Some notes & quotes from:

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism.  NY:Oxford UP, 1988.

These notes are intended to provide background to references made by Nathaniel Mackey and Harryette Mullen, both in poems and prose. Gates' book is highly recommended as a startng place for theorizing African American literature, though I also urge you to read responses to and critiques of this work by Myra Jahner, Werner Sollers, and others. (See the full course bibliography.)

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Chapter one : A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey

Gates begins this groundbreaking work with an introduction to the Yoruba trickster figure he calls Esu:

This curious figure is called Esu-Elegbara in Nigeria and Legba among the Fon in Benin. His New World figurations include Exú in Brazil, Echu-Elegua in Cuba, Papa Legba (pronounced La-Bas) in the pantheon of the loa of Vaudou of Haiti, and Papa La Bas in the loa of Hoodoo in the United States... These variations on Esu-Elegbara speak eloquently of an unbroken arc of metaphysical supposition and a pattern of figuration shared through time and space among certain black cultures in West Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and the United States. These trickster figures, all aspects or topoi of Esu, are fundamental, divine terms of mediation: as tricksters they are mediators, and their mediations are tricks. If the Dixie Pike leads straight to Guinea, then Esu-Elegbara presides over its liminal crossroads, a sensory threshold barely perceptible without access to the vernacular, a word taken from the Latin vernaculus (“native”), taken in turn from verna (“slave born in his master’s house”). 

Each version of Esu is the sole messenger of the gods...he who interprets the will of the gods to man; he who carries the desires of man to the gods. Esu is the guardian of the crossroads, master of style and of stylus [like the Greek Hermes], the phallic god of generation and fecundity, master of that elusive, mystical barrier that separates the divine world from the profane. Frequently portrayed as an inveterate copulator possessed by his enormous penis [like the North American hump-backed flute player and coyote --ST], linguistically Esu is the ultimate copula, connecting truth with understanding, the sacred with the profane, text with interpretation, the word (as a form of the verb to be) that links a subject with its predicate. He connects the grammar of divination with its rhetorical structures. In Yoruba mythology,
Esu is said to limp as he walks precisely because of his mediating function: his legs are of different
lengths because he keeps one anchored in the realm of the gods while the other rests in this, our human
world. (5-6)

The Fon call Legba “the divine linguist,” he who speaks all languages. (7)

Gates then describes the Yoruba practice of Ifa divination “the richly lyrical and densely metaphorical
system of sacred interpretation that the Yoruba in Nigeria have consulted for centuries...” (9)  

Ifa consists of the sacred texts of the Yoruba people, as does the Bible for Christians, but it also contains
the commentaries on these fixed texts, as does the Midrash. Its system of interpretation turns upon a
marvelous combination of geomancy and textual exegesis, in which sixteen palm nuts are “dialed”
sixteen times,  and their configurations or signs then read and translated into the appropriate, fixed
literary verse that the numerical signs signify. These visual signs are known ion the Yoruba s “signatures
of an Odu,” and each signature the babalawo, or priest, translates by reading or reciting the fixed verse
text that the signature signifies. These verse texts, whose meanings are lushly metaphorical, ambiguous,
and enigmatic, function as riddles, which the propitiate must decipher and apply as is appropriate to his
or her own quandary. (11)


Ifa speaks or interprets on behalf of all the gods through the act of divination. Ifa, however, can only
speak to human beings by inscribing the language of the gods onto the divining tray in visual signs that
the babalawo reads aloud in the language of the lyrical poetry called ese. Curiously enough, the oral
literature is described in chirographic metaphors: Ifa’s process of oral narration is likened to writing. 
This quirk of representation gives Ifa a richness that suggests a central hermeneutical principle of the
system itself. The voice of Ifa, the text,  writes itself as a cryptogram. Esu then assumes his role of
interpreter and implicitly governs the process of translation of these written signs into the oral verse of
the odu. (12-13)

Gates then repeats a West African myth that accounts for the origin of writing and of divination, in which Esu is taught the art of interpretation by monkeys, who also provide the sixteen nuts used in the act of divination. He tells us that “[f]or reasons extremely difficult to reconstruct, the monkey became, through a displacement in African myths in the New World, a central character in this crucial scene of instruction.” After walking us through some of the textual evidence for this displacement or conflation, he concludes this section of his introduction:

Ifa is the god of determinate meanings, but his meaning must be rendered by analogy. Esu [a.k.a. Legba]
god of indeterminacy, rules this interpretive process; he is the god of interpretation because he embodies
the ambiguity of figurative language. Although he allowed his friend Ifa to rule and name the texts of the
tradition, it is Esu who retains dominance over the act of interpretation precisely because he signifies the
very divinity of the figurative. For Ifa, one’s sought meaning [in the ritual of divination via texts] is
patently obvious; it need only be read. Esu decodes the figures. 

