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Practicing Consumption in the face of a Global Imaginaries

Fabian Christoph Blumer

Supervisor: Ravinder Kaur
Module B1, International Development Studies
Roskilde University
English Abstract

The fundamental interest in this project concerns itself with the relationship between
increasingly transnational imaginaries and consumption practices. By example of two
youngsters in Kathmandu, Nepal, I will show how different transnational flows, primarily
through media, migration and international aid development, construct an imaginary of
modernity which comes to have ideological characteristics. Consequently, people come to see
modernity as an ideal which they actively strive for. Isolating consumption as the chief
practice in relation to this, I am here interested in the motivations and logics behind increased
consumption from the consumer’s point of view. By applying Judith Butler’s concept of
performativity, I propose an alternative approach to the understandings of consumer practices.
This provides a more situated approach while simultaneously creating increased space for

Danish Abstract
Den grundlæggende problematik dette projekt handler om er relationen mellem de
tiltagende transnationale forestillinger og forbrugspraksisser. Gennem et eksempel med to
unge mennesker i Kathmandu, Nepal, vil jeg vise hvordan forskellige transnationale strømme,
primært gennem medier, migration og international udviklingshjælp, konstruerer en
forestilling om modernitet der har ideologiske karakteristika. Derfor kommer mennesker til at
opfatte modernitet som et ideal, som de aktivt kæmper for at opnå. I forhold til det isolerer jeg
forbrug som den styrende praksis, og jeg er interesseret i den motivation og de logikker der
lægger til grund for det øgede forbrug fra forbrugerens synspunkt. Ved at anvende Judith
Butlers koncept om performativitet, foreslår jeg en alternativ tilgang til forståelsen af
forbrugspraksisser. Dette giver en mere kontekstualiseret tilgang der samtidig giver mere rum
for agency.

Table of Contents

Introduction ............................................................................................................................... 3
Problem Field ................................................................................................................... 5
Methodology..................................................................................................................... 6
Arjun Appadurai ....................................................................................................................... 8
Global Imaginaries ........................................................................................................... 8
Identifying Appadurai..................................................................................................... 10
Two Accounts from Kathmandu ............................................................................................. 12
Kathmandu...................................................................................................................... 12
Ramesh ........................................................................................................................... 14
Suman ............................................................................................................................. 15
Modernity Dissmeminated ...................................................................................................... 16
Mediascape ..................................................................................................................... 17
Ethnoscape ...................................................................................................................... 20
Ideoscape ........................................................................................................................ 21
Transnational Ideology of Modernities .......................................................................... 23
Practicing Consumption .......................................................................................................... 24
Judith Butler ............................................................................................................................ 27
Performing in Modernity ........................................................................................................ 29
Conclusion .............................................................................................................................. 33


The world we live in is increasingly interconnected. Global flows of people, goods and
information travel in ever increasing amounts and at ever faster speeds to all the corners of the
planet, forcing people to situate themselves in an increasingly global cultural economy.
Global, regional and local streams of images, ideas and commodities are encountered by
people on a daily basis. These enable them to construct a great number of new and different
lifestyles, possibilities and ideals which become part of their every day lives and are
consequently used by them to orient themselves by and base their actions on. Together with
access to new and different flows thus come new and different practices.
An initial and fundamental interest in this project thus concerns itself with how such
increasingly transnational imaginaries affect people’s practices. Being interested in
transnational imaginaries, I will specifically investigate how flows of media, tourism and
development discourses come to construct an idea of modernity. I will argue that repeated
images of glamorous lifestyles and cosmopolitan places in media, together with flows of
tourists who construct the places they visit as exotic and different, and development
discourses which neatly divide the world into dichotomous categories, all reinforce each other

to construct an ideal of modernity which is presented as universally desirable and to be strived
for by all.
A central characteristic of this modernity is its idealization of consumer culture.
Advertised through media, tourism and development discourses, consumption becomes an
inseparable aspect of modernity, making consumer practices of central importance for a
modern lifestyle. Such closely interlinked discourses on modernity and consumer culture
make modern lifestyles without consumer goods and the related consumption practices a near
While the ideas and ideals related to modernity are themselves easily disseminated,
putting them into practice can be more problematic because consumer lifestyles often
necessitate access to financial resources. This can exclude a great number of people from
consumption practices they would ideally like to be part of. Furthermore, also the flows of
media, tourism and development discourses often come to be externally generated in places
which would typically be categorized as in need of development. The combination of largely
externally generated flows together with the limited access to consumer goods and practices
thus often has doubly marginalizing effect. Ironically, it is exactly in such marginalized places
that discourses on modernity are strongest and thus are most actively present in the minds of
Taking this into account, I will in this project mainly focus on the examples two young
men from such a marginalized place, namely Kathmandu, Nepal. I will discuss how they
encounter discourses of modernity in their every day lives and how their consumer practices
relate to these discourses. I will do so by applying Judith Butler’s theory of performativity to
the accounts of the two young men and theorize their consumption practices in relation to
discourses on modernity. Doing so will pose a counter reading to other understandings of
consumer practices in marginalized places. An alternative performative interpretation of
consumer practices applied to the accounts of two young men will consequently offer a more
situated approach which will be based in a starting point which takes the consumer’s point of
view into account
For these purposes the two accounts I will focus on, and the site of Kathmandu, are
especially pertinent. Kathmandu provides an ideal stage for my arguments for a number of
reasons. Never having formally been colonized, access to transnational flows is of relatively
recent history for most Nepali non-elites. This has changed dramatically over the last couple
of decades however. Today, Nepal’s economy is directly dependent on both tourism and
international aid development. Development is an industry in its own right in Nepal.

Thousands of NGOs, international aid organizations and the Nepali government all have their
offices in Kathmandu. In school, in government sponsored media and through the mere
presence of the great number development representatives and institutions, people are
constantly confronted with a development rhetoric which reminds them of living in an
underdeveloped country. Simultaneously, Kathmandu is a very busy tourist destination, where
all the tourists need to pass through on their way to Nepal’s mountains and trekking
The two accounts I will discuss are about Ramesh and Suman, two young men of
middle class background who have grown up in this context. Both of them were born in rural
Nepal before having moved to Kathmandu at a young age. They are both in regular contact
with tourists, are heavy consumers of media and actively pursue other consumer interests such
as fashion. Their regular contact with development discourses, tourists and flows of media
helped them construct an idea of modernity which is very real in their minds. Consequently,
both of them actively and explicitly struggle with the consequences of a marginalizing
transnational imaginary of modernity which positions them right at its edge.
The strong presence of discourses on modernity in the minds of Ramesh and Suman,
together with their precarious position at the edge of an accessible consumer culture, makes
their accounts especially relevant for my purposes. By drawing on the concept of
performativity, I will argue that the importance of consumption practices in their lives reflects
exactly this tension between a transnational imaginary of an ideal modernity and the uncertain
position of their own lives in relation to these discourses.

Problem Field
Based on these reflections I have formulated the following problem formulation

How can one understand people’s increased consumption practices while situating them
in a wider perspective of transnational ideas of modernity?

To specify, I present the two following sub-questions

- How do flows of media, tourism and development discourses contribute to the
formation of a construct of modernity with idealistic characteristics?
- How can the concept of performativity help to create an alternative understanding
of consumption practices?

An investigation into this problem field has the potential to connect global processes to the
experience of people’s everyday lives. By focusing on the accounts of two young men who
live in a marginalized place right at the edge of the normative tradition/modernity divide, it is
possible to gain important insights into the ways people navigate discourses of modernity and
consequently put them into practice. Such an approach has the potential to give a more
contextualized understanding of people’s consumption practices which does not victimize nor
simplify them.
While many studies within International Development work at a higher level, for
example by focusing on policies, analysing economic processes or assessing impacts of
different projects, an analysis as this, which takes its starting point in the accounts of two
specific people, has the advantage that it gives voice to people who often are overhead. While
many things can be learned through this, a particularly important lesson for the field of
International Development is that one needs to be more careful of the categories one
constructs and employs.


