Thursday, February 05, 2009

Composition, Colonialism, and Hemispheric Pluralities

Introductory Bio

Damián Baca, Assistant Professor of English, earned a Ph.D. in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric from Syracuse University in 2006. He is core faculty in the University of Arizona’s “Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English” Ph.D. program and affiliate faculty in Mexican American Studies. Baca's most recent publication is Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing (New Concepts in Latino American Cultures Series) with Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. In addition to co-editing a manuscript, A Brief History of Rhetoric in the Americas: 3114BCE to 2012CE, Baca is co-editing a forthcoming special edition of College English on “Writing, Rhetoric, and Latinidad” with Victor Villanueva. Baca serves on the NCTE Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English, the NCTE College Section Steering Committee, the CCCC Progressive Special Interest Group and Caucus Coalition, and is a member of the CCCC/NCTE Latino Caucus. As a recipient of NCTE’s Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color Research Foundation as well as the federally funded Ronald E. McNair post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, Baca is committed to mentoring students of underrepresented populations as they prepare to enter the professoriate.

Blog Entry

I’d like to thank Joyce Middleton and the CCCC Committee on Diversity, NCTE’s Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color Research Foundation, the CCCC/NCTE Latino Caucus, the National Hispanic Cultural Center Foundation, and the Ronald E. McNair post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program.

Although some Composition specialists theoretically embrace “diversity,” they often do not reflect on the origins of Western Composition that are the fruit of a Eurocentric interregional system before which they are profoundly uncritical, and, because of this, they struggle to contribute valid alternatives for exploited populations of the Americas. Thus, “diversity” is a semantic landmine that I generally avoid when describing my teaching, research, and service. I instead think in terms of hemispheric (and global) pluralities. Let me explain.

Raised in a multilingual, matrifocal family that endured shifting national identities, I became sensitive to the politics and geopolitics of culture at an early age. Rhetorical mediations between Mexican Spanish, Spanglish and English formed a web through which I made sense of the circumstances into which I was born. But the intellectual location of U.S. writing specialists prevented their well-intentioned pedagogies from accounting for the practices of such creative processes. The inherited patterns of thinking that emerged in Western Europe under capitalism and their philosophical extensions (that celebrated corpus from Phenomenology to Postmodernism) remain systematically narrow and inadequate. It wasn’t until confronting articulations such as Gloria Anzaldúa’s “new mestiza consciousness” that I began to understand explicitly the traces of colonial power present at all scenes of writing instruction in the “New World,” as well as the innovative rhetorics emerging and persisting from the peripheries of North Atlantic imperialism.

Today, Rhetoric and Composition scholars too often retreat from confronting the enterprise of Western writing instruction as a consequence of colonial power, in particular, the transnational transfer of European systems, technologies and theories of writing to the Western Hemisphere, and the subsequent covering of pre-existing writing practices and tools of literacy of subjugated civilizations.

Operating directly against the humanities’ Western logic of exclusion and erasure, Gloria Anzaldúa’s new mestiza consciousness revises our field’s imperial imaginary by “inventing between” AngloAmerican, Iberian, and Mesoamerican cosmologies. In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa de-naturalizes standardized English literacy as the normative tool of communication by entwining various Castilian varieties—both the standard vernacular of an ex-colonial power and some of its subalternized counter-cultural admixtures, admixtures that are so common today. Anzaldúa furthermore introduces the potential to displace the supremacy of the art of letters by continually evoking pre-Columbian record keeping practices, which re-inscribe the Mesoamerican concept of Tlacuilolitzli—the earliest expression for writing in the Americas—translated as “the spreading of color on hard surfaces.” Ancient Mexican writing, influenced by the preceding 10,000 years of development in Mesoamerica, supported a fully socialized “higher education” network which fostered the realization of an organized and consistent legal system, an exact science of time-astronomy-and mathematics, complex faith systems, advanced knowledge of herbal medicine, elaborate architecture and sculptural art—all of this without Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum and without the invention of the alphabet.

