Reading to think Lesson R6: Case Study—Mary Louise Pratt and Arts of the Contact Zone


Watch this video and take notes:

Some Concepts to Consider…

  • CONTACT ZONE(S): An area or means of communication that exists between two communities, a point of contact.
  • TRANSCULTURATION: A process in which a subordinated group assimilates (takes in; transforms) cultural materials from the dominate group.
  • COMMUNITY: A group of people who have been brought together for some reason. A community can be real or imagined (imagined: such as how we might dream a new neighborhood might be). A community can be held with a real or imagined space (imagined space: such as a virtual community in a video game).
  • AUTOETHNOGRAPHIC: A recorded item, made by a people about that people. Often, the item connects that people to another, dominate, people. For example, Poma’s book-long letter is a recorded item (of both drawings and written text) about his people, particularly in terms of how his people (the Andeans/Incas) see the Spaniards (the dominating people) seeing them: the Andeans see the Spaniards as seeing the Andeans as sub-human.

A Sad Story:

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (Guaman Poma) wrote a 1200 page letter (800 pages of written text and 400 pages of captioned drawings), an autoethnographic text that serves as a contact zone of transculturation between his people and the Spaniards. The letter is a blending of two cultures in terms of languages (Quechua and Spanish), beliefs, literacy vs. oralacy, capitalism, colonialism, and other clashes. Poma wrote this letter in 1613 and sent it from his home in what is now known as Peru to King Philip in Spain, who never got it.

Some quotes to consider:

“…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” (1).
“…a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them” (2).
“…are representations that the so-defined others construct in response to or in dialogue with those texts” (2).
“While subordinate peoples do not usually control what emanates from the dominant culture, they do determine to varying extents what gets absorbed into their own and what it gets used for. Transculturation, like autoethnography, is a phenomenon of the contact zone” (2).

“The idea of the contact zone is intended in part to contrast with ideas of community that underlie much of the thinking about language, communication, and culture that gets done in the academy” (4).


Consider also:


  • This was originally a speech, presented in 1991, to the Modern Language Association (the “elite” of the literate).
  • This speech is about language, literacy, and oralacy. This speech is about the domination of one culture over another.
  • It is about the elitism, exploitation, and marginalization. It is about class (upper, middle, lower), race, gender, ethnicity, nationality,….
  • It is about knowledge: knowledge is power–if you know something, you have power.
    • For example, if you know how to speak a particular language, then you have power over those who do not.
    • (There are exceptions: for example, the Spaniards had better knowledge of weapons technology than the Andeans, a knowledge more powerful than their knowledge of their native language.)
  • If you speak, read, and write in a language well,  then you have power over those who do not (speak, read and write well): you can manipulate them.

So, what do YOU think?

“Many of those who govern us display, openly, their interest in a quiescent, ignorant, manipulable electorate. Even as an ideal, the concept of an enlightened citizenry seems to have disappeared from the national imagination” (5).