Report from AAA in Montreal

This year’s American Anthropological Association (AAA) Conference in Montreal last week saw a great number of presentations on Nepal. Despite showcasing American anthropology and being mostly organized around analytical themes, a wide array of Nepali scholars gave papers within their research fields, while others – Mark Liechty, Sara Shneiderman, David Holmberg – contributed with their regional expertise as discussants or chairs on workshop panels. At least 25 presentations dealt directly with Nepal or Nepalis abroad and while I was not able to attend to the majority of the presentations in person, I want to provide a brief report on the content and direction of the research papers based on their abstracts and the panels of which they partook. Interested readers are referred to the conference’s searchable catalogue for more exhaustive descriptions (http://aaa.confex.com/aaa/2011/webprogrampreliminary/start.html).

Reflecting Nepal’s diversity as a cultural and ecological zone, contributions ranged from local cosmologies of sensibility and identity to global flows of power, discourse and people, as well as encompassing questions of method and material culture beside the more conventional foci on livelihoods, politico-economic conjunctures and cultural experiences. As has been repeatedly argued by scholars – most recently by Michael Oppitz in his 2007 article ‘Close-up and Wide-Angle’ and Sara Shneiderman’s ‘Are the Central Himalayas in Zomia?’ from 20101 – Nepal needs to be studied within its larger regional context due to important cultural and economic connections that span the Himalayas and into the Indian subcontinent. Thus, several of the papers presented at AAA traced cultural continuities across political borders whether in the explorations of community and kinship across the Himalayas, or in studies of migrational contexts in Korea, Bahrain, US and UK. Interestingly, however, there were no papers dealing with Nepal-Indian relations.

Below is an alphabetic list of the 25 papers with much abbreviated abstracts in the interest of length. While the contributions evidently underline Nepal’s precarious position at the center of international developments through networks of aid, trade, tourism and discursive regimes of environmentalism and (neo)liberalism, local responses to such changes witness the breadth and cultural creativity of concrete actors whether in Nepal or abroad. (Papers belonging to one panel that has already received comments elsewhere on The Himalayas and beyond are marked with an asterisk.)

Scott E. Antes (Northern Arizona University): From Battlefield and Religion to Kitchen and Global Consumerism: The Kami and the Khukuri of Nepal. Kamis are the renown artisans and craftsmen of the Khukuri knife and despite having a history of over 500 years, its popularization has turned it into a global consumer product with consequences for how it is used and perceived by its practitioners today.

Jan M. Brunson (Bowdoin College): “Missing Women” and Reappearing Men: Traces of Imbalance In Procreation and Scholarship. With the strong assertion of feminist studies in the 1990’s, studies of ‘gender’ has tended to focus almost exclusively on women, and the paper sets out to trace the implications of this gender bias in analyzes of procreation in a semi-urban community in Nepal and the consequences of those disparities for conducting anthropological research.

David M. Citrin (University of Washington): From Grain Trade to Food Aid: Unpacking Aid Assemblages and Changing Foodways In Northwest Nepal. Exploring the experiences of beneficiaries of food aid in Karnali’s most remote district Humla, the paper shows how people and rice move in and between sites of intervention and situations of need.

Robert Desjarlais (Sarah Lawrence College): Thirst: Ethnographic Engagements In a Local World. Investigating questions of death and ritual among Yolmo, the paper offers a narrative account of a cremation ceremony in Kathmandu and the experiential, psychological and physical effects that go into constituting the local moral worlds of its participants.

Sierra R. Gladfelter (Temple University): Designing the Great Himalaya Trail: The Agency and Impact of Rural Communities In Nepal’s Mountain Tourism and Development Plan. A new cross-border Great Himalaya Trail project has been proposed to rebrand trekking along less commoditized routes with the potential benefit for 1,8 million people, and the author lays out the interdependence of the different stakeholders with the village of Samagaun serving as a case example to ask just how much agency local communities have in designing the development scenarios when large scale actors are involved.

Peter Graif (University of Chicago): Of Segments, Signs, and Sciences: Looking for ‘Stuff’ in Deaf Kathmandu. The Nepali Sign Language is a complex amalgation of conventional and iconically productive formal elements, and has resulted in recent efforts at standardizing it in order to make it less ambiguous. The papers examines the nationalization of sign language and how it is predicated on rendering significant portions of it unintelligible to native signers and, by extension, to anthropologists and linguists as well.

Mara E. Green (University of California, Berkeley): Beyond the Boundaries of Language?: “Home Sign” In Urban and Rural Nepal. Going beyond traditional explorations of communicative practices involving deaf persons when not in contact with a signing community, the author argues that the development of such ‘home signs’ should not be seen as pre-linguistic, and building on her own fieldwork in both urban and rural settings in Nepal, Green shows that home signers and their interlocutors develop and deploy semiotic resources to produce meaningful interactions.

