Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature

This essay was published in the Iowa Journal of Literary Studies several years before Prof. Gates' ingenious study. The sparse earlier comment on the signifying monkey had, for the most part, a sociological rather than a literary focus.

Deep down in the jungles, way back in the sticks,
The animals had formed a game called pool. The baboon was a slick.
Now a few stalks shook, and a few leaves fell.
Up popped the monkey one day, ‘bout sharp as hell.
He had a one-button roll, two button satch.
You know, one of them boolhipper coats with a belt in the back.
The baboon stood with a crazy rim,
Charcoal gray vine, and a stingy brim, handful of dimes, pocket full of herbs,
Eldorado Cadillac parked at the curb. (1)

This monkey is one of the last representatives alive in oral literature of the grand African tradition of trickster figures, of whom the best known from the mother continent is Anansi and from America John, Aunt Dicy, and, of course, Brer Rabbit. Stith Thompson gives the names and addresses of their kin around the world.(2)

Like many similar figures the signifying monkey manages to outwit his opponents by means of verbal skill. The monkey’s adventures are described in the “toast” form, the oral African-American rhyming narratives that can still be heard in the streets and in the prisons.(3) His signifying consists of artful use of language, words used with meaningful indirection, metaphorical and ambiguous expressions. Now the signifying monkey is an excellent definition of homo sapiens, for surely the extent if not the absolute existence of human signifying practices sets the species apart from all others. (4) Thus my title might refer to the author of an article such as this who is, after all, a signifying monkey talking literature to other signifying monkeys, delivering, like Kafka’s ape Red Peter, a “Report for an Academy.” One recalls that in that story signification is the thin and problematic line that brings Red Peter from the bush and the zoo to a learned gathering.

However, the signifying monkey of the toast has more specific implications for literary study. Considering him as a representative of all mankind in its signifying practices and more narrowly of the signifying practices of oral and popular cultures, he offers insights about the definition of the literary that are too easily overlooked by theorists exclusively concerned with high art texts.
The difficulties that accumulate when one attempts to establish a general theory of literature without adequate reference to the characteristics of oral and popular forms will be evident in the briefest review of the polar opposition about which most discussion of literary value has revolved since the Romantic era. Many critics and theorists, and not a few poets, have built their barricades around positions basically defined by the continuum of tradition and innovation. Some have aligned themselves with the romantic impulse to privilege the innovative (Wordsworth when young, Pound, Shklovsky, Artaud) while others have celebrated the neo-classical emphasis on tradition (Arnold, Curtius, Leavis). Parallel polemical positions characterize the popular art/high art controversy. Some valorize the popular specifically as tradition-challenging in political terms (Bakhtin, Fiedler) while others attack it as destructive of all culture (Adorno and Horkheimer, and Leo Lowenthal who says that popular art is spurious, and even “the very counterconcept of art.” (5)

Is the signifying monkey, then, to be given entry to Parnassos? If he is, must that admittance depend on his challenging tradition and defamiliarizing language? The simple fact is that these disputes dissolve with the realization that every instance of language, and a forteriori every literary artifact, is at one conforming and non-conforming. Were it not for the former, it would be incomprehensible, and the latter is necessitated by the fact that every context and occasions is different and so no two utterances can be exactly equivalent. This does not, of course, deny the reality of the two poles: the most routine or morning greetings to co-workers can approach total repetition while Lautgedichte and some other modernist texts approach total unpredictability.

The fact that theories of art have been constructed about each end of the opposition is, however, suggestive of the critical role each plays in the aesthetic text. When Geoffrey of Vinsauf said at the beginning of the thirteenth century that the poet’s job is to “rejuvenate” the language, he included both the retention and the distortion of convention.(6)

It is certainly true that some genres are more conventional than others. There can be little doubt that oral and popular literature are relatively predictable. This has been frequently noted and, indeed, constitutes the ground for most of the attacks against these genres for being boring, artless, and uninspired. In fact, those who champion oral and popular works often try to demonstrate that their choices are acceptable according to the same old standards or irony, innovation, and the like. (7) But there is an equal aesthetic function for the opposites of these qualities as well.

Like Homer and other oral literature, black American folk narratives tend to be highly formulaic. Regardless of whether their performers are brilliantly creative or uninventive, they will make use of stock phrases, formulae, repetitions, allusions, and fragments of other texts. This is obviously true of blues lyrics and Elizabethan sonnets, but Julia Kristeva notes that in fact, “every text takes its shape as a mosaic of citations.” (8) We learn to read and write poetry by imitating, precisely as we learn to understand and speak in the first place. Each of the signifying monkey texts and the other toasts Abrahams collected from the same milieu repeats words, phrases, and episodes from others, but each is also unique.

