Thursday, May 19, 2016

Racing to Revolution

Cars are often referred to as revolutionary in terms of design or innovation but they are not as often thought of as being tools of revolution or resistance themselves. The documentary Havana MotorClub, however, changes this and highlights the potential for cars and auto racing to be at the forefront of revolution and resistance.

Havana Motor Club tells the story of auto racing and automotive ingenuity in Cuba. It begins with an explanation of how auto racing functioned in Cuba prior to the communist revolution. At that point, cars in Cuba were symbols of luxury and auto racing had become so ingrained in society that Havana was the site of a Formula One race in 1958. The event was highly publicized, symbolizing a step for Cuba’s advancement in the eyes of some and the decadence of capitalism in the eyes of others. Unfortunately, the event was marred by tragedy when a car participating in the race lost control, veering into the cheering crowd and killed and injured a number of spectators.

Shortly thereafter, the communist revolution occurred in Cuba and all forms of auto racing were outlawed. This did not stop Cubans from maintaining a love affair with their cars – albeit cars that are essentially frozen in time in the 1950s. This also failed to stop Cubans from engaging in auto races, however these races were forced underground and became illegal activities. Still, races occurred in the middle of traffic or at night on more deserted strips of land, all under the threat of jail time and the confiscation of participating cars. These threats were not enough to stop the development of a well-known racing culture that features several prominent garages and personalities.

The film features interviews with members of these garages, who demonstrate their engineering skills in building and rebuilding cars – for licit purposes as well as racing purposes – despite embargoes and lack of spare parts. To the racers/mechanics profiled, it is clear that cars and the pursuit of racing despite the risk has become an essential part of their identities and families, in some cases extending to generations and across gender lines. It is also clear that there are dangers in the races to the drivers and to the spectators as a result of the illegal nature of competitions.

The first step toward legitimization of the races came in 2012 when the government agreed to allow an historic race to occur. During the weeks prior to the face, the film portrays the successes, failures and sacrifices of those who seek to participate. And yet, shortly before the race was scheduled to occur it was suspended by the government ostensibly due to issues with crowd control capabilities since the Pope was visiting at the same time. Despite this explanation, the outraged would-be racers – some of whom devoted decades to cars and the pursuit of racing – believe that there is a deeper political motivation at work.

Cancellation of the planned race does not suspend illegal racing or efforts by many in the racing community to press for another legal race. In the meantime, racers continue to race despite the potential repercussions and their garages continue to refine the capacities of their cars.

Eventually, the government relents and agrees to allow a race to be held. This generates hope within the auto racing community but this is tempered by some level of disbelief given the prior attempts at racing legally. At the same time, leaders within the community become acutely aware of the scrutiny that will be placed on the event and the need to ensure things such as crowd control and safety along with control among the racers themselves. Shortly before the race the official media host for the event announces to the community that his coverage of the race will not be aired on state television. Still, he maintains that he will thoroughly cover the event for posterity and to provide the community with evidence of the popularity and safety of racing.

Race day is of course quite tense for the racers, their garages and their families. The event is popular, drawing a good crowd, which makes the community’s officials concerned because of worries that the crowds will stand in dangerous places or come onto the track and cause another tragedy that will set back the cause of legalizing racing in Cuba. Throughout the pre-race announcements there are constant reminders of this and in between races the announcer must plead with the crowd to stay back from the track. Ultimately, all of the races scheduled are successfully and safely run, and the most anticipated race ends in a photo-finish – truly an ending fit for a film. And yet, at the end there is a reminder that racing is still illegal in Cuba as of the release time of the film in 2015.

Havana Motor Club is a fascinating view into part of Cuba that is unseen even with the increase in tourism opportunities for Americans and others. While Cuba is known for the preservation of cars from the 1950s, the racing culture is necessarily kept behind closed doors even from other Cubans as a result of its illegal status.