By merging Mexican and Western technologies of writing, we are no longer obliged to accept the Western philosophy of a grammar, of linguistic control or taming the tongue and mind, as universal components of writing instruction. Possibilities for accessing theoretical and pedagogical potentials, no longer constrained by an elite class of practitioners, become available. If, in place of theorizing Composition based on a vanguard Western mythology, we accept new mestiza consciousness as a point of origin, we might be encouraged to think about, practice, and teach rhetoric in such a way that is directly responsive to comparative developments of writing, both past and present, from Olmec glyphs to the Inca Quipu, from Maya hieroglyphs to Aztec pictographs to Chicano codices and Zapatista internet communiqués. The earliest writing systems in the “New World” develop from the abstract to the pictorial—precisely the reverse of what many might teach us to believe. Fifteenth century Aztec writing is almost entirely pictorial, while earlier Maya hieroglyphs of the fourth century are far more abstract. The history of writing and writing instruction, therefore, is not a triumphant progression toward the alphabet, but rather a series of co-evolutionary processes in which different systems follow their own transformations. No longer limited by parochial assumptions about “true writing” as the representation of speech through alphabetic systems, the field could study and learn from the construction of knowledge through various technologies of information storage and transmission, whether one writes with letters or with colors or with a system of knotted cords. New translations of rhetoric that “emerge from” the American colonial periphery would provide thorough knowledge of what the field has yet to generate: a materialist, historically-grounded theory of writing that accounts for those civilizations that maintain the longest cumulative histories of writing and writing instruction in the Western Hemisphere. Such subalternized knowledge is also responsive to current trends in digital rhetorics and digital literacies—trends that belatedly call for increased awareness of so-called visual, multi-genre, and multi-media writing practices.

New mestiza consciousness as a rhetorical practice creates a locus of enunciation not where Iberian and Mesoamerican legacies are mere alternatives to Composition Studies. Anzaldúa’s rhetorics suggest, quite to the contrary, that Composition is not necessarily a suitable or superior alternative to the immense hemispheric plurality that remains obscured. As a teacher and researcher of writing, my largest obstacle is not the last eight years of “Cowboy Conservatism” in the Oval Office, but an enduring John Wayne pedagogy of the study of written language. It is the field’s compassionate colonialism that systematically deforms the history and theory of writing under divisive periodizations and spacializations that declare the Western cosmology as the genesis and center of all critical thought.

As a way out, I suggest a shift from merely “talking about” writing and “diversity” from the harmfully narrow perspective of those in the imperial center, to “writing and teaching from” Anzaldúa’s conceptual borderlands. We might also look to the forgotten Fernando Ortiz and his misappropriated “transculturation,” W.E.B. Du Bois’ “double consciousness,” Emma Pérez’ “decolonial imaginary,” Caribbean essayist Edouard Glissant’s “Créolization,” Malea Powell’s “trickster rhetoric,” and Guaman Poma’s “arts of the contact zone”—these distinct enunciations, grounded in the lived experiences of the peripheral colonial world, express new potentials that surpass the limits of post-Enlightenment rationality. In place of the uni-linear, developmental, racially coded framework “from Ancient Greece to Modern America,” the idea of temporal simultaneity is invoked in which it becomes possible to see multiple histories and memories coexisting, without political rankings or assumptions that all cultures and rhetorical practices progress along the same imperial path.

In this light, an education in Composition and Rhetoric would interrogate the overhanging colonial determinant of the study of written language—not for what it declares, but for what it conceals: the epistemic limits of an enduring Eurocentric telos, too often passed off as universal and disembodied, without cultural roots or limitations. By provincializing and possibly even abandoning the field’s imperial horizon, perhaps we might prevent Composition Studies from becoming the humanities’ final attempt to keep John Wayne alive for one last Western.


Anonymous said...


I really think this posting is productive because it encourages us all to think about the ways in which our teaching practices reemphasize Eurocentric, Westernized pedagogies, pedagogies that more often than not, lack diversity. It's one thing to demonstrate diversity by "including" students and scholars of color in our field's discourse; it's another thing to actually diversify our teaching practices. I think that teaching with respect to "hemispheric (and global) pluralities" may benefit rhet/comp more than the "diversity as inclusion" trope has ever sought to accomplish.

