Friday, January 30, 2015

The Theory of Deconstruction and Munidasa Cumaratunga

By Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D.  

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida questioned the fundamental conceptual distinctions of our understanding of the World through a close examination of the language and logic of philosophical and literary texts. Derrida laboriously worked to formulate an exceptional theory of deconstruction since early Sixties. Deconstruction sees all writing as a complex historical, cultural process rooted in the relations of texts to each other. Deconstruction clarifies the instability created by the metaphorical, meanings of words. It discloses the metaphysical contradictions of philosophical writings. Appleby (2008) states that as leader of the deconstruction movement, Jacques Derrida has had a profound effect on modern thinking.  

The Oxford English Dictionary defines deconstruction as "A strategy of critical analysis [...] directed towards exposing unquestioned metaphysical assumptions and internal contradictions in philosophical and literary language.  Barbara Johnson In her book The Critical Difference (1981) clarifies the term: "Deconstruction is not synonymous with "destruction", however. It is in fact much closer to the original meaning of the word 'analysis' itself, which etymologically means "to undo" -- a virtual synonym for "to de-construct." ... If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not the text, but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another.

According to Robert Con Davis and Roland Schleifer, deconstruction is a strategy of reading and deconstructive reading starts from "a philosophical hierarchy in which two opposed terms are presented as the 'superior' general case and the 'inferior' special case"( Davis, Robert Con and Roland Schleifer, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1989). As described by Derrida (1998) Deconstruction is not a philosophy or a method, it is not a phase, a period or a moment. It is something which is constantly at work. As a method of oppositional reading, deconstruction argues that a text, and by extension any object of observation including the self, is characterized by disunity rather than unity (Haney, 1998).

Derrida clearly states that deconstruction is not an analysis, a critique or a method it is not a neat set of rules that can be applied to any text in the same way. Each deconstruction is necessarily different. As Derrida stated Deconstruction takes place, it is an event. Deconstruction is based on a meticulous kind of apply in reading and, thereby, a method of criticism and mode of analytical inquiry. Although deconstruction was sometimes used pejoratively to suggest nihilism and frivolous skepticism

It’s a surprise to know that Munidasa Cumaratunga (1887 – 1944) a Sri Lankan linguist and a writer who had a profound knowledge of the Sinhala language had similar views like Derrida about the effect of the language.  He believed the power of language and its ability to promote creative thinking. He observed language as the primary tool to understand the world also considering its ambiguity. Munidasa Cumaratunga believed that the word should represent the meaning of an object in and out. But he knew it does not represent on most occasions and suggested alternative modes.  

Most certainly Cumaratunga never had any access to this poststructuralist theory of Deconstruction. But he was a scholar who had a brilliant English knowledge. He must have read Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Friedrich Nietzsche. With his vast knowledge in English , Sinhala and Sanskrit Munidasa Cumaratunga expanded the horizons of thinking.

Like Derrida, Munidasa Cumaratunga deeply analyzed the effects of language to the human psyche. He knew the infant communication and subsequent language development. Munidasa Cumaratunga believed that language is a tool for learning, engaging in social relationships, and behaviour and emotion regulation. His books such as Kiyawana Nuwana and Shiksha Margaya helped children in language acquisition. In addition he knew language and psychosocial and emotional development are interrelated.

Munidasa Cumaratunga persuaded deconstructive reading. A deconstructive reading is a reading which analyses the specificity of a text's critical difference from itself. Cumaratunga’s  Sidath Sangara Vivaranaya is a testimony fordeconstructive reading. He made praiseworthy attempts to deconstructively analyze Selalihini Sandeshaya , Muwadeudavatha and Subhashithaya.  

Derrida argues that all theories of knowledge are metaphysical appeals to the full presence of truth in a given situation.  Consider how a word can crate negative or positive characteristics in the mind. For an example if someone says a nose neutral emotion is created in the mind and if he says penis or condom provocative emotional flush comes in to action. Consequently each word generates prototype emotion when it is being analyzed in the brain. Cumaratunga called thisBehatva Rasaya (revolting or negatively evoking emotion caused by a word).  

The other distinctive feature is each word has a mental picture. When we hear the word spoon a specific mental picture (spoon like) formed in the mind. What about if someone says heaven? We have some form of imagination of that place although we have never seen it. The ancient Sinhala word Seesiakanaya denotes an object with 400 corners. Can anyone create a mental picture of such an object?  Another aspect is the ambiguities of a text and it can be interpreted in different ways giving dissimilar nuances. Therefore a text has no stable reference and obviously anyone can question the ability of language to represent the reality.

Obviously the language has numerous limitations and the reader frequently find the impossibility of providing intentional meaning.  Most often the expected meaning does not originate in the words and understanding may be somewhat different. For ice cream Munidasa Cumaratunga used the Sinhala word Himakirama. The English word Ice Cream does not represent its true nature. Ice cream is more like snow and soft and in a semi solid form. As the English word it is not like a hard substance as an ice cube. The word Hima (Snow) Kirama (Cream)gives a more accurate picture of an ice cream. To facilitate the reader to understand the text Munidasa Cumaratunga used numerous newly formed words. 

Munidasa Cumaratunga analyzed the problems associated with structural description. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein he knew the World cannot be explained or understood via words. Most of his views were compatible with Jacques Derrida. Although they were two different people who lived in different academic eras they shared something common.


  1. Thanks Ajth , the late Psychiatrist Dr DVJ Harischandra once said we have to re analyze the writings of Munidasa Cumaratunga , his vocabulary was so vast

  2. One more thing Ajith , according to Dr. Harischandra, Cumaratunga used linguistic scaffolding in the language acquisition period to help children to grasp language skills.

    1. I don't have much knowledge on the subject except I read all munidasa Kumarathunga's books. I love the language. On Derrida' I read only the few books like Gayathri Spivak's translations. I feel like I should read more to give a more qualifying answer.

  3. Is it Cumaratunga or Kumarathunga?

    1. Dr. Sandagomi Coperahewa. Senior Lecturer. Department of Sinhala. University of Colombo writes as Munidasa Cumaratunga.


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