Arts of Contact Zone: Suffering Degradation publicly, An Autoethnography

In one occasion in my life, my friend and I were stoned in the public. The group of children who stoned us never hesitated to follow us despite running for our lives. They shouted at us while throwing stones at us mercilessly. Curled up on the bed for sometime after the painful experience, I tried to contemplate and make sense of everything that has happened that day. In the process of recounting this incident, a concept I learnt in class keep hitting my mind and that is degradation ceremony. It appeared to me that I had received my share of degradation ceremony. However it is important to answer arising questions such as; were all the conditions for a successful degradation satisfied during that time? Or did I simply experience something close to a degradation ceremony? In order to lay out the authenticity of these thoughts on literacy and writing, I would employ the arts of contact zones which according to Mary Louise are social spaces in which cultures clash, grapple and meet in contexts of a high asymmetrical relation to power. All these questions are explored in form of autoethnography. According to Garfunkel, the concept underlying degradation ceremony spells out that, “Any communicative work between persons, whereby the public identity of an actor is transformed into something looked on as lower in the local scheme of social types, will be called a status degradation ceremony.” Therefore, this paper explore some of the exhilarating psychological torture from this experience by employing the use of autoethnography to represent the way in which I determined and acknowledge whether I went through public degradation or just another experience of shame in the full glare of the public and noting various aspects of arts of contacts zones unveiled by Mary Louise Pratt.

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Borrowing from Garfinkel’s point of view, degradation ceremony is said to have happened if there has been identity transformation. This hardly involves identity substitution but rather the person changes to be a totally new or different person before the condemners. It implies that degradation ceremonies relate to alteration of identities and public denunciation is always significant in this process. For instance, a person publicly declares his essence as lower specie. In such a ceremony, the main intention is to destroy the person. Besides, in a degradation ceremony, a person is called up to give an account in front of a group, with witnesses denouncing him/her, the guilt of the offender is pronounced and other steps are then taken. To bring a successful degradation, ceremonial features are used. For instance, Emerson illustrates that the proceedings in the Juvenile courtrooms are structured in a way that delinquents are degraded and dubbed wrongdoers. A denouncer becomes a crucial part of changing the identity of a man from being perhaps a great leader in a big setting to a troublemaker. For example, Guaman Poma in his writing illustrates the case of Adam and Even in early Christianity chronicle. The duo was excommunicated by God from the Garden of Eden with both denouncing each other and the serpent to have contributed to their act of disobedience. This case shows an essence of degradation as the consequences of that act follows and the entire personality and identity of Adam and Even were forever transformed after degradation by God. All these cases best illustrates that degradation occur most times as a formal ceremony or process whereby denunciation of someone of someone takes place and consequently, the person suffers an ultimate identity transformation. Therefore, our case scenario can be characterized as public degradation ceremony based on the impact it has in our identity in personal points of view it is imperative to use autoethnography to represent this. Autoethnography comes out to be the most suitable method for representing this act and ascertaining the facts drawing from contact zones surrounding by cultures and societal points of view.

The incident

It was afternoon and we were just taking a stroll with my friend all dressed in black as it was the color code we chose for that day. While riding on bicycle and passing near an elementary school, our attention was caught by the renovations that had been done to that school since the time we passed. We were astounded by the fact that old building had been demolished and the new buildings were of new architectural design. My friend Tom and I were just taking a glimpse of this through the back gate of the school and the children were all playing around the field but were able to spot us. Suddenly, much to our surprise, the kids who playing around the get began to throw stone at use and we thought it was a small game so we also picked some small stones and threw in their direction in a joking mood. Little did were know that the situation was escalating and the kids were viewing us as strangers with whom they were not allowed to associate with without a due clearance. The number increased and as we stopped the game, stones were on like rain collected near an old demolished building. This attracted the attention of the onlookers as it changed to be a grotesque sight. The kids shouted and screamed at use and were overwhelmed by pain such that none of use could escape by bicycle but rather endure the pain of being hit by stones like bunch of thieves. Gracious God we were rescued by one of the teachers but we could not take any legal action since we were on the wrong side of things but only nurse our wounds and the pains. This is the uttermost degrading experience I found myself into without prior knowledge as we stared each other in great disbelief; being victimized by innocent kids and not being able to take any action.

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It comes out that Garfunkel’s definition strongly relates to the episode that took place. 3 elements of communicative work came my way. First, the physical attack I suffered on the hand of innocent kids, inattention I received from the teacher and the verbal insults I received from the onlookers. Undoubtedly, I was degraded that evening implying that I was reduced to a lower rank or in other term I was debased and depraved. To onlookers, I was sought of a thief who perhaps wanted to steal from children or a kidnapper and to the children, I become a toy so much fun to play with while the teachers perhaps viewed me as an idle folk who spends his time admiring the surrounding.

However, after a careful review of Garfunkel’s definition, it dawned on me that my experience was not a true degradation ceremony for three reasons. First, it requires that an identity of a person must be transformed, “The person becomes in the eyes of his condemners literally a different and new person…He is not changed, he is reconstituted”. I can not confirm that my identity was entirely transformed but was discredited. Secondly, a ceremony was inexistent since a degradation ceremony ought to be formal, fully structure, planned and fully intended to transform someone’s identity. The experience was not staged and came out as a bad luck. Third, there was not a denouncer to denounce me. Neither the teacher nor onlooker can be considered denouncers. It is because a denouncer has to arrange to be fully invested with the right of speaking in the name of values owed to a group. This was not the case in my experience since a degradation ceremony need prominent figures to declare something in determining someone’s fate. Therefore, Garfunkel rubs of my point of view through his definition to confirm that what happened to me never had basic elements of public degradation ceremony.

 Degradation in Pubic space

I have come to infer that I hardly went through a degradation ceremony. The necessary conditions were not fulfilled since the event was never intended to transforming my whole identity and a denouncer speaking for the welfare of a group never orchestrated the process of my degradation. Nevertheless, the blank question is, if I did not experience a public degradation, what then did I experience?

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In the process of connecting the dots, the idea that illuminates in my mind is discrediting of my identity. I became one who possessed an attribute that shaped me to be a completely different person from the people I shared a space with. The experienced can be termed as an incident of degradation whereby a person is perceived in the eyes of the public to be in the lower scheme of social types hence a formal ceremony is not essential to clump this. A question unveiling itself is; what does it matter is a person is degraded but in the short or long run does not experience transformation in identity? In relation to this, I come to understand that consequences such as mistrust, fear of the surrounding might contribute to the humiliating incident. My degradation incident shattered the entire frame of everyday life leaving me in a mindset of questioning the basic assumption regarding my surrounding. Considering of public space is also necessary whereby people exert power and control in public space differently. In some occasion, individuals are treated based on their physical characteristic such as black man insulted by whites and a woman walking in the public and harassed by men. Therefore, in public, it is indisputable fact that people sharing social space posses little information about one another but keen to observe gender, size, race, age and class.

In conclusion, autoethnography has been instrumental in representing all ideas in this article. Relating my story to a number of contact zones makes it to come out perfectly and becoming an enablement to delineating all the facts in all sides accurately.  Actually, this method is more promising and intriguing giving a way of voicing personal experience to extend a sociological understanding.

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