Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Enigma of Imitation

Dharma Adhikari
You must have heard that one of our own high-achievers, who passed with distinction in the recent School Leaving Certificate examination, is going to Princeton, on a freeship. She is among the many graduates entering the Ivy League right here in Kathmandu.

Our three billion rupees ad industry is now up to its neck in propagating a vibrant image of academic excellence. A large share of this campaign, in newspapers, on TV and radio, and on hoarding boards, is bursting with a bang of colorful sights and a statement on endless possibilities. The collage of brands is too alluring to ignore, and the visual ecology they adorn and unfurl is far from simplistic. It is a cultivated move.

Talk to your colleagues or family members, and you would like to write your heart out on the epidemic of imitation that engulfs our society today.

Take a look at educational branding. It appears that every global trademark is taken: Princeton, Chelsea, Texas, Southwestern State, Guinness, Caspian, Xavier, Standard Chartered, Stanford; you name it. So much so that the American establishment is under seize: White House. Its defense is under attack: Pentagon. We are in charge of its star war program: NASA. Any other core US defense sector left to be mimicked? A friend asked, how about CIA? Also taken, although this acronym is not as much publicized as its first name: Chelsea International Academy (CIA).

Rather than the spirit behind the brands, we seem to be blatantly mimicking the forms for their foreign (Anglo-American) effects on our sensory systems that have become immune to the utterly familiar local sights and sounds. Our Bhanubhaktesque names appear passé. We have schools named after Clinton, and Bush, too. And Obama International is only a matter of time. Could someone verify with the government registrar if that is already taken?

In this copycat complex, our mediated, popular culture leads the way. Fashion shows have become fashionable events across the country. Controversies that such and such a movie or musical is cloned from a Bollywood production (already mimicked from Hollywood) are not uncommon in our entertainment industry. Look also at the many avant-garde musical bands and the reality television programs. You cannot tell one from another.

The press is no exception. Accusations, many valid ones, that a column or an idea or layout from a newspaper was stolen or plagiarized by others are aplenty in newsrooms. No sooner does one paper issue a special supplement or a weekend edition or introduce a column or a feature then others seem to begin to imitate those forms. The TV herd is equally energetic in their indistinguishable formats and fantasies. And why does every newscast in every channel have to end by soliciting public opinion for their SMS polls? The form of a few introducers has become the function of others. Crime and conspiracy is the only overarching beat. The outrageously political preoccupation of our press is also undoubtedly based on this culture of imitation, laid by our pioneers, copied from their crusading Indian counterparts

National means print; even local tabloids like to display the label "national" in their mastheads. I am not sure if any newspaper has already embraced the appendage "international" like our schools zealously do. But even a cursory glance at their form, particularly their looming, graphic earpanels, entertainment and sports spreads will reveal that some of them are on way to becoming more international than even the International Herald Tribune. Education is too powerful an influence, but I hope that for still more time to come we may not mimic our academia to start Texas International
Times or Princeton International Post right here in Nepal.

What to talk of copycat politics; our "national" parties mimicked brands from Delhi or Beijing to appear compelling, and now the flipside is their names have become their liabilities. Settling of scores is more pressing a matter for them than thinking or working through to solve our many problems. Protagonists are too happy to do unto others as others would do unto them. They imitate their leading rivals and foes, in their armed wings, criminal associations, doublespeak, marigolds, Rishi Dhamalas, bravados, internal-wrangling, and even coalition efforts, consensual or not. With more mutual posturing and procrastination and no serious deliberation, chances are the constitution is eventually going to be a cut and paste affair. And our new, ethnically federal aspirations might as well turn out to be a caricature of the old Indian experiment next door.

The proper field of business is another fertile ground of imitation, and sometimes a really treacherous one, as we saw recently in the fall of Unity Life International with a following of hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting crowds. Post-Bishal Bazaar, we are commercially onward to the Big Mart. Besides chauchau and fries, there is nothing much to produce; we only have to buy and sell. It seems that everybody is opening a bank or a sahakari, eating out, heading for sahar, if not the Thai beaches. For now remittance and real-estate bandwagons are almost on hold, but there is no stopping for mobiles or invertors or flat screens or yarchagumba.

The cultural dents caused by imitation in the commercial arena go deeper than our flirtation with consumption. I asked a taxi driver why almost every cab in town had a "Suzuki" label on the windshield. Did they get any incentives for the promo? Why, he replied wryly, we spend 700 rupees apiece. They put it up for the shade, but honestly, because everyone does it. When imitation is pushed to extremes, commerce is a way of life, and ad is free. Pepsi-Cola is now a place in eastern Kathmandu. The global beverage giant put up a plant there, and everyone started doing it an honor by giving the entire locality its name, for free.

But naming a place after a brand is different from naming a business. It can invite expensive legal suits. The US Trademark Law, for instance, permits a fine of up to $2 million per counterfeit mark willfully used for a product or service. The Nepali trademark as well as copyright laws allow a penalty not exceeding Rs 100,000 for a violation. I am not sure how innocent or willful our Nepali adopters are in mimicking brands, but some sure look deceptive and aggressive in their approach.

One might ask why bother if an imitation has not violated the laws of our land. It could be helping to hide our inferiority complex by giving us a sense of empowerment and a new identity, as psychiatrists will tell you. Korean women have found a sense of pride in eyelid surgeries because it makes them look more like the Caucasians. The Romans thrived by imitating the Greek gods, arts and government. The Europeans advanced in mathematics and sciences by imitating the Mohammedans or the Hindus. The Chinese re-emerged because they copied the Western codes and chips. The Japanese perfected our pagoda. We may laugh off our detractors' cultural degradation thesis, because as economists tell us, in a globalized world, imitation has become our bottom line.

French sociologist Gabriel de Tarde, in his book Laws of Imitation (1903), observed long ago that society is imitation and imitation is a kind of somnambulism. Sleep walkers need caution. Selective, entrepreneurial imitation, with our minds fixated on innovation and improvement, may be the way. The Japanese perfected this art to the level of technological and industrial virtue, earning open admiration from their original Western inventors. This would be something authentic for our high-achievers to emulate and lead the way in this game.

Published in the Republica, 14 July, 2010