And yet, as portrayed in the film, auto racing in Cuba as emblematic of the ways in which sports can be used as vehicles of revolution and resistance. Feelings toward the Castro regime are irrelevant in this discussion. Instead the issue of revolution and resistance is related to laws that are seen as unpopular, unnecessary and, in many ways, slowing societal progress in Cuba. The racers and those associated with them act in defiance of laws that have existed for decades, offering overt forms of revolution against them and active means of resisting them.

When provided a window on legality, the racing community is eager to participate yet aware that it must organize carefully and create a well-executed spectacle to establish itself as legitimate. This provides the racers with a unique opportunity yet, as they are reminded by officials, requires them to shed some of the revolutionary aspects they were forced to adopt in order to race to begin with. In this way, the film demonstrates the ways that revolution and resistance can occur in unlikely places and among unlikely communities that might not consider themselves agents of revolution and resistance.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Fighting Evil with Evil

The desire to fight evil is as much of moral impulse as it is a legal one, and, indeed, the illegality of evil typically stems from the morality aspect. The desire to fight evil and wrong is also an imperative of many movies and television programs, to say nothing of comic books. One of the most recent installments in the Captain America film series – The Winter Soldier – provides a vivid example of this and takes the issue further to ask the question of the boundaries of fighting evil by using evil itself.

At the beginning of the movie, it appears that there is a standard flow of synergy from previous stories in which the group known as S.H.I.E.L.D., comprised of characters such as Captain America, Fury, and the Black Widow, had vanquished the forces of evil known as Hydra, an organization that had been created out of the remnants of World War II villainy. Hydra was known for operating without remorse or moral code and fomenting some of the worst crises faced by the world community, including civil wars, brutal dictatorships and genocide. Indeed, the movie opens with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents committing a daring hostage rescue mission on a tanker in order to free innocent civilians working on the ship. Nothing, it seems, could be a better way to fight evil.

And yet, there are murky aspects of the mission and in the organization’s governing structure. Once the mission is completed and Captain America and others return home, it becomes apparent that something is very wrong. Organization members such as Fury – the leader of significant organization operations – is targeted for death and indeed appears to die after a blatant and public attack. Following this, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s leadership appears to turn on Captain America and his compatriots, attempting to kill them and deploying a notorious assassin to achieve this outcome.

Captain America, the Black Widow, and Fury are reunited – Fury staged his death in order to escape those seeking to kill him. Fury reveals his fear that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been corrupted, although he is unaware of the true depths of this corruption. He has ideas as to some of those involved in the corruption and the ways in which they have operated – and even suspects the continued existence and involvement of Hydra – but can go no further without the assistance of his closest and most trusted agents. With this in mind, Captain America and the Black Widow set off on an interstate chase for information – and ultimately the truth – while seeking to avoid those who are seeking to stop them.

Eventually, clues point to an old military facility where Captain America and the Black Widow make the shocking revelation that the machine involved in undermining S.H.I.E.L.D. and perpetuating Hydra’s activities was powered by the mental functions of Baron von Strucker, a villainous and evil member of the Nazi regime who had been captured during World War II. It appears that von Strucker was used to create machinery and systems that could effect Hydra’s activities. The argument proffered by von Strucker is seductively simple – Hydra and his machine were necessary to create evil in the world so that the world could be saved from itself because control of these activities made the world safer than allowing them to happen organically. In a nutshell, his argument is that there is virtue to using – and indeed fomenting – evil in order to fight evil, which includes controlling it.

In the end, there is a movie appropriate finale to the film. Hydra’s attempts to perpetuate chaos are thwarted by Captain America, the Black Widow, Fury and others picked up along the way. There are moments of drama and intense fighting, however in the end the fight against evil is successful and Hydra’s forces are vanquished. At least they are vanquished momentarily – all involved agree that there will be elements of Hydra in hiding.

Many aspects of The Winter Soldier are somewhat formulaic in terms of storytelling. What is important to note is the way in which the question of using evil to fight evil is addressed. Rather than creating a clear dichotomy between good and evil, the film casts the relationship in a more complex tone and explores the ways in which those who use evil to fight evil offer justifications for themselves. This necessarily touches in the level of control that is surrendered in order to prevent evil – or at least protect against it – and thus questions the balance of value between fighting evil and corralling it.   