Like I have described, this project will take its starting point in the examples of
Ramesh and Suman, two young men from Kathmandu. Not having had the possibilities to
undertake ethnographic research myself, these accounts allow me to gain access to the every
day lives and the points of view of two different specific individuals. Thus, these accounts,
together with a number of other secondary sources in the form of anthropological studies from
Nepal, India and further afield, serve as invaluable examples around which I am going to
build my arguments.
While being aware that it is an impossibility to completely separate facts from
interpretations, I have separated the different authors’ comments from their empirical
observations as much as possible. Not having been there to observe otherwise, I will at no
point question the empirical observations and accounts of these studies themselves. I will
however enter into dialogue with their authors, arguing that while they offer some important
insights, alternative interpretations of their accounts can reap more fruitful results. More
specifically, I will argue that the connection of performativity and transnational imaginaries of
modernity to consumer practices can offer new, more situated understandings. Thus, I will
undertake a counter reading of these sources, applying a different theoretical framework to the
same empirical findings.

In order to do so, I will start off by introducing Arjun Appadurai’s concepts of scapes,
flows and imagination. By coupling his concepts to Brubaker and Cooper’s theorizations of
identity, I will combine concepts which take a global interest with concepts which work on
the level of the subject. This allows me to create the necessary analytical framework with
which to analyze the encounters of Ramesh and Suman with global imaginaries. After
consequently presenting Ramesh and Suman, I will have the necessary tools to describe a
global imaginary of modernity and to reflect upon they way Ramesh and Suman experience
this imaginary.
In a first step I will thus begin my counter reading by recontextualizing the setting
which Ramesh and Suman find themselves in. Drawing on Appadurai’s concepts, I will put
their lives in a global context where the focus will be on the way media, tourism and
development discourses work together to construct a transnational imaginary of modernity.
Such a contextualization has the advantage that it will highlight how the people in the studies
are located in a precarious position in which they are in frequent contact with discourses on
modernity they actively identify with, while they at the same time always have to struggle for
material access to it. In connection to Brubaker and Cooper, this tension between a
discursively present, yet materially evasive modernity results in an actively felt struggle over
Having laid out this context, I will argue that the people’s consumption practices need
to be understood in relation this context. Here, I will directly confront the other scholars’
interpretations of consumption pratices. In order to offer an alternative interpretation, I will
introduce Judith Butler’s concept of performativity. An interpretation of the same data
through the framework of performativity connected to imaginaries of modernity, will offer an
important new approach to the understanding of consumer practices. By directly applying
Butler’s concepts to the example of fashion as a form of consumer practice, I will show how
practices of conspicuous consumption can enable the actors to access modern identities.
Despite the fact that I offer a counter reading to the findings of the other scholars, I do
not mean to argue that their interpretations are necessarily wrong, nor that my interpretation is
the only correct one. Data can always be interpreted in a number if different ways and there
are a great number of different reasons and explanations for people to consume the way they
do. Even within a single locality consumption practices will vary greatly. Therefore I do not
claim universal validity for my arguments. I do however hold, that an understanding of
consumption developed through Butler’s concept of performativity, and contextualized in

relation to global discourses on modernity, will offer an important alternative understanding
of consumption practices in marginalized places.
While I will follow the examples of Ramesh and Suman throughout the project, I will
also draw on other studies. In order not to generalize too much, I have however focused on
sources with a number of important common characteristics. All of the examples I use stem
from urban areas in countries which would usually be defined as being underdeveloped. They
all are heavy users of consumer goods and actively pursue consumer ideals. Even though I am
hesitant to categorize the people in the studies I use as middle class, as a great number of
definitions for middle class seem to be used, it can be said that all of the people in focus are
not so affluent that they can access modern flows unproblematically to the extent they would
ideally see fit, nor are they so poor that their primary concern is to ensure food and shelter for
the next day. All of these criteria are of direct importance to my interests in this project, as
they place the people in the studies directly at the edge of a transnational imaginary of
modernity. I have therefore chosen to ignore other parameters such as gender, age or more
thorough reflections on geographical location as they are not of direct relevance for my
purposes, even though they indubitably affect people’s behaviours.

Arjun Appadurai

Global Imaginaries

In his book Modernity at Large Arjun Appadurai theorizes and describes the recent
processes of globalization, which he sees as being new in form. He argues that through
increased global flows, made possible in particular through new advances in information and
transportation technologies, people develop new global imaginaries through which they
interpret themselves and their lives. He is especially interested in the roles of migration and
media in this process.
In order to theorize recent globalization processes, Appadurai introduces the concept
of scapes to account for the increasing complexity and multi-directionality of global flows. He
differentiates between five different scapes which point towards different spheres of global
flows: 1. Ethnoscape describes the flow of people such as migrants or tourists across different
countries, regions and cities. 2. Mediascape is the dissemination across space of cultural
goods and information through media such as music, film, print media or the internet. 3.

Technoscape points towards the movement of technologies and means of production, while 4.
Financescape implies transactions and movements of capital. Finally, the Ideoscape is the
dissemination of ideals and concepts such as democracy, human rights, gender equality etc
throughout the world (Appadurai, 1996: 33-36).
Even though I would argue that Appadurai’s selection of different scapes is
incomplete and in this sense random, they provide a useful way to think of how information,
goods and people flow. The suffix -scape draws on the word ‘landscape’ which implies the
multidimensional, irregular and complex nature of these global flows. Just as landscapes,
Appadurai’s scapes highlight that these flows must not be seen as objectively given, but as
changing form in relation to place and context. Thus they are “deeply perspectival constructs”
and depend on the historical, linguistic, and political situatedness of a given actor (Appadurai,
1996: 33).
Furthermore, the relations among the various scapes are what Appadurai calls highly
“disjunctive” (ibid.: 35). Each of the scapes are subject to different contextual obstacles or
advantages which either hinder or enforce their velocity and volume in different places. This
has the consequence that some places are better connected to such global flows than other
Appadurai argues for this understanding of globalization constituted of intermeshing,
disjunctive and flowing perspectival scapes, by pointing out how global flows are received in
different ways across different contexts. They become what he calls “indigenized” (ibid.: 32)
by becoming adjusted to the local environment. In this vein Appadurai takes his starting point
in an argument against cultural homogenization theories. Instead, he argues that with the
arrival of different flows in new contexts, they change form and are appropriated differently.
Rather than focusing on the effects of such global flows on people’s practices however,
Appadurai is more interested in how they allow people to access a much larger amount of
images and information than ever before. These images revolutionarily enable people to
partake in what he calls the “transnational construction of imaginary landscapes” (ibid.: 31).
While imagination is of course nothing new in itself, Appadurai argues that this new
form of imagination differs from previous kinds of imaginations in three points. Firstly,
imagination has expanded itself from areas such as art and myth into the logic and routine of
every day life. Second, imagination today is often the basis and incentive for action, and not
only for escape. Third, imagination has become collective and transnational (ibid.: 5-8).
While I would seriously question whether these characteristics of imagination indeed are new,
it is hard to deny that these tendencies are heavily enforced in the contemporary world. Global

flows of media, the much easier access to all kinds of information and the highly increased
direct contact of people with much larger amounts of other people, often from around the
world, have made it possible for one to imagine a much wider array of possibilities and
interpret ones own life from completely new angles. It is this idea, that people living in the
contemporary world have learned to imagine a much larger array of what Appadurai calls
“possible lives” (ibid.: 54), which take place in “imagined worlds” (ibid.: 33), which is of
special relevance in relation to this project.
While the concepts of possible lives and imagined worlds are very powerful,
Appadurai is mainly interested in the mechanisms behind the creation of such imaginations on
a transnational level. Because I on the other hand will want to apply Appadurai’s concepts on
two specific accounts, my interest lays more with the way such imaginations of possible lives
relate to people’s sense of self. Therefore it will be more beneficial to introduce Frederick
Cooper and Rogers Brubaker conceptualizations of identity. This will provide an important
link between the global processes Appadurai is mainly concerned with, and the personal
experiences of people such as Ramesh and Suman which I will come to describe further on.