The place of repetition in high art production is often masked by such terms as “learned style,” “awareness of tradition,” and talk of literary schools and topoi. In popular and oral texts, where it is most emphatic, it is more often denigrated. Extreme conventionalization, close repetition as a sort of intimate intertextuality, produces a familiarity with the words that is identified as automatized and algebrized by Shlovsky. But if language is regularly devalued by repetition, why do the Philadelphia street-corner poets and their listeners find it so attractive? Is there use of repetition any less insistent than that found in such beloved genres as television programs, romance novels, pornography, and comic books? This is, of course, the very concept on which Parry, Lord, and their followers have founded and developed the notion of the oral. Repetitiveness taken to extreme forms, such as American Indian songs in which a brief phrase (often nonsensical) is repeated for hours, or religious liturgy where the same words are spoken weekly for centuries, is hardly the result of incompetence or artlessness. It is simply a different aesthetic strategy.

Familiarization is evident in the formal conventions, the slang (the passage quoted at the outset requires more glossing than Chaucer), and the limited repertory of the tellers of signifying monkey tales. It appears also in larger descriptive clichés, in turns of plot, in the thematic goods retailed through the work. This point is so obvious that it scarcely requires documentation. It is clear that, contrary to Shklovsky’s claim, the repeated structures do not normally fade and disappear due to their automization; rather they are underlined again and again specifically to imprint them the more indelibly on the mental programs of their consumers. In fact, it is the variable data that are likely to bear a lesser semantic load, while constant repetitions delineates cultural components: sacrifice and hospitality ritual in Homer, Christians against the Saracens in medieval romance, the married couples’ embrace at the end of a situation comedy, or the police getting their man at the end of a cop show on television.

In “the Monkey and the Baboon,” formulae consisting of a single word or phrase include “’bout sharp as hell,” “raise” (as a challenge), “fussing and fighting,” and a great many others. The poem is clearly oral by the standard of economy. On the level of larger units, among the poem’s formulae are the jungle setting (suggesting both African origins and the harshness of urban American life), the monkey-baboon contest itself (which is recorded in numerous songs and stories as well as these toasts, some identifying the combatants as “the white man and the nigger”), and the ritual description of the main characters’ clothing (reminiscent of pages devoted to a knight’s arming)as set forth in the opening lines quoted at the beginning of this paper. His dress invests the monkey with an aura of taste and authority just as the merchandise does that is sold at Smokey’s Joes on Chicago’s South State Street, or the zoot suits of the ‘forties, flamboyant Jamaican hairnet caps, or academic regalia. The verbally fluent reciter of the poem seeks to appropriate the power unavailable to him in America today by cleverness with words that identify him with the victorious monkey, that is to say, he looks for success by semiotic means. He uses the vocabulary of clothing the same way.

Social conflicts arising from racism, poverty, and male/female relations are evoked and then resolved in oral narratives like this one, in a way that closely fits Levi-Strauss’s concept of myth as the symbolic mediation of binary oppositions. Much of shamanistic magic follows analogous paths of sympathetic magic: artful words are seen to shape reality. To narrate a myth in which a god defeats a demon is to exorcise the illness from the patient, and this verbal technology is used in contemporary America as much as in tribal societies. Certain critical discussions of popular culture, such as Mattelart and Dorfman’s How to Read Donald Duck, or Fiske and Hartley’s Reading Television have centered on this function as a replicator of ideological givens and thus a masker of contradictions and tensions. (9) But their partisan views rarely consider the example of tribal societies which inculcate cultural norms far more rigorously but toward ends more easily romanticized (see any issue of Alcheringa or the official art of so-called communist countries). Indeed, the classical Chinese opera (which is, in fact, popular) and the Maoist “revolutionary” opera are alike in that both use highly repetitive conventions to teach and reinforce ideology. This is the old Horatian ideal, upheld by E. D. Hirsch and others in the present day, of instruction as a prime function of literature. Though the signifying monkey has seen the inside of few schoolrooms, he teaches his audience a vision of the world and of themselves, complete with moral, aesthetic, and prudential values.

