Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.
NEW: A Collection of Pebbles from The Philosopher's Stone
Volume I: 2009 Now Available at box.net
Volume II: 2010 Now Available at box.net
Volume III: 2011 Now available at box.net
Volume IV: 2012 Now available at box.net

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Friday, May 22, 2015

SMALL PLEASURES

My bag is packed, I have had a haircut, a taxi is arranged, and there is really nothing more to be done save wait until tomorrow, so I spent some time exploring my IPhone, with special attention to the apps I never use.  I discovered that I have zero birds listed on my life list on my Birds of the World app.  GoogleMaps assured me that I am still in Chapel Hill.  For the tenth time, I checked the weather in Paris.  And then I tapped the iBooks icon.  It turns out that I have A Treatise of Human Nature on my phone [I am old enough to find this astonishing.]  I called up the text and began reading the Introduction.  I feeling of warmth and comfort came over me as I read again the words I first read sixty-four years ago.  How measured, how sane, how charmingly familiar they were.  I am a Kant scholar of some sort and a Marxist, or so I insist, but David Hume is my favorite philosopher.  I do not think I would actually have much enjoyed an evening with Kant or Marx, for all their greatness, but I would give anything to have had the pleasure of an evening with the man whom the French called le bon David.  In my mind he is linked with Jane Austen, who lived perhaps a generation later.  Of both it would always have been the case that they were the smartest person in any room, and yet both were in their way unassuming and modest, allowing others to underestimate them.  Perhaps on the long plane ride I shall pass the time by dipping here and there into Books One, Two, and Three of the Treatise.

A HARD QUESTION


As I make last minute preparations for our trip to Paris [haircut -- I do not trust Parisian barbers to snip my few remaining scraggles of hair], I should like to pose a question for my readers.  This is  not a rhetorical question, as the saying has it.  I am genuinely uncertain what I think is the appropriate answer.  The question is this:  What should America's military policy be with regard to the rest of the world?

Some facts, first.  The United States currently has roughly one and a third million men and women under arms, and an additional 850,000 or so in the various reserves and National Guard units.  Its military budget accounts for perhaps not quite 40% of the world wide expenditures on armed forces and related activities and resources.  [Some of America's expenditures are hidden in the budget, so it is difficult to be precise, and I assume the same is true for many other nations.]

For at least the past three quarters of a century, the United States has been pursuing an imperial foreign policy, seeking to establish military hegemony over as much of the earth's surface as it can manage.  So far as I can tell, this drive to world domination has been motivated partly by a desire to make the world safe for American capitalism, and partly to establish supremacy simply for its own sake.  During part of that three quarters of a century, the United States confronted a Soviet empire which, though never as powerful militarily, possessed enough nuclear weapons to create a so-called balance of terror.  Despite the precariousness of that arrangement, the world approached dangerously close to nuclear war only once, in 1962, thanks to the decisions and actions of a liberal Democratic president, John F. Kennedy .

In pursuit of its imperial aims, the United States has overthrown democratically elected governments, subverted progressive indigenous movements, propped up dictators, and engaged in perpetual war.  After the disaster of the Viet Nam War, which came close to destroying the cohesion and effectiveness of the American military, America's political and military rulers carried out the final transformation of America to a classical imperial power by replacing its conscript army with a professional military that could be deployed anywhere in the world with little or no domestic political opposition.

All of this, I take it, is beyond dispute.  For purposes of discussion, I shall simply posit that this is not good.  But it is the reality.  I do not wish to ask here what the United States should have done over the past  three quarters of a century.  That is an important question, but it is not my question today.  Nor do I wish to ask what it is politically possible to do in the United States now.  That too is an important question, and one to which the realistic answer is deeply depressing.  Rather, I am asking:  What should the foreign and military policy of the United States be?

There are four possible answers, so far as I can see.  They are:

1.  Pursue an expansionist, belligerent military policy, seeking to control as much of the world as we can while denying the imperial ambitions of China and other potential contenders wherever  and whenever we can, thereby making the world as safe as we can for capitalism.  That, I take it, is the expressed or unexpressed grand vision of most Republicans and a good many Democrats.

2.  Continue to function as an imperial power dedicated to the protection and advancement of the interests of American capital, but do so in a kinder and gentler fashion.  That, I take it, is roughly Obama's answer.

3.   Dismantle the U. S. military establishment, leaving only so much of it as is required to protect America from a land invasion by Canada or Mexico, or an amphibian invasion by, let us say, China.  Then, keep America's troops at home and let the rest of the world sort itself out as it chooses.  On a good day, this appears to be Rand Paul's policy.

4.  Maintain America's military establishment, but use it, along with America's economic power, for progressive, indeed, revolutionary projects abroad wherever possible.  Undermine and overthrow repressive and reactionary regimes whenever possible, such as, for example, the Saudi regime, or the Russian regime, or the North Korean regime.  Use America's military and economic power to undermine capitalism abroad and to support progressive revolutionary forces wherever they appear.

If we are talking about what would be best, not what is possible, I assume that most of my readers would reject alternatives one and two.  But I am genuinely uncertain whether it would be best to maintain a large military establishment that could be deployed instantly in support of progressive policies, or whether it would be best to dismantle our huge military establishment and adopt what used to be called a Fortress America stance.

Let me make one thing very clear.  I reject utterly and categorically the fantasy that all the evil in the world is a result of past or present American actions, so that if we would simply stop our endless undermining of good regimes and propping up of bad regimes, the world would be a peaceful, progressive, secular place. 

If we choose the third alternative, then we must be prepared to stand by while really terrible things are done in the world [never mind for the moment the really terrible things done in America -- that is a subject for a different discussion.]  If you think the abduction of hundreds of young girls by Nigerian Muslims is something we should do something about, then you must be willing to maintain a standing armed force of considerable size that can be deployed immediately, not after a year of recruitment.   No doubt, America would not need as large a military as it now has, but interventionist policies cannot be pursued on the cheap.

If we choose the fourth alternative, then inevitably there are going to be unintended civilian deaths, the use of drones and other modern weapons, and a state of permanent military readiness with all of the unavoidable consequences.