Identifying Appadurai

Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper criticize traditional academic understandings

of identity. They distinguish between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ understandings in previous
academic work. They see strong understandings of identity as being essentialistic and fixed,
thus categorizing people too rigidly and therefore robbing people of agency (Brubaker &
Cooper, 2000: 10). Weak understandings, on the other hand, are commonly so loose and
elastic that they are in danger of loosing all meaning (ibid. 11).
Instead they propose to see identity from a different perspective. According to them,
identity should primarily be seen as a process instead of the more static implication of identity
where identity is something one possesses. It forces one to specify both a subject that does the
identifying, an object that is being identified, plus the actual thing the object is being
identified with (ibid.:14). Following this, they propose two sets of alternative processes for
identity formation, both of which perform different aspects of the roles that the traditional
understandings of identity imply.
Firstly, they propose identification. The word identification is directly derived from a
verb and thus already implies the processual aspect of identity. Identification takes place for

example when one characterizes oneself, when one locates oneself vis-à-vis others or when
one is being categorized by another. How one identifies oneself and how one is identified by
others, which could for example be other people, powerful institutions such as states or even
abstract discourses, may vary greatly from context to context, making the process of
identification inherently situational (ibid.: 14). Because of the plethora of different actors
doing the sometimes contradictory identifying of the same objects, one needs to see
identification as a struggle, as an open ended process with uncertain outcomes (ibid.: 16). In
this sense, identification is a struggle which needs to be fought on a daily basis.
The second important aspect to a more meaningful understanding of identity is what
Brubaker and Cooper call ‘self-understanding’. Self-understanding can be understood as
‘situated subjectivity’, as “one’s sense of who one is, of one’s social location and of how…
one is prepared to act” (ibid. 17). It implies a holistic understanding of who one is oneself
which can be completely tacit.

As Appadurai has pointed out, the intensified globalization processes have had the
consequence that people all over the world have a vastly enlarged network of actors,
discourses and institutions which they encounter throughout their lives. With all these
different actors making different claims about different things, using different discourses and
employing various ways of representation, identification has become a much more contested
thing than ever before. While the array of possible lives one can imagine has greatly
increased, and imagined worlds have become ever more multifaceted in the minds of people
all over the world, processes of self-understanding and identification become ever more
complex and contradictory. In the process of developing self-understandings one thus needs to
place oneself in a much wider context and relate one’s own life to much a larger plethora of
other possible lives. Furthermore, self-understandings are constantly challenged through flows
such as media, tourism or development discourses all of which stage their own claims to
Appadurai’s concepts of imagination and scapes form the analytical framework with
which I will analyse the accounts of Ramesh and Suman in order to later on argue for a
transnational construction of modernity with ideal characteristics. While Appadurai’s
concepts are crucial to understand how such a transnational imagination gets constructed,
Brubaker and Cooper’s concepts of identification and self-understanding will be of special
importance to understand how such imaginations get appropriated into every day lives.

Therefore, I will now introduce Ramesh and Suman and the context of Kathmandu they grew
up in.

Two Accounts from Kathmandu


Ramesh and Suman have both lived most of their lives in Kathmandu, the capital of
Nepal. Nepal is a landlocked country of approximately 147’000 square meters and lies
situated between Asia’s two super powers China and India. Lying in the Himalaya region,
around one third of the country lies over 4500 meters and only 16% of the land is arable. It
has an estimated population of 28,563,377 (July 2009) the median age of which lies at 20.8
years. 81% of the population is Hindu, while 11% are Buddhists (all stats retrieved from CIA
World Factbook).
Even though Nepal’s beautiful scenery and ‘spiritual’ culture attracts hordes of
western tourists every year, Nepal is among the poorest and ‘least developed’ countries in the
world. With almost one-third of its population living below the absolute poverty line (ibid.),
Nepal reaches only rank 145 out of 179 on the human development index of the UN’s 2008
study. Indeed, even Bangladesh, Asia’s poster child of poverty, has a higher average income
rate, higher GDP, lower HIV/AIDS rates, and lower unemployment rates than Nepal (ibid.).
Even though Nepal has never officially been colonized, they had to bend to British
pressures in 1816, consequently accepting a British representative living in Kathmandu and
influencing Nepali politics. This British representative constituted one of the first important
symbols of western dominance, pointing towards the new positions of both the west and of
Nepal in a new political economy and symbolizing Great Britain’s political but also emerging
cultural dominance. Consequently, already Bhim Sen Thapa, Nepal’s ruler from 1806-37
adopted purely western dress, wearing a military uniform in the likes of a British general. In
1830, the British representative proudly wrote home that “the whole middle and upper classes
are clad in foreign cotton” (ibid.: 43). In the following years, the Nepali elite’s, but also its
lower classes’, desire for foreign material and cultural goods steadily increased. Even though
the Rana dynasty which ruled over Nepal from 1846-1951 kept a relatively tight reign on the
movement of people across Nepal’s borders and for the most part limited access to western
commodities to the elites, they both set up a Foreign Goods Department and a buying agency

in Calcutta in the 1920s. By way of an aerial ropeway into the Kathmandu valley they steadily
imported things like pressed-tin ceiling panels, bath tubs, decorative statuary, European
fashions, fine silver, liquor and other luxury goods intended for Kathmandu’s elites (ibid.:
45). By the late 1940s, the lifestyles between the ruling elite and Kathmandu’s commoners
grew so big, that one travelling foreigner remarked that “the court and the people are two
entirely different entities” (ibid.). With only the elite having access to foreign commodities,
such foreign flows thus were imbued in an aura of luxury and exclusiveness right from the
With the independence of India in 1947 and the consequent lack of British support, the
Rana rulers were not able to hang on to their power and in 1951 king Tribhuvan took over the
reign. One of the new king’s very first moves was to open Nepal’s borders both to relatively
unrestricted commodity flows and to the movement of people. This brought unprecedented
waves of foreign goods into the country and exposed its citizens for the first time to large
numbers of foreigners who visited the country as tourists (ibid.: 47). In 2007 Nepal saw over
half a million foreign tourists visiting the country (Ministry of Tourism, Nepal).
In a similar move, king Tribhuvan and his descendent Mahendra, who took over
power in 1955, also opened up Nepal’s borders to foreign aid agencies. Today, development
is an industry in its own right in Nepal. It employs bureaucrats, foreign advisers, office staff,
professionals, program directors, project coordinators, trainers, trainees, interviewers and
survey enumerators, secretaries, drivers, tea fetchers and all the related goods and practices
(Pigg, 1996: 172). Between 1951 and 1997 Nepal consequently received 3.7 billion dollars in
grants and loans from foreign countries and banks and in-between 1990-2002 almost 10% of
the country’s GDP came directly through foreign aid (Bhattarai, 2007: 43). Together,
development aid and tourism form the backbone of Nepal’s economy, making the country
directly dependent on foreign flows.
Consequently, the city has gone through drastic changes since 1951. In the last 60
years, the city’s population grew seven times the size it was when the Rana rule fell, growing
from approximately 100’000 in 1951 to around 700’000 today. The city is now accessible by
more than 7000km of motorable roads and has an intercontinental airport. Kathmandu is the
home of hundreds of NGO’s, thousands of schools and since 1985 home to Nepal’s national
TV station. With the large number of tourists, international NGO’s and television, films and
other media both from Nepal and from abroad, citizens of Kathmandu now are in daily
contact with global flows and are exposed to ideas and images from all over the world on a
very regular basis. It is in this context that Ramesh and Suman have grown up.


Ramesh and his middle-class parents moved to Kathmandu from an eastern hill district
when he was in his early teens. He attended a well-respected English-medium high school
where he learned to speak fluent English. When Ramesh was in high school he for the first
time came into contact with heroin. Over time, Ramesh developed a habit of heroin abuse that
grew out of control. In the years after he first tried heroin, his mother died and his father
married a new wife with several sons. Because of increasing tensions at home, and because of
his addiction, Ramesh began increasingly to spend more and more time with his peer group,
with whom he watched movies and shared other interests such as fashion. His heroin
addiction finally having grown out of control, he now lives in the streets and has been in and
out of rehabilitation programs seven times. Now he lives primarily off of the hustling of
tourists and sewing foreign labels into locally produced garments (Liechty, 2003: 235).
Ramesh constantly evaluates his Nepaliness in light of foreign places even though he
himself has never travelled further than North India. Thus, he constantly compares himself,
his life and Nepal with America, repeatedly referring to Nepal as ‘out here’. At one point he

Out here young people like me, we want a fast life, not this slow life… I
mean like in the States, where you can stay out all night until you drop.
Here, there’s nothing, no bars, and we can’t even go anywhere to play video
games (ibid.: 236).

