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Cultures are not pure

'COMMUNICATION
IS LIFEBLOOD OF SOCIETY'

- PROF. WIMAL DISSANAYAKE:

Q: Communication is a term that we try to embrace without considering its impact on our cultural productions or cultural artifacts. Please comment. A: Communication, I think, is a life blood of society. For any society to function properly, you have to have a system of communication. The interesting point about communication is that it has got so much interconnected with the growth of technology. So that today communication and technology are inseparably linked. The important point to bear in mind is that although communication has become universal because of forces of technology and globalisation, it is also very much culture specific. It grows out of certain historical, cultural, political conjunctures so that the culture-specificity of communication is crucial. That is the fact that we very often tend to ignore. Q: And this is one of your areas of expertise?

Prof. Wimal Dissanayake

A: Yes. In Sri Lanka, I set up the Mass Communication Department at Kelaniya University and I wrote the very first book on Communication and also I had to create Sinhala terms like Nalika and Sannivedana that were not in circulation then. So I coined those terms. Since going abroad, of course, I published large number of books in the area of Communication. Probably, now nearly 44 and many of them are used as text books in various universities throughout the

world. And I am primarily interested in Communication Theory, Communication and Culture and Communication and Development and broadly interested in Communication. Q: In terms of Modern Theory of Communication, where do we stand as a nation? A: Communication is a field that is evolving very rapidly and because it has got so much entangled with technology. It is changing practically everyday and there are new theories that are emerging in Western Countries to explain the relationship between the communicator and the message and the receiver and the context and so on. So there is a kind of profusion of communication theories but unfortunately we, in Sri Lanka, sometimes are not aware of these changes. But at the same time, it is very important to bear in mind that we should not blindly follow the Western theories that have evolved to explain communication because theories do not drop from the sky. They grow out of political, social, cultural situations. Western theories arise out of Western experience. So we in Sri Lanka must study these Communication Theories very critically so that we know exactly what are relevant to our cultural situation and what are not. I think we got to exercise certain sense of critical judgment in absorbing and rejecting Western theories. Q: Please also explain global-local disparity in communication? A: Yes, some years ago, I wrote a book called 'Global-local Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary'. In that book, in the series of essays, we discussed the way that global and the local are interconnected. In other words, globalism and localism can not be separated from each other. There is a very close and vital relationship. Of course, that differs from country to country. So we can not separate the local and the global as if they were two water-tight compartments. One is implicated in the other. They are co-implicated and the gist of the book is that in order to understand globalism, you got to understand localism. In order to understand localism, you have to understand globalism. That is the central message of that book which was published by Duke University press years ago.

Q: Why do you think, Sri Lankan Literature is narrow, shallow and people beyond this island do not know about Sri Lankan Literature, how do you explain it in terms of theory of Communication? A: The situation is that we live in a very unequal world. If it is a rich county which has access to economic and other resources, the chances of these works getting translated are far greater than in a case of a poor country. So in Sri Lanka, unfortunately there are some very good works that have been produced. Some of the best works of Martin Wickramasinghe, Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, and Gunadasa Amerasekara certainly deserved to be translated and published by the best publishing houses of the world. That has not happened. So as a result, in the outside world, there is very little knowledge of what is happening in Sri Lanka. This is because the nature of the asymmetrical relationships that exist in the world. So the poorer countries have a very difficult and uphill task in gaining international recognition for their work. In other words, we live in a world where the whole communication system is so lopsided that it is very difficult to break into that circuit of circulation. So that is one reason. The other, of course, is that we as Sinhala and Tamil writers need to be aware of various changes that are taking place in other countries, the new trends not to follow them critically but to be aware of them and then to develop our own ways of writing and expressing experiences. So this is another important aspect of current situation. Q: In the introduction to Diasporic writer Sunil Govinnage's 'Black Swans and Other Stories', you have, among other things, mentioned about 'anticipated role of public intellectual', 'transnational objectivity' and 'cultural citizenship', how far people in Sri Lanka, in your opinion, understand these concepts.' A: Well, these are very difficult concepts. Even in America where I teach in the University of Hawaii, it is very difficult to explain concepts like Cultural Citizenship, transnationalisation, the discursive production of culture. These are very complicated concepts not because people do not understand the words but there is a whole world of understanding and beliefs behind those concepts. And these are connected to modern cultural theories and so on. But I agree that these terms present all kinds of formidable difficulties to the average reader not only in Sri Lanka but even in the West. This is the problem.