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Weight of Right

There is a long-standing debate in many fields – particularly law – as to whether it is more important that a guilty man go free than that a hundred innocent men be imprisoned. Essentially, the crux of this debate is how to weigh wrong. This debate cuts to the center of individual, societal and systemic cores. What has gone somewhat less discussed is how to weigh right. The depths of this debate are poignantly demonstrated in Freedom Cry, the epilogue session of the video game Assassin’sCreed: Black Flag discussed in a recent Jurisculture posting.

Freedom Cry is set in the 1700s, 20 years after the main game story. The main game story follows the exploits of Edward Kenway, the pirate captain. Throughout the main game story, Kenway’s driving force is the pursuit of monetary gain, although he does captain his ship with a fair code. This fairness includes taking on Adéwalé (Adé), an escaped slave, as his quartermaster. While Kenway is briefly imprisoned, Adé joins the Brotherhood of the Assassins, a society adhering to a strict moral code and righting the wrongs of the world as a form of protection.

The main game story ends with Kenway returning home and Adé captaining his own ship in service of the Assassins. Freedom Cry opens with Adé performing a mission for the Assassins that results in his gaining access to written intelligence that he intends to carry to a contact in Port-au-Prince in modern day Haiti.

As with many cities in the Caribbean at the time, Port-au-Prince is heavily involved in the slave trade and slavery-reliant activities. Once in Port-au-Prince, Adé makes contact with Bastienne Josephe, the African proprietor of a prominent brothel in the city that is frequented by the political and social elite. At first glance, she seems complicit in the culture of slavery and its spoils and content to cater to her clientele. Under the surface, however, she has far greater depths and is in fact supporting anti-slavery factions by providing them with information gathered from her clients. As Adé begins to work with her to gather information and assist the anti-slavery factions, he gains greater respect for Bastienne and her use of long-range planning as a method of bringing an end to the ruling regime in a methodical way.

Despite his admiration for her dedication, Adé argues with Bastienne when they receive information regarding incoming slave ships. Bastienne notes that Ade has done a great deal to damage plantations’ slave usage and also prominent members of the elite. She points out that this has already caused a backlash of power and fear among the elite, including tougher enforcement of the unequal “Code Noir” that governed non-white persons in the area. She fears that targeting the slave ships will make conditions for the current slaves worse and damage the anti-slavery faction’s plan. On the other hand, Adé is adamant that he can free the would-be slaves and that freeing them is the paramount right thing to do.

Ultimately, Adé attempts to free the would-be slaves but is only partly successful. He and Bastienne make peace after these events and acknowledge the importance of care for human life in their quests against slavery, although they still carry on using different paths.

Freedom Cry is a unique method for allowing a large group of people to appreciate some of the horrors of slavery and the ways in which it was enforced. Beyond this, the game poses a variation on the debate over the weight of wrong – how do we weigh right? There is no question that both Adé and Bastienne were acting in accordance with what they believed to be right. Rather, it is a question of which right has more value. To Adé, the most valuable right is the right that can be more immediately achieved with tangible results that help people. To Bastienne, the most valuable right is the right that has the most impact for the largest number of people even if this will require more time and effort.

There is no clear answer to the question of how to weigh right. Indeed, at a legal and societal level this question may be even more intricate than that of how to weigh wrong since it is difficult to articulate methods of arguing against right in any form. However, as law and society must face issues such as modern day slavery and human trafficking this question seems highly relevant.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

We Are What We Eat

From childhood on, we are often given the exhortation “you are what you eat,” usually as a caution against bad eating habits. There is another way of using this phrase, one that is not a caution but rather an observation about the informal cultural shifts and customs that are reflected in our food.

