Henry Louis Gates. “From the Signifying Monkey and the Language of Signifyin(g)”

[pooled notes with Meghan Phelps and Geneva Korytkowski]

To remember:

  • My movement, then, is from hermeneutics to rhetoric and semantics, only to return to hermeneutics once again (1551).
  • If orientation prevails over madness, we soon realize that only the signifier [and not the sound] has been doubled and (re)doubled, a signifier in this instance that is silent, a “sound-image” as [Ferdinand de] Saussure defines the signifier, but a “sound-image” sans the sound. The difficulty that we experience when thinking about the nature of the visual (re)doubling at work in a hall of mirrors is analogous to the difficulty we shall encounter in relating the black linguistic sign, “Signification,” to the standard English sign “signification” (1551).
  • to compound the dizziness and the giddiness that we must experience in the vertiginous movement between these two “identical” signifiers, these two homonyms have everything to do with each other, then again, absolutely nothing. In the extraordinarily complex relationship between the two homonyms, we both enact and recapitulate the received classic confrontation between fro-American culture and American culture. This confrontation is both political and metaphysical (1552).
  • The relationship that black “Signification” bears to the English “signification” is, paradoxically, a relation of indifference inscribed within a relation of identity (1552).
  • “Signification” and “signification” create a noisy disturbance in silence, at the level of the signifier. Derrida’s neologism, “differance,” in its relation to “difference,” is a marvelous example of agnominatic, or repetition of a word with an alteration of both one letter and a sound (1552).
  • disrupted nature of the sign=signified/signifier equation itself (1553).
  • Black people vacated this signifier, then-incredibly-substituted as its concept a signified that stands for the system of rhetorical strategies peculiar to their own vernacular tradition. Rhetoric, then, has supplanted semantics in this most literal meta-confrontation within the structure of the sign (1554).
  • Everything that must be excluded for meaning to remain coherent and linear comes to bear in the process of Signifyin(g) … [Anthony Easthope says] The presence of meaning along the syntagmatic chain necessarily depends upon the absence of the Other, the rest of language, from the syntagmatic chain (1555).
  • rather than a proclamation of emancipation from the white person’s standard English, the symbiotic relationship between the black and white … is underscored here, and signified, by the vertiginous relationship between the terms signification and Signification, each of which is dependent on the other. We can, then, think of American discourse as both the opposition between and the ironic identity of the movement, the very vertigo, that we encounter in a mental shift between the two terms (1555).
  • [Mikhail Bakhtin on relation of Signification to signification:] a double-voiced word, that is, a word or utterance, in this context, decolonized for the black’s purposes ‘by inserting a new semantic orientation into a word which already has-and retains-its own orientation’ (1555).
  • Signifyin(g) is the black trope of tropes, the figure for black rhetorical figures (1556).

The trouble with defining Signifyin(g):

  • Frederick Douglass’ comments on the common occurrence of misinterpreted Signifying: “I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake” (Gates 1565).
  • In fact, various types of signifying exist, and Gates mentions Signifying openly and protectively, which he suggests leads to the misidentification of Signifying.
  • “This great mistake of interpretation occurred because the blacks were using antiphonal structures to reverse their apparent meaning, as a mode of encoding for self-preservation” (Gates 1565).
  • Varying meanings: “Despite its highly motivated, often phallocentric orientation, then, Signifyin(g), it is clear, can mean any number of modes of rhetorical play” (Gates 1563).

Subpar definitions:

  • Clarence Major: “[t]o Signify is to be engaged in a highly motivated rhetorical act, aimed at figurative, ritual insult” (Gates 1566).
  • Hermese E. Roberts: “’language behavior that makes direct or indirect implications of baiting or boasting, the essence of which is making fun of another’s appearance, relatives, or situation’” (Gates 1566).
  • Mezz Mezzrow: “’hint, to put on an act, boast, make a gesture.’ In the body of his text, however, Mezzrow implicitly defines signifying as the homonymic pun” (Gates 1566).
  • “Malachi Andrews and Paul T. Owens, in Black Language, acutely recognize two crucial aspects of Signifyin(g): first, that the signifier invents a myth to commence the ritual and, second, that in the Monkey tales at least, trinary structure prevails over binary structure” (Gates 1567) The trinary structure includes the signifier, the signified person, and a third person who plays the role of a listener in the situation.
  • L. Dillard: “‘a familiar discourse device from the inner city, [which] tends to mean “communicating (often an obscene or ridiculing message) by indirection’” (Gates 1567).
  • Zora Neale Hurston: “to ‘show off’” (Gates 1567).
  • Jim Haskins and Hugh F. Butts: “’To berate, degrade’” ; “’a more humane form of verbal bantering’” “’It is, again, the clever and humorous use of words, but it can be used for many purposes—“putting down” another person, making another person feel better, or simply expressing one’s feelings’” (Gates 1568). These definitions contradict one another, though.
  • Gates thinks Harry Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner are incorrect in their assessment of Signifyin(g) as: “’To pretend to have knowledge; to pretend to be hip, esp. when such pretentions cause one to trifle with an important matter’” (1568). Gates suspects that Wentworth and Flexner’s definition arose from them being signified upon.

