In the introduction to his book, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, Henry Louis Gates Jr. observes that:
'It is amazing how much black people, in ritual settings such as barbershops and pool halls, street corners and family reunions, talk about talking.
In response to the question of "Why do they do this?" Gates responds as follows: "I think they do it to pass these rituals along from one generation to the next."
Gates's observation (drawn from lived experience) about how much black people consider and comment upon the conditions and ramifications of oral discourse serves as a taking off point for the whole book. Gates sets out to explain the conceptual, literary, cultural, and historical significance of this phenomenon of talking about talking that he initially observed in the vernacular of ordinary conversation.
In attempting to provide an intellectual genealogy for this phenomenon of talking about talking, Gates turns to two figures in the African tradition: the West African figure of Esu, the trickster, and his Pan-African offshoot, the so-called "Signifying Money." These cultural figures are deployed in storytelling to serve as:
points of conscious articulation of language traditions, aware of themselves as traditions, complete with a history, patterns of development and revision, and internal principles of patterning and organization. Theirs is a meta-discourse, a discourse about itself.
Gates's claim here is that African culture uses figuration as a means of articulating conceptual self-consciousness. The creation of Esu and the Signifying Monkey, who deploy and riff off of linguistic and cultural conventions, is itself a gesture signifying cultural identity. The presence of these figures within texts and discourse allows practitioners to participate in the communal circulation and refinement of common tropes and myths.
Gates takes care to distinguish between the roles that his two key figures play with respect to the construction of the African-American tradition:
Esu is discourse upon a text; it is the process of interpretation that he rules. This is the message of his primal scene of instruction with his friend Ifa. If Esu stands for discourse upon a text, then his Pan-African kinsman, the Signifying Monkey, stands for the rhetorical strategies of which each literary text consists. For the Signifying Monkey exists as the great trope of Afro-American discourse, and the tope of tropes, his language of Signifyin[g], is his verbal sign in the Afro-American tradition.
Importantly, Gates assigns to the Signifying Monkey the function of verbal rhetoric—with its capacity to move human passions through the deployment of devices aimed to conjure up sympathy, anger, revulsion, feelings of commonality, and the like.
Thus, the function of signification in the African-American tradition is emphatically communal; the rhetorically-mediated invocation of "talk about talk" serves to reinforce historical bonds and to provide a medium within which lived experience can be understood and made to generate social meanings which may, in turn, be revised to accommodate change and invention.
The overall contribution of Gates's book is to explicate the trope of double-discourse as it is captured in the figure of the Signifying Monkey, which is apparent whenever black people reflect upon and reimagine their own discourse either in speech or through texts. Talk about talking is not a means of reifying conventions but of exposing them so that they might be used for the purposes of improvisation, satire, critique and other second-level discourses that presuppose the existence of prior texts.
Thus, to signify is to bounce off of existing talk in a way that expands its initially posited meaning, even as it deepens that same meaning, and makes it available as a resource for communal self-formation.