On the Significance of The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.*

by Ralph Dumain

I

What happened over the course of 15‑20 years in the professional existence of Black Studies that culminated in The Signifying Monkey? When and how was the “black aesthetic” supplanted by postmodernism? When did the linguistic turn turn the corner? I don’t know the story, but my guess is that this book marks the consolidation of the new paradigm. As far as the public is concerned, all of this sprang upon us in the ‘80s, but surely the way was paved in those murky years of the late ‘70s, when semiotics was taking root among the American intelligentsia while the rest of us were up to our eyeballs in other endeavors. By the late ‘80s the hiphop hegemony was well into its first decade, and the Reagan counterrevolution had completed its consolidation of a new era.  But those living history forwards, even in performing their own small part in the consolidation of the new cultural order, could not have foreseen how familiar, how hardened, and how sterile, it would become.  It takes a while for things to become consolidated, so that what is taking shape at the moment finally penetrates our consciousness as a coherent epochal cultural phenomenon, just when it is becoming fait accompli.  This is one of the mysteries of the rhythm of history that demands closer scrutiny.  And so the late ‘80s find this curious marriage of the theory of Black Studies merging with the linguistic turn of humanistic studies. Jacques Derrida is one of the blurbers of this very book, don’t you know.

It seems to be a marriage made in heaven. The signifier of Saussure, Lacan, and Derrida and the signifyin’ of African American culture. Could this coincidence of terminology be more perfect?  A strategic move with three payoffs: one, the insistence on the centrality, even the priority of African‑American culture as a world historical cultural and intellectual phenomenon; two, the intellectual legitimation of Black Studies via the cutting edge of Continental European theory; three, the achievement of a sophisticated theoretical paradigm for black cultural studies to replace the naiveté—now called “essentialism”—of the ‘60s paradigm.  It is also a happy coincidence, rich in multilayered irony, that this book finds its origins in a Yale seminar on parody.

Now how do we begin to get a fix on what is not said in this book?  It is impossible to do this without an experiential and intellectual base outside academia. We must begin by asking the question: what is the relationship between rhetorical strategy and the extralinguistic motivations operant in the social world? Why do rhetorical strategies exist and what do they hope to accomplish?  Is the rhetorical, figurative, linguistic dimension isomorphic to and hence a perfect mirror of social action, and even if so, is cultural coding an ultimate explanation of itself or is there something behind it that requires further explanation? This is the shadowy relationship that must be pursued to determine what Gates accounts for and what is not accounted for.

It must be a cultural universal, that marginalized and subordinate groups (and individuals) in situations that are structured to their disadvantage find their weapons in the tools of irony, parody, comedy, ambiguity, semantic reversals and double‑meanings, and the power of metaphor generally.  (Examples: Jewish humor, African American signifying, Heinrich Heine, William Blake.) Both in terms of practical cunning and oppositional metaphysics it cannot be otherwise.  The fixed abstract order postulated by a Plato or Confucius must be undermined by what threatens that sort at the root: humor, slippage, duality.  It is so obvious and fundamental that the parodic subversion of the stability of a ruling order, including its order of meaning, undergirds the metaphysical basis of the subversion of a ruling metaphysics, that it becomes easy to overlook a whole range of questions about what these rhetorical means do not accomplish as well as what they do.

Chapter one of Gates’s book is on the African trickster figure, that also survives in the mythology and folklore of New World black cultures. Chapter two is on African American signifying. Gates paints a rather impressive picture of how the signifying tradition is sophisticated and self‑conscious. It knows that signification is a conscious strategy for navigating the treachery of the world as well as the treachery of the order of meaning.  Gates goes into quite some detail analyzing other scholars’ analyses of signification and providing his own criticisms and emendations. Very good so far. Now what has not been said?

The first thing I noticed is that signifying is not just about undermining the established order.  In fact, most of the examples Gates gives, though many of them are culturally propaedeutic, are about black people demeaning one another.  Yet Gates is curiously silent about the significance of that. Where are the volumes to be written about the significance of the evident distrust that black people have for one another, and not just of a regime in which they are subordinated as a group?  Of course much is said and written about this phenomenon, as a divide-and-conquer strategy, to be sure.  But even if it is to be chalked up to the effects of oppression instituting self‑hatred, doesn’t that suggest something about the limitations of ideological (symbolic) subversion of the ruling order on the part of subordinate groups? What stake does Gates have in celebrating the virtuosity of this tradition while maintaining a discrete silence about its limitations, other than politically correct nods to the issue of phallocentrism, not a brave challenge to issue in the 1980s?

