Katherine Pelz15 Dec. 2017POE- Final PaperScience Fiction: Unlocking the AbsurdGates’ book, The Signifying Monkey, has become quintessential in the analysis and comprehension of African American literature. Gates provides a deep understanding of cross-culture literature though symbols and ideas that incorporate the spirit of Black culture, which is unable to be expressed through denotations. Literature and speech have historically been Westernized and manipulated to keep the white-washed experience central to history and to erase the line that separates the Black double-consciousness from Western thought. It is crucial to differentiate signifying, the practice of using the denotative, from Signifyin’ (for the purposes of this essay with the use of a capital “S”), using connotation to represent the cultural implications and undertones of words and symbols. Gates uses two complex tropes, the Signifying Monkey and Esu-Elegbara, to frame his analysis and to help the Western reader get a second look at the ambiguous from behind the veil, as Du Bois has defined. Tropes are the constitutive of language and Signifyin’ is the master of all tropes.
Gates explores the ways black slaves brought Black vernacular into the New World through the Yoruba trickster figure, Esu-Elegbara, who acted as a divine messenger between man and God, sitting on the crossroads. The Signifying Monkey is derived from Esu-Elegbara and is popular in African-American folklore to act as a Signifier for double-consciousness. Signifyin’, then, in Gates’ sense, is a concept seen through the Signifier, to provide a double voice, that is words yielding unconscious association, to the Black vernacular. Signifyin’ is unique to the black experience, as it provides a way for the Black community to interpret Westernized words with a shared and unique meaning. Signifyin’ is used throughout black literature both consciously and unconsciously.
Many popular poems and tales brought from the earliest African cultures incorporate the common tale of the Monkey, Lion, and Elephant. In which the Monkey commonly insults the Lion, however claims that he is only repeating the words of the Elephant, not his own. When the Lion confronts the Elephant, he realizes the he has been tricked by the Monkey and in a bout of rage, castrates the Monkey. These tales often are reminiscent of the hope of a power role reversal between the White supremacist and the Black man. Gates’ explains the different ways Signifyin’ is used in Black literature and the way it is used as a response to evil, “Because these tales originated in slavery, we do not have to seek very far to find typological analogues for these three terms of an allegorical structure. Since to do so, inescapably, is to be reductive, is to redirect attention away from the materiality of the signifier toward its supposed signified… For the importance of the Signifying Money poems is their repeated stress on the sheer materiality, and the willful play, of the signifier itself,” (Gates, 59). The Monkey is, in these tales, the way to deal with black discourse. The Money is therefore the way for the Black culture to break the line between good and evil that is enabled by white supremacy, through trickery.
The Signifying Monkey is able to use trickery to manipulate self-reference to create uncertainty in the Lion’s mind, the Lion representing White supremacy. Self-reference is the most powerful form of recursion, as the ability for a system to reflect upon itself is at the heart of understanding consciousness. The discourse between signifying and Signifyin’ provides enough insight into the confrontation between Black culture and White culture, to allow a look into double-consciousness. However, understand Signifyin’ is impossible, as its ambiguous nature disallows any certain conclusion to be drawn from the word. Similar to studying the infinitive nature of fractals and self-reference, the meanings of Signifyin’ are multiplicative and encompass the complexity of African-American culture, which no one word can do.
To this note, escaping the ambiguity of Signifyin’ would be the logical step for the Western thinker, however this also becomes impossible, due to its paradoxical relationship with the common Western “signifying.” Gates’ analysis uses relationships between literary culture, tropes, and speech to suggest that through repetition and difference, language can take on an autonomous form specific to African-American culture. Afrofuturism uses science fiction as a form of Signifyin’ to explore the ambiguous. The ambiguous is everywhere and where one finds themselves between two world. Cultures have explored many ways to define this inter-dimensionality, through figures such as Papa Legba and other loas who reside at crossroads. This search of knowledge is not localized by any means, there is a whole branch of mathematics trying to understand this question, coined as chaos theory. The repetitive nature of fractals have been discovered as a product of this search and although they are found in unconscious activities, such as urban sprawl, they have been an intentional part of African culture for centuries. However, understanding these theorems is impossible, as they are infinite.
Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem describes this infiniteness, outlining limitations to formal systems and algorithms. In response, people have tried to find a way to accept chaos and find the order beneath it. Literature has tried to understand this negative capability, appreciating uncertainty above knowledge and reason, through science fiction. Black science fiction is used to parallel the many dimensions of the double-consciousness and find a way to rationalize the absurd through metaphor and hyperbole. Science Fiction allows for the estrangement of the normal conditions of the world, in order to see the fantastic and give the “real” a dystopian launching point.
