As Timothy Lenoir (1994) explains, the structuralist semiotician A.J. Greimas set out to produce a generative grammar of narrative in which a finite number of functional themes in binary oppositions juxtaposed with possible roles, such as subject-object, sender-receiver, helper-opponent, would generate the structures we call stories.
Greimas distinguishes between actants, which belong to narrative syntax, and actors, which are recognisable in the particular discourse in which they are manifested (Greimas 1987: 106). In simple terms, actors are the things in a narrative that have names, such as the King, Tom, Excalibur, while actants are the narrative units-functions they manifest. One actant can be manifested by several actors; and the converse is equally possible, just one actor being able to constitute a syncretism of several actants.
Beetz (2013) provides two examples of the use of these Greimasian actants:
“In a classical folklore tale, for example, the king (Sender) calls on his bravest knight (Subject) with his magical sword (Helper) to bring freedom (Object) to his daughter (Receiver), who is held captive by the evil sorcerer (Opponent); every actant is manifested by one actor. But in the comic series Batman, Subject and Sender are the same person in the narrative. Bruce Wayne (Sender), who gives himself the mission to bring justice to Gotham City (Object) is Batman (Subject), who fights The Joker, Poison Ivy and others (all Opponent) to secure the lives of the citizens of Gotham City (Receiver).
These examples show that actants can be manifested by several actors and that one actor can manifest several actants. They also show that actants do not have to be manifested by human characters, as is the case in the freedom of the daughter, justice for Gotham City. Objects and abstract concepts can be actants just as much as humans, as long as they can be identified as ‘that which accomplishes or undergoes an act’. Furthermore, in a dynamic interpretation of Greimas’s semiotic square, one actor, over the course of a narrative unfolding, can pass through all modalities of actantiality (sender receiver, subject, object, helper, opponent)
Greimas’s actants, like Bruno Latour’s in his actor-network theory, therefore, are not solely human actors. Actants can also be non-human for Greimas as well as Latour. Actants are syntactically defined, and, for Greimas as for Latour, the performance of the actor presupposes competence. Subjects are defined not only as subjects but also by the position occupied in a narrative journey, a journey characterised by the acquisition of competences. Actors are constructed as the conjunction of actantial and thematic roles on this two-by-two grid (Lenoir, 1994).
An actant is a class of ‘characters’, in the broadest sense of this term, which have the same function in their different manifestations in a narrative. Actants appear as certain forces, powers or capabilities in a given text, situation or field. They are by no means equivalent to ‘actors, i.e. the concrete characters of a story or the dramatis personae of a play. (Rulewicz, 1997)
The reasons for requiring the concept of actant are as follows, as explained by Rulewicz:
Firstly, an actant may be abstraction, such as God, Freedom or Equality; a collective character, such as the chorus in ancient tragedy, a group of characters fulfilling the same tasks, like soldiers in an army; or an actant may be represented by different characters that all act in a definite way. It should be added that an actant may be an animal, organism, inanimate object or, indeed, an environment, so long as one understands the term ‘environment’ actively, as an ongoing process of contextualisation and environing.
Secondly, one character may simultaneously or successively assume different actantial functions.
Thirdly, an actant may or may not appear as a presence in the narrative, nor does it have to appear in the utterances of the characters. An actant may be the general abstract notion which is presented on the ideological level of the narrative.
In the context of actor-network theory, Akrich and Latour (1992: 259) define the term actant as:
“Whatever acts or shifts actions, action itself being defined by a list of performances through trials; from these performances are deduced a set of competences with which the actant is endowed; the fusion point of a metal is a trial through which the strength of an alloy is defined; the bankruptcy of a company is a trial through which the faithfulness of an ally may be defined; an actor is an actant endowed with a character (usually anthropomorphic).”
Borrowing from Latour, Jane Bennett comments that,
“While the smallest or simplest body or bit may indeed express a vital impetus, conatus or clinamen, an actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces. A lot happens to the concept of agency once nonhuman things are figured less as social constructions and more as actors, and once humans themselves are assessed not as autonoms but as vital materialities.” (Bennett, 2010: 21)
Akrich, M. and Latour, B. (1992). A Summary of a convenient vocabulary for the semiotics of human and nonhiman assemblies. In: Bijker, W.E., and Law, J., eds. Shaping technology/building society: studies in sociotechical change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 259–264.
Beetz, J. (2013). Latour with Greimas Actor-Network Theory and Semiotics. Academia.edu. Available from https://www.academia.edu/11233971/Latour_with_Greimas_-_Actor-Network_Theory_and_Semiotics [Accessed 7 August 2015].
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Greimas, A. J. (1987). On Meaning. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp.
Lenoir, T. (1994). Was that last turn a right turn? The semiotic turn and A.J. Greimas.Configurations, 2, pp.119–136. Available at:http://web.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/TimLenoir/SemioticTurn.html
Rulewicz, W. (1997). A Grammar of narrativity: Algirdas Julien Greimas. The Glasgow Review, (3). Available at:http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/STELLA/COMET/glasgrev/issue3/rudz.htm [Accessed September 21, 2014].
For a practical guide to using the actantial model in the design of narrative environments, see:
Hebert, L. and Eveaert-Desmedt, N. (2011). The Actantial model, In Tools for text and image analysis: an introduction to applied semiotics. Rimouski, Quebec: Universite du Quebec a Rimouski. Available at http://www.signosemio.com/documents/Louis-Hebert-Tools-for-Texts-and-Images.pdfedited 1 June, 2017 by Allan Parsons