Cultural Studies, as a discipline, has been gaining in prestige and
influence over the last two decades or so. Today, it has become one of
the most popular subjects in higher education in most Western countries.
The books and journals devoted to this new field of inquiry are
increasing at a steady rate; conferences and workshops organized in many
parts of the world to pursue topics of interest to scholars of Cultural
Studies are beginning to exercise a palpable influence. Cultural
Studies, which was once regarded as a marginal discipline, has moved to
the center of humanistic and social scientific inquiry. Cultural Studies
is also beginning to influence the thinking of practitioners of arts and
This new found success has also generated a certain unease among
Some argue, not without a measure of justification, that Cultural
Studies has fallen a victim to its own indubitable success.
Now, what is Cultural Studies? It is a field of inquiry that focuses
on contemporary culture with a strong interest in the politics of
cultural production. It is interdisciplinary in the sense that it seeks
to draw on established disciplines such as anthropology, history,
literary studies, sociology, communication, media studies.
It has also being described as counter-disciplinary in the sense that
it refuses to be pigeonholed into a standard discipline. It likes to
operate from the margins. However, with the success it has had over the
past two decades, that ideal seems to be increasingly elusive and
Cultural Studies deals with a broad range of contemporary issues such
as image production and consumption, problems of representation in the
arts and letters, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, popular
culture and media, colonialism and post-colonialism, politics of
everyday life and culture, knowledge production, poetics and politics of
space in cultural texts etc.
An interesting point about cultural studies is that, unlike most
other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, it is keen to
inquire into its own modes of knowledge production and institutional
linkages that invest it with power and authority. Cultural Studies, at
least in theory, takes its own location and the situated knowledges that
it produces as unavoidable spaces of inquiry.
Cultural Studies had its origins at the Centre for Contemporary
Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in early 1960s.The
writings of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, E.P.Thompson, Stuart Hall
etc. had a profound impact on the way this field of inquiry evolved.
At that time, it had a clear political conviction. Later it migrated
to the United States and elsewhere and became embroiled with European
High Theory and moved away from the political impulses that animated the
discipline at the beginning. However, this is the dominant story that is
being told. In certain other countries, the study of popular culture was
an important mode of inquiry long before this.
For example, in Japan, there continues to be an approach to the study
of popular culture that began after World War I.
It was a blend of Marxism and an attempt to re-understand Japanese
popular culture. Although the Anglo-American tradition of Cultural
Studies is very strong in Japan today, one must not ignore the fact that
there were other modes of cultural inquiry that fueled the Japanese
As Cultural Studies begins to put down roots in Asian universities as
well as critical discourses, it is important to raise the following
questions. Without applying blindly the Western assumptions of Cultural
Studies, how can we transform it into a mode of analysis that focuses on
material realities of Asian cultures? How can we re-possess the
political edge that this discipline once had? How can we avoid the
excessive reliance on Eurocentric High Theory that is increasingly
inflecting this discipline?
As Asian students of Cultural Studies grapple with these important
issues, we need to keep in mind the specificities and densities of our
own cultural traditions and their trajectories of growth.
Let me illustrate what I mean by this by citing an illustrative
example. The Vessantara jatakaya forms a vital part of our cultural
imagination. It figures prominently in classical Sinhala literature; it
has formed the basis of some very important works of Sinhala folk
literature. Ediriweera Sarchchandra wrote a play based on this
The Nurthi playwrights were enamored of this story. Modern Sinhala
filmmakers have found this narrative to be inspiring. Contemporary
lyricists have frequently drawn in the Vessantara jatakaya for their
tropes and images .Cartoons and picture books have dramatized this
story. Using modern tools of analysis developed by scholars of Cultural
Studies, we can profitably explore this narrative and its evolving sets