Repetitive structures are intrinsic to the nature of literature because the bear the normative didactic information it either seeks to transmit, or transmits unconsciously. The phenomenon, though, is not adequately explained by the principle of indoctrination. Even Horace allowed pleasure an equal importance, and quite likely Kid (from whom Abrahams collected the etxt) would say he recites poetry for amusement. What sort of pleasure is available from hearing the familiar yet once again, the parent who reads aloud to his three-year-old might wonder.

Eco says that the Superman comic books create a myth, partially because their appeal does not reside in any single story, but rather accumulates as the regularities in a group of stories. (10) This idea of the mythic does not depend on specific similarities to Oedipus or any other model, but rather on formal structural repetition which creates a field of expectations which it is then uniquely able to fulfill. Just as every television program has a set of clichés, characters, remarks, and situations that viewers would be disappointed to miss, Superman and the monkey stories are highly predictable. The contest between the signifying monkey and the baboon is just like that in other texts between a monkey and a lion; it is closely similar to the contest between Shine and the captain of the Titanic, as well as between Stagolee and Billy Lyon (whose surname identifies him with the monkey’s antagonist in the jungle setting). (11) What Eco called “the iterative scheme” in Superman is, according to him, “that on which most famous writers have found their fortunes.”

This popularity is only in part because audiences enjoy having their ideological presuppositions confirmed. Also contributing to the comforting mental message is the purely formal pleasure in encountering the same words, the same ideas, the same figures again and again. The consumer delights in his own initiation. This sort of literary delectation is by no means confined top the naïve. Certainly in scholarly exchange of all disciplines, readers and listeners enjoy jargon(that is, academic slang), familiar critics’ names and book titles. Though each individual has a list to some extent idiosyncratic, recognition of items from it reinforces a sense of belonging, just as the story of the monkey contributes toward the construction of community. In neither case is the sensation of pleasure necessarily dependent on agreement with the ideas expressed by the texts in question. Pleasure in the familiar is the self-reward of competence, whether the competence is in dirty jokes, in spotting an archetype a mile away, or in doing both at once.

Furthermore, familiarization is present in all language. Whenever a word is used with apparent transparency, without metaphor, ambiguity, or irony, whenever reader and text can settle into a certainty that, yes, tables do exist, or that cause and effect is a reliable principle, or that stylish clothing gives an individual power, familiarization is present. It is elevated to a significant formal role in the texts of the signifying monkey as it may be in deviant individual oeuvres like those of graffitists and William Burroughs (who, for all his cut-ups, is more redundant than Edgar Rice Burroughs). Repetition is not, as Shklovsky thought, the opposite of defamiliarization, but rather its precondition and its complement. Referentiality must exist as a system of socially agreed conventions before tropes can twist meaning. Lack of rhyme and internal rhyme have an effect in “The Monkey and the Baboon” only against a background of regularly recurring end rhyme. Information may be more densely packed into the code of the text when a cultural matrix of highly conventional and thus highly transformable structures.

Three main arguments have been presented here to demonstrate the constitutive role of familiarization in literary texts. It is the dominant mode by far in the greatest part of the world’s verbal artifacts; it is particularly likely to perform the didactic function of literature, and it affords plaisir, as well, of a sort associated with the aesthetic text alone. It remains only to qualify these claims, for, though they foreground that half of the nature of literature frequently neglected, it remains only a half.
Repetitive, non-challenging, apparently transparent structures in oral and popular literature have been devalued by some critics because they seem to declare an illegitimate certitude and discourage new thought. Culler, for instance, says that only rule-breaking literature can allow an “expansion of self.” (12) The fact is that oral texts, too, like that of the signifying monkey, have self-reflexive moments in which they betray their own hollowness, the gap or différence between signifier and signified. It would be possible to re-enact for this generation Norman Mailer’s feat in “the White Negro” (13)of naturalizing existentialism ( he complained that “only a Frenchman “ could produce “the all but ineffable frissons of mental becoming” like Sartre’s) by discovering it in the synapses of the Harlem hipster and his white imitators and counterparts. The modern version of this myth of nationalities (effete French, theoretically inarticulate but inspired blacks, and the essential mediating American intellectual) would be to locate Derrida in the cultural artifacts of black American street life. This may be done, but one must bear in mind that the Derridean signifying monkey provides only half the dialectic.

