Michael P. Clark
Department of English and
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA 92697
Teaching in the Contact Zone of Ibero/Anglo Literature
This Early Ibero/Anglo Americanist Summit has demonstrated, dramatically, the intellectual benefits of providing a setting where people specializing in two different literary and cultural traditions can interact formally and informally. Can we take this experience with us and reproduce it as a continuing part of our professional lives as scholars and teachers?
Panelists over the past two days have repeatedly alluded to formidable obstacles in the path toward that goal. There are obvious institutional obstacles, as indicated by the high degree of correlation between the departmental affiliation of each speaker and the cultural tradition behind the texts he or she has discussed. Professors and graduate students from Departments of English have usually discussed texts from Anglo traditions, and their counterparts in Departments of Spanish and/or Portuguese have discussed works from Iberian traditions. (The rarity of true comparativists proves this general rule.) That such a correlation should seem so obvious to us is an indication of the depth to which institutional boundaries are interwoven with intellectual and scholarly practices, the extent to which "department" has become a synonym for "discipline."
There are also significant obstacles posed by anthologies, which even today are overwhelmingly mono-cultural because they are designed for a market that reflects the institutional divisions I have just mentioned. That design is also reflected in our courses: who among us has not altered at least some of our course plans to accommodate the anthologies we have ordered for our students? As a result, pedagogical practice, institutional structure, and commercial publishing reinforce the status quo and make it difficult to realize the inter-cultural ambitions of this conference in the classroom.
A third obstacle to pedagogical innovation at the radical level suggested by this Summit is posed by the split between research and teaching that was advocated by Jared Gardner in his recent review (Early American Literature 36.2 : 295-99) of Carla Mulford's Teaching the Literatures of Early America (MLA 1999). This review was suggested as a point of departure for the discussion at this session. Gardner essentially argues against the premise that informs Mulford's anthology (and this Summit) , i.e., that the inter-cultural scope of so much contemporary research can or should inform the content of our courses, especially at the undergraduate level. Gardner advocates instead that we simply abandon the connection between research and teaching, and that we see each activity as a valuable but separate part of our professional lives. He even waxes nostalgic (with tongue in cheek, I think) about the days when we simply did not know so much about what we were leaving out of our classes. Gardner's argument is important because it articulates the frustration we all feel from time to time when faced with myriad practical contradictions between our missions as scholars and teachers. Nevertheless, I would argue that teaching that is not inspired and challenged by research can only produce students who will reproduce the limits of their education, rather than reflect upon them. Even worse, I suspect that such courses can only be taught comfortably by teachers who have forgotten the spark of excitement and the thrill of exploration that drives all useful research, and that inspires all effective teaching.
Gardner's argument is all the more dangerous precisely because the frustration it addresses seems so familiar and "natural." When the correspondence among institutional structures, commercial publishing, and pedagogical practices is internalized as a contradiction in our professional identity between research and teaching, true change is difficult to imagine, let alone accomplish. As a first step along the path to change, I suggest a contrarian strategy:
1. Abandon coverage. It does not exist. There is nothing to "represent" or "do justice to" by way of a "period” of literary history, a "range" of voices, a national identity, field, Zeitgeist, Weltanschauung, episteme, etc. Would another two weeks really allow you to "cover" "Early American Literature"? Another year? A career? A lifetime? More broadly, will that next revision of the curriculum, or the requirements for the major, really get the job done? And if not, what are we to make of the departments so closely associated with those majors?
2. Without coverage, there are no surveys because there is nothing to measure, no Borgesian fantasy of a perfect anthology, no mapmaker's dream of the perfect course that exactly overlays the field being traversed. The advent of custom publishing, not to mention the Web and on-line texts, will soon make anthologies obsolete. Why continue with the course-structure those anthologies support?
3. Without surveys, no guilt about having failed to cover the period. No anxiety about having "left out" something important, either canonical or anti-canonical, no nostalgic reveries about ignorance as a refuge. Hence no split between our roles as scholars and teachers.
So, with no survey, anthology, or the obligation of coverage, what holds the course together? What principle of coherence will keep any course from being just a random collocation of texts grouped by sheer chronological contiguity or geographical proximity? How do we map the contact zone of Ibero/Anglo studies this Summit has created, not to mention populate the zone with student-natives raised in that heterogeneous intellectual space?
