In one broad stroke, this is a study of 'modern man's' loss of 'nature' and 'tradition,' and the bizarre things he does to reclaim and reinvent them. My study takes place in the town of Sauraha, situated just by the entrance into Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park, where, in the past 30 years, the tourist industry has expanded significantly. The industry offers consumers a unique commodity: the chance to re-commune with and marvel at 'true nature and tradition,' both inside the park proper, which boasts rhinos and tigers and bears (oh my!), and, of particular interest to me, in the surrounding Tharu villages, where local 'tradition,' though constantly under the knife of Westernizing forces, still 'lives,' and, like the wildlife in the park, must be consciously 'preserved' against the mars of modernity. My task is to disassemble this commodified experience, to investigate how the commodification of 'tradition' takes place, and what conflicts arise. In addressing the peculiarities of 'tradition' commodified, 'preserved' and performed in the present, I've composed this ethnographic paper in a rather non-traditional, narrative fashion. (Yet, insofar as non-traditional forms of ethnographic representation have become a new type of anthropological tradition—as have unnecessarily convoluted parenthetical sentences like this one—perhaps I'm not the great innovator I'd like to be.) In my narrative form, the typical structure of the term paper is turned on its head: I do not set out to prove a thesis, but rather to find one—to let analysis arise from scene and reflection, to discover, in narrative time, along with the reader, some communicable insight. I do not attempt to construct a strictly chronological or linear narrative arch, but rather arrange the narration thematically, grouping relevant moments together and traveling fluidly through scene and analysis. There is, however, a guiding framework, a blueprint for inquiry. Mine is an ethnography of an encounter—an encounter between "modernity" and "tradition"; between local culture and a global regime of commodification; between mobile upper-class consumers (tourists), their bourgeois accommodators (hotel owners, businessmen, and restaurateurs), the proletariat employed (hotel staff, waiters, drivers, and guides), and finally, those consumed, the toured-class, local Tharu villagers said to be the authentic purveyors of a precious commodity much sought after by the tourist class: Tharu cultural 'tradition.' Indeed, this notion of commodified culture sparked my original curiosity with the case. Within the Marxist framework of the commodity fetish, I sought to investigate what happens to "culture" (ostensibly a non-commodity) once it appears, under the tourists' gaze, to express its own market value, and thus becomes produced (at least in part) for an exchange-value, for an "other" to consume. Of particular interest was the apparent contradiction between the tourist industry's discursive production of the local Tharu villagers as "undeveloped" and the actual apparatus' effect on local "development"—i.e., although the tourist industry presents Tharu culture as "traditional" and "unchanged," the industry itself is deeply engaged in changing that culture. What I discovered, far beyond my expectations, was a broad-reaching, multi-faceted social conflict, at the center of which lay the issue of commodification, cultural and otherwise—a conflict over what (or who) was being commodified and at what cost, over how and by whom the commodification took place, and, most saliently, who was actually benefiting from that commodification. The tourist is rarely, if ever, privy to the local conflict; most often it simmers beneath cordial interactions, only revealing itself to an outside who cares to investigate. Yet, however much I may resist the classification, I, the anthropologist, am a tourist in my own right—a foreign observer consuming as well as studying—and so am implicated within the encounter and the conflict, but often at the arm's length extended to tourists. To make transparent this dynamic, I situate myself inside the narrative, employing the first person liberally and occasionally reflecting on my own role as observer and creator; but, to avoid rampant narcissism, I delve into intense self-reflexivity only when prompted to do so directly by other characters involved in my study. The first-person narrative form is mainly meant to be a constant reminder to the reader that I am in the business of perceiving and mediating culture, not of laying bare objective, static, generalized cultural "truths." Following in the wobbly footsteps of the late great doctor, Hunter S. Thompson, I engage in a Gonzo-esque literary tact—not the removed reporter striving to mute his bias, but the researcher with a role to play, unashamedly baring his bias as an inevitable burden in every moment; not the alien from Mars, straining over the shoulders of those he studies, not Tom Wolfe in a white suite, but Dr. Gonzo, partaking himself of the proverbial electric kool aid. My form may be described, then, as part memoir, part literary journalism, part research paper—but all ethnography. I develop characters, engage with my setting, reconstruct dialogue, and self reflect all in the name of ethnographic insight. And, most importantly, it is a cooperative effort. Though it is always a story told by me, it is never at its heart a story about me. I hope that the story's characters, their interests, and the complexity of the conflict they're situated in, are communicated, if not outright 'honestly', then as close to honestly as one may get in this maddeningly mediated process. I owe my informants every thanks for putting up with me, for sharing with me, and for allowing me a sip—however small—of their kool aid.
Anthropology | Social and Cultural Anthropology
Litton, William, "Present-Tense Tradition: The Conflict Over Commodification in Sauraha, Nepal" (2008). Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. 82.