Greimas embodied: How kinesthetic opposition grounds the semiotic square

Semiotica 2017 (214):277-305 (2017)
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According to Greimas, the semiotic square is far more than a heuristic for semantic and literary analysis. It represents the generative “deep structure” of human culture and cognition which “define the fundamental mode of existence of an individual or of a society, and subsequently the conditions of existence of semiotic objects” (Greimas & Rastier 1968: 48). The potential truth of this hypothesis, much less the conditions and implications of taking it seriously (as a truth claim), have received little attention in the literature. In response, this paper traces the history and development of the logical square of opposition from Aristotle to Greimas and beyond, to propose that the relations modelled in these diagrams are embodied relations rooted in gestalt memories of kinesthesia and proprioception from which we derive basic structural awareness of opposition and contrast such as verticality, bilaterality, transversality, markedness and analogy. To make this argument, the paper draws on findings in the phenomenology of movement (Sheets-Johnstone 2011a, 2011b, 2012, Pelkey 2014), recent developments in the analysis of logical opposition (Beziau & Payette 2008), recent scholarship in (post)Greimasian semiotics (Corso 2014, Broden 2000) and prescient insights from Greimas himself (esp. 1968, 1984). The argument of the paper is further supported through a visual and textual content analysis of a popular music video, both to highlight relationships between the semiotic square and mundane cultural ideologies and to show how these relationships might be traced to the marked symmetries of bodily movement. In addition to illustrating the enduring relevance of Greimasean thought, the paper further illustrates the neglected relevance that embodied chiasmus holds for developments in anthropology, linguistics and the other cognitive sciences.

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Jamin Pelkey
Ryerson University

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