Butler cleverly navigates inter-dimensionality in her dystopian short story, “Speech Sounds,” in which society is plagued with a disease impairing the ability to speak, read, and write and often leading to death. The protagonist, Rye, is relatable and the reader associates her with humanity and rationality. Surrounded by violence, jealousy, and irrationality, Rye seems to mind her own business.
Butler shortly changes the reader’s perspective, by showing Rye’s jealous side, “He could read, she realized belatedly. He could probably write, too. Abruptly, she hated him-deep, bitter hatred. What did literacy mean to him-a grown man who played cops and robbers? But he was literate and she was not. She never would be. She felt sick to her stomach with hatred, frustration, and jealousy. And only a few inches from her hand was a loaded gun,” (Butler, 98).
Butler uses this Westernized attitude as a Signifier. Butler sets up Rye with the values associated with whiteness, such as intelligence, rationality, and peacefulness. The reader therefore associates Rye with being good. It is not until Rye is faced with the actuality of jealousy, that the reader sees her true colors come out. When she is put into a position where she feels as if something should be rightfully hers, she snaps and contemplates killing her new companion. Butler uses the ability to read, write, and speak as Signifiers for privilege. She then shows many characters who are seen in negative light, due to their quickness to start a fight or kill.
The White reader judges these characters and associates them with characteristics of blackness, such as anger, irrationality, and quick-tempers. Butler then strategically puts Rye into a position where, similar to feeling the absence of privilege, she feels as though the world is unfair to her. Butler is using many Signifiers to allow the White reader to relate to Rye; and then shows that even those people seen as good (or characteristically white), have the ability to be associated with evil, blurring the lines between good and evil. Du Bois explores science fiction and the post-apocalyptic genre in his work, “The Comet.” Post-apocalyptic stories have been popular among times of economic, environmental, and societal failures and is a seductive genre for the privileged, possibly due to the economic safety net that has followed them around all their lives. However, for the underprivileged, the post-apocalyptic genre allows for the discussion of the discourse of societal issues and provides a means to imagine a clean slate for every individual.
Du Bois’ story is a reaction to how his view on racial disparities has progressed. Initially, Du Bois believed he could combat racism by providing scientifically proven facts, discrediting the popular belief among White Americans that Blacks were of an inferior race. This attitude was shown in his story when the comet hit and Jim, an African American, found himself to be the only person on earth. The first thing Jim did was go into a restaurant and eat off of a tray speaking, “Yesterday they would not have served me” (Du Bois “The Comet”, 8). By making this Jim’s first act in the wake of a doomsday tragedy, Du Bois is Signifyin’ on the deep effects that long-lasting segregation has on the Black community. This story takes a turn when Jim meets a White woman who is seemingly the only other survivor. After her initial aversion to him being Black, they come together and seem to form a bond. However, this short lived hope for the two races to look past skin color is shortly admonished when a search party comprised of white men and the woman’s dad find the couple.
The white man’s threat to lynch Jim is a Signifier for, specifically, the Atlanta Riot of 1906 reporting the murdering of 16 Black men after accusations of Black men attacking White women, none of which were substantiated. This incident, on top of hundreds of others, is Signified in this act of accusation when Jim has only tried to protect the White woman in “The Comet.” This is also a turning point in the story, where Du Bois begins to refer to Jim as “the colored man” (Du Bois “The Comet”, 17). The story ends with Jim’s wife carrying their dead baby in her arms. “The Comet” ends with a feeling of hopelessness, similar to Du Bois’ own attitude on racism. Du Bois gave a speech relaying a pinnacle point in his career, “I wrote out a careful and reasoned statement concerning the evident facts and started down to The Constitution, carrying in my pockets a letter of introduction to Joel Chandler Harris… On the way the news meets me: Sam Hose had been lynched… his knuckles were on exhibition at a grocery store on Mitchell Street… I suddenly saw that complete scientific detachment in the midst of such a South was impossible” (Du Bois Speeches and Adresses, 39). The ending of “The Comet” is a Signifier for the loss of hope in the Post-Reconstruction period after the surge of hope following the Civil War. In the midst of even a total apocalypse, racism runs so deep that the issue is still engrained in what is left of society.