The documentary film The Search for GeneralTso provides insights into this alternate view of being what we eat. Ostensibly, the film seeks to answer an old culinary question – what are the origins of the ubiquitous dish “General Tso’s chicken.” The basic questions are rather obvious – who was General Tso? And did he really like chicken? The film demonstrates that this is not necessarily an easy question to answer and that the search for the answer is intimately intertwined with the emergence of Chinese ex-patriot culture and identity.

The beginning of the film travels to China where a variety of people are shown photos of the dish. Those shown the photos are alternately intrigued, perplexed or rather disgusted but regardless their initial response, the consensus is that the dish before them is not Chinese. Indeed, they typically have not seen or heard of the dish before. The next stop is in Hunan province, where the film chronicles the existence of General Tso as a powerful warrior. His familial line still exists and a descendant interviewed is both proud that his ancestor has been recognized so broadly and dismayed at the form of recognition taken – as a food rather than a great warrior. The conclusion of this portion of the film is that there was a General Tso, who could indeed have favoured chicken, but that the dish known across the US was not created by or for him.

From there the quest returns to the US and begins a trek that parallels the steps taken by Chinese immigrants to the US from the 1800s onwards. Here the film presents not only the quest for the origins of General Tso’s chicken but also how the dish – and Chinese immigrant culture and food – was framed by the surroundings in which immigrants found themselves. Discrimination was always rampant against Chinese immigrants and was made worse upon the promulgation of the Chinese Exclusion laws in the US. Discrimination – legal and societal – restricted the career options for Chinese in the US, although one option available was to run and/or work in restaurants. These restaurants cooked what they knew, Chinese cuisine, although with time and the migration of immigrant communities from the West Coast through middle America and to the East Coast this cuisine changed.

Through poignant interviews with those who opened restaurants in different communities or who are second or third generation restaurateurs, the film documents the overall adaptation of foods prepared and offered at Chinese restaurants in the US from authentic Chinese fare to foods that were (and still are) more recognizable and appealing to local palates. This was (and is) done to increase revenue and also to bypass local prejudices regarding culture and food across the spectrum of communities in which Chinese restaurants emerged. In this way, the film chronicles how the food on the menu at Chinese restaurants is a reflection of the cultures in which the restaurateurs find themselves and the struggle to preserve their identities while being accepted by – and acceptable to – their new home.

The film also documents the impact that things beyond the control of these communities had on sought after forms of Chinese cuisine, and on the identity of Chinese-American communities. Through the lens of restaurant culture, the film presents the mechanisms through which Chinese-American communities and food became separate from China itself and were not fully Americanized, leading to the creation of a cuisine that represented the new identity of the community. What emerges in this part of the film is a discussion of other dishes – chop suey for example – as part of the American culinary and cultural lexicon and the adoption of the belief that these dishes form an essential embodiment of Chinese culture.

Returning to the quest for the name, the film’s cross-country journey ends in New York City, where a story of international intrigue over General Tso’s chicken unfolds. Decades ago, a chef at a well-known Chinese restaurant brings back a recipe from Taiwan, incorporates it into his menu and the American General Tso’s chicken is born. He appears on a major television show’s cooking segment and it becomes a sensation in the US. In the international portion of the story, a famous chef who fled to Taiwan creates a chicken dish and is asked the name. In response, he says “General Tso’s chicken” because he is aware of General Tso’s reputation and his own style of cooking from Hunan. Although both the Taiwanese and Americanized version of General Tso’s chicken existed in New York at the same time, ultimately the American version prevailed with consumers.

At the end of the film, the audience has the answer to the question of where General Tso’s chicken originated and how this reflects the reality of societal evolution. It shows the audience the evolution of a culture and set of societal practices from their homeland to their new home and how both places are impacted. By telling the story from China to the US and across the US in a parallel journey to that experienced by Chinese immigrants, the film sheds light on how the norms and mores of a culture are unbound from geography, transplanted and then rewritten to fit the needs of the community in a certain time and place.

