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.