Composition in the Contact Zone

 Mad Max

In my previous post on Ellen Cushman’s “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” I wrote about that author’s call for rhetoric and composition scholars to engage their communities in reciprocal “civic participation,” rather than relying exclusively on critical pedagogy to effect social change. The next author whose work I want to focus on, Mary Louise Pratt, asks us to rethink our assumptions about the communities we inhabit, both inside the academy and out in what in happier times was sometimes called “the real world,” when it was easier to pretend that professional teachers and scholars were secure in their positions and immune to the Mad Max ethos of corporate capitalism, and before globalization had transformed the entire world into a giant Thunderdome.

Unlike Cushman, Pratt emphasizes classroom practices, at least in the address/essay I want to cover here, “Arts of the Contact Zone.” That widely circulated essay is included in the influential freshman composition anthology, Ways of Reading, which I have great affection for and great reservations about, and the page numbers I’ll be giving are drawn from the eighth edition. While “Arts of the Contact Zone” prioritizes questions about classroom practice, the essay also makes it clear that Pratt is very concerned with the other communities we inhabit, and how we can navigate them once we acknowledge that they are not the homogenous, monocultural spaces we might have assumed them to be. Pratt signals this concern when she introduces the subject of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s The First New Chronicle and Good Government with an ironic aside:

I was asked to speak as an MLA member working in the elite academy. In that capacity my contribution is undoubtedly supposed to be abstract, irrelevant, and anchored outside the real world. I wouldn’t dream of disappointing anyone. (500)

The story of The First New Chronicle and Good Government is a heartbreaking one, and I strongly encourage you to read Pratt and her sources for the details. Suffice it say for now that texts written in modes other than the recognized forms of discourse endorsed by cultural authorities are apt to be ignored, misunderstood, neglected, discarded, or tucked into a museum and forgotten for three-hundred years, as happened with Guaman Poma’s sprawling letter to King Philip III, which presented a native Andean perspective on the Andeans and their history and also documented the abuses of the Andeans at the hands of Spanish colonizers. The Spanish Monarch would never receive the twelve-hundred page letter addressed to him. As Pratt writes,

It was not till the late 1970s, as positivist reading habits gave way to interpretive studies and colonial elitisms to post-colonial pluralisms, that Western scholars found ways of reading Guaman Poma’s New Chronicle and Good Government as the extraordinary intercultural tour de force that it was. The letter got there, only 350 years too late, a miracle and a terrible tragedy. (500)

Pratt uses Guaman Poma’s text to introduce a pair of concepts useful for thinking differently about our own classrooms and communities: contact zones and the authoethnographic text. She defines contact zones as:

social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today. (501)

Seventeenth-century Peru, occupied by Spanish conquerors, is one of the contact zones Platt describes, and Guaman Poma’s letter intended for King Philip III, making use of both Andean and Spanish modes of communication, serves as an example of an autoethnographic text, which Platt defines as:

a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them. Thus if ethnographic texts are those in which European metropolitan subjects represent to themselves their others (usually their conquered others), authoethnographic texts are representations that the so-defined others construct in response to or in dialogue with those texts. (501-2)

Español: Guaman Poma - Nueva_crónica

Español: Guaman Poma – Nueva_crónica “Españoles soberbioso criollo o mestizo o mulato deste rreyno” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since such texts exist in dialogue with the texts of a dominant culture, they adapt and sometimes subvert the modes of discourse of the prevailing culture they’re responding to. I’d suggest that the academic essay genre we ask our students to conform to is one of the officially sanctioned modes of discourse authorized by the dominant culture (and like all such official discourses, open to the possibility of subversion and adaptation to the needs of minority groups marginalized by the dominant culture).

Pratt’s notion of “contact zones” counters descriptions of culture as unified, homogenous, and monolithic. Such conceptions of culture invariably marginalize, or simply ignore, the perspectives and experiences of both external cultures who might be subject to that culture’s aggression or interference, as in the case of Native Americans exploited and exterminated by European conquerors, and minority groups within that culture whose own narratives and self-conceptions do not fit the dominant cultural narrative.

Understanding our communities as contact zones rather than monolithic cultures has a profound effect on our interpretation of them and the kinds of narratives that seem appropriate to tell about them. Although he never uses the phrase to my knowlege, I believe that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which you should purchase and read immediately, is a good example of how our perspective changes when we understand our culture and its history as a contact zone wherein groups of different cultures, classes, and varying degrees of legal standing co-exist in widely unequal relations of power. In that book’s first chapter, he writes:

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)-the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as “the United States,” subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a “national interest” represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.

When history is understood as a universal narrative, that narrative invariably presents the perspective of those in power, the perspective of the conquerors, rather than that of the conquered, and perspectives that do not align with the dominant narrative are made to disappear. Likewise, when we presume a common culture in our composition classes, we do violence to the actual diversity of perspectives and narratives that may make up the class (and I fully acknowledge that some classes are more diverse than others).

Being willing to understand our classrooms and communities as contact zones means being willing to let go of some of our old, comforting certainties, among them the certainty that the teacher, as representative of the dominant culture and its perspectives, has the authority to speak for all as a kind of objective, universal spokesperson. (This is the perspective that Ellen Cushman warns us against in “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” and the reason she insists that scholars’ civic participation in their communities be reciprocal and that their research be in communication with community members and not merely about them). When Pratt describes her experience in a classroom understood as a contact zone, she emphasizes the challenges of beginning to relinquish this position of universal authority:

It was the most exciting teaching we had ever done, and also the hardest. We were struck, for example, at how anomalous the formal lecture became in a contact zone (who can forget Atahuallpa throwing down the Bible because it would not speak to hm?). The lecturer’s traditional (imagined) task–unifying the world in the class’s eyes by means of a monologue that rings equally coherent, revealing, and true for all, forging an ad hoc community, homogeneous with respect to one’s own words–this task became not only impossible but anomalous and unimaginable. Instead, one had to work in the knowledge that whatever one said was going to be systematically received in radically heterogeneous ways that we were neither able nor entitled to prescribe. (510)

Re-imagining the classroom as a contact zone means re-imagining our roles as teachers and writing instructors, as well as the purpose and kinds of writing we ask our students to perform: whose voice and perspective do we ask them to take, and whose interests does it serve?