Using food as a lens through which this occurs allows the audience a tangible (and edible) visualization of the process and also allows the audience to relate its own experiences along the process spectrum – be they as immigrants, as restaurateurs, or as patrons. These lessons are in varying ways the story of all immigrants and much of the food that comes across anyone’s table. In this way, perhaps the old saying is true and we really are what we eat.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Joining Law

It is generally assumed that we are all subject to law regardless where we live and the system under which we live. As the recent film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny demonstrates, these laws do not necessarily have to be codified to be extremely powerful influences culturally or personally. Indeed, when individuals elect to join these types of informal legal systems their impacts can be profound.

Sword of Destiny is a sequel to the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film and follows the lives of several integral characters 16 years on, particularly Yu Shu Lien. The film is set in Qianlong China, at a time when there is an emperor but also a system of powerful clans. At the beginning of the film, Shu Lien journeys from her secluded home to the house of Sir Te’s clan. This is not a journey she undertakes happily – Shu Lien travels to revisit her old clan and surrogate family for the funeral of Sir Te, the leader of the clan and her father figure. Sir Te’s death is well-known and there is a sense of outrage when the carriage conveying Shu Lien to the house is attacked by the West Lotus clan, a rival family, while she is traveling to the funeral. This attack is unlawful according the generally accepted laws of conduct and is particularly egregious since she is traveling to pay her respects to the dead.

It quickly becomes clear to Shu Lien and Sir Te’s son that Hades Dai, the notorious head of the West Lotus clan, has begun a campaign against the house in order to steal the fabled Green Destiny sword and use it for the destruction of his enemies. As a response, Sir Te’s son sends out a kingdom-wide call for those who follow the Iron Way to come to his aid in defense of the house and the sword.

The Iron Way is a core of values and martial arts training that sets followers and practitioners apart from others and binds them together in an unwritten law of solidarity. The Iron Way requires discipline, hard work, dedication to fellow adherents, and is an overall value system. The Iron Way represents an unwritten code that binds complete strangers from disparate geographical areas and philosophies. This is evident in the results of the call, which attracts men and women followers from across the kingdom. It is clear that there are differences in personality and beliefs between the followers of the Iron Way and yet these are secondary to their shared adherence and dedication to the Iron Way itself.

At the same time, a sub-plot emerges between Snow Vase and Wei Fang, two teenagers. Snow Vase is a new recruit to the clan, who seeks to follow the Iron Way and has received extensive martial training in it in the past, although she needs to better understand the mental aspects of it to become a master. Wei Fang was a member of the West Lotus clan until he was captured while trying to steal the Green Destiny sword. In captivity, he befriends Snow Vase, who tells him the story of his true identity as the son of a renegade former member of the Iron Way who was killed by Hades Dai. The same woman raised Snow Vase as her own, training her in the Iron Way and making her understand the need for adherence to it even though she had abandoned it.

Sensing an opportunity to take the Green Destiny sword and assert power, Hades Dai launches a raid on Sir Te’s house. During this raid, the tensions between members of the house are put aside in favour of adhering to the Iron Way and following its law in terms of ideology and martial skill. Indeed, after he saves her life, Snow Vase frees Wei Fang, who has agreed to fight for the Iron Way that had formed his mother and against the man who killed his mother.

Ultimately, the forces of the Iron Way are victorious, although at an extremely heavy price. Many of the warriors who answered the call for defenders lay dead, as do many who were training in the Iron Way. Absorbing the costs of protecting the Green Destiny sword and knowing that the potential for future violence imperils the sword and those protecting it, Shu Lien and her companion take Snow Vase, Wei Fang and the Green Destiny sword on a journey to a remote location where the sword can be kept safe.

There are many plots and subplots within the Sword of Destiny film. The overarching theme, however, is the adherence of multiple characters in many diverse situations to the Iron Way and the potential that the Iron Way has to change the lives and identities of those who follow it. Throughout the film, the Iron Way is portrayed as an unwritten yet extremely powerful set of laws and rules that controls and shapes adherents in a way that even the laws of the state cannot.