So, what do people think?  Is there a fifth alternative?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

AND AGAIN, TO PARIS


On Saturday, Susie and I fly off to Paris for a five week stay.  In my mind, I am already walking the streets of the fifth and sixth arrondissements, checking on old familiar buildings, looking to see whether little shops have survived, planning outings [this time, we plan to see the newly renovated and enlarged Picasso Museum in the third arrondissement], and of course imagining the meals I shall cook or the restaurants to which we shall go.  I have decided to try my hand at a recipe for a daube de boeuf Provençale which, oddly enough, is due to none other than Martha Stewart.

A recent TIMES news story brought a number of apparently quite Parisian disparate memories and associations into conjunction.  A little background is called for.  As most people are aware, the automobile tire company Michelin has for many years published an annual guide to touring in France [and now other countries as well], the feature of which is ratings of thousands of hotels and restaurants in every corner of France.  [The Michelin logo is a man made entirely of white tires stacked one on top of the other.  He looks a good deal like the enormous Pillsbury Doughboy in Ghostbusters.] 

The Michelin restaurant critics award from one to three stars to restaurants they consider especially worthy of notice, and an award of three stars identifies a restaurant as one of the great eating places of the world.  I don't like fancy restaurants where cooking is treated as a visual art and sauces are dribbled onto the plate in decorative patterns so that they look nice but are virtually impossible to taste.  I have actually, on two different occasions, gotten a famous restaurant to refund my money after I wrote an angry letter detailing precisely how and why their fancy food tasted bland and uninteresting [but that is a story for another day.]  By the way, it is quite easy these days to drop a thousand dollars for a meal for two including wine at a three star restaurant.

The chefs of three star restaurants are more CEO's than cooks, and they frequently trade on their fame to open less expensive satellite restaurants.  One of the tiny handful of French three star chefs is Guy Savoy.  For the entire time that Susie and I have owned a Paris apartment, on rue Maître Albert in the fifth, there has been a Guy Savoy satellite restaurant, Atelier Maître Albert, down at the end of the street.  It is a very up-scale place, but the food is not, in my opinion, particularly good, save for a saladier du moment with chicken livers that is really quite nice.

So, that is the first fact.  The second fact is that my classic early morning walk in Paris is along the quais on the Left Bank from our apartment to the Assemblée Nationale, which sits across a bridge from Place de la C oncorde.  Along my walk, I pass a large block-long building called La Monnaie de Paris, or The Paris Mint, which was at one time in fact France's mint, where coins were made.  The building dates from the eighteenth century, but The Mint was actually established in 864 [that is not a typo -- really, 864!].  The Mint is located along the south side of the street just at the western most tip of île de la Cité, the lozenge shaped island in the middle of the Seine where the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame stands.  For several years now, the Mint building has been covered with scaffolding, and a large sign announces that it is undergoing a "metalmorphosis" [a really bad joke.]  In March, when we visited Paris for a brief eleven day stay during UNC's Spring break, I saw that the scaffolding was being taken down, signaling that the work was almost done.

Just a few days ago, Susie read in the Times that Guy Savoy is moving his premier signature restaurant into the top floor of the renovated Mint building.  Unfortunately, at six-thirty in the morning, which is when I am usually walking by, the rich and famous will not be entering for a light repast, but maybe there will be a new sign.  Susie thought it would be fund to go in and ride the elevator to the top floor just to get a look, but I am sure there will be a guard at the ground floor entrance screening out the unworthy, so I shall have to content myself with sidelong glance at the top floor windows as I pass.

By the way, Guy Savoy also has a satellite restaurant in Las Vegas.  So much for the traditions of French cuisine.  It probably offers his creative revision of classic Buffalo wings.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

WE PAUSE FOR A CLARIFICATION

I consider it to be one of my principal functions as a blogger to educate young readers and overseas readers about American politics.  Today, I will explain the meaning of "clown car" for those who fund the term somewhat puzzling.  

Way back on my youth, long before there was a Cirque du Soleil, circuses toured the country by train, setting up their tents in an empty field and offering the folks in rural and small town America a glimpse of spangles and tights and high wire acts and certified wild animals.  There were a number of small tents for side shows, girly shows, houses of mirrors and really scary horror shows, but the main acts were displayed in the big tent.  In the middle of the tent was a wooden ring, inside which the performers would strut their stuff.  Barnum and Bailey's circus was so packed with acts that their big tent featured three rings, with acts going on in all three simultaneously, making it a real challenge for the spectators to decide where to look.  Hence the phrase "three ring circus."

Every circus had a complement of clowns -- men and women dressed up in funny costumes with big floppy shoes, red fright wigs, and padded bellies, who would warm up the crowd by clowning around [as the phrase came to be used].  One of their popular shticks was to hit one another with sticks that made a loud splat when used -- hence the term slapstick for that sort of humor.  There were even a very few clowns -- Emmett Kelly was the most famous -- who were so popular that they became featured acts.  Whenever disaster struck -- an aerialist falling from the high wire, a lion tamer getting mauled -- the clowns would come rushing into the center of the tent maniacally distracting the audience until the mess could be cleaned up [hence the title of Stephen Sondheim's song "Send in the Clowns."]

One of the most popular bits was the arrival of the troupe of clowns at the beginning of the show.  A very small car would chug into the middle of the center ring.  The door would pop open and a clown would roll out onto the sawdust, hop up, and wave to the audience.  Then another clown would get out of the car.  Then another.  And another.  And another.  A seemingly impossible number of clowns of all sizes, shapes, and costumes would somehow get out of that little car, which would then chug noisily off stage.

This is the image that has now morphed into a cliche for the horde of men and women who have announced, or have flirted with announcing, or have threatened to announce their candidacy for the Republican Party's nomination of President of the United states.

Monday, May 18, 2015

MORE DUMPSTER DIVING

Encouraged by the request of two scholars at the University of Washington Bothell to reproduce my Signifying Monkey memorandum in a book they are editing, I thought I would revive another memo I wrote to the same group of students in the same Spring -- this one from two months earlier, concerning the famous Zora Neale Hurston novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Who knows?  Maybe it will encourage some of you to read the novel.  Like every other book in our list of fifty, the novel was to be read for one of the bi-weekly meetings of the first year seminar.  It went on that way all year -- another class, another book, another paper.  It was, and remains to this day, an extraordinary educational experience, both for the students and for the members of the Department.


