A look at an Insider’s Challenge to History
Brown Sahibs and cultural definitions

by Bandu de Silva

Continued from yesterday

Jetevana stupa

Impact of Postmodernism

The impact of the debate on Postmodernism has spread to fields of humanities like history, archaeology, not to speak of soft furnishing and bathroom fittings, from its original application to areas like architecture and arts (1960s). It seems to me that the extension of the application of Postmodernism to these other areas is more a fashion than scientific; and depends to a larger extent on the manipulation of the language, greater use of terminology, whose foundations are vague, with greater use of `irony and rhetoric.’ In Prof.Sudharshan Seneviratne’s article one can recognize elements of these Postmodern ideas that a galaxy of modern writers on the theory of knowledge have expounded in their own terminology and language. One thing common to all of them is that they seek to `deconstruct’ old structures which were based on genealogy and other factors, which our scholar himself claims he is doing. From this arises other derivations like bringing ` responsibility to the heart of history,’ a responsibility to describe the life of those who were silenced in the past.’ (Edith Wyschogrod): These are the same ideas that are being recycled in Prof.Sudharshan Seneviratne’s article. However, he does not claim that he is entering the space of the debate on knowledge, which of course, is never ending, despite the bright sparks that emerge out of it.

However, in presenting his thesis, it is the UNESCO terminology like ``cultural pluralism’, `respect for other cultures’, demystifying all forms of parochialisms in a scientific manner’, that our scholar has chosen to wrap up his presentation and as its authority. The manifestations of this jarring common vocabulary of that Organization, have been circulating for over three decades as I remember when I was closely associated with its cultural debate under its cultural studies and cultural heritage programmes. I myself profusely used this jargon in my interventions in the General Conference sessions from Nairobi to Paris and to Belgrade so much so that an offer of professional category post came my way even without my applying for one. That is how the organization sometimes picks up its men and women and I do not see anything wrong in that. One gets into UNESCO’s seminar circuit and it also benefits when such persons are absorbed because they already speak the UNESCO language and the need for in-house orientation is minimized.

This is no way to look at the transcendental thinking presented by Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne who is one of our leading modern interpreters of pre-historic archaeology but I referred to UNESCO because he himself quoted it as his authority in the use of terminology. I have no intention of trying to bring him into a comparative relationship with Dr.Siran Deraniyagala who, as far as I knew, was Sri Lanka’s first professional pre-historic archaeologist, and an expert of international standing, whose exclusively scientific methodology has impressed me as a keen reader on archaeology from the time I was one of the three pioneering students at the University of Ceylon when archaeology was first introduced (1950-51) as a subject though in rudimentary form. The absence of the slightest evidence of rhetoric and introduction of any political ramifications of local or international kind in the works of Dr.Deraniyagala is too significant to go without mention.

In contrast, I find it difficult to discern such clear manifestations in both serious writings as well as the newspaper articles of Prof. Seneviratne’s under discussion. The display by him of the tendency towards a certain mood of impatience in treating any other discourses with the use of terminology such as `anti-Orwillian historians; or lumpent intellectuals (who) belong to dust bin of history." (The Island, dated 04 / 08 / 2001); quoted by Dr.K.Indrapala, are alien to serious scholarship. It seems to be part of the transcendental mediation of assumed `superiority’ of the scholar’s method which runs through his writing.

It would be rather awkward for a layman like me to make the simple observation that in the academia, controversy is often common. This is a point that Andreas Wegner, Professor of International Security Policy and Director of the Centre of Security at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, and his co-researcher Doron Zimaarman, brought out more recently in relation to the study of both international relations and history. They wrote: "Notably, experts do not agree but lack of consensus does not so much denote controversy as it emphasizes a variety of perspectives enriching both academic disciplines".(Wegner & Zimmerman: International relations, Lynee Ryner, U.S.A, & Viva, New Delhi).

Others have said it before. Even a scholar like S.J.Tambiah, who pleaded for recognition of `multiple discourses’ on any given subject could not be pleased with these remonstrations, (`Betrayal of Buddhism’), but for a scholar like Dr.K.indrapala, it was grist for the mill. For him, even a newspaper article, written by Prof.Seneviratne, obviously meant for non-sophisticated readers, was good enough to be used in his denouncement of other reputed historians, e.g., to have a special section in his book devoted to Dr.Paranavitana, dragging even Prof.Leslie Gunawardana, one of his oft quoted authorities and not sparing Prof.K.M.de Silva and Prof. C.R.De Silva to the murky dialogue.(K.Indrapala: `The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, The Tamils of Sri Lanka’).

Now, returning to UNESCO’s views on the cultural question, one may ask whose primary interests the organization is representing in the present unipolarized and `globalized’ world? Gone are the days when one heard the voice of the developing world more; of such themes as `The International Economic Order’, action to keep Multi-nationals in check. One saw how, even then subjects like media freedom and artistic freedom were manipulated in favour of Western countries. In retrospect, even looking at the cultural question, in the light of views presented on the issue of `orientalism’ – the `Brown Sahibs’ – one begins to see a Western tilt in that dialogue, where Western cultural supremacy dominates the cultural space as now advocated by President Bush through his claim of `civilizational clash’ and the undisguised `denouncement of Islam. In short, the Sword of Damocles held by the West which is ever ready to withdraw financial and scientific support weighs heavily on this organization. It is not that Macaulay’s thesis is not relevant today; it works in a far more subtle way.

It is true that the UNESCO’s thinking is inspired by the thoughts which its founding fathers imbued into it, and one can even see something of the oriental philosophical thought in it on its basic conceptions, and that the idea of promoting international harmony through the disciplines of UNESCO’s competence –education, science and culture, communication later added – and notably, its cultural programme both cultural studies and cultural heritage, by and large, try to promote that primary goal, but in the real operation, it is the Western ideas which seems to dominate the intellectual stream of thinking.

As such, there is nothing sacrosanct in invoking UNESCO to sustain decades old concepts on multi-culturalism whose effects have been negative in many instances and even counterproductive. The ideas of cultural pluralism and respect for other people’s culture have helped marginalized communities who previously did not think in terms of cultural identity to assert themselves to some degree; but in societies where there are over-active culture conscious communities, the promotion of cultural identity seems to have generated proportionately over-enthusiasm and minority chauvinism on one hand, and the response of majority chauvinism, on the other hand, leading to exacerbation of tension and conflict. Sri Lanka is a case in point where international sanction is used as the very reason for demand of parity by smaller communities.

Reference was made earlier briefly to certain intellectual forces which advocate parity of status to smaller groups (e.g., Wyschogrod) however insignificant their contribution to the `heritage pot’ may be. That could extend from language to territorial demand and even to demand the removal of a historical situation like the honoured place given to a certain religion despite the mention in the constitution does not lead to a discrimination against other religions. On the contrary, UNESCO’s above mentioned outlook and that of a few other intellectuals has not had an effect on Western societies like U.K and Norway where far more special treatment is given to a single religion to the extent of making [them] the status of `state religions.’ The contrast shows how in certain societies, when over-stimulated as it was in the Reich, ideas of cultural pluralism can lead to `parochialism’ working in a reverse direction.

In constructing the idea of `shared culture’ et al, Prof.Sudharshan Seneviratne has, like Dr.Indrapala, used what I quoted as `scraps’ of evidence, leaving out evidence of greater bearing. This type of imbalance in appreciation of cultural contributions of one group to the overwhelming advantage of others, though introduced in order to support the overall thesis of parity of contributions irrespective of the degree and volume of respective contributions with the further objective of subscribing to the idea of conflict resolution, is a distortion of historical reality.



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