As the audience observes, the Iron Way governs the actions of Shu Lien even years after she has retired from active participation in its enforcement. Similarly, the Iron Way causes adherents from across the empire to come together to protect the clan of Sir Te although they share different philosophies and methodologies. The laws of the Iron Way bring these groups together and also require that they create a functioning group that operates according to the abilities of each member of society. In this society, there is a hierarchy of knowledge, training and technique that is bonded together by fidelity to the tenets of the Iron Way.

Additionally, the Iron Way serves as a guide for the two somewhat wayward teenagers. For Snow Vase, it was something that she was trained in and taught to respect although her teacher had fallen from the graces of the Iron Way herself. For Wei Fang, the Iron Way was something in which he had been trained as a young boy but then was taken from when he was claimed by Hades Dai. It was only when he was imprisoned at Sir Te’s house that he began to appreciate the justness of the laws exercised under the color of the Iron Way. His adherence to the Iron Way was solidified when he learned of its link to his identity.

Overall, Sword of Destiny highlights the place of informal, unwritten law as a means of crafting identity, structure, a code of conduct and respect, and allowing those who are involved with it to join law in a way that is very different than being subject to hard laws.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Visualizing Violence

It is often said that the world is becoming more violent and that media is an instigating factor in this. Critics point to a purported increase in violence in movies, television and video games as a means of glorifying violent conduct, frequently with little regard to the aftermath that such violence begets. The virtues of these arguments are another matter, however it is true that many forms of media portray violence – notably assault – without regard to the impacts it leaves on its victims. The Netflix series Daredevil, based on the Marvel comic series, and particularly the recently released series 2, demonstrate the power of portraying the aftereffects of violence through physical manifestation.

To begin with, throughout prior seasons the show has demonstrated the aftermath of the punishing combat Daredevil engages in by allowing his alter ego, attorney Matthew Murdock, to sport bruises and scars that last several days or longer. Murdock is able to pass these visible signs of assault and violence off as the result of his blindness – walking into objects, falling, and other sources of injury that would be odd to those around him if he were not blind. Those who know his secret identity are more concerned, however in general the character is able to conceal his wounds in a way that society used to deem appropriate for abuse victims – claims of nearly impossible continuous mishaps. Few are willing to seem indelicate enough to question whether his wounds are the result of something more. And when his legal assistant, Karen, asks Foggy, his dedicated friend and law partner who knows Murdock’s true identity, questions about the increasing severity of Murdick’s injuries, Foggy believes it more appropriate to claim that Murdock has a drinking problem. Again, this is a socially sensitive topic behind which few are willing to seek more information.

Season 2 goes further into the manifestations of violence through the storyline of military hero Frank Castle, who takes on the identity of the Punisher after his family was gunned down before his eyes during a picnic in New York City’s Central Park. The Punisher then goes on a rampage, killing members of the multiple organized crime rings that were responsible for the gunplay that killed the Castle family. A complex relationship develops between the Punisher and Daredevil, who share different outlooks on the value of criminal life, however it is ultimately Daredevil who helps to save the Punisher from being tortured to death by members of an organized crime family he had decimated. Knowing that the Punisher needs trained medical intervention to save his life, Daredevil calls a friend on the police force, who arrests the highly sought after Punisher and brings him to a hospital.

From this point on, a complex storyline develops as the Punisher is targeted for vengeance-fueled prosecution by a corrupt and fearful District Attorney who is able to bring a highly suspect justice system under her sway. Unbeknownst to the Punisher, his law firm is that of Murdock and Nelson, allowing Murdock to help defend the man who knows him best as Daredevil. When his new attorneys arrive to see the Punisher there is no attempt to hide the impact of the blows and torture that he received at the hands of the gang that wanted to kill him or the officers under the control of the District Attorney. His face is discoloured, disfigured and both eyes are clearly blackened by punches. These manifestations of the violence inflicted on him do not disappear stylishly over a matter of hours or days but remain as a vivid testimony to the physical impacts of violence.

