April 13, 2013
CINE 322 401
Encoded Language Switching
As Opposition to Heteronormative Modalities
“The ironic reversal of a received racist image of the black as simianlike, the Signifying Monkey, he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language, is our trope for repetition and revision, indeed our trope of chiasmus, repeating and reversing simultaneously as he does in one deft discursive act…not engaged in the game of information giving…dependent on the play of differences…turning upon the free play of language itself…Signifying epitomizes all of the rhetorical play in the black vernacular…The Signifying Monkey is the principle of self-consciousness in the black vernacular, the meta-figure itself.”
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Edith Wharton describes upper middle class life as “a hieroglyphic world where the real thing was never said or done…but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs” (Higashi, 90). These complex coded rituals and visual cues are markers of an imperialist society whose inception began during the expansion of Europe, and the colonization that followed. These rituals can only have meaning if there are people who are excluded from them. As Western society was designed to be an exclusively white society, privileging the heterosexual male and his possession; the white female, all groups that were not white, and heterosexual, and male, were implicitly excluded.
The African, a presence in Western society primarily for the purpose of slave labor, was the principle element that worked as a way for White society to define itself as the opposite. By defining the African as primitive, White society was able to define itself as civilized. By creating a set of rules, rituals and laws, White society was able to systematically categorize itself as the standard to which others did not measure.
Louis Althusser and Karl Marx, although disparate in their notions of which portions of society construct it, have referred to this act of nation building that uses ideology to define itself. Although he believes that it is illusory, Althusser posits that a society is unable to exist without this apparatus in place. He states; “ideology is the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”. By this he means that society is dependent on this construction of rules and illusions of ‘difference’ as a way to explain its’ existence. Within Althusser’s ideological state apparatus, cinema works as a tool of cultural communication. It works as a way to communicate both society’s overt and underlying beliefs and principles. In this way, cinema, too, is a hieroglyph, communicating encoded messages: disseminating societal messages to a wide audience, instructing, and propagandizing, including some and excluding others.
Amidst the exclusion of hegemonic society, marginalized groups have created their own encoded rituals that defy the conventions of heteronormative culture. These rituals, by their very existence within the public space of the colonizer, need to be even more complex than those codes enacted by the suprastructure. These rituals need to be clandestine. In order to fly under the radar of the colonizer, they must give the illusion of submission to the dominant society while working diametrically as a political negation of the suppressive structures that seek to marginalize them. Further, these rituals act as a private space within the larger, colonizing public space in that they create a sphere that excludes the very structures that are excluding them.
Henry Louis Gates has described this ritual as The Signifying Monkey. The Signifying Monkey refers to ancient African oral histories that describe a trickster figure, who uses word play and pranks to wreak havoc on humans, and who acted as an intermediary between the African and the Gods. Within these pranks and verbal banter, Esu the trickster embedded life lessons that explained the existence of man and taught lesson on how to cope with the challenges of life. As the African was transported to the New World and into bondage, tales of Esu metamorphosed into tales of the Signifying Monkey. Tales of signifying, such as Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby told embedded stories of survival in a White racist society. Gates notes that “the theory of Signifying is arrived at by explicating these black cultural forms. Signifying…in the play of black language games is a mode of formal revision, it depends for its effects on troping…it turns on repetition of formal structures and their differences” (Gates, 52). Unable to discern the underpinnings of these tales, White anthropologists interpreted these tales as folk culture, rather than as the political opposition that it really is, showing the way that signifying is able to ‘hide in plain sight’.
As America modernized into the industrial revolution, the tales of oral tradition also modernized, moving from folktales to what can be described as more of a linguistic manipulation of wordplay and rhyming. Emancipated slaves moved from a primarily rural existence to a more urban one, and the signifying monkey became more polished, concise; less focused on narrative and more as opposition embedded into a word, rhythm or rhyme. It is through this wordplay that the marginalized were able to “use the techniques, discourses and weapons of scholarship…once reserved exclusively for the White male European” to create their own weaponry” (Marrouchi, 230). The power in this verbal subterfuge was in its’ constant mobility. Signifying constantly changed, was constantly on the move. Like the runaway slave, the political work done by signifying avoided detection by refusing to stay stagnant. New words were constantly being appropriated, manipulated and discarded.
As a group marginalized by heteronormativity, gay men have used the tools of the Signifying Monkey in their own very specific way of opposition against heterosexual norms. By using kitsch, banter, and pop cultural frames of reference, homosexual men have taken a practice with African origins and found their own method for forming a space of inclusion in the face of exclusion. Jack Babuscio defines camp and the gay sensibility as “ a creative energy reflecting a consciousness that is different from the mainstream: a heightened awareness of certain human complications of feeling that spring from the fact of social oppression; in short, a perception of the world which is coloured, shaped, directed, and defined by the fact of one’s gayness” (117).
As Babuscio’s definition makes clear, the politics behind the use of camp work in the same manner as the Signifying Monkey; to circumvent the colonizing agenda of heteronormativity and to form a space that forms a “relationship between activities, individuals, situations…(that form)…an underlying unity of perspective” (119).
Because homosexuality in America has been an illegal and suppressed behavior until the twentieth century, gay humor has worked in an encoded manner that critiques the dominant society. Even as society moves towards more acceptance of marginalized groups like Blacks and gays, the dominance and prevalence of heteronormativity continues to provide a template that attempts to indoctrinate, therefore providing fertile ground for the continuation of camp, gay humor, and the Signifying Monkey.
