When first reading Mary Louise Pratt s essay, Arts of the Contact Zone, one may feel overwhelmed by the level of writing and philosophy it is composed of. She uses terms and phrases such as autoethnography, imagined community, and safe house in this work to help demonstrate the reasoning of her thoughts and feelings about historical and actual events she speaks about. In her essay Mary Louise Pratt talks about transculturation and ethnography. She speaks about imaginary spaces where differences and inequalities are sensed, and even recognized. These imaginary spaces are called the contact zones, and many people encounter the contact zones to teach, learn or even contradict the ideas and theories that are under scrutiny and objection today.
In the first few paragraphs of this essay, the reader is introduced to a term coined and repeated by Pratt throughout the piece, contact zones. She uses this term to refer to 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 (Pratt 584). A contact zone can be positive, for example a classroom where students are from different backgrounds. This gives people a way to talk and discuss certain aspects of history. It provides an opportunity for identifying with the ideas, interests and even history of others. This requires correspondence and interaction between people. On the other hand, a contact zone can be negative, such as colonialism. A country taking over another native community is oppression, rather than an exchange of ideas. This is what the Andeans, specifically Guaman Poma, tried to explain to their conquerors, the Spanish. Both of these situations will be discussed later in this essay.
Pratt s essay opens in speaking about her son s admiration for collecting and trading baseball cards. She emphasizes how her son s entertaining and simple hobby gave him the opportunity to learn so many of life s lessons. For example, trading the cards gave him a sense of fairness and trust. He learned about exchange and arithmetic, and patterns and order by arranging the cards.
Following the anecdote about her son, Pratt introduces the reader to a discussion about Guaman Poma. Guaman Poma, an Adean, wrote a letter to King Philip III of Spain in1613 that was some twelve hundred pages long. This text contained information about Inca history, customs, laws, public offices, dynasties and their leaders. The letter by Poma is divided into two parts. The first part, Nueva Coronica, was the main writing apparatus through which the Spanish presented their American conquests to themselves (Pratt 585). Mary Louise Pratt refers to Poma s first part of the letter as an autoethnographic text. The basic purpose behind this type of text is to challenge a dominant belief system and the writers use the framework of the system to their advantage, using the language of the dominant civilization or the conqueror. Poma did that successfully, however his efforts to change the mind of King Philip III were useless, because the letter never reached him. The second part of the letter, Bien gobierno y justicia, states that good government and justice can only be achieved through collaboration between the Inca and the Spanish.
Guaman Poma s text is created with the language of his invaders, the Spanish. It is important to point out that he does not simply imitate or reproduce it; he selects and adapts it along Andean lines to express Andean interests and aspirations (Pratt 589). This process is called transculturation, where devices are pulled from the language or part of another person to get a point across.
Towards the end of the essay, Pratt speaks of a course at Stanford University on different cultures, ideas and values. This class attracted many different students from varying backgrounds. Every student, no one was excluded, saw how the world described their cultures, ideas and views. The students experienced pain, rage and disbelief, but at the same time, they were able to experience the joys of the contact zone: wonder, revelation, mutual understanding and new wisdom. Here, Pratt also introduces the idea of a safe house. A safe house can be described as a therapeutic group or social space where one s feelings are validated, rather than being challenged. A safe house is opposite of a contact zone, because a contact zone can be an uncomfortable situation at times. From this can also stem the idea of an imagined community. This idea is based upon common and assumed stereotypes and generalizations. For example, a person living in a country does not actually know each citizen of the nation, but perceives a general image of what a citizen is like.
It is at this point that the reader may be confused at where all these situations are similar and what they have in common. Pratt s son s baseball card hobby, Guaman Poma s letter, and the class on culture and values at Stanford University all had one unifying theme. Each situation was a contact zone. As stated before, a contact zone can be a positive or negative experience. In the situation of with her son s collection, his interaction with other baseball card collectors and his passion for this hobby, helped him gain a better knowledge not only of baseball, but also of life. Guaman Poma s letter speaks of the contact zone between the Spanish and the Incas. It is obvious that this was a negative encounter. The Spanish conquered the Andean people and enforced new laws and policies that were inequitable and unsolicited to them. There was no exchange of ideas or values. Finally, the situation of the Stanford University class was the most apprehensible to me. Each students ideas and values were discussed and examined, both from positive and negative view points. The students had an opportunity to learn from each other, and the students had an opportunity to learn from themselves. These examples of a contact zone give the reader a lesson on the working and understanding of a contact zone.
In conclusion, it was evident that Mary Louise Pratt s essay, Arts of the Contact Zone, introduces us to a phrase and possible a situation that we may encounter, but be unfamiliar with. A contact zone is a place where cultures, ideas and views meet, which can be a positive or negative encounter. Whatever it may be, it is a chance to contrast will preexisting ideas or opinions of a person of a group of people about language, communication and culture. A person to challenge a belief system could use an autoethographic text. Through transculturation, using the text and belief system of the dominant group, can make a profounder effect on the reader, however, the text will be interpreted differently by people in different positions in the contact zone. Often times, one may experience rage and discomfort, and other times one may experience revelation and mutual understanding. Finally, when a person s beliefs and values are challenged, they have a tendency to return to a safe house, where they are accepted and validated. This is the basic working of the contact zone.
Tag Archives: Arts of the Contact Zone
2002-03 Winner (First Place): “The Art of the Safe House” by Elizabeth Watkins
Posted onJuly 15, 2003bychanged
“The Art of the Safe House” by Elizabeth Watkins PDF In her essay, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Mary Louise Pratt defines the contact zone as “[ . . . ] social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with … Continue reading →
Posted inSelected Essays|Tagged2002-03, Arts of the Contact Zone, contact zone, Elizabeth Watkins, Gloria Anzaldua, How to Tame a Wild Tongue, language, Mary Louise Pratt, safe houses|
2002-03 Winner (Fourth Place): “The Vulnerable Culture” by Saumil Gandhi
Posted onJuly 12, 2003bychanged
“The Vulnerable Culture” by Saumil Gandhi PDF In the past and to this day, the Indian culture has been under the constant influence of the western world. This influence that was first welcomed is now slowly but surely becoming a … Continue reading →
Posted inSelected Essays|Tagged2002-03, Arts of the Contact Zone, Bollywood, contact zone, cultural genocide, India, language, Mary Louise Pratt, Saumil Gandhi|