At trial a week later, the Punisher’s physical wounds have progressed along a natural healing timeline, some turning yellowish in color, some fading to different shades of purple, but all visible for the public and the jury to see. Indeed, as he is giving testimony, his nose still appears slightly out of place – the result, it is presumed, of a break. During the trial, there are many references to the mental impact that seeing his family killed had on Frank Castle to turn him into a vigilante, however there is no discussion of the wounds he has more recently sustained – perhaps there is little need to since they so obviously speak for themselves.

While in prison, the Punisher is presented with the opportunity to kill several men associated with the death of his family and who are also in the way of another inmate’s rise to kingpin of the prison world. He takes this opportunity and finds that it was a set-up that was meant to result in his own death as well. To save himself and continue his quest for the truth, the Punisher successfully defeats a wing of prisoners who were set upon him. He emerges from this encounter alive but severely bruised and battered. The result is an escape at the behest of the new kingpin, who had not anticipated the Punisher’s survival. When he emerges from prison he is in disguise in terms of attire but not in terms of abuse – indeed, his face looks worse than it did during his hospitalization.

During his subsequent interactions with people, the Punisher hides his wounds and his face from those he seeks to protect – the innocents in society who are represented as good, hard working, honest people. This is not only to avoid detection and re-arrest but also, it seems, to shield them from the violence that his wounds manifest. However, when he encounters those who are criminal, the Punisher does not attempt to hide his identity or his wounds, seemingly using them as a psychological weapon. The exception to this is when he helps Daredevil from the shadows and then reveals himself quickly, but this is perhaps not a surprise given the complexity of their relationship.

This season’s installation of Daredevil provides contrasting windows on the ways in which violence is visualized through media and demonstrates that there are instances in which the true gravity of violence – assault – is directly represented rather than glorified as something that disappears the next morning.

On one hand, the ways in which violence against Daredevil manifest themselves are covered under the shield of disability and, when that fails, under the shield of addiction. In this scenario, the wounds and scars are the result of something deeper within the person bearing them and tend to be regarded as private matters. When they are discussed it is in a delicate and almost timid fashion that seems more of a last resort of concern. The ease with which the wounds and scars are explained by Murdock provides such a natural cover for his activities that he does not seem bothered by them.

On the other hand, the ways in which violence against the Punisher manifest themselves are overt and do not enjoy the same societally constructed shield. While perhaps there is a willingness to recognize the private violence that he suffered due to the death of his family, the Punisher’s wounds and scars are visible for the world to see and manifest the violence done to him. These wounds and scars do not go away simply or with makeup, but instead mark him as having been assaulted with great violence. Those who see them cannot hide them behind the veil of disability, but rather are confronted face to face with the reality of assault and the dangers of it. The same can be said for audiences, who see these impacts front and center and who also come to see how blows delivered in an assault have a lasting impact on the victim even when the victim is a powerful person. In this way, the series manifests the reality of violence for audiences to see and allows audiences a view into the ways in which violence is visualized and regarded by society.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Pirate Pluralism

Old-fashioned pirates and video games might make for a good sales pitch but are less often thought of as connected to legal pluralism. And yet, the popular video game Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag provides an example of the ways in which plural communities can be constructed and the boundaries needed for their functioning.

The story used in the game follows the evolution of Welshman Edward Kenway from a lowly pirate roaming around the Caribbean to an illustrious pirate captain. Kenway begins life as a poor yet law-abiding member of society in Wales, who believes that he is constrained by the existing legal and social system. His wife is content to live the way that her family did but Kenway wants more and leaves to become a privateer, promising that this will only be for a few years. A few years turn into many and the more socially acceptable privateer status gives way to piracy as Kenway seeks to maximize profit above all else.

At the opening of the story, Kenway steals a ship and changes his identity from a freelance pirate to a pirate captain in charge of a ship and her crew and seeking out goods and fortune. On this ship, the Jackdaw, Kenway’s word is law – as was standard for ship captains. In the process of outfitting the Jackdaw with a crew, Kenway meets Adewale, an escaped slave from a Caribbean plantation, and makes him the quartermaster, thus establishing a rule that capability, not race, is the benchmark for service on the Jackdaw. This is reinforced later in the story when Adewale goes on a separate path and Kenway brings on a woman as the new quartermaster. Kenway also establishes rules for the ship’s pirating activities and emphasizes that innocent civilians will not be targeted for attack or killed.