Now when we begin to compare these “subversive” rhetorical practices to other cultural practices and beliefs and behavior in the real world, we may pose potentially embarrassing questions left out of account by Gates.  Most people are stubbornly un‑ironic in about 99% of what they do. The permanent subversion of stable meaning is not what they do; in fact they are most stubborn and rigid in their belief systems in the face of all contrary experience.  People twist their received belief systems to suit their needs and prerogatives, but there is no ironic destabilization of metaphysical meaning when it comes to religion, with black people least of all.  And the parodic revision of reality one accepts depends upon one's values and what one is capable of perceiving. How does Gates account for all the black people (especially women) who were devotees of The Cosby Show but neither understood nor liked The Simpsons?

And while oppressed people may well resent the ruling order, their capacity to challenge it ideologically on its own level may well be limited, all parodic subversion to the contrary.  In sum, once we begin to place rhetorical, linguistic phenomena in relation to other social realities, we find the linguistic turn as a fundamental explanatory principle veering away from some basic issues. And this goes to the question of extralinguistic motivation. What are people actually endeavoring to accomplish in their figurative, rhetorical behavior? And can we adequately ascertain what they really stand for on the basis of their linguistic tropes?

We shall see whether this proves to be the linchpin of what is lacking in Gates. Already the signs are there in the case of Richard Wright, who gets his comeuppance in the signifying practices of Hurston and Ellison, but who is not allowed the last word, probably because Wright was about something the other two could not cope with, something that went beyond signifying, beyond culture, beyond metaphorical subversion, something frighteningly literal, something that said openly could get you killed, and not just by whites.

II

In chapter three Gates takes the plunge into the African American literary tradition.  After relating some obscure, remarkable parodies from the broadside literature of the early nineteenth century, Gates leads us straightaway to Richard Wright, citing two over‑the‑top specimens of playing the dozens from his fiction.  Gates proceeds onward with Ralph Ellison, who practically and expositorily employs signification in his work. Then Gates makes a move that should invite closer scrutiny: he treats Ellison’s work as a form of signifying on Wright [p. 106]. Ellison explicitly and implicitly signifies upon Wright's “limitations.”  Ellison explicitly states that he implicitly criticizes Wright's limitations, and Gates claims that Ellison's modernism signifies upon Wright's naturalism, i.e. his need to rigidly frame the “Negro problem” in his work.  This is what Gates calls critical signification.

Right here is where the problem starts.  Where does “critical signification” end and plain old bullshitting begin?  Let’s hold that thought.

Gates makes a few more stops along the way, and after passing Bakhtin’s hidden polemic, he sets up his schematic of signification, interrelating Toomer, Sterling Brown, Hurston, Wright, Ellison, Ishmael Reed, Baraka, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison [pp. 111‑112]. Ishmael Reed is the consummate double‑voiced author, parodizing and playing the tradition with incomparable relish: the master text is Mumbo Jumbo

Rather than pursue this directly at this point, Gates moves on to the issue of revision and originality and anxiety over one’s literary precursors (and the role of the black voice) in light of the historic accusation of mere mimicry leveled against the Negro. Du Bois and Dunbar brooded over these issues. Charles Chesnutt was preoccupied by the need to achieve respectability as a Negro author, and while trying to erase his own antecedents, engages in revision of William Wells Brown. Hurston confronts the issue head‑on by claiming that originality is really high‑level revision; the distinction between originality and imitation is a false issue. 

Wright claims his antecedents in the tradition of Western literature, dismissing the black tradition.  Even so, he urges the black writer to turn to the anonymous tradition of folklore, characterized by an absence of reflective consciousness, in contrast to the western literary tradition. Wright then admits a generic Negro influence while denying the influence of any particular Negro. Gates doesn’t seem to be comfortable with this, but he also doesn’t seem prepared to analyze it. Hold that thought too.

Ellison is no racial essentialist, so for him sources are sources although he distinguishes between “relatives” and “ancestors” [pp. 120‑121].  Wright is a relative, while European and Euro‑American authors are ancestors, i.e. consciously adopted influences. Gates correlates Ellison’s distinction with what he calls motivated and unmotivated signifying. Ellison signifies on one of his relatives, Wright. This practice is ubiquitous among black authors. Gates finds further evidence of signifying in the practices of blues and jazz musicians. And this is where Gates ends the first part of his book.

It is not remiss for a literary critic to focus his attention on literary devices. What would literary criticism be without this?  Yet is the play of linguistic and cultural codes the end‑all‑and‑be‑all of either art or criticism?  Is that to be the foundation of our concern with and evaluation of cultural artifacts?  With no attention to ethics, philosophy, world view—that is, where an author at bottom stands and what he/she wishes to communicate about his/her rock‑bottom view of the world? 

It is as if Gates anticipates the theory industry of the Generation X‑ers, glutting themselves on self‑referential pop culture crap like Pulp Fiction and Spike Lee’s shitty films. But Gates is of the ‘60s generation, and he enters the hell of the ‘80s not as a child but as a grown‑up who has finally arrived, who has established his star‑studded career beyond anything that could have been imagined when he was growing up, and who as a professional interpreter of the ways of blackness, need not fear personally the consequences of the historic limitations of a culture at the end of its rope, because he can both celebrate blackness as he knew it, which is on its way out, and cash another check for humiliating the black underclass for not performing as ambitiously in neoconservative America as he.