John C. Hammond (University of Maryland). Maintaining Sanctuary In the Khumbu: Glacial Lake Outburst Flood Case Studies, Mitigation Strategies, and Implementation In Sagamartha National Park. The rapid melting of glaciers in the Himalayan region has led to widespread responses from international organizations and foreign governments who are invested in prevention of catastrophes. Building on specific case studies, the paper analyzes exchanges between Himalayan populations and the international community in order to shed light on the transformation in human-environment relationships.

Heather Hindman (University of Texas at Austin): Outposts of Objectivism: Marketing the Free Market to Youth During Nepal’s Long-Term Provisionality. What can upper-middle class youth returning from overseas with their high-profile English credentials do when the government is not offering jobs for this aspiring class of technocrats? Hindman traces the rise of a new economy as these educated youth set up private organizations promoting entrepreneurship and free-market policies based on neoliberal model values of self-management, and which threatens to produce a pyramid structure of graduates as they become competitors.

Dan V. Hirslund (University of Copenhagen): Extension of War by Household Chores: Institutionalizing Potentiality in Nepal’s Transition to Peace. Building on ethnographic fieldwork among Maoist cadres in Kathmandu’s post-conflict context, the paper argues that the Maoist movement has retained the potentiality of revolutionary fervor in the militarization and politicization of everyday household chores for its cadre force, and thereby sought to circumvent the pacification of its army by institutionalizing a party culture that continues the lesson from the People’s War, only in a new, non-violent form.

Brandon A. Kohrt (The George Washington University): Traditional Healing of the Heart-Mind: Understanding the Ethnopsychology of Trauma Recovery Among Child Soldiers In Nepal. The study explores how children and adolescents understand trauma and healing processes, arguing for a cultural model based on traditional healing to evaluate implications for therapeutical intervention in humanitarian crises.

* Nancy E. Levine (University of Los Angeles and University of California): Of Gifts, Gods, and the Perils of Marriage In Tibetan Society. Challenging comfortable distinctions between economy, kinship and religion, the author shows how marriage among Tibetans in Northwestern Nepal involves lifelong exchanges of money and morality that involve relations with the spirit world, and how the ritual separation of the bride from her martial home with its property rights, kin obligations and divine powers reconfigures relationship and personhood even as it may fail to properly instantiate the desired renunciation between bride and the marital community.

* Kathryn S. March (Cornell University): Shifting Subjectivities In Tamang Conjugal Relations. The author traces the vestiges of conjugal relations in a period of wage outmigration and reconstitution of household economies and morality to ask what it means to be a spouse and a subject in a Tamang order where culture-breaking transformations has led to a situation of ‘radical hope’.

* Martin Alwin Mills (University of Aberdeen): Willing Disciples and Reluctant Teachers: Tibetan Narratives of Relatedness and Ritual Exchange. While Tibetan notions of relatedness is centered on ideas of discipleship between the lama and the student and extends to almost all areas of Tibetan life, case material from Nepal, Tibet, and Ladakh along with autobiographical sources reveal a more problematic scenario as such bonds are fraught with ‘perils of exchange’ both for interpersonal relations and with regards to witchcraft and sorcery and informs us of historically-embedded understandings of moral autonomy and agency.

Andrew S. Nelson (University of Virginia): Kathmandu’s Historical Architecture: A Legacy of Foreign Intervention or Local Independence? Since 1963 when international agencies began sponsoring numerous projects with the objective of conserving the country’s historical buildings, ‘traditional architecture’ has been a site of dialogue between foreign actors, the Nepali state and local interests, not least the tourism industry which has capitalized on the desires of foreign visitors for architectural authenticity, and this has affected how local elites revitalize traditional architectural themes as strategies of class and ethnic distinction in a competitive arena of house aesthetics.

Robert Oppenheim and Heather Hindman (University of Texas, Austin): Landscapes of Speculation In Nepal-Korea Labor Migration. Departing from the instantiation in Nepal of South Korea’s Employment Permit System in 2007, the authors trace how this novel legal framework of employment for nonprofessional Nepalis in Kathmandu headed for Korea has eliminated manpower agencies and in turn shifted time and money costs onto language acquisition.

Pierre-Alexandre Paquet (Laval Univeristy & McGill University): Spaghetti and Prayer Wheels In the Shadow of Everest: Tourism’s Impact On Food, Markets and Rural Production In the Khumbu, Sagarmatha National Park Region, Nepal. With the relative decline in regional food security up through the 80’s and the growth of the tourist industry, Sherpas in Eastern Nepal have turned to importing and reselling ‘traditional’ cultural wares evocative of Tibetan spirituality, and it illustrates how tourism’s impact on food, markets, and rural production has transformed local efforts at redefining needs and identities of self and other.