Kenway’s motives may have been monetary however the story explains that others within the loose community of pirates throughout the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico had other motives. Key among these motives was freedom from their home laws and legal systems, which are viewed as repressive, unfair and prejudiced. With this in mind, many of the pirates come together and agree to turn the city of Nassau into a city run under pirate control. Kenway is sceptical of this idea, arguing that the idealistic goals will not work as a governing system, nevertheless the city falls under their control and the British authorities retain only nominal jurisdiction.

 The city operates under loose sets of laws and mores that are imposed through society rather than through an official constabulary force. This is done with good intentions and in order to counter the rigid legal regimes that many of the characters sought to leave behind when they initially took to the sea. Despite these intentions, as the story progresses and Kenway makes frequent returns to Nassau, it becomes apparent that the city descends into physical and societal decay under such a lax system. This is particularly evident when a disease outbreak threatens to become an epidemic and the necessary supplies to save the inhabitants are not  readily available.

Ultimately, the story ends with a British force arriving to retake Nassau. The newly appointed authorities publicly make an offer of amnesty for any pirates who are willing to accept it and agree to give up pirating in the future. The offer is made on behalf of the British Crown, however it is soon clear that the new authorities do not intend to live up to the letter of this law and instead target any pirates – including those who are willing to comply – for death or imprisonment.

In the Black Flag storyline, there is of course action and adventure – it is a game after all. More than that though, the plot provides a complex backstory to Kenway as the main character and to the pirate system in which he operated. The plot provides the framework for a pluralistic system in Nassau that runs the gamut from revolutionary to decayed to repressed.  

At the beginning, the idea of freeing Nassau from what is viewed as an overbearing legal and societal system is revolutionary and motivated not only by profit but also by a desire to create an idealistic system free from the strictures of unjust laws. Those who undertake the responsibility of overseeing Nassau do so in a somewhat cavalier way, demonstrating good intentions and free spirits but little understanding of how to implement laws other than those on ships. It is possible that this is where the cracks in the system begin to emerge – the system is so plural that it lacks significant boundaries and methods of enforcement.

As the system progresses these cracks manifest themselves in a visible lack of public order. This is illustrated by increasingly dilapidated buildings and the inability of city residents to provide for themselves during a disease outbreak that appears to have occurred in no small part as a result of the lack of order endemic in the community. Indeed, this outbreak is only controlled when pirates undertake a dangerous mission that puts their own lives at risk and encourages unlawful conduct.

The system is finally suppressed and residents of Nassau are subject to repression that reinforces the problems from which the pirates initially fled their home countries. Efforts by the British governor to reassert imperial control are ruthless and methodical and include chicanery as well as outright murder. Indeed, the governor requires his men to disobey direct orders of amnesty from the Crown and instead engage in attacks that result in murder and imprisonment. These measures and the efforts at population repression which follow place the residents of Nassau, those who seek to put into port in the city, and the remnants of the pirate population in a worse position than they were in before.

In direct contrast to this, Kenway’s ship presents a system of controlled pluralism that functions well and allows those onboard to profit. Kenway is open to sailors of all races and genders as part of his crew provided they meet the needs of the ship and work with the other crewmembers. He establishes the rules of conduct on the ship and in terms of those who are targets of his ship’s activities. These rules apply equally and it is apparent that the prejudices and limitations that he sought to flee at home do not apply on the Jackdaw. While he sees continuing downturns in Nassau and frets at the seeming futility of the undertakings there, Kenway is the leader of an increasingly prosperous ship and functioning plural society that stands in direct contrast. 

In these ways, the game tells the story of differing forms of pluralistic societies and demonstrates the relationships between pluralism and boundaries in terms of societal success and functioning.