Because of this, the modern cultural theories have become somewhat esoteric. So you use precious jargons that not many people understand. In a sense, it is a very ironic situation. On the one hand there is a great interest in popular culture, all these modern theories being with popular culture, and you write in a language medium so full of jargon and technical terms that only handful of elite can understand. So you are talking of popular culture that can only be understood by minority of elites. So it is a very paradoxical situation. So it's not only in Sri Lanka but even in the West the situation is very unfortunate. So I think the ideal is to write in a simple clear idiom while not forfeiting the complexity of one's thoughts. Unfortunately we are still far from it. Q: Do you think, it is worthwhile to explain these concepts to the readers? A: Yes, this is a problem of communication. You write a book so that you can reach as wide an audience. You do not write just to cater to twenty five people. So if you are to achieve your goal then it is very important that you write in an idiom that is readily understandable. Or at least, if you use technical terms there is a need to explain them and place them in a context that can be understood by the readers. I think there is a need for that. Q: How do you define these concepts? A: There is two ways of doing it. One, of course, you can define these terms. These are all called neologism that has been created in recent times. When you start out it may be useful to define them. The other, of course, is to use simple terms. You use technical terms but explain them almost like paraphrasing what you are saying. So that you contexualise in a way that can be understood by the general readership. Q: How do you think the Sri Lankan writers be able to cross national, geographical, cultural and linguistic boundaries? A: once again, the problem is to reach a wider audience. We live in a world in which you got to get your work translated into English, French or German to reach a wider audience. Until this happened, it is very difficult to transcend cultural barriers and reach a wider audience. For instance, in the case of India or even places like Indonesia, the best works have been translated into English.

Certainly in the case of Japan and China, this happens in a much faster phase than it happens in Sri Lanka. I think the need for good translations and also preferably published by recognized publishing houses is very important. We do have good works that have been produced in Sri Lanka; Martin Wickramasinghe, Cumaratunga Munidasa and Gunadasa Amerasekara just to mention three names. Their works can be compared with some of the best writings that have been produced both in Asia and in US. Unfortunately we have not translated them in a way that reach wider world of readers. Q: How do you think Sri Lankans would welcome the ideas of "hybridity", "cultural identities" and "Otherness" especially in the present context of acrimonial ethnic relationships? A: That's an excellent question. Let's take the whole notion of hybridity. Hybridity is a term on the one hand grew out of Biology but also later time a Russian theorist Michael Bacchante who used it and that concept was later taken by French theorist Julia Kristeva and popularised by other people like Melinda. And in more recent times, Indian-born critic Homi Bhabha who gave it a wider circulation. The whole central idea is that cultures are not pure. They are always and already inter-mixed with other forces. So there is no pure Sinhala culture and there is no pure Tamil culture. There is no pure German culture. It is inter-mixed with other cultures. That's what hybridity means. But some times, proponents of hybridity failed to recognize that there is also a political dimension. For instance, hybridity is also connected with politics. Those who have the power have a greater degree of influencing than those who do not have power because we live in a very asymmetric world. Hybridity is not an innocent concept. It is surrounded by politics. So it is embedded in the political discourse. So that you got to realize there is a power play going on. Homi Baba has not paid adequate attention politics of it, the power play of it. There is almost a kind of idealization of hybridity. The other concept you referred to is what 'difference', has been widely discussed, for instance, people like Jacques Derrida made it a central plank in their expositions. Various other theories have made use of 'Difference'. The point about 'difference' is that we need to recognize that we live in a multiracial, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society and that we need to respect each