With the advent of Queer Cinema in the second half of the twentieth century, directors
used the power of cinema as Wharton’s “hieroglyph”ic encoded method to communicate camp and the Signifying Monkey to seek out groups that mainstream cinemas ignored.
The Boys In The Band, directed by William Friedkin and brought to the screen from the stage in 1970, shows the ways that gay humor works to provide private space. Although white gay men have an interesting duality within heteronormativity, given that they are white and male, their sexuality marks them as ‘other”. There is a certain ability that some white gay men possess that allow them to ‘pass’ as straight, and there also exists the likelihood that they are financially more advantaged that blacks. This advantage works to inform the markers used for white encoded communication that is different than that used by black gays. I will detail some of those differences later in this piece, when describing the markers used by black disenfranchised gays in Paris Is Burning.
The dialogue in Boys In The Band shows Gate’s “troping of formal structures and their differences” that signifying embodies. The use of “she” to refer to men; Emery asking, “Who does a girl have to fuck to get a drink around here?” in referring to himself. This language switching is the personification of the Signifying Monkey. The application of gender references in opposition to societal designations of who categorizes as male or female is not just a funny line, but a radical re-appropriation against gender norms.
There is also a scene where the actors engage in an overly stylized rendering of straight male behavior, with much hitching of the waistband and references to sports, a signifier of straight male conversation. This mock up of behavior highlights the non normative behavior that the actors exhibit through their facial movements, body language and male on male affection throughout the rest of the film. These behaviors work as opposition to postcolonial constructions of ‘appropriate’ gender behavior. These behaviors also work to form a space of inclusion within a larger space of exclusion. Jose Esteban Munoz calls such work “a polemic that argues against antirelationality by insisting on the essential need for an understanding of queerness as a collectivity” (11).
Forming a collectivity in the face of exclusion is the key message in Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning. There is a rich body of work that analyzes and critiques this film. It has become legendary as one of the few films that records the lives of impoverished black drag queens and gay men in New York’s underground ball scene of the late 80s and early 90s. While the focus of most scholarship surrounding this film surrounds the kinship cultures created by marginalized groups and the opposition to heteronormative culture these groups establish with the practice of vogueing and the appropriation of the trappings of consumerist society, i.e.: donning expensive clothing and parading for judgment as to the ability to ‘pass’ for a cultural trope of the dominant society, the presence of the signifying monkey as a precursor to this scene has not been touched on.
Like the characters in The Boys In The Band, the people in Paris is Burning use the switching of gender designation that works to oppose heteronormative design. This shows the similarities of encoded language that can be attributed to the experience of queerness that is shared by both groups. The differences of encoded ritual that are informed by race exhibit with such rituals as ‘reading’, which is explained as the means by which inference and innuendo are used as a way to play a game of verbal one upsmanship between black gays. While the exterior exhibition of reading has the appearance of denigrating a group that already suffers from wholesale societal denigration, the underlying work that is being done is forming a collective and establishing a sense of community. This is the same agenda of the signifying monkey. Although somewhat different from heterosexual black signifying in that the troping of rhyme and rhythm do not have the same use, the linguistic acrobatics of the signifying monkey are the same.
The troping of rhythm that is missing from reading presents itself in an abstract, non linguistic manner when used by black gay men. Dance and rhythm are brought together in ball culture with vogueing, the dance method created by black gays and drag queens that uses stylized contortions and poses that mimic the fashion world and models of fashion magazines. Vogueing works in the same manner as reading, in that participants compete against one another for scores that award for those who are able to one up each other through their skills at vogueing, and through which participant is able to best assume the identity of an ideological symbol of the consumerist culture that has for the most part shut them out.
It is here that verbal subterfuge becomes Gates ‘meta figure’ of the trickster figure of Africa and the signifying monkey of the oral tradition. In the performance of vogueing, the signifying monkey makes the leap of political agenda from linguistic opposition to the visual and philosophical. Viewed by mainstream society, the donning of stolen clothing by poor black queers to be paraded before and judged by other poor black queers might interpret as play acting to attain access into a world that has been designed to exclude them. However, what lies beneath the pageantry of vogueing is an intrinsic critique of the very society that is being aped. Is it pathetic for a marginalized group of society to parade in their ‘boosted’ clothing, hoping to gain acceptance from their peers for presenting the right image? If so, is it even more pathetic that the larger group that is being mimicked is doing the same thing? And the signifying monkey continues to laugh.
Babuscio, Jack. Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader. Ed. Fabio Cleto. Great Britain. Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
Barnes, Clive. “Boys in the Band’ Opens off Broadway.” New York Times 15 April 1968. page 48.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Money: A Theory of Afro-American Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Higashi, Sumiko. Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture. Berkley: University of California Press, 1994.
Jemie, Onwuchekwa. Yo’ Mama!: New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes and Rhymes from Urban Black America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. 2003.
Marrouchi, Mustaph. Signifying with a Vengeance: Theories, Literature, Storytellers. Albany: State University of New York, 2002.
Munoz, Jose Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
Paris is Burning. Dir. Jennie Livingston. Miramax. 1981.
The Boys in the Band. Screenplay by Mart Crowley. Dir. William Friedkin. Cinema Center Films. 1970.