If Ifa, then, is our metaphor for the text itself, then Esu is our metaphor for the uncertainties of
explication, for the open-endedness of every literary text. Whereas Ifa represents closure, Esu rules the
process of disclosure, a process that is never-ending, that is dominated by multiplicity. Esu is discourse
upon a text; it is the process of interpretation that he rules. This is the message of his primal scene of
instruction with his friend Ifa. If Esu stands for discourse upon a text, then his Pan-African kinsman, the
Signifying Monkey stands for the rhetorical strategies of which each literary text consists. For the
Signifying Monkey exists as the great trope of Afro-American discourse, and the tope of tropes, his
language of Signifyin(g), is his verbal sign in the Afro-American tradition.

[As a poet I have to take exception. In composing texts we are also dealing with uncertainty and
indeterminacy; the trickster is always present and participating. As I was typing this passage, the words “open-endedness of every literary” appeared at the end of a line. When my eye moved to the start of the next line, it skipped down to the first word of the line that followed, so I typed “open-endedness of every literary process,” which I consider to be more precisely accurate than “text”--though it would muddle Gates’ systematic interpretation of these figures. He later claims Esu as the god of the critic, leaving writers to Ogun, god of war and of artisans. But, as we shall see, poets have not respected this territorial claim and have evoked Esu where they will. --ST ].

We can summarize the importance of these tricksters [Esu and the Signifying Monkey] to theory in three
related ways. First, they and the myths in which they are characters function as focal points for black
theories about formal language use. The figure of writing appears to be peculiar to the myth of Esu, while
the figure of speaking, or oral discourse densely structured rhetorically, is peculiar to the myth of the
Signifying Monkey. Here, the vernacular tradition names the great opposition of its formal literary
counterpart, the tension between the oral and the written modes of narration that is represented as finding
a voice in writing. As figures of the duality of the voice within the tradition, Esu and his friend the
Monkey manifest themselves in the search for a voice that is depicted in so very many black texts. The
tension between them surfaces in the double-voiced discourse so commonly found here. This tension
between the oral and the written plays itself out in one form as the two dominant narrative voices that
serve as counterpoint in texts such as Jean Toomer’s Cane. In another form, it surfaces as the free
indirect discourse of what I am calling the speakerly text, in which third and first person, oral and written
voices, oscillate freely within one structure, as in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
These tensions are figured in the myths of Esu and the Monkey.

Second, in the myths of Esu and the Monkey the tradition defines the role of the figurative. Polemical
traditions seem to valorize the literal. Pragmatics argues that it cannot be otherwise; the vernacular
tradition, however, undercuts this penchant at its deepest level, that of underlying rhetorical principle.
The myths of origins of the tradition privilege both the figurative and the ambiguous. The determinate
meanings often sought in criticism run counter to the most fundamental values of the tradition as encased
in myth. In this sense, the literal and the figurative are locked in a Signifyin(g) relation, the myths and the
figurative Signified upon by the real and literal, just as the vernacular tradition Signifies upon the
tradition of letters, and as figures of writing and inscription are registered, paradoxically, in an oral
literatures. This is another example of the presence of the dual voice. The notion of double-voiced
discourse, related to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of narrative but also indigenously African, comprises the
crux of the method I use for the close readings of Afro-American texts in this books’ final four chapters.
The Afro-American concept of Signifyin(g) can be conveniently introduced here as formal revision that
is at all points double-voiced.

The third conclusion that we can draw from the myths of Esu and the Monkey concerns the
indeterminacy of interpretation. Esu is a principle of language, of written discourse particularly. He is
“all metaphor, all ambiguous oracle,” as Robert Pelton has said. 1 The most famous myth about him is
read as a story about indeterminacy. It is inscribed in the well-known canonical tale of  “The Two
Friends,” which I shall discuss below. Indeterminacy, then is accounted for by the vernacular tradition, as
an unvoicable aspect of acts of interpretation. These three general observations summarize in the
broadest sense, the self-reflexive functions that Esu serves in Yoruba discourse. In the second section of
this chapter, I wish to show in some detail how the Yoruba vernacular underscores these functions and
then to suggest the relationship of this theory of criticism to some common assumptions of poststructural
literary theory. I am concerned in this half of the chapter to reveal the grammar of the tradition before
proceeding to discuss the rhetorical forms of which the tradition consists. (21-22)

In the myth of the Two Friends, two men are working together in a field, one on the left side, one on the right. Esu rides through the field on a horse, wearing a hat that is black on one side and white on the other. When the men talk about the stranger who passed through, they fall to fighting over whether his hat was black or white, each one sure he is right and sure his friend is just being stubborn and stupid and won’t admit a mistake. Esu returns and shows them that both were correct. Gates concludes his telling of the story: “Do you know that he who does not put Esu first in all his doings has himself to blame if things misfire?”