He is particularly fascinated by New York City. He knows the entire city’s boroughs,
identifying especially with the Bronx which he connects to an exciting gang life where they
pop pills before going to fights. Talking about these foreign places, he then goes on to say

You know, now I know so-o-o much. Being a frog in a pond isn’t a bad life,
but being a frog in an ocean is like hell. Look at this. Out here in
Kathmandu, there is nothing. We have nothing. We even have to stand in
line for kerosene (ibid.: 238).


Suman is a twenty-two year old youth who has lived in Kathmandu since boyhood,
where he grew up in a lower middle class family. Ever since finishing high school at an
English-language boarding school, he has been working at a relative’s travel agency where he
has been in direct contact with foreigners on a daily basis. Once, he had accompanied a group
of foreign tourists to the village where he spent the first few years of his life and where many
of his relatives still live today. Seeing his old life through the lens of foreign tourists had a big
impact on him, and triggered a lot of introspection. He perceived a painful gap between his
past, symbolized by the ‘exotic’ village he guided the tourists to, and the modern person he
desires to be. The way he experiences it, Suman does not fully belong to either of these
spheres. “I don’t have any place to stand. I don’t know where I stand. I’m in this nowhere
place” (Liechty, 2003: 239), he says at one point. He later goes on to say

When I look at you, I can see a person clearly. I can look at your behaviour,
what you say, and the little things you do, and I see who you are. But when I try
to look at myself, I don’t see anything. I mean, what I see is only unclear, it’s so
unclear. There’s nothing really there, just bits and pieces, floating (ibid.)

Suman then talks about how the only place where he had been able to feel comfortable
during his time in school and after, was with his peer group. He had always been afraid of
losing his peer group, as they constituted his only sense of social identity he actively
identified with. He spent as much time as possible with his friends, indulging in activities
such as watching films, listening music and ‘doing fashion’, all of which he and his friends
shared similar tastes in. Since then, Suman has become aware how much he has been
grasping on to his peer group, yet, as he points out, the price for falling away is being left
behind (ibid.: 241).
At one point Suman tells about his experiences when watching the American film
One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which the main protagonist mistakenly gets submitted
into a mental hospital, where he is unable to convince anyone that he in fact is sane. Talking
about the film, Suman says: “after seeing it at my friend’s house, I just wanted to go out and
scream. I wanted to start hitting someone. It was all I could do to keep from hitting my

friend” (ibid.: 244). Having difficulties articulating why the movie had such a strong impact
on him, Suman explains that it was mainly because he was so “shocked” that something of
this kind could happen in America, as this was a side of western societies he had never seen
before (ibid.: 245),

Ramesh and Suman are what Liechty calls “logical extremes – the ultimate
consequences” (ibid.: 232). While in the case of Ramesh a combination of personal
misfortune and substance abuse led him into the streets and to the margins of society, Suman
developed a sense of critical self awareness like Liechty found in no other youngster he has
met. I will in the next chapters argue that while Ramesh and Suman might be extreme
examples, the problems they experience are directly related to the environment in which they
grew up in and are therefore experienced by countless other youngsters growing up in similar
conditions, albeit to a possibly lesser degree. To a large extent their problems can be read as
having to do with experiences of their society at the margins of a global cultural economy,
with constant exposure to images and flows of media concerning a modernity they often do
not have physical access to and with a development ideal which devalues rural Nepal and
keeps reminding them of living in a ‘least developed country’.

Modernity Disseminated

Appadurai places primary importance for the shaping of imaginary landscapes of

possible lives in mediascape and ethnoscape, taking an approach that “takes media and
migration as its two major, and interconnected, diacritics” (Appadurai, 1996 :3). Taking into
consideration the cases of Ramesh and Suman, I will however also argue for the crucial
relevance of ideoscape, in the form of development discourses, for the construction of
imagined worlds and the possible lives therein.
I am in this chapter not interested in working towards a definition of modernity, nor
towards one of consumption. Rather, I want to show how mediascape, ethnoscape and
ideoscape work together to construct a ‘landscape’ of modernity which is neither unitary, nor
definable, yet still is coherent enough to be perceived as existing ‘out there’ for people such as
Ramesh or Suman. Despite only focusing on the three named scpaes, I do not mean to argue
that this ‘landscape’ is being constructed by them alone. Flows such as those of commodities,
languages or financial remittances, which are being ignored here, have important impacts on

local imaginations of modernity as well. Mediascape, ethnoscape and ideoscape do however,
as I will argue below, work together in multiple ways, reinforcing each other, to paint a
picture of modernity and practices related to it which is coherent enough to be very present in
the minds and lives of people.


Mediascape figures prominently in the accounts of both Ramesh and Suman. Liechty
describes Ramesh as a “heavy user of mass media” (Liechty, 2003: 236). Ramesh talks rather
explicitly about the influence American gangster movies had on him. These pose stories and
characters he identifies with and which uses to interpret his surroundings with. Ramesh has
incorporated these stories to form an important aspect of his self-understanding.
Also Suman consumes a large amount of media. His strong reaction to the film One
flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest shows how he uses mass media to learn about places such as
America and to construct images and ideals related to these places. In this case, he was
particularly shaken to see that western ‘modern’ society, which he previously imagined as
inherently good and fair, has a flip side to it which is the exact opposite.

Thus, both Ramesh and Suman clearly use media as important source for knowledge
about the world and the lives therein. Media has the capacity to inform and entertain a great
number of people. Never before have so many people been exposed to such a large number of
different sources of media, ranging from television programs, films, advertisements, radio,
music, newspapers to magazines, books and increasingly the internet. Mediascapes, especially
those of the entertainment industry, usually are image-centred and narrative-based accounts of
different representations of realities (Appadurai, 1996: 35). They provide consumers a great
number of elements such as characters, plots, settings and images out of which imagined lives
can be constructed. They are however not only used to construct third party possible lives and
imaginary worlds. Rather, to use Appadurai’s words, they offer individuals with plentitudes of
“resources for experiments with self-making” (ibid.: 3). Therefore, they also have a
potentially great influence on ones self-understanding and provide a lens through which to
interpret one’s immediate world.
Often stemming from cosmopolitan cities such as Los Angeles or Mumbai, mass
media provides people in other societies with images from those cosmopolitan places and the

kinds of possible lifestyles therein. These are usually imbued in an aura of glamour,
cosmopolitanism and the ‘new’, and consequently have a desirable and positive connotation
to them. This connection between media, glamour, cosmopolitanism and desirability gives the
transmitted images a special message within which the modern and the global often appear as
one comprehensive thing which is represented as inherently desirable (ibid.).

Also Norbert Wildermuth and Anne Line Dalsgaard point out the ideological character
of the images of modern lifestyles presented in the media. In their article Imagined Futures,
Present Lives (2006) they explore the role of media in the imagination of meaningful lives by
young people in Recife, a city in Brazil. In line with Appadurai, they understand the media as
“a set of resources that not only facilitate forms of social and cultural knowledge about the
world, but also play an important role in young people’s drive to create stable and meaningful
identities for themselves” (Wildermuth and Dalsgaard, 2006: 13). They point out how media
gives youth in Recife access to spheres of ‘modern’ and urbanized images, commodities and
lifestyles which they would usually not have access to. These ‘modern’ images are picked up
locally and form a kind of ideal world the youth in their focus group aspire to. Because of
this, Wildermuth and Dalsgaard describe Recife’s youth, in a similar way as Ramesh and
Suman, as having difficulties identifying with older generations because they represent an
older time and not the modernity they aspire to. Wanting to differentiate themselves from this
‘traditional’ lifestyle, they are almost forced to make use of the images encountered through
mass media as they pose a vital contact to ‘modern’ images (ibid.: 27). They can then use
these images as resources for the constructions of self-understandings, and use the different
plots, settings and lifestyles as elements for identification. That this link is highly valued can
be seen in the fact that Wildermuth and Dalsgaard encountered a television set wherever they
went, even among families who could not afford basic necessities such as a proper door for
their house (ibid.: 15).
Also Shoma Munshi makes similar observations in her field work among domestic
help and workers in beauty parlours in Delhi. She describes how among her focus group the
purchase of a colour television was of primary importance. In order to be able to afford such a
television, all interviewees underwent some form of hardship in order to purchase a television.
One reduced the consumption of milk and sweets, another stopped to spend money on
fashion, while a third loaned the money (Munshi, 2008: 268). While the women in Munshi’s
research also used television and films as resources for the construction of possible lives, for
instance of film stars whose styles and clothes they emulate (ibid.: 273), Munshi is more

