Media piracy and Philippine cosmopolitanisms

by rolandotolentino

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First published in Re-public: re-imagining democracy,

The democratization of digital technology has intensified the cultural specificity of media piracy in the Philippines. Media piracy is a racialized and class-consigned activity: it is bound to ethnic and religious identifications, since its main agents are mostly Muslim Filipinos, coming from the southern island of Mindanao (their autonomous region being one of the most poverty stricken in the country) and it is also class-consigned since this type of entrepreneurship connotes low-end origins that serve the more affluent economic groups in the country.

On the one hand, media piracy becomes the recourse for the wanna-be aspiration of the underclass and of the intellectual subclass for viewing popular and niche art films as commercial movie-going in the Philippines has become a genuinely middle-class experience. Movie-going used to be a popular national pastime, but its cost has skyrocketed to make it only accessible to the middle and upper class’ experience of leisure. The underclass will have to shell out one-third of their minimum daily wage in order to afford a movie ticket in a cinemaplex. As a result, the underclass relies on the DVD pirated market —complemented by the generic “made in China” or the pirated “choose-your-own brand” of DVD player— to gain access to global popular culture.

On the other hand, what makes media piracy rampant is also the actual operation of neoliberalism in the macro and micro-sense. Neoliberalism has ideologically and practically privileged the dominance of big businesses and of the private sector even in the operation of governance and of public service. The impetus for periodic police raids targeting the media piracy hubs in the country is often tied to the periodic complaints of film producers and distributors for the huge losses they suffer because of piracy. Even brand labels have started to spearhead the reporting to the police for raids against pirated clothing and apparel stores in malls. Thus, the growth of small-scale media piracy outlets attests to the falling out of the radar of compliance with authority. There are just too many of these small-time businesses that the government and police, even the global brands, cannot fully control. It is my suspicion that the media piracy market is a more democratized venture involving greater profit-sharing among the various hierarchies of operations in relation to what bourgeois corporations offer. Media piracy businesses exist and proliferate primarily because of the middle-class demand for global cultural goods and of the highly numerous small-venture businesses involved in this trade.

Neoliberalism has also privatized desire at the micro-level, shaping ordinary citizens’ demand for global brands, products and services. With late capitalism’s culture of obsolescence, commodities are recycled, refurbished, reinvigorated and resuscitated before these eventually fade off, albeit temporarily. Film embodies the quintessential extension of a commodity’s life— from its global premiering in most countries, to reformatting through DVDs and showcasing in cable channels, and so on. Piracy cuts across the various resuscitations of a commodity’s life, allowing films to go on living – in a necrophilic fashion.

Late capitalism has also ensured the continuity of even fiercer competition both in the legal and underground markets, ensuring not only competitive pricing for consumers but also competitive profits among businesses and operators. Specifically in the Philippines, characterised by a meager middle class market and an even more exclusive elite class, media piracy creates a semblance of neoliberal democracy, giving access for ordinary citizens -especially, the underclass- to the latest, newest, hippest brands, commodities and services at pirate quality. The simulation of the real (brand experience) has dominated the Philippine middle-classes: from malls to three-day weekend holidays, from First World enclaves to the rise of tourism that has allowed Filipinos to travel domestically and abroad, from each town’s street celebrations to the one-town/one-product marketing strategy. The real is obliterated, meaning that it is pirated or simply simulated in an experience deemed not equal to the actual. The pirated or simulated experience, nonetheless, becomes the dominant modality of experiencing global gentrification, reflecting also the prevailing class hierarchies in the country.

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It is not surprising to see the rise of media piracy enclaves not only in the ghettos of Metro Manila (from first-class malls to run-down sections of the old city) but also in second and third-class cities and municipalities. There used to be the popular belief that for a town or a city to be considered to “have made it” (become cosmopolitan) it should host a McDonald’s branch, or more favorably, also a competing Jollibee fast food branch, usually situated across each other. When this architectonic was actualised in a lot of cities, the hurdle rose and also included a SM (ShoeMart) mall, the most popular mall brand. What SM malls have done in small cities is to transfer leisure flows from smaller businesses and public spaces (the plazas and public markets) to centralised malls.