March 19, 1998
 
 From:               Bob Wolff
To:                   The Members of the Major Works Seminar
Subject:           Their Eyes Were Watching God
 
 
I would like to make some preliminary and elementary observations that are designed to deepen your reading of the novel and make your understanding of it more complicated.
 
First of all, a warning:  Don't make the mistake of supposing that this book, because it is a  novel, and not a theoretical treatise, is simply an unreflective story. Their Eyes, because it is a  direct, powerful, affecting story, is liable to fool you.  To this must be added the fact that critics have tended not to accord to female authors in the African‑American literary tradition the same level of self‑conscious artistry that they impute to male authors in that tradition, and that they automati­cally impute to all white authors in the main, or canonical, tradition of western literature.  It would never occur to a sophisticated literary critic to suppose that Pamela, or Bleak House, or Pride and Prejudice, or The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is simply a good story, told naively and directly by an author with no self‑conscious conception of literary form or technique.  And yet, critics have, oddly enough, been ready to see Hurston in the same tradition that way.  So ‑ be warned!
 
Now, some absolutely elementary ideas which you should keep with you at all times.
 
1.         The author of a novel is not the narrator.  The narrator [or, of course, the narrators] exists in the fictional world of the novel;  the author exists in the same real world we inhabit.  Zora Neale Hurston is not Janie.  At every step, on every page, you must ask yourself what literary intention the author has in putting such words as she, or he, does in the mouth of the narrator.  The power of a narrative voice may be so great that it seizes you, overwhelms you, compels you.  Assuming that the author is skillful, that effect on you is inten­tional.  Ask yourself why the author has chosen to create that effect.
 
2.         Which brings us to the subject of voice.  A novel calls a fictional world into existence by the use of words ["In the Beginning Was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God" ‑ think of Aslan in the Narnia tales roaring the world into existence ‑ as long as there have been novels, novelists have been playing with the connection between authorship and creation.]  Some of those words are the words of the narrator, who may, or may not, be a character in the fictional world [in David Copperfield and Great Expectations, for example, the narrator is the principal character.  In Jane Austen's novels, on the other hand, the narrator is not ‑ but, nevertheless, the narrator is someone whose values, social presuppositions, etc. are clearly historically and socially locatable.]  Some of the words are those of characters in the novel.  Leaving aside picture books, the entire fictional world is conjured up, constituted, created by those words.
 
Thus, an absolutely central factor in the constitution of the fictional world of the novel is the charac­ter of the voices in which the narrator and other characters speak.  By voice, I mean, in the first instance, the words the characters speak [there is, strictly speaking, nothing else].  But then, by extension, I mean the tone, the choice of locutions [i.e., the diction], etc.  In Their Eyes, for example, Hurston makes an effort to reproduce the sounds, the cadences, the turns of phrase, the grammar, of the colloquial speech of certain segments of African‑American society.  This is, itself, a deliberate and literarily problematic choice for the authors ‑ one that was first faced in the English literary tradition by Sir Walter Scott [who sought to reproduce Scottish dialect.]
 
One of your central tasks, as a reader, is to become conscious of the voices in a novel, as voices, and to make yourself aware of the literary techniques by which the author is creating and sustaining those voices.  You must, at all times, be asking yourself why the author has made those choices, what the purpose of them is, and what their effects are.
 
3.         Novelists are readers of novels, just as poets are readers of poetry and composers are listeners to music.  Novelists self‑consciously write against, or with, or to, or about, or in relation to, previous novelists.  This is true of all novelists, of course, but is especially important with regard to Hurston, for one of the central issues that concerns her is the existence of a tradition of African‑American literature and its place in, or relation to, the established tradition of western novels by white authors. 
 
4.         Novelists are also, quite often, self‑reflective about the nature of art, and about what it is to be an artist.  Frequently, this translates into a concern, in the novel, with voice.  You will find, as you start to read Their Eyes, that it is, in one sense, about voice.  You should try to locate the precise phrases, sentences, passages in which the subject of voice comes up [this is not hard ‑ it runs throughout the novel].  Whose voice?  What is the relationship between the voices of the characters in the novel and the author's voice?  Once again, let me emphasize that voice is important in a novel precisely because, in a novel but not in the real world, voice creates the world.  In life, one can act decisively without ever finding one's voice.  But in a novel, action exists only as voiced by someone [either a character or a narrator].
 
5.         Finally, with all this in mind, how should you read a novel?  It would appear that anyone who takes all of this advice to heart will become utterly immobilized by it!  Pen in hand, endlessly hunting for evidences of voice, of inner and outer references, alert to self‑referential turns of phrase, you will end up reading novels as though they were chemistry texts.  Right?
 
Wrong!  The best way I can think of to describe how you should read a novel is to draw an analogy with the way a psychoanalyst has to work.  The analyst listens to the patient, and allows herself to react directly and emotionally to the patient.  The analyst may find that one day she is fascinated by what the patient has to say, and the next day is utterly bored, wishing the hour would end and the patient would leave.  One day the analyst may be sexually aroused by the patient, the next day repelled.  The analyst may find that the presence of the patient is triggering a series of fantasies in her own mind.  And so forth.  To function in a therapeutically effective fashion, the analyst must allow herself to feel all of these feelings, and must at the same time use them as evidences of concealed or subliminal communications from the patient, reflecting on them with all of the theoretical understanding at her disposal.  If she tries to distance herself emotionally from her own reactions, deprecating them as unprofessional;  or, alternatively, if she simply reacts, without using the reactions as the raw material for reflection ‑ in either case, she will not be an effective therapist.
 
In analogous fashion, you, as the reader of a novel, must allow yourself to be caught up in the novel, to be moved by it, to react as a naive reader for whom there is no distance between self and fictional world.  You must allow yourself to feel, immediately, whatever it is that the words on the page evoke in you.  BUT:  You must, at the same time, reflect on your reactions, use them as the raw material for your interpretation, achieve an ironic distance from the novel while also becoming engaged with it and moved by it.  Only then can you become an effective and insightful reader.
 
