In “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Mary Louise Pratt introduces a term very unfamiliar to many people. This term, autoethnography, 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. They are meant to address the speaker”s own community as well as the conqueror”s. Pratt provides many examples of autoethnography throughout her piece, including two texts by Guaman Poma and her son, Manuel.
Although very different in setting, ideas, and time periods, they accomplish the difficult goal of cross-cultural communication. Guaman Poma, an Andean who claimed noble Inca descent, wrote a twelve hundred page long letter in 1613 to King Philip III of Spain. This manuscript was particularly 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 literate culture” 584. This letter proved the theory wrong.
Somehow, Poma interacted with the Spanish in a “contact zone”, which is a “social space where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other” 584. This communication forced him to learn the Spanish culture and use it to his advantage. With his new found knowledge, he presented to the world a piece of work that incorporated Andean customs and values with European manners and ideas, exemplifying the idea of cross-cultural communication. The only flaw in his piece was that it never reached its intended recipient and therefore, did not get recognized until it was three hundred fifty years too late. Poma combines his Andean knowledge with his Spanish knowledge. He “constructs his text by appropriating and adapting pieces of the representational repertoire of the invaders” 589. At one point, he makes the Spaniards seem foolish and greedy.
“The Spanish, . . . ., brought nothing of value to share with the Andeans, nothing “but armor and guns with the lust for gold, silver, gold and silver”. . . .” 587. It is obvious from this quote that Poma intentionally exaggerates the Spaniards to be an avaricious people. He believes that they have brought nothing useful to the Andeans but ways of greed and a hunger for power. By writing in their own language, Poma shows his oppositional representation of the Spaniards. His transcultural character is not only seen in the written text, but also in the visual content of some four hundred pages. The drawings show the subordinate-dominant plane of the Spanish conquest. They depict the Inca way of life, as well as the greedy nature of the Spanish. The drawings themselves are European in style, but “deploy specifically Andean systems of spatial symbolism that express Andean values and aspirations” 589.
In Andean symbolism, the height at which a person or people are drawn indicate their power and authority in society. Poma mocks the Spanish in one of his drawings by showing the Andean and the Spaniard at the same level, knowing that the Spanish believed that they were the dominant culture. His drawings, along with their own individual autoethnographic captions, help to emphasize the transcultural symbolism and nature of his manuscript. Together, they accentuate the ideas of autoethnography.
Poma”s letter is not Pratt”s only way of exhibiting an autoethnographic text.
She also uses her son, Manuel”s, experiences in grammar school to further emphasize her point of cross-cultural communication. The teacher-pupil relationship is just one of many examples of a dominant-subordinate relationship. The teacher gives out a task and the student is expected to obey the command. In this particular situation, Manuel”s teacher asks them to write a paragraph using single-sentence responses to a few questions.
Manuel, unwilling to be the subordinate, tries to resist the assignment in a clever way, since he is expected “to identify with the interests of those in power over him-parents, teachers, doctors, public authorities” 592. His mockery of the task is seen right from the title of his paragraph, “A Grate Adventchin.”
The words of the title are not misspelled because Manuel is not a good speller, but are purposely misspelled because of his intent to defy the authority figure, his teacher. The concept of autoethnography is clearly seen in this situation.
Although Manuel”s paragraph was a mass of misspellings, his teacher still rewarded him with the usual star for completion of the task assigned or for just obeying orders. 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 disregarded 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 piece reached the intended recipient, but with no prevail. 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 of this fact, many students have a hard time interpreting the meaning and point of Pratt”s piece-a piece initially intended for her fellow writers and colleagues, who seem to be on the same level of thinking in the area of literature and writing as she is. In her speech, Pratt is not trying to win over an audience or sell her ideas. Rather, she is trying to explain autoethnography 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.