For Sloterdijk, modernity can only be understood as a kind of self-igniting self-movement: progress is conceived in terms of ‘movement’ understood as a capacity to change and overcome obstacles. This process involves incalculable risks, where chance and social change have outgrown all rational planning, and where the old order can no longer cope with new events, and people are in search of everything except ‘existence’ itself. Giddens agrees with Sloterdijk’s analysis that humanity have not gone beyond modernity, moving rather into a stage which he terms ‘high modernity’, under extreme global pressure, humanity becomes dis-embedded from tradition, and subjects negotiate their identities based on self-reflexivity. For Foucault, subjectivity is not something imposed on the subject from ‘above’, but a self-constituting process: bodies are not passive entities in the grip of power, but are themselves manifestations of power. So his optimism about the subject resisting structures of domination is qualified.
With these theoretical perspectives in mind, I do not aim to develop a full-blown argument in this short article; rather an attempt to fire some constructive salvos based on ethnographic reality which might encourage analysis and debate. In doing so, I borrow the ideas of these social scientists and the philosophers in relation to the ethnography of the first ever Miss UK Nepal pageant.
In this specific case, the beauty contestants deconstructed social categories and paraded their beautiful bodies and fabulous dresses to hold the special space in the eyes of the judges for the ultimate glory. Ethnographically speaking, thirteen beautiful Nepali women presented themselves in various Nepali traditional costumes to the enthusiastic crowd; the participants reaffirmed their Nepali identity through impressive introduction, in which every participant connected their aspiration and sense of belonging to Nepal. These eye-catching contestants are mostly brought up in western settings yet with a very strong sense of Nepaliness in their heart. However, their oral discourse, costumes, linguistic abilities, global experiences and everyday exposure to western and eastern cultures places them in what Homi Bhabha terms ‘in-between’ space: terrain elaborating strategies of singular or communal selfhood that initiate a new sign of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration and contestation in an act of defining their identity. The implication is the production of a hybrid cultural identity which no longer confines Nepali women to an old order, as they resist the structures of domination as a traditional role of a homemaker.
Miss UK Nepal beauty contestants deconstructed social categories as they paraded their beautiful bodies, negotiating their identity in a hybrid cultural setting. Embracing high modernity and seeking global experiences, they wish to share their innovative ideas, new techniques and skills in the service of Nepali nation building.These college and university students have successfully challenged monolithic and fixed categories to embrace ‘high modernity’ through the beauty contest, constructing their hybrid cultural identities from an intriguing mixture of Nepali traditional dresses and western gowns, which was further enhanced by their linguistic versatility and a clear aspiration to share their western experiences with their native counterparts. Particularly impressive were their answers to the judges’ questions - a kind of mantra that carries crucial hope needed to heal the pathetic Nepali state, particularly at a time when this state of religious and cultural pluralism, founded upon the blessing of Sita and Buddha and the bravery of King Prithvi Nararyan Shah of the then Gorkha Kingdom, looms closer to failing state. This failure also arises from our generation’s inability to attain the economic prosperity and political stability our southern and northern neighbors enjoy. These beauty contestants’ symbolic representation of their bodies was not just a passive acceptance of the consumerist objectification of the female body, but also an indication of their hopes and aspirations to help the Nepali state, a signal to Nepali policy makers to initiate a real soul-searching and a demand for an appropriate platform to accommodate their desire to play a critical role in the nation building process. After all, these beautiful ‘docile bodies’ are not the only examples of Nepali sons and daughters in foreign land seeking holistic global experiences who embrace ‘high modernity’ in search for success in life. Like these models, the contemporary Nepali is mastering new bodily techniques and skills in order to compete in the new space of the global market: they represent the voice of the global Nepali diaspora whose unquestionable love for their mountain homes is beyond doubt.
Nepali women are beginning to realize the possibility of overcoming the marginalization that they still face in their country of origin, and if their aspirations for nation building are not recognized, these ‘groomed flowers’ might end up being what Michael Hutt terms ‘Nepali without Nepal’, i.e. thousands of Nepali daughters like 22 year old Nabina Gurung - the ultimate winner of Miss UK Nepal contest - who carries the hope of returning to Nepal to share her global experiences.
Every Nepali I have spoken to in the UK hopes to return to Nepal one day; yet the reality is that their voices tremble when the conversation extends to contemporary Nepali issues such as nepotism, security concerns, political and economical difficulties and in some cases the social stigmatization that exists in Nepal even at the beginning of the new millennium. This raises the question of whether the Nepali people can keep waiting for Nepal to build itself, both ontologically and epistemologically, which seems unlikely to happen. Nation building is not an automatic process, and every Nepali needs to play his or her part. A simple and practical strategy for every man and woman could be this: no matter what you do and where you live, play your small part, and if you are successful, even in the other corner of the world, Nepali ama will smile at your endeavours, and that smile encourages you to pay back to the society to which you emotionally, culturally and linguistically belong. Perhaps, another solution to these issues might be extending access to a dual citizenship in addition to existing Nepali ID Card policy that binds them with Nepaliness forever.
In conclusion, the ethnography of the Miss UK Nepal contest is one in which the many changes that modern society creates are recognisable: a clear illustration of negotiating identity within a luminal space and an interstitial passage between fixed identifications. This process opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an imposed hierarchy; in this sense, the phenomenon of modernity produces innovative ideas and hope. In the new world order, such innovations and aspirations need to be applauded and empowered them so as to give them a chance to transform Nepal into the prosperous nation state every Nepali wishes to be part of.