The analyst assumes, as a methodological presupposition of the therapy, that there are repressed wishes, fantasies, memories in the patient's unconscious that will erupt into the patient's discourse and self‑presentation in ways that will allow for therapeutic intervention.  What is more, of course, the analyst encoun­ters only persons who choose to become patients, presumably because they are suffering some sort of pain or unhappiness that they seek to alleviate.  You, as a reader of novels, must start with the methodological pre­supposition that the book you are reading is written by an author sufficiently in control of voice and diction, with a sufficiently interesting literary purpose, to make the reading of the novel worthwhile.  Frequently, of course, that turns out to be false, and you either stop reading, or else plow on to the end and toss the novel aside as not worth reflecting on.  All I ask with regard to this novel [and all novels of course] is that you give them, at least initially, the benefit of the doubt, and that you combine an emotional openness to them as compelling stories with an intelligent, reflective awareness of them as artfully constructed literary works.
 
Let us now take a look at Their Eyes. 
 
Hurston was born in 1891 and died in 1960.  She was brought up in Eaton­ville, Florida, the town in which the novel is set.  It was, as she represents it in the novel, an all‑Black town.  The novel takes place in October 1928.  How do I know this?  Because the hurricane that occupies the last segment of the novel was an actual event, pretty much just as it is represented in the novel.
 
Hurston was, among other things, a skilled folklorist and ethnographer who studied at Barnard College under the great anthropologist Franz Boas.  Between 1927 and 1932, she made a number of trips to the South, beginning with Eatonville, to collect folk tales;  she traveled as well to New Orleans where she gathered material on Voodoo.  All of this made its appearance first in Mules and Men, published in 1935.  In 1937, she wrote Their Eyes in seven weeks [!!], incorporating a good deal of the material of Mules and Men as background.  [For example, in Mules and Men, she describes the store in Eatonville, with its front porch, where the men sat and swapped tales.  The store's owner was Joe Clark(!)]
 
The novel is constructed economically and with great care.  There are a relatively small number of verbal themes and echoes that hold the narrative together, for which you should be on the lookout.  For example, the second sentence introduces us to the image of the horizon.  That image recurs on pages 28, 85, and 182, and is then reinvoked in the last lines of the novel to pull it together and bring it to a close.  A less significant but still sugges­tive theme is Janie's hair ‑ See pages 2, 47, 51, and 83, for example.  Again, the image of a "high, ruling chair" in which one can sit, surveying the surrounding society ‑ pages 31, 58, 109.  Or, yet again, the very important series of images of trees, branches, and roots ‑ pages 8, 12, 15, 73 and elsewhere, almost certainly Hurston's way of talking about the existence or lack of existence of an Afro‑American tradition.  And, of course, the extraordinarily beauti­ful set of images of the bee in the pear bloom ‑ pages 10, 31, 67, 101 and elsewhere, perhaps the emotionally dominant image in the book.
 
The trick in reading a novel like this is, at one and the same time, to give yourself up to it emotionally and yet also remain aware of these literary devices and structural features, which the author uses to carry much of her meaning.
 
A word about the narrative structure of the novel.  It is, of course, a frame structure, though of a rather odd sort.  The novel begins as Janie returns to Eatonville after an eight­een month absence.  She puts her feet in a pan of water to soothe them, and begins to tell her friend, Phoeby, where she has been and what she has done.  174 pages later, she takes her feet out of the water, and the novel comes to an end.  This is a familiar narrative device, but it is here used somewhat oddly ‑ Janie tells Phoeby a great deal about her life before she came to Eatonville ‑ things you would suppose she had already told Phoeby during their twenty‑year friendship ‑ and a great deal about what happened to her in Eatonville, which Phoeby must know, because she was there.  Notice the effect of the frame device ‑ it creates an elegaic effect.  All during the tumultuous events of the Hurricane, for example, we, the readers, know that she has survived, because she is narrating this to Phoeby.  This has the effect of putting distance between us and the narrative, and enhances the rather dreamy quality of the narrative, already set up for us by the pear bloom passage.
 
What is the novel about?  Well, at the most immediate, accessible level, it is about voice, about Janie's finding a voice and thereby coming into her own as an emotionally and sexually complete person, as an authoritative, active, effective person.  The theme of voice appears almost on every page, beginning with the fourth paragraph of the first page, when she reenters Eatonville and encounters the bander log on the store porch.  ["Bander log," or "bandar log," as it is usually spelled, is a term from Kipling's Jungle Book.  "Bandar" is a Hindu term meaning "people," and the bander log are the log people ‑ i.e., the monkeys, who sit on logs chattering and gossiping.  The dictionary glosses it as "any body of irrespon­sible chatterers," which is just about a perfect description of the people on the porch.  They are, in Henry Louis Gates' term, signifying monkeys.]  As the inner narrative progresses, Janie moves from being silent [with her grandmother] to being silenced [by Joe Starks] to finding a voice, and finally to signifying or playing the dozens on Joe [in the great passage on page 75], who has been swaggering about as a big voice, playing God.  And yet ‑ this, of course, is perhaps the central thematic point made by a number of commentators ‑ Janie does not, like Joe, arrogate voice to herself, and make the achievement of her voice the occasion for setting herself above and against those around her.  Instead, in that very important passage on page 6 [echoed in her grandmother's statement on page 15], she says to Phoeby, "You can tell 'em what Ah say if you wants to.  Dat's just de same as me 'cause mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf."
 
The pivotal passage in the book, in my judgment [which, needless to say, on matters like this may not be worth the paper it is xeroxed on], is to be found on pages 67‑68, in the paragraph that begins "Janie stood where he left her ..."  It seems clear that Hurston is here echoing du Bois' notion of double consciousness, but with a crucial difference [or revision, as the literary critics like to say.] 
 
Hurston's revision, it seems to me, is that for du Bois, it is the experience of being a Negro in a white world that makes for the double consciousness, whereas for Janie, it is the experience of being a woman in a man's world that produces this effect.  Notice, by the way, that by setting her novel in Eatonville, which is an all‑black town, she brackets the very doubling to which du Bois is referring.  Janie's only encounters with whites, in the sequences during and after the hurricane at the very end of the novel, are managed in such a fashion that they do not really alter the central thematic development.
 
Now some questions about the novel, to which we might address ourselves.
 
First, what is the meaning of the title?  The title phrase is from the hurricane se­quence, of course, page 151, "They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God." The novel is filled with religious metaphors and language, and Joe Starks' quest for a Big Voice, a High Chair, his favorite expression, "I God," and the manner in which he is described by others as authoritative and God‑like, and of course the fact that he is hollow, a false god, lead one to think that this religious theme must have some central significance.  But I must confess I am not sure what it is.
 