interested in showing how media creates desire for consumption and also informs what to
consume. All of her informants univocally acknowledged that television is an important
creator of needs and that it creates a demand in them for objects to buy (ibid.: 267). Munshi
explains this by pointing out how the images and stories presented in television are centred
around consumerist lifestyles which depict an ideal form of existence among viewers. This
ideal form of existence is marked by conspicuous consumption (ibid.: 268). Thus she shows
how television influences her informants’ eating habits, fashion choices, toiletry and make-up
selections and body care.
It is not only through television and films that this kind of material consumer culture is
advocated. Also the editors of the Kathmandu based youth magazine Teens are aware that
modern lifestyle is very much related to the commodities one consumes. As they explain, the
aim of their magazine is to provide teenagers with answers to questions about what it means
to be modern, conflating western lifestyle with modernity: “if they want to be English, they
have to read English magazines, listen to English music, watch English videos, I mean,
everything” (Liechty, 2003: 218). Already in the first issue of their magazine, which appeared
in 1991, they informed the readers that “each individual has a personality + a style of their
own” (ibid.: 220), and in another issue they explain that “appearance says a great deal about a
person before a word is spoken. When you look at someone, 80 to 90 percent of what you see
is the persons apparel” (ibid.: 221). They constantly equate reality with materiality and
furthermore construct modernity as a discourse that privileges the material as real while
equating persons with objects and emotions with material conditions (ibid.).

In this manner, media constructs a rather coherent image of the modern lifestyle and
plays a crucial role in processes of identity formation. The consumption of mass media is a
highly sought after and important pastime in all the accounts above, ranging from Brazil, to
India, to Ramesh and Suman in Nepal. The images and worlds people encounter through mass
media are presented as depicting ideal lifestyles which take place in glamorous, cosmopolitan
settings. These lifestyles are marked by conspicuous consumption. This creates a discourse on
modernity which is equated with consumption and which is presented not only as inherently
desirable but also as necessary if one wants to get along in ones life.
I do not want to propose that people are cultural dopes and receive these discourses
uncritically and in the same manner as they are presented to them. In fact, many studies,
including the ones introduced above, show how particularly the discourses on consumption
are resisted through counter discourses on morality, Gandhian ideals, traditional values or

critiques of superficiality. When looking at the people presented in the studies above, it is
however clear that the discourses encountered through mass media had an impact on all of
their lives. While some people might handle discourses on modernity and consumption
cautiously and skeptically, they are still aware of its discourses and are forced to relate to
them in one way or another.


Also ethnoscape has an important impact on Ramesh and Suman’s self-

understandings. Both of them working in the tourist industry, they come into contact with
transnational ethnoscape mainly through their regular contact with tourists. While Ramesh
spends a lot of time in Kathmandu’s tourist district Tamel, running small time scams and
touting tourists, Suman works more formally at a travel agency. Especially Suman seems to
be heavily influenced by his contact with western tourists as his story about the tour to his
native village clearly shows.
In line with this, my main interest in this section is to show how western tourists often
come to symbolize the modern consumer lifestyle presented through mass media while
simultaneously constructing people such as Ramesh and Suman as different to modernity.
Tourists can be seen as representatives of the worlds and lives people in marginalized
places encounter through mass media. Tourists typically spend their time with activities such
as going to nice restaurants to eat good food, looking at different sites such as temples or
markets and in general do other things they enjoy. Not doing much else than consume, a
tourist is, in many ways, the embodiment of consumption. Even when just walking around the
streets, their consuming becomes a practice of consumption which objectifies and
commodifies the people and things they see. This automatically creates a process of
identification in which the people the tourists see are identified as exotic, different or just
generally interesting. Consequently, they become categorized as others to the cosmopolitan
tourists from modern places. In this way, the tourist way of seeing acts like a lens that situates
the Kathmandu in an “out here” place, as Ramesh calls it. This “out here” place is thus
rendered separate and different from the worlds the tourists usually come from.
Simultaneously the tourists also seemingly provide a window onto the ‘modern’ places they
come from. These representatives of modernity who spend all their time consuming while

simultaneously ‘othering’ the locals, further come to conflate the ideal of modernity with the
practice of consumption.
While tourism is probably the most crucial form of ethnoscape for the cases of
Ramesh and Suman, also internationally moving locals can constitute important symbols. In
her article Consuming Globalization (2005), Ritty Lukose makes a similar point as the one
above in relation to the case of Non-Resident-Indians (NRIs), which she calls the “clearest
representatives of this new ‘cosmopolitan consumer’” (Lukose, 2005: 916). The category of
the NRI was first used as a banking category to attract foreign remittances. Lukose shows
however how the Non-Resident-Indian soon also became a cultural category as well. This
cultural category came to stand for an upper class lifestyle marked by heavy consumption.
This made it possible that one can live an NRI lifestyle without ever leaving India (ibid.).
In both cases, transnationally moving people become symbols of cosmopolitanism
whose behaviours are marked by excessive consumption practices. As Suman’s example of
his trip to his old village shows very well, contact with tourists can have very self-conscious
effects which situate the locals, who do not have the possibilities to travel the way the tourists
do, on the margins of an eternally generated modernity. Tourists become concrete examples
of other possible lives which have more possibilities and which come from the imaginary
worlds Ramesh and Suman can only access through media.


Finally, reflections on ideoscape in the forms of development discourses and

ideologies of progress will reinforce the tendencies described above one more time.
Kathmandu, the home of Ramesh and Suman, is the host of a plethora of NGOs and
development institutions. Nepal’s whole economy is directly dependent on international loans
and development aid. Development in the form of discourses but also in its material
manifestations, such as schools, hospitals, or aid workers, are ever present in Kathmandu and
consequently constantly remind people such as Ramesh and Suman of the ‘fact’ that they live
in a ‘least developed country’. Constantly being confronted with discourses of backwardness
and development they are taught to understand them selves as living in an underdeveloped
place which is lacking in a number of important ways.
In his provocative account, Becoming a Development Category (1995), Nanda
Shrestha gives a self-reflective account of his experiences growing in Pokhara, a small town
in central Nepal. In the 1950s and 60s, when he was a school boy, development discourses

first gained force. His personal narrative attempts to reveal “how and why the discourse of
development, with the help of foreign aid, solidifies the colonial mindset in the post-imperial
world, crafting cultural values, thinking, behaviour, and actions” (Shrestha, 1995: 259). Even
though it can be argued that Shrestha’s views are very one sided and extreme, they provide an
interesting perspective to reflect on the advent of development practices. He describes how
before the onset of the development discourses, Nepalis, while being poor, would never have
thought of themselves as underdeveloped. Development came to stand for things such as
roads, airplanes, dams, hospitals, fancy buildings and education, which had the power to turn
underdeveloped minds into developed ones (ibid.: 261). In school they learned about science,
technology and also English, which came to replace Sanskrit as the language of special status.
Learning about development in school, Shrestha describes how he and his peers came to
devalue the manual labour work his parents have been working with all their lives. They
refused to help out at home, as they began to identify themselves with bikas, the Nepali
equivalent for development, which could not go hand in hand with working in the fields
(ibid.: 262). In short, Shrestha argues that their contact to development discourses taught them
to see Nepal and their different local lifestyles from a devalued standpoint.
Arturo Escobar is particularly interested in such discourses about development.
According to him, “development can best be described as an apparatus that links forms of
knowledge about the Third World with the deployment of forms of power and intervention,
resulting in the mapping and production of Third World societies” (Escobar, 1995: 207).
Drawing parallel to Edward Said’s concept of orientalism, Escobar argues that
developmentalism constructs developing countries in a similar way as orientalism has
constructed the orient (Escobar, 1994: 6). According to him, development constructs the Third
World by means of discourses as primarily and fundamentally ‘underdeveloped’ and
consequently treats it as such. It creates dichotomies such as developed/underdeveloped,
rich/poor, urban/rural, progress/backwardness or modern/traditional. These dichotomies have
a clear value judgment integrated into them, lauding the west as being more advanced in an
evolutionary sense. It has become increasingly difficult to think about the ‘Third World’
without drawing on development discourses and framing them through terms such as
overpopulation, famine, poverty, illiteracy etc. (ibid.). Consequently, Escobar argues that the
fact of development itself can almost not be doubted, as it has achieved the status of a
certainty in the social imaginary (ibid.: 5).
This is especially true in Nepal, as its economy is directly dependent on the
development industry. Indeed, Stacy Pigg, who has done research about belief patterns in

relation to shamanism in Nepal, describes Nepalis as having a “national obsession with
development” which “cannot be overestimated” (Pigg, 1996: 172). They experience
modernity through a development ideology that insists that they are backward rather than
modern, and indeed have a very long way to go before reaching developed status (ibid.: 163).

