Gates, “The Signifying Monkey”

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “The Signifying Monkey and the Language of Signifyin(g)” Rhetorical Difference and the Orders of Meaning.” The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.(Chapter 2) (45 pages)

Gates’ outlines his central concept of signifyin(g), a linguistic game (of sorts) where the sign—specifically the signifier or discursive label—is doubled and redoubled in meaning and function. At the core of Gates’ concept is the embrace of ambiguity as a source of invention, and in Gates’ concept, a source of reclaimed power. Gates succinctly defines the process of signifying here: “Some black genius or a community of witty and sensitive speakers emptied the signifier ‘signification’ of its received concepts and filled this empty signifier with their own concepts. By doing so, by supplanting the received, standard English concept associated by (white) convention with this particular signifier, they (un)wittingly disrupted the nature of the sign = signified/signifier equation itself. …I tend to think, or I wish to believe that this guerrilla action occurred intentionally on this term, because of the very concept with which it is associated in standard English” (1553). Put simply, signifyin’ is a vernacular action that revises the inherited meaning of words, namely from whites, as a means of subversion by Black English speakers. As Gates describes, the best way to delineate the relationship between standard, Western English and Black English is to describe it as perpendicular universes rather than parallel: Black English branches and revises standard English.

These “double-voiced” words can be described as palimpsests: “the uppermost inscription is a commentary on the one beneath it, which the reader (or audience) can know only by reading through the commentary that obscures it” (1556). In this way, signifyin’ always entails intertextual relations. The mastery of this language (i.e. Signifyin’) allows “the black person to move freely between two discursive universes. This is an excellent example of what I call linguistic masking, the verbal sign of the mask of blackness that demarcates the boundary between the white linguistic realm and the black, two domains that exist side by side in a homonymic relation signified by the very concept of Signification” (1571).


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