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Role of deconstruction in rethinking nationalist narratives

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By Ranga Kalugampitiya 

In his scholarly review of Harshana Rambukwella’s ‘The Politics and Poetics of Authenticity: A Cultural Genealogy of Sinhala Nationalism’ (the review titled ‘Sinhala Nationalism and the Yearning for Authenticity’ published in Daily FT on 14 July), Kalana Senaratne raises a couple of important concerns regarding the kind of critical scholarship that Rambukwella’s work represents.

He draws attention to two fundamental positions that critical and deconstructionist scholarship, which concerns itself with nationalist narratives, subscribes to. The first is the position that there is no way to verify “the accuracy and solidity of such nationalist narratives”. The second is the implied belief that the more cosmopolitan, “citizen-of-the-world” identity is somehow preferable to “solid and singular identities,” like the Sinhala identity and the Tamil identity.

Based on a close exploration of these two fundamental positions, Senaratne argues that critical and deconstructionist approaches to nationalist narratives, which seek to unsettle the identities that such narratives institute, legitimise, and reinforce, result in cancelling out the spaces within which an alternative political vision could be conceptualised, particularly in contexts like ours. My goal here is to address Senaratne’s position regarding the broader critical and deconstructionist project, which Rambukwella’s work is an expression of. 

The idea of deconstruction as referred to by Senaratne needs some unpacking. Deconstruction is not destruction. Deconstruction may have its roots in the idea of destruction, but the former certainly cannot be reduced to the latter. Deconstruction as understood in the field of critical theory is a methodological approach used to “see through” a text and recognise the dynamics of the broader context, which have resulted in shaping the text into what it is. Deconstruction as an approach differs from the conventional textual analyses in that it looks at the text not as an end in itself but as an interface that gives one access to a particular formation or configuration of power relations in broader society. 

Nationalist narratives, which are historical by nature, are texts in the sense that they are narratives that express meaning. What a deconstructionist approach to such a narrative does is to demonstrate how the context in which that narrative came into existence has determined the shape of the narrative. This is not at all to say that such narratives are necessarily fabrications or inaccurate renditions of what actually transpired. All it says is that even when a given narrative is considered to have stayed loyal to the actual happenings, it is at its best a representation of those happenings. 

This representation, critical theorists like Hayden White remind us, is a narrative in the sense that it is a rendition of the actual happenings in language. The gap or the slippage between the actual happenings and their representation always ensures the possibility of there being alternative narratives, which may be significantly different from the mainstream narrative. What a deconstructionist approach would do is to foreground this slippage and highlight the idea that a narrative, irrespective of how mainstream it is, is always a rendition of the happenings from a particular point of view, which invariably comes with its own set of interests, biases, and internal contradictions and inconsistencies. 

Accordingly, what deconstructionist approaches like Rambukwella’s, which highlight certain internal contradictions and inconsistencies of the Sinhala nationalist narrative, do is to remind us of the essential incompleteness of that narrative. This does not in any way suggest that we need to completely abandon the mainstream nationalist narrative and shift to a different one, unless a strong case can be made in favour of such a shift, on the basis of convincing findings and arguments. 

What such an approach does is to highlight the spaces that are already available within the nationalist narrative for a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of realities. In this sense, a deconstruction of the identities associated with the nationalist narrative, which, in this case, is the Sinhala identity, is not a destruction of that identity but an attempt to complicate that identity in order to enable a more nuanced understanding of that identity. 

The deconstruction of the Sinhala identity and also the Tamil identity, I would argue, has positive implications for any move towards introducing an alternative political vision. To see the deconstruction of the Sinhala and Tamil identities as a move that creates barriers for such a political project entails the assumption that the alternative political vision should necessarily subscribe to the current understanding of the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic identities. 

This assumption, in my view, is limiting, at least for two reasons. First, the Sinhala and Tamil identities in their current form, one could argue, is too fraught with negative energy to enable an alternative political vision that guarantees reconciliation. In such a setting, it is imperative that we, as a society, explore alternative ways in which the concerned identities could be reconceptualised. Second, to stay fixated on the mainstream thinking that the alternative political vision should essentially be ethnic in nature may be to overlook other possible ways in which that vision could be conceptualised. 

In this sense, studies like Rambukwella’s need to be seen not as distractors that keep us from moving towards an alternative political vision, but as important intellectual activities that make a crucial contribution to that political project in question by enhancing the space in which such a vision could be developed.

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