, Research Paper
The Catharsis of the Contact Zone
In a Judeo-Christian society, people would respect their neighbor’s sacrosanct beliefs, values, and interpretation of “reality.” Yet, society doesn’t follow the guidelines of the Judeo-Christian moral code. The ideologies of corporate America have become part of the official religion in which language (written and spoken) indisputably separates superior from inferior. Clearly, words are power. History shows that language has the power to influence, change, and even kill. Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone” and Leslie Marman Silko’s “Books: Notes on Maya and Mixtec Screenfolds” discuss the many forms of literacy and the various forces that retard our understanding of different people’s culture. Using the events of the past to understand the misunderstandings of the present, both authors present a catharsis that permits us to grapple with the contact zone.
Silko and Pratt emphasize that the dominant culture will use literacy as its source of power to preserve a certain viewpoint. Whether it’s from the point of view of the Pueblo Indians or Incas, the dominant culture uses its authority and language to dehumanize the “savage” culture in order to maintain the status quo. Truly, no perfect status quo exists, but the control of the language and “print capitalism”, and thus the thought, creates a false sense of equal coexistence within the dominant culture. It’s their way of controlling the line of communication by not allowing members of their society to gain insight into the lives of others who hold different “truths” than themselves.
Amidst this cultural contact zone, literacy serves as a mark of civilization and a power capable of influencing and threatening the dominant culture. The threat felt by the influential society is what disrupts the potential of open communication between cultures, and thus, a catharsis. Silko shows that the burning of the libraries was a radical action the Europeans took to preserve a certain reality. The American Government’s placement of Indians into American boarding schools also shows the suppression of cultural identity to preserve “homogeneity.” It seems that having power doesn’t make a culture confident because it will go to extremes to preserve one thought, thus killing any opportunity for open communication. Thus, it is the imperialists that are the antagonists of the catharsis theory by maintaining the intercultural gap.
Both authors stress that, through literacy, the subjugated can voice their opinion in retaliation of the dominant power of a culture. The minorities are vulnerable to the majority group because they have no free and open communication with the major power to express their thoughts and points of view. Thus, their interpretations of reality is often lost, forgotten, or suppressed. Yet, what Silko and Pratt are stressing is that everyone has the ability and right to use the power of language despite status. Poma parodied Spanish history by “changing and [adapting] it along Andean lines to express Andean interests and aspirations.” Similarly, Helen Sekaquaptwea wrote a book on her perspective of the boarding schools. Seemingly, the point of Silko and Pratt’s emphasis on literacy as a tool to rebel, is to show that knowledge is power, especially the knowledge that the word will portray the thoughts of even the most “savage” people.
Both authors state that literacy takes many uses other than the conventional meaning of the term. Literacy, for the powerful is used, not only to communicate, but also to influence, learn, protect, and destroy. The inferior culture, however, uses literacy to gain power over dominant points of view by voicing their opinions via writing. Yet, just like water is insoluble in oil, neither can one culture fully assimilate into another without a certain level of tolerance for different, personal values and beliefs. While some cultures are brainwashed into following a practice, coercion of beliefs and practices proves to be ineffective in the case of Pueblos. As part of the Pueblo culture that was forced into assimilation by the government, Silko knows the experience of being introduced to a homogenous culture and then be reabsorbed into another as she states, “The U.S. government had taken every precaution to sever the Indian students’ ties with their families and tribes.” Despite training, many Indians “went back to the blanket” upon returning to their familiar culture. Similarly, Pratt stresses that the subordinate culture can use language to negotiate their role in society. The classroom is a classic scenario of a teacher’s control over her students. Power roles aren’t overtly stated, but implied through consequences of behavior. Sam’s “grate adventchin” idea is a use of literacy used against an authority. By writing about a shot that would make life easier for everyone, Sam overrules the authority of the teacher be created something that would aid/appeal to himself rather than the teacher.
Without an equal forum for communication, misunderstanding, fear, and hatred result between cultures. It’s a natural tendency to judge others that are different from us to protect our individual beliefs. The book burnings and the Pueblo re-education indicate this pervasive fear of new/unfamiliar information. With the wealth of different beliefs and values, a total catharsis is impossible because inequalities exist. If perfect communication existed, then there would be no need for cultures to grapple with competing truths. Only in a perfect “monolingual, even monodialectical” environment does unambiguous communication exists. Yet, in reality differences distort communication. However, according to Silko and Pratt, there is potential for these differences to lead to an understanding and appreciation of diversity. In the case of Silko’s grandmother, “a book’s lies should be burned.” Stiya obviously represents the accumulation of stereotypes and prejudices the American public holds against the Pueblos. As they bluntly state, “dirty—very, very, dirty.” However, Silko’s message to the reader is that if book is burned, so is the understanding of the reason behind the stereotypes. Despite disagreement with different perspectives, one must listen to all points of view in order to understand the hatred between cultures and to solidify personal beliefs. Thus, no information should be censored by any one power because it shows preference for one belief.
In terms of literacy as a means of learning about past, Silko states that one shouldn’t place total faith on books as a means of understanding the past because literature is subjective and relative to each person. Pratt’s message is that one must understand different cultures through the heterogeneous classroom, as she calls it, the “pedagogal art of the contact zone.” When everyone is vulnerable to criticism, then will everyone experience “exhilarating moments of wonder and revelation, mutual understanding, and new wisdom.” When multiple viewpoints can be aired and challenged by those with different histories, then can prejudices be potentially overcome and open/free communication can prevail.
The power of literacy is undisputable; it is the perfect median for communication between any two cultures and any two statuses. While it is often abused by a dominant power to suppress other “truths”, it’s advantageous for the weaker culture struggling to be heard. Through the power of the word, the suppressed can express their opinions, and these opinions are a form of resistance against domination. While total open and free communication is unlikely because power roles in society are definite, “progress” can be made. Whether it’s through the heterogeneous classroom or other mode of open communication, once people of all backgrounds are seen as equal in the contact zone, then the potential for a catharsis increases.