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Border Crossing

Mary Louise Pratt, Gloria Anzaldua, and Linda Martin Alcoff discuss various implications of examining, including, and taking into account various non-Western rhetorics and language practices. In these cases, the practices considered arise from cultures colonized as part of the American invasion and expansion, forming border areas between these cultures where hybridity and linguistic/ideological cross-pollination occurs. Issues of language, culture, identity, and history intersect at these interstices, complicating and enriching the “seamless narrative” of Western rhetorical practices.

Pratt discusses a text, written (or at least dated) in 1613 by an indigenous Andean in a mixture of Quechua and ungrammatical Spanish as a twelve hundred page letter to King Phillip III of Spain (34). The structure and media-mixing of the text demonstrates a site of the contact zones Pratt discusses, as it brings together multiple languages and images that express the multiple forces at work in the situation de Ayala (the author) was attempting to convey. Pratt uses this as an example to elucidate the idea of a contact zone, which she describes as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (34). This term and concept has wide application in a variety of contexts and offers a lens through which to take these multiple (often) conflicting viewpoints into account when entering into, or observing, a space incorporating a multiplicity of subject positions and relations to power. The text she examines is a prime example of the type of literacy that may arise in such a space, as she notes that “such texts often constitute a marginalized groups point of entry into the dominant circuits of print culture” (35). Pratt also discusses the idea of transculturation, “the process whereby members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture” (36). The examination of these texts and practices offers the possibilities for greater understanding and inclusion, as well as potential strategies for finding voice within larger cultural contexts for marginalized individuals or groups, and also offers terms and language with which to interrogate these spaces.

Anzaldua enacts a text much like the one described by Pratt by mixing the multiple strands of identity, culture, and language into a textual format that seeks to express these multiplicities. Writing from the borderlands between American, Mexican, Spanish, Indian, Chicano, and Mestiza culture, Anzaldua creates a discursive representation of the dynamic interplay of forces within herself and the culture from which comes. Her text dynamically demonstrates that language does not necessarily arise within seamless, homogenous discourse communities comprised of those who agree upon the same cultural/linguistic rules, but rather can (and does) exist in much more flexible and contested spaces. By code meshing and mixing the various languages, dialects, and ideologies within the space of her text. Anzaldua both shows and tells the importance of language to both culture and identity. She also poignantly recounts the damage that can be done by the dominant culture through its attempts at assimilation and the centrality of language to this process, discussing the pain she has experienced because of being prohibited from, or ridiculed for, using her own language. She says, “if you really want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language” (1588). Anzaldua articulates, and in doing so resists, the colonization of language and identity.

Alcoff examines the two preceding pieces, asking specifically what contact zones and mestiza consciousness may work to help “revise the dominant historical narratives of Western rhetoric and composition” (119). Alcoff warns against “simply inserting Anzaldua into a vanguard Western narrative” as this has the potential to “replicate the hierarchy and authority of Eurocentric foundations” (120). Instead, Alcoff seeks to utilize Anzaldua’s model as a means of rethinking what is already known – or thought to be known – in different ways. This disrupts the seamless narrative of Western ideology (and rhetorical studies) which traditionally begins with Ancient Greece and follows, as Alcoff points out, the history of expansion and colonization as part of its trajectory. Alcoff critiques the lack of inclusion of non-Eurocentric texts within these traditions on one hand, while on the other many if the field claim to seek greater diversity and inclusivity. For Alcoff, the idea of “mestiza consciousness intervenes in the Western narrative of assimilation,” disrupting the narrative that renders all non-Europeans – and/or those who refuse to be fully assimilated into that ideology – invisible.

How can a colonized people speak in a way that is heard without fully taking on the language, and thus part of the consciousness, of their oppressors? This is a vexing question to anyone who attempts to speak within a system within which one does not feel “at home.” These pieces reminded me a lot of the discussions I have read within Native American scholarship, as the issues are much the same – how can a different consciousness even be expressed – much less understood – when it has to first be “translated” into the dominant language for it to be articulated publicly at all? How can this consciousness be shared, be known and recognized, when there is a barrier of language, worldview, and ideology? How can the unspeakable – for literally there may be no corollary words in another language – be expressed? What is not spoken of and shared socially may soon be forgotten, may cease to be a recognizable experience at all. How do people, deprived of their language, retain or (re)create identity?

These are issue that I believe have wider implications beyond particular marginalized groups, though in those cases it has profound significance for being able to retain cultural identity, memory, and practices. These pieces highlight the implications of language as carriers of ideology that both reflects and reproduces the values of a particular culture. To articulate ideas or identities that fall outside of the dominant paradigm is problematic – how does one speak of experiences that are unspeakable, that are not spoken of because they are not recognized as experiences? This is an issue that has implications for those inside, outside, and at the borders of dominant culture. In a sense, we are all colonized – interpolated into a system of regulation from before we are born, inculcated with its ideology through its language which insinuates itself so deeply within our beings that we call it “us.” What is the nature of this language shaping us, defining our limits and possibilities, whispering messages that it is all there is, that nothing at all lies beyond its boundaries? I’ve never bought the Western dualistic paradigm, nor the idea that nothing at all lies outside of discursivity. I will never buy it, no matter how many philosophers tell me it is so.

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One comment on “Border Crossing

  1. “wider implications beyond particular marginalized groups” –> Yes, I agree wholeheartedly! Anzaldua’s theory of language use has important implications for all discussions of literacy and literacy education. What kind of language usage ought we to be teaching, generally? There is a whole line of argument in the Western academic tradition about the politics and practicality of “correctness” and “linguistic purity” and “correct English” (or Latin, as the case may be). In 733 we mostly didn’t study this particular line of argument (saw a bit of it in Blair), but it’s an issue within rhetoric, and one that rhetoric has an answer for: Use the available means of persuasion — i.e., use whatever language helps you accomplish your purpose with your audience.

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