Transnational Ideology of Modernities

One of the permeating themes in the accounts of both Ramesh and Suman can be read
as being about this rupture between an idealized modernity and what they come to see as a
‘backward’ reality. Taken together, mediascape, ethnoscape and ideoscape work together,
reinforcing each other, to construct modernity as a transnational imaginary with ideological
characteristics. This construction of modernity is rendered real and meaningful through
discourses and practices by development institutions and governments which take
development as an ideal and as a practical goal; through tourists and transnationally moving
citizens who bring with them an air of cosmopolitanism and worldliness while ‘othering’
places they visit; and through media, from television, films, music or magazines, all of which
frequently depict glamorous lifestyles taking place in far away metropolis where the ‘fast life’
is happening. All these flows work together to idealize an external modernity, while devaluing
the locality Ramesh and Suman find themselves in. Consequently, both of them struggle with
identity related questions of who they are, where they stand, where they are going and where
they belong to. They are unsure as to what their roles in the society they live in are, and, most
importantly, it is not possible for them to embody the lifestyle they actually come to identify
themselves with.
Constant contact to these flows let them “know so-o-o much”, as Ramesh says, yet due
the disjunctive nature of these flows, material access to them can be more difficult. Constantly
being exposed to these idealized images of modernity which stem from far away places,
Suman and Ramesh have difficulties connecting their every day lives to these ideals. Suman
exemplifies this very well in the way he describes how he is unable to get a clear picture of
who he himself is, only seeing “bits and pieces, floating”. It is here that the connection of
Appadurai’s concepts with the ones from Brubaker and Cooper becomes especially
meaningful. With the increasingly transnational imaginaries and the much larger contact to
global flows, identity has become much more contested. Ramesh and Suman are identified
explicitly by development discourses and implicitly through tourism and media as others to
modernity. They themselves however, identify with the modern discourses and actively
distance themselves both from their rural pasts and from their parents who they see as
representing an older generation. Struggles over identification and self-understanding are
therefore very real and present in their lives.
It is in this context that consumption becomes relevant. I have shown how through
both media and tourism consumption becomes integral to the imaginary of a modern life. I
will therefore now examine how and why consumption is employed by Ramesh, Suman and
the people in the other studies, ultimately connecting consumption practices to the struggle
over identity described above.

Practicing Consumption

In his introduction to a special issue of Public Culture on ‘alternative modernities’,

Dilip Gaonkar argues that “people ‘make’ themselves modern, as opposed to being ‘made’
modern by alien and impersonal forces… they give themselves an identity and a destiny”
(Gaonkar, 1999: 16). I have shown how by encountering discourses on modernity in their
every day lives, people come to see modernity as something desirable, something they want to
be part of. Just wanting to be modern or identifying oneself with modernity does not make
one modern however, as Suman’s struggle with his own self-understanding shows. As
Gaonkar puts it, people need to ‘make’ themselves modern..
Consumption and its relationship to modernity is however not always theorized in this
way. Often, modern identities are assumed to be pre-existent within the minds of people,
which consequently create the need for consumption. Ritty Lukose, who has been introduced
above in relation to constructions around NRI lifestyles, examines the creation and practices
of consumer cultures. She argues that “commodities and the desire for them emerge out of
and are resituated within consumer identities” (Lukose, 2005: 926). This makes people such
as Devan, the young man she interviews, create a notion of the “good life” which then
“informs his self-understanding as a ‘chethu’ figure, an irreverent, happy-go-lucky young
man, cruising the public in search of fun” (ibid.).
Here Lukose does exactly what Gaonkar warns of. She assumes that Devan has been
‘made’ modern, particularly through media discourses, and consequently bases his behaviour
on these discourses. He consumes because he is a ‘chethu figure’ with a ‘consumer identity’
and not because he wants to be a ‘chethu figure’ as Gaonkar would argue.

While Lukose focuses mostly on media discourses and how they make people acquire
consumer lifestyles, another way increased consumption practices are often analyzed is by
examining the relation of consumption to class and status. Margit Van Wessel, who writes
about consumption practices in the Indian city of Baroda, argues that “consumption pertains
to intra-class comparison and the phenomenon usually referred to as ‘keeping up with the
Joneses’” (Van Wessel, 2004: 111). In this, it is always important that “one’s consumption
should be on a par with that of the neighbours” (ibid.: 98). She observes what she sees as a
very materialistic community, where people base their social relations on people’s ability to
Also Osella and Osella observe similar patterns in Kerala, where they argue “that
progress should be demonstrated and publicly acknowledged, by at least keeping up with
levels and styles of consumption of those whose status and prestige one aspires (Osella &
Osella, 1999: 1002). Both Van Wessel and Osella and Osella are mainly sceptical of these
consumption practices, where consumption is mainly seen as a platform for competition and
where one is forced to consume because one’s class others deem it appropriate.
Others, however, evaluate similar observations more positively by locating a space for
agency within the practice of consumption. Thus, also Leela Fernandes observes how
communities are formed around the practice of consumption in her book India’s New Middle
Class. She concludes from this however, that “individuals use the consumption of
commodities as a strategy of upward mobility” (Fernandes, 2006: 73). Similarly, also Shoma
Munshi argues that consumption has the potential to create agency, as it lets the women in her
study make “strategic” use of consumption so they can “buy membership” and achieve higher
social status (Munshi, 2008: 273).
Also Mark Liechty focuses mainly on membership when discussing people’s
consumption habits. In the youngsters he observes at different schools in Kathmandu, Liechty
remarks that their “attachment to peers and the norms of the peer group can be almost
slavish… Thus, the experience of youth among peers is very often an intensely materialistic
one”, resulting in a kind of “materialistic peer pressure” (Liechty, 2003: 214), which makes
people begin to consider themselves and others in increasingly material terms and choose
their peer groups in relation to these.
While all of these studies do a good job in showing how communities are shaped
around the practice of consumption and how consumption can be used as a tool for upward
mobility, they mainly see consumption as a marker for processes of inclusion and exclusion in
different groups, communities or classes. In this way, it can be said that they see people as