Second, how shall we understand the theme of loneliness that runs through the novel?  Janie is repeatedly described as lonely.  At the end, however, although she is alone, she is no longer lonely.  This needs some explicating.
 
Third, what are we to make of what is for me the most puzzling passage in the novel, Tea Cake's beating up of Janie?  What is puzzling is not the fact that the incident oc­curs, but the way it is treated by Hurston.  It is introduced more or less gratuitously, in a way that doesn't really advance the plot, and it seems not at all to have colored or qualified Janie's positive memories of Tea Cake at the end of the novel.  Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the incident is accurate, in the sense that the sorts of people Hurston represents in her novel would in fact have responded to such an event in that fashion ‑ both the men and the women.  I am very hesitant simply to embrace an ideologically simple‑minded "feminist" reading of the incident, and construe Hurston as saying in the novel that an independent woman who finds her voice can have no place in her life for a man, because that seems to me incompatible with the tone and language of the final pages.  [See page 184, "Then Tea Cake came prancing around her etc etc."]  So, it is a puzzle.
 
Finally, a minor matter.  What on earth is the whole Mrs. Turner episode doing in the novel [around pages 130 ff]?  This dispute about Negroes trying to look white, etc, though true to life, no doubt, doesn't seem to have anything to do with the rest of the novel.  Is this obtuseness on my part, authorial clumsiness on Hurston's part, or what?
 


 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

CLANG CLANG CLANG WENT THE TROLLEY


When I was a boy, the Reader's Digest was a very popular little magazine -- little in the sense that it was small enough to fit in a drug store rack, unlike such full-size magazines as Life, Collier's, and Look.  Reader's Digest had a regular bottom-of-the page feature called "The Most Unforgettable Person I Have Ever Met."  My nominee [never submitted for publication] was Benjamin Muckenhoupt, a Harvard classmate who was an albino piccolo playing mathematician.  One of Bennie's more endearing quirks was a passion for trolley cars.  Bennie swore that in the old days you could go all the way from Boston to New York on trolley cars for one fare plus transfers.  [Bennie was notoriously cheap].  He once went out on a date with a young lady from North Attleboro, arranged by another classmate, Bob Funk, who came from Speaker of the House Joe Martin's home town.  Bennie took her on an extended trolley ride, and was very distressed when she wanted to dismount to get a Coke at a point where he would have been unable to secure transfers to get back on.

My latest blog post seems to have brought a number of trolley enthusiasts into the conversation.   Pastrypride [those Internet handles again!] breaks a lance for trolley car examples, and JW offers a link to his/her discussion of my post on another blog.  At the risk of trying the patience of the rest of the blogosphere, I shall try in this post to respond, expanding my remarks and perhaps making clearer the reasons for my scepticism about trolley car arguments.  None of this, it goes without saying, is in any way intended to cast aspersions on actual trolley cars, either those that run on tracks or the Boston variety always referred to as "trackless trolleys."  [They get power from overhead power lines to which they are attached by flexible arms that are always coming loose and flailing about, forcing the conductor to stop the trolley, get out, and swing the arm back and forth until it attaches itself again on the power line.]

The heart of pastrypride's objection to my comments is this sentence:  "Harris's mistake wasn't to try to use such thought experiments, it was to misuse them."  In the previous paragraph, he/she offers, as an example of the proper use of such hypothetical arguments, asking with regard to George Zimmerman's murder of Travon Martin what the reaction would have been had Zimmerman been Black and Martin White.  The correct answer, though pastrypride does not think it is necessary to spell it out, is of course that Zimmerman would have been apprehended, indicted, and convicted of murder almost before the newspapers could carry the story, and pastrypride is quite correct that that fact tells us something important about America. 

So just what is my objection to trolley car arguments?  Let me try again.  Most philosophical arguments in the general field of Moral Philosophy [which I use to include Political Philosophy as well] make appeal at many points to what is often referred to as our "moral intuitions."  Now, the word intuition is, in some branches of philosophy, such as Kantian epistemology, a term of art with a precise denotation and connotation, but that is almost never the way in which it is being used here.  "Appealing to our moral intuitions" means, rather loosely, checking with our sense of a complex situation, asking ourselves what we think about it, sometimes asking how people like us think about it -- or even, though moral philosophers virtually never offer any evidence for the claim, asking how all decent normal people would think about the situation if they were confronted with it.  In less exalted venues than philosophy journals, this is referred to as taking a gut check.

How I respond to a situation, what seems obvious and incontrovertible to me about its moral significance, is deeply shaped, if not determined, by my personal history, by my culture and class position, by my knowledge of history and economics and sociology, and also by the broader ideological context of my life, of which I may be utterly incapable of articulating.  Let me give a personal example, as is so often my wont. 

Shortly before I joined the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts in 1992, a Los Angeles taxi cab driver, Rodney King, was brutally and wantonly beaten by a group of LAPD officers, a beating that was caught on tape.   The acquittal four of the officers videotaped beating King triggered riots reminiscent of those following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The reaction of my new colleagues in Afro-Am to the Rodney King affair was markedly different from that of most White commentators, on the left as well as on the right.  The White commentators viewed the incident as an aberration, whether excusable [those on the right] or to be condemned as arising out of widespread racism still present in American society.  But my colleagues saw it, to use the familiar phrase, as same ole same ole.  They saw it as simply the most recent of a string of abuses, oppressions, enslavements, beatings, and lynchings going back more than four hundred years.  Their moral intuitions about the event were utterly different from those of the majority of Americans  -- not their moral judgments, but their moral intuitions.    

The trouble with trolley car hypotheticals is that they are deracinated -- they are rootless.  They are not situated in the actual social, political, historical, and ideological context of the lives of those who are being asked to "consult your moral intuitions."  Consequently, replies to trolley car hypotheticals are virtually valueless.  In the real world, when subordinates bring to a President a decision about, let us say, a bombing raid or a drone strike, the subordinates scrub the briefing papers clean of all manner of facts -- about probable civilian casualties, about the uncertainty of the intelligence, etc. -- that they know might implicate the President in the responsibility if something goes wrong -- and any person who occupies the position of President knows this, or ought to know it, or has contrived to forget it.  Ever since Watergate, this has been referred to as preserving the President's "plausibly deniability."  If our "moral intuitions" about the President's decision are not grounded in an awareness of that simple fact, along with countless others, then our moral intuitions are no better as a guide to our judgment than my moral intuitions were about the Rodney King case before I learned some of the things my colleagues had known all their lives.

