28 July 2008

Contact Zones: Contested Spaces or Everyday Practice

I was reading a paper I found on the Web by a friend of mine, Matt Ratto, about Contact zones in digital scholarship: Corpus construction for spoken and signed languages. In that paper, Matt and his co-author, Ernst Thoutenhoofd, that large collections of everyday speach, called linguistic corpora, had found that the the rarified language examples of linguistics simply don't exist in everyday speech, except among linguists. Of course, this would not surprise Wittgensteinian scholars, but this got me thinking about the main topic of the paper -- Contact Zones.

Contact Zone, as a term, was coined by Mary Louise Pratt in her monumentally important book Imperial Eyes to designate those spaces or dialogues where two different cultures meet, usually in colonial settings and where there are quite disparate power relations, but manage to create a space where communication and learning occures. However, today, it seems that contact zones are everywhere, the term being used to describe just about any place, publication or performance where two knowledge groups meet.

Matt and Ernst's paper got me thinking. Isn't it that every engagement, in 'normal' social practice, is more or less a contact zone? Isn't it that when we look at what people do, rather than the rarified models of what people do, that they are always engaging in this sort of negotiated, autoethnographic (to use Pratt's really awful term) practice? Isn't the contact zone another example of the linguist's language, existing only in an academic rarification?

Now I should make clear that I am enormously fond of the idea of a contact zone. Not only as a means of understanding that exploitative period of colonialization, which is very much still with us though in different form, but also in its more constructive twist given by Jim Clifford in his Museums as Contact Zones. However, no matter how good an idea may be, it still deserves critical examination, especially in its use.

For me, at the moment, contact zones seem hugely underdetermined. Basically, it seems that any setting where we find disparate knowledge groups coming together and interacting, or at least attempting to, is a contact zone. In other words, we take what Pratt calls the imagined norm as a baseline, and then put anything that doesn't fit into contact zones. This imagined norm is that belief in a rarified and abstract set of forms or rules that we believe govern what we do. As a transcendental norm, we act on the assumption that this norm must underly all we do, that we are all more or less competent in achieving the standard. But this demands the acceptance of a tautology in everything we do. That there is some ultimate and true form that we all strive for.

The assumption that seems to underly contacts zones is that there is some 'normal' setting which doesn't require the negotiation of disparate and often incommensurable knowledge practices. Prof. Pratt, in her later paper, Arts of Contact Zones, she said that she later began to use contact zones "to reconsider the models of community that many of us rely on in teaching and theorizing". She used as an example of this later use of the term a contentious course that they developed at Stanford called Cultures, Ideas, Values.

To make a long story short, what struck me about Prof. Pratt's characterization, especially after reading Matt Ratto's paper, was that it seemed what was being discussed was not a particular space or zone, but a sensitivity to a certain genre of practice. A practice that, by necessity or choice, actively destablizes and diversifies the usual categorical and practical stabilization of the setting and and engagement between the participants.

Though this needs a great deal more thought, I am beginning to wonder if what we call contact zones are, in fact, what we could also characterize as normal practice -- what we all do everytime we engage with other groups who have different understandings of the world than ourselves, which is just about always. However, it could be (should be) that contact zones designate the recognition or sympathy that to engender and enable more symmetric engagements, we need to stop trying to stabilize such engagements and allow them their difference?

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