Retika Rajbhandari (Syracuse University): The Making of the “real” Far Western Nepal: The Turning of the Far Western Wheel, the Fading Away of the “Far Westerners”. Drawing parallels between Herder’s romanticism of the Volk in late 18th century Germnay and romanticism of the Traditional in 20th century Nepal, Rajbhandari  shows how Brahmin-Chettri elites in Far Western Nepal reproduce their own regional subalternness through the production and circulation of iconic songs.

Catherine Sanders and Kimber Haddix McKay (University of Montana): A People’s War? Decisions to Join the Maoists In Mountain Nepal. Based on interviews with household heads of two villages in North-West Nepal after the 2006 Peace Agreement, the authors trace conjunctures of livelihood, status and moral support in relation to villagers in exploring the conditions conducive to engagement in Maoist activism.

Mallika Shakya (University of Oxford and University of Pretoria): The Absence Is the Presence: New Economic Hegemonies Resisting Postcolonial Legacies. While Nepal’s economic relationship to colonial powers have waxed and waned from the Shah dynasty and onwards, the author argues that the neoliberal wave of the 1990s simultaneously spelled the reassertion of first world presence after the Panchayat regime’s relative isolation as well as diluting Indian economic hegemony in Nepal, making current Maoist calls for neonationalism echo in interesting ways with the Panchayat era.

Tina Shrestha (Cornell University): Domesticating Diasporic Difference: Nepali Refugees, Asylum-Seekers, and Migrant Workers In New York City. Based on ethnographic fieldwork among New York’s growing community of Nepali migrants that today counts 60,000, the author traces articulations of everyday work experiences and the symbolic dimensions of belonging to a transnational diasporic community, which rather than signaling commonality is produced through (mis)communication, ambiguity and contradictions and defines relations of difference.

Amanda Snellinger (Seattle University): Blank Canvas? Aspiration and Youth Political Action. Student activist in Kathmandu must navigate an entrenched political culture as a career strategy and become socialized into a political system against which they are protesting. The paper argues that because students must embrace the system before they can hope to change it, they forego their agency to deal with political uncertainty beyond their control, while also asserting agency by producing alternative possibilities.

Stephanie Anne Spray (Harvard University): “A Sounding Sculpture That Lasts”: On Composing Location Recordings In Nepal. In this paper, Spray investigates the relation between and culture, and more particularly sound practices that go beyond musical soundscapes in order to think about how such scapes are conceived in relation to ethnographic specific settings.

Anna M. Stirr (Leiden University): Migration, Aspiration, and Labor Among Nepali Performers. While Nepalis have been portrayed to migrate as responses to economic hardship, based on the author’s fieldwork among nightclub performers in Bahrain, Nepal and UK, the paper argues for an understanding of experiences of labor migrants as penetrated by aspirations in an effort to acknowledge individual distinctness and dignity when probing migration, labor exploitation and human trafficking.

Mark Turin (Cambridge University): Born Archival: The Ebb and Flow of Digital Documents From the Field. Based on his own experience with recording and documenting an endangered Tibeto-Burman language and directing the Digital Himalaya Projects for the past decade, the author reflects on how linguists and anthropologists are collecting, protecting and connecting their data, and how technology influences their relationship to documents.

  1. Oppitz, M., 2007, Close-Up and Wide-Angle. On comparative ethnography in the Himalayas – and beyond, European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, 31, pp. 155-71; and Shneiderman, S., 2010, Are the Central Himalayas in Zomia? Some scholarly and political considerations across time and space, Journal of Global History, 5(2), pp. 289-312. []

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2 Responses

  1. Sara Shneiderman says:

    Thanks for this very helpful summary! The author states that ‘there were no papers on Nepal-India relations’. I would like to clarify that the roundtable in which I was involved (and organized), ‘From Class Struggle to Indigenous Rights? Tracing Politics, Policies and Processes Globally’ did put scholars working in India and Nepal (as well as Latin America, Africa and Australia) in conversation with each other over these issues. Although this is not precisely a single paper on ‘Nepal-India relations’, the roundtable as a whole did address historical and contemporary relationships between political and discursive formations in both countries.

  2. Dan Hirslund says:

    Dear Sara

    Thank you for your comment. I attended your roundtable discussion and found it very stimulating and I do think such cross-border thematic investigations that are still squarely ethnographic are very valuable – such as the recent journal compilation of Maoism in South Asia. In the specific context above, what I meant with a lack of papers on Nepal-India relations was more along the lines of migration issues, only because of the large number of Nepalis regularly migrating to India for work. But I am sorry for not making that comment explicit. Thank you again for providing feedback to the blog post.

    Kind regards
    Dan Hirslund

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