other's identities. So it's recognition of other's identity and it's a way of respecting others. It is very important in multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. There is no society in the world that is not multi-racial. Even in the so-called homogeneous societies like Japan you have Koreans and Okinawans and you have the aborigines in the North. So there is no society that is purely homogeneous, which is a very important concept. The 'Cultural Identity' and 'Otherness' are inter-connected concepts because the way that you define identity is in relation to the others. If you want to define black, then you got to refer to white. If you want to refer to I or me, then you got to refer to you or the other. So identity is defined in terms of 'Otherness' how you differ from the other or you might be interconnected with the other. These are a pair of concepts that goes hand in hand. In the context of Sri Lanka, we are recovering from post-colonial phase, the main task to regain, reposses our history and create a cultural identity. As we do that, we also need to recognize that there are other groups and there in 'otherness' and the inter-play between our cultural identity and 'Otherness', the topic that has to be explored by writers, intellectuals and journalists. So it is very complicated. For that very reason it needs to be addressed by all these groups. Further more, the problem is you have extremists on all sides, who don't recognise the inter-connection between self-and the other. They try to separate self and the other and they only focus on the self. What need to happen is that the more moderate and more sensible people should recognise that there is a very important inter-play between self and other. Q: How can Sri Lankan writers in general and especially those who are domiciled in foreign soil in particular to use English Language and textualise a distinct Sri Lankan sensibility? A: That's again a brilliant question. Some of the most well known Sri Lankan writers who have gained international recognition like, Michael Ondaatje Shyam Selvadurai, and Rumesh Gunasekara are born in Sri Lanka but live in abroad and really write for international audience.

On the one hand you got to recognise the fact that someone like Michael Ondaatje writes beautifully with a wonderful command of language so as Rumesh Gunasekara and Shyam Selvadurai. They write well with a great degree of sensitivity. But on the other hand, one should be mindful of the fact that their understanding of the local culture and some times bizarre like in Rumesh Gunasekara. The way that he portrays Sri Lankan society, one feels that he has not really captured the deeper sediments of culture. So, on the one hand while we salute these writers for their wonderful way of handling the English Language, I think the observation we made is, at times, their understanding of dynamics of local culture leads something to be bizarre. On the other hand, if you take a writer like Gunadasa Amerasekara, his understanding of culture and the cultural changes are very profound because he grows out of a very deep-rooted native sensibility. So that's the important distinction. You do not write just to cater to twenty five people. So if you are to achieve your goal then it is a very important concept. The 'Cultural Identity' and 'Otherness' are inter-connected concepts because the way that you define identity is in relation to the others. If you want to define black, then you got to refer to white. If you want to refer to I or me, then you got to refer to you or the other. So identity is defined in terms of 'Otherness' how you differ from the other or you might be interconnected with the other. These are a pair of concepts that goes hand in hand. In the context of Sri Lanka, we are recovering from postcolonial phase, the main task to regain, re-posses our history and create a cultural identity. As we do that, we also need to recognize that there are other groups and there in 'otherness' and the inter-play between our cultural identity and 'Otherness', the topic that has to be explored by writers, intellectuals and journalists. So it is very complicated. For that very reason it needs to be addressed by all these groups. Further more, the problem is you have extremists on all sides, who don't recognise the interconnection between self-and the other.

