Making middle-class culture in Kathmandu
By Mark Liechty
Martin Chautari, 2008
This work by anthropologist Mark Liechty, first published in 2003 in the US, sets out to provoke thought about the middle class in Kathmandu during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The book’s Southasian edition was brought out this year by the Kathmandu-based research-and-discussion group Martin Chautari.
The 1990s were the years immediately following the first People’s Movement and the transition to parliamentary democracy; but, for Liechty, this was a time in Kathmandu when “a discourse of class was unusually tangible.” Unlike during the century of autocratic rule under the Rana regime, whose extractive and isolationist policies dramatically widened the gap between rulers and ruled, the developmental decades between 1951 and 1991 were a period marked by a massive influx of international aid and tourism. This period was also notable for the growing centralisation of the state, increasing monetisation of the economy, a spike in service-sector jobs and commodity imports, and a growing availability of English-language education.
Liechty argues that it was these trends that led to the formation, in Kathmandu, of a group of people who increasingly identified by class, rather than by caste or ethnicity. For the author, understanding the middle class in a place and at a time when the cultural space it occupied was “still being pioneered, its structures and fault lines not yet obscured by the sediments of time”, offers rich rewards. The hope is to shed light on the ways in which, the world over, the reality of economic inequality is obscured by class-specific cultural practices that, over time, come to be taken for granted.
The attempt here is not to define who the middle class is in terms of the economic resources of its members. Rather, Liechty is interested in class “as a cultural practice”. Instead of taking it to be a pre-defined, unchanging object or category, he believes that class must be seen as a set of practices that are acted out in everyday life. As such, his research consists overwhelmingly of what members of this group have to say about themselves and their lives. From material gathered during more than 200 informal interviews, Liechty concludes that the class of people he is studying imagines itself in a space of “middleness” between the high and low classes. Middle-class Kathmandu imagines these class extremes to be too influenced by foreign ways (and thus perhaps too modern) on the one hand, and too bound to tradition on the other. “To be middle class in Kathmandu,” Liechty writes, “is to participate in a social and cultural dialogue about what it means to be a ‘modern Nepali’.”
Discussions of commodity con-sumption, mass media and the production of a new youth culture take up the majority of this book. Liechty demonstrates how these phenomena must be discussed in relation to one another, and how they cannot be understood outside of the context of the creation of a middle-class culture. The interactions of consumption, mass media and youth culture is mirrored in his discussion of what he calls the “media assemblage”, a particularly interesting concept that refers to the ways in which various commercial media interact with and cross-reference each other.
“From television, to video, to cinema, to film magazines, to radio, to music videos … to pop songs,” Liechty writes, by constantly referencing each other, commercial media not only bring each other into existence but also come to depend on each other for the maintenance and expansion of their respective markets. Understanding these cross-referencing powers, the author notes, illuminates “commercial media’s ability to engage consumers’ imaginations” – their capacity to work together to make their promotion of a new consumerism compelling. The reader who knew Kathmandu during the 1980s may take a certain nostalgic pleasure in references to media that were popular in the Valley before the advent of satellite television, and find it interesting to reflect on how such products – Nepal Television’s Sunday Pop programme, for instance – participated in the creation of a new consumer culture.
Liechty writes in the preface to the 2008 Southasian edition that this work of anthropology is fast becoming history. Indeed, Kathmandu has seen massive changes during the course of the past 20 years. It was in the 1990s that Nepali-language print media was found to be commercially viable and then took off, and it was also then that the government loosened regulations on radio to allow a mushrooming of independent FM stations dealing in both news and entertainment. Economic liberalisation in India brought in private television broadcasting that became available to Kathmandu’s middle class by satellite and cable.
The new millennium subsequently saw the launching of a slew of Nepali-language television channels. Including the state-run NTV, and with the launch of the new ABC Channel this September, these now number at eight. The 1990s and 2000s also saw the advent of the Internet, and a massive increase in English-language higher-secondary education for Kathmandu’s youth. Especially during the years of the state-Maoist conflict, Kathmandu saw unprecedented levels of in-migration as people arrived here fleeing insecurity in the hills. Even though the Valley’s demography is now unrecognisable from the time about which Liechty writes, the methods of Liechty’s analysis are not made less relevant by these changes. If the early 1990s were a time when a discourse on class was particularly palpable, though, it would be interesting to explore whether or not that has changed in the interim, and for what reasons.
Liechty sees the production of youth culture as a way in which marketers seek entry into middle-class life. But the youth, he suggests, forms the vanguard of the middle class not only for this reason, but also because the burden of forging a modern Nepali future lies largely on its shoulders. “Yet because the narratives of progress and consumer value that the middle class uses to construct its own cultural life tend to locate modernity in distant times (the future) and spaces (the ‘developed world’),” Liechty writes, “middle-class youth are left to bear the full brunt of the spatial and temporal contradictions of ‘Third World’ modernity.”
Liechty proposes that these young people feel stuck between a past that is too ‘traditional’ for them to proudly own, and the desire for a modern future that, given the global discourse on modernisation that positions Third World countries as peripheral, they cannot claim to be their own. The predicament of these youths is only compounded by the fact that the imperative to participate in consumer culture is not met with the prospect of stable incomes. What Liechty suggests as a way out of these traps is for young people to “envision alternative modernities, to claim narratives of value and fulfilment that are not tied to the commodity form, to construct (and enact) futures that are not already appropriated by the state [in its discourse of development] or the forces of consumer modernity.”
There are a few odd gaps here. Though it seems to lie outside of the realm of Liechty’s project, and though he points out that the forms of material and cultural capital owned by members of the middle class is greatly varied, the exploration of who makes up the middle class in Kathmandu would have greatly benefited from an account of the material resources – professions, land ownership, incomes – of its members. After all, if there is one thing that is static about any middle class, it is the fact of a certain amount of purchasing power. After Liechty’s overwhelming focus on rhetoric and cultural practice, the reader is left wondering as to whether there is any solid correlation at all between material resources and the propensity to engage in the cultural practices he describes.
Second, middle-class Kathmandu may well have adopted a way of seeing the world as polarised along the lines of the developed versus the developing, or the modern versus the ‘Nepali’. And, because of this, many of its members may well feel they occupy a “nowhere place” in between. This popular postcolonial imagination of the Third World as ‘trapped’ between tradition and modernity, however, is produced in discourse – in the things that people say, be it in fashion advertising, household conversations about hygiene, or academic texts.
Liechty’s focus is on demonstrating the ways in which things that are said perpetuate certain ideas that the middle class has about itself, such that ‘middle-classness’ is constantly being re-enacted and reproduced. Reading his pained descriptions of the middle class’s dilemma in this way, one cannot help but feel that the author is participating in the very discourse that he means to critique – that, by bemoaning it, he is reproducing it, allowing for its continued existence. Indeed, it is not enough to lament this postcolonial predicament attributed to the Third World. If one wants a way out of it, one must stop thinking within its terms.
By engaging as deeply as he does in what he has identified as the middle class’s discourse of self-peripheralisation, Liechty has been unable to jettison the idea that the ‘Nepali’ and the ‘modern’ are two distinct terms in need of harmonisation. There is plenty of evidence in the interview material quoted in Suitably Modern that a lot of lived, habitual experience exists outside of middle-class ruminations on tradition and modernity. In order to avoid perpetuating the ‘Nepali’-versus-modern binary, Liechty would have had to abandon it. And his ability to do so would have come from evidence in his text that this opposition is not, in fact, all-powerful.
~ Himali Dixit is a former editor for this magazine who is currently in the process of applying to graduate school.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)