It would be tedious to spell out in detail example after example of appeals to moral intuitions and the contexts in which they are embedded.  By the way, this problem is not peculiar to trolley cars.  John Rawls' elegant account of what he calls "reflective equilibrium" suffers from the same problem.  It is no more reliable than what the ancients called consensus gentium.

Well, enough from me about trolley cars.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

EXCAVATING THE DUMPSTER

My Marx course is concluded, the papers are read, the grades are submitted, preparations for my Paris trip are complete, I have even had my car Jiffy Lubed.  What to do?  I decided to explore a desktop folder I had not visited for ages.  In it, I found some WORD files I created in conjunction with the 1997-1998 version of the year-long double seminar that we in the W. E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass required every first year doctoral student to take.  I had exercised my slender authority as Graduate Program Director to add to the list of fifty assigned texts Henry Louis Gates' first, and best, book, The Signifying Monkey, which was the revised version of his doctoral dissertation at Yale.  All seven of us teaching in the doctoral program attended all of the two and a half hour twice weekly sessions of the seminar [it was pretty intense.]  We shared the job of leading the discussions.  Since I had lobbied for the inclusion of the Gates, it was my job to handle that class.  [Fifty classes, fifty books, fifty papers.  We were serious!]

To prepare the students for the book, I wrote a a few lines by way of introduction -- some 3700 words in all.  My memo to the graduate students has not seen the light of day in seventeen years, but I think it is worth reproducing here.  So settle down.



May 11, 1998

 

From:               Bob Wolff

To:                   Members of the Major Works Seminar

Subject:           The Signifying Monkey

 

 In order to make sense of this book, you must begin to think and talk ironically.  You must be alert to ways in which an author communicates meaning by form as well as by content, and ‑ especially important ‑ I want you to examine the way in which Gates mobilizes and uses his very great anger in the service of his critique.  What follows is, needless to say, my interpretation of Gates.  As will immediately be clear to you, my interpretation is, as they say in the lit crit game, a strong reading of the text, and open to serious questioning.  I might say that I wrote to Gates, complimenting him on the book and telling him that it was the angriest book I had ever read.  I received an equivocal reply [which, given my reading, is what one would expect!]  Make of all this what you will.  I very much hope each of you will try your own independent reading of this complex text.

 
Gates has at least three large aims in his book, aside from the obvious goals of informing the reader and presenting interpretations of three major Afro‑American novels.  These are, in order of accessibility or ease of appropriation:  First, to demonstrate that certain West African religious and cultural traditions contain a theory of literary criticism that has deeply affected Afro‑American literature and can, when applied to that literature, illuminate it significantly;  Second, to demonstrate that the tradition of Afro‑American literature will sustain a literary critical analysis as rigorous, as sophisticated, and as theoret­ically complex as that which has come to be standard in the interpretation of the dominant canon of Western literature, thereby rebutting the claim that that literature has no tradition, or is secondary in importance and literary quality, or can achieve importance only insofar as it imitates and inserts itself into the dominant canon;  and Finally, to carry out a corrus­cating, hilarious send‑up of literary criticism, especially of the Yale variety, by showing, in a mocking fashion, that a monkey [a Black man] sitting on a log can Signify [do literary criti­cal interpretation] as well as Hartman, or Miller, or Derrida, or Bloom, or de Man.  It is this last aim that has the most complex ironic structure.  Gates is simultaneously outdoing his mentors from Yale, thereby showing that he deserves to be one of them, and making fun of them and of their exalted notions of a literary canon.  If a signifying monkey [Gates himself ‑ the title is transparently a mocking and angry self‑reference] can extract from African folk tales, for God's sake, a literary theory as sophisticated as that elaborated by the giants of literary criticism out of their struggles with classical literature, Romantic poetry, and the like, then the pretensions of this crew are thoroughly punctured.  I do not see how we can avoid the conclusion that Gates felt like a signifying monkey at Yale, a brilliant black man on display ‑ "Look at that!  The monkey can imitate Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller perfect­ly!  It is almost as though he actually understands what he is talking about!"

 
Let us begin with the notion of a canon, for it underlies everything in this segment of the course.  The term "canon" is from the Greek, meaning "rule," and in many of its modern usages, it continues to carry that sense.  [In music, a canon is a contrapuntal composition composed according to a certain rule, etc.]  In the extremely important debates that took place at various times up through the Renaissance over the authenticity of certain books of the Old and New Testaments, the word came to be used for the list of books that the Roman Catholic Church considered genuine.  Since the genuine books of the Bible are considered by Christians to be the Revealed Word of God, it is obviously of transcendent importance to determine just exactly which books belong in that canon.

 
There are several crucial points to be noted here.  First, there is an absolute, un­bridgeable chasm dividing those books that do, and those that do not, belong in the canon.  Those that do are inspired by God, and are the vehicle of His revelation to man.  Those that do not are merely interesting books, perhaps strikingly written or filled with wisdom and piety, but not revealed by God.  Second, a book that belongs to the canon belongs to it forever.  Future scholarship or archeological discoveries may add a text to the canon, but books in the canon do not, as it were, become superseded.  If future scholarship should reveal that a supposedly canonical book is apocryphal, then that shows that it never should have been in the canon in the first place.  Finally, because of the transcendent status of the canonical books, a deep bifurcation takes place in the quantity and character of attention paid to books in or not in the canon.  Those in the canon are read and reread endlessly, virtually memorized [see the famous Bible passage scene in The Adventures of Tom Saw­yer], commented on, analyzed, dissected;  those not in the canon, although virtually indis­tinguishable from those in the canon to the untutored eye, are ignored, taken account of only by specialists, allowed to languish and even to go out of print.

 
In the Renaissance, a major effort was made to recover what was thought of as the lost glory of the classical age of Greece and Rome.  The same techniques of textual criticism and interpretation that had been developed in the Church as a means to establish­ing the canon of authentically revealed books of the Bible were now brought to bear on manuscripts supposedly containing versions of secular texts from classical times. Because of the universal belief that the culture of classical times was vastly superior to that of the intervening centuries, something akin to the religious significance of the canon was at­tributed to the authentic works of the classical period.  Thus was created the conception of the literary canon, over which so much ink is now being spilled.

