Gates, The Signifying Monkey

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary theory. New York: Oxford, 1988.

Notes by Steven J. Venturino,
Central issues:

“If anything, my desire here has been to demystify the curious notion that theory is the province of the Western tradition.” (xx)

Notice the scope, shape, and character of this book. As we know, even “theory texts” are narratives, and it’s always important to understand (as clearly as possible) a critic’s assumptions and intentions. Gates, for example, argues a theory that demands close attention to literary history and anthropology as well as individual texts, and he follows through with the requisite scholarship. His chapters not only offer ideas that are interesting “in themselves,” but a pedagogical performance that illustrates where the ideas come from, who has been involved in their circulation, and why they are historically and institutionally (as well as intellectually) important.

In chapter one, Gates traces the connection between African-American rhetorical systems and African mythology. Gates demonstrates that while many of the features of the black vernacular tradition will clearly share, reflect, and/or rename features familiar to traditional Western criticism, these features are also directly linked to African mythology. Comparison, collaboration, or dialogue with Western criticism is therefore enabled, without recourse to a prior Western system of critique. In this way, for example, Gates’s description of the essentially divine injunction to recognize the form as much as content of discourse (see esp. 25-28, 38-40) stands alongside Derrida’s discussion in much of Of Grammatology as an attempt to account for the dialectical relationship between language and thought.

Chapter two, one of the most often anthologized portions of the book, examines “the carefully structured system of rhetoric” in African-American letters, rather than “an indigenous black hermeutical principle” itself. (Good opportunity to clarify your understanding and use of terms such as rhetoric, hermeneutic, semantics, trope, etc.)

We are witnessing here a profound disruption at the level of the signifier, precisely because of the relationship of identity that obtains between the two apparently equivalent terms. . . . Black people vacated this signifier, then—incredibly—substituted as its content a signified that stands for the system of rhetorical strategies peculiar to their own vernacular tradition. (47)

That is, a system of wordplay and formal performance (rhetoric) becomes the goal or result of signification, rather than a system of delivering “meaning” (semantics). Chapter three is Gates’s remarkable summary and analysis of earlier studies of black signifying. Note here the influence of typologies (Propp’s, Chatman’s, etc.) in narratology.

Chapter 4 shows how slave literature first established and developed the trope of the Talking Book and the paradox of representing the voice only in text. Look for an opportunity to bring Hale’s notion of social formalism to Gates’s discussion of subjective and objective existence (156-57), and note this chapter’s attention to the dual nature of the autobiographical subject. The final three chapters offer readings of texts by Hurston (and the significance of FID), Walker (and transforming FID “back” into direct discourse), and Reed (and the vertiginous nature of history’s textuality). Of course, read each of these chapters, but feel free to concentrate your discussion comments on the novel(s) with which you are most familiar.
– Steven J. Venturino

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