As the story unfolds, I am going to show where Gates fails by limiting his conceptual universe to semiological play and positing a correlation of consciousness with this play without subjecting it to serious critical analysis: where he fails in his understanding of Wright, Ellison, Hurston, and Reed.  I’m going to explain why this is a chronic failing of black intellectuals. I’m going to finger the historic limitations of this black cultural strategy as a whole and maintain that it had reached its historic limits by 1980. I’m going to compare my own experience of the transition to the new political and cultural order of the ‘80s with how it was dealt with by the academic knowledge industry. I’m going to show how impossible it is for anyone to live in a perpetual state of ironic play, that no one can avoid the pitfall of the seemingly playful hardening into a fixed doctrine, or disguising the fixity of the doctrines already held, and that this inability of “Jes Grew” to locate its stabilizing text marks the inability of proletarian urban cultures—that means black culture—to equip itself to maintain any meaningful integrity and cope in the face of what American capitalism has done to it for a whole generation now.  I am going to state explicitly what I could only sense 20 years ago as I was living history forward: that this culture is doomed doomed doomed.

III

Part two of the book begins with a chapter on the “talking book”.  This is outside my concern as well as my competence, but it shows Gates at what must be his most impressive.  As I was told yesterday by a black female scholar how Gates in her view got this all wrong, I have to keep in mind some reservation, but from my naive perspective I detect some singular strengths in this text, from the obscure material Gates (and/or his associates) dug up, to the way he elucidates progression in both the use of rhetorical devices and the states of consciousness they seem to represent.  His scenario is the earliest of published autobiographies of slaves in English, and the peculiarities of their entrance into the western world via the written word. The clash between oral and written cultures and the initiation into literacy generates the trope of the talking book. The ability to understand the written text means making the book speak. Moreover, religious revelation, and discerning the meaning of the Bible, are wrapped up in this process of making the book speak, of seeing the light. Gates sees a progression in the use of these notions in five key figures: Gronniosaw, Marrant, Cugoano, Equiano, and the until recently forgotten author John Jea. Countering the assumption of the white racist world that literacy is the acid test of the full rational capability of the African, thought to be void of same (this being tied up with certain assumptions of the Enlightenment), the African’s ability to prove his mastery of the written word and hence of western culture was a major battle, first from proving his worth, through various stages up to condemning slavery as wicked and anti‑Christian, and including manipulation and permutations of the audience’s racial presumptions and symbolic universe. I am grotesquely oversimplifying Gates’s presentation, and I am told that Gates grossly oversimplifies the history and contextual background of these narratives, including the necessary manipulation of writers’ self‑presentation on behalf of the abolitionist cause; nonetheless, Gates’s intricate exposition reveals the potential of his literary methods. What I keep in mind for my purposes is that the literary methods seem have a lot to do with states of consciousness, depending of course on the level of net sincerity, discounting known and possible contrivances, with which the authors present themselves. Presumably, though, if even were they wholly fictive concoctions, the very deployment of the tropes are just as revealing of rhetorical strategies and would support the theme of signifying as an ongoing cultural strategy.  Then the question would be the distance between the actual consciousness of these writers and their persona in literary form. It seems to me this very question proves that linguistic analysis is not enough to describe everything we need to know about literature that is not strictly literary.

We are moving towards Zora Neale Hurston, but there are a few more way stations.  First, there are some remarkable debates about black literature and self‑presentation taking place after the Civil War.  There are ubiquitous calls in the black press for a redeemer‑poet.  Completely mind‑blowing to me is a published letter by an anonymous white female critic that predicts that the great American novel would be written by a black person! And even more incredibly: this person could well be a woman! [pp. 174‑175] 

The next big redeemer‑poet to come along is Paul Lawrence Dunbar. The issue of dialect is debated, as it causes unease, for example on the part of James Weldon Johnson later on. Sterling Brown and Jean Toomer are discussed, as are continuing debates over questions of stylistic presentation on the part of George Schuyler and W. S. Scarborough.  The author that finally fulfills the promise is Zora Neale Hurston, the first writer that the generation of the 1960s succeeded in canonizing.