 
[Note, by the way, that we have here one more example of a religious conception being secularized, but carrying with it a great deal of the associated passion and significance that makes sense only in the original religious version.  Other examples are the seculariza­tion of the Protestant doctrine of predestination, as analyzed most famously by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and the secularization by Marx of the eschatology of Christianity, in the form of a theory of stages of historical development, and Hegel's transmutation of the Christian notion of transcendently defined stages of spiritual development ‑ Eden, the Fall, The Law, The Incarnation, The Last Trump ‑ into the notion of stages of aesthetic development ‑ Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc]

 
If we think for a bit about the modern notion of a literary canon, we can see how much it draws from the original religious notion of the canon of authentically revealed texts.  In English literature, for example, the canon of great works starts, let us say, with Beowulf, continues on through Chaucer, Gawain and the Green Knight, Pilgrim's Progress, Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, the Metaphysical Poets, and so on and on.  Anyone who has had a good undergraduate education in English Literature will be intimately familiar with the canon.

 
In literature especially, a distinction far sharper than can ever be justified is made between the works that are, and the works that are not, in the canon.  Those in the canon are taught over and over [see any college catalogue or Readings in English Literature].  Those not in the canon are dealt with distinctly as sub‑literature, interesting only to special­ists.  The justification put forward, when one is demanded [and it is a large part of the canonical character of the canon that under normal circumstances it is not justified], is that the works in the canon are great works of literature, immortal works of literature, part of the enduring heritage of western civilization, whereas those works not in the canon are merely, at best, good books.  Since those not initiated into the sacred mysteries have a bit of trouble telling which is which, these claims must be supported by extremely aggressive assertions of expertise, refined taste, and authority.

 

[A brief story.  During 1961‑63, I taught at the University of Chicago, in the sophomore Social Sciences course.  On the same hall as my office were the people teaching the Fresh­man Humanities course.  In one of their exams, they reproduced a poem, and asked the students to state, first, whether it was a nonsense rhyme or a real poem, and secondly to explain why.  The poem began, "Margaret, are you grieving/Over golden groves unleaving?"  I unerringly identified it as a nonsense rhyme.  It is, of course, a famous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins!]

 
Now, enter a group of African‑American authors and scholars, challenging the literary canon on the grounds that it slights the literary productions of African‑Americans, provoking a violent reaction from the literary establishment [please note that this political use of the term "establishment" is itself a secularization of an originally religious conception.  The term derives from the institution, as in England, of an established church ‑ that is to say, a church that, by law, is the official, sanctioned and sanctioning, religious body of the state and society.  Orthodox Judaism in Israel, Islam in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and elsewhere, the Anglican Church in England, the Roman Catholic Church in Italy, etc., are established churches.  To characterize a network of upper income families with close educa­tional, economic, and political ties as an "establishment," to describe a group of literary critics and scholars as "the establishment," is to make the claim that they operate as though they had been authorized by law as the official religion of the society.  This use of the term obviously involves both an extended analogy and a metaphorical transmutation, and you ought never to use it without having both of those facts self‑consciously in mind.]  The defenders of the established canon [you see how these two terms fit together to convey a quasi‑religious meaning] reject the claims of the  African‑Americans with all the horror, anger, and self‑righteousness that churchmen rejected the claims of those whom they judged to be heretics.  What is at stake is not at all a difference in literary tastes.  Rather, what is at stake is nothing less than the proper identification of the word of God ‑ or at least so it would appear, judging from the intensity of feeling aroused by the sugges­tion that Richard Wright take his rightful place next to F. Scott FitzGerald. 

 
Needless to say, jobs, perquisites, editorships, endowed chairs, and other material good things are also at stake.  But I think it would be a serious mistake to think that the fuss is over nothing more than those material rewards.  After all, it didn't actually threaten Lionel Trilling's eminence at Columbia to propose the inclusion of Native Son in the curriculum. I think one can only explain the ferocity of the debates by appeal to the quasi‑religious notion of a received canon, faithfulness to which defines our nature and worth.

 
The religious analogy helps us as well to predict, and to understand, the inevitable splinterings and internecine fights that characterize the dispute over the canon.  As with the history of Christianity, we find those holding the centers of wealth and power trying to fight off popular heresies, we find a splintering of sub‑heresies, we find an on‑going struggle between those of "Catholic" incli­nation who lean heavily on tradition and collective establishment of dogma, and those who celebrate in "Protestant" fashion individual literary judgment and taste.

 
In addition, of course, in the African‑American challenge to the canon, we find the very important second challenge mounted by African‑American women authors against the African‑American male "establishment."  That is precisely the special focus of Hurston’s novel, as we saw earlier.

 
Let me now turn to a topic that plays a major role in Gates' book, and in the literary debates about the existence and nature of an African‑American literary tradition.  I am referring to what is rather pretentiously called "intertextuality," or, more simply, the practice among writers of referring to, commenting on, and making revi­sions in the dominant images and literary figures, or tropes, of their predecessors.

 
Once again, we have here the secularization of an originally religious practice of textual cross‑reference.  [Let me strongly recommend to you the great work, Mimesis, by Erich Auerbach, particularly the first several chapters, on this subject.]  As some of you surely know, but others of you may not know, the Bible is filled with texts that anticipate later texts, fulfill earlier texts, and endlessly comment upon one another.  Let me give you a handful of examples to show you what I mean.  Here are five passages chosen from the Gospels, with the Old Testament texts of which they are fulfillments, or on which they are commentaries:

 

1.         Matthew, 27:46 [i.e., The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Chapter 27, verse 46]



"And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

 

Psalms, 22:1:

 

"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

 

2.         Matthew, 27:48

 

"And straightway one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink."

 

Psalms, 69:21

 

"They gave me also gall for my meat;  and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink."

 

3.         Mark, 14:62

 "And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven."

 

Daniel, 7:13‑14

 

"I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven..."

 

4.         Mark, 15:24

 

"And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them, what every man should take."

 

Psalms, 22:18

 

"They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture."

 

5.         John, 12:8

 

"For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always."

 

Deuteronomy, 15:11

 

"For the poor shall never cease out of the land:  therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to the poor, and to thy needy, in thy land."

