Thursday, January 15, 2009

Damián Baca, Scripts for Liberation

Damián Baca works at the intersection of rhetoric, comparative writing systems in Mesoamerica/later America, and globalization. Generally, he looks to cultures in Latin America, the Caribbean, and U.S. Latinidad as a lens through which to complicate and inform two correlative domains of inquiry:

1) The disciplinary formation of the study of alphabetic writing as it emerges during a crucial period of Western territorial annexation, and

2) The imperial complicity between "racialized" subjectivites and economy, from the development of the transatlantic commercial circuit in the sixteenth century to the present stages of global capitalism.

Baca is especially interested in the rhetorical potential of post-Occidental reason - an invitation to theorize with, against, and beyond inherited patterns of thinking that emerged in Western Europe under capitalism. In place of merely challenging the Western Rhetorical tradition from a so-called "alternative" cultural locus, his work examines how and why the current study of Rhetoric and Composition becomes an unquestioned alternative to the immense global plurality of communicative forms and knowledges that remain obscured. He perceives these inquiries as having substantial implications for the politics and ethics of research, teaching, and curricular reform.

Author Bio:

Damian Baca, assistant professor of English at the University of Arizona, earned his Ph.D. from Syracuse University in 2006. He is a member of the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) and serves on the council's Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English.

Baca is a recipient of the NCTE Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color scholarship, and was supported by the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program during his years as a graduate student. His research and teaching areas include Chicano Chicana Rhetoric & Poetics, Comparative Technologies of Writing, Rhetorics of Mesoamerica/Colonial Mexico and the U.S./Mexico Border, Globalization, Colonial/World-Systems Analysis, Digital Humanities, and Ancestral Literacy.

Baca is author of Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing (New Concepts in Latino American Cultures Series) Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. He is also lead co-editor of Rhetorics in the Americas: 3114BCE to 2012CE with Victor Villanueva, scheduled for publication in late 2009.

He is currently preparing his third manuscript on pedagogical resistance to inherited patterns of thinking that emerged in Western Europe under capitalism.
A native of New Mexico and descendant of Sephardic Crypto Jews (primarily through his matrilineal line, Espinosa), Baca regularly conducts research at the National Hispanic Cultural Center Foundation and numerous other locations throughout the region. Additional information is about Baca is available at http:/

2008 Palgrave Macmillan Press Release for Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing:

Conventional scholarship on written communication positions the Western alphabet as a precondition for literacy. Thus, pictographic, non-verbal writing practices of Mesoamerica remain obscured by representations of lettered speech. This book examines how contemporary Mestiz@ scripts challenge alphabetic dominance, thereby undermining the colonized territories of "writing." Strategic weavings of Aztec and European inscription systems not only promote historically-grounded accounts of how recorded information is expressed across cultures, but also speak to emerging studies on visual/multimodal education. Baca argues that Mestiz@ literacies advance "new" ways of reading and writing, applicable to diverse classrooms of the twenty-first century.

La Bloga's discussion with Damian Baca

How would you describe your career arc?

I trace my present inquiries back to my training and experience in graduate school. The teaching of college writing is a practice that is claimed by Rhetoric and Composition, a discipline within the larger field of English Studies. On one hand, the discipline focuses most of its attention on writing activities in controlled academic spaces with histories firmly embedded in the thinking of ancient Athenians, Roman imperialists, Aryan-Germanic philosophers, and descendants of Puritan immigrants. On the other hand, Rhetoric and Composition proclaims that writing is more or less a life-long activity that is relevant in multiple ways and for multiple cultural situations. So a notable predicament arises -- how can scholars make authoritative claims about (and thus teach) the "diversity" of writing while simultaneously surrendering to an outdated and culturally provincial historical fantasy?

My point of departure from the discipline has become two-fold. First, while the discipline's governing gaze remains fixed upon a linear "Greece>Rome>Europe>North America" global trajectory, I'm committed to questioning pre- and post- conquest legacies on our own continent. While conventional academics theoretically look back across the Atlantic to the West and Europe, I aim to think from the South, from Mesoamerica, colonial Mexico, and the U.S./Mexico borderlands. And not surprisingly, Rhetoric and Composition is structured upon the largely unquestioned ideology that Western Roman alphabetic symbols comprise the foundation of writing and literacy. But this is not my foundation.