The word signify entered black American usage through the religious discourse of the New Testament. (14) In the Bible, it is typically used to refer to prophetic, symbolic, ecstatic, apocalyptic utterance, thus to figured speech with ambiguous or elusive meaning. In the parable of the sower and the seed, Christ says that such problematic language concealing meaning will persist until the end of days at which time nothing will be hidden, but all will be abroad and known. Thus, before the eschaton, “signifying” or speech that hides meaning will be the only mode available to man., The word is used in the gospels only in John and there only in a line, repeated on three occasions, in which Christ speaks of his approaching death, the passing out of the world of the logos. (15)

Here then is the sublime myth that underlies the monkey’s hijinks as well as the comic trickster preacher who is always deceiving, John, the clever slave, and many similar figures. The term “signify” as well as “jive” carries connotations both of artistic manipulation of language and of an essential characteristic of the sign: the capacity to lie, as both Hesiod and Eco agree. Zora Neale Hurston found her informants commonly called their oral literature “lying,” and among the storytellers whose works Abrahams collected language is sometimes called “shit,” as in “I talked my shit and I talked it well,” or when the narrator refers to himself as “old bullshitting Snell.” The monkey himself originates his adventures by deciding “I guess I’ll start some shit” and what more properly than shit could be called, in Derrida’s phrase “always already gone”? The problematic referentiality of poetry is apparent in the formula favored by another of Abrahams’ informants, Arthur: “You won’t believe this, but . . .”

The very formulaic nature of oral narrative, its reliance on the conventions of rhetoric and rhyme all underline its dubious truth value and its primary relations not to the world in general but to other texts. The signifying monkey, Shine from the Titanic, and Stagolee all have the same motive for adopting language that Kafka’s monkey had. Language is the only available means of gesturing in the direction of communication until some Second Coming. For one who has fallen from Eden, it is that with which one copes, makes do, gets by.

The monkey can teach critics then that familiarization and defamiliarization are interdependent and equally necessary for generating literary texts. Those who study primarily modern elite literature or who read other texts with critical concepts derived from an exclusive bias in favor of modern high art are likely to ignore or undervalue the kinds of structures that predominate in literature as a whole. In fact, every linguistic act both conforms and nonconforms; words play at referentiality while fleeing from it. The anxiety of influence is balanced by a deep delight in influence as in fact we love our parents as well as hating and fearing them. To write or to talk is to caress others erotically as well as to strike at them aggressively. The recognition of this balance derives particularly from examination of oral and popular texts like “The Monkey and the Baboon” and points toward the development of theoretical concepts that will more accurately describe the cultural productions of humanity. Such recognition does not dilute the canon, but rather refines it; it does not point away from literature, but rather directly toward its heart.

1. Roger D. Abrahams. Deep Down in the Jungle, rev. ed. (Chicago: Aldine, 1970), p. 148.

2. See his monumental Motif-Index to Folk Literature.

3. Apart from Abraham’s seminal book, the toasts are most conveniently available in Dennis Wepman, Ronald B. Newman, and Murray Binderman’s The Life (Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1976). This edition is the most likely to be used by modern reciters whose practice is not purely oral. Even in his seminal studies of orality during the 1930s, Milman Parry found some Balkan epic poets using printed versions of their stories. See The Collected Papers of Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales.

4. Cf. the decorous Latin of Culler’s homo significans in Jonathan Culler, Structural Poetics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 130.

5. Leo Lowenthal, Literature, Popular Culture, and Society (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1961), p. 54.

6. Line 769 in the ltext of Ernest Gallo, The Poetria Nova and Its Sources in Early Rhetorical Doctrine (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), p. 54.

7. Thus Krazy Kat and the Marx Brothers are applauded by high culture critics such as Artaud for their “surrealism,” etc.

8. Julia Kristeva, Semiotike (Paris: Seuil, 1969), p. 146.

9. Armand Mattelart and Ariel Dorfman, How to Read Donald Duck (New York: International General, 1975) and John Fiske and John Hartley, Reading Television (London: Methuen, 1978).

10. Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), p. 107-124.

11. In each case an intelligent but vulnerable hero is pitted against a more powerful but less sympathetic opponent. The texts are all available in Abrahams, Chapter 5.

12. Culler, p. 129.

13. Norman Mailer, “The White Negro,” in Advertisements for Myself (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959), pp. 337-358.

14. Since “signify” entered slang usage from learned rather than vulgar usage, it seems obvious that it derived from the religious vocabulary though no documentation of the link has been published. Perhaps the best discussions of “signifying” as an urban American art form are Thomas Kochman, Rappin’ and Stylin’ Out (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972) and William Labov, Language in the Inner City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972).

15. There are also at least four occurrences of the word in Acts and more in Hebrews, I Peter, and Revelation.

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