“We are looking for the pedagogical arts of the contact zone. These will include, we are sure, exercises in storytelling and in identifying with the ideas, interests, histories, and attitudes of others; experiments in transculturation and collaborative work and in the arts of critique, parody, and comparison (including unseemly comparisons between elite and vernacular cultural forms); the redemption of the oral; ways for people to engage with suppressed aspects of history (including their own histories), ways to move into and out 0/rhetorics of authenticity; ground rules for communication across lines of difference and hierarchy that go beyond politeness but maintain mutual respect; a systematic approach to the all important concept of cultural mediation.”
–Mary Louise Pratt

Key Terms: Contact zone, autoethnography, transculturation, imagined communities

Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone” was first presented in 1990 as the keynote address at the Responsibilities for Literacy conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She opens with an engaging anecdote from years earlier, when her young son and his friend were discovering baseball cards–and occasionally struggling phonetically to pronounce unfamiliar names, such as “Yastremski.” For Pratt’s son, Sam, baseball became a medium for literacy, not only in a linguistic sense but also in terms of history, such as that of racism in baseball, and other areas, ranging from architecture to meteorology. She writes of her delight at aiding in this process–but also at her disappointment that such discoveries were not coming as part of her son’s experience in school. From here, she transitions into her primary subject: a discussion of a 1613 letter written by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala.

I cite Pratt’s own description of the manuscript:

“It was dated in the city of Cuzco in Peru, in the year 1613, some forty years after the final fall of the Inca empire to the Spanish and signed with an unmistakably Andean indigenous name: Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala. Written in a mixture of Quechua and ungrammatical, expressive Spanish, the manuscript was a letter addressed by an unknown but apparently literate Andean to King Philip III of Spain. What stunned Pietschmann was that the letter was twelve hundred pages long. There were almost eight hundred pages of written text and four hundred of captioned line drawings. It was titled The First New Chronicle and Good Government” (34).

The manuscript was discovered by Richard Pietschmann in 1908, buried in the Danish Royal Archive in Copenhagen. In 1912, Pietschmann presented his discovery in London, but it was twenty-five years before a copy of the work to be produced, and the text did not gain great Western attention until the 1970s (Pratt 33-34). Pratt sets out her project to discuss the text, as she writes, “in order to lay out some thoughts about writing and literacy in what I like to call the contact zones” (34).


Pratt characterizes the text as autoethnographic, or “a text in which people undertake to describe them selves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them” and asserts that “they involve a selective collaboration with and appropriation of idioms of the metropolis or the conqueror. These are merged or infiltrated to varying degrees with indigenous idioms to create self-representations intended to intervene in metropolitan modes of under standing” (34).

Pratt further characterizes autoethnographic works:

  • “Autoethnographic works are often addressed to both metropolitan audiences and the speakers own community. Their reception is thus highly indeterminate. Such texts often constitute a marginalized groups point of entry into the dominant circuits of print culture. It is interesting to think, for example, of American slave autobiography in its autoethnographic dimensions, which in some respects distinguish it from Euramerican autobiographical tradition” (Pratt 34).
  • “Autoethnographic representation often involves concrete collaborations between people, as between literate ex-slaves and abolitionist intellectuals, as between Guaman Poma and the Inca elders who were his informants. Often, as in Guaman Poma, it involves more than one language. In recent decades autoethnography, critique, and resistance have reconnected with writing in a contemporary creation of the contact zone, the testimonio” (Pratt 34).

Transculturation and the Arts of the Contact Zone

She identifies the key term transculturation: “Ethnographers have used the term transculturation to describe processes whereby members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture,” noting that the term was “originally coined by Cuban sociologist Fernando Ortiz in the 1940s” (36). The significance of this, she points out, is that despite a lack of control over dominant culture, subordinate peoples are able to choose, to some extent, what their own culture absorbs from that dominant paradigm, as well as how it will be used (36).

On the arts of the contact zone, she states:

“Autoethnography, transculturation, critique, collaboration, bilingualism, mediation, parody, denunciation, imaginary dialogue, vernacular expression?these are some of the literate arts of the contact zone. Miscomprehension, incomprehension, dead letters, unread master pieces, absolute heterogeneity of meaning?these are some of the perils of writing in the contact zone. They all live among us today in the transnationalized metropolis of the United States and are becoming more widely visible, more pressing, and, like Guaman Poma’s text, more decipherable to those who once would have ignored them in defense of a stable, centered sense of knowledge and reality.” (Pratt 37)

Imagined Communities and Language

In the final section of her essay, Pratt discusses Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities”:

  • Imagined communities: “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. This abstract idea of the speech community seemed to reflect, among other things, the Utopian way modern nations conceive of themselves as what Benedict Anderson calls ‘imagined communities'” (Pratt 37)
  • She further quotes Anderson: “Communities are distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (qtd. in Pratt). Pratt continues, “Anderson proposes three features that characterize the style in which the modern nation is imagined. First, it is imagined as limited, by ‘finite, if elastic, boundaries’; second, it is imagined as sovereign-, and, third, it is imagined as fraternal, ‘a deep, horizontal comradeship’ for which millions of people are prepared ‘not so much to kill as willingly to die'” (Pratt 37).
  • Pratt also asserts that “obviously this style of imagining of modern nations, as Anderson describes it, is strongly Utopian, embodying values like equality, fraternity, liberty, which the societies often profess but systematically fail to realize” (Pratt 38).

Pratt goes on to relate this model of imagined communities to the way “language and the speech community” are conceptualized, treating language as though it exists in “a unified and homogenous social world” as “a device, precisely, for imagining community,” including the concept of “a universally shared literacy” (38). This seems directly relatable to Paul Kei Matsuda’s myth of linguistic homogeneity, which describes the incorrect assumption of composition students as made up, mostly or entirely, of native speakers of privileged varieties of English. Pratt goes on to claim, “When linguistic (or literate) interaction is described in terms of orderliness, games, moves, or scripts, usually only legitimate moves are actually named as part of the system, where legitimacy is defined from the point of view of the party in authority–regardless of what other parties might see themselves as doing” (38).


Pratt asks, “What is the place of unsolicited oppositional discourse, parody, resistance, critique in the imagined classroom community? Are teachers supposed to feel that their teaching has been most successful when they have eliminated such things and unified the social world, probably in their own image? Who wins when we do that? Who loses?” (39). She equates these questions to broader social issues, such as “the concept of an enlightened citizenry” (39). Bringing it back to education, she advocates for a classroom that operates “not like a homogeneous community or a horizontal alliance but like a contact zone” (39).

Pratt ends with a specific call to action: the need to identify the “pedagogical arts of the contact zone,” which I have included an extended quote at the beginning of this post (40).


Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession (1991): 33-40. PDF File

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