Indeed, our continent tells an "other" narrative, one of a plurality of graphic marks that produce Olmec calendrics, Maya hieroglyphs, Aztec pictographs, Inca quipu knotted cord systems, Chicana Chicano iconography, and Zapatista digital communications. A truly hemispheric and global plurality provides precisely what Rhetoric and Composition experts have yet to grasp: historically-sound and theoretically grounded accounts of multiple and conflicting writing systems in the Americas, the Caribbean, and beyond. I believe such accounts foster perspectives that are better suited for our contemporary world problems of perpetual warfare, territorial occupation, economic exploitation and systemic poverty, and the politics of communication across cultural borders.

Why this area of study?

Good question. Why study and teach writing? My interest is driven by a conviction that critical agency and justice cannot emerge from a single overarching rhetorical tradition upon which all civilizations across the globe must follow. In this spirit, I practice and teach writing as a political and creative art, an art that involves building theoretical frameworks, analyzing and developing concepts, and thinking beyond the sentence-level to critically reflect upon larger, underlying structures. This is why instead of "teaching writing as production" or "teaching texts as consumption," I tend to think in terms of teaching through inquiries associated with legacies of conquest and resistant discourses that challenge global powers of our day.

A series of interlocking life-changing events, from the colonial break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to Al-Qaeda attacks of September 2001 complicate --among other things-- isolationist narratives that recast Western civilization as separate from the world rather than part of it.

The political and ethical potential of my work, I hope, might provide
space for enlarging the harmfully narrow frameworks that academics use to study and teach written language and literacy. In addition to an increased awareness of, for example, transnational migrations, fundamentalist faith systems, and multinational corporations, a more global concept of writing might likewise call into question the foundations of the humanities and social sciences.

When and where do the Americas and the Caribbean become literary, literate, and rhetorical? According to whom and with whose definitions? Should North Atlantic imperialism dictate the historical and creative imaginary of the rest of the world? I prefer looking to wider geographic, temporal, and cultural contexts for rethinking hemispheric and world history. Building a wide-angle transatlantic view is helpful in teaching beyond the provinces of Athens, Western Europe, Massachusetts Bay, the British colonies, and toward a global past and global present.

How are writing technologies and disciplinary lenses
already embedded within transnational processes of oceanic trade, migration, and industrialization? How can writing specialists better understand the plurality of writing systems, empires, and trade networks that thrived in
Western Hemisphere long before European occupation? How have these earlier commercial networks set the stage for our current era of technoglobalism, human trafficking, and unregulated capitalist expansion? As a teacher, these inquiries impact multiple scenes of learning, teaching, and institutional leadership, from hallway conversations to seminars, from faculty search committee meetings to conference presentations. The classroom is merely one space where learning,teaching, and writing happen.

What is the significance of specific constructs of language in Chicano contexts?

There are so many writers who've influenced my thinking about language and rational thought. Lucha Corpi, Sandra Mar?a Esteves, E.A. Mares, Rosaura S?nchez, Ben S?enz, Aurora Levins Morales, Demetria Martinez, José Antonio Burciaga, Manuel Mu?oz, Laura Pérez, and numerous others. The late Gloria Anzald?a and her groundbreaking Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza also comes to mind. Borderlands adds significantly to our understanding of Chicana Chicano politics of language, I think, by advancing a new strategy of imagination and invention?the critical invention between multiple discourses and the memories that are embedded in those discourses. Mexican Spanish, Spanglish, Cal? and Pachuquisma, Tex-Mex, English variations, Nahuatl fragmentations, Espa?otli.