SM has also become the contrapuntal juncture in which legitimate and illegitimate businesses (retailing and service sector) are measured. For example, second-hand clothing shops remain active in old smaller mall strips, department stores, and refurbished rundown buildings but bear the stigma of being illegitimate business activities. A double-standard ensues wherein piracy and recycled clothing are considered illegitimate and illegal, and yet allowed to operate because they serve the state’s promise for middle class transformation of its citizens. These small scale pirate businesses have significant cultural ramifications for consumers who cannot materially afford to buy the legitimate brand experience, and still they are “culturally educated” to decipher the global brands and the global shopping experiences, as if an ideal future is foretold in the poverty of the present.

Recycled clothing has contributed to the cosmopolitanization of local fashion. This pirate trade has been deemed legitimate even by major dailies and lifestyle TV shows since it enables the First World’s past to come into being in the Third World’s present. Media piracy becomes the synecdoche of the timeliness of global aspirations: what is premiering in the First World or even in movie theaters in the Third World is, at the same moment (give or take a couple of hours) pirated and made accessible to the larger underclass audiences. The circuits of piracy —with Muslim Filipinos pioneering in this trade in cities and towns, and in the various arteries and ghettoes of Metro Manila— have transformed the notion of the contemporaneity of cosmopolitanism. It is never one-fashion season too late (in the case of ukay-ukay or wagwagan, the local terms for recycled fashion stores, or even shops that specialize in factory overruns of subcontracted garments), or a minimum of one-technology behind (in the case of surplus electronic shops). Media piracy places cosmopolitanism in a perennial now.

Contemporary cosmopolitanism (cosmopolitanism’s presence) is predicated on the mobile bodies of Muslim Filipinos —men, women and young adults migrating to non-Muslim areas and reterritorializing the spaces of Metro Manila and other urban ghettoes, and even First World hubs (sections of malls and depots that are transformed into higher-end piracy hubs), and substantiating the cosmopolitan desires of the citizens of these cities. Interestingly, Muslim Filipinos’ fashion is traditional, even stereotypical, as men wear hijab (headwear) and display goatees, and women use modest veils as headdress. Thus, Muslim Filipinos’ bodies further exemplify the retrofitting of tradition by contemporary global desires, similar to the process where colonial masters were serviced by their subjects, attesting to their control of both tradition and modernity.

In Baguio City, for example, that is considered the summer capital of the Philippines, the foreign-ness of the landscape as an enclave of indigenous cultures, is further aggravated by the presence of another ethnic group migrating to this city of leisure and providing for the cosmopolitan needs of its urban citizens. Filipino Muslims compete for space and retro-cosmopolitanism – as Baguio City is also known for its ukay-ukay trade, which is a main tourist attraction of the city. Thus, ethnic groups compete for the city’s cosmopolitan economies —the Igorots and Ilokanos being native to the city, control the ukay-ukay trade and expand their dominance even outside the city in the areas of Metro Manila, and the Muslim Filipino migrants who service the media piracy circuits within the city. These two indigenous groups, characterised by their historical disenfranchisement from the national state, develop collectively within the urban space by feeding into local desires for cosmopolitan markers and full citizenship.

Indigenous groups substantiate the desires for middle-class inclusion among Filipinos. These two groups carve out the urban space, creating enclaves for more democratized access to global cultural products and desires. Though the performance of these roles carried out in a stereotypical fashion —the indigenous subject servicing the desires of middle-class subjects— the indigenous groups have also managed to utilise their performance for their own benefits. It has enabled them to gain access to the (informal) economy on a national scale and to internally migrate from poverty-stricken, even war-stricken in the case of Muslim Filipinos, geopolitical spaces of origin. Within and outside their enclaves, they provide access to middle-class global culture for the relatively disenfranchised larger population, allowing for a retro- (in the case of recycled fashion) and contemporaneous cosmopolitanism (media piracy) to take place in the national landscape.