restricted access Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy
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Public Culture 16.2 (2004) 289-314

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Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds:

Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy

In Kano, the economic center of northern Nigeria, media piracy is part of the "organizational architecture" of globalization (Sassen 2002), providing the infrastructure that allows media goods to circulate. Infrastructures organize the construction of buildings, the training of personnel, the building of railway lines, and the elaboration of juridicolegal frameworks without which the movement of goods and people cannot occur. But once in place, infrastructures generate possibilities for their own corruption and parasitism. Media piracy is one [End Page 289] example of this in operation. It represents the potential of technologies of reproduction—the supple ability to store, reproduce, and retrieve data—when shorn from the legal frameworks that limit their application. It depends heavily on the flow of media from official, highly regulated forms of trade but then develops its own structures of reproduction and distribution external and internal to the state economy.

It is through this generative quality that pirate infrastructure is expressive of a paradigmatic shift in Nigerian economy and capital and represents the extension of a logic of privatization into everyday life. Piracy's negative characteristics are often commented on: its criminality, the erosion of property rights it entails, and its function as a pathology of information processing, parasitically derivative of legal media flows (Chesterman and Lipman 1988; Coombe 1998). As important as these questions are, the structural focus on legal issues tends to obscure the mediating nature of infrastructure itself. In the Nigerian case, this is seen most strikingly in the rise of a new video industry that makes feature-length films directly for domestic video consumption (see Larkin 2000; Haynes 2000; Ukadike 2000; Ukah 2003). This new industry has pioneered new film genres and generated an entirely novel mode of reproduction and distribution that uses the capital, equipment, personnel, and distribution networks of pirate media. These Nigerian videos are a legitimate media form that could not exist without the infrastructure created by its illegitimate double, pirate media.

In recent years, then, there has been a wholesale shift in which many entrepreneurs previously involved in the distribution of pirate material have switched to the reproduction and dissemination of legal media. The mass importation of foreign music and films brought about the capital and professional expertise that facilitated the rise of a local film industry. This wandering over the lines that separate the legal from the nonlegal has been a common experience for urban Africans, who have been progressively disembedded from the infrastructures linking them to the official world economy and instead have poured energy into developing informal networks—equally global—that facilitate traffic in economic and cultural goods outside the established institutions of world trade (Simone 2000, 2001; Bayart, Ellis, and Hibou 1999; Mbembe 2001).

In addition to generating new economic networks, piracy, like all infrastructural modes, has distinct material qualities that influence the media that travel under its regime of reproduction. Piracy imposes particular conditions on the recording, transmission, and retrieval of data. Constant copying erodes data storage, degrading image and sound, overwhelming the signal of media content with [End Page 290] the noise produced by the means of reproduction. Pirate videos are marked by blurred images and distorted sound, creating a material screen that filters audiences' engagement with media technologies and their senses of time, speed, space, and contemporaneity. In this way, piracy creates an aesthetic, a set of formal qualities that generates a particular sensorial experience of media marked by poor transmission, interference, and noise. Contemporary scholars of technology returning to the Frankfurt school have stressed that technology's operation on the body is a key factor in producing a sense of shock—the complex training of the human sensorium associated with modern urbanism (Benjamin 1999; Crary 2000; Doane 2002; Hansen 1995, 2000; Kracauer 1995; Schivelbusch 1986). This work is crucial in understanding the phenomenological and cognitive effects of technology when it is working at its optimum. What is less discussed (but see Schivelbusch 1986; Virilio 2003) is how technology influences...