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Sunday, 8 November 2009





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Cultural Studies

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 cultural workers.

This new found success has also generated a certain unease among scholars.

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 unattainable.

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 imagination.

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 narrative.

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 of meanings.



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