Suitably modern

2021-10-10

by Sanjeev Uprety

Mark Leitchy's Suitably Modern: Making Middle Class Culture in Kathmandu has been recently republished by Martin Chautari. The book, which was originally published by Princeton University press in 2003, makes an in-depth analysis of Kathmandu's middle class. Leitchy's persuasive analysis shows how the middle class—an in-between state hanging between the elites and the working class—reproduces itself through various lived cultural practices. These include practices such as cinema and video viewing, "doing" fashion and consuming commodities. Leitchy's central argument is that the middle class of Kathmandu defines its middle-ness by charting an in-between space between modernity and tradition; a middle ground that is not only different from the "vulgarity" of the lower classes caught up within the tradition, but also from the vulgarity of the elites mindlessly copying/ consuming the forms of foreign modernity.

In other words, the middle class defines its own version of modernity as the suitable one—neither too traditional, nor too ultra modern. Liechty's book is important for a number of reasons.

First: his methodological combination of Marx and Weber points to a new direction in the field of Nepali studies. Following Dor Bahadur Bista's influential text Fatalism and Development many foreign and local scholars were prompted to study Nepali society from the perspective of caste. Liechty's work shows clearly that while caste still remains an important element of Nepali culture and society, class as a cultural/ economic category determines lived practices of most of the Nepalis today, especially that of the middle classes of Kathmandu. While Marxian analysis often studies the economic and political make up of the working class, Max Weber provided the necessary corrective by studying the cultural dynamics of the middle classes. Liechty combines both Marx and Weber to study how the middle class of Kathmandu comes into being as it negotiates its middle-ness within the criss-crossing circuits of commodity capitalism.

Second: Liechty shows how such middle-ness is located at the intersection of the global and the local. Men and women of the middle class buy commodities, watch films, and participate in the youth cultural forms that arrive at Kathmandu from multiple centers of global capitalist culture. This does not mean, however, that they are passive consumers of commodity culture. Rather, they negotiate with those global flows and rewrite/ reproduce them within specific local contexts. It is such rewriting that allows them to create the idea of "suitably modern." In the process they create a space of their own; a space within which they repeat the cultural rituals of middle-ness. It is this repeated performance of middle class rituals—including those of consumption, cinema viewing and fashion—that constitutes them as middle class subjects.

Third: Suitably Modern combines the dual concepts of narrativity (discursivity) and performativity to study the make up of the middle class. At one hand, middle class is shaped by its class specific discourses or narratives including those of moral propriety/ impropriety, honor, progress and piety. On the other hand, its shared consciousness of itself as a specific class is produced through its repetitive performance of certain specific rituals.

The concept of discourse, following the impressive body of work produced by Michel Foucault, has greatly influenced the field of cultural studies. The theory of performance, as used by Judith Butler, has similarly dominated the field of contemporary gender studies. Liechty brings these approaches together to show how middle class is a discursive product as well as a mobile, shifting territory traced by numerous, repetitive cultural performances. The value of Leitchy's book also comes from the fact that it analyses culture as a perpetually shifting cultural terrain rather than some fixed object of anthropological study.

A similar focus is also found in what is now known as the field of cultural studies, popular in the humanities, especially in the departments of English, comparative literature and modern culture and media. Such an approach analysis various texts and sub-texts of culture, including fashion, wrestling, music, arts, advertisements, and soap operas among others; and shows how such "texts" are shaped by the modes of economic production as well as super-structural elements of the larger cultural framework.

In this sense, Leitchy's book can be thought of as an interdisciplinary work that combines the contemporary interests of both social sciences and humanities. Since the book was originally published in 2003 one might be tempted to ask if the historical shifts of the last four, five years might have altered the map of middle-ness in some significant way. What, for example, might have been the consequence of the Maoist war to the making of the middle class? Suitably Modern also inspires the readers to ask new questions: Will the rituals of middle class change in significant way with the fall of the monarchy? What would be an anthropological study of the lived cultural practices of the working and the elite classes of the valley look like? How about the "middle-ness" of those people who are caught up, at one end of the spectrum, between the middle and the lower classes, and on its other end, in between the upper and the middle classes?

These questions, of course, lead us beyond the scope of the book. Nepal's history, like that of many other nations, has been a history of elites. Following the success of the Jana Andolan of 2006 and the recent declaration of the republic, leftist parties have occupied the center of Nepali politics. This might inspire some scholars to carry out the valuable work of analyzing working class culture. Following the success of subaltern studies group in India, some Nepali scholars might rewrite the official historical narrative to produce a subaltern historiography of Nepal. While these projects are important, it is also important to study middle class as class; to study what and how it consumers; to understand what are the stories (narratives) that its members tell each other repeatedly; and to discover how they produce and reproduce their middle-ness within a space that is hanging between the high and the low.
The success of Suitably Modern rests upon the fact that it tries to flesh out each one of these issues in a clear, engaging manner.

The Kathmandu Post, 6 July 2008, p-5


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