Pratt, Arts of the Contact Zone
After talking to students in classroom who were assigned to do a project on Pratt, getting a frequent response “I didn’t read it, it’s too hard to comprehend” was an ordinary thing - Pratt, Arts of the Contact Zone introduction. Therefore, writing a response to Pratt’s essay in a language that is comprehendible by regular people can be very helpful to those struggling students. In “Arts of the Contact Zone” Pratt discusses the mix of two different cultures in one area. Where one person is born and lives in a “contact zone” he/she is surrounded by two different conflicting cultures, and there are two different languages.
She also introduces us with a new word “autoethnography”, which means the way in which subordinate peoples present themselves in ways that their dominants have represented them. Therefore, autoethnography is not self-representation, but a collaboration of mixed ideas and values form both the dominant and subordinate cultures. Pratt provides many examples of autoethnography throughout her essay, including two texts by Guaman Poma and her son, Manuel. Although very different in setting, ideas, and time periods, they both accomplish the difficult goal of cross-cultural communication.
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When two cultures collide in the same area often if not always a conflict occurs. The conflict is that one of the cultures is dominant and the other subordinate, where one holds power over the other. And in which the oppressive culture defines what is legit and lawful. Pratt argues that these factors are only imaginary, and these factors only remove them from the conception of the actual living community. She defines transculturation as “to describe processes whereby members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant of metropolitan culture” (pg. 05), Pratt is also trying to define that it is an error to assume that all people in a community must share the same language, motives and beliefs. These are the beliefs of the culture that is dominating; however, in reality this community is “marginalized” and nobody is being recognized by the whole. Even though those marginalized communities are recognized as superior, multiculturalism is a necessity as it allows for culture to drift through universities and politics to represent them in the world. In 1613 Guaman Poma, an Andean who claimed righteous Inca fall, wrote a twelve hundred page long letter to King Philip III of Spain.
This letter was unique because it was written in two languages, Spanish and Quechua, the native language of the Andeans. “Quechua was not thought of as a written language, nor Andean culture as a literateculture” (pg. 584). However Poma’s letter proved this theory wrong. Somehow, Poma succeeded in interacting with the Spanish in a “contact zone”, which is a “social space where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other” (pg. 584). This contact zone forced Poma to learn the Spanish language and culture and use it to his advantage.
With this knowledge Poma wrote a letter in which he combined Andean values with European manners and ideas, which is a clear example of the idea of cross-cultural communication. Unfortunately, his work never reached its intended recipient, for unknown reasons; therefore, did not get recognized until after a few hundred years later. Poma “constructs his text by appropriating and adapting pieces of the representational repertoire of the invaders” (pg. 589). He represents Spaniards as greedy and foolish people, and says they brought nothing in value but guns and armor with the desire for gold and silver.
He uses transcultural characters to represent Spanish greediness not only in the written text, but also in images. Those images represent Inca way of life, as well as the greedy nature of the Spanish. Guaman Poma uses European style in his drawings, but uses Andean way of symbolism. Andeans use height to represent person’s power and authority in society. In one of his images, he mocks Spanish when he draws a Spaniard on the same level with an Andean, knowing that Spanish think of themselves as the dominant culture.
Poma’s drawings use the autoethnography to highlight the transcultural symbolism and nature of his letter. Guaman Poma’s letter to the king of Spain is not the only way Pratt uses autoethnographic text. She uses her son’s experiences in grammar school to represent the relationship between cross-cultural communication and the communication between the teacher and the student. Pratt describes this relationship as a contact zone, where two cultures clash in one area (the classroom) and where there is a dominant culture (teacher) and subordinate culture (student).
Just like Freire explains the “banking concept” of education where the student is expected to obey the oppressor, while he or she is making the “deposits” in students’ minds, Pratt is using “Arts of the Contact Zones” to represent this relationship. Where the teacher gives out a task and the student must obey the command in order to do “better” in school. Pratt’s son, Manuel’s teacher gives them homework to write a paragraph using single-sentence responses to a few questions. However, Manuel is unwilling to be oppressed, and he tries to resist the assignment in an innovative way.
He is expected “to identify with the interests of those in power over him-parents, teachers, doctors, public authorities” (pg. 592) but he mocks this assignment in his mockery can be noticed in the very beginning of his paragraph, the title. He spells it “A Grate Adventchin” and he does that not because he is a bad speller, but because of his intent to defy the authority figure, his teacher. Manuel is using the concept of autoethnography in this situation. Even though nearly every word was misspelled, his teacher awarded him a good grade, as if he is correctly completed the assigned task.
The humor of it was not recognized. It could have been that his teacher did not truly see Manuel’s point or that his teacher could have totally ignored his humor altogether. “No recognition was available, however, of the humor, the attempt to be critical or contestatory, to parody the structures of authority” (593). Manuel’s goal was not accomplished, although he did do better than Guaman Poma. His pieces reached the intended recipient, but with no success. Both outcomes were, in essence, the same. Pratt’s essay, or speech, is, in itself, an example of an authoethnographic text.
Although many people think that she is writing from a dominant perspective, she is actually writing from the subordinate point of view. Her intellectual use of words and ideas tend to mislead even the greatest of minds. Because her piece initially intended for her fellow writers and colleagues, who are on the same level of literature and writing skills as she is, many students have a hard time interpreting her. In her speech, Pratt is trying to explain autoehnography and how it applies to everyday life. In her speech, Pratt is not trying to win over an audience or sell her ideas.
Rather, she is trying to explain autoethnography. Pratt hopes that her audience understands “autoethnography” by providing us with examples. She does a better job than Guaman Poma and her son. and how it applies to everyday life through the eyes of the minority. This is how her text becomes autoethnographic. She places herself in the eyes of the dominant. Aspiring towards better luck than Guaman Poma and her son, Pratt hopes that her audience understands “autoethnography” and its applications. Through the use of examples, Pratt is able to reveal the communicative arts of the contact zone, focusing especially on autoethnography.
Autoethnography is how people describe themselves as others view them, and not necessarily how they view themselves. The examples Pratt mentions demonstrate issues of interaction and communication with all peoples of the world, whether past or present, near or far. Guaman Poma and Manuel, two very different people from very different time periods, will always be in connection with one another because they share being a part of the subordinate group in a dominant-subordinate relationship. Autoethnographic texts do not address and affect just one side of that relationship, but both sides. Pratt proves this idea in her piece.