mainly partaking in consumption practices for the sake of others, in the sense that they
partake in consumption practices so that others can see it and they can consequently achieve
higher social status or be included in different groups.
This misses the point however, that people see consumption desirable in itself and,
much more importantly, for oneself. As I have shown, discourses on modernity and its related
manifestations such as progress or development are deeply embedded in people’s
imaginations and come to be an ideology which people aspire to. It is however not enough to
merely pledge allegiance with the idea of modernity in order to be modern. As Brubaker and
Cooper point out, processes of identity formation are complex with multiple actors involved.
In order to be recognized as modern by others, but also in order to be able to claim a modern
identity oneself, one also needs to appear and behave in line with the ideas and ideals that
discourses on modernity dictate. One needs to ‘make’ oneself modern, as Gaonkar expresses
it. Therefore it is necessary to also see people’s increased consumption habits as a tool which
allows them to feel modern themselves.
To return to the case of Ramesh and Suman, Liechty, for instance, describes Suman as
being extraordinarily dependent on his peer group which has come to constitute “the only
valued sense of social identity” Suman has (Liechty, 2003: 241). Suman’s group identity
revolves mostly around conformity to group-dictated standards of taste in consumer products
and practices. Liechty explains Suman’s heavy attachment to his peer group by arguing that
youth are driven into such peer dependence through fear both of “being left behind in the
poverty and backwardness of the past” and of “the seeming impossibility of the modern future
that society expects them to construct” (ibid.). Peer groups, then, according to Liechty, allow
people to flee into “the utter banality of day-to-day material existence, consciously avoiding
the future by living for each other in the presence” (ibid.).
Like the other authors, Liechty here describes how people create communities around
consumer cultures. While the other authors saw the creation of such communities as primarily
being about social status and recognition, Liechty sees it as something youth flee into as a
kind of escape. Rather than bring relief however, these peer groups bring new norms which
youth have to follow “slavishly” in order not to be left behind.
While I do not want to question the observations of the studies introduced above in
themselves, I will challenge their explanations of the phenomena they describe. I will argue
that people do not only practice conspicuous consumption in order to signal status, nor do
they obsessively follow peer groups as a kind of escape as Liechty proposes. Rather I will
argue that people do so to construct a space where they can practice modernity. These spaces

allow people to take on the identities of the modern consumers they see through media and
whose lifestyles are idealized in a variety of discourses. They create a space where people
have a chance to be who they already think they are, a space where they can ‘make’
themselves modern.
While Gaonkar does not more closely describe how exactly it is that people can make
themselves modern, Judith Butler’s concept of performativity can offer such an explanation.

Judith Butler

Judith Butler initially developed her work through a critique of different identity
politics movements such as Black Power, Gay Pride and feminist movements which emerged
in 1970-80s in the USA. Even though Butler is mainly active in areas of feminism, queer
theory and gender politics, her concept of performativity had huge impacts on theoretical
understandings of both subjectivity and agency across various disciplines. The following
introduction to perfromativity will be based on, on the one hand her very important book,
Gender Trouble which was originally published in 1990, and on the other hand, on Moya
Lloyd’s introductory book Judith Butler (2007).
In order to attain an understanding of performativity it is necessary to follow Butler
into the area of gender studies, before it is possible to apply her conclusions to my field of
interest concerning consumption and modernity.
Butler develops her concept of performativity through a “genealogy of the category of
women” (Butler; 1999; 8) which differs from previous deconstructions of gender in that she
radically questions the sex/gender relationship. Previous accounts of sex and gender saw sex
as natural, given and pre-discursive whereas they saw gender as the cultural inscription upon
sex. In this account gender follows from sex in that one’s gender is based on one’s sex. Butler
draws the logical consequence from this claim: “if gender is the cultural meaning that the
sexed body assumes, then gender cannot be said to follow from a sexed body in any one way”
(ibid; 9).
Butler goes further than just to point out the different possibilities of gender
constructions by questioning the pre-discursive and biological nature of the sexed body itself
however. She does so by flipping the commonplace notion that gender is inscribed upon sex,
claiming that sex is an effect of gender. To do so, Butler draws heavily on Foucault and his
concept of ‘regulatory ideals’. Regulatory ideals are discourses which together with their

related practices create that which they name. Instead of merely referring to a process,
regulatory ideals also come with a set of norms.
The regulatory ideal which is of primary concern for Butler is the regulatory ideal of
sex. Butler argues, that sex is a concept which comes with a number of ideals, practices and
norms such as related ideas of masculinity or femininity and different kinds of aesthetics,
behaviours and other ideas and practices attached to these. The regulatory ideal of sex thus
“brings into material being the bodies it claims only to describe” (Lloyd, 2007; 32). It creates
gendered identities which directly follow bodily attributes.
These regulatory ideals create that which they name from moment to moment. Sex,
just as all other regulatory ideals, is thus being created and upheld through repetition. The
repetition of gender related ideas thus creates sex from moment to moment. In this sense, sex
is not something one is, nor is gender something one has. Rather, gender is something one
constantly does, which consequently produces the category of sex. This makes sex nothing
but the effect of the repeated enactment of gendered identities and practices (ibid.). This is
what Judith Butler termed performativity. Signifiers such as gender are “precisely the
repetition of acts, gestures and discourses that produce the effect of an identity at the moment
of action” (ibid; 54).
Theorizing subjectivity in this way turns the usual dichotomy between the doer and the
deed around. Instead of the doer doing the deed, Butler sees the deed as producing the doer.
This is extremely important. Butler concludes from this, that “there is no gender identity
behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very
‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (Butler, 1999; 25). In this way, sex becomes a
construction which constantly conceals its constructed nature through the implicit collective
agreement to perform, produce, and sustain the binary genders. It is the credibility and
unquestioned pseudo-naturalness of those productions, plus the power and fear of
transgressing these regulatory ideals, which encourage people to keep reifying them.
Theorizing gender and identity in general as a process and as something endless which
is always in transition, Butler then turns her focus on agency. Because norms such as sex and
gender are culturally conditioned, reified, and upheld through their enactment from moment
to moment, one can, in the process of ‘performing’ them, generate space for their
transformation. Butler writes, that “if the inner truth of gender is a fabrication … then it seems
that genders can be neither true nor false, but are only produced as the truth effects of a
discourse of primary and stable identity” (Butler; 1999: 136). Thus, it is possible to
manipulate categories such as sex or gender.

In order to do so, Butler argues for “a set of parodic practices based in a performative
theory of gender acts that disrupt the categories… and occasion their subversive
resignification” (ibid.: xxxi). It is in this process of signification and resignification through
the challenging of norms that Butler locates agency. By taking a signifier which is usually
associated with one particular thing, as for example a specific sex, and then resignifying it by
using it in a different context, like for example on the opposite sex, categories become
disrupted and challenged. This has the potential to create “alternative domains of cultural
intelligibility” and to reconfigure regulatory ideals (Lloyd; 2007: 54). Because norms require
repetition, different forms of repetitions challenge those norms. Thus, the practices that
produce the subject and its identities are also the sites where agency in the sense of
resignification is possible.

Performing in Modernity

As I have argued above, people are not made modern through encounters with
discourses of modernity and their manifestations, even if they embrace their ideals, like
Ramesh and Suman do. In fact, the opposite is the case. Discourses on modernity and its
manifestations such as the development industry or tourism identify people such as Ramesh
and Suman as others to modernity, even while they simultaneously create the promise and the
desire to become a part of it. Just as discourses on modernity do not automatically produce
modern people, Butler challenges the idea that sex automatically produces two opposite
genders. Rather, she shows how sex is an effect of gender. Equally modernity does not
automatically produce modern people and societies. Rather, modern people and societies
produce modernity.
In this sense, modernity can be seen as a regulatory ideal. As described above,
regulatory ideals are discourses, which, together with their related practices, create that which
they name. It is the different discourses on modernity, such as the ones produced through
media or development, and their related practices, most important of which being
consumption, which produce both modernity and its opposite, namely backwardness.
Butler argues that regulatory ideals are being upheld and made seemingly real through
their constant repetition. Just as with sex, modern is thus not something one is, nor is a
modern identity something one has. Rather, modernity is something that gets created through
the constant usage and reinforcement of its connected discourses and practices. In this sense,

