What is the summary for "Arts of the Contact Zone" by Mary Louise Pratt?

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rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Pratt’s “contact zone” is the place where two or more cultures come into “contact.” Pratt is speaking about literacy, so her interest is in how reading and writing can mediate or define these “contact zones.” She gives two examples. First, she discusses her son’s love of baseball cards and how his newly-learned ability to decode words led to a growing understanding not only of baseball, but of all the ancillary disciplines that connect to it: statistics, labor relations, history, architecture, and even the very idea of expertise. Her son’s understanding of these subjects was unlocked by his growing literacy; his ability to follow his own interests mediated his understanding of the baseball. 

The second example is Felipe Guzman Poma de Ayala’s seventeenth-century text “The New Chronicle,” an account from an Andean point of view of the Spanish conquest and subsequent governance of Peru. Written in Quechua and Spanish, Pratt sees this text as another kind of contact zone, in which European notions of literacy are turned on themselves to create a text that criticizes Spanish rule and articulates a social order in which Spaniards and Andeans are equals.

Pratt’s point about the contact zone is that, while it is a place where different cultures overlap, it is also a place where cultures struggle for domination. In the college classroom, the culture of the university often subordinates the other cultures students or teachers bring; her example is about the development of mutlicultural curricula which, by their nature, resist the rhetoric of conventional lecturing. She concludes by saying that in order to for classrooms to function as communities in which all cultures are equally valued, they must be constituted as safe places or “safe houses,” in which shared understanding and mutual respect for different cultural experiences is cultivated.

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In my opinion, it is best to begin a summary with what Pratt describes as the “contact zone,” which is simply where cultures meet each other (and often clash with each other). Further, Pratt explains about “safe houses,” such as places of education where trust emerges as people learn about cultures in an intellectual environment. These safe houses, these “schools,” are important according to Pratt because that is where we can suspend any oppression that exists between cultures in a community where respect is honored.

Pratt goes extensively into the idea of language and how important it is as part of this contact zone:

Languages were seen as living in ‘speech communities’, and these tended to be theorized as discrete, self-defined, coherent entities, held together by a homogeneous competence or grammar shared identically and equally among all the members.

One can see where languages collide, then, can be considered a very significant contact zone. Further, Pratt talks about how members of the human community, at some point, imagine the communion of all of the people in the world that they will never meet.

It is the sharing of the writings and language (produced by these imaginings) that is the instrument of communion in these times. This is especially true among young people involved in their education, says Pratt. This has to be done within the “game”’ of the contact zone, however, because “whatever students do other than what the teacher specifies is invisible or anomalous to the analysis.”

In conclusion, these educational “safe houses" are very important within Pratt’s idea of the “contact zone,” because it is only there (and only in certain instances in the safest of the safe houses) that a person can learn safely about the taboos and the contexts of other cultures.