Most answers to these questions start with thematic motifs common to most contemporary scholarship on exploration literature, including cannibalism, "wonder," the savage, and similar terms and concepts. But in themselves, these motifs are too prone to simplified abstraction and generalization to be very useful as analytical or pedagogical tools--"the Other" being perhaps the most notorious example of this debilitating tendency. We therefore need to look beyond these thematic motifs to the textual functions that support them. As a tentative step in that direction, consider two texts that loom large within their respective traditions, but are little known and almost never taught across the cultural and disciplinary boundaries separating them: the Requerimiento, and John Cotton's sermon "God's Promise to his Plantation". (Both are available in the on-line collection for this Summit; quotations refer to those versions.) As all Iberian scholars know, and as most Anglo scholars do not, the Requerimiento is a formal, legal document that was used by the conquistadores in the sixteenth century to authorize their relations with the indigenous peoples they encountered. Typically, it was read in Spanish to the indigenes by a priest if one was available, and the reading occurred between two groups assembled for the occasion: the Europeans on one side, the Indians on the other, with the priest in the middle. The message was simple: convert or be conquered: "If you do so you will do well . . . if you do not do this . . . I certify to you that with the help of God we shall forcefully enter into your country and shall make war against you." Though much ridiculed today for the transparent hypocrisy of the occasions—the Indians could not understand the language, and Hobson himself would blush at the choice they were given—the Requerimiento in fact operated within a sophisticated legal tradition and was taken seriously as a contract. Its legal authority should be considered no more or less significant than the professions of missionary zeal by the British colonists a century later.
John Cotton was an influential Puritan minister who emigrated to America and who is little known by most scholars outside the fields of English and American history and literature. "God's Promise" was delivered to the emigrating colonists just before they left for America. (Cotton did not accompany the first group.) In the sermon, Cotton encourages the colonists to remain faithful to the religious principles that bind them together with the friends and family they are leaving at home. He invokes the covenant between God and the Elect as a contract with specific terms the colonists must honor if they expect to retain God's protection in the dangerous new land: take care that God's ordinances be implanted within you, Cotton says, elaborating on the "plantation" metaphor. "If you take rooting in the ordinances, no sonnes of violence shall destroy you." On the other hand, he warns, "if you rebell against God, the same God that planted you will also roote you out." The terms of the covenant are unremarkable and would have been entirely predictable in any Puritan sermon, as would Cotton's elaboration of the covenant as an economic contract between the British and the Indians: "offend not the poore Natives, but as you partake in their land, so make them partakers of your precious faith: as you reape their temporalls, so feed them with your spiritualls."
The geographical, cultural, proto-national, and discursive differences between these texts are obvious, and usually have kept the texts isolated from one another in classrooms and scholarship. But the rhetorical similarity between them is just as obvious: they are both explicit performative utterances that establish and/or confirm a contractual relation between the European and indigenous populations, and that authorize the European incursion. The performative act occurs literally "in between" the two populations, as if the priest has finished reading the Requerimiento and then turns to the European (now British) audience and reads another version of the contract for them.
This rhetorical parallel is invisible if we view these documents and the occasions in which they functioned strictly from the perspective of proto-national linguistic communities, i.e., Spanish vs. English, or from their disciplinary contexts, i.e., law vs. theology. The rhetorical similarity of the two texts is neither an accident nor a coincidence, however; it is inherent in the way the European presence in the Americas was imagined by the British and Spanish at home, symbolically represented on both sides of the Atlantic, and strategically sustained. As such, studying and teaching the rhetorical dimension of such texts can help us map the space between the Iberian and Anglo contexts of that time, and help us measure the gap that remains between those two traditions as they presently exist in institutional, pedagogical, and scholarly practice.
Other perspectives can similarly guide us and our students through this historical and disciplinary contact zone. For example, the work of translation was crucial to the exploration of the New World because it literally created a nexus of information from many different cultures and languages. Aesthetics (specifically formal principles of artistic representation such as perspective) and literary conventions (such as the sonnet, genre, first-person narrative, etc.) transcended specific European languages and constituted a genuinely international community of discourse or representation during the period of exploration. That continuity among literary artists was at least as influential in the representation of early contact as were cultural and linguistic differences between speakers of Spanish and English. In addition, since most of these phenomena figure centrally in what Stephen Greenblatt has called the "mimetic exchange" of the contact zone, they also provide a valuable perspective on the mechanisms by which the "European" emerged as such against the non-European people of America, and across generations and historical "periods" on each side of that new border.
Courses that take such phenomena as their point of departure do not have to worry about coming to a coherent destination at the end of the semester, or covering a limited field. The point is not to cover some subject by delimiting its scope, but rather to equip students to understand how the world of exploration—whether that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or their own classroom—was and is infinitely expansive. Specific languages and national differences are crucial to our understanding of early American cultures, but they are only part of the story. We must also study and teach the symbolic mechanisms and social practices by which old and new differences were produced, evolved and faded under the pressure of life in early America. With some luck and much persistence, those efforts might have a similar effect on the professional borders that have been crossed in the three days of this Summit.