The Signifying Monkey


The Signifying Monkey

The Signifying Monkey is a character of African-American folklore that derives from the trickster figure of Yoruba mythology, Esu-Elegbara. This character was transported with Africans to the Americas under the names of Exu, Echu-Elegua, Papa Legba, and Papa Le Bas. Esu and his variants all serve as messengers who mediated between the gods and men by means of tricks. [Gates, Henry Louis. "The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique on the Sign and the Signifying Monkey."Literary Theory: An Anthology". Eds. Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan. 988.] The Signifying Monkey is “distinctly Afro-American” and is thought to derive from Cuban mythology, which depicts Echu-Elegua with a monkey at his side. [Gates, Henry Louis. "The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique on the Sign and the Signifying Monkey."Literary Theory: An Anthology". Eds. Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan. 989.] There are numerous stock songs and narratives concerning the Signifying Monkey and his interactions with his friends, the Lion and the Elephant. In general the stories see the Signifying Monkey insulting the Lion, but claiming that he is only repeating the Elephant’s words. The Lion then confronts the Elephant, who soundly beats the Lion. The Lion later comes to realize that the Monkey has been signifyin(g) and has duped him and returns angrily. [Myers, D. G. “Signifying Nothing”. "New Criterion" 8 (1990): 61.]

"The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism" is a work of literary criticism and theory by American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. first published in 1988. The book traces the folkloric origins of the African-American cultural practice of “signifying” and uses the concept of Signifyin(g) to analyze the interplay between texts of prominent African American writers, specifically Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Ishmael Reed.

Signifyin(g) is closely related to double-talk and trickery of the type used by the Monkey of these narratives, but, as Gates himself admits, “It is difficult to arrive at a consensus of definitions of signifyin(g).” [Gates, Henry Louis. "African American Literary Criticism, 1773 to 2000". ed. Hazel Arnett Ervin. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999. 261.] Bernard W. Bell defines it as an “elaborate, indirect form of goading or insult generally making use of profanity.” [Bell, Bernard W. "The Afro-American Novel and Its Traditions". Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. 22.] Roger D. Abrahams writes that to signify is “to imply, goad, beg, boast by indirect verbal or gestural means.” [Abrahams, Roger D. "African American Literary Criticism, 1773 to 2000". ed. Hazel Arnett Ervin. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999. 260.] Signifyin(g) is a homonym with the concept of signification put forth by Semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure wherein the signifier (sound image) interacts with the signified (concept) to form one whole linguistic sign. [Saussure, Ferdinand de. “Course In General Linguistics” "Structuralism, Linguistics, Narratology". eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 66.] Gates plays off this homonym and incorporates the linguistic concept of signifier and signified with the vernacular concept of signifyin(g).

Gates defines two main types of literary Signifyin(g): oppositional (or motivated) and cooperative (or unmotivated). [Pavlic, Ed. "'I just don't know how to move on your word': From Signifyin(g) to Syndetic Homage in James Baldwin's Responses to William Faulkner." "Mississippi Quarterly". 515.] Unmotivated Signifyin(g) takes the form of the repetition and alteration of another text, which “encode admiration and respect” and are evidence “not the absence of a profound intention but the absence of a negative critique.” [Pavlic, Ed. "'I just don't know how to move on your word': From Signifyin(g) to Syndetic Homage in James Baldwin's Responses to William Faulkner." "Mississippi Quarterly". 516.] Gates more thoroughly focuses on oppositional or motivated Signifyin(g) and how it "functions as a metaphor for formal revision, or intertextuality, within the Afro-American literary tradition." [Pavlic, Ed. "'I just don't know how to move on your word': From Signifyin(g) to Syndetic Homage in James Baldwin's Responses to William Faulkner." "Mississippi Quarterly". 516-517.] Authors reuse motifs from previous works but alter them and “signify” upon them so as to create their own meanings. Ralph Ellison revises or “signifies” upon Richard Wright’s work just as Ishmael Reed goes onto signify upon both authors’ work and so forth. [Gates, Henry Louis. "The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique on the Sign and the Signifying Monkey."Literary Theory: An Anthology". Eds. Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan. 992.]

Critical reception

Upon publication in 1988, "The Signifying Monkey" received both widespread praise and notoriety. Prominent literary critic Houston A. Baker wrote that it was “a significant move forward in Afro-American literary study” [Baker, Houston A. "Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory". Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. 111.] and Andrew Delbanco wrote that it put Gates “at the forefront of the most significant reappraisal of African-American critical though since the 1960s.” [Delbanco, Andrew. "Talking Texts." "Black Literature Criticism Supplement"eds. Jeffrey W. Hunter and Jerry Moore. Detroit: Gale, 1999. 142.] It won an American Book Award in 1989. However, it was also closely scrutinized to the point of “being more talked about than read, more excoriated than understood.”Lubiano, Wahneema. "Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and African-American Literary Discourse." "Black Literature Criticism Supplement"eds. Jeffrey W. Hunter and Jerry Moore. Detroit: Gale, 1999. 147.] Complaints against it include that Gates focus is exclusively Afrocentric, that he presupposes the signifying tradition and then fits his evidence to conform to the tradition, and that he is guilty of circular logic. [Myers, D. G. “Signifying Nothing”. "New Criterion" 8 (1990): 63.] Nonetheless, "The Signifying Monkey" has helped contribute to the reputation of Gates as one of the two most important (along with Houston Baker) African-American literary theorists of the late 20th and early 21st century. [Mason, Theodore O. “African American Theory and Criticism: 2. 1977 to 1990.” "Johns Hopkins Guide To Literary Theory and Criticism". (2005): 2. Johns Hopkins Guide To Literary Theory and Criticism. University of Chicago Library, Chicago, IL. 11 October 2007.]

References


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