Bradbury uses Afrofuturism in his work, “Way in the Middle of the Air,” to explore the Utopian genre with the protagonists not being the typical White male. Bradbury’s story outlines the Black community leaving on a spaceship to escape the slavery and injustice that they face on Earth. In a reality that is absurd, African Americans experience a sense of otherness, that can only be explored in the context of another reality, such as space. Bradbury uses space as a Signifier for hope and an escape from racism. Unlike many of the works of the time on race relations, Bradbury’s story has a hopeful attitude.
Bell, in his short story, “The Space Traders,” uses a different Signifyin’ technique than the authors outlined above and describes a situation that is opposite to Bradbury’s work. He outlines the story in a way that makes avoiding the uncomfortableness of it impossible. He does not try and get the reader to analyze the work deeply to understand the power dynamics and unfairness of the system in place in our society. Instead he uses the black vernacular to allow the reader to scrutinize their own internal feelings.
Bell creates the aliens in ambiguity, never explaining the ways in which they could force a trade or manipulate through advanced technology and weaponry. The aliens are the least intrusive they can be in order to keep the plot of the story alive. Therefore, Bell effectively disallows the White reader to blame their final decision on the threat of the aliens. The out-of-control growth of technology, that is shown through the promises of the aliens for special chemicals to revert pollution and gold, is a Signifier for the treatment of the Black body. Throughout the story, Bell is Signifyin’ and commenting on the US government and, specifically, Ronald Reagan. The most evident Signifier that Bell uses is the date of the trade, January 17th, 2000, which was the day that Martin Luther King Jr.
‘s birthday was to be observed that year. In the story, the Congress immediately turns to the law in order to finds ways to justify the trade; there are suggestions of spinning the Service Act of 1918 to require “forced military duty abroad” (Bell, 332). The justifying of inhumane rulings, simply because they are written as law, has been a problem in society that has unfairly targeted the Black community through criminal law and the prison system. The entire setting and theme of the story is Signifyin’ on Reagan’s attitude towards the rights of African-Americans. The space theme is reminiscent of Reagan’s emphasis on bettering space technology. In addition, the date of the trade is a Signifier for Reagan not wanting to observe Martin Luther King Jr.
‘s birthday. The absence of Black members in Reagan’s cabinet is mirrored in the story, in which Gleason Golightly is the only African American sitting in on the committee discussing the trade. Golightly’s presence was a Signifier for the attitude held in society that to appease the minorities was a final solution, “His Golightly mere presence as a person of color at this crucial session would neutralize any possible critics in the media” (Bell, 330). Those in power never fought for lasting solutions to the civil-rights crisis that was especially prominent and worsening in the 1990s and instead opted to make false promises of change to calm those in opposition in the moment. The aliens were described as “practical, no-nonsense folks like regular Americans” (Bell, 328), allowing the White folks to classify them as good and nullify their guilty conscious’.
The final “democratic” decision to go ahead with the trade is a signifier for the deteriorating status of civil rights for Blacks in current society. All of the characters, whether they are for or against the trade, understand the reality of such a proposition, as does the reader. Although no one can argue the civility of the trade, that is overlooked by the many ways those in power convince the public that the trade is the right thing to do.
However, the uneasiness of the story comes down to a level of individual thought. The internal struggle to trade one’s own comfort for the struggling of someone else is everywhere in society and Bell creates a powerful magnification of this fundamental human behavior, creating a solemn and hopeless attitude throughout the story. The entire attitude of the story is a Signifier for the repetitive nature of discrimination that is perpetuated by the democratic system that is in place. The problem of evil is in its antonym, good. For without an opposition, a term loses its meaning. The depth of this question comes through the understanding of how good and evil are signified, which has historically been through White supremacy. Therefore, the limits between good and evil are defined by a culture, which consistently opposes and disvalues Black culture. Evil has been defined as everything Black.
Words such as dirty and uneducated have been deceptively associated with Black people by repetition and using tropes such as the skin color. In dissent, Black vernacular and Signifyin’ have been used to break this barrier between good and evil that has been set up through White idealism. Opposing this is white supremacy which works to maintain order, through institutions of religion, prison and through man-made concepts such as repression of art and music, sundown towns, and Euclidean geometry. Afrofuturism has proven to be a powerful means to blur the lines between good and evil that have been set.
In conclusion, the problem of evil is simply how we define good and therefore we must as a society stop analyzing “good” and “evil” as opposing terms.