Gates’s focus is on modes of representation and mimesis, the voice of the text.  Hurston is said to pave the way not only for Ellison, but to be the first to write the speakerly text. By way of contrast, there is Richard Wright. I have dealt with Gates’s treatment of Wright elsewhere; here I will recapitulate where necessary. Wright presents himself as unique, exceptionally positioned to give voice to the real meaning of the experience of the voiceless blacks around him. “Wright's humanity is achieved only at the expense of his fellow blacks”; he is the noble black savage. [p. 182]

This cameo of Wright really shows up Gates’s ineptitude in dealing with matters of substance. This is a rather arbitrary characterization, even if we granted that Wright is selective about the aspects of his cultural background that he emphasizes in order to focus on what he wants to get away from. Suppose Wright is different, is unique, then how is his own distinction achieved at the expense of everyone else? Gates cannot address this question properly because it is a question that takes one out of language, of tropes, of culture, and into the dreaded terrain of Enlightenment that is not popular in Gates’s moment of consolidation of his academic empire.

Ellison thought Wright paid too high a price in trading in black culture wholesale for the development of the self. Gates paints the Ellison‑Hurston controversy as one over the sign of blackness, the relation between signifier and signified. [p. 182] Mark this well, because while I can see the mechanics of self‑representation as embedded in the issues at stake, to reduce a philosophical difference to a dogfight over signifiers is the acme of intellectual bankruptcy.  A purely literary treatment cannot settle the issue at stake.

Hurston sees Wright as part of the victimology school, expressed in the naturalistic novel, which she defines herself against.  I’ve written elsewhere of Gates's comparative treatment in the death scenes of the mothers of Wright and Hurston. According to Gates, Hurston’s voice is a collective, authentic voice, true to the racial self and a common blackness. The search for a black literary language defines the search for self. [p. 183]

That Gates would have the cheek to write such reactionary drivel, unaccountably “essentialist” for a deconstructionist and integrationist, shows up the sort of intellectual bottom‑feeders that get drawn into the lit crit biz. Please show me what sort of expertise it is, what credentials, Gates has to legitimate such extra‑linguistic claims about the nature of the self based upon language, especially upon such an empirically impoverished, epistemically uncritical, shallow and abstract gloss. This is the linguistic turn par excellence. Mark this well.

I won’t repeat my previous treatment of Gates's contrast between Wright and Hurston [p. 184], except to say  that the idea that the search for self‑consciousness must be embodied in a particular form of language and that it can be ascertained solely through plot devices, dialogue, folklore, etc., is so intellectually bankrupt, it’s thrilling.

What exactly is a theory of literary criticism supposed to theorize? If it is required only to theorize the strictly literary aspects of literature, on what basis is it possible to extrapolate from form alone to larger claims about self and consciousness?

This conceptual confusion is only one illustration of the characteristic intellectual ineptitude of literary critics. Not only is it arbitrary and obtuse, but it is actually a form of intellectual censorship, that in the name of discourse silences whole dimensions of reality.

When I am done with Gates’s exposition of Hurston, and before I get to Ishmael Reed, I am going to have to take a long detour via my own presentation of the philosophical issues I see in Wright, Ellison, and Hurston, which treat the attainment of self‑consciousness totally outside the realm of literary devices. I’m going to give a voice to what Gates silences, and show up his limitations and the limitations of many others in the stalled progress toward self‑consciousness. And then when we get to Ishmael Reed, I will nail Reed, Gates, and the historic limitations of signifying in general as a cultural strategy, let alone as the master cultural strategy. Man does not live by irony alone; no trickster can survive on tricks alone.

IV

Gates subjects Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to the most sustained literary analysis of any figure in his book so far, not surprisingly, since for him Hurston represents the summit of what black literature has attained prior to Ralph Ellison.  Up to the climactic moment of this presentation, which I will get to before long, Gates is focusing on the imagery associated with protagonist Janie’s relationships with men.  I tarry at a specific point at which Gates is far too cursory.

Janie and husband Joe are arguing over who sees and understands what. The few lines of dialogue quoted document a struggle in dialect over intellectual mastery, over what men and women are capable of understanding. Joe's conclusion, in rebuttal of women’s claim to knowledge, is:

“. . . . They just think they’s thinkin’.  When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.” [p. 190]

Gates has stumbled across an issue so profound, it is miraculous that he managed to register this passage on his radar screen and immediately ignore its implications, especially in light of the terrain he embarks upon one page later. And, I might add, especially in light of the barrage that Gates experienced from black women scholars who gave him holy hell while he was hammering out this book, so I’m told.  I bring this up, not out of political correctness, but out of the very opposite motive, because a thorough discussion of what men and women do and do not understand would embarrass more than men.  

Now take away the dialect, take away the gender war, and you are back to Plato, the One and the Many. Pinpointing which classes of people are capable of understanding only multiplicity from specific standpoints and what class sees the unity and meaning of the whole, is the linchpin of every ruling class philosophy of every civilization. It predates race, and is historically motivated by a division of labor elaborate enough to produce an intellectual class. However, applying this issue to the struggle between men and women, one could argue that the cognitive antagonism in this case goes much deeper than it does between any other pairing of dominant/subordinate groups, because it is so intimate, so fundamental, so universal, so inescapable, and because we still don’t know how much of a biological basis it may have. How could Gates not say more?

