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Saturday, May 16, 2015


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.


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