If, as Geoffrey Hartman has argued, “Indeterminacy functions as a bar separating understanding and
truth,” then we can, at last, posit a site over which Legba rules and in which he dwells. Legba dwells in
this bar; indeed, he, like indeterminacy, is this bar. (25)

Esu, in other words, represents power in terms of the agency of the will. But his ultimate power, of which
event he will is a derivative, is the power of sheer plurality or multiplicity; the myths that account for his
capacity to reproduce himself ad infinitum figure the plurality of meanings that Esu represents in the
process of Ifa divination. Esu as the figure of indeterminacy extends directly from his lordship over the
concept of plurality. (37)

Esu’s importance for criticism can perhaps most easily be grasped through the idea of process. For Esu is
the dynamic of process, the dialectical element of the system. It is Esu whose role of messenger we must
conceive of not as delivery boy, but as “he who interrelates all the different and multiple parts which
compose the system.... He is the interpreter and linguist of the system,” as the dos Santoses conclude,
citing the following Oriki Esu: “Collective mouths is the name by which Esu is called.”

Then, after a description of the divination process: 

The figures of writing that are so very fundamental to Ifa signify Esu’s place in the system. As
“promiscuous exchange (or writing).” Esu bears a relation to the oral language of Ifa similar to that
which rhetoric bears to ordinary speech. Esu is the free play or element of undecidability within the Ifa
textual universe; Esu endlessly displaces meaning, deferring it by the play of signification. Esu is this
element of displacement and deferral, as well as its sign. He is “a deceiving shadow”, true tot he trickster,
“which falls between intent and meaning, between utterance and understanding.” What Saussure says of
language is true of Esu: he is a “differential network of meaning.” Esu’s answers or interpretations of
Ifa’s mediated riddles (riddled riddles, a second-0order riddle, the doubled riddle) not only fail to resolve
the “puzzles and perplexities” of Ifa’s figurative discourse, but ht delights in inscribing those in his
cryptic responses. He is the primal figure in a truly black hermeneutic tradition; his opposites are
identical, as R.P. Blackmun wrote of analogy. Esu is analogy, but also every other figure, for he is the
trope of tropes, the figure of the figure. Esu is meta-discourse, the writing of the speech act of Ifa. (42)

Chapter two: The Signifying Monkey and the Language of Signifyin(g): 
Rhetorical Difference and the Orders of Meaning

In this chapter, Gates lays out his theory of the Signifying Monkey, a New World figure partly conflated with Esu, partly his descendant or companion. He begins with definitions:

Thinking about the black concept of Signifyin(g) is a bit like stumbling unaware into a hall of mirrors:
the sign itself appears to be doubled, at the very least, and (re)doubled upon every closer examination. It
is not the sign itself, however, which has multiplied. If orientation prevails over madness, we soon realize
that only the signifier has been doubled and (re)doubled... For the standard English word is as homonym
of the Afro-American vernacular word. 

In the extraordinarily complex relationship between the two homonyms, we both enact and recapitulate
the received, classic confrontation between Afro-American culture and American culture. This
confrontation is both political and metaphysical....The relationship that black “Signification” bears to the
English “signification” is, paradoxically, a relation of difference inscribed within a relation of identity.
That, it seem to me, is inherent in the nature of metaphorical substitution and the pun, particularly those
rhetorical tropes dependent on the repetition of a word with a change denoted by a difference in sound or
in a letter (agnominatio), and in homonymic puns (antanaclasis). (44-45)
Derrida’s neologism, “differance,” in its relation to “difference,” is a marvelous example of agnominatio,
or repetition of a word with an alteration of both one latter and a sound. In this clever manner, Derrida’s
term resists reduction to self-identical meaning. The curiously suspended relationship between the
French verbs to differ and to defer both defines Derrida’s revision of Saussure’s notion of language as a
relation of differences an embodies his revision which “in its own unstable meaning [is] a graphic
example of the process at work.” 

Looking for a “suitably similar gesture” Gates has decided to write the black signifier in upper case, as
Signification, and the white signifier in lower case, as signification. Similarly, he writes the black
signifier as “Signifyin(g)” to connote its connection to speech in general and to black vernacular speech
in particular. Of its origins, he writes:

Some black genius or a community of witty and sensitive speakers emptied the signifier “signification”
of its received concepts and filled this empty signifier with their own concepts. By doing so, by
supplanting the received, standard English concept associated by (white) convention with this particular
signifier, they (un)wittingly disrupted the nature of the sign = signified/signifier equation itself. I bracket
wittingly with a negation precisely because origins are always occasions for speculation. Nevertheless, I
tend to think, or a wish to believe, that this guerrilla action occurred intentionally on this term, because of
the very concept with which it is associated in standard English.

