Brian Larkin’s “Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy” is a focused primer on Nigerian cinema that operates within the discourse of technological and cultural infrastructure. Larkin uses a historical method to investigate how the pirate infrastructure has “officialized” itself and has now become a popular mode for trafficking legal media through the country, and spreading original Nigerian material elsewhere throughout the continent. He ends his work with a semiotic analysis of the conditions that are created by, and surround, the pirate market, offering his own suggestions on how its consequences shape cultural value and experience. Larkin’s text seeks to define “pirate infrastructure is a powerful mediating force that produces new modes of organizing sensory perception, time, space, and economic networks” (291).
Larkin uses a combination of historical research, general observation, and semiotic analysis to support his argument that Nigerian’s pirate infrastructure has not only earned a position in the global market but also has become an become an integral part of the Nigerian cultural economy. Larkin traces how media products–both legal and illegal–are funded, produced, and then distributed over the pirate network. By understanding how the infrastructure functions, Larkin draws a number of conclusions about where cultural value is vested and what parts of the process of distributing media over the network are most different from the “official” Western forms that most readers are used to. For example, he writes that “Intellectual property is vested not so much in the tape, which is the prerogative of the distributor, but in the jacket, which is created and controlled by the filmmakers themselves” (301). These conclusions provide a necessary backdrop to his concluding argument that the pirate infrastructure has enforced a “ubiquitous experience of breakdown as a condition of technological existence” (304).
Last week, I was fortunate enough to meet with William Glasspeigel, an NPR documentarian who has filmed multiple series on Nigerian cinema. He commented that “Many of us in the west like to study Nigerian cinema for its qualities as an industry, but not many appreciate or even understand the content of the original movies and media that the system serves.” I found this point interesting in relation to Larkin’s work. Though Larkin discusses how the pirate infrastructure is being used to distribute domestically-produced, original films, and even how these films are culturally influenced (by Hausa cinema, Bollywood, and Hollywood, for example), he fails to analyze or critique any particular piece of Nigerian cinema. If Larkin were to critique, or meaningfully include an original piece (perhaps Living in Bondage, pictured) it may contribute or complicate his semiotic analysis a great deal. His semiotic analysis, which he reserves for the conclusion of his piece, is broad and generally concerns practices of transmission: from the process of moviegoing in general to the process of “viewing” a film through the lens of ever-present “distortion.” If he were to analyze how themes of distortion or breakdown play out more literally in original films, it could add a whole new dimension to his work.
Finally, Glasspiegel’s wisdom clued me in to digital practices coming from Abuja, Nigeria, in recent years, that have begun to work in conjunction with the pirate infrastructure. Glasspiegel cited IrokoTV, heralded as the “Netfix of Africa”, as a major force in the development and distribution of Nollywood films. IrokoTV is a streaming site, and most of the movies are free to watch. Larkin argues that the pirate infrastructure allows Nigerians to feel connected to a globalized world; by giving them easier and faster access to media from all over the globe, but also makes them feel their ‘marginalization’ at the same time because of constant distortion, which comes in the form of overlapping subtitles, the “real” noises of damaged film reels, and the cutting away of scenes to save money in local theatres. IrokoTV challenges those assumptions, and offers up a new digital distribution model that is gaining particular popularity in the West. IrokoTV can be seen as an extension of the pirate network–allowing these indigenous films made largely by pirate practices to reach a greater audience–or as a signal of its intermittent demise, taking after “Western” corporate structures that encourage quality and completeness.
Larkin’s piece contributes to our understanding of media by underlining the ways in which the infrastructure of Nigerian cinema is not in opposition to capitalism, not even an alternative, but a well-established channel that operates under different political and social terms. He applies semiotic analysis to the cultural experiences that are created as a result of and in relation to this pirate infrastructure, allowing his piece to participate in conversations about globalization and homogenisation like John Tomlinson’s “Homogenisation and Globalisation”. Both Tomlinson and Larkin employ the vocabulary of “development” with some degree of speculation. Tomlinson warns that the Western intellectual will have a tendency to act as a “cultural tourist”, and is critical of this person’s right to critique the ‘development’ of other cultures when she has access to all of the affordances of a modern capitalist economy. Likewise, Larkin gently warns his readers not to see pirate infrastructure as inherently anti-capitalistic or anti-Western. Likewise, Larkin’s concept that, in Nigeria, “repair [is] a cultural mode of existence of technology”, lacks any dreamlike, romanticized notions of cultural tourism that Tomlinson warns against in his piece (268). Rather, Larkin tries to present a more honest account. In conclusion, I believe it is Glasspiegel, the documentarian, whose comments suggest that many Western audiences love Nollywood because it has evolved through Nigerian “autonomy.” How would contemporary audiences feel, for example, if Western advertisements accompanied original Nollywood movies throughout the market? Questions like these can best be informed by both Larkin and Tomlinson’s work.