They try to separate self and the other and they only focus on the self. What needs to happen is that the more moderate and more sensible people, should recognise that there is a very important inter-play between self and other. Q: How can Sri Lankan writers in general and especially those who are domiciled in foreign soil in particular use English Language and textualise a distinct Sri Lankan sensibility? A: That's again a brilliant question. Some of the most well known Sri Lankan writers who have gained international recognition like, Michael Ondaatje Shyam Selvadurai, and Rumesh Gunasekara are born in Sri Lanka but live abroad and really write for international audience. On the one hand you got to recognise the fact that someone like Michael Ondaatje writes beautifully with a wonderful command of language so as Rumesh Gunasekara and Shyam Selvadurai. They write well with a great degree of sensitivity. But on the other hand, one should be mindful of the fact that their understanding of the local culture and some times bizarre like in Rumesh Gunasekara. The way that he portrays Sri Lankan society, one feels that he has not really captured the deeper sediments of culture. So, on the one hand while we salute these writers for their wonderful way of handling the English Language, I think the observation we made is, at times, their understanding of dynamics of local culture leads something to be bizarre. On the other hand, if you take a writer like Gunadasa Amerasekara, his understanding of culture and the cultural changes are very profound because he grows out of a very deep-rooted native sensibility. So that's the important distinction. ***
An incomplete note on Wimal Dissanayake
b y S u n i l G o v i n n a ge

Wimal Dissanayake represents a rare breed of bi-lingual Sri Lankan intellectuals and belongs to a vanishing past. Dissanayake is a unique academic who is capable of working at five-tiers of creative and academic spheres. First and foremost, he is a bi-lingual poet. He writes in both Sinhala and English. Secondly, Dissanayake is a trained scholar in Elizabethan Drama.

He selected this rare discipline as a part of his doctoral work at the Cambridge University . Thirdly, he is responsible in setting up a new discipline (Mass Communication) in Sri Lanka as early as 1972. Fourthly, at present, Dissanayake plays a crucial role as a widely acclaimed international scholar and academic on Asian (including Indian) Cinema and considered a leading scholar of Asian cinema. Finally, the culmination of Dissanayake's academic work needs to be evaluated for his contribution and pioneering work in the field of Asian communication theory. Dissanayake comes from a remote part of Sri Lanka and grew up with his school teacher parents in rural Sri Lanka but had the previledge of studying at a high class English School (Trinity) in Kandy . Dissanayake has written about his induction to literature as a child while listening to his father reciting Salalihini Sandeshaya and enchanted by the lyrical nature of the melodies of this 15th century classical Sinhala poetry. Such experiences would have drawn Dissanayake into the world of poetry. He barged into writing poetry in very early life and published his first Sinhala anthology called Akala Wessa as a university student at Peradeniya. His interest in Sinhala literature and studies helped him to secure a job as a lecturer in Sinhala literature. While teaching at Kelaniya University (Then Vidyalankara) he pursued his Doctoral studies in Elizabethan Drama and completed his PhD at Cambridge University and continued his work as a teacher of Sinhala literature on his return to Sri Lanka. Wimal Dissanayake pioneered the establishment of a new Department of Mass Communication at Kelaniya University in 1972 and was the head of this new academic discipline until he left Sri Lanka in the 80's. In my opinion, Dissanayake represents a rare breed of bi-lingual Sri Lankan intellectuals and belong to a vanishing past. Dissanayake's capacity to produce world class work on a vast array of subjects covering, 'Melodrama and Asian Cinema (Cambridge University Press), New Chinese Cinema (Oxford University Press), Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema (Indiana University Press), Indian Popular Cinema (Trentham Publishers) and Third Cinema (Rethinking Third Cinema, Routledge co-edited with (with Anthony Guneratne)In addition to these pioneering works, Dissanayake has also published widely on communication and cultural Studies.

The book and anthologies he either edited or co-edited include 'Global/Local' (Duke University Press); 'Narratives of Agency' (Minnesota University Press), Transcultural Pacific ( University of Illinois Press ). He was the Founding Editor of the East-West Film Journal, and has served as editorial advisor to such prestigious publications as International Encyclopedia of Communication, Journal of Communication, Communication Theory, 'World Englishes', 'Journal of South Asian Popular Culture. While continue to publish these high calibre academic publications, Dissanayake never gave up his native language and continued to publish both critical work and poetry for which he had received national awards in Sri Lanka.