Anonymous said...

It's refreshing to reread Anzaldúa in this context of pedagogy reform as well as how we do historical research and how we tell ourselves our history of the "Western Tradition" myth.

It's one thing to merely read portions of her work in passing for a graduate seminar or for FYC students without doing anything with it. It's also quite easy to merely cite the same old popular passages of Anzaldúa at national conferences. We have to move past "name dropping" and actually apply her work to the field.

As a Latina, I'm often offended at how Chicana feminism is appropriated by some of my "white" colleagues. They reference Anzaldúa only as a supplement, as a last-minute add on. This post brings to light more progressive uses. Thank you for the post. You've given me ideas for a paper I'm working on right now!

Cristina Ramírez said...


The comments of your posting harken to your chapter "Thinking and Teaching Across Border and Hemishpere´s" from your new book Mestiza Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing. In there, you offer frameworks and models of what teaching from a new mestiza consciousness would look like. "A new curriculum," you write, "would emphasize connections, comparisons, and interpretive frameworks across and beyond national boundaries" (135). One of the theorists you introduce in your chapter is Walter Mignolo, who wrote Local Histories/Global Design, and Darker Side of the Renaissance. After reading your book, I immediately picked up Mignolo´s work. Through the direction you provide in your book on framing a new curriculum, and a new direction in the teaching of rhetoric and composition, I am in the process of developing a syllabus for a course I have called "Theories of Border Rhetorics." In this course, as you have suggested, I would introduce readings from Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks by Lipson and Binkley, The Invention of the America's by Dussel, and various chapters from Alfred Arteaga's An Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands. A book that I would like to also use in this course is by a political science scholar, John Francis Burke, called Mestizo Democracy: The Politics of Crossing Borders. In there, he forwards the theory of mestizaje as the soundest, and most respectful, route to incorporating ALL cultures and people into the society. Because Burke comes from a political science background, he offers practical applications to the mestizaje, which could easily be translated into the composition classroom, and to the greater discipline of rhetoric.

Have you taught a course at the Univesity of Arizona, or elsewhere, based on the suggestions in "Thinking and Teaching Across Borders?"

Carl Whithaus said...

Since your blog post is included as part of the Computers and Writing Online 2009 conference, I'm wondering about links between colonialism, composition, and writing technologies. How does your reading of Anzaldúa and borderlands fit with writing technologies (both current uses of writing technologies, but also the histories of writing technologies)?

Josh said...

First off, I love the play with Westerns and John Wayne, very creative. I am curretly workng on my thesis in composition, and I believe this "colonial" thinking will go far to help me in my work. I am now going to have to read Anzaldua in order to better understand this notion. I wonder if ecsaping the "empirial sun" of colonialism is an imposibility? As I surmise it could be equated with Gramsci's hegemony. And as Freire stated, the oppressed will, in turn, take on the characteristics of the oppressesd and then create their own hegemony.

Catherine Prendergast said...

What I like about this post, and your work in general, is that you educate. Instead of talking from the center about globalization in terms of the abstract harm the center does others, you *go there* geographically and historically and demonstrate what we have to learn/relearn, which is in the end a lot harder to do than critique, though as Josh points out, the John Wayne analogy is well put! Thanks for the post. Lots to build on there for an agenda for the field.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post Damian. You get at the core of what many scholars of color, particularly African Centered scholars, have been demonstrating. There are systems of knowledge (rhetoric, writing, science, mathematics, medicine, religion etc) that existed long before (and alongside) that which has been claimed as THEE rhetorical (or other) tradition, which is really THEE WESTERN rhetorical (or other) tradition. A concept like diversity doesn’t go far enough to account for these systems, epistemologies, cosmologies, histories of knowledge. Revolution seems more appropriate. Thank you for sharing Anzaldua and the other scholars who’ve influenced your thinking. Brave scholarship like this is what is needed for these changing times. I look forward to reading more of your work. Elaine Richardson

CCCC Annual Convention

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