“Signification,” in standard English, denotes the meaning that a term conveys, or is intended to convey..
It is a fundamental term in the standard English semantic order. Since Saussure, at least, the three terms
signification, signifier, signified have been fundamental to our thinking about general linguistics and, of
late, about criticism specifically. These neologisms in the academic-critical community are homonyms of
terms in the black vernacular tradition perhaps two centuries old. By supplanting the received term’s
associated concept, the black vernacular tradition created a homonymic pun of the profoundest sort,
thereby marking its sense of difference from the rest of the English community of speakers. Their
complex act of language Signifies upon both formal language use and its conventions, conventions
established, at least officially, by middle-class white people. (46-47)

There are scores of such revised words. But to revise the term signification is to select a term that
represents the nature of the process of meaning-creation and its representation. Few other selections
could have been so dramatic, or so meaningful.... To revise the received sign (quotient) literally
accounted for in the relation represented by signified/signifier at is most apparently denotative level is to
critique the nature of (white) meaning itself, to challenge through a literal critique of the sign the
meaning of meaning. What did/do black people signify in a society in which they were intentionally
introduced as the subjugated, as the enslaved cipher? Nothing on the x axis of white signification, and
everything on the y axis of blackness.

It is not sufficient merely to reveal that black people colonized a white sign. A level of meta-discourse is
at work in this process. If the signifier stands disrupted by the shift in concepts denoted and connoted,
then we are engaged at the level of meaning itself, at the semantic register. 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 ion this
most literal meta-confrontation within the structure of the sign... By an act of will, some historically
nameless community of remarkably self-conscious speakers of English defined their ontological status as
one of profound difference vis-à-vis the rest of society. (47)

It also seems apparent that retaining the identical signifier argues strongly that the most poignant level of
black-white differences is that of meaning, of “signification” in the most literal sense. (49)
Whereas signification depends for order and coherence on the exclusion of unconscious associations
which any given word yields at any given time, Signification luxuriates in the inclusion of the free play
of these associative rhetorical and semantic relations. Jacques Lacan calls these vertically suspended
associations “a whole articulation of relevant contexts,” by which he means all of the associations that a
signifier carries from other contexts, which must be deleted, ignored, or censored, “for this signifier to be
lined up with a signified to produce a specific meaning.” Everything that must be excluded for meaning
to remain coherent and linear comes to bear in the process of Signifyin(g). As Anthony  Easthope puts
the matter in Poetry as Discourse, “All of these absences and dependencies which have to be bared in
order for meaning to take place constitute what Lacan designates as the Other...

Signifyin(g), in Lacan’s sense, is the Other of discourse; but it also constitutes the black Other’s
discourse as its rhetoric. Ironically, rather than a proclamation of emancipation from the white person’s
standard English, the symbiotic relationship between the black and white... between black vernacular
discourse and standard English discourse, 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. (49-50)

Shifting then to Bakhtin’s terms, Gates quotes Gary Saul Morson:

The audience of a double-voiced word is therefore meant to hear both a version of the
original utterance as the embodiment of its speaker’s point of view (or “semantic
position”) and the second speaker’s evaluation of that utterance from a different point of
view. I find it helpful to picture a double-voiced word as a special sort of palimpsest in
which the upper-most inscription is a commentary on the one beneath it, which the
reader (or audience) can know only by reading through the commentary that obscures the
very process of evaluating. (50)

And goes on to say:

The motivated troping effect of the disruption of the semantic orientation of signification by the black
vernacular depends on the homonymic relation of the white term to the black. The sign, in other words,
has been demonstrated to be mutable.

Bakhtin’s notion, then, implicitly critiques Saussure’s position that “the signifier . . . is fixed, not free,
with respect to the linguistic community that uses it. The masses have no say in the matter . . .  

The double-voiced relation of the two terms under analysis here argues forcefully that “the masses,”
especially in a multiethnic society, draw on “arbitrary substitution”  freely, to disrupt the signifier by
displacing its signified in an intentional act of will. Signifyin(g) is black double-voicedness; because it
always entails formal revision and an intertextual relation, and because of Esu’s double-voiced
representation in art, I find it an ideal metaphor for black literary criticism, for the formal manner in
which texts seem concerned to address their antecedents. Repetition, with a signal difference, is
fundamental to the nature of Signifying(g), as we shall see. (50)

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