Society at the intersection of Science, Art and Culture | Daily News

Society at the intersection of Science, Art and Culture

Excerpts from a lecture delivered by Prof. Arjuna Parakrama, Senior Professor of English, University of Peradeniya at State Literary Awards
A section of the audience
A section of the audience

In Sri Lanka the State Literary Awards are almost the equivalent of the Oscars. The State Literary Awards are a set of annual literary prizes by the Government of Sri Lanka under several categories. The awards cover fiction, poetry, translations and songs. Works from the Sinhala, Tamil and English languages are reviewed. Here, outstanding individuals who have excelled in these fields are honoured and appreciated for their endeavours annually. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, the awards ceremony could not be held in 2020; however, it will be held this year with pomp. It is already underway.

The keynote speech is very much a part of the awards ceremony. Throughout the years, it has been a precursor to the awards ceremony itself, both events which are highly anticipated by people from all walks of life, both laymen and scholars. This has become somewhat of a tradition. The keynote speech is of great importance and relevance.

The keynote speech of the State Literary Awards is organized by the Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the State Literary Awards Advisory board.

The Daily News attended the keynote speech of the State Literary Awards 2020 which was delivered by Prof. Arjuna Parakrama, Senior Professor of English, University of Peradeniya at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute. The keynote address was delivered in Sinhala on the theme Literature, Criticism and Society: The Need for New Theoretical Approaches and The Challenges They Present.

Prof. Arjuna Parakrama

Prof. Parakrama began his speech with a quotation from the Kalama Sutta which is a discourse of the Buddha. He pointed out that here the Buddha makes a very revolutionary pronouncement saying – “Do not accept something just because it is in a book. Do not accept something just because your teachers say so. Do not accept something just because it is written in some religious books or it is part of your culture. Do not accept something just because someone you respect says so. If one day you realize that it is injurious to society, you should give it up. Accept it if it is beneficial to you and society.”

“In order to do that you have to train your mind. In order to accept something it should not be second hand or third hand information. After you have trained your mind you must be able to determine what is good for you and society. That requires self-understanding, understanding of the world and critical awareness. That is what we need to develop. I also call it training of the imagination. This is what makes the humanities unique. This is what raises the humanities beyond the mundane sciences. There is an argument in the world that the sciences are useful and important and the humanities are a waste of time,” said Prof. Parakrama.

He then brought up a couple of points. The training of the humanities imagination or the humanities training of the imagination is different from an appreciation of literature. An appreciation of literature can be just an understanding of the history of literature, such as Shakespeare or Milton. That is not the humanities imagination. The humanities imagination is something that can go beyond what is there and try to understand it in relation to the world. To even conceive of a world that is non- existent.

Facets of culture

“Language is not a neutral medium, it is in language that gender issues, ethnic issues, class issues, regional issues and educational issues are fought over and also covered over. Culture is both positive and negative. Just because something is cultural does not make it right or wrong. There are fantastic and wonderful things in any culture and there are also terrible and hierarchical things in any culture. You still have to explain what is the good part and the bad part. I also say that unfortunately or fortunately culture reflects the views and values and benefits of the elite and the authoritarians. Those in power and those who are elite determine culture. That is the danger we have to look out for. If you find that what is cherished really benefits the elite and not the poor and general population, then we have to be able to deconstruct it. It means you pull it apart. Try to examine it on a fundamental basis. That is part of this humanities imagination.”

He then added that culture is valuable but it also presents caste and prejudice. It is culture that says that women are unclean during their period and says that virginity is important for women but not for men. Culture entrenches all these hierarchies. And we tend to worship culture. Every culture is evolving but there are parts of the culture that are dying away. So we have to determine what is inappropriate and what is emergent that we must look at. Emergent parts are things that would adapt to the new society. A good example would be a nuclear family as against the extended family. The extended family is suited for farming communities and agrarian communities who are in the same location all their lives. But with modernization, when people have to come to the cities to work and people go abroad then the nuclear family becomes more important. Sometimes you don’t meet your relatives for years. So that is a change which is not good or bad, but you need to understand that it is an adaptation of culture to the changing society.

“One thing that is crucial to understand is the idea of hegemony. When things are enforced on us we call it dominance. You need the police to enforce traffic rules. Hegemony is when we internalize a belief. Hegemony is the way we are governed. We are governed after we are convinced that it is good for us. That is a big issue. We are taught to think it is good for us but it might really not be very good for us. We believe, for example, through hegemony, that if everyone studies they can be doctors and engineers. We believe this story. Of course, if you think carefully you know that that is impossible.”

“Every mother and father tells their children you have to study and become a doctor. But that is humanly impossible. But if you believe the myth that is an incentive for the more foolish of us to study for. But there are people who don’t buy into this hegemony and for whom there is no hegemony. Then there is no acceptance. The acceptance of these things that control us makes us easily governable. We have bought into the idea that the more people support something the better it is. The people who don’t buy into hegemony and who are not fooled by hegemony are the least educated and the least sophisticated of us. They are ostracized. This is because they do not understand our stories. For example, that democracy is a good thing; we have to listen to what the majority says. They do not buy into this. So let us study this group of people to try to unlearn some of these ideas that we have started learning and we believe in, but which is not the truth or may not be the truth,” explained Prof. Parakrama.