But now the story reaches its climax. Hurston introduced free indirect discourse into the African‑American narrative. Gates seeks to demonstrate that this innovation “enables her to represent various traditional modes of Afro‑American rhetorical play while simultaneously representing her protagonist’s growth in self‑consciousness through free indirect discourse.” [p. 191] I hope you see how crucial this is, as it unites the linguistic realm of discourse with the extra‑linguistic one of self‑consciousness:

“Curiously, Hurston's narrative strategy depends on the blending of the text's two most extreme and seemingly opposed modes of narration—that is, narrative commentary, which begins at least in the diction of standard English, and characters’ discourse, which is always foregrounded by quotation marks and by its black diction. As the protagonist approaches self‑consciousness, however, not only does the text use free indirect discourse to represent her development, but the diction of the black characters’ discourse comes to inform the diction of the voice of narrative commentary such that, in several passages, it is extraordinarily difficult to distinguish the narrator’s voice from the protagonist’s.” [p. 191]

Now this is truly remarkable.  This is a watershed.  And, paradoxically, it reveals the power of literary analysis at its height and at the same time its limitations.

Consider what is being proved here. In the realm of literature (culture), Hurston unites dialect and standard English and for the first time empowers dialect as a vehicle of sophisticated self‑consciousness, albeit through the literary machinations of a literate, college‑educated individual who also comes from the folk. What does this prove philosophically? Assuming that real‑life characters are also capable of embodying such self‑consciousness, which is entirely plausible, we now know that people who don’t speak standard English are capable of sophisticated reflection and self‑consciousness. Paradoxically, this deduction severs the necessary connection between language and consciousness!

Let us return to the Wright‑Hurston conflict. Both writers are masters of dialect and standard English. Both signify as well as engage in expository prose. Both are intellectuals who come from the folk, though, paradoxically, Hurston, who embraces folklore, is a college‑educated anthropologist while Wright, who separates himself from folk consciousness, is a high‑school dropout. What is the difference? Following Gates, the difference is that in Wright’s work, self‑consciousness is predicated on a separation from the folk, and from its language, whereas in Hurston, self‑consciousness comes about with no overt break from the forms of expression of the folk. Talk about giving someone enough rope to hang himself! What has Gates left out here? Gates pulverizes Janie’s individuality by reducing her individual experience to the realm of an authentic, racial, collective voice. Yet Janie has an individual understanding her peers do not, based on a unique and unprecedented rebellion. And behind Janie is Hurston, who chooses to express her own unique understanding in folk language. Whereas Bigger Thomas gropes toward a self‑understanding he can attain in no form of language, dialect or standard, in total contrast to Wright, who could have been Bigger had he not transcended his background and obtained self‑consciousness through attainment of a larger perspective. The correlation between language and consciousness is all bollixed up.

This is what happens when you reduce philosophy to semiotics, and when you reduce literary content to literary devices. To equate black consciousness with black style and relegate other philosophical considerations to silence: this is Gates signifyin’, struttin’ his postmodern stuff, merchandising his blackness in the historical moment of hiphop and Ronald Reagan.

My next step is to open up the suppressed topic of the relation of the intellectual to the folk. Hurston’s relationship with the folk is as fraught with complications as is Wright’s, as is Ellison’s, tropes or no tropes.

V

I broke off my discussion having pinpointed the complications of triangulating the relationships connecting language, consciousness, the voices of fictional characters and the knowledge of their creators, with respect to a comparative analysis of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. I claimed that Gates, far from proving the equation of language with consciousness, has suppressed a far more complex system of relationships. I will have to return to this theme ultimately, but the relationship between authors and their fictional characters immediately puts on the table the long overdue question of the relationship between the intellectuals and the folk.  In the case of both Wright and Hurston, the intellectuals were once folk themselves.

Wright, in spite of his employment of signifying in his fiction, is most obviously distancing himself from his own “folk” past.  But so far, Gates has fudged the situation of Hurston.  Apparently, this state of affairs is endemic to the Hurston revival. The person who is surprisingly insightful about this problem is Hazel Carby, (**) who goes to some lengths to demonstrate convincingly that Hurston is no simple anamnesis for the folk sensibility, but is in struggle with it herself.  The struggle between the expression of folk culture and its relationship to individual self‑consciousness is achingly obvious in her most famous novel.

