rhetorical; and Ricoeur concludes, "The whole strategy thus amounts to a vast attempt to do away with diachrony."2) While such a reading may be accurate in certain deployments of these tools, a different set of possibilities emerges when the semiotic rectangle is read in conjunction with the work of Greimas's great contemporary, Jacques Lacan, and, in particular, "the fundamental classification system around which all his theorizing turns," the three orders of the Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real.3 Indeed, in this essay, I use the rich semiotic resources of the Greimasian rectangle to tell a number of deeply interrelated stories: about the history of the novel; developments in the last few decades in theory more generally and in the work of Fredric Jameson in particular; and the value of dialectical thinking for our present moment of globalization.

This gesture of reading Greimas with Lacan takes its lead from Lacan's own work, by way of his essay "Kant avec Sade." In a footnote to a recent discussion of this essay, Slavoj Žižek suggests that "far from being restricted [End Page 211] to Lacan, this procedure of reading 'X with Y' has a long Marxist lineage"; indeed, Žižek argues,

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Figure 1.

The Greimasian semiotic rectangle.

[I]s not the main point of Marx's critique of Hegel's speculative idealism precisely to read "Hegel with political economy," that is, to discern in the speculative circular movement of Capital the "obscene secret" of the circular movement of the Hegelian Notion?4 [End Page 212]

Furthermore, Žižek maintains that we misread this relationship if we see the latter figure in the couple as "the truth" of the former:

[O]n the contrary, the Sadeian perversion emerges as the result of the Kantian compromise, of Kant's avoiding the consequences of his breakthrough. Sade is the symptom of Kant: … the space for the figure of Sade is opened up by this compromise of Kant, by his unwillingness to go to the end, to retain the full fidelity to his philosophical breakthrough.5

Something similar, I want to argue, occurs when we read Greimas with Lacan. The latter shows us something new about the nature of the former's breakthrough: the always already-existent symptom haunting the illusory closure of the structuralist schemas, a materializing horizon of dialectical possibilities implicit within the Greimasian mapping itself.6

The value for any dialectical criticism of Greimas's work (as well as that of Lacan) has been explored in great detail by Jameson, Greimas's single most influential proponent in the English-language context, and it will be by way of the shifts that occur in Jameson's usage of Greimas's semiotic rectangle that the device's full dialectical force becomes clear.7 For readers less familiar with the workings of the semiotic rectangle, Jameson's description of it from The Political Unconscious (1981) is still helpful:

Briefly 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 – and ): significant slots are constituted by the various possible combinations of these terms, most notably the "complex" term (or ideal synthesis of...


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