Conditions of Modernity


Essay by, Mark Liechty, Associate Professor of Anthropology / History, University of Illinois, Chicago 

A recent study by the Nepali scholar Hari Prasad Shrestha found that western tourists flock to Nepal in search of “culture.” More than historical sites or exotic wildlife, more even than “adventure” and mountain scenery, American and European tourists said that they came to Nepal to experience its culture and get to know its people. They arrive by the hundreds of thousands with visions of “native peoples” and seek out these “authentic” Nepalis in ancient urban temples and rural villages.

Ironically the people that appear in Will Mebane’s photos—urban sophisticates, hip-hop girls, “punks”--are the type that most western tourists would studiously ignore (if they noticed them at all) and certainly never collect as photo souvenirs. Nor would these tourists stray into the dance clubs, video arcades, girlie shows, or drab middle-class suburbs where Mebane went to find a Nepal that never appears in coffee table books or newspaper travel pages. These are people that do not conform to our standard images of Nepal either as a land of traditional culture, or of Third World poverty. The people that Will Mebane photographed are not the people that western tourists go to Nepal looking for.

In fact, Nepal has never been as isolated as many outsiders have imagined. Located between Asia’s two historic super-powers—what are now India and China—the Himalayan zone that became Nepal has always been a cultural and economic crossroads. Nepal is literally the interface between the great Indic and Sino-Tibetan civilizations, a meeting that has often produced wonderful hybrids, and sometimes violence. Though not everyone will see the clues, some of these photos document elements of the contemporary playing-out of this ancient cultural amalgamation.

As in almost every other mountain region of the world (Switzerland and Swaziland are classic examples), Nepalis struggling to eke out local subsistence have long depended on forms of labor migration. For the past 200 years Nepali “Gurkhas,” serving in British armies by the hundreds of thousands, have fought in theaters of war around the world (from Peking to Gallipoli, Italy to the Falklands) in order to provide for their families. Today monies pouring into Nepal from a new breed of transnational labor migrants dwarf Gurkha remittances. Well over a million people (roughly one in twenty Nepalis) work abroad—from Hong Kong and South East Asia in the east, to India, to the Persian Gulf states, Europe, and American in the west—sending home a sum estimated at well over one billion US dollars (75 billion Nepali Rupees) a year.

Nepal may indeed be “a poor land-locked country,” as its officials constantly repeat, but it is certainly not isolated either culturally or economically. Similarly, Nepal may be a largely pre-industrial society (manufacturing makes up a tiny part of the country’s GNP), but its economy is firmly linked to the forces of global capitalism, through remittances and other channels such as tourism and international aid. What’s more, the million-plus Nepalis working abroad bring back much more than just money. Their constant circulation brings powerful forces to bear on Nepal’s cultural economy—the domain of images, ideas, goods, practices, desires, and imagined possibilities. Add to these the global media forces of satellite TV, Hindi and international cinema products, pop music, and assorted fashion industries that now flood Nepal’s market and one begins to understand that, in terms of its integration into the global flows of people, money, goods, ideas, and images, Nepal is a fully modern place (and has, arguably, never been otherwise). Even if western imperialist, and now “developmentist,” ideologies have needed places like Nepal to serve as “traditional” counterparts to its own imagined “modern” superiority, Nepal has long been shaped by, and helped to shape, the forces of modernity. Crucially, Nepal’s experience reminds us that modernity is never simply about the meeting of “the West” and “the Rest.” With Nepalis far more likely to have friends and family working in Bombay, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuwait, or Dubai than in New York or London, the cultural forms of modernity that flow into Nepal are far more complicated--more multi-centered--than the standard western conceit of “McDonaldization,” or western cultural domination, can ever account for.

All of this is to say that the people in Will Mebane’s photographs are not exceptional. Nor are they somehow inauthentic, or contaminated, or alienated from their “true” being. They are manifestations of Nepal’s complex place in the world. These images convey much of the reality lived by contemporary urban Nepalis, especially its middle-class young people.

Clearly youth and class are frequent themes in these photographs. As they are anywhere, youth are the vanguard of cultural change in Nepal. An anxiety-ridden experience in the best of circumstances, one could say that youth bear an extra heavy burden in a place like Nepal to the extent that it falls to them to imagine Nepal’s future place in the world, and their own place in a future Nepal. On the one hand their daily experiences are firmly linked to the forces of global modernity—a fact powerfully conveyed in Mebane’s photos. But on the other hand, young people must reconcile this reality with the powerful state, geopolitical, and economic forces that locate Nepal on the world’s periphery. In many ways the Nepali state exists to act as a sponge for international “development aid,” a strategy that at once funds the state apparatus, and locks Nepal into the role of “undeveloped” traditional other to the “developed” world’s modern self. Similarly, with relatively unskilled labor as its principle “export,” Nepal is clearly on the periphery of the world’s productive economy even while it falls well within the reach of the global consumer economy. It is contradictions like these that youth must confront; contradictions that make “Nepali modernity” appear to be an oxymoron.

The same forces that have brought Nepal into global economies—cultural and monetary—have also shifted the local paradigms of social organization from caste to, increasingly, class. As even these photographs illustrate in subtle ways, caste remains a powerful orienting force in everyday Nepali life. The ranked endogamous groups that make up Nepal’s caste society continue to play vital roles in the ways people think of themselves and others, who they marry, and how they constitute claims to social status. But class--the enveloping sociomoral logic of the cash/wage economy and commodified world of material culture—is now perhaps the dominant force of social organization in Nepal, transforming the very meaning of social status and the ways and means by which one achieves it. The consumer goods so prominently displayed in these photos (mainly fashions, but also things like homes, motor bikes, commercial amusements, etc.) are absolutely crucial parts of people’s claims to social standing. It is not at all coincidental that many of the people depicted here with the material accoutrements of middle-class life are from ethnic communities that were given low caste ranks by Nepal’s traditionally dominant high-caste Hindu elites. The new class culture holds out the promise, or threat, of social mobility as the market place has emerged as the arena in which people contest social standing.

Will Mebane’s photos force us to the uncomfortable conclusion that even people in the world’s most “exotic” locations (whether Kathmandu or Timbuktu) are as modern--as embedded in the conditions of modernity--as we are.

 Photographs © William Mebane