Now I must take a detour to describe my own history with Hurston, which begins a little over two decades ago, when all of her books were out of print, and the material that was only recently gathered into anthologies was mighty hard to find. I never could have imagined then that a tawdry hack like bestselling Terry McMillan would one day appear on TV with Oprah Winfrey claiming Hurston as a precursor. Two decades ago, when several people I knew got their mitts on copies of Their Eyes Were Watching God in used book stores, and opened it up at home, they were completely blown away as I was. One of my friends blacked out for twenty minutes after reading the first paragraph. This is the most remarkable of Hurston's works, by far the best of her novels. It is also about the overcoming of provincialism and the attainment of self‑consciousness, presented in a popular form and from a woman’s perspective, way ahead of her time. Its feminism is way ahead of its time, and while some of it has reached fruition today, there are aspects of it that are still ahead of where many people are at today. It is not of the all‑men‑are‑dogs-but-I‑don't‑have‑to‑change‑a‑thing‑about‑myself variety. That is another essay, however.

It doesn’t take very long to learn how politically suspect Hurston is. There is no secret about her participation in McCarthyist red‑baiting and her opposition to school integration in the 1950s, in the same decade in which her career collapsed. She ended up working as a maid, and ended up buried in an unmarked grave until Alice Walker showed up. I took the trouble of obtaining the articles she wrote for the American Legion magazine baiting black radicals such as Wright, Robeson, and various black Communists in her folksy style, and they made me nauseous. Coupled with her opposition to school integration, it is obvious how intimately cultural nationalism cavorts with fascism. What I did not know, having not yet moved down South, was how deeply ingrained conservativism runs in the blood (to use their language) of Southerners, and not just white males.

Well, the political issue is obvious, but its connections with literary and philosophical issues is not so above‑board.  The next thing that disturbed me was Hurston's indulgence in occultism by way of voodoo. I don’t mean that she got on the wrong side of somebody’s gris‑gris, as a famous black female writer who shall not be named here once suggested to me, but that occultism is fascism’s kissing cousin, inherently anti‑democratic, anti‑intellectual, anti‑individual, anti‑Enlightenment.

Yet Hurston is in many respects an Enlightenment figure, though her position is deliberately grounded in ambiguity. She indulges in, not merely studies, voodoo, yet she seems to view religion from a distance, even psychoanalytically at times. She does not sharply separate herself from folk consciousness, even when she shows up its limitations, including some acute observations of how provincialism and hardship affect character. It may well be that Wright was so put off by Hurston’s rhetorical strategy that he could not see the upside of Their Eyes or recognize the side of Hurston that would be congenial to his own perspective, but her folk shtik, maintained throughout her whole life, must have worked Wright’s last nerve.

Now is the moment to zero in on the crucial aspect of Hurston’s world view that relates to signifying. All throughout her work, esp. in documenting folklore, she refers to “lying”, the improvisatory alteration of given cultural material to serve the needs of the moment while storytelling. In her fiction, Hurston highlights improvisation as the key to black genius and creativity in all things. (Two decades I ago I considered this Hurston’s most brilliant philosophical contribution.)  By keeping to this side of black culture, she successfully finesses all the troubling questions about the limitations of the rural folk perspective. In her presentation of this world, the literal meaning of nothing is left in place; all that is solid melts into air, and all fixed beliefs are set into motion and deployed for the shifting needs of the moment, never stabilizing or rigidifying. Hurston exercises this strategy brilliantly, and as long as this non‑literal, improvisatory moment is sustained, Hurston is OK. Hold that thought.

To get to the nub of the problem, let's take a look at Hurston’s novel Moses, Man of the Mountain. This is Exodus done in blackface, retooled using the folklore, proverbs, expressions of black folk culture, and geared towards its issues and problems. This is the most exuberant, uninhibited improvisation remolding the most intractably stable and fixed of sacred texts. By metaphorizing the Old Testament and bringing it up to date, Hurston plays upon an ambiguity as to its ontological status. How far does such alleged metaphoric flexibility take the folk, as compared to the intellectual?

This fudge factor over the literalness of religious myth does not enter modern thought via Zora Neale Hurston; it is a decidedly modernist issue going back as far at least as German idealism. What is the relationship between the popular picture language or complex of  representations (vorstellung) and its latent speculative content, as understood by the philosopher? Are they two levels of appropriations of the same truth, or is there an antagonistic contradiction between them? Fudging this issue is a very German thing, but obviously not uniquely so; it is the story of all modern attempts to liberalize religion without discarding it. The promiscuous identification of the reflective intellectual with the volksgeist was Hurston’s lifelong strategy, and in this she is not alone among black cultural and intellectual figures.

Are the actual folk that adaptable when it comes to the religious beliefs and other foundations of their world view? Hurston would like to emphasize this aspect, to show off black cultural innovation in its best light, but what is repressed from this picture bears an implicit relationship to Wright’s hostility toward her.

There is nothing more rigid, dogmatic, and anti‑intellectual than folk culture. The development of critical thought and an individual viewpoint is a veritable mutation in such an environment. People can metaphorically bend their concrete imagery (representations) in this direction or that, and justify whatever they need to do now, but their project is not the permanent subversion of stable meaning. Nobody lives suspended in an infinitely malleable metaphorical state, not even a deconstructionist, and to try to pass off the improvisatory nature of black cultural expression as the last word is to perpetuate a lie that will come back and get you. Hurston couldn’t do it, and her final denouement as an accomplice to fascism proves it.