 
The last of these examples of echoes and fulfillments also, of course, illustrates the process of revision ‑ compare the conclusion Moses draws, in Deuteronomy, from the fact that the poor shall never cease out of the land, with the conclusion Jesus draws from the fact that the poor always we have with us!  The most famous revisionary statement in the Bible occurs in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthews, 5:17‑18.  Jesus says, "Think not that I come to destroy the law, or the prophets:  I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.  (18)  For verily, I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled."  What sounds like a denial of revision is in fact the most profound revision.

 

Now, authors are constantly commenting on, alluding to, reviving, and revising their predecessors.  Texts refer not only to the world, but to other texts [hence, "intertextuality"], as in the examples above from the Bible.  What is more, a common claim made by modern literary critics [such as Gates' teacher, Harold Bloom, at Yale] is that subsequent authors write against their predecessors, in the sense of taking up dominant images or literary maneuvers ["tropes"] that their predecessors have used to make an extremely strong statement of some esthetic sort, and then twisting or revising those images or maneuvers, in effect taking the words out of their forebears’ mouths.  This is represented frequently by the critics as a kind of killing of the father, a supplanting by the new generation of the old one.  [You begin to see the significance of the image in Their Eyes conjured by the line, "Mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf," which substitutes a collective voice for the competitive, exclusionary voice of the revisionary male author.]

 

One brief example, to show you what I am talking about. Michael Awkward, a young African‑American literary critic at Michigan, has written a book on women African‑American novelists called Inspiriting Influences.  He begins by stating that he is going to explore a process of linguistic revision that he calls "denigration."  "Denigration" means "blackening," of course, and it is standardly used in English with the sense of defaming someone or casting aspersions on someone's good name.  Awkward deliberately takes the term over and reverses the signifi­cation of it.  By using the term over and over, he forces the reader repeatedly to confront the entrenched negative connotations of "black" and "blackness," connotations, of course, that he claims are attached to everything connected with the history, literature, and lives of Black people.

 

One more general observation, before turning to Gates' book itself.  In recent times, especially in French and American academic literary critical circles, the curious notion has become current that critics are more important than authors, and theories of literary criti­cism more important than works of literature.  Indeed, the wildly comical notion has even been bruited about, rather humorlessly, that there are no authors, only texts with multiple meanings [take another look at the little tidbit from Derrida with which we began the course.]  Crazy as this view is, we can, I think, understand its attraction.  [The following is my own personal view ‑ it is not supported by any foundation grants, could not get pub­lished in a refereed journal, and will never be the subject of a panel at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association.  The reader is warned.]

The received canon of literary classics in the western tradition is very large, but definitely finite.  Mediocre students of literature find it all they can do simply to read through it and try to understand the theories about it that scholars and critics have put forward.  These good gray souls soldier on, writing forgettable papers about ever more obscure aspects of Daniel Deronda or The Lyrical Ballads.  But the truly brilliant young students of literature [of whom there is always a small but steady supply] soon discover that they have crested the wave ‑ they have read the canon, mastered the going theories, and now are confronted by the ego‑deflating fact that they must sit passively, waiting for au­thors to write more great literature before their finely honed scalpels of interpretation can be wielded. 

 

Bright literary critics are in fundamentally a different position from philosophers in this regard ‑ an inferior position, furthermore.  A philosopher who has mastered the sec­ondary literature on Descartes' Meditations can launch out into an original piece of philo­sophical argument triggered by that text.  She needn't even try to claim that this new argument is an interpretation of the text, any more than a young novelist influenced by James Joyce need represent his novel as an interpretation of Ulysses.  But literary critics don't, qua literary critics, write novels or poems.  What to do?  The answer almost leaps off the page:  Deny that there are any authors [that takes care of their primacy];  deny that there is any one correct reading of a text [that opens up the field to endless new readings];  privilege theories of criticism over works of literature [that instates the authors of literary criticism, the critics, as superior to the mere readers of even the most multiform of texts ‑ notice, by the way, that even Derrida, in the very act of denying the existence of authorship, manages nonetheless to sign his own books and collect the royalties].  And wait for the money to roll in.

 
All of this is done in an ever more obscure jargon, a mode of writing that separates the leading literary critics from the ordinary teachers of college literature courses, from the writers of literature, and, of course, from the general public.  The entire operation is pre­cious, exclusive, obscurantist, competitive, and self‑aggrandizing.  Gates's book is an attack on all of this ‑ an attack both from the inside and from the outside.

 
A word about the central notion of Gates' book: "Signifyin(g)".  I don't think I need to belabor the obvious and deliberate ambiguities and multiple meanings of this term, which Gates plays with endlessly.  I leave it to those of you who are enamored of Saussure and such like to expatiate on that.  Nor will I repeat what Gates has to say about the cultur­al practice of signifying in African‑American speech ‑ especially since virtually everything I know about it comes from Gates.  [I call your attention to footnote 12 to Chapter 2, one of the funniest footnotes I have ever read.]  One preliminary admonition:  DON'T BE AFRAID TO LAUGH.  This is, in its arcane way, a very funny book.  A large part of its point is its humor.  If you plow through it with a straight face, you will miss the point.  Remember, start thinking ironically.  Everything Gates says is meant to be taken seriously and also to be taken as a wild joke.

 
Generally speaking, I cannot do better than to advise you to read Gates carefully, now that I have said a few things by way of background.  One final point worth thinking about.  Gates makes it clear that the tradition of literary criticism he is explicating is an oral, not a written, tradition.  In the first place, it comes out of the oral religious and literary traditions of the Yoruba.  In the second place, it manifests itself in what he calls "speakerly texts."  And finally, the activity of signifyin(g), unlike the activity of literary satire, say, is an essentially spoken, rather than written, activity.  Playing the dozens in print is even worse than playing chess by mail.  It would take forever for two authors to exchange in print a series of ever more exaggerated and imaginative insults.  The force and fun of it lie very much in its spontaneity, immediacy, and in the voice in which it is done.  [Compare, by the way, insult comedians like Don Rickles.]  Now, the Western literary tradition is originally an oral tradition as well.  The Iliad and Odyssey are oral epics.  The Gospels were transmit­ted orally for at least a century before being written down.  And Plato's Dialogues are obviously a form of stylized verbal duel transmuted into a written text.

 O.K.  Now read the book.