I see this intervention as a powerful rhetorical
tactic, but one that is often confused with the mere encounter between different cultures and worldviews. Numerous writers have shown that Chicana Chicano discursive experiences are far more complex than this. For example, Anzald?a employs nepantla as a concept of borderland thinking. Nepantla, which can translate as "the space between two oceans," is a Nahuatl expression coined in the early sixteenth century in the aftermath of European invasion, rape, genocide, and conquest. The first generation of children from Mesoamerican mothers and Iberian fathers recognized that "authentic" pre-European ways of life were impossible to recover. At the same time, the Spanish colonial world of brutal Christianization was not a suitable alternative.

then, is a strategy of thinking and speaking from a border space through multiple kinds of expressions and oppositions. Inventing and communicating from nepantlism, suspended between paradoxical frames of reference, was first a possibility in the mind of the Mesoamerican, not the Spaniard. Both worlds experienced and negotiated cultural difference and linguistic "diversity," yet the Spanish colonial administration had no equivalent to the Nahuatl nepantla. Anzald?a's border thinking is a distinct articulation that emerges from the underside of colonization, from the perspectives of the subjugated and silenced. These Chicana Chicano articulations undermine and revise Western conventions of communication by enacting "new" memories, subaltern recollections in which splintered Mesoamerican and other language practices are strategically reconfigured and embroidered within our post-Columbian world of colonial and global power. Moreover, our culture has no need to accept either/or linguistic binaries. Anzald?a, like so many others in our community, reveals U.S. linguistic assimilation debates for what they are?outmoded ideas and false dilemmas.

What are some future areas of study?

In early 2009 I'll complete a book project I've had in mind for a few years now, Rhetorics of the Americas: 3114BCE to 2012CE, an edited manuscript under contract with Palgrave Macmillan. I believe this will be a groundbreaking collection, the first of its kind, as it extends the culturally provincial study of Western Rhetoric into an introduction to pre-Columbian rhetorics of the Americas. The book addresses an understanding of discourse meant to persuade within Pre-Columbian civilizations; that is, in presenting the rhetoric that coincided with but was not influenced by Greco-Latin ones.

contributor provides glimpses into what those indigenous rhetorics might have looked like, how they are tied to culture and conquest and, perhaps most importantly, how their influences remain.

The collection brings together
scholars from Rhetoric, American Indian Studies, American Studies, Mesoamerican and Latin American Studies, Art History, and Comparative Spanish Literatures, among other disciplines. I approached Victor Villanueva, Director of American Studies at Washington State University, to step in as co-editor for the project. Victor?s an amazing person and an award-wining scholar whose contributions to Rhetoric and Composition studies are too numerous to list here. I'm blessed to be working with him, and blessed to work with such a wonderful group of scholars.

Lisa Alvarado


msedano said...

this work goes to my heart as well as mind. i've always wanted to learn how aristotle made the voyage from spain to america. i know well how that tradition migrated via england to the united states, but little about the rest of america. speech and debate have a rich presence in U.S. high school and college competitions, less so the declamatory tradition that characterizes mexican schoolkid oral performance, and vice versa.

how, by the way, does one pronounce that awful arroba in baca's title? is the word "mestizarroba"? "mestizahoh"? "mestizat"? or should one simply mistrust a scholar's other work when such orthography shows an inability to resolve gender marking rules across language systems?

Quetzal said...


Use of "@" in the title was inspired in part by folks at UC Berkeley-- Ramon Grosfoguel, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and José David Saldivar. Check out their 2006 Latin@s in the World-System: Decolonization Struggles in the 21st Century U.S. Empire. Begona Simal also uses it in the 2007 collection Perspectives on Modern Literature and Ethnicity in the Cultural Borderlands (edited by Jesus Benito and Anna Maria Manzanas). The arroba is reinvented primarily for purposes of gender inclusivity. It can also be interpreted as a marker of communal subjectivity, a subjectivity that should never be exclusive. When it comes to orthography and gender, I suppose I don't tend to think of "rules" so much as "skills" or "strategies" of gender marking. I included a Reading Guide at the end of my book to address this very issue and invite further dialogue. For example, what should one do with the phonetic pronunciation of Latina/o? Such semantic landmines call for further discussion. Thank you.

Damián Baca

ESerna said...

great to see this interview on La Bloga!! Baca's work (esp Mestiz@ Scripts) has been inspirational to several Xican@s currently getting English PhD's at UCRiverside. In fact, I am going to use this interview (where Baca explains Anzaldua's Nepantla) to teach my English 1B composition lesson tomorrow. Tlazos/ thanks for the dialogue!