What is an Actant?

15 04 2005

Actant, narratological term introduced by A.J. Graimas for someone or something
which plays one of the typical roles in a traditional story.


The so-called actant model was originally worked out by A.J. Greimas on the
basis of V. Propp’s morphological investigations of Russian folk-tales. It
supplies a first general and simple diagram of some positions, relations, and
functions common to narrative developments; the most important characters and
their mutual relations. The general model helps us making precise observations
in the specific text. An actant is a genre-related type of fictional characters
like e.g. the Troll, the Princess, or the young Man in the folk-tale in general,
while an actor is the specific version of the type in the individual tale.

Actant Model

Algirdas Julien Greimas [was the man] who created something which is referred
to as the "actantial
model" or the "actant model" which is a way of breaking down what happens
in myths, folktales and other types of stories. Here’s a shitty
of it on another site. Wait, here’s a better
page about it
. Before I look at that page though, let me summarize what
I understand of it so far…

In this model, you can identify six elements
common to certain types of stories. These elements are referred to as "actants," rather
than actors because they may or may not be personified, or even characters.
But they do drive the action in the story. The six actants he identifies

  1. Subject – looking for the Object
  2. Sender – of the Subject on its quest for the Object
  3. Object – looked for by the Subject
  4. Helper – of the Subject
  5. Opponent – of the Subject
  6. Receiver – of the Object to be secured by the Subject

This is easier to understand if you assign characters to each actant role. Another
does that using a generic folktale and I’ll use their examples.
The only tricky part is that multiple actant-roles may be assigned to a
character. Anyway, they refer to the young man or "hero" of a folktale
as the subject. The king is the sender, because he sets the hero out on
his quest. His quest is to locate the object. In their example, the object
of his quest is the Princess. She is the thing which the king sends the
hero to locate. Along the way, the hero is helped in his quest by a wise
old man. The opponent whom he must overcome in order to acquire the object
(rescue the princess) is a troll. The role of receiver is one that gets
doubled up on a character. In their model, the hero is both the subject,
as well as the receiver. When the hero rescues the princess, he is rewarded
with her hand in marriage.


I propose to call whoever and whatever is represented actant. …
The micro-organisms on which Pasteur depended were made to betray him: they
appeared spontaneously [in the sterilized glass flasks] thus supporting Pouchet’s
position. In this case, the actants change camps and two spokesmen are supported
at once.

Latour, Science in Action, 1987, p. 84

The ‘things’ behind the scientific texts are thus similar to
the heroes of the stories we saw at the end of Chapter 1: they are all defined
by their performances. Some in fairy tales defeat the ugliest
seven-headed dragons or against all odds they save the king’s daughter;
others inside laboratories resist precipitation or they triumph over bismuth….
At first, there is no other way to know the essence of the hero. This does
not last long however, because each performance presupposes a competence which
restrospectively explains why the hero withstood all the ordeals. The hero
is no longer a score list of actions; he, she or it is an essence­ slowly
unveiled through each of his, her or its manifestations. ­

It is clear by now to the reader why I introduced the word ‘actant’ e­arlier
to describe what the spokesperson represents. Behind the texts, behind the
instruments, inside the laboratory, we do not have Nature – not yet,
the reader will have to wait for the next part. What we have is an array allowing
new extreme constraints to be imposed on ‘something’. This ‘something’ is
progressively shaped by its re-actions to these conditions. This is what
is behind all the arguments we have analyzed this far.

– – –

The act of defining a new object by the anwers it inscribes on the window
of an instrument provides scientists and engineers with their final source
of strength. It constitutes our second basic principle,
as important as the first in the order to understand science in the making:
scientists and engineers speak in the name of new allies that they have shaped
or enrolled; representatives among other representatives, they add these
unexpected resources to tip the balance of force in their favour. Guillemin
now speaks for endorphin and somatostatin, Pasteur for visible microbes,
the Curies for polonium, Payen and Persoz for the enzymes, Cantor for transfinites.
When they are challenged, they cannot be isolated, but on the contrary their
constituency stands behind them arrayed in tiers and ready to say the same

Latour, 1987, pp. 89-90




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