Tuesday, November 25, 2008

‘The Signifying Monkey’

Is the title of a book by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, and Director of the W.E.B. du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. This thick but empty volume bases its premise, that all white people should be chained up and beaten to death (it’s what he means, though he doesn’t quite dare say it), on the title phrase, which he spends 300 odd pages interpreting in the most extraordinary ways, and showing he doesn’t understand it. It is a West African expression for man, anthropomorphized as not a white insult at all, and refers to the obvious fact that man is an ape that talks or thinks or however it has been put by thousands of people, often, I should imagine, independently. It is a fairly obvious comment to make on man. Nevertheless, despite showing that he knows its origin is a descriptive phrase used by blacks he presents it a symbol of racism.

He also treats signifyin’, which he repeatedly calls a homonym of signifying, as though it had some special, esoteric meaning for Africans. It is perfectly clear from the examples he gives that ‘signifying’ in that sense simply means talking, especially perhaps conversing, yet he randomly derives a series of ideas and wild interpretations from this perfectly clear and simple expression. The book is doggerel, illogical rubbish devoid of any reason, a racist diatribe dressed up as serious research, the work of a stupid and hate-filled man. Yet it is on the reading lists of many English and other departments, and he has prestige among people like himself. (By which I mean fashionable critical theorists, and those who do similar nonsense for whatever reason.)

I have written this from memory, but the memories are clear. If anyone can explain why this book is other than what I have said, I should be glad to hear from them. But not from critical theorists. I refer to people who know how to think, and who can understand a text rather than having to invent a meaning for it.

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