modernity is a practice. If modernity and modern identities are created through the repetitions
and practices of their related discourses, it is possible for people to create modernity, to
become modern, by practicing it. As Butler puts it, it is not the doer that produces the deed but
the deed that produces the doer. It is not the modern person who consequently behaves in a
modern way, but rather the practice of things associated with the modern which produce
modern actors and identities.
This offers an alternative explanation for the importance of consumption in the lives of
people such as Ramesh and Suman. Modernity being a highly valued ideal in the minds of
Ramesh and Suman which is closely connected to the practice of consumption, consumption
offers a decisive way which allows one to practice modernity. This is just what Liechty
observes when he writes that “as Suman found… an identity built on consumer fashion goods
is one that need to be purchased again and again” (Liechty, 2003: 242). Because it is the deed
that produces the doer, modernity related practices, such as buying consumer goods, produce
modern identities. To quote Moya Lloyd again, “it is precisely the repetition of acts, gestures
and discourses that produce the effect of an identity at the moment of action (Lloyd, 2007:
54). It is for this reason that Suman needs to buy his consumer identity ‘again and again’. As
Butler describes it, identities and regulatory ideals get created, and need to be upheld, through
repetitions. Because identities get produced at the moment of action, they cannot be upheld
through a longer period of time but need to be produced over and over again, forcing people
such as Ramesh and Suman to repeatedly practice modernity related discourses if they want to
uphold their modern identities.
It is for this reason, I would argue, that Ramesh and Suman’s peer groups are so
important for them. Not having the financial resources to keep on buying their modern
identities, their peer groups create a space in which they can be modern. While Liechty
interprets the ‘obsessive’ relationship to their peer group as an escape into the presence, I
argue that it can better be understood as the performative creation of an alternative modern
space. Peer groups allow Ramesh and Suman to associate with people who are in a similar
position as they are themselves, while simultaneously distancing themselves from their
parent’s generation and the ‘backward’ society at large. In those peer groups they practice
assertively urban lifestyles where romance, media consumption and, in Ramesh’s case, ‘gang
fights’ play important roles. This allows them to performatively upkeep their modern
identities. As this is only possible within their peer groups, these gain essential importance in
their lives.

Butler then moves her focus to agency, which she sees as the deconstruction of
categories through subversive kinds of repetitions. Even though it can be argued that Ramesh
and Suman here depart from Butler’s theory in the sense that they do not mean to deconstruct
any categories but rather access a different category than the one they are usually associated
with, I argue that also Ramesh and Suman use what could be called parodic subversion as a
source for agency. By imitating the lifestyles they see for example on television, Ramesh and
Suman practice parodic performances and thereby challenge dominant discourses which
define them as backward. They subversively resignify themselves as modern by separating
themselves from tradition.
Interestingly, just as in Butler’s example of sex and gender, the body also emerges as
an important site for resignification in Kathmandu. Fashion is an important aspect of
consumer culture and fashion related practices figure in all of the studies I have introduced
above. Both Western and South Asian fashion styles are very present in Nepal. Especially
western styles of dress have strong symbolical powers. A lot of people therefore self-
consciously style themselves in imitation of foreign fashion trends, this having provided
Kathmandu with fashions ranging from ‘disco fever’ to a Michael Jackson and cowboy style
phases (Liechty, 2003: 130). People come to see fashion as an important site for agency, as
one young interviewee of Liechty says

I like it because it’s really according to fashion that people are able to
move, to get on with their lives. Without it they’re looked at with contempt. As
in other big cities, we have a lot of concerns for fashion here in Kathmandu, I
mean, compared with the rest of Nepal.” (Liechty, 2003: 140)

This is a very interesting quote, which sums up many of the points I have made above. The
speaker likes fashion because it enables him to establish a connection between Kathmandu
and the rest of the world, ‘the other big cities’. Simultaneously, fashion helps him to distance
himself from rural Nepal where people do not practice fashion and are therefore ‘looked at
with contempt’. In this way, he sees fashion as a symbol of modernity and cosmopolitanism
which helps him to align himself with the other big cities of the world. Consequently, he
explicitly locates agency in fashion. By doing fashion, people are able to ‘get on with their
lives’, as the young man says.
Locating agency on the site of the body brings an interesting parallel to Butler’s
proposition of ‘drag’ as an example of parodic subversion. The practice of drag refers to the

dressing up in clothes typically associated with the wearers ‘opposite sex’. Similarly, it could
be said that the dressing up of a body in western fashion when it is usually associated with a
different style is a similar parodic performance. While this might seem a bit far fetched, the
fact that western fashion still causes for a lot of controversy and discussion, especially if
practiced by uneducated lower class people (Liechty, 2003: 77), people usually associated
with backwardness, shows that it can very well be seen as a subversive act.
One quote from a young man from Kathmandu shows the potential fashion
particularly well

These days the world has become very modern. So, about fashion, it’s like
without fashion we can do nothing, there is nothing. Before now, it was a wild,
savage age. People used to run around wearing a tree bark! Actually, now, in a
way fashion has become a part of our bodies” (Liechty, 2003: 35).

Again, this speaker makes a very similar point as the one above, directly connecting a modern
world with fashion, without which one ‘can do nothing’. What is interesting about this quote
however, is how he sees fashion as having become part his body. This is exactly Butler’s point
when she argues that the deed produces the doer. In Kathmandu fashion is usually seen as an
activity, something one does, rather than wears, making fashion a practice (ibid.: 135). For this
young man, it is exactly the practice of fashion, which makes him modern. Thus it is difficult
for him to separate fashions from bodies, as it is exactly the practice of fashion which help
produce the persons who wear it. As Butler argues, identities are effects which get produced
from moment to moment through different acts and employment of discourses. Without
fashion, this young man can do nothing, yet the practice of fashion produces the effect of a
modern identity which opens up for different kinds of behaviour. The body thus becomes a site
for resignification which through different fashion practices produces different identities and
possibilities of action.
Similarly, Lukose describes a mushrooming of beauty parlours, fashion saloons and
beauty pageants all over India (Lukose, 2005: 928). She also remarks on the potentially
subversive nature of fashion practices. Devan, the young man Lukose describes as leading a
lifestyle of consumption, describes himself as ‘chethu’, which is often seen in a derogatory
manner by mainstream society. She describes chethu lifestyle as being focused on the here and
now, not caring much about the future while preferring to ride one’s motorbike or drink one’s
beer (ibid.: 931). Chethu lifestyle is therefore often frowned upon. The meaning of the word

chethu itself however means ‘fashionable’ and young men identifying themselves as chethu
also express this through their styles (ibid.: 926). Similarly, Osella and Osella describe how
they have been warned to stay away from a young man with the latest hair-cut and overly
fashionable shirt as people could tell that he was up to no good by his extremely fashionable
style (Osella and Osella, 1999: 996).
Even though people such as Devan are obviously aware of the general disapproval of
their styles, they purposely show them off despite of this. Just as like Ramesh and Suman, his
fashion practices can be described as subversive both to local discourses on suitability and
propriety, as well as to external discourses which define them as backward and in need of
development. The subversive resignification of their bodies through fashion thus becomes an
agency creating practice. By resignifying their bodies as modern and cosmopolitan, they
distance themselves from a local past while simultaneously opening up new possibilities for
action. Modernity being a regulatory ideal in the minds of people such as Ramesh and Suman,
they performatively practice modernity related discourses, thus producing the effect of modern


It is in this light that consumption practices need to be understood. While I do not want
to question observations of increased materialism or obsessive relationships to peer groups, I
argue that these phenomena can better be understood through a performative theory which
describes consumption practices in relation to struggles over identification in light of a
transnational imaginary of modernity. Youth need to partake in consumer cultures and peer
group activity as this allows them to perform modern lifestyles which consequently enable
them to access modern identities. Similarly, the need for consumer goods such as fashion
might create materialistic competition, but it cannot be explained by the race for higher status
alone. Consumer goods and practices around consumer cultures also allow for the
resignification of bodies and lifestyles as modern and cosmopolitan.
This is of course not unproblematic. Such practices bring along consequences such as
the described materialism, exclusion of less affluent individuals or anxiety and fear of being
left behind. It is therefore not my intention to prescribe consumption as a tool out of
backwardness. Rather my argument is of an interpretive nature, arguing that a different
interpretation of the described processes is needed. A performative interpretation set in a
context of transnational imaginaries will describe individuals such as Ramesh and Suman in a

less simplified manner, understanding their behaviour in a more situated and more active, less
victimized way.
For more practical purposes, I argue that rather than prescribe consumption as a tool out
of backwardness, one needs to be more careful with the employment of categories such as
modernity/tradition or development/backwardness. Thus, just as it is Butler’s mission to
deconstruct categories such as sex and gender, it is also my intention to attack the dichotomies
set up by development discourses and reinforced through flows of media and tourists. Seeing
that Ramesh and Suman’s problems have to do largely with contested identities and their
positions at the margins of an externally generated modernity, a more careful usage of different
categories has the potential of relieving them of some of the uncertainties and contradictions
encountered in light of an increasingly transnational imagination.

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