Hurston’s limitations are the harbinger of the limitations of a whole culture as it strains against its historic limits and begins to collapse. Hurston ends her life opposing the modern civil rights movement at its inception. It took a whole historical epoch for a culture to end up sabotaging its future after turning the world upside down and getting beaten back into submission. All the superstition, authoritarianism, patriarchalism, backwardness, all the atavistic, regressive and obsolete characteristics, in sum, all the fatal flaws and weaknesses of a culture unable to cope with the new economic, political, and cultural order of right‑wing America consolidated in the 1980s coalesce in a moment of infamy that sounds the death knell of black culture: the Million Man March. Zora Neale Hurston—feminist, womanist, whatever—would have been at home there.

I have reviewed the underlying theoretical questions as I have seen them without one reference to language, without one sentence devoted to the specifically literary aspects of literature. Why then, would I presume to intervene on the terrain of literary criticism, whose proper expertise is the analysis of literary form? What does my critique have to do with Skip Gates’s theory of African‑American literary criticism, his trope‑a‑dope virtuosity in analyzing the rhetorical dynamics of literary texts and their relationship to one another?

Here is my answer: Gates is unable to confine his claims to the domain of literary form. Gates is unable to explain the relationships of black writers to one another based solely on signifying relationships or strictly rhetorical relationships in general. Gates is unable to explain everything about the underlying world views and consciousness of writers based on the historical problematic of the manner of self‑presentation of a black voice in a hostile world. Gates must refer to extra‑linguistic motivations at every point to explain the survival as well as rhetorical strategy behind signifying, the choice of styles, the use of dialect and standard English, the need for double‑voicing, yet is unable to establish a one‑to‑one relationship between language and consciousness, or between the writer’s inner self  and his/her culturally coded public persona or fictional alter ego, without suppressing a number of relevant factors. By inner self I do not mean just his blackness as opposed to his outer appearance to the white world, an ambiguous relationship upon which signifying capitalizes; nor do I add only the signifying relationships obtaining among black people manipulating or outdoing one another; I mean who that inner individual is even in relation to his own cultural embodiment. And finally, criticism, as are the cultural products that lend it its basis, includes content as well as form. Gates cannot evade the evaluation of content even with his foregrounding of form, while I, focusing exclusively on content, intend to reveal factors and issues that Gates overlooks.

How is secular, multicultural, postmodern, liberal integrationist Skip Gates able to tarry with the volksgeist as he does, immersing himself in the maelstrom of race, gender, and maybe even class but somehow glossing over the question of individualism as if Gates himself were merely just folks who has made all of Piedmont, West Virginia proud over his success? Has Gates proved that Wright is too unkind to the folk, or are rootless cosmopolitans, as opposed to rooted ones, just unwelcome in Black Studies departments?

Gates is no Afrocentrist; they oppose him. Same goes for Cornel West. There are other, even more slippery figures in the academic black world who present one ideological face to their white liberal and leftie allies, another to the black ideological world. (I have described how this works in my analysis of philosopher Lucius Outlaw.) The spurious constructs of African‑American and Afro‑Caribbean philosophy now gaining foothold in hackademia do not come by way of Afrocentrism, so obviously closed and reactionary—so “essentialist”—but in league with the white academic left by way of postmodernism, its attack on the Enlightenment as racist and its reduction of philosophy to culture. The linguistic turn disables the formation of concepts of the level of abstraction necessary to disentangle the conceptual issues embedded in the culture wars. It censors the autonomous individual and disperses the consolidation of individual consciousness into the anonymity of discourse. This is the ideological moment in which Gates consolidated his academic empire.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: Hurston, Hegel, and the problem of language.

* Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

** Carby, Hazel V. “The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology, and the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston,” in: New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God, edited by Michael Awkward (Cambridge University Press, 1999 [The American Novel]), pp. 71‑93.

Written 6, 8, 18 May 2001
Compiled, edited, uploaded 13 February 2010
©2001, 2010 Ralph Dumain

Postscript

As far as I can tell, I never did write the next installment promised. Nevertheless, I believe I conclusively made my case as to the inadequacy of the basis of Gates’s literary criticism. Below are excerpts from stray notes I consolidated on 13 May 2001 while writing this piece on The Signifying Monkey.

