edge archiving.

“Contact Zone”
September 3, 2010, 12:57 am
Filed under: edge glossary

“Contact Zone”

re: Mary Louise Pratt: Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation

“Contact zone” is a term which, Pratt writes, “[refers] to the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict… ‘contact zone’ in my discussion is often synonymous with ‘colonial frontier.’ But while the latter term is grounded within a European expansionist perspective (the frontier is a frontier only with respect to Europe), “contact zone” is an attempt to invoke the spatial and temporal copresence of subjects previously separated by geographic and historical disjunctures, and whose trajectories now intersect.” (6-7)


Within the greater trajectory of an “edge history,” Pratt’s notion of “contact zone” presents a mode of edging the frontier imaginary with sites of intersection.  These sites of intersection, contact zones, mark edge-sites — rather than a mode of edge-crossing.  This is precisely the limit to imperial thinking, from which “contact zone” develops.  The “edge” reaches a similar limit, which is a dialectical limit of inside / outside edge imaginaries such as the American frontier.

As a point of intersection — or as an edge-site — a “contact zone” is an inward, liminal space which operates at the edge of utopianism and imperialism (encapsulated in the notion of “transculturation”).  The image of a contact zone is a kind of Venn diagram: a space determined by its outward edges.  The dialectical limit, therein, comes in the imperative of edge-crossing.  To cross the outward edges of a “contact zone” — as in Brautigan’s narrative (see article in “longer pieces”) — is to either push out of the utopian or imperial logic, or, to push out of a utopian imperialism.  Crossing the “edge” of a contact zone, historically, is the narrative of western expansion.

In its critique of the frontier, “contact zone” takes on an inward logic which is inherently postmodern — a collapse of the notion of an “outside.”  It is in this sense that “contact zone” might be understood as the “edge” of a frontier discourse — an edge from which an “edge” discourse might be further expanded.  What are the edges, or the outer limits, of these zones?

Through the global era, our cosmic imaginary has been territorialized by narratives of “contact zones” which operate as frontier sites.  Star Trek imagines space as an ocean, on which the ship and captain sail to different planetary islands, or encounter other ships along a horizontal plane.  The “contact zones” of the ship’s expeditions are sites of conquest, where different aliens (effectively, different human races) either engage in diplomacy or war.  Kirk and his crew represent a utopian vision of patriarchical multi-culturalism — a sixties utopia for the American masses — distinct from the traditions of primitivist or orientalized cultures they encounter.  These encounters take place in “contact zones,” which in these instances, operate as cocoons of cosmic Western expansion: vacuums from which alternative possibilities of space cannot be imagined.  Here, “contact zone” can be used to understand the particular hybridity of these spaces of possibility, or, of impossibility.


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