Better definitions:

  • Rap Brown provided a more insightful definition: “’Signifying allowed you a choice—you could either make a cat feel good or bad. If you had just destroyed someone [verbally] or if they were just down already, signifying could help them over’” (Gates 1570). “’Signifying was also a way of expressing your own feelings’”; “Signifyin(g), then, for Brown, is an especially expressive mode of discourse that turns upon forms of figuration rather than intent or content. Signifyin(g), to cite Brown, is ‘what the white folks call verbal skills. We learn ow to throw them words together’” (Gates 1570).
  • Roger D. Abrahams: “’The name “Signifying Monkey” shows [the hero] to be a trickster, “signifying” being the language of trickery, that set of words or gestures which arrives as “direction through indirection”’” (Gates 1570).
  • Thomas Kochman (Too negative): “’to arouse feelings of embarrassment, shame, frustration, or futility, for the purpose of diminishing someone’s status, but without direct implication’” (Gates 1574).

Gates’ preferred definition:

  • Claudia Mitchell-Kernan (inclusive and makes connections between the true intent of Signifyin(g)): “’a tactic employed in game activity—verbal dueling—which is engaged in as an end in itself’” ; “’Signifying … also refers to a way of encoding messages or meanings which involves, on most cases, an element of indirection’” [akin to the trinary structure mentioned earlier] ; ‘”This kind of signifying might be best viewed as an alternative message form, selected for its artistic merit, and may occur embedded in a variety of discourse. Such signifying is not focal to the linguistic interaction in the sense that it does not define the entire speech event’” (Gates 1575).
  • Gates continues by stating, “I cannot stress too much the importance of this definition, for it shows that Signifyin(g) is a pervasive mode of language use rather than merely one specific verbal game, and observation that somehow escaped the notice of every other scholar before Mitchell-Kernan.




The Trickster-figure

Definition, purpose, and Gates

What is a “trickster” figure?

  • God, goddess, man, woman, animal
  • Characteristics (generally): irresponsible, strong appetite, mean-spirited, lovable, humorous, foolish and clever
  • Cultural hero

Purpose in literature

  • Traditional figure that portrays strong human emotions that humans shouldn’t indulge (i.e. strong appetites, irresponsibility).
  • Expressions show people of a culture why they should not express these emotions to the extreme the trickster does
  • His foolishness can also introduce important aspects of a culture. “Because Trickster did this, we now have _________.”
  • Humorous

Where does Gates mention a trickster in “The Signifying Monkey and the Language of Signifyin(g)”?

  • “It is not sufficient merely to reveal that black people colonized a white sign. A level of metadiscourse is at work in this process.” (1553)
    • Need to see the whole story, what did the “trickster” do to get us here?
  • “Double-voiced word” (1555)
    • Manipulations=clever
  • “Esu figures, among the Yoruba systems of thought in Benin and Nigeria Brazil and Cuba, Haiti and New Orleans, are divine: they are gods who function in sacred myths, as do characters in narrative.” (1557)
  • The language is trickery, references “direction through indirection” in Hamlet. 1559
    • Trickster will contrive ways to get what s/he wants
  • “Accordingly, their [the Monkey tales’] nature as rituals of insult and naming, recorded versions have a phallocentric bias.” (1559)
    • Trickster (if male) often gets in trouble with his sexual appetite
  • “The Monkey–a trickster figure, like Esu, who is full of guile, who tells lies, and who is a rhetorical genius […].” (1560)
  • “This little man, who appears are such out-of-the-way places as the Chehaw Railroad Station, is, of course, a trickster figure surfacing when we least expect him at a crossroads of destiny.” (1563)
    • “Crossroads of destiny” is where trickster can offer new knowledge




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