Notes—Fragments

My essay in progress on Skip Gates is subversive, above all because I compare my experience of the transition from the 1970s to 1980s from a different social vantage point from that of any academic of any color. My criticism of occultism in the countercultures of the 60s and 70s, for example, does not belong strictly to empirical history or to abstract philosophizing, though it partakes of both. I am trying to show how the historical limitations of a way of thinking, which may begin from quite innocent motivations, turn deadly when their negative potentials are released at the historical moment when they can no longer be contained by the limited purposes they arose to serve. Hence I am now writing the most subversive critique of Ishmael Reed . . . following my own engagement with his work from the mid-‘70s to the 1980s when the limitations of his perspective could no longer be ignored. And I use several examples, not only from literature, but from personal life, to explain why I had to turn definitively against all this stuff in 1980 in order to fight fascism on the plane of ideas. I also demonstrate the fatal limitations of black intellectual life that, unnamed and unaddressed, lead inevitability to intellectual mediocrity, cultural obsolescence, and an inability to cope with the demands of the new world order that terrorizes us all. . . .

* * *

I always underestimate how bad things are. I just came home from an unexpected two-hour conversation with an Afrocentric feminist lit crit woman in a bookstore who had studied with Cornel and Skippy. She dished all the dirt on academic politics, esp. the struggle between black men and women—all the ideological, political, and scholarly issues involved. This was occasioned by my mentioning to her that I was doing a critique of Gates’s The Signifying Monkey. I have reams to write about this encounter, because this woman embodies everything I oppose, even though she agreed with me from the other side of the fence what was wrong with Skippy’s postmodern apotheosis. I’m so happy I was never in the academic racket: it’s poison, and the people in it, though ostensibly intellectuals, are just like small town hicks who can’t see past the end of their noses. I have figured them out. And literature professors are intellectual bottom feeders when it comes to philosophical issues.

* * *

The woman in question was far from a bore, and I did learn something about Gates from inside the academic gates, which was complementary to my more abstract and distant approach. Her problem, I think, is a commonplace of intellectual socialization, regardless of one’s origins—in this case a working class black woman from Texas. People are so absorbed in the conceptual and terminological currency of their social network they totally forget the problem of translation—in a society as diverse as ours, you can never be certain of the presuppositions of the next person you encounter. People used to structured situations are easily disoriented when they encounter people they can’t place. I learned this lesson before Gen X was born. This woman told my friend (who was a witness to this conversation) and me: when you think of the word “white”, it means something different to you than it means to me. We could have asked her the same about the word “Jew” and stood back and observe. But the thing is, she didn’t know in advance what the word ‘white’ meant to my friend or to me. In a rigid society, the next person you meet is not likely to be much different from the previous 1000, but you can never be sure whom you’re dealing with. I’ve learned to be very conscious of these matters, but that consciousness is excluded from the closed world of the volksgeist.

* * *

Academic politics is truly bone-chilling. . . . The evening’s encounter with this Afrocentric feminist gave me the heebie-jeebies, but it was extremely educational about what the problems are. People no matter how well educated can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve made my life’s work probing the fundamental questions about the relation between self and environment.

* * *

As for literature people being bad philosophers, consider the philosophical issues that enter into the lit crit fight: relativism, essentialism, the Enlightenment, standpoint epistemology, etc. Just the fact that these folks are selectively raiding the literatures of what they call other disciplines lends a peculiar character to the expertise they could legitimately claim in their own specialty, say, some period, movement, or specific literary figure.

* * *

What are the effects of American capitalism on black culture? . . . The market completely rules the society and everyone in it in a fashion more total than at any time in history. Clearly the American ruling class decided to kill off liberalism circa 1978, probably a few years earlier. However, the era of stagflation saw the consolidation of irreversible cultural change. The new era of high-tech reaction and restructuring of the economy can already be found in Star Wars, the most reactionary film of the 1970s, whose Teutonic character made me blanche when I saw it in a drive-in when it came out in 1977. If one wants to just look at the fate of black popular culture in the 1980s, one gets a flavor of what has happened. And yet the black middle class that flourished in the 1970s and the footholds it gained within the intelligentsia and in all of public life, in combination with the partial integration of the whole black population into the mainstream cultural as well as economic marketplace, also emerged into full view in the 1980s. However, there is a generation gap here. The intellectuals are the bearers of a black culture that has already been rendered obsolescent by the hiphop generation, whose culture and socialization are so mediated through television and the marketplace, much more so than any original “folk” culture (rural or urban) which maintained its vitality as long as it did through segregation, that to talk about the continuation of a “black” culture in the ‘80s and beyond, already mutated generationally beyond recognition, begins to assume the role of farce, for the stylistic peculiarities that persist become so drained of substance that they become commodified fetishes and markers of distinction without a difference, paradoxically proving that full social integration is long overdue and that culture and society are rotting as the old is dying and the new is not being born. But it is not black culture that is dying in distinction from anything else, it is all of American culture, of which the developments in black culture are the advance guard, just as blacks always experience the worst consequences of everything—economic recession, political repression, etc.—before they strike everyone else.

From notes originally compiled 13 May 2001
Edited & uploaded 13 February 2010
©2001, 2010 Ralph Dumain


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