A lack of creativity

“It would be nice if studying humanities makes someone better but that does not happen. There is nothing inherent in humanities that make them better. You can be a wonderful poet and a horrible human being. Humanities are not magical that the moment you learn it you become a good person. What it is, is a training of the imagination. A training of the imagination to bypass and avoid the pitfalls and traps of things like hegemony. It is something like what the Buddha said in his Kalama Sutta. Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera is very tough on that point saying that we are creating slaves. We do not encourage creativity and we do not encourage innovation. We don’t encourage criticism. This is what the humanities should be doing.”

“One of the facets of humanities is to undermine the idea that Nationalism, particularly Dominant Nationalism is somehow inherently good. That it is natural, that it is trans-historical (transcending historical boundaries) and that it is non-ideological. It is natural to love your country, it is natural to think your country is the best, it is natural to defend your country against everyone else, it is natural to think that Nationalism affects everybody equally. Nationalism like culture can be unequal, discriminatory, hierarchical and plain and simple wrong. It is the humanities that can undo this. It is humanities imagination that can imagine a world outside of this petty Nationalism, that can imagine a world that is international. We cannot accept without question the idea that the nation is important,” added Prof. Parakrama.

Here he quotes Hugo of St. Victor, who is a 12th century monk. He says, ‘The person who loves his country is a novice. He is a beginner. The person who loves the whole world as his own is better. But the complete person is one to whom every place is like a foreign place.’ Prof. Parakrama presents the following argument: “The first assumption is common, thinking that yours or ours is the best. According to the second assumption, it is better and more enlightened to say that every place is home. The third assumption is that even my home and my non-home are both foreign to me. That third assumption is complicated to understand, that is, that the familiarity of a home (and even if the home is the whole world) is both misleading and problematic. To tread even in your home as a foreigner – then you tread with care, then you will see the new in the old, old in the new and habits will not blunt your insight. When you are familiar or too accustomed to something, then it blunts your insight. Your critical faculties are at its best when you see everyone as a foreigner or as an outsider.”


“Nationalism is what is killing us. There are different kinds of Nationalism. All equally horrendous and tearing us apart. Otherwise intelligent people are not thinking clearly because of Nationalism. Whether something is local or foreign does not matter. The origin is important but not too important. There are local aspects which are terrible and local aspects which are wonderful. There are things that are foreign which are terrible and things that are foreign that are wonderful. We cannot say because it is foreign it is bad and because it is local it is good. Do not get misled by who brings the message. Whether it is local or foreign. It is our duty to examine the content of the message and not blame the messenger,” said Prof. Parakrama.

He explained that this idea of saving the nation and national security is used in the US in order to curtail the freedom of American citizens. That won’t do. The humanities imagination should see through that. Nationalism is not the greatest good in the world. Nationalism can be good or bad. Hermann Wilhelm Göring, at the Nuremberg trials, was asked how did you manage to get the Germans to come to war? He said, ‘It is very easy and in fact it will work in any country in the world. All you have to say is that our country is being invaded by a foreign power. All those who are patriots will defend the country. And all those who don’t are traitors. It will work anywhere.’

“Can you see how simple the formula is? All you have to say is that they are invading. No one will bother to ask, are they really invading or not? All you have to say is that they are invading. People make a mistake when they say that scientists can govern a country. This is because they think governing a country is based on facts. But when you are dealing with human beings you need more than facts. You need to understand society. You need to engage with society. And what you need is judgement and science cannot give you judgement, because there are no rules for judgment.”

He went on to say that sometimes as human beings we act in our best interests sometimes, we act in our worst interests, we do both at the same time and we are confused sometimes. So what is required is not really scientific people but people who can make judgement.

“Science is used in two senses. It is used to describe physics, biology and chemistry and other branches. Science was also used from the 14th century to the 19th century to mean evidence based. So when we say scientific we are not referring to those branches, we mean it is evidence based. This is a part of humanities as well. We can even argue that humanities are more scientific. If you take the idea of clarity, now we all think clarity is a universal good. We think that things must be clear.”

“So here I use the example of Mona Lisa. Leonardo Da Vinci took a lot of time on that picture. The hands are perfect and then he took about three months to blur the mouth. The power of the picture is that you do not know if she is smiling or not. Whether she is sad or whether she is not. The lack of clarity is its beauty. If somebody is clear about a thing like death then their work is viewed as simplistic or the work of a nutcase. Just think about the sunset. The beautiful colours are blurred into each other. If someone said the scene is not clear and he or she wants to see the colours separately, you would think to yourself – what a fool. The beauty is its lack of clarity. The beauty is in blurring it. Some of the nicest portraits I have seen are portraits which are blurred. This is because they capture something else. So even the model of clarity which we have inherited from science sometimes is right but not always. It is the humanities imagination that can